I've been to New York City before, you know. I was there with my husband about a year-and-a-half ago, partially at the invitation of friends and parish members. I went once when I worked for the infamous AIG, and I went to New York in 1981 when I interviewed to become a missionary and teacher in Japan for three years.
But last week, we were in New York again. For me, it means getting used to the trains and the faster-paced lifestyle, at least for a few days. It means long days of trying to fit everything in, and not succeeding. It means sensory overload: music, history, language, theatre, creativity.
This time, there was really only one place I wanted to go, had to go: Ellis Island.
Both of my dad's parents emigrated from Sweden in the early twentieth century. They certainly came through Ellis Island on the way to the new world and their new life. So this place has held a certain fascination for me for a long time. I wondered what it was like for them coming over both as single people . What were they looking for? Did they find it? We never asked them. All we can do now is imagine.
We wandered through the hallways and exhibits in the great hall on Wednesday, and then I had to spend some time at a computer, trying to find my grandparents' records amid the 25 million that are stored in the Ellis Island database. Had I been better prepared, I could have brought more information from home, but I was armed only with names: Judith Andersdotter (I thought), and Folke Gummesson. It was my grandmother I was most interested in, but finding her proved elusive. I could not find any matches in the computer anywhere near her name.
Finally, I gave up and type in my grandfather's name: F. Gummesson.
And there it was: Folke F. Gummesson, from Karlskrona, Sweden, sailed from Copenhagen to New York and arrived in November of 1913. He arrived on the ship Hellig Olav, together with his younger brother Allan. They each had 25 dollars in their pockets. The manifest indicated that they hoped to go to Iowa, although that is not where they ended up.
Folke Ferdinand Gummeson. He was the 4th of ten children from a sea-faring family in Blekinge, Sweden. He was only 5 feet, 5 inches tall. He came to the United States in 1913, but he didn't meet my grandmother until 1920 (or so it is told). They got married in 1921, and had four children. My father is the youngest.
My grandfather died when I was in the 5th grade. He smoked pipes, and sang Swedish songs that I didn't really understand, even though I remember some of the words. (Du och jag och Anna gick segla i en kanna.... nar vi kom til Kopenhagen de hela kan var full of van....) (or something like that.)
Standing at Ellis Island, I think about all the things I never knew about my grandfather. Who was he? What were his dreams? What did he do between 1913 and 1920? Did he wander around the U.S.A., working and having adventures? Or did he come to Minneapolis and settle down right away? Why did we never ask him?
In my mind I am still standing at the ferry at Ellis Island, or I am standing in line in the great hall, or I am carrying a heavy trunk, or I am on a boat, and I am wondering what my life will be. Are there still great oceans to be crossed, and what lies on the other side? What hope and what courage (sometimes born of desperation) those immigrants held. I realize how little I know them, and I pray to be just a little like them.
They were not rich, or educated, or well-born, my ancestors. They didn't have prestigious names to pass down to their children or their grandchildren. But they reached for something, they reached for something, and I hope they passed just a little of their reaching down to me.