Like all U.S. citizens but Native Americans, I’m descended from immigrants. One grandfather arrived on Ellis Island with his Russian Jewish family, fleeing the pogroms at the turn of the 20th century. My great-grandparents all came to this country in hopes of a better life, from Russia and Ireland and Denmark and Germany and France. Their journeys were, without exception, long and hard and painful.
One great-grandfather was sixteen years old when his mother died. He walked alone from the mountains –he was French Basque, born and raised in the Pyrenees Mountains– and stowed aboard a ship bound for New York City. He was discovered halfway across the Atlantic, put to work on the boat, and put in the brig when they docked in the harbor so that he could be returned to France. In the middle of the night he escaped and dove overboard into the frigid waters of the harbor and swam ashore. Sixteen years old. He emerged in lower Manhattan, where he lived for the rest of his difficult life. His is not the American rags-to-riches dream story most of us are fed from birth, but it is certainly an American story.
My new children’s novel, Pablo and Birdy, is about a boy named Pablo and his beloved parrot, Birdy. Pablo doesn’t know where he came from – he floated in to shore in the southernmost town of Isla one morning after a wild storm, tied into an inflatable raft.
Why was Pablo set adrift on the ocean, alone, with no one but a silent, fierce parrot to watch over him? Who was his first family, and why had they let him go? Had he done something wrong, screamed too much, been somehow unlovable?
There’s a legend in Isla, of a remarkable bird called the Seafaring Parrot, who holds within herself all the sounds ever made in the world, and who –under special circumstances– can reproduce them. If Pablo could just find a Seafaring Parrot, maybe he would learn something, anything, about his origins?
At heart, Pablo and Birdy grew out of my experiences as an adoptive mother and as someone who has worked with refugees and immigrant students my entire adult life. As Pablo’s adoptive father tells him, “There are many others in this world who had to leave their homes, for various reasons, and their journeys are long and hard.” Over the next week, I’ll be posting a few more immigrant stories, in hopes that our elected employees don’t forget that they too –every last one of them, so far as I know, and please correct me if I’m wrong– are descended from immigrants.