One of the best ways to measure the greatness of a nation is perhaps to observe the power it gives to it’s citizens. Top of the heap is the ability to achieve, to rise to the top – by your own standards. So allow me to tell you a story right out of my own life.
I come from a great family environment. That is a blessing in itself, but it is an even greater blessing to have married into another terrific family. You can’t plan that and you don’t marry for your in-laws, so as they say, you must ‘play the cards you are dealt.’
Jerry and Anna epitomize the American success story in my eyes. Born in the Ukraine, they were taken by force from their homes by German soldiers. All the youth were off fighting and workers were needed for the farms in Germany, so they just took them. When the soldiers came into Anna’s village they shot every tenth man. Her father was one of the ones executed. In addition to the trauma of this, the people they ‘worked’ for were occasionally caring but more often not. They were no more than slaves to a people bent on conquering the world by subjugating everyone else.
Some people give up in such dire circumstances, others develop in personal strength through adversities. J & A were of the latter type. As the war ended and there was nothing to go home to, they were placed in camps and fed by the American government. It was there J & A met, married and in 1948 Anna gave birth to Martha, my wife.
J & A were sponsored into the USA in 1950 by friends they met in the camp who came here first. The entered through Ellis Island like thousands of others, arriving here to share in our freedoms. They came here to BECOME AMERICANS, not just to live here. But the struggles were not over.
Imagine this: they arrived here knowing a half dozen families scattered around the USA, mostly in the New York – New Jersey area; with no money & a two year daughter old they moved in with one of those friends in NYC; they could not find work being hampered by not speaking English; Jerry traveled as far as Detroit merely on the rumor of available jobs. Eventually he found work as a window washer on the NYC skyscrapers, suspended for hours by no more than a leather belt.
As they learned the language, things began to improve. Moving into their own apartment my brother-in-law Peter was born. But he proved to be a sickly child. A doctor finally told them to move away from the city and it’s air pollution if they wanted him to live. So they did. Circumstances simply could not keep them down.
In 1956 the family took up residence in central New Jersey, all the while working on the requirements to become US Citizens. Like most naturalized citizens they took great pride in this country and being a legitimate part of it. As the kids grew Jerry worked construction and Anna got a job in a nearby factory. They worked and saved, and worked.
After completely building a home for them to live in, they had an opportunity.
One of those American opportunities. To own a business. So they risked it all, sold the home Jerry built and bought a business with an apartment above it where they could live. And so they worked and saved and worked some more. In all this time they never took a vacation. They put both children through private schools and into college. They bought a row home, fixed it up and rented it out.
They worked and saved and worked. When Martha and I got married the signed the row home over to us, allowing us to just assume the remaining mortgage and later they helped Peter and his wife buy their own home. And after 25 years as business owners, they bought a fixer upper for themselves and sold the business. Jerry went stir crazy when all the fixing on his, mine and Peter’s homes was done. He went to work as a maintenance man for the State of NJ and stayed for 10 years.
These people came with nothing to a place where anything is possible if you will work for it – the USA. Oh, yes, they worked. And they bragged on this great nation, because they knew what we have here. They did not understand laziness and they greatly appreciated opportunity.
They did not hoard their wealth or their love. The evidence of that was the surprise 50th Wedding Anniversary party we planned for them. Their friends filled the hall. They filled it with well wishers both young & old, they filled it with love of simple good people, they filled it with thanksgiving for unexpected generosity, they filled it with Americans born & naturalized blessed to share in bounty of our country.
Ripped from the arms of their loved ones, through much suffering they arrived with thousands of other “displaced persons” to this place that welcomes those who truly want to become a part of our ‘melting pot.’
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Emma Lazarus, 1883
Yes, it is indeed “the golden door” of LIBERTY. Those of us so lucky to be born here should revel in that a little more.
In memory of Jaroslaw Semkowycz 1920-2002,
and Anna Cepyn Semkowycz 1925-2003. Currently
partaking of much deserved rewards.