I enjoy arguing about politics with my Canadian friends. It doesn’t matter the topic – it always comes back to George W. Bush. Never mind that in the arena of foreign policy President Obama has out Bushed Bush (baseball cards anyone?) – if there is anything wrong with America it’s Bush’s fault. My response is to gently remind them that at least we don’t have a monarch. It really is a friendly spat usually involving a beer or two – all in good fun.
The past 10 years or so has produced strange, often polarized, perspectives on the United States and what it means to be an American. Yes, I’m aware that we have military bases all over the world and that we stick our nose (both publicly and privately) where it doesn’t belong. I’ve heard the criticism of the way in which American military and economic power has been implemented in various parts of the world. I’ve experienced the unhealthy forms of patriotism that erupted from 9-11, the remnants still visible in the polarized political rhetoric – expressions of patriotism I’ve always been uncomfortable with.
This past week my wife and I spent some time in New York City. We’ve been there many times before, but this time we took a ferry ride to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Last year Grandma De Hoogh (my wife’s grandmother) died at the age of 91. In 1923, when she was 3 years old, she came with her family to the United States from the Netherlands aboard a steam ship, sailing past the Statue of Liberty and into New York Harbor. As we walked the halls and open spaces of Ellis Island we thought of Grandma – what it must have been like for her parents, lugging their children and possessions around in a strange building in a strange land with strangers sitting next to them. The fear they must have experienced when one of their young boys was flagged for illness – and the immense relief they must have felt when he was finally allowed to pass through inspection. At one point, while we were waiting in a line, I sat on a staircase that I soon discovered was the last stretch for immigrants as they entered a new world. There were two railings that separated the staircase into 3 parts. On the left were the people who were going to stay in New York – it was the line for the ferry. On the right were those who were headed inland to the Midwest by train. In the middle were those flagged for detention – usually those with illness. I imagined a three year old Grandma Minnie descending the stair case holding on to a parent’s hand. I imagined her waiting – maybe even playing on the railing. I thought about her sick brother – about how they were most grateful to not have to be in the middle line. I imagined them walking out the doors and getting on the train headed to Orange City, Iowa.
Seeing the Statue of Liberty and visiting Ellis Island was a very emotional experience. Not because we’re uber patriotic, but because my wife’s family, like many Dutch families both American and Canadian, is not that far removed from the immigrant experience. While I certainly don’t want to romanticize it, or cover up all the difficulties and hardships that went with the immigrant experience, sometimes it’s easy to forget what America symbolized for them – a new start… a sense of freedom from past experiences… opportunity.
Oh…we did find the name Lief in the registry – but decided to save that exploration for another time. Besides – we all know that Leif landed first anyway.