Ellis Island

by admin

Imagine a cold September morning.  You are standing on the deck of a large ship, along with a few hundred fellow passengers.  The air around you is grey with an early morning light, threaded with a mist fine and mysterious that dusts your lips with a hint of salt from tiny, sweat like, beads of moisture.  There is a mix of passengers on deck, hands in pockets, stamping their feet to chase away the cold.  Each class of passengers is evidenced by the clothes they wear and, on a more subtle level, their tiers of residency on the ship.  From the upper decks come the upper class, wearing the fashions of the day as if they were born in them.  They mill about the deck in overcoats over tweed suits and satin dresses with polished leather pumps.  From the middle decks come the middle class, businessmen mostly, with pudgy wives on their arms cautiously making eye contact with the third group, as if both curious and horrified to be in such close proximity.  The crowds from steerage are recognizable for the shapeless similarity of the weatherbeaten clothing they wear in layers comprised of everything they own.   Perhaps you are one of these, mingled here in the fog, feeling the cold in your bones and the thrum of the ship’s engines through the rusty steel plating beneath your feet.

You are all here because the crewmen have told you that this will be your last day on ship, for the shores of your destination will become visible sometime shortly after daylight.  You have all picked yourselves from your beds, cots, or bundles, and made you way to the decks as if answering a siren’s call to fate.  You are waiting for something, something that you could only dream about in vague images, pieces of tales told by others in letters long faded, but etched into your memory as if carved into the flesh of your soul.  You have come to the deck to wait for the first glimpse of your future – apprehensive, fearful, but above all filled with a surging sense of hope that at last your future will be revealed in all its glory.

What does it take to be an immigrant?  To pick up your things and leave everything you’ve learned and known and loved and set forth on a journey to another land?  Perhaps, for some, it’s the search for a better future, the promise of a life of prosperity impossible to achieve in the mother country.  Perhaps, for others, it is speculation, the belief that somewhere out there lies a future envisioned only in the mind.  A leap of faith founded on nothing more than blind trust in the possibility of hope.  Perhaps, for some, it is a desire to leave behind the pains of the past  The loss of loved ones and the ever present reminders of grief driving the heart and mind to seek peace in another land.  Perhaps, for a few, it is the desire to join the rest of their loved ones?  The kith and kin that chose their own paths to a different life?  Perhaps, for you, it is a flight from injustice.  A desperate attempt to leave behind the accusatory glances, open hostility, the social stigma of being different in some undefined and yet unacceptable way.

We all carry within us a sense of place.  A “home” that only we can identify by experience, and feeling.  We carry its image in our mind, innately aware that its out there somewhere, knowing it exists, yet not always knowing where.  We move through our lives seeking clues to its location, picking up traces in the books we read, the films we watch, and the people we meet.  We develop a sense of community with our imaginary lands, knowing that our long overdue arrival will bring at last a sense of peace and calm that we were unable to achieve elsewhere.  We seek to belong.

Isn’t that what every human being wants?  Isn’t that what every human being needs?

For some the lure proves insurmountable, driving them to continually wander, to seek new pastures, new streets, new vistas.  These intrepid travelers have steeled up their nerves, set aside their fears and doubts and convinced themselves that their place is out there.  They gathered together in foreign ports, waited patiently as the tides ebbed and flowed, bringing their ships to shore for boarding.  They have scraped together everything they can carry, clothing, keepsakes, children, and memories – above all, memories – and placed them in the hands of strangers promising to steer them home.  Some will weep for the life they are leaving behind, others may glance over their shoulders as if unsure that they are making the right decision.  All will be afraid, so very afraid, of what there is to come.

Shortly after daylight, as the fog begins to thin, you begin to hear the call of seabirds in the morning air.  Almost as one, the heads on the deck turn towards the sounds, raising eyes to a point just above the railing.  A low hum pulses through the crowd, a combination of energy and excitement slowly quickening the blood and the heart.  The silence amongst the crowd is awesome to behold – they are perfectly still.  The mists begin to flutter and a shape begins to emerge from the grey.  A voice suddenly cries out, “America!”, and the crowd presses forward against the rails as the outline of a stately raised arm looms over the rail.  More voices are raised, and a general murmur of expectation takes hold.  A torch becomes visible, then the drapes of a gown, green with age and importance.  Finally.  Finally, the crowned head of Lady Liberty appears, bearing the realization that some dreams can come true, that some magical places really do exist.  Cheers break out across the whole of the ship.  People surge forward to the rails to look upon the lady with a love that will burn bright in their hearts forever.  They will remember this moment until the day they die, the moment when their dreams became visible and their hopes caressed their skin like a lover.

Welcome to America, where we are all the children of immigrants.

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