My Mother and the American Dream
My mother in her senility that digs up anecdotes retrieved from her long term memory repeats that she has always wanted to come to America from when she was 11. She had decided at 9 to drop out of 4th grade because she really didn’t like school. My grandmother indulged her because she could at least bring home 22 drachmas a week from her illegal factory labor cutting stray string off textiles.
After the war, Greece was so destitute that the urban poor encouraged children to work even under the table much like farm families generated laborers for the land by giving birth to them. Visions of burlap sacks with long grain rice from the Carolinas and logs of yellow cheese floated through her mind fomented to the idea of America as a land of plenty. From her deprived childhood, America became associated with sustenance, the land of plenty. Back in the 50s and 60s when America peaked with economic success, it was every street urchin’s dream to travel to America. “I want to be americano.” The promise of honey in your milk a chicken in every pot. The American Dream was hot and kicking.
What solidified the dream and made it even more real was the appearance every now and then of those who returned flaunting their wealth in three piece suits gold rings cigars and a fat paunch around the middle. “Look at him,” the housewives would point, “that’s a Brooklis.” That term referred to someone who lived in Brooklyn and had made it. These tended to be older middle aged men who had acquired enough wealth to come back to the old country to find a young bride. This narrative played into the hopes and heads of the working girls in the factories as well. Kali tichi their aunts would greet them. The one good piece of luck a poor girl needed was to be chosen by a Brooklis and skirted off to America, that great land of endless possibilities. This meant she wouldn’t have to work in squalid conditions for pittance; she would be the mistress of her own house with furniture so new its plastic cover was still intact. No matter that the groom was 45 50 or even 60 and the girl a mere teenager. Families willingly gave their daughters away their conscience clean as they had saved their girls after all. She was lucky to have made it out of Greece and into America. My mother’s childhood was seasoned with the sweetest of America dreams. That was one thing she wanted to do in her life. I wanna be Americana.
As fate would have it, her dream came true. She made it to America. She still worked illegally as a garment worker for pennies an hour. The struggle to raise three children in a foreign country without a stitch of English while also serving as the sounding board whipping post for the anger and anxiety of a mentally ill husband did not make for happily ever after. But nevertheless, in her mind, she had achieved her goal. She had come to America.
When I think about it my dream of returning to the mythical Greece the land of my idyllic childhood is the flip side of my mother’s. What America was to her, Greece is for me. Except that she looks at what she stood to gain from the land of the bird’s milk, tou pouliou to gala, a Greek idiomatic expression that connotes great sustenance and plenty that does not run out. I looked at what I had lost. I had lost family bonds, the sense of strength that comes from being the majority, a sense of belonging and collective history.
For what they are worth, dreams are but life preservers for the hungry: those who hunger for opportunities, those who hunger for memory. They help us stay alive during tempestuous seasons. But they also beguile us. They brew a world within our heads that disassociates us to from the ground under our feet. Ultimately however, our dreams are part of our identity. Funny but true: my immigrant mother might be more American than I and conversely I might be more Greek than she. Or else we are both dreamers who connect happiness to a place that is radically different on the ground than what it appears in our heads.
This is the theme behind my poem Ameriki, that was granted Editor’s Choice Award by Arkana literary journal. Here’s the link: https://arkanamag.org/2021/05/03/poem-3/
How do your dreams of Greece compare with your parents’ or grandparents’? Or do they even exist?