Dreams of an Immigrant Couple

I accepted my wife’s invitation to accompany her to a work meeting outside New York City. After an almost six-hour trip, I was ready for a good lunch while my wife joined her colleagues.

I asked at the hotel for a good restaurant nearby and learned that there was a place within walking distance.

It was a charming, old fashioned restaurant with several family photographs on the walls, just the kind of place I enjoy discovering. When I came in there were already several tables already occupied.

I was offered a table in front of a window facing a garden.

There were two photographs on the sides of the window. One was of an elderly couple, probably the original owners of the restaurant. On the other side there was a photograph of a beautiful young woman, smartly dressed, probably taken at the time of her high-school prom.

I was particularly attracted to the photo of the old couple. I could almost imagine their history.

They looked European – Greek, Italian? They looked like simple people, without the sophistication of those from big cities.

They probably came to the United States in the 1940s, when big waves of immigrants came to escape the horrors of war and to find a better future for themselves and their children.

I imagined how they eventually opened this restaurant, probably smaller at the time, and progressed enough to enlarge it, to make enough money to send their daughter to college and create a more fulfilling future for her.

In the photo, the young woman looks ravishing, a real beauty. I cannot imagine her not getting married and having several children. By now she probably is a grandmother with several grandchildren.

It was a classic immigrant story. I was sure it was a fulfillment of the American Dream.

None of the people working at the restaurant looked like the older couple, so I imagined that they had sold the restaurant to new owners.

The waitress came and offered me their house special, vegetable soup. It was the right choice.

The soup had the wonderful quality of a good Mediterranean soup – from a recipe, I imagined, brought over by the original owners. A treat from the old country.

While eating my lunch, I looked again at the photo of the couple. Something in the old man’s aspect attracted me.

He is slightly shorter than his wife, who looks even sterner than he does. He is holding a woolen beret on his right hand. They probably had a life of hardships in their native country and, arriving in the United States, one of hard work and achievement.

An immigrant myself, I identified easily with their hardships, although I came to the United States in far better conditions.

But I could easily imagine how hard it was for them when I remembered how hard it was for me when confronted with a new country, a new language, a new set of values and a totally new area of work (I started doing complex research in molecular genetics, for which I was badly prepared. I had emigrated from Argentina, where very little of that kind of research was being done at the time).

I finished my dessert in the slow luxury of free time. My only preoccupation that day and the next was how to fill the time in this isolated place while my wife attended her meetings.

I asked the waitress for the bill. When she came back with it, I asked her, just to be sure, if she was related to the owners. She said she was not.

I ask her about the young woman in the photograph. “Is she the original owners’ daughter?” I asked. “Yes,” the waitress replied. “She is now a grandmother and lives nearby.”

I smiled. Pointing at the other photograph, I asked, “And her parents, what happened to them?”

The waitress laughed. “Oh, no” she said, “they’re not her parents. That old couple’s photo just came with the frame.”

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”