Beyond a few generations back, there is no record of my ancestors. Whatever memories of them survive are but muddy roads, narrowing into a murky wood. On my father's side there were scrawny refugees from Ireland, who like so many others fled the rocky, infertile ground where only pebbles grew. But they are nameless; there is no chronicle, only emaciated myth. On my mother's side the oral archives go back a bit further: there was a great grandmother, whose last name was Teeples, but of her husband, or father, or mother, there is not even a footnote. Only erasures.
How they came to America, I don't know. My mother's family settled in and around Detroit, joining the ranks of hundreds of thousands of others who found jobs and a kind of industrialized identity in the auto factories, churning out vast caravans of full-throated steel chariots. My father's family was a little more complicated: in and out of foster homes, sometimes riding the rails, another Depression-era waif looking for work. When he was 17 he forged a diploma and enlisted, right at the opening canon roar of the Big War in Europe. He remained in the Marine Corps for 27 years.
For years I thought of my family's story as a bastard tale, something whispered, not because of any particular shame I felt, but because it seemed that the classic American story must be more hygienic and chirpy. Recently I've come to reconsider that position, to rethink the conclusion that my family's tale is the exception, not the norm. I now believe my family's story to be utterly average, as common as mud, and more prototypically American than the sanitized versions.
We are a nation of people who have created and recreated ourselves, but we were all originally the wretched refuse; we were all nothing more than the huddled masses, and we were we all alien, all undesirable to at least somebody. We were all homeless and tempest-tossed, and we forget that truth at our peril. Somewhere in the personal linage that each of us can record are thieves and liars, the unwashed and unkempt, the diseased, the mute and lame and deaf, atheists and sexual outlaws, renegades and runaways, Communists and pimps, always utterly human in their frailty and complexity. Many of them, now, could not gain entrance inside these American gates. They are not aliens – not illegals – but our forefathers, our foremothers, who made it inside the gates before the gates swung shut. It's not someone else; it's us.