December 13, 2010

Before Ellis Island

This is a photo of my mother and her sister with their mother in Italy. It was probably taken in about 1933. My mother is the one on the right, the older sister. I thought I'd post this photo today and tell about my family's immigration to this country.

My grandfather came to the US before them so he could earn money to pay for their passage to the US. He was in construction and helped build the Empire State Building. It didn't take him too long to earn the money and his wife and children boarded a ship headed for New York City.

Of course, they had to stop at Ellis Island where they would be quizzed and examined to see if they were "fit" for entry. Unfortunately, my mother's mother had Sleeping Sickness. She'd had it ever since she was bitten by a tse-tse fly when she was 14. The woman was a wreck. I can remember this about her from my early years. She spent her life lying on a couch, moaning in pain or irritation, almost always with a damp washcloth across her forehead. She had a difficult life.

Naturally, it was dicey getting her past the monitors. Really, I can't imagine how she pulled it off. She was so phlegmatic and didn't respond to anything the way you'd expect. But they did get her through and that's why I'm here today. If they had been turned away, my mother would never have met my Irish father and I would not exist. My family always passed on to me the idea that this was the greatest country in the world, and we were privileged to be here.

This is why I want the US to get its immigration act together. We are all immigrants. With the exception of Native Americans, none of us has a family that "comes from here." It scares me how easily Americans have fallen into zenophobia, always pointing fingers at others and thinking they're trying to steal something from them, when all the immigrants want is what we have: the right to live lawfully and decently in this country.

If I was in charge of immigration, the population would swell suddenly and hugely. But until Americans get off their high horse and start seeing other people as, well, people, it's not going to happen. That's so sad and I feel this in a very personal way.

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