What Independence Day looked like to my gramma

Immigrants bound for America on the SS Ile de France

Immigrants bound for America on the SS Ile de France

This is what Independence Day looked like to my gramma.

A crowded boat full of people like her, huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.

She's there in the crowd. In the second row on the left, the first woman seated, the one wearing the white hat.

My mom is somewhere on that boat. A tiny baby. So are her three brothers and her sister. 

Ever since I found that photo, Independence Day means something different to me. 

Something more than fireworks, cookouts and s’mores. 

It’s a day to give thanks that my ancestors chose America to call home.  

All four grandparents made that choice. They left all they knew to venture across the sea for the great experiment that was America. 

They passed through New York where Lady Liberty still stands, and still offers this promise:

 “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

 Those words Emma Lazarus wrote are the welcome mat to America.

 I hope they still mean something.

 I hope our country still stands as a beacon of hope to the tired, the poor, those yearning to breathe free, whether they be from Mexico or Mali, from Ecuador or El Salvador, from Sudan or Somalia.

 My dad’s parents left Ireland as teenagers. Michael was 15 and an orphan; Mary was 19 and had already lost her mother.

 America was their hope. Their golden door.

 My mother was born in Czechoslovakia. She didn’t know it until she tried to get a driver’s license and couldn’t. Her parents had told her she was born in Akron. It was a lie, probably one based on fear.   

My mother had no papers.  

My mother was an illegal alien. 

We joke about it now, but it scared her back then. Would she be deported? My dad had to contact someone in Washington to get the mess straightened out. Mom became a U.S. citizen in 1961, when I was 5.  

I wish we could have celebrated her naturalization with red, white and blue fanfare, with sparklers and songs. But my mom’s past was never celebrated. Back then, being an immigrant was something to forget, not something to celebrate. 

Two years ago, after my mom moved into assisted living we were preparing to sell the family home. In the basement, I found a blue folder. Inside was my grandmother’s green card. I never knew my mom had saved it.

 My gramma’s nationality is listed as Undetermined.

America took her anyway. 

There were also two photos from the long journey from Czechoslovakia to America.  

If you hold gramma’s green card up to one photo of the crowd on the S.S. Ile De France, you can pick out my gramma in that white hat. What a long, awful ride that must have been with a new baby and three other small children. 

Last week I framed all those photos, the ones on the boat, the green card and my mom’s naturalization document. I created a wall of fame for them all, and my grandparents from Ireland.

 I want my grandchildren to know where they came from and how far their great, great grandparents traveled to choose America. 

It is a choice worth celebrating.