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Kathy's Chaos: Finding My Roots

Trip to Ellis Island renews interest in our family’s history

Nearly 100 years ago, when my great-grandmother was about my age, she traveled from her home-country of Poland to the coast of Germany. She then boarded a steamship and traveled for about seven days across the Atlantic Ocean. She entered the United States through Ellis Island on June 25, 1913.

She wasn’t alone; she made the move with two young daughters — my grandmother, age 11 and my great-aunt, age 7 — in tow.   

It took me more than 40 years, but I finally made the trip to Ellis Island. She arrived on a steamship; I arrived on a ferry. She was 37; I am 40. She had two daughters with her; I had my girls, ages 10 and 8, with me (and my son, too). She had nothing; I had an iPhone and a debit card.

We drove to Liberty State Park and took the Statue Cruise ferry over to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

Walking around the Ellis Island museum with my kids, my mom and dad, my brother and sister-in-law and several nieces and nephews, we mulled over what it must have been like for my great-grandmother (as well as the other family members of mine who entered the United States through Ellis Island).

I had a lot questions about her courageous journey.

"Why did she leave Poland?”

"How did she get from Poland to Germany?"

"Where do you think she stayed that first night?”

“How much money did she have?”

“Did she ever meet up with my great-grandfather?” (He arrived in the United States two years earlier than she did and we have no proof that they ever actually met up after she finally arrived in 1913.)

“Who helped her with her luggage?”

My kids and my nephews had other questions that only kids can think of.

“Where did they go to the bathroom on the ship?”

“Did they get pillows?”

“Did they bring any toys?”

"Did they bring their Nintendo DS?”

“Did the ship have wifi?”

Could my kids have survived such a change in their lifestyle? They are so surrounded by material conveniences, I just don’t know.

And then the bigger question: Could I have done what she did?

My brother thinks so. “You could have done it. You can do more than you think you can,” he said.

Perhaps he’s right. Then I hear my kids asking me what we are doing tomorrow because they are bored and I think, seriously? It's a good thing my great-grandmother made the trip and not me.

There's no way we would have survived.

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