Granddaddy was Illegal

During the 60’s we spent every Christmas day at my grandparents’ house in Los Gatos, CA. Cousins from out of town were sometimes there with their moms and dads. It was noisy and fun. When Grandaddy picked up the phone to call his siblings in Denmark, we all had to be very quiet. It was so expensive to call overseas, we were made aware of how extravagant it was. He spoke first to the operator, and when the call finally went through, he spoke a strange language, loudly, into the phone. He smiled, he laughed. My mom remembers him crying. When he hung up, things returned to normal noisy celebration. He was just Granddaddy again.

He came to United States as a boy, by himself, in 1921. He was not a refugee. His mother, father, brother and sisters continued to live in Copenhagen, while he, at the age of 14, decided to go to work onboard steamships, first as a cabin boy and then as a doctor’s assistant. When he was 16 he jumped ship in San Francisco, and lived the rest of his life in the Bay Area. He was an illegal immigrant.

His life as an American was ultimately successful. He fathered a large family, and became a respected businessman. He was a funny and engaging public speaker. A warm grandfather. That’s the man I knew.

After he died in 1979, his sisters gave me a box of letters he’d written to Copenhagen from the time he left home. In them, his homesickness is laid bare. He loved his siblings, and his mother especially. He wanted so much to see them. But during the 1920’s he was illegal – he could not travel outside the U.S. He fell in love, married, and soon became a father. He earned U.S. citizenship and dreamt of bringing his young family to visit Denmark, but the depression of the 1930’s descended and there was no money. Then came the war. When the Nazis invaded and occupied Denmark, communication became censored and sporadic. His letters to Denmark are full of worry.

It wasn’t until 1947, two years after the war ended, that he was able to book passage on a freighter to Europe to finally see his family in Copenhagen again. He’d found success with a truck leasing company during the war years, and had enough money to bring his whole family, and mountains of food and clothing for his war-deprived siblings. They docked in Rotterdam, and took trains through the bombed-out cities of Europe to his old home of Copenhagen. They stayed for 4 months, until business called him back to the U.S. In the coming years he was able to visit Denmark again a few times, and every Christmas he treated himself to a phone call.

Why did he leave Denmark as a boy? A restless nature? A spat with his father? A yearning for opportunity? We don’t really know.

I recently took a Lyft ride in LA with a Bangladeshi immigrant. 35 years in the U.S., a citizen, owner of 2 successful liquor stores, proud of the Bangladesh community in L.A. He taught his children Bangla, they enjoy talking with their cousins in the old country, but they are fully American. He said he loves to travel ‘home’ every year, but that he doesn’t fit in there anymore. He’s too American now. But, he says, every hour of every day he thinks of home. It’s a constant ache. He is never fully at home in America.

I imagine my grandfather suffered similarly.

We are born somewhere, we grow up somewhere, it becomes a part of us. Why do some people emmigrate? Why do some people stay when opportunity is scarce, or danger imminent?  Even within a country, people could move to a new region or state to find work. But then there’s home.  While economic opportunity (or lack thereof) or escape from danger are powerful motivators for moving, home is a gravitational force. If we leave home, it will still, like gravity, tug at us.

If my residence was based on economic self-interest, I should be in LA or NY. The job opportunities are much better there for my line of work. And I’ve spent a few months living in each of those cities, but they’re just not home to me. I even tried living in my Grandfather’s country, Denmark – I loved it, yet I felt more comfortable when I got back to the U.S.  If circumstances forced me to, I could learn to live somewhere else. And it would become a kind of home to me. But I would always miss where I came from.

5 comments on “Granddaddy was Illegal

  1. Lovely story, Gunnar. Merci! John & Robin

  2. Right on Gunnar! After experiencing 15 years in the Northwest I so know what you mean about the pull of home.
    A beautiful memoir of your grandfather. My own died when I was only 8 but I still remember him riding on his tractor in Napa Valley. In fact the only thing I have left of him are the round steel rimmed safety glasses he wore on that tractor.
    Hope you are very well, xo Julia Nunn

    • I have a souvenir set of “mini tools” he brought me back from the New York World’s Fair in 1964 – don’t know why those, above all, embody him for me, but they remain a sweet reminder of him.

  3. Colleen Roe Simmie

    July 6, 2017 at 5:36 pm Reply

    Beautiful writing, Gunnar. It struck a strong chord with me. My 87 years old parents just moved to a retirement community from Barron Park to Los Altos. The home we grew up in and our children played at and all family celebrations were held at is now another family’s home. The new family will live in a place where love lives.

    • Yes, I still go by my grandparents’ old home in Los Gatos, and it still feels like mine (ours), and it’s only some remnant of civility that keeps me from going up and knocking on their door “just to take a peek around”. I’m sure it’s all been changed beyond recognition inside, the memories I’m looking for aren’t there, they’re only, um, memories 🙂 Are your parents at The Terraces? My dad got good care at their Alzheimer’s unit, I am grateful to the staff.

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