My grandparents sacrificed everything to come to this country. It is a story we’ve all heard recounted over and over again by our elders, ad infinitum; but to really stop and think about it is a powerful insight, especially in this economy when so many have had a rough 2009 where we might have lost some things we’ve maybe taken for granted. When I stop and think about it, I’ve lived a pretty storied life. I’ve never worried about where my next meal was coming from, whether or not I would have a roof over my head, whether or not I could go to school, worship where and when I pleased, and gone where I wanted. What would it take for me to leave everything I ever knew? How bad would it have to be for me to say to my family, I’m leaving and may never see you again?
For my grandfathers, that motivation was poverty; not the poverty that we may have seen or heard about; but real I-have-nothing-to-eat poverty, and every bite I take is one less morsel for my family. My paternal grandfather was 16 years old when he left his family to come and find work in the U.S. At 16, I was lucky to get a babysitting job for some quick spending money.
As you go through Ellis Island, you hear 1st person accounts of the many reasons why so many left all they knew and loved. The harsh realities of the time come pouring in as you are brought step-by-step through the stages of the immigration process: long lines, confusing processes in a foreign language, frightening medical exams, separation from family members, and the inevitable hoards of parasitic ne’er-do-wells, attracted by the vulnerable, waiting in the sidelines to exploit the newly arrived. As you move through the rooms, you are presented with startlingly vivid personal accounts telling what went through their minds at that very moment. The accounts are sometimes horrifying, sometimes inspiring, and always touching.
The museum does not try to sugar coat the past. It gives an unbiased view of the many cases and experiences of those who came through, some straightforward and relatively easy, and some harshly difficult and traumatizing; but I must say that for me, it offers an incredible perspective of – here it comes, the trite but true – the people who made this country great. One case that struck me particularly, was the account of a child who was detained at Ellis Island because of the measles. She was scared and separated from her family, but was consoled by a caring nurse who brought her little toys to help pass the time in her solitude. The voice of an old woman spoke of that great kindness after so many years and how it would be remembered forever.
My grandfathers went on to have jobs, not the best-paying, and certainly not the most suited to their talents, but they earned a living, went on to have children and grandchildren who were well educated, successful, and never spent a day worrying about having enough to eat. It was a lifetime before my grandfather could be reunited with his family, a family he supported like so many others, by always remembering to send a portion of what he made back home. When he met his brother, it had been over 50 years since they had seen each other; mere boys when they were separated, they were now old men; and when they met, they embraced and cried.
Sometimes, travel brings you back to where you are and helps you appreciate what you have, the lessons learned, and a life well spent. 2009 was not an easy year for most of us. For 2010, I wish you a happy, healthy, and prosperous new year, one where you have more than what you need, and you appreciate all you have.
For a few tips on visiting Ellis Island, the most important is the website: http://www.ellisisland.org/, where you can get information on the experience, buy tickets, and you can even do a search for your ancestors.
My recommendation is to combine your trip with a visit to the Statue of Liberty and to pre-register for tickets. This not only allows you to avoid the long ticket lines, but also ensures that you can climb to the top of the Statue of Liberty, which usually sells out early.
It takes a full day to visit both sites.