I went to Ellis Island a few years ago, searching for the ship’s manifest bearing my grandparents’ names. I found the one for my grandfather, but my grandmother’s name wasn’t there.
I admit I searched for nearly an hour before I remembered: My grandmother immigrated to this country illegally.
I am, indeed, the granddaughter of an illegal immigrant. I am who I am and where I am because of her courage, strength and, yes, her dream.
Amelia Jwaszkiewich Michniewich left all that was familiar and dear behind, bundled her babies and her life, and set off across the ocean in search of something better. She did so on a passport not her own.
And from the moment she stepped out of steerage onto the fabled shores of Ellis Island until the night she died at an undetermined age, she feared that knock on the door, the uniformed men there, ready to send her back to Poland. As a child, I imagined a stern pounding at the kitchen door, a pair of jack-booted thugs on the other side.
An election year always heats up the immigration debate. This year, it prompted me to look back at my own family’s history, which was long before Secure Communities or the Dream Act.
My grandfather traveled here first, working, then returning to Poland to bring his growing family back across the Atlantic. They resettled in a small Vermont town, in a neighborhood bursting with other Poles.
My grandparents didn’t speak the language, eat the food or wear the clothing of their new neighbors. They were isolated and often scorned, not so different from the experiences of many immigrants today.
They raised six children to adulthood, five of whom had professional careers and raised children of their own who did the same, sometimes more.
Their oldest surviving daughter had to leave school to care for their youngest child — my mother. My grandmother worked in the shoddy mills and my aunt brought my then-infant mother to the mill so my grandmother could nurse her.
My grandparents were deeply religious and although they insisted their children regularly attend Mass, they never went themselves, embarrassed perhaps by their lack of English or the obvious lack of church-appropriate attire.
They never went to school either, but made certain their children did. My mother, Jadwiga to her family, became Ida when she entered first grade, speaking only Polish.
My grandparents sold berries door to door, made huge vats of sauerkraut and strings of greasy kielbasa to see their family through the long winter, and ran a small store in the front of their house.
Polish was the second language of my childhood. I learned enough to communicate with my grandmother. More than 80 years separated us and my grandmother was sometimes a mystery to me, a shrunken woman with a long silver braid wrapped neatly around her head. I knew I was an American, but also that I was, in part, a Pole.
From her I learned to identify wild mushrooms, to eat horseradish without tears, to wear a hat if I wanted my feet to stay warm.
I have had my share of Polish heroes throughout my life — Marie Curie, Casimir Pulaski, Lech Walesa. But my true hero is my grandmother, who made a journey of epic proportions, who took risks, lived in fear, started over in a place that never quite accepted her.
And she did it because she believed it was best — for her children, their children and beyond.
The magnitude of what she had done finally truly struck me that blustery day on the shore of Ellis Island. I looked across to the Statue of Liberty, at my daughter searching for names on the American Immigrant Wall of Honor.
My daughter’s full name, Amelia MacKenzie Paini, reflects and respects her great-grandparents, who stepped into their new lives on that very spot — from Poland, Scotland, Italy. Some came legally, others did not.
But they all made heroic decisions to come to a country that offered what their own did not — religious freedom, economic opportunity, a chance for a better life.
They took nothing, but contributed much. When I hear arguments against immigration, I want to interrupt and ask those speaking in favor of closing borders and slamming doors, where their families were from.
I am thankful every day that knock in the middle of the night never came. The country is better for it.
Jo-Anne MacKenzie is the New Hampshire editor of The Eagle-Tribune.