When we closed down my childhood home I was ready to let everything go into the back of a large white Salvation Army Truck. My hope was there was something left behind from my childhood could help someone else’s life going forward. Could be the pair of green high back chairs or set of mismatched dishes. But the small cloth American stick flag my mother kept on her dresser went home with me.
I am a first-generation American because my mother believed in the American Dream. Growing up in Scotland – a small child during the Second World War – she wanted to leave the wars, the limited economic opportunities, and everyone and everything she knew behind for America. Her children, she promised herself, would be Americans. She was 21-years of age when she sold everything she owned for a one-way ticket on a New York-bound liner across the Atlantic.
American was not easy. She worked as a waitress or low-wage jobs while working her way forward. But beyond the paycheck, there was one item she wanted more than anything else – citizenship of the United States. In sorting through a box of jewelry and letters I ran across a brown newspaper clipping. The list was recently naturalized citizens. My mother’s name printed alongside others who were collectively on the same journey. I kept that as well.
But her work was far from done. Shortly afterward she married and settled down to raise a family in the Heartland – almost as geographically centered as if she’d sat down with a slide rule and calculated the center of America. But her American Dream did not start and end with her – she wanted to deeply embed the essence of the American Dream in her children.
I learned more about life sitting at the kitchen table than I ever did in a classroom. In my mind, I can see her sitting down across from my younger brother and me telling stories of how America was special and unique from the world she had left behind. The opportunities, the wonder, the endless ability to reinvent one’s self.
No matter how much time passed, the fire of the American Dream burned brightly inside of her.
She loved America like no one I’ve ever known – right down to her final heartbeat in 1978.
Rarely a day passes that I do not recognize this ember of optimism glowing inside of me – ready at a moment’s notice to jump in and help change the world around me. I will help a stranger, I will take a risk on someone down on their luck, and I will forever believe whatever comes can be overcome. America works that way, so mother planted inside of me. Whatever comes your way can be overcome if you work hard enough and dream big enough.
I hold the Fourth of July dearly. In the fireworks, I see my mother’s face – each burst representing the sparkle in her eyes and the land she loved with all of her heart.