57: An American Wall

57: An American Wall

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Kind (of) America

An American Wall

It is the flag just as much of the man who was naturalized yesterday as of the men whose people have been here many generations.

~Henry Cabot Lodge

According to my family legend, my paternal great-great-grandparents emigrated from Germany and settled in upstate New York near Lake Ontario in the late 1800s. Supposedly, the region was popular with farmers who claimed the area’s long, frozen winters permit the earth an extended rest, which then produces incredibly bountiful harvests each autumn. I don’t know about the validity of that theory, but I do recall, as a kid, we always had a white Christmas. The white Halloweens and white Easters were equally impressive.

By the time I came along in the 1960s, my family’s farming days were long over, but my grandparents continued to reside in the old family farm homestead. It was a five-bedroom colonial with unreliable plumbing, windows that rattled in the wind, and a roof that leaked. Every floorboard in the house creaked, except the basement, which had a dirt floor. When the house was finally sold after my grandparents passed away, the real estate agent listed the property as having a unique antique charm.

I remember my father repeatedly urging his folks to sell the ancient, outdated house. “Living in this worn out place is like you’re living in poverty,” he insisted.

“We do not live in poverty,” snapped Grandma, offended by her son’s implication. “We’re . . . well, we’re the working poor.”

“Being poor ain’t no work for us,” Grandpa added. “It just seems to come natural.”

When I was a kid, I loved to wander the acres of old farmland with Grandpa. On the way back from our walks, we would always encounter an old, hand-built stone wall that paralleled the west side of the property. It was about three feet high, a couple of feet wide, moss-covered and ruggedly sturdy. We’d always stop there and take a rest.

“You know,” Grandpa said as he sat down on the wall, “my grandfather — I called him Opa, which is German for grandfather — built this almost a hundred years ago. He used to tell me this wall was strong and made to last because it was his American wall.”

“Because it’s in America?” I asked, sitting beside Grandpa.

He shook his head. “Opa said it was his American wall because it was built just like the USA — lots of different pieces locked together, holding each other up, each one supporting the other.”

I shrugged. “I don’t get it.”

“Well, you see,” Grandpa explained, “the stones in this wall are all different. They’re big, little, round, square, light, dark, but they’re all stones. Opa said the people of America are like that, too. There are Italians, Irish, Chinese, Polish, Spanish, Egyptian, and English, but they’re all Americans.”

“And German like us,” I added.

“And German, that’s right,” replied Grandpa, smiling. “Opa told me it ain’t important if you’re an Italian baker or a Polish doctor or a Chinese grocer or an Irish teacher. What’s important is that we’re all Americans and, just like this wall, if we stick together, give support and hold each other up, we’ll be so strong that nobody can ever knock us down.”

That all happened years ago, but one sunny Saturday afternoon in the fall of 2016, I took a walk back onto my grandparents’ old property. Most of the fields lie fallow now, and quite a few pine trees have grown up over the years. In 1999, a major portion of the farmland was sold off to build a housing development. But after a bit of searching, behind a thick overgrowth of weeds, I found my great-great-grandfather’s old American wall, still so strong and sturdy that no one has ever knocked it down.

~David Hull

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