In the days and weeks following 9/11, friends and neighbors saw the American flag flying by my front door and assumed it was in remembrance of the people murdered by Islamic terrorists. I didn’t bother correcting them because, by then, that was certainly part of my intention. The thing is, the flag had been out there for several months, but they just hadn’t noticed. Or maybe they just thought it was corny and didn’t want to comment. But, now, I think, is a good time to set the record straight.
I went out and bought the flag because of my grandparents. I should explain I had never known my dad’s parents, both of whom died before I was born. I knew my mother’s parents, but could never speak to them. Although they had come to America in 1921, they never learned English. They could speak Russian and Hebrew, but they preferred Yiddish. I couldn’t converse in any of those languages. And, so, to me, my grandmother was this little old woman who would give me a wet kiss on the cheek and slip a quarter into my hand. My grandfather was a very quiet, bearded man who always wore a black frock coat; he looked like a short Abe Lincoln. He went to shul twice a day. When he was home, he was either reading the Torah, shelling lima beans or sipping tea through a sugar cube held between his front teeth. In short, if my life were a movie, they’d have been dress extras.
So why did I buy a flag because of those four people — two of whom I had never met and two of whom I had never spoken to? It’s simple. Because of sheer, unadulterated gratitude.
You see, one day, on my way home, I began to think how lucky I was to have been born in this country. Through no effort of my own, having made no sacrifice, taken no risk, I was the beneficiary of freedom, liberty, education, comfort, security and, yes, even luxury. It was not the first time I had acknowledged this good fortune. The difference this time is that, for some reason, it suddenly occurred to me that my good luck hadn’t just happened. It had been the direct result of these four people pulling up stakes and moving thousands of miles, across an entire continent and the Atlantic Ocean, to a new country, pursuing a dream that their children and their children’s children, of whom I am one, might, just might have better lives.
There were no guarantees. That was my epiphany. They had been denied the assurances of hindsight. They had done all this on a roll of the dice, only knowing for certain that there would be no going back.
My father’s parents were illiterate peasants. My mother’s parents not only never spoke a word of English, but her father — although he owned a small grocery store in Chicago — never, in 30 years, spoke on a telephone because he didn’t want to embarrass himself. But their grandson, bless their hearts, has enjoyed a career as a successful writer. I doubt if any of them imagined anything so specific or anything quite that wonderful when they snuck across the Romanian border in the dead of night, but they had certainly heard a rumor that in America anything was possible.
The fact is, had those four people, all of whom were poor and barely, if at all, educated — their little children in tow — not somehow found the courage to make the journey, I would have been born a Jew in the Soviet Union. Between Stalin and Hitler, the odds are likely I would have wound up a slave in Siberia or a bar of German soap.
So it happened that day when I was out driving and thought about the enormous debt I owed those four immigrants, a debt I could never possibly re-pay, I decided to pull in at the local hardware store and buy a flag. I thought it was something they’d have wanted me to do on their behalf. It wasn’t nearly enough, I know, but it was something.