Earlier this week, a friend and I visited the Lower East Side Tenement Museum to take the “Moore Family Tour,” a guided tour of a tenement apartment that has been restored to reflect the tenancy of William and Bridget Moore and their three daughters, who lived there in 1869. The Moores had emigrated in the aftermath of the Irish Potato Famine, and arrived to encounter virulent anti-Irish sentiment, garbage-strewn streets, and loud and unsanitary living conditions. The family slept together in a bedroom only a little larger than my bathroom. William worked as a waiter; Bridget took in washing, which she worked on in their minuscule kitchen while cooking the meals and watching the children — one of whom died of tuberculosis during the year the family lived in this apartment, because they could not afford medical care.
Afterward, my friend and I reflected on our own heritage. My paternal grandparents also emigrated to New York from Ireland, though later, in 1917, and they had it somewhat easier, though not much. Like the Moores, they moved every year, because landlords then offered a month’s free rent with a new lease. My grandfather worked, first as a ticket collector on a horse-drawn trolley, and eventually as a token clerk for the MTA. My grandmother raised nine children to adulthood. My father recollected some suppers that consisted mainly of rice, and breakfasts of flour-and-water pancakes doused with sugar-water, but they managed to send all of the children through Catholic high school, and the younger ones — including my father — went to college.
My aunt told me that their father used to gather the children around, starting when they were very small, and tell them gripping stories. It wasn’t until she reached high school that she realized that they were the plots of Shakespeare plays.
My father also had a government job — as an IRS agent — thanks to his college degree. He and my mother were able to buy a nice house in an upscale suburb. They didn’t want me to go to college, but it wasn’t because I was slated to be a laundress; it was because they felt I shouldn’t “have to” work; I should marry someone who could support me in style. But they had sent me to really good schools, and my teachers urged them to allow me to continue my education, and they did.
My father’s family essentially disowned us because my mother was a “heathen,” an Episcopalian. During the few, large gatherings of this otherwise close-knit family we attended, I was made to feel an interloper, less-than. I did not imagine then that I had anything to feel grateful to them for.
But I do. And I’ll be thinking about them this Thanksgiving. I hope you have a good one.