She Lifts Her Lamp

My first impression was that she's smaller than I expected.

There's a copy of Liberty's face in the museum. Here are Amy and Sarah posing with it:
It's still big, for a face; but when you stop to think what it represents, what this "new colossus" has meant to tens of millions of soon-to-be new Americans, you think maybe it should be a little bigger.

I first realized I wanted to climb to the crown of the Statue of Liberty sometime in the early 1980s. It was before the statue was refurbished for its 1986 centenary, so the stairs were, apparently, wider than they are now, not the narrow double-helix that provides separate up and down routes. There was a PSA that depicted a middle-aged man laboring up an unidentified staircase, his kids egging him on, until finally he arrived, gasping, at the top. The camera zoomed out then to show that he was looking out of the windows in the crown. The message was to take one's blood pressure medicine, or watch one's cholesterol, or for God's sake to get some exercise, because one wants to be around for one's kids; but I just remember thinking, "Cool!" (I also remember wondering if I would look as beat as that guy did at the top of that set of stairs--this was before I started working out regularly--but that's another story. And the answer is no, I didn't find them all that challenging, yay me!)

The statue has always been an important symbol to me. Both sides of my father's family came to America in the late 1800s, but not late enough to pass through Ellis Island. My mother's family came to the United States by way of Canada, and were mostly Acadian--French-speakers whose arrival in the New World pre-dates the Mayflower. Even so, the sense of being a relative newcomer to this land has always been with me. My father's father was fluent in Swedish, my father's grandmother grew up speaking German, and my mother's father grew up speaking French, so one doesn't have to go that far back in my family tree to find Old Europe. And considering the French part of my ancestry got kicked out of its first New World home, as well, I've got ample reason to feel my heart star at the symbolism of placing a huge statue in New York harbor facing away from the city, toward Europe, whence came wave after wave of migrants seeking freedom.

Finally setting foot on Liberty Island, and listening to the first few minutes of the audio tour--I turned it off once we were inside the museum--I looked up at the back of her head and imagined what it was like to finish the long passage, to strain for the first glimpse of the torch beckoning me to my new home, to know that I had arrived in a land that welcomed me regardless of my social status, my ethnicity, my history.

I'm aware that the hospitality implied in that last remark was an ideal Americans frequently failed to embody. I know Asians and Africans had to endure generations of slavery and rejection before they could begin to enjoy the freedoms Europeans so quickly embraced. I know, too, that today it is migrants from the other New World, the America south of our own border, who face a far less liberal welcome than did their whiter predecessors.

But that's not the point. America is a dream, an ideal, a vision of liberty, justice, and equality, of democracy and opportunity and everything enlightened people have been aspiring to since the days of Ancient Greece. Often we have fallen short of those ideals, spectacularly at times, and there are horrors in our history fully as abominable as the persecution that drove Europeans to come here. And yet there has not been an exodus of Native Americans, African Americans, Hispanic Americans. or even, most recently, of Gay Americans. As narrow-minded and chauvinistic as we may be, we still stand for something that others want a piece of.

That's what this statue represents to me: America at its best, a dream that led people to abandon all that they had, to endure treacherous voyages in order to start over, almost penniless, in a strange place that, as likely as not, did not speak their language, did not recognize their customs, and teemed with alien creatures, a place with just a fraction of the millennia-rich culture they had taken for granted in the old country. There was no guarantee they would thrive in this new place, and in fact, many of them had to endure generations of hard labor so that their grandchildren might have a better life than they had known in their homelands. But here, at least, there was hope that they could worship as they chose, that they might find a place to live where they need not fear pogroms, where they could have a piece of land that was entirely theirs, not the property of some feudal lord who happened to be born into wealth. (Of course, much of that land was taken forcibly from the people who were already here; but as I said, this is about ideals, including those betrayed by reality.)

I gazed at the backside of Liberty, and I was moved. I climbed to the top with Amy, Sarah, and Sean, looked out from the crown across the water to Ellis Island, and felt this statue should be much, much bigger than it was. It meant so much more than could be contained in that ten-times-life-sized face. Then we climbed down from the crown, boarded the ferry, and traveled to Ellis Island, where Amy was able to find her great-grandmother's entry in 1916 in the official log book:

It said she was four feet, ten inches tall, that she came to be with her husband, who had sponsored her journey from Lodz, Russia, and that she was a Hebrew. She came to escape pogroms, Cossacks, and, just a year later, a revolution. She came and started a family. And now, almost a hundred years later, we found her in the data base.

My ancestors are not in there. They came earlier, though not that much earlier (except for the Acadians). But in that passage, Amy and I share an ancestral story, a story of starting over in a New World, a story of seeking freedom in a place different from any that had been known before. It's a story we have been living out in real time, in our relationship with each other. I think if we were to tell Lady Liberty about it, about how we both explored an undiscovered country after decades poking around in more familiar places, she'd smile, and lift her lamp a little higher for us:


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