My last grandparent died this past summer.
My paternal grandfather, B. Ralph “Buddy” Hoffman, was born in 1918 in Newark, New Jersey. He went to Michigan State, where he played football, served in the Army Dental Corps and set up a dental practice in the now-hip Hampden neighborhood in Baltimore in 1949.
Poppy died in June. Going through some of his stuff, my dad found a green card for Poppy’s mother-in-law (that’s my dad’s maternal grandmother and my great-grandmother).
I never knew my great-grandmother, Rebecca Glick. She died on Thanksgiving Day in 1968, before I was born. But my Poppy, and his wife, Betty, or Gigi, who died in 2000, lived with her when they were getting their start, after Poppy got out of the Army. According to my father, Poppy had a great relationship with Rebecca. She came to live with them later, when they got their own place.
We do not know much about Poppy’s parents as they died when he was young. Gigi’s mom, Rebecca, for whom my sister is named, came to the United States in 1903 at the age of 16. (My mother’s grandmother was also named Rebecca.) She came from Latvia with her husband, William, who died young, after they had six kids together. She called my dad “sonny boy.” They owned a grocery store in Baltimore and my mom claims that Rebecca Glick used to play cards with her grandmother, Rebecca Pollack.
Rebecca does not look much like my Gigi in this picture. Nor does she look 16—I believe the green card is a reissue from 1952, which leads me to believe she never actually became a citizen. I’m trying to imagine her smiling, or me making her smile with some kind of pidgin Yiddish joke or other shenanigans. Her glasses are awesome and she looks like she’s wearing a bathrobe. I wish I could ask her about the Old Country.
People often ask me why I’m writing this book. What’s my interest. Often it’s just a curious question. Sometimes it’s asked in an accusatory way, as in: “What’s at stake for you, Hoffman (you white boy from Idaho)?” Sometimes it’s accusatory from the other side as in: “Why would you want to write about immigrants?”
Well, one reason I’m interested in the fate of immigrants to the U.S. is that my family, through our broadly and liberally defined Jewish culture, has retained some ties to the Old Country, even though we don’t really know much about the places from which our ancestors hailed (Latvia? Ukraine?). Those ties to our immigrant past allow us to be both fully American and at the same time to see the nation with fresh, sometimes oppositional, eyes. Like most late 19th century immigrant families, I can claim both my freedom of speech and assembly and my clean record on slavery, mint juleps and manifest destiny. I am a fourth generation American, taking Rebecca as the first generation, straight off the boat. But I’m no Pilgrim or Son of the American Revolution. Or Tea Partier.
And now I have the green card to prove it.