Down the Generations at Ellis Island

I have a special feeling about Ellis Island. The very thought of it gives me chills. When I visited a decade ago with my friend Mary, we stood on the balcony, looking down at replicas of the benches on which the frightened immigrants sat, waiting to see if they could enter America. I wept.

In 1902 a woman named Rachel sat on such a bench, infant daughter in her arms. If the baby coughed or seemed a little warm, Rachel would be denied entry into America. Fortunately, Rosie didn’t cough, and they got in.

Rosie was my mother. The daughter of poor immigrants, and orphaned at the age of 17 with four little sisters to care for, she made her way. Working after school to support her little sisters, going to college, a Columbia PhD, and some fame as a regular columnist for the New York Post. She was a commanding presence. And she represents the glory of Ellis Island: America as a beacon to outsiders, immigrants, and refugees, creating new vistas for millions of families.

But there’s more to my story. On the evening before Mother’s Day, my older son and I are heading to Ellis Island.

David will be in his tux and I will be dressed to the nines. We will board a special ferry, get off at Ellis Island, and attend the gala fundraising event in that very hall. It’s because my son, the great-grandson of the woman who carried her baby through this room, is among the men and women being honored this year by the Ellis Island Association. Here is what qualifies you for this honor:

The ELLIS ISLAND MEDALS OF HONOR are awarded annually to a group of distinguished American citizens who exemplify a life dedicated to community service. These are individuals who preserve and celebrate the history, traditions and values of their ancestry while exemplifying the values of the American way of life, and who are dedicated to creating a better world for us all.


And what has he done to receive such an accolade? Well, he is the founder of StoryCorps, the largest archive of human conversations in the world. And what stimulated him to create this?

My mother. She was a great storyteller, and she sure had stories to tell. When he was 11 years old, David took his little tape recorder and interviewed my mother and her sisters about their childhoods. Then we moved to New York, and the tapes were lost. David asked after them for years. We never found them. So now, thanks to David and my mother, nobody ever need lose their conversations with elders.  We have StoryCorps.

This is the chain of the generations: an immigrant woman carries her baby through the portal of Ellis Island into America. Her great-great grandson stands to receive an honor in that room.

I will be granddaughter, daughter and mother on the eve of Mother’s Day, and I will weep that night—tears of pride in my son, gratitude to the grandmother I never knew, and appreciation of my outrageous mother.

Mother’s Day in America is full of flowers and brunches eaten in noisy restaurants. Perhaps we mothers might take a moment to consider the chain of our mothers. It reaches back in history, and embraces the future.

Happy Mother’s Day