Letting Out, Letting In

When you clench your fist, no one can put anything in your hand.

~ Alex Haley

At the city docks of Annapolis, only a few feet away from lapping blue-gray seawater, there sits a bronze statue of Alex Haley. Ten quotes from the family saga Roots, each inscribed into a bronze marker, surround the sea wall near the statue. All of them are poignant, powerful, memorable. But my favorite is this: When you clench your fist, no one can put anything in your hand.

This weekend I’ve been cleaning. Not just the average spring cleaning that wipes away dust and cobwebs. No, this is the kind of cleaning that goes years deep. Back into boxes of forgotten letters. Envelope of photographs whose edges have stuck together. The kind that thrusts into drawers and old closet shelves and pulls out dresses last worn at a college formal, satin shoes last seen at the (first) inaugural ball for President Obama. T-shirts from a summer job two decades ago. Cassette tapes for which I have no equipment capable of playing. Boxing gloves. The gei and obi from my high school karate class.

Why have I held onto such things? Why have I dutifully laid them into boxes and packed them up as I moved from apartment to apartment and now to a house that has the feel of permanency to it?

Part of it is pride. I don’t want to admit that I’ll never be the size 8 again who shimmied into a black and yellow cocktail dress that was once mistaken for vintage couture.

Part of it is fear. What if I need it again? What if I will regret letting it out of my life?

Part of it is sentiment. I don’t want to throw away things I associate with a memory. And so the clothes or the cassettes or the letters endure, becoming artifacts of what was. Ready for me to reach out and touch then, ready for me to reassure myself that they – and I – are real.

And yet such artifacts are a testament to what was. And in the sunshine of spring, as the world reawakens, I stretch with it. I open my fist. I allow the past to drop from it. I reach to what will be.

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Ellis Island

It’s hard to believe that it’s been two full years since I stood on the shores of Ellis Island. That visit itself was long overdue. The site had been on my New York City bucket list since high school, but for one reason or another, I never seemed to be able to make it out there during my visits to the Big Apple.

Ellis Island buildings and ferry, early 1900s.

Finally, in March 2011, I managed to get myself and three accomplices onto the ferry and out to Ellis Island. We’d had to hop between various modes of transit – car to the train station, train into NYC, subway down to the harbor, a long line for tickets, and finally, the boat to the island. Although we’d started in the early morning, by now it was mid-afternoon. I was tired, hungry, and cranky. In other words, probably feeling a lot like the immigrants who were waiting for their first glimpse of America.

Like them, I was impatient. I wanted the journey to be over with already. After all the waiting, I just wanted to get there.

I wish I could say that there was a moment of epiphany when it was all worth it. Instead, we had less than an hour to spend at this place that had occupied my imagination for over a decade. You see, Ellis Island was the entry point my grand-grandparents had passed through on their journey to America. I had never met them; both sets had died before I was born, but Ellis Island was such an important part of their story that it became integral to my search for my own story. I was looking for my own American beginnings.

Upon arrival, I bypassed the museum (although I really wanted to go through it) and went straight to the Family Research Center. I had only two names and a rough date, and with that, I began searching.

And searching. I tried spelling variations. I tried different date ranges. I got creative with the country of origin. My forebears were of Polish and Slovakian stock, countries whose boundaries shifted considerably in the early 20th century. Would an immigration official have considered them Polish or Czechoslovakian or even Hungarian?

Despite all my efforts, I left with no more information that what I had arrived with. My great-grandparents and all the details of their arrival remained as much a mystery as ever.

This winter, I’d planned to go back to Ellis Island, but it sustained serious damage from Hurricane Sandy and wasn’t open, to my great disappointment.

I’m still searching. One day, I’ll find a name, a date, a ship’s manifest. I’ll have pieces of a story, and from those pieces, I’ll trace an online of the story of grandparents, my parents, me.

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