Here is a tiny story of American immigration, set down here exactly (or as close to exact as I can get it while going against my own nature and resisting completely the instinctive urge to embellish and embroider it, re-tell it in my own way – as told to me in my childhood by my maternal grandmother).
“Your great-grandfather, my father, Paul Ajas, was French Basque, raised in the Pyrenees Mountains of France. He was sixteen years old and living at a Catholic boarding school not far from his family’s home. His mother had been sick, and the day came when he overheard someone from his village in the headmaster’s office, asking for him.”
‘And he knew that his mother was dead,’ said my grandmother, ‘and he walked out of the classroom, and he walked down the mountain, and he walked right past his family’s home without stopping, and he walked to the sea, and he stowed away on a ship bound for America.’
And a few days into the voyage, he was discovered. The captain put him to work below decks, and as the ship approached New York Harbor, he was locked up, so that they could return him to France upon their return.’
But he managed to get free from the hold, and in the middle of the night he made his way up to the deck, and there he saw New York City before him. And he dove off the side of the ship, and he swam to the shore, and there he hauled himself into the city.’
And when dawn came he approached a man in the streets and asked him where might he find work. And he spoke no English – he spoke only French – and the man answered him in French.'”
And that is the story of how my grandmother, Reine Eugenie Honoree Ajas Kirsch, came to be born in America, in New York City, which to her eyes, and all her life long, was the only real city in the world.