American Dream


When my abuela was my age, she moved from Santiago, Chile to Boston, Massachusetts. I’ve only been to Boston a couple of times, and I’ve never been to Harvard where she attended school, but I imagine her spending her free time at the harbor. She was already a glamorous woman at twenty-three, so I’m sure she wore her highest heels and her most expensive furs as she strutted along the docks in winter, ignoring any sailors or fishermen that ogled her. She was too proud to even blush.

I picture her searching for a secluded place, somewhere without many boats, and sitting on a bench that looked out over the water. She didn’t paint yet, but she always had an artist’s eye, and I know she saw what regular passerbys could not. She saw her great-great-great grandfather Bartholin sailing from Denmark to Chile, then crashing on the shores of the country, and making his home in a small town with an ocean view and a beautiful girl. She saw her mother, who died at twenty from influenza, running along the beach as a child, chased by seagulls and an overworked nanny. She saw her father, drunk on the docks of Lisbon, a woman young enough to be his daughter draped over him, not a fraction as vivacious as his dead wife. Maybe she saw Charlie, her lab partner at Harvard who would become my grandfather, and imagined his timid hand reaching to touch hers at twilight on the beach in Gloucester.

All of these characters troubling her mind in her quietest moments, and yet my abuela was completely alone in those years. I can’t help wondering if she was that alone most of her life: a woman of science in the mid 20th-century years of Bewitched, an immigrant who spoke with a heavy accent and whose dark skin stood out among the milky-faced Northerners, and a wine-drinking Catholic surrounded by tea-totalling Protestants. She was also an heiress who grew up with servants, but whose father spent her fortune on booze and women. She had a family coat of arms, but no family in this new country. Even when I was a child, and she had almost disappeared into her dementia, she would remind me that my blood was blue. She informed my father I’d go to Harvard, learn three languages like her, and that my writing would rival her countryman Pablo Neruda.

I didn’t go to Harvard. I only know two languages fluently, but I’ve stored the remnants of her broken Spanish for moments of crisis, like a shouted “cuidado!” when someone I love is in danger, or “siborouenza!” when I am exasperated with them. My writing will never measure up to the Chilean bard’s, but it has brought me to a new country, on the opposite side of the continent where I grew up. I, too, am alone in the Emerald City of Seattle, where the ocean interrupts the land unexpectedly every few miles, creating the illusion that I live on an island and not the mainland.

Yesterday, on a run, I took the Burke-Gilman trail through Fremont, the neighborhood I’ve adopted as my home. Once I hit the Aurora bridge, the landscape travels back in time from today’s industrial, tech-infused city, to the harbor of the fishing town Seattle once was. Sailboats and fishing vessels create the symmetrical lines Abuela once painted in greasy oils on the coast of Halifax. I’m not wearing furs or heels, but I stretch my running tights-clad hamstrings on the bench, and recall my parents and I at Boston harbor years ago, en route to an art museum, but stopping to admire the boats. This is the first year we don’t live together, just the three of us in our cottage in the Canadian capital. They’ve never been here. My grandparents are all gone, and while each one of them lived in America for a time, none of them came here to stay.

Last week, I walked the Burke-Gilman trail with my fiancé, an American. He’s coming to live here in a few weeks, and I won’t be alone like this for a while. I don’t think I’ll ever be as alone as my abuela was. I live in a place and time where there are working women like me, and I speak this language with only a slight Eastern lilt. Maybe my blood is Bartholin blue, but I blush at the catcallers, and I can’t repeat the family name to comfort myself when I am embarrassed. I may not be American, but I am the American dream. I’m the product of an immigrant who worked much harder than I did to be here, and who didn’t get the reward she hoped for. I received the world she helped to build. Leaving home did not wreck me the way it did her. It’s made me.

She may never see it, but I hope she knew that her work would pay off. Even if I didn’t go to Harvard. Even if I’m not a doctor. Even if all I am is not alone.