The Summer I Taught Russians to Water Ski & Other Tales Of Immigration

A wee wee hoose

Fur fur me

Wi’ neither windae nor door

To let me in to see*

I would chant this rhyme when, as a child visiting my Scottish grandparents, I would tap tap tap on the shell of the soft-boiled egg in its wooden cup until I could carefully lift off the top of the egg and scoop out the perfectly cooked insides.

My grandparents’ strong Scottish accent with that lovely Scottish burr that rolled the letter “R” from the back of the mouth was the music that I grew up with.  From Dundee, they had left the country of their birth in their early 20s.  There was no work.  They each found employment and a home in the U.S., first in New Jersey and then in New York.

My Mom’s parents brought their heritage to this country too.  Her Mom was of German descent and her Dad was Scots-Irish.

From the youngest age, I knew that America was where people came from other countries to live and thrive.**

When I was 15 years old, our family moved to Ipswich, Massachusetts.  Ipswich was unique to me—we lived in a house near the Ipswich River, not part of a suburban subdivision like our past homes.

I rode my bike all through town and was thrilled when I rode into a neighborhood on the River where the Sylvania plant was.  There!  I heard it!  Musical language, but unknown to me! It turned out to be Polish.

One day my Mom took her shoes downtown to the cobbler for repair.  The elderly cobbler took my Mom’s shoes and asked her last name.

“Todd,” she answered.

“What?” the cobbler asked.

“Todd.”

The cobbler handed my Mom a piece of chalk and one of her shoes, heel side up.

“Write it please,” requested the cobbler.

My Mom wrote our last name on the bottom of the shoe and returned it to the cobbler.

“Very strange name, Todd,” was his reply.

My Mom chuckled.  The cobbler’s Greek name had a jumble of consonants that we had never seen paired together and was a mile long, yet our four-letter last name confounded him.

Fast forward to the 1980s when I married my then-husband who was half Dominican.  Immigration to the U.S. had saved his mother’s family when a regime change had threatened their lives.  Spanish was the music that filled my ears, and his aunt introduced me to the dessert “flan” which to this day remains my favorite.  My world was also filled with MIT physicists, from my husband’s Ph.D. world.  Our home was often filled with grad students who we entertained constantly.  We hosted what we called the “orphan” Thanksgivings for students who could not get home for the holiday.  The numbers of “orphans” reached over 40, and we rented tables and chairs and distributed them all around the house to accommodate everyone.  Included in that group were two of the three future 2001 Nobel prize for Physics winners, as well as a delightful mix of foreign students.

It was during this time that Andrei*** entered our lives.  A new Ph.D. student at MIT, Andrei’s escape to the U.S. from the crumbling Soviet Union was an amazing one. Andrei experienced many horrors as a Jew in the Soviet Union and had set his sights on the U.S.  from the age of three.  He followed U.S. culture and trends, learning, for example, all the words to the 1973 Jesus Christ Superstar musical.  He also made it a point to capture American humor, and was able to tell American jokes that would make me laugh until I cried.

Andrei was on a path to citizenship as well as graduation from MIT.  But that was not all.  One-by-one he was able to get every one one of his family members as well as his close friends into the U.S.  Each embraced their new country and life with enthusiasm and vigor.

One summer, we were entertaining all the Russians when a friend called.  Did anyone want to go water skiing?  None of our guests had ever been.  No problem, I told them, I would teach them.

The boat was full of nervous, chain-smoking Russians.  On a marsh on Grape Island Creek, we all got out of the boat, leaving just the captain and a spotter. I donned my flotation vest and the skis and grabbed the ski line that was tossed to me while instructing my “class” in how to settle into the water and allow the boat to pull one up.

The boat started, and I effortlessly popped up and skied to the mouth of the creek, turned, and gently glided to the marsh edge when, as the boat continued up the creek, I let go of my line.

It took more coaxing on my part, but by day’s end, each Russian was beaming with success, having mastered water skiing.

This past weekend I was with my friend Joao***, as he steam-cleaned the carpets at my friend’s house.  Joao and his wife run a cleaning business and are in the U.S. on work visas that they have been able to successfully renew every three years. They have no desire to return to the country of their birth, Brazil. Whenever I see Joao, he always tells me another incident that has occurred that makes him love the U.S. so much.  This weekend’s story was about how kind the police were to him when he was in an auto accident.  He told me that Brazilian police were cruel thugs and that he could never have called them if he needed help.  Never.

Given the current administration’s stance on immigration, how will this story end?  Where will the Indian woman draped in the colorful sari I saw at the Crane estate this summer be in the years to come?

Will a Muslim ban turn into a Jewish ban?  A Christian ban? A blue-eyed ban?  Because it is important to note that whenever an ill-conceived action is taken against any one group, one must ask, “What is preventing this from happening to me?”


*Translation

A small small house

For for me

With neither window nor door

To let me in to see

**With deference to this country’s Native American population.

***Names have been changed.

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