Bridget Linehan was 8 years old when her mom and baby sister died in in the flu epidemic of 1918. “Bridie” lived in a tiny town in the struggling island nation of Newfoundland– now part of Canada. Life was extremely harsh– fishing and subsistence farming the only economy; families were isolated, babies died early, fisherman did too, fires were common, educational opportunities very few. When her mother died, she and her five siblings were distributed to different family members– her father couldn’t care for his small children on his own– and she was sent to live with a single aunt in a neighboring village. Bridie studied up until about the 8th grade and then was promoted to become the teacher in the one room school house where she had been studying. She was 14. She taught for a couple of years– until about 16, and then for reasons that are both obvious and mysterious, she decided to leave. Get out of town. Find something better. She packed herself up– a little overnight bag was all she had– and joined thousands of Newfies who were doing the same– taking the shipping routes to Boston. Within days, she got a job working as a hotel maid. I have seen her handwriting on the 1930 census, “Bridget Linehan, age 20, chambermaid”.
And so begins a classic immigrant tale. The classic American immigrant tale. My tale. Bridie was my grandma. My mom’s mom. I remember her mostly as a demented, chronically ill elder who was paranoid about others knowing her business and had a bad leg. . a leg with chronic infections that festered from her years cleaning public restrooms and the public swimming pools in Boston. She cleaned up others’ messes her whole life.
Bridie never finished high school or went on to college. But she was a voracious reader. She married a fellow Newfie, several years her elder, and had four children. Her third daughter, my mother, became a nurse and the first person in her family to go to college. She was always painfully private. Only once, many years after her arrival, she made a brief trip to Newfoundland to visit her siblings. She became a naturalized US citizen in the early 1950s. My mom would have been old enough at the time to understand– but she never told her about it. There was no celebration. No fanfare.
Just last week I was in the Phoenix airport, and a beautiful young woman from somewhere (I presume some country in Africa) was cleaning the ladies’ room. I cannot help but watch her and wonder. What is your story? What brings you to this city? To this restroom? To side step weary travelers and their roll on bags. . .
Then this week, I was at the YMCA Tuesday morning (as I always am) with my kids, and I saw the young Latina woman who is also always there at the very same time– cleaning the locker room. To her I always say “good morning” and “thank you”, but I really want to say. . . What brought you to this city of Santa Rosa? How did you wind up cleaning this locker room every Tuesday morning? What do you read? Where do your kids go to school?
And then there is Elena, the best housekeeper on Sutter’s labor and delivery unit– she was there my very first day as a resident physician, there the day my oldest son was born, there just a few weeks ago when I was in there delivering a baby. The difference is that I know Elena. I have been talking to her for years. She is a proud mother and grandmother. Elena’s daughter is the first in her family to finish college and is now a nurse– yes a nurse (just like my mom)– here in Santa Rosa.
To my grandma, Bridie, and to all the immigrant women that have left your homes in search of something better for your families– only to find our dirty restrooms, our mildewy tiles, our sloppy beds. I salute you. For your grace. For your dedication. For your service. For your bodies. And your hearts. For all that you have dreamed and all that you continue to dream. May your skin protect you. May your backs be strong. May the chemicals you use not damage your lungs. May the people you service acknowledge your worth. And may that which you came for be worth all that you sacrifice.
It was worth it to me, grandma. For here I stand.