In an old photo album, there’s a picture of my great-grandmother. Nearly 90, she sits in a chair on the front lawn
of a lake cottage. She holds an infant, clad in white, on her lap. Behind them stand four generations of “Grandma Buck’s”
It’s one of the final pictures of her and one of the first of me.
A half-century later, as is our tradition, many members of my father’s family gathered July 4 at the same location.
Known affectionately as “the lake,” the Lake Freeman property near Monticello was acquired by my aunt and uncle more than 60 years ago.
For much of their lifetime, the lake was a weekend escape from their home in Lafayette. Later, it became their primary residence. And after their passing, it fell to my cousins, who live far away.
Now, the cottage is for sale. So last weekend’s reunion may have been our last.
There were four generations assembled on Sunday, from infants to nonagenarians. We arrived from Lafayette, Indianapolis, Bloomington, Kalamazoo, Detroit, Minneapolis, Madison, Atlanta and Albuquerque.
As always, there was plenty of potluck to eat and plenty of catching up to be done.
After lunch, the babies napped. Folks took turns in the kayaks, the canoe and the paddle boat. And the teens and 20-somethings played Frisbee and volleyball.
But mostly, we sat around and swapped stories.
At one point, my mom, a budding genealogist, gave each of us a printout of our family history.
It dates back to the 1600s, and so far she’s found Burkhalters, Bocks, Bucks, Mohrs, Leibys, McLaughlins, Nehers, Robertsons and more. Our immigrant kin arrived from Switzerland, Germany, Scotland and elsewhere via ports in Philadelphia, New Orleans and beyond.
Some came to farm, sow and clear the land for themselves and others. Some came to escape religious persecution. Some arrived with little and fared poorly. Some were of means and lost them.
Whatever their roots and resources, these immigrants and their descendants quickly identified themselves as Americans, proudly fighting in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War and other battles.
And, of course, they begat lots of children who begat lots more children. Thus, I wind up related not only to soldiers, farmers, pie bakers, tailors, telegraphers, reporters, salesmen and other common folk, but also to movie star James Dean and President Barack Obama.
As I sat along the shore on Independence Day, watching my sons, my niece and my nephews jostling in the water, I wondered why our nation of immigrants is still struggling with immigration.
Hundreds of years after our founding by immigrants, history is once again repeating itself.
Indeed, throughout our 234 years, each wave of immigrants feared the one arriving behind it.
Ethnic and religious tensions escalated as new people arrived from new places.
In the 1950s, Sen. John F. Kennedy wrote a book about the benefits and struggles of immigration.
“This was the secret of America,” Kennedy said, “a nation of people with the fresh memory of old traditions who dared to explore new frontiers, people eager to build lives for themselves in a spacious society that did not restrict their freedom of choice and action.”
Decades later, introducing the re-release of that book, the author’s brother Sen. Edward Kennedy wrote: “There is no question that the immigration system needs to be reformed to meet the challenges of the 21st century. The urgent issue before us is about the future of America. It is about our pride for our immigrant past and our pride for our immigrant future. We know the high price of continuing inaction. Raids and other enforcement actions will escalate, terrorizing our communities and businesses.
“The 12 million undocumented immigrants now in our country will become millions more. Sweatshops will grow, and undermine American workers and their wages. State and local governments will take matters into their own hands and pass a maze of conflicting laws that hurt our country. We will have the kind of open border that is unacceptable in our post-9/11 world.”
In a July 1 speech, President Obama echoed that sentiment. “The system is broken. And everybody knows it,” he said. “Unfortunately, reform has been held hostage to political posturing and special-interest wrangling—and to the pervasive sentiment in Washington that tackling such a thorny and emotional issue is inherently bad politics.”
This week, the federal government sued the state of Arizona over a controversial immigration law that goes into effect later this month.
According to The New York Times, “Polls in the United States … show that a majority of Americans support the Arizona law, or at least the concept of a state’s playing a greater role in immigration enforcement.”
In other words: We’re a nation of immigrants haggling over immigration. How quickly we forget from whence we come.•
Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at email@example.com.