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Front Porch: Birthday brings reflections of two American stories

January is the month of my birth.

A lot of people don’t care much for January – long, gray, cold, post-holiday letdown, not a lot to look forward to – but since it’s the month that I arrived on Earth some years back, I do have a good bit of fondness for it.

I’m not so big on birthday celebrations per se, but some birthdays call for more reflection than others. This is the month that I turn 75. It’s kind of a big deal for me, especially since I never thought I’d get here.

I had a stroke when I was 45, and I had to learn how to walk again, regain use of my right arm and develop some workarounds for the things that didn’t function as well as they did before. I was able to return to being a wife and mother, to my career and to life in general.

But, knowing the likelihood of additional strokes occurring in people who’ve already had one, I wasn’t sure I’d live to see 50. Not to mention 55, 60, 65, 70 and now the three-quarters-of-a-century mark. Neither of my parents got past age 70. None of my grandparents even reached it. So, stroke aside, it did occur to me that, genetically speaking, longevity might not be in the cards for me.

How happy I am to be here – even if “here” comes with some of the afflictions an older body is subject to. Being here is so much better than the alternative.

This particular January has called me to consider these past 75 years and also – courtesy of the sensible stay-at-home protocols of these COVID-19 times – afforded me some quiet time to muse about my place in the world, how I view myself and how I got to be similar to and different from other people my age.

And this is where Donald Trump comes in.

I write these words several days, several nervous days, before Joe Biden is scheduled to be inaugurated the 46th president of the United States. I have my fingers crossed that all will go well during that ceremony, including before and after. And I have been thinking about the outgoing president and how much we have in common, but how different we are.

I do understand, of course, that people with similarities in their backgrounds are not all alike and that even identical twins raised in the same household can be radically different in their personalities and behaviors. Still, it’s more about how we perceive ourselves that intrigues me.

Donald Trump and I were both born in 1946. We were both born in New York City. We both grew up in the borough of Queens on Long Island – he for all of his growing-up years and me for just the early ones, as my family moved to Florida, where I completed high school and college before moving out into the world. (Note: he now calls Florida home.)

He had one parent who was an immigrant. His mother was 18 when she emigrated from Scotland to America and at first did domestic work on Long Island. I also had one parent who was an immigrant. My father was born in Germany and came to America in the 1920s when he was in his late teens or early 20s. He found initial work as a laborer.

Trump’s other parent, Fred Trump, was born in New York to German immigrants, Frederick and Elisabeth Trump. In fact, Trump’s grandmother was pregnant with the child who would become father to a president when she and her husband reached America’s shores permanently in 1905.

Not that it’s not significant to this narrative, but I do observe, since we are in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic (which has loomed large over Trump’s presidency), that Trump’s grandfather, who began the Trump real estate dynasty and who, incidentally, lived in Seattle for a while, died in 1918 of the Spanish flu during that pandemic.

As for me, my other parent, my mother, was born in the South Bronx to immigrant parents, one from Austria and one from Russia. Family stories tell that they met in England, but I know few details beyond that.

I grew up speaking German at home when I was little because my parents were able to bring my father’s mother out of Germany the year I was born, and she – who did not speak English – lived with us and took care of me while my parents worked. Fred Trump also grew up speaking German at his childhood home.

My growing up years and the former president’s were very different, of course, as he was born into a wealthy family and I was born into one working its way up into the middle class. Ours are different versions of the great American immigrant success story.

I have always considered myself deeply and truly American, because I am. I am also the proud daughter of recent immigrants (genealogically speaking), who came to this country seeking a better life and, hopefully, contributing to the healthy ingredients that make up this wonderful tossed salad of a country.

As far as anything I’ve ever seen, Donald Trump sees himself differently, choosing not to speak of his heritage. By implication he rather portrays himself as a Mayflower American, rather than an Ellis Island one, which we both are just a generation back. And, of course, he’s allowed to see himself as he wishes.

Yet his affection for the American Confederacy seems ironic, since, had his family been here during the Civil War, as New Yorkers, they would have been Yankees and likely not much inclined to revere monuments reflecting that particular insurrection.

Even when he spoke at the state dinner held for him in 2019 at Buckingham Palace in England, never once did he mention his close maternal ties to Scotland. (Queen Elizabeth rather obliquely referenced it, however.)

How did I get to see myself as I do and he got to see himself as he does?

I understand that there are politics, a base group of voters, an image to put forward. But no matter how recently you or your family arrive here and earn citizenship, you’re an American. I just don’t understand, especially in light of the fact that nearly all of us are essentially immigrants (some more recent than others), that longevity of place should be perceived as making you a better American.

That way of thinking has always been a puzzle to me.

I have no aha moment coming here or some way to reach a “Kumbaya” understanding of the former president. But I’m 75, as he will be in a few months, and this month’s musings have led me into thinking and wondering about all manner of things, including how we perceive and present ourselves, and about what was for my family, pride worth sharing in the journey from immigrant to citizen.

Similarities, interpretations of history and different choices.

But moving on to another septuagenarian, President Joe Biden – I profoundly wish that as his new administration begins, we – all of us, old and young, newly-minted citizens and long-standing ones – can all be Americans together, even with our divisions, and value what each other brings to this country that I earnestly hope still has a bright future.

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