I’ve heard the stories at least a hundred times: My Great Grandma Tsiryl dry-heaving over the side of a steamer ship as they rolled up into Baltimore Harbor in 1904. A pregnant Great Grandma Esther stoically clutching the belly that held the baby that would one day be my grandfather while ocean waves battered the hull of the last ship out of Europe before World War I.
Two different women from two different places, and yet they shared such a similar experience with each other and with the thousands upon thousands of other Jewish immigrants who left Eastern Europe for American shores. They crammed their lives into small suitcases, sometimes with incredible forethought, other times in great haste; they kissed their families goodbye; and on trains, on buggies, or on foot, they traveled over hostile terrain toward distant harbors, and ultimately onto ships that would take them excruciatingly slowly, slowly, slowly away from the achingly familiar.
But like so many others who left the cities and shtetls of Eastern Europe during those fragile years at the turn of the 20th century, my great grandmothers made it work. They gave birth to American babies. They raised their children in broken English. They played Mahjong and drank coffee with other landsmen in cramped apartments in big cities, far away from their childhood friends. They waited for letters from their families. They dreaded the inevitable telegram. They celebrated bar mitzvahs and simchas at the synagogue. They sat shiva. They buried their own in foreign soil.
You have to be an optimist to pack up and move for a life unknown like that and survive.
And not only did they survive; as they grew roots in a new world, they thrived.
For me, it’s different. I wasn’t escaping pogroms and persecution. This Jewish American Princess took a stretch limo – yes, a stretch limo – to the airport, because I have delusions of grandeur and decided that the only way to leave LA was to leave in style. Our voyage was 15 hours, not 15 days (although believe you me, with an infant and a toddler, it felt like a lot longer). Our worldly goods amounted to eight suitcases, four carry-ons, two car seats, and a portable DVD player with a battery life of 12 ½ hours.
Unlike my great grandmothers who started from scratch, I’m connected to my life back home 24/7 with Facebook, clinging to moments and milestones in real time, ten time zones away. But I’m trying. Because I’m the only one who can take full responsibility for my own happiness. And so, like my great grandmothers, I’m putting down roots in a new place.
At first, it wasn’t on purpose — I didn’t want to feel settled here. And on principal, I filled my garden with clay pots, and staunchly refused to plant the lavender, honeysuckle, jasmine, sage, lemon verbenia, and poppies into the earth, like some hackneyed metaphor. But then, last month, after a trip to the plant nursery where I found the delicate pink Mexican primroses that my mother loved so much, without even thinking, I dug a deep hole in a patch of dirt, placed the fragile plant in the soil, and patted the earth around it.
Because, slowly, I’m figuring out where I fit here: Relationships don’t grow overnight, and yet, I’m beginning to feel that maybe I can be here. Maybe. And sure, while I still live half my life on Facebook, I definitely won’t turn down the opportunity to go out and have a drink with a new friend in the real world. Here.