If I admit that my children are seventh-generation Nashvillians, how can I possibly speak with any credibility about immigration? It is a fact that the paternal side of my family found its way to Nashville, from Germany by way of Pennsylvania, in the 1850s; we have maintained a presence here in unbroken descentalbeit with discontinuous surnamesever since.
I am pleased for my daughters’ sakes that this unusual coincidence of genealogy and geography devolves upon themthat they can take comfort in the unshakable sense of place that comes from having such deep roots. And it will please me if they come to define themselves as Nashvillians, so that for the rest of their lives and in whatever parts of the world they may find themselves, this city will remain their touchstone.
I am of course but one generation ahead of my children and consider myself Nashvillian to the core. At the same time, my two brothers and I are also first-generation Americans, owing to our mother’s immigration to the U.S. from Canada in 1954. What’s more, we are the first generation to be raised speaking English in a tenacious line of French Canadians whose Lafond and Moquin forebears arrived in North America in the 1610s. Perhaps I am that much closer, therefore, to being able to appreciate through my mother’s experiences just what it’s like to settle in a strange place that one is determined to make one’s home.
Over time, the mixed strands of my own lineage have engendered a fascination with the kaleidoscope of individual histories out of which a place such as Nashville could be born. Here I am, for example, a Gallo-German mongrel now living in a North American hinterland that was once all but impenetrable. Every Nashvillian, I suspect, has a story just as unique as mine; thousands, no doubt, are even more intriguing.
Nevertheless, what I know of my German forebears from Pennsylvania is that the lure of opportunity to work with the infant railroads brought the father of my great-great-grandfather Henry Sudekum to Nashville with his family. They had scarcely established themselves here, however, when the Civil War overtook them and dashed their quest for comfort and prosperity. Just the same, out of this strife, a young Henry discerned an opportunity of his own. For a few meager coppers, he took to purveying home-baked pies to an eager Yankee garrison.
As it turned out, baked pies eventually led to ice cream, and Henry embraced the Refrigeration Age wholeheartedly by founding Union Ice Cream Co. His son Tony, on the other hand, foresaw the Age of Cinema in the gimmicky nickelodeons that began to appear around the turn of the last century. A nickel at a time, it’s said, Tony nurtured his Crescent Amusement Company into one of the country’s largest operators of movie theaters.
After the financial collapse of 1929, a young banker from Minneapolis named Kermit Stengel found himself tripped up and tapped out in Nashville. He was a first-generation American himself, his father having emigrated from Norway in the 1870s. By the merest coincidence of place and timing, Kermit’s career makeover in the theater business eventually introduced him to Tony’s youngest daughter, Sara; by marrying, these two took their first step toward becoming my grandparents. When their son and my father, Kermit Jr., took less of an interest in what was playing at the movies and more of an interest in where the movies were playing, the seeds were undoubtedly sown for his own career as a real estate developer and historic preservationist.
There’s nothing especially unique about the Sudekums and the Stengels and the Lafonds migrating from Germany and Norway and France, respectively. People have for centuries abandoned their homelands in search of better conditions of prosperity, peace, or freedom. What is certainly a bit more unusual, however, is the determination of some people to migrate for the very opposite reasons. This is a relatively modern phenomenon, I have to believe, and my brother Christian opened his own fascinating chapter in our family’s diaspora by striking out for Africa as an aid worker. Now settled in Mali, he has interwoven our family’s legacy into that of his Rwandan wife. Their charming daughter may well represent a Tutsi-Tennessee confluence of generations that is, so far, unique in the world. And yet, in a far broader sense, it isn’t unique at allbecause the engine that propels civilization forward is fueled by this very sort of accidental mingling among different cultures and peoples.
My own decision has been not to pick up stakes. Staying put always seemed to me the most obvious and natural choicefor an individual, for a family, for an entire people. I am proven wrong, I now know, by the movements of the many families whose global peregrinations have intersectedprecisely, unpredictablyin me. I feel poorer today for not knowing what courage, pluck, hope, and fear it takes to depart an old home in search of a new one.
Perhaps that’s why, with a hearty respect, I watch the tidal ebb and flow of people into and out of Nashville. From the limited perspective of headlines, Nashville’s present immigration experience appears novel, unusual, even sometimes disconcerting. Yet my own family’s story reminds me that in some respects the experiences of today’s newcomers are scarcely different from those of yesterday’s earlier arrivals. Today, we may be more aware of the mindless horrors of the latest wars that have prompted mass flights from such places as Bosnia or Vietnam; but the fact of war, the determination of humans to survive, and the inevitability of migration all date back further than we can ever hope to document precisely.
This is why it now occurs to me that my own ancestors’ difficulties in making themselves understood in North America in their native German, Norwegian, and French are fundamentally the same challenges faced by our newest Nashville neighbors speaking Korean, Spanish, or Yoruba. But the human appetite for community, for improving family fortunes, for forging a new life in alien circumstances, simply defies language. In this regard, every immigration adventure is unique, every story compelling. Yet at the same time, every one of these also reflects a bit of the same light from an enduring experience that, ultimately, is common to the family histories of us all.
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