Thursday, November 7, 2013

Our stories

The first time I saw the Statue of Liberty was from the Staten Island Ferry. I was in graduate school and the statue was in scaffolding for cleaning and refurbishing. The second time I saw her (also from the Staten Island Ferry), we were on a trip that simply didn't have her on the itinerary. The third time I saw her was from the ferry headed to Liberty Island.  This time, after standing in the long, slow security line, I was able to really see Lady Liberty.

The design and construction of the statue is enough to leave one marveling. The view of the harbor is the stuff of which posters, puzzles, and magnets are made. And the Statue of Liberty is for sale in various forms all over the island of Manhattan. But the meaning of the statue to those who saw her for the first time at the end of their long journey to a country I have always been fortunate enough to call home is what I brought home.

It was the letters.  The handwritten letters in the museum. The letters in a beautiful script, rarely used today, by men and women who saw the Statue of Liberty for the first time with families and strangers with whom they had spent a week or more (not including time to reach the port from which they left) traveling from the home they had always known to one they hoped would be better.

When I read in an elegant script one 80-year-old woman's account of the crossing, seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time with her younger sister beside her, hearing the cries of joy from passengers who knew their destination was in sight, enduring the long and unpleasant processing at Ellis Island, making a home in a new country...and offering her $5 donation (because it was all she could afford) to help refurbish the Statue of Liberty, I cried.

My college freshman daughter and I recently viewed a documentary about El Salvador that was shown on campus.  It was for her Spanish class, she didn't want to go alone, and I didn't particularly want to go.  But I did.  And I was glad.  And afterward, my daughter told me that she enjoys history, but only when it's told as a good story.

History is always a good story, despite the fact that we often don't tell it well. Some would say that everything worth knowing is part of a story...and that it's the story we remember...that the story helps us make meaning of what we need to know, learn, and do.  And I have a reminder in my office of a story of gratitude written simply, from the heart, and accompanied by $5.

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