I was born in Montana, left as a toddler, returning in my fifth decade for a second act career as a writer. It was then I first met and worked with Native Americans. Previously, I hadn’t known anyone who didn’t have an arriving-to-America story in their family history.
While many of us have relatives, perhaps generations ago, who made a conscious decision to come to this country, that’s not true for everyone, of course. A few people were already here, some tagged along as children, and others were brought against their will.
Along my life’s way, growing up in California, attending graduate school in Michigan, raising a family in Pennsylvania, living in the Rocky Mountain states of Montana and Colorado, I’ve heard hundreds of why-we-came stories from people I knew personally.
Some stories are fresh with tears and struggles, others generations old where details have been lost or blurred. But the why seems to remain. On my mother’s side, they came for religious freedom; on my father’s a chance for a better life. Like many immigrant stories, my ancestors arrived with little more than hope, courage, and uncertainty.
A picture sits on my desk to remind me of what it must take to leave behind everyone you love and venture into a strange land where you might not even speak the language. People come here to make a better life, enjoy rights and freedoms, or escape unthinkable hardships.
I found that picture in a tattered, moldy box when cleaning out a shed at my parent’s house. It’s a picture of my great grandfather as a young man of 18 or l9, with three of his brothers. He arrived from Germany in the mid l800s, settling on the plains of South Dakota.
Just as fables and fairy tales help children learn about the world, others’ life stories and struggles help us appreciate who we are as a nation, weaving America’s tapestry with strength, dreams, determination, talent, and diversity.
In the scheme of things, it seems to me, if we close our hearts to those who seek what my great grandfather sought, or yours, our tapestry of hope, compassion, freedom, and opportunity, woven collectively for centuries by our diverse ancestors — some legal, some not; some arriving by choice and some not — begins to unravel. I try to remember this: just two percent of us can claim their family was always here; descendants of the original peoples of these lands.
In these complex times, I can’t help picturing my elderly mother at the Statue of Liberty. One of the bucket items we helped her cross off after my father died, was a visit to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. She wanted to see what her ancestors saw, touch the ground they touched, and spiritually thank those who came before for creating the life she enjoyed. May that symbol of freedom and hope be a reminder to us of our own immigrant histories, and always be a welcoming light to the world.