Immigrant Hearts

by Amy Sander Montanez

I am the child of an immigrant, and I married the child of an immigrant. I have come to learn over time that there is a place in all the immigrants I know, a place so deep as to almost be cellular, that I think of as the immigration wound.  It is not a visible wound, like a surgery scar.  But if you grow up as the child of an immigrant, or you spend enough time with one, you learn that the wound is there.  You have to piece the cues together over years, though.  There are the sayings.  “Nothing matters but family.”  “You have no idea how lucky you are.”  “I wish you knew my grandparents.”  More elusive than the sayings, but more telling, are the emotions of remembrance.  The tears.  Every Christmas Eve, while singing “Silent Night” in German.  Every time the extended family gathers for a meal and a blessing is said, thanking God for bringing all of us together safely.  Each time slides are shown or pictures of the Old Country come out of hiding.  There is the deep laughter, too, and what feels like pure joy, when celebrations include the culture of the left country.  Homemade sauerkraut and wurst, beer and German potato salad.  Polkas and umpa bands.  Laughter, ruddy cheeks, and sparkling eyes.  The language might even change then.  A phrase here and there.  Words, “liebchen, tochter, aber schön,” spoken from a deep place, reaching for home.

I believe my deep desire, indeed my vocation, to tend hearth, gather family and friends, create community, and treasure diversity comes, at least in part, from being the child of an immigrant.  The wound that holds the feelings of leaving, of separation, of loss, of confusion, of fragility and being different, of striving to fit in, that is the wound that I watched and tended growing up.  When it was time to leave for college, my father insisted we all leave home and go at least 500 miles away.  He wanted us to have our own immigration, to leave what was comfortable and familiar, to see other lands, to meet other people, to learn how to live with and work with a broader cross-section of life.  I left New York for South Carolina in 1974.  It was a difficult migration for me, fraught with misunderstanding, loneliness, foreign food, strange religions, and odd habits.  In so many ways, it was harder and stranger than my five-month stay in Japan.  I expected things to be very different half way across the world and in a very foreign country.  The migration South had so many unexpected challenges.

But in that foreign land, I have made my home. Because we all had to leave and pick another part of the country to try, I have siblings in North Carolina, Chicago, and Dallas.   I have a daughter who, like a homing pigeon, made her way back to NY.  So like my father who missed his home and his family, I miss mine, all the time.  Paradoxically, when we all get together, it usually feels like too much for me.  Too much happiness, sadness, noise, celebration.  Too much catching up.  Not enough time.  Quiet time.  Easy time.  Time I see other families get who live close to each other.  Stopping in for a quick chat.  Sunday lunch.  Worship together.  Shopping.  Swimming.  Hunting.  Care-taking. Hugs.

I love to create quiet, easy time.  Deep time.  I do this for a living. I do it for my soul’s need.  I am at my happiest when I am with family and close friends.  I especially like to do this in my home where I can cook wonderful food for people, play beautiful music, engage in healing conversations, and remember how connected we all are.  This is healing balm for those wounds of loneliness and immigration.

I believe we all have our wounds of immigration. We have all had many kinds of leaving that we could recount if we give ourselves a moment to think about it.  Those leavings, as much as they may hurt, form and direct us and remind us that we must take our home with us. Wherever we are, what truly matters we must carry within us.

What if we thought about our birth as our initial immigration, leaving our place with the Holy to be here on this earth as humans?   We all feel it, that hunger to return to our natural state of union with the Divine.  We all feel the loneliness, the disconnect, the deep yearning.  Can we tend that hearth and invite the Holy Other in, spending some time with the Source of our Eternal Home to heal our loneliness?

At four years old my daughter called to me from her bedroom.  She was almost asleep, in a dreamlike state.

“Momma, where was I before I was with you?”

“Where do you think you were, Sweetie?”

“I think I was with God.”

“And so you were,” I said, kissing her goodnight and stroking her hair until her eyes shut.

I tend to my family, friends, and community, and as I do so, I tend to the Holy Other.  This tending has formed and transformed me.  Nothing, truly, makes me happier.

Amy Sander Montanez, D.Min, has been a licensed professional counselor, licensed marriage & family therapist and spiritual director for over twenty years.  She blogs weekly at Amy Sander Montanez

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