An American Dream of Life
James Stone Goodman
Celebrating July 4th as I write this with a tasty American lunch, walking distance from the confluence of the Big Muddy Missouri and the Mighty Mississippi rivers, where two hundred years ago, Lewis and Clark set out to discover the Northwest Passage. It wasn’t the Northwest Passage but it was 1804, Lewis and Clark took off from here on their way to the Pacific, actually less than two miles from here, two hundred years altered the geography only two miles. In other ways we are more altered, more cynical for sure, the evidence is in, we are diminished.
I am also celebrating the birthday of a great American, my grandfather, who was born on July 4th, so proud a day for immigrant families that they often tried to talk, cajole, even buy their way onto the official record with a birthday of July 4th. My friend telling me about her husband’s immigrant origins: he was born twenty minutes to midnight, July 3rd, they tried to talk the doctor into altering the documents, he wouldn’t, even though he was a brother-in-law!. It mattered, because the immigrant loved the American dream of freedom, it drew millions of immigrant parents to new lives. What of their children? Could it take only a generation to forget the dream?
Every July 4th I renew the dream, in some bone-headed way I am a patriot, I feel something of what my generations felt, how their eyes filled up when they talked about sailing past the lady in the harbor, looking up at the dream advertised by her torch, and into Ellis Island, where our names changed, and we scurried into the unknown American night looking for opportunity. Tailors, seamstresses, butchers, barbers, smiths, artisans, dreamers all of us, none of us educated into America, but soon we would be because we knew that education would lift us up, on eagles wings, into the American dream of life.
The American dream of life. It renews for me every July 4th when I honor in a quiet way my grandfather on his birthday (was it really – or did he fudge the date, having been born on a kitchen table anyway, who would know?) What it was that he loved about this country was given to me when I was too little to evaluate it. Freedom, not theoretical, nor was it a cliché; it was the antidote to the Cossacks who came looking for us, later the Fascists who wiped up the rest of us.
Yeah, I’m a patriot. I believe the dream that he shared with me. I am lunching, spitting distance away from the confluence of the rivers, it’s July 4th, and looking off toward the west the way Lewis and Clark did before my people even got here, there are clouds in the air and birds singing American freedom songs. I take off my shoes and walk into the wet because I am too far away from their dreams right now, the explorers, too far away even from my own inherited dreams, the ones given to me by my generations, my grandfather whose birthday I celebrate every year with the conflation of the birthday of the country, this year at the confluence of the great rivers, great rivers, great conflations I am thinking of today, the lining of large ideas that I am wearing over my soul like a cloak.
Heck it’s only lunch, July 4th, but I am sitting here dreaming at the confluence of rivers and the conflation of ideas, I am Lewis and Clark wading through the loam on the great adventure of the American West that begins here, right here, I am my generations sailing by the statue with my arms around my family breathing deep these words I might or might not be able to read –
Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
I am Emma Lazarus, the poet of that piece, descended from Portuguese-Spanish Jews, intoning her words carved on the pedestal of the statue, I am pre-cynical, not diminished, I am some kind of patriot thanks to my grandfather who I remember was born on the Fourth of July, maybe so maybe not, who cares — I remember him and what he believed, I believe. What he knew, I know.