This framed photo may not mean a great deal to anyone else but me, but here it is. This photo was the result of a project, started several years ago, while my parents were still alive. It is a photo of a ship named the Martha Washington. In 1906, my grandmother, who was 6 years old at the time, crossed the ocean from Augustus, Sicily and arrived at Ellis Island.
I can only imagine in my mind what it must have been like for her to possibly climb up from the steerage compartments where the poor traveled, and ascend to witness the culmination of a long and tiring trip. To see the Statue of Liberty, that says, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Several years before, her father left the family in Italy, to come to America, find a new home for them and get a job. He would send bits of money home to my great-grandmother so they could save for their passage. My grandmother would grow up in Boston, the proud daughter of immigrants. She married another Italian immigrant, who would become the grandfather I would never meet. They went on to have many children, one of whom was my father.
When Ellis Island opened up their rosters years ago, we planned behind my dad’s back to locate not only this photo, but also (not pictured) the manifest where my grandmother was listed. To imagine that moment, walking into the unknown, onto a giant ship to take you from your home and everything you knew to a new country, well, I simply cannot imagine how nervous they must have been. Seeing their names scribbled in old style cursive, I wonder if they were holding hands. Was she shaking? Excited? Terrified? All of the above?
On my father’s birthday, we presented this framed photo of the ship my grandmother arrived on, along with a copy of the manifest with her name on it. It was the only time I can recall seeing tears in my father’s eyes. I think of that day every time I pass that framed photo and it always makes me smile. As a third generation child of immigrants to this country, I am grateful for the opportunity to grow up in a land that has allowed me many freedoms and choices to live life as I choose. Not everyone is born with those rights.
Our country has grown by many millions in the years since she first stepped ashore. We are a nation of many colors, religions, beliefs, cultures and more. Recently, I feel as if Lady Liberty has been accosted, stripped of the original message that resonates from her statement. You see, Lady Liberty is herself an immigrant. A gift, as we all know, but still, she was not built here, she didn’t grow here, she arrived on a ship, in pieces, not whole. Over time and with the hands of many from all over the planet, she rose to her greatest height, to become that visual beacon for so many. If you watch old, grainy footage of ships arriving in that harbor, you will see her in the background. People point, stare and look on in awe as their new country, their new home yawns before them.
We have always been a country of differing opinions. Our world has struggled with many wars and here in the US, we have watched, participated and lost many to the conflicts of this planet. How can you have anything but the utmost respect for those who gave all to preserve the Constitution and the message the Statue of Liberty conveys to all? It is impossible not to.
However, what I have been privy to over the past many months has made me cry, shake my fists in anger and hang my head in despair. People I thought I knew, churchgoing, “God-fearing” people posting messages of hate, mocking those who think differently than them, calling them names and berating them for standing up for what they believe in. People I used to call friend. Now? I see them in a different light. I don’t want to see terror on our shores anymore than the next person. I believe in a safe world and a productive society with good jobs. There are some things I believe every side (and there are many) can get behind.
Sadly though, I see the sanity of our core beliefs being eroded away with those lusting for absolute power. They seek to undermine what so many fought and died for. FREEDOM. I would never suggest that we open the gates and allow many untold thousands of people here; teeming throngs with no vetting, just open doors and open arms. Of course not. However, to label people based on their religion and to exclude countries based on your business dealings and for people to applaud this, they are not the Americans I know. They are strangers, so far removed from the core principles of what this country stands for and believes in that I don’t even recognize them anymore.
I no longer care if my opinion is popular or not. I care about what’s right. My children are watching and the future will remember this time of renewed racism, bigotry and intolerance. I will have to explain to them that I was never a part of it; that I believed in the same message my grandmother saw when she arrived on these shores all those years ago. Those of us who still believe must remember this, so our grandchildren and their children can try to make sense of what was done.