As our family gathers this Thanksgiving, I am struck by the poetry and truth in the president’s words in the speech announcing his immigration initiative:
“We know the heart of the stranger. We were strangers once, too.”
For my family, it began in 1906 when my grandfather, recorded as 32 years old, left from Messina, Sicily, a steerage passenger on the Ravenna, and landed at Ellis Island.
He spoke no English. He made his way to Milwaukee and settled in the Italian ghetto there. He became a night watchman and taught himself English, reading the paper each day. He returned to Sicily to bring back his bride. They had seven children, two of whom survived the age of 12. When the last son died, my grandmother lowered the shades on the windows permanently. She wore black until my sister got married decades later. Eventually, his family lived above and ran the neighborhood’s corner store.
My mother was the oldest daughter, a star in the classroom. My grandfather shocked his friends by sending her off to college – the University of Wisconsin in Madison – in the midst of the Depression. She became a teacher, then wife, mother and professor, collecting two master’s degrees and a PhD along the way.
Grandfather was an ordinary hero. I try to imagine the courage and grit it took to make that trip and the leap that followed. My sister and I and our families stand on those shoulders, beneficiaries of that remarkable will.
Yes, we know the heart of the stranger, for we were once strangers, too.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone.
P.S. People for the American Way and the Campaign for America’s Future have created a Tumblr account, encouraging all to post a picture and tell the story about your own family. It is at http://wewereallstrangersonce.tumblr.com/. Please share your story and encourage your friends to do so, too.