By Jaclyn Jermyn
When I was growing up, my favorite family story was about my Great Grandmother, Christine. She came to America alone when she was in her teens. My only mental image of the small Italian town she left is from a postcard with my Nana’s handwriting across the bottom, noting the significance of the place. It shows a long dusty cobblestone street and a Shell gas station sign.
Christine arrived at Ellis Island with the promise of a man who would sponsor her and marry her. He didn’t show up, leaving her stranded for days—or weeks, I was never quite sure on the details—until my Great Grandfather Mauro showed up.
In my mind, Christine was a firecracker of a woman. She was small and stature and stubborn. She was the first woman in her Italian immigrant community in Lynn, Massachusetts to get her driver’s license, much to the awe and annoyance of her neighbors. She raised five children during the great depression. She would bury four of them in her lifetime.
In her later years, and I mean much later years, she fought off a knife-wielding intruder and pinned her attacker down in her front hallway until a friend could call the police.
When my father started bringing my mother to Wednesday-night family dinners, Christine welcomed this skinny, Irish girl in the signature Italian grandmother fashion: by feeding her copious amounts of pasta.
My mother is one of three girls born into an Irish working-class family straight out of Boston. My grandparents worked constantly to support themselves. My mother and my aunts found their way in the world largely on their own because of this. At 21, my mother got on a plane for the first time to go train as a Pan-Am stewardess. She wore a leather skirt to her interview and told the panel she looked really good in navy blue—the color of the uniforms at the time.
I am the eldest grandchild on both sides of my family. On my mother’s side, I am the only girl. On my father’s side, I am one of two. If this were anything about family legacy, maybe that would mean more. I have no family names. I am not named after anyone. I have spent much of my life thinking of our family as average because their accomplishments seemingly fit the bill of what immigrant families did.
Most people that I knew growing up were 4th or 3rd generation immigrant families. If you follow the pattern of fathers, everyone worked hard and provided for their families. They farmed and built houses, fought in wars, and drank when their shifts were over. They did good things and they did not so good things but lived their lives as best as they could.
If you follow the line of mothers, generation after generations, you see sheer willpower to do something different—to go one step further than their mothers did. To strike out on their own or marry outside of their ethnic group or wear leather skirts to important interviews. That’s legacy in itself. That’s a tradition I wouldn’t mind following for the sake of tradition.