Monday, June 9, 2008

Proud To Be An American

More than 100,000,000 Americans are direct descendants of the men, women and children who entered this country through Ellis Island. Four of them-- my husband, my brother, my sister-in-law and myself-- decided to brave the record-breaking temperatures and visit this historic landmark today.

Ellis Island and the adjacent Liberty Island-- home of the green lady from France-- are an easy ferry ride away from either Battery Park in New York or Liberty Island in New Jersey. The fare is only 12 bucks and entrance to both Islands is free. Skip the nine-dollar chicken wrap and it's actually a cheap day.

The Ellis Island Museum is quite amazing. The buildings fell into disrepair after the facility shut down in the 1950's, but a staggering rehab project in the '80's restored the main building to its former turn-of-the-century glory.

The story of these immigrants in search of a better life is told through photographs, audio interviews, factoids and artifacts. The hardships they endured certainly made my complaining about the ticket line seem embarrassingly selfish.

Imagine spending ten days in steerage, crossing the Atlantic in clothes that were way too heavy for summer, being crammed into an un-airconditioned room with thousands of unbathed fellow travelers, some of whom were sick. If you were one of the unlucky ones who were detained, you slept on cots in dormitories with hundreds of others. In what must have been a practical joke, you were served stewed prunes and baked beans for dinner. I'm surprised the place wasn't called Smellis Island.

My husband, referring to the multi-ethnic crowd on our ferry ride, jokingly said (channelling The Guy Who Manages To Say The Worst Possible Thing), "You know, I would be enjoying all this a lot more if not for all these foreigners!" Sadly, I bet those same words have been spoken by people who were completely serious.

I wept quietly when I heard the stories of the offspring who were separated from their parents for months as they recovered in the children's ward from an infectious disease. But I laughed heartily as I read the story of the woman who, during a mental evaluation test, was asked the logic question, "Do you clean the stairs from the top to the bottom or the bottom to the top?" Her answer was priceless, "I didn't come to America to clean stairs."

I am grateful to my great-grandparents for making the journey and allowing me to be raised as an American. Today we made the trip in a brand new SUV with a cooler full of G2's and a box of Dunkin' Donuts munchkins. I'm sure they would be proud... or, at the very least, incredibly jealous.

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