Higher Living Reflections

A Privileged Life

From climbing trees to heights to hitchhiking, risk-taking was part of my growing years. By the standards of my immigrant grandparents though, my derring-dos were hardly perilous. Nevertheless, I inherited that gene from them. Like they did, I migrated from the place of my birth in search of a better life. I found it in Colorado despite there being no guarantees I would. I had a vague dream, a gut-feeling, and an itch that needed to be scratched.

Living with risk was a regular part of daily life for my grandparents from the day they launched themselves from nineteenth-century Eastern Europe. Believing in the promise of America, they along with their ethnic cousins flocked to America in search of opportunities denied them in their native lands. Instead of amber waves of grain however, the men found themselves eking out a subsistent existence as they burrowed into coal mines or baked in the steel mills of Western Pennsylvania. The women valiantly toiled 24/7 in the squalor, scrubbing, cooking, sewing, and raising the children.  

My family’s story is one of thousands differentiated only by the particulars, one that is being reenacted today by others coming in search of better lives for themselves and their families. I remain in awe of their courage, forsaking all they’ve known and risking their lives so to get the blessings of liberty the Preamble speaks of for themselves and their children.

It is through that grandson-of-immigrants perspective I view much of what is unfolding today. It is through the lens of a child of a blue collar, skilled craftsman and a mother who, like her mother had, clawed out a borderline existence for her children after her husband and the family’s bread winner—my father—died tragically while she was carrying her thirteenth child.

It is why I find substantive literary characters, real ones like Joe Rantz in The Boys in the Boat and fictional like Sethe in Beloved and Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, heroic and am dismissive of shallow, well-to-do characters, like Daisy and Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, who don’t know what hard work is, have never sweated, baked, or froze trying to make a living, have never had their hands coarsened with blisters and calluses, and haven’t experienced hunger, wondering if they could make rent, pay for their utilities, and buy groceries to feed their children, yet flaunt their wealth so to win the affectations of the masses in an attempt to give substance and meaning to their vacuous lives.

It is through the remembrance of brothers who fought for their country in Vietnam and carried scars from the war the rest of their lives, one of them eaten up by cancer I’m convinced was initiated by Agent Orange.

And it is from learning at an early age the physical, psychological, and emotional value of hard work and how to have fun sometimes with little more than a can to kick. It’s the reason I feel sad for youth encumbered in ways I wasn’t that prevent them from escaping and rising above their plight, for children who don’t frolic in snow, splash barefoot through mud puddles, or get dirty and bruised while playing in carefree, outdoor disorganized activities, and for the myopic ones who cope with their boredom by scrolling through phone apps, checking out social media, and obsessively playing video games.

Those and other life experiences are among the reasons I offer gratitude for the privileged life I’ve have had.

In “America,” Neil Diamond belts out a tribute to all those who have done and continue to do what my—and possibly your—ancestors did. The music pulses with an energy that conveys a sense for me what it might’ve felt like for my grandfather, Ignac, when at age twenty-one he first saw the shores of America from the rails of a ship and stepped ashore knowing he made it but not knowing that fourteen years later he would die by having his skull crushed in a grimy factory, leaving behind a wife and six children.

Thanks to my intrepid immigrant grandparents and my steely, imperturbable parents, I was given a head start in life. And once I struck out on my own, I didn’t—couldn’t have—done it alone. Like everyone else, I had guides, mentors, and plenty of helping hands along the way.

I haven’t lived a privileged life in the highbrow socio-economic sense. Far from it. But I have led one in a more meaningful way. It’s merely a matter of perspective.

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  • Judith Janson
    February 14, 2024 at 3:49 pm

    Jerry,

    This is a very profound and timely post. You and I have some similarities based on our family backgrounds. All of my grandparents came from Europe and worked hard to create lives for themselves. I also did not grow up with a privileged existence. I remember working in the camera department at Montgomery Ward during the 70s in Detroit and having a conversation with a coworker, Ray. He said that he was grateful to have grown up having to learn how to best survive in our world, without everything being handed to him. He felt he was a stronger person for it. I concurred. It is disheartening that so many young people today do not have the simple but meaningful memories that we have.

    Judi

  • Laurel McHargue
    February 14, 2024 at 4:23 pm

    Jerry, what a wonderful tribute to your heritage…and what an astute observation of the things “plaguing” recent generations. One of my grandfathers, a tailor, would drive in horse-and-buggy to camps in Canada to make clothes for lumberjacks and other workers. His son, my dad, would go door-to-door as a child with baked goods his mother would make. I remember him telling me how horrible he felt when he would return for payment, and the customer could not pay. My other grandfather would go to the seaport each morning for whatever manual labor job he might be offered. There are many stories of our ancestors, and I believe all led lives far more challenging than ours.

    And here we are, far better off than they were, yet oftentimes complaining about . . . ridiculous things.

    Thank you for this Valentine’s Day reminder to focus on how fortunate we truly are.

  • Glenn Blanco
    February 14, 2024 at 8:05 pm

    My father hailed from Guatemala, my mother was Canadian. They met working in an army hospital in St John’s Newfoundland, Canada. Both were to sail as medics on a British warship in 1940 but were called back suddenly before the ship set sail for London. The ship, the RMS Hood, was sunk on that voyage back to England. I am neither rich or poor but fortunate to have had a whole life to live. Thanks, Jerry for bringing up a subject we all need to refresh to remember from whence we came.

  • David Edwards
    February 15, 2024 at 11:11 pm

    Great article! The times were tough but the people were amazing!

  • Donna Taylor
    February 16, 2024 at 4:31 pm

    My grandparents left family and familiar surroundings in Eastern Europe to make the journey to Western Pennsylvania. My mother was five years old and remembered the crossing, playing with other children. My grandfather and uncles worked in the steel mill, one uncle died in the mill at age 26 after a fall. My parents, the next generation, were hard working and my father and uncles fought in WWII. I often tell people that my growing up was the best. While we had chores, our unstructured time outdoors consisted of creating stories and games, running around in the neighborhood alleyways and streets – not called indoors until the street lights came on. Thanks for the thoughts Jerry, important to remember.
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