There is no national monument in Brooklyn, but the apartment and the neighborhood that knew my mom as a girl are there. I could not wait to find them.
There is no national park in Garfield, North Jersey, but Michaelís Uncle Steve lives there. Barcelonaís, home of the best pizza ever, is there too.
There is no national historic site at 308 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. The Kosciusko house is around the corner. But the Polish American Society is open seven days a week and welcomed these two grumpy travelers with open arms, lively music and a free lunch.
The first three weeks of the trip have been filled with familiar people and places, connecting Michael and I with landscapes from our childhoods, friends from various eras and family members we shouldnít have waited this long to see. None of these places are listed on any register or noted in guidebooks, but for me, they count as Americaís treasures. Each place and old friend that we find, each uncle and cousin that we hug fills me with joy and makes me want to go in search of more.
The one national site that has given me the same joy, the same feeling of community and a shared history as these people and places has been Ellis Island.
When the ferry docked and we entered the grandiose building, nothing was as I thought it would be. It looked more like a castle than a former processing center. I was overwhelmed by the size and not sure where to go. Crowds were thick and moving fast. There seemed to be so much to see but not enough time to see it. My legs were frozen while my brain tried to process exactly where I should be heading. My eyes welled up with tears and I had no idea why. Have I ever felt closer to my great grandparents Alex and Eva Lozak? Was this how they felt when they arrived?
This connection grew stronger as the hours passed. I lost Michael several times, both of us getting caught up among the crowds or lost in our own thoughts as we stared at our histories on the walls. Items worn or carried by immigrants as they entered the United States, passports and identification papers, all lovingly preserved by families and donated to the Ellis Island collection, told the stories that many of us have heard from our aging relatives. Swarms of people, speaking Polish, French, Spanish, Korean, Russian, Italian, English and more scanned the exhibits for familiar items, familiar names, piecing together and adding detail to their own stories. It was a day of discovery and understanding for all of us. I felt united with every pilgrim there.
The following day I went on my own pilgrimage.
I had no idea how we were going to locate my momís old house. These are the details we knew: She was pretty sure it was on 8th street. There is a fire hydrant in front of the stoop. It was the only address with a Ĺ after the number. It was near the Bedford Ave subway stop and there was a small park about a mile away.
Why were we going? To see where they used to close off the streets for summer Police Athletic League parties; to see where my mom posed for a photo as a pudgy little girl in baloney curls; to see where my grandmother hung out of the windows with all of the other stara babas and to see where mom used to play with pastel-colored dyed peeps. I am not talking about the sugar coated marshmallow peeps you buy at Easter. I am talking about real, baby chickens. Apparently, they were popular promotional items at gas stations. Tank of gas - have a peep. Iíd prefer a free two liter of soda. My mom had peeps.
Well, we jumped on the subway to Brooklyn and got off at the Bedford Avenue stop. After a false start in the wrong direction, it didnít take long to find the only little row house on 8th street with Ĺ after the number, fire hydrant in front. Here it is. I was overjoyed. I called my mom. She cried. And suddenly, the same person who couldnít remember her own address was recounting detail after detail about the block and the neighborhood that she hadnít seen since 1956. It was like she was standing on the same corner and seeing through my eyes. I am so glad we went.
Earlier in the trip, we changed our course slightly to stop in and say hi to Michaelís great uncle in Garfield, New Jersey.
Walking into Uncle Steveís comfortable home was like walking back in time - a time when my great grandmother, my baba, filled me with delicious doughy foods that scented her kitchen with potato-y onion-y goodness. Uncle Steveís house has this smell. I loved him immediately. Uncle Steve embraced me, offered us something to eat and then tested our Ukranian. At least I could still spell out the Cyrillic. He took us through the house and gave us a tour of all the photos hanging on the walls and resting on the shelves. Thereís our wedding picture! We would have devoured the pierogi he offered had we not gorged ourselves earlier at Barcelonaís.
This aging town of Garfield thick with Poles, Italians and Russians, limited in opportunities for earning, lined with two-story houses on small lots could have been Berwick or Washington, PA, homes to my parents, or any small town USA. When I think of America, this is the image in my mind.
I felt a different kind of connection when we found the Polish American Center in Philadelphia during the first days of the journey. My Polish is rusty at best, but this felt like a homecoming. I ran to point out the crest of arms for Wroclaw, my surrogate home for almost two years, among the others hanging on the wall. I tried to snatch a photocopy with the words to Sto Lat from one of the school children who were there learning to make pisanki, ornate Easter eggs because I still donít know the right words. Everything about the center reminded me of dear friends and experiences I gained while living on my own for the first time.
As you can see, we have been taking some detours.
I have been dreaming of the west ever since we put our plan in motion. What am I looking forward to the most? Everyone asks this question. Though exact locales change from day to day, in my mind the destination has always been a western one. Big Bend. Olympia. Glacier. Grand Tetons. The West. The Great Frontier. The Big Unknown. At least for me. But after a day at Ellis Island and weeks spent among friends and family, Iím wondering if once out west, I wonít long for the connections that I have and feel here in the east.
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