Most of the readers of this column know by now that I love history. I especially always enjoyed listening to the stories told by my grandparents and grandparents, uncles and in-laws about their experiences growing up in a world that was so different than the world I knew. Before COVID hit I used to even do programs to teach audiences how to preserve those family memories by writing the stories down and, if possible, include some old pictures with them.
On the farm many didn’t have electricity or running water and the older relatives had horses for power. They went to one-room country schools. Teachers didn’t make much money but families appreciated them and invited them for meals at times just to let them know they cared.
Our great grandparents came to the U.S. for religious freedom or a new way of life many generations ago.
I remember the stories about them coming over with all their belongings packed into one or two wooden trunks. Hearing these stories I tried to imagine what I would put in that trunk if I was told I could only keep what fit in there.
They passed through Ellis Island – some alone – some with cousins, brothers and sisters or parents. When they arrived they had to meet with an immigration officer who determined if they were mentally competent, physically sound and had someone who would vouch (offer monetary support) for them. If those things were OK they could enter the U.S.
When they were allowed to pass they were given a sack of food by an immigration officer. It usually included a banana, which many of the new immigrants didn’t understand. They had no idea how to eat it.
Most of those new immigrants moved west. Often when they arrived in the new land they needed to clear the trees and rocks in order to turn the soil and begin to farm the land — all of that without the benefit of backhoes and bulldozers.
When their children went to school they learned quickly that they needed to speak English at home. If they didn’t their children would struggle in school. They also needed to adopt the new cultural practices in order to fit in and they did.
I learned a lot more about those cultural differences later in my life when Dick and I had an opportunity to visit many countries around the world.
When we travelled we were usually on farm tours or some sort of educational tour so we didn’t go to the traditional tourist spots where cultural differences are not a big deal. It didn’t take long to figure out those little things like hand gestures and table manners have different meanings in different societies.