Derek Gentile: Fond memories of an undocumented immigrant

GREAT BARRINGTON — Several years ago (OK, many years ago), when I moved to Great Barrington, I lived in a guy's basement for a while. It was a space that had been converted into an apartment, but there was a boiler down there and when somebody took a shower upstairs, it sounded like the water was going to come cascading down on my bed. It took a while to get used to that.

The family who actually owned the house hired a maintenance guy to plow the driveway and do routine repairs. In turn, he hired a young woman to garden. The house had a couple of flower beds. It looked like hard work.

The gardener was a woman about my age, which was early 30s at the time. She was extremely pleasant, and she was Irish. Not of Irish extraction, she had literally emigrated from Ireland about five years before.

In those days, I was a sucker for a pretty girl with an Irish accent. Actually, in those days, it's probably fair to say that I was a sucker for a girl with two legs and a heartbeat. But the Irish thing did kind of pull me in a little more. It probably had something to do with that girl who played Danny Noonan's girlfriend in the movie "Caddyshack" (Her real name was Sarah Holcombe, but in the movie, she had the unlikely name of Maggie O'Hooligan!).

Anyway, Marie (my Irish girl's name) was relentlessly pleasant and relentlessly hard-working. One afternoon, I came home from work and she was toiling in one of the gardens, sweating bullets. It was summer, it was hot and she had pretty fair skin. I went over to her and asked her to come inside to my little basement apartment and I would get a glass of water. She was so miserable, she didn't even have the energy to decline.

So I gave her a cup of water, clicked on the old Gentile charm and things took off from there.

Well, not really. She was outgoing with me, but less so in a crowd. She was reserved and my semi-bohemian lifestyle (odd hours, odd diet) was not something with which she was comfortable. I didn't see a major romance in our future. But that was fine.

Marie, as I said, was Irish. She was also illegal. She had come over on a temporary visa (I think it was a year, but it was a long time ago.)

She loved America, she loved Berkshire County and she wanted to stay. She was pretty self-contained, so my sense is that she didn't believe she would be allowed to stay if she applied for citizenship. I don't know what would have disqualified her, if anything, but the fact is, she was illegal.

There's no happy ending, or deep resolution to this. Her mother died a few months after we met and she returned to Ireland for the funeral. I never saw her again.

But at the time, the fact that she was illegal wasn't really a part of my thoughts (although certainly, it was part of hers). But if you want to look at things in a certain way, well, yeah, she was taking away a job a legal American could have worked. And she overstayed her visa by years. So if one wants to think of things in this manner, I should have reported her. Tried to get her out of the country.

Obviously, that wasn't going to happen. Then or now. The hypersensitivity to undocumented immigrants has made a lot of people very xenophobic these days. It doesn't hurt that the immigrants we want to get rid of now have dark skin. Some people think their accents aren't cute. But frankly, we had more problems in the '60s, '70s and '80s with Irish terrorists in the U.S. than we have with Muslim terrorists in the U.S. now. But Marie was white and charming. These folks are dark-skinned, and while they are also charming, some people feel it's they're not good for the country.

So I guess the moral of the story is, while "illegal alien" may not be the way we say it now, illegal immigration isn't always bad, is it?

Reach staff writer Derek Gentile at 413-770-6977.


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