As I write this column, Tuesday, I am thinking of the State of the Union address that President Trump is scheduled to give to Congress and the nation in the evening. What does each of us think about the state of the union at this time? Do we know enough about what’s happening in the country to offer a credible picture in this first month of the year 2018?
We know we have problems. Big problems, if you follow the newscasts. We have a Congress that people seem to agree is “broken,” and a president without precedent. We have an economy that is the largest in the world, yet our citizens are divided into those enjoying its fruits and the rest who have been left behind. We have a remarkable health care system that is not accessible for everyone. Our schools are uneven in their teaching, especially in subjects like math and science. We have to deal with racism, bigotry, sexism, ageism and lots of other “isms,” as well as gun violence, drugs, gangs, North Korea, Russia, the Taliban, you name them. It’s enough to addle the mind.
Then I think of the other side of the story, the story of what America means to me. When my grandchildren have their children, they will be sixth generation Americans. We are deeply rooted here in our country but not so much that we have forgotten how we got here and especially why we came. My father’s family arrived in the second half of the 19th century from Riga, the capital city of Latvia set on the Baltic Sea. We don’t know much about them except they were dairy farmers, and they managed to buy property and continue with that life after they landed and settled in Connecticut and upstate New York. My dad, the middle child of nine, left the farm for the big city when he was 14, got a job at the bottom of the ladder in a hardware store, lived in a boarding house in Brooklyn near his older brother, worked hard and for long hours, saved his pennies and ultimately started several hardware stores on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It was about then that I came along, the middle child of three.
We know more about my mother’s side of the family. Her uncle, her mother’s brother, left the army in the Ukraine after a perilous stint at the beginning of the 20th century. He joined his uncle in Corona, Queens, who taught him how to use a sewing machine in a clothing factory. He realized he could earn more if he owned a machine and could hire himself out to the highest bidder, then understood he could do better still if he owned the factory. His four children all graduated from college, his daughters became teachers and his son served as a judge in the District and Criminal Courts of Suffolk County.
My mother’s grandparents and parents, alarmed at the unrest in their homeland in the first decade of the 20th century, followed the family chain, established themselves financially in New York City, and saw to it that their offspring were educated so that they might further contribute to society and share in its benefits.
This is the American Dream. This is the route that countless individuals and families followed for 400 years to reach their goals amid the freedom and security of the United States, Has that dream been achieved by everyone here in America? Certainly not, and the situations where people are chained to the past or even the present are heartbreaking. The national goal is to bring the American Dream to all living within our borders.
Except for Native Americans, we all started out as immigrants, foreigners in a foreign land, and those who came voluntarily — along with those who didn’t — aspired for more. Some came with more skills and resources, some with less. Some had supportive family networks, some arrived alone.
The American siren song still exists. The formula does work. I see it realized by people locally every day. For all the cynicism and the partisanship, whatever the shortcomings and injustices, this is still America.
On the day of the State of the Union, this is what America means to me.