Monday, November 23, 2009

welcome to Ameryka

In a quote from an immigrant from the economically depressed Europe of the early twentieth century, I read: “we didn’t know of it as the United States, or even North America. We knew it as America (“Ameryka” in Polish) where anyone could make a new life.

If Ed is my occasional traveling companion, would it be correct to say that I come from a family of occasional immigrants?

My grandfather was the first in my family to travel from Poland to America. He came in what was the busiest year for Ellis Island (where immigrants where processed) – 1907. But he didn’t stay. He went back, then came again, only to return for good to Poland in 1951.

My grandmother crossed the ocean to join him here, then she returned to Poland, then came back and stayed until that return trip to Poland in 1951. Except that twenty years later she came back to the States. She died in California not so very long ago.

My mother is another back and forther. She landed on Ellis Island first in 1929, then again in ‘31 (with Poland in between). Some fifteen years later, she is back in Poland and then, in a surprise move, she winds up in California. I doubt that she’ll ever need a passport again.

I’ve always thought that this unsettled nature of my family’s travels was a tad out of sync with the prevailing trends. I thought people who came to America stayed in America. But today, I read this:


For all my ocean crossings, I am actually more stable than these previous generations of family. I considered myself thoroughly Polish until the 1970s, and since then, I have regarded myself very much as an American immigrant.

And yet I am the only one in my America-bound family who did not come through Ellis Island. The place closed down as an immigrant center in 1954 – a year after I was born. But in the 60 years leading up to that year, so many immigrants passed through Ellis Island! (The majority from Eastern Europe and Italy.)

Today, Ed and I took the ferry to Ellis Island.

It couldn’t have been a brighter day (though I would have welcomed a warmer wind).

We left Bleecker Street at an hour where New York streets are empty but for the serious visitors who are anxious to fit it all in. Oh, and the newspaper buyers (there are still those). And dog walkers. And fans of buttermilk scones for a Sunday breakfast.




We are lucky with the ferry. Just as we hike up to the pier, one is setting out toward the open waters. If you’ve done this trip, you’ll know that the boat first pulls up to Liberty Island.


You want to get off?
I don’t know... We don’t have tickets to go inside Ms Liberty...


But we do get off. How can we not? Liberty Island, Statute of Liberty – aren’t these as much a part of the immigrant experience as docking at Ellis Island? Or passing through the Verrazzano Narrows? (I passed through the Narrows on my first voyage to the States, even though I was not then an immigrant.)


We walk along the perimeter of Liberty Island and look up at the green robes of the statue. It’s a dazzling monument from close up. Especially when I am so intensely focused on immigration to this country via New York (as experienced by my ancestors).


We board the ferry again and head for Ellis Island. Twelve million went through the immigration screening here. I keep thinking that: twelve million. Including my grandfather, grandmother, mother.

The wind is even more forceful now. I think about huddled masses. And boat passengers braving the weather. And having, finally, a full view of Manhattan.



Once on Ellis, Ed allows me to take the lead, to take the museum at my own pace.

We join a small group that wants to tour the hospital wing. But I’m restless. I want to cut loose. I can’t feel the place through the words of the young guide. He’s too sing-song, too bland. These are not bland stories! Talk by example! Tell me an anecdote or fact about a Stefania or Wojciech (my grandparents’ names), or anyone else – the doctors who worked here, the people who stayed, those who were turned back.


In the end, Ed and I make our way through the great halls of the arrival building alone. The places of great waiting. Waiting to cross, waiting to land, waiting to move on.



The best, for me, are the photos. Faces, families, so often from Poland. How is it that they came from Poland at a time when there was no Poland? I don’t understand. Could they state country of origin based on a past remembrence? Or a future hope?


And faces of orphaned children, coming here to find a new life. These move me no end. And the woman from Poland who took work scrubbing floors. That could be my grandmother. She cleaned apartments during the day and baked during the night.


Immigrant stories. There aren’t enough of them, I don’t think. I want more details – I can’t have the details about my own grandparents, but I’ll settle for those of others. What were their days here like?

We take several hours to walk through the few rooms with exhibits. This is where they were inspected for health problems. This is where they were checked for legal permission to enter. This is where they were given the literacy test. Or the psychological test. This is where they stayed if they failed.

My mother recalled being scared that the officials would find lice. Would she be sent back? Would her mother be sent back then as well? Do others have similar recollections?

By midafternoon I am intensely tired. There is a chill in the building and I am wishing I had an extra sweater underneath my coat. I tell Ed – let’s head back to Manhattan.

We leave Ellis, swing around Liberty and head home.



And now we walk agaom toward Bleecker. The long way. Past the court house where Ed spent so many days during the trial. Past Chinatown too, and a playground full of families from Southeast Asia...


...and on to Orchard Street where Ed has found the best pickle shop in the borough. (Guss' Pickles; but they're moving to Brooklyn after the new year.)


... and little Italy, where we stop for an espresso and biscotti.



... and finally home. If you can call floor space home. I can. For this week-end at least.

Late in the evening we go round the corner to a local Italian place. The waiters are kind and the food is comfortably good and as we ease into the evening, I’m thinking that this city has been especially gentle with me this time around.

It continues to treat me well. One daughter is calling – the one who lives in Boston. I’m in town, just a few blocks away! The restaurant is closing, but the proprietors are delighted that a daughter should show up. They pull up a chair for her and now she is there, eating a plate full of pasta even as we have already polished off our own dinner and dessert.

And then the other daughter calls: I’m done with my meetings! Can I join you? Sure! The proprietors smile and pull up a fourth chair and now I have my daughters around me and the night air is warm and the wine is mellow and who, under the circumstances, could be anything but enthralled?

Last moments in New York. In a few hours I’ll have to make my way back to La Guardia for a predawn flight to Madison. I have classes to teach and moonlighting work to round off my Monday. It will be a long day. But I’m okay with that. I’ve had my two days.

Two days of thoughts about other places, other generations, another era, another family. That’s all it takes to get myself ready to face the last two weeks of the semester.