NY-World-immigration-1906As a young person in New York City, one of my favorite spots was the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. Through touring actual old tenement apartments, the museum tells the difficult and often tragic story of 19th century immigrants to Manhattan.

I loved it because it felt like they were telling my story. As strange as it may sound, when we moved to the Big Apple I felt as though I had landed on another planet. At the time I was a 24 year old befuddled Mississippian who cried (often) standing in front of Subway maps.

Of course, my problems were nothing compared to the young women who emigrated from countries like Ireland. In a memorable section of the Tenement Museum they told the story of these young Irish women becoming first time mothers. Imagine realizing you were pregnant with no one around to tell you what to do. Remember, most of these women came over alone. So there was no mother, aunt, or grandmother in sight. There was no What to Expect When You Are Expecting. And, this is the hardest thing to wrap my brain around, there was no Google.

The fallout from this lack of collective history was huge. In an age when the Snake Oil Salesman was an actual thing, these young mothers used to buy formula for their babies from big wagons that drove through the tenement neighborhoods of Manhattan. The salesmen told the women that their baby formula was superior to breast milk and there was not a maternal figure around to tell them otherwise. Unfortunately, this “formula” was often found to be watered down milk, or, worse still, watered down paint. I know. That detail still haunts me.

Despite the fact that I hadn’t yet become a mother, I found I deeply identified with these women. My husband and I had chosen (on what felt like a whim) to move to New York City. And while it was a romantic and fun season in our lives, I missed the refuge of home and family. It was terrifying to live someplace where we didn’t know anyone and were ill equipped to, in cultural terms, speak the language.


Like those young mothers from Ireland, I learned to figure some things out for myself. We moved to the suburbs and had a baby. And, thank God, someone invented Google. But there were distinct moments in the first year of motherhood when I longed for the advice and solace of my family. And it always surprised me when it happened. When our son was born it occurred to me that if I died (or he died) no one would be there to comfort my husband. And so we asked some friends to sit with us during labor. And as wonderful as our friends were, I wished my mother had been there to help. When our son was a year old he was Jesus in our church’s Christmas Pageant, I remember helping him into his “manger” and feeling it in the back of my throat: my parents and grandmothers should have been here to see this.

Those early Irish immigrants left their home for some very pragmatic reasons. Namely, they wanted to eat. We leave our parents and extended families now for different reasons. These days success is often marked by how far you can distance yourself from your past and create for yourself an entirely new future (talk about law!). I am struck by how many of my childhood friends live hundreds and even thousands of miles away from their hometowns. And, of course, I’m in that club. We’ve done Atlanta, New York City, and now Houston. It’s like we are on tour with a jam band that doesn’t know when to stop playing.

And then there are the friends I know who left home for darker reasons. Maybe they were escaping something. I know more than a few people who have cut off contact with their families because a therapist told them to do it. I am never sure how to feel about that. Except to say that life is long and 25 may not be old enough to make quite such an executive decision. Then again, what do I know? Family is not some grand portrait of Mayberry. It is specific and often hard. But it is family. And, at least for me, that is a tangible thing that I could never give up.

Sometimes when I think back to people I know from high school who never left Mississippi, I find myself envious. They never left their God-given support system. They have been intimately loved from one stage of their life into another. Look, I know that’s not the most functional situation for everyone. I know that the grass is brown everywhere. But let’s face it, The Onion nailed it with their classic, Unambitious Loser With Happy, Fulfilling Life Still Lives In Hometown:

CAMDEN, ME—Longtime acquaintances confirmed to reporters this week that local man Michael Husmer, an unambitious 29-year-old loser who leads an enjoyable and fulfilling life, still lives in his hometown and has no desire to leave.

Claiming that the aimless slouch has never resided more than two hours from his parents and still hangs out with friends from high school, sources close to Husmer reported that the man, who has meaningful, lasting personal relationships and a healthy work-life balance, is an unmotivated washout who’s perfectly comfortable being a nobody for the rest of his life.


“I’ve known Mike my whole life and he’s a good guy, but it’s pretty pathetic that he’s still living on the same street he grew up on and experiencing a deep sense of personal satisfaction,” childhood friend David Gorman said of the unaspiring, completely gratified do-nothing. “As soon as Mike graduated from college, he moved back home and started working at a local insurance firm. Now, he’s nearly 30 years old, living in the exact same town he was born in, working at the same small-time job, and is extremely contented in all aspects of his home and professional lives. It’s really sad.”

After so much time away, the pangs of missing my kinfolk became a little softer, but I never really lost the feeling. And honestly, when we finally moved closer to home some 7 years later, I felt an anxious grip on my heart loosen. One that I had ignored for just long enough that I thought it had gone away. But that’s the difficult and wonderful thing about home, it never really leaves us.