Synopsis: Ceil Lucas is Professor Emerita, retired from Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, the world’s only liberal arts university for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, where she taught linguistics from 1982 to 2013 through American Sign Language (ASL), with a focus on the structure and use of sign languages. She started teaching Italian in 1973, at all levels, and continues to do so. She has maintained the French and Spanish that she learned in Guatemala and has picked up Irish along the way; her native language is English.
Ceil was born in the United States but raised from ages five through twenty-one in Guatemala City and Rome, Italy. The Guatemala of the mid-1950s saw intense American intervention in Guatemalan affairs, intervention shaped by the deep fear of communism. Italy, on the other hand, was experiencing a post-war economic boom and the beginning of the “years of lead”.
“How I Got Here: A Memoir” tells of her upbringing first in Guatemala City, then in Rome, and finally in America. As a result of this upbringing, upon meeting someone new, she invariably says, “I wasn’t raised here”, “here” meaning the U.S.
Ceil has also studied the history of her family and has discovered that her first ancestors on her mother’s side were among the Scottish Prisoners transported to Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 1654 by Oliver Cromwell, following the Battle of Dunbar in 1650; Daniel De Lucas appears in Kent, England in 1500, with Spanish connections, and the first Lucas to America was a Quaker who sailed to Philadelphia in 1679. She is therefore very American, ten generations’ worth.
The stories of her ancestors, right up through her parents, have become her stories and are central to her memoir. Those stories help explain, in the broadest sense, how she got here.
The central thread of Ceil’s memoir is the search for the balance between “I wasn’t raised here” and “I’m deeply American.”
Critique: With eloquence and insight, author Ceil Lucas ponders what it truly means to be an American. Exceptionally well written, organized and presented, “How I Got Here: A Memoir” is an inherently and consistently compelling read from first page to last. “How I Got Here: A Memoir” is highly recommended for both personal reading lists, as well as community and academic library American Biography collections.
Full disclosure, I attended the same International school in Rome, Italy that Ceil did, and while our years in Rome overlapped, she was ahead of me in grades and our paths did not cross; but I was aware of her as we had shared friends in school. We are both “Third Culture Kids”, being born American, in the US, but educated abroad. In my case Italy, and in hers, Guatemala, Italy and even a French school in Switzerland. By the age of 10 she knew four languages fluently. She became a professor of Linguistics at Gallaudet, and added ASL and Irish to her skill-set. About a year ago she finally decided to write her story, which mirrored mine in many aspects, and that of many of our school friends. She is a masterful writer, and tells a marvelous story of her growing up, first in Latin America, and then coming of age in Rome, Italy, and finally a finishing school in full French, before attending University in the state of Washington. He book is highlighted by family photographs along the way, which bring even more life to the story. There aren’t many books about us Third Culture Kids, so when I find one, I always read it. Thanks to the author for this wonderful addition.
Ceil Lucas’s memoir is a delightful page-turner that covers her life from age five to twenty-one when she lived in Guatemala City and Rome. Since she spent those formative years abroad, she felt for a long time that she wasn’t from the USA (“I wasn’t raised here”). Born in 1951, she had missed the assassinations of the Brothers Kennedy and that of Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as major portions of the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-Vietnam War activism. One can understand her feelings as she arrived in Walla Walla, Washington in the fall of 1969 at the age of 18 to attend Whitman College.
Her memoir informs us politically about what we missed by our not being in Guatemala and Rome and about the role our government played in both nations at that time. It also gives us a detailed account of the author’s family history. For someone who “wasn’t raised here,” it is highly ironic that ten generations on both sides of her family have been here for over 360 years !!!
The most moving and powerful passages in her memoir, however, deal with her total immersion in the languages and cultures in which she lived. Ceil Lucas has an amazing memory and writes well. She records her childhood activities with startling precision and we delight in watching her (Cielito” in Guatemala, “Cielo” in Rome, and “Little Toad” at home) encounter in the central market in Guatemala City the first deaf people she had ever seen and acquiring an early sense of justice when realizing that her playmate, Alfonso, had none of the amenities that she returned to every night (television, rugs, tables, running water, electricity, indoor plumbing, shoes). Lots of family travel in Central America broadened her cultural perspective and reinforced her language learning.
In 1960, when Ceil was nine years-old, the family moved to Italy. By the time she was ten, she was fluent in four languages: English, French, Spanish, and Italian. Here again, these pages come to life as “Cielo” and her earliest playmates from Brazil and India organize Olympics competition in hopscotch, tree-climbing, running and ball-throwing. These “free-range children” alarmed their Italian neighbors by going “Trick or Treat” on Halloween. Once again, Ceil connects with someone less privileged than herself, her family’s cleaning woman, Quinta, who would nourish her in every way and give her a direct link to authentic Roman language, culture, and food. They remained friends until Quinta’s death in 2005. At the Overseas School of Rome, Ceil studied French and as of 1961 went to YMCA summer camp in Sardinia where it was total immersion in Italian. That first year, she was voted the Campeggista dell’Anno. She and her first boyfriend would return to that camp as leaders from 1967 to 1969.
Finally, before coming to Whitman College, the author spent a semester at a “Swiss finishing school for girls.” In the Pensionnat Riante-Rive in Lausanne on Lake Geneva, where formal meals, lessons on how to eat correctly, horse-back riding, and ice skating were de rigueur, Ceil had now covered the whole spectrum from Alfonso’s home to high society. These ironies did not escape her. But her four months in Switzerland constituted her first total immersion in French and that in itself was of enormous value.
These years paint the trajectory that would continue in her life. At the age of thirty-one, Ceil would learn American Sign Language (ASL) and at forty-two, she would learn Irish. She has taught Italian for 43 years and for thirty-one years, she was a professor of linguistics at Gallaudet University specializing in sign languages used by deaf people.
She spent a myriad of time researching her past, traveling, delving meticulously into documents, photographs, articles, but especially her own memories. Important is the link she continually made between her own family history and the history of the places where she lived that set the stage for her own stories.
It is impossible to read this book and not have an instant desire to delve into your own history. If it is not desire that moves the readers, perhaps they can consider a grandchild who some day will wake up and will want to know… and no one will be around to tell the story!
One can cull Lucas’ personality reading the lines of the book, and reading between them. She pulls no punches, no ring-around-the-rosebush, but her writing is laced with sarcastic humor. You look forward to the end of each chapter for her sentence of wisdom, often hilarious:
“Reading in a moving car makes me vaguely car sick, so during all these travels through Guatemala, I amused myself in the back seat by singing or making up word games or quite simply looking out the window. And that was enough. There were no video machines in cars in those days or the tablets that I now see advertised on television. There was no anxiety expressed about a need to keep children’s minds occupied at all moments while they traveled. Looking out the window was considered quite enough and it was. The passing sights on all of these trips fed my mind. As an adult I always have newspapers, books or magazines with me for trips on buses or trains but they usually remain unopened. I’m looking out the window.” (p. 43)
We are nothing without our memory. Ceil Lucas has furnished a path for us to find it.