When I visited Ellis Island many years ago, I was deeply impacted by the Great Hall and Baggage Room exhibits.
“Island of hope, island of tears” is a phrase I read over, and over at the Ellis Island museum.
Looking back we tend to focus on an “island of hope,” sometimes forgetting the less-pleasant side of the immigration story. Those who were never granted entry to the land of their dreams are seldom thought of.
A poignant energy embodies the Great Hall, which left me speechless. I paused so many times during my visit, to stand in awe of this great, empty space.
“If walls could talk”, the old saying goes. I believe the walls enclosing this expansive, bare room, whisper of great pain and overwhelming joy, to those who pause to listen.
In its heyday, this room was filled, with row upon row of benches, and medical examination cubicles. The stark, bare room of today is in sharp contrast to the hustling, bustling room of yesteryear. I appreciate the decision made by the designers of the museum, when they chose not to replicate the old interior, with benches and curtained partitions.
Standing above the hall, on the surrounding balcony, afforded a bird’s eye view of the area. There, I stood for many a long minute, drinking it all in, filling in the spaces with the benches of my imagination.
In the privacy of my thoughts, I relived the fearful, nervous, exuberant anticipation of waiting immigrants.
I thought of those who failed medical examinations. With their hopes dashed, they reembarked on waiting ships, to return to their countries of origin. Some were sent to quarantine, in hopes they might recover sufficiently, to be granted entrance to the land of their dreams at a later date.
Those of us who come to the US legally in the modern era are ever so lucky. Medical examinations for visas and green cards are performed in our country of origin. Imagine making a two-week, grueling journey to your promised land, only to be turned around, before you ever set foot in the country of your dreams.
I do not know if my raw emotions were unleashed, because I am an immigrant myself, or if others, who stand there, are just as overwhelmed, by the sheer enormity of it all.
Then, as if I wasn’t emotional enough after visiting the Great Hall, the next stop on my journey brought me to the Baggage Room. Many pass by this row of old suitcases without even blinking an eye. Before long, tears were streaming down my face.
Immigrants arrived in America, with everything they possessed in the world, packed in a few small cases and trunks. I too came to America with only two bags to my name. My own situation never generated the same angst, I felt for these passengers of olden times. I have been blessed, knowing I can return to Ireland, whenever I might choose.
If I have left something sentimental behind, I can once again enjoy it when I vacation to the land of my birth. Immigrants of yesteryear set out on a journey to a new life, knowing they would never again see their homeland.
Correspondence was primarily through mail. Many weeks passed for letters to be exchanged between loved ones. I thought of how easy it is for me to pick up the phone for a quick chat with my mother in Ireland. How lucky we are in the modern age of telephones, e-mails and the internet.
And so, I take my hat off and salute the more than 12 million immigrants who passed through the doors of Ellis Island, ready and willing, to adopt a new homeland.
They left Ellis Island to join the masses, weaving their way into the fabric of American society.
America was shaped by their dreams, their stories, their struggles and their determination.
They came, as we still come today, hoping to achieve our own “American Dream”.
Together with their descendants, we continue to create the America we know today.
Slan agus beannacht leat!
(Goodbye and blessings)
Irish American Mom
P.S. If you enjoyed this post you may like to read my first post on Ellis Island.