I have had intermittent dreams that I’m on a boat—my awareness is on a boat—somewhere near the East River or Hudson River. I am flying over the bridges around Manhattan. I am hovering in the air around around Jersey City, distinct because of the oil tanks, piers, green land, and industrial structures built right onto the water. I lived in Jersey City for a few years, and I always attributed these dreams to the processing of fragments of memory and visual impressions during my residency. But when I recently went to Ellis Island (located just south of Manhattan, where the East River and Hudson River merge/diverge), I realized that those dreams might not entirely be what I thought they were.
I had some free time during a recent trip to New York City, and I decided that I wanted to go to Ellis Island. It felt like a spur of the moment decision.
But strange physical sensations began as soon as the cruise-ferry left Battery Park in Manhattan. Somewhere between South Ferry and Liberty Island, the concrete and glass, modern city-scape dimmed. The sounds of French and Asian languages, British English and New Yawker slang got quieter. The cell phones and digital cameras and headphones appeared sci fi-ish, garish and way too “new.”
And then the muted sensation experience passed.
It came back when I entered the hall of the main building of Ellis Island—the main hallway of the gingerbread-house look-alike building. The singular color of the brown, and the piping of white through details in the stone held my vision. When I went inside, the cavernous lobby and ascerbic white, honey-comb tile and hundreds of people walking around in incongruous lines, held my being. I felt—imagined people who were laden with luggage and heavy sea legs and other physical effect of the Transatlantic journey. I felt the hairs on my arms stand up, as I thought, “I have been here before.”
I intuited a call to go to the hallway on my left, a passage that led into the modern stations of computers and chairs, places to access passenger lists and genealogy records. I focused on my matriarchal lineage, so I researched the names “Guzior” and “Dudovich.” I was shocked to see that 20 people had passed through these halls between 1880 and 1950—people who had those surnames.
I was real-time texting my mom throughout the search process. While I didn’t find exact names of my family members, I found similar and partial names. My mom noted the possibilities of misspellings and mis-literations. After all, part of my matriarchal side has gnarly family names, like “Trzeciakiewicz”—a jumble of letters that is pretty easy to mix up. There were several people named “Yadwiga”—and I have several Hedwigs on my mom’s side—the Americanized equivalent of Polish names.
I left the research hall in more of a mental fuzz than I had arrived. There were some connections being made in the process, more validation, and less literal answers. My mom mentioned that my maternal grandfather’s mom was a mail order bride. I had never understood what that meant, but just as I thought that, I walked into a room of the Ellis Island museum that contained pictures and manifestos from ships that carried hundreds of picture brides—women who were requested and sent for in the old country to marry men in America who wanted a similar culture.
I was shocked. Every hair (that wasn’t already standing) on my body stood up. The room around me spun. I felt like I had understood why the experience was so inside me—Ellis Island was a sort of homecoming for my physical body. The experience of time shifted completely. The pieces felt alive inside of me in my waking state—I was partly in my dreams, partly in the space of hyperawareness in the present moment. I believe the memories of those who lived lives as part of my physical family—those I am related to through blood—are part of the cellular make-up of my body, hence in-body, and it’s as if they were the source of the memories and visual fragments. But I also knew that all the blanks in the story of my family and my matriarchal lineage were blanks because of trauma; of issues; of things that you didn’t talk about because culturally, there was no space. I felt called to acknowledge these unknown, known people.
I held the list of names that I had scribbled in my hand, and I went outside. I walked around the outer building, saying the names, saying that whatever business unresolved could be released, saying thank you for coming to America, saying thank you. I wondered out loud about the experience of being American –of having to arrive in a country where, despite pockets of a native ethnicity or culture (usually based on church), the secular cultural space took over.
Becoming American was the process of forgetting. I was at Ellis Island to remember.
When I felt like it was time to leave Ellis Island, I took the ferry to Liberty State Park, New Jersey, rather than back to Battery Park in New York. I walked the Jersey City waterfront all the way downtown, to Jersey Avenue, and I paused right where the street bisects Newark Avenue. Now, it’s a part-pedestrian zone that is lined with artisanal beer bars and baby shops.
I turned around and looked backward in the direction that I had just walked from. I thought back to when I too lived in this neighborhood. My chochi (aunt) had called me one day and asked if I knew where an address on Jersey Avenue was, and if it was close to my apartment where I was living on 2nd Street. It was indeed very close—only three blocks—and I asked why. She had found my dzadi’s (grandfather’s) driver’s license, dated to the 1940s, when he lived in Jersey City. I had incidentally and unknowingly moved back to where my family had, in part, been. From where I stood, lookingdown Jersey Avenue, to where dzadi had lived, knowing behind me was the way to the apartment that I had occupied.
Is that a metaphor or what?!
I had never felt as connected to my Polish-American heritage as I did that day. My body responded to it. The angst in my physical form responded to this (somehow) familiar place, and I allowed the acknowledgement as well as release of memories on the cellular level.
I’ve dubbed Ellis Island is the Akashic records hall of the late nineteenth, early twentieth century immigrant experience. What was not in my mind consciousness was in my body consciousness. And I felt that having the experience—and release—that I did helped me to evolve deeper into myself.
What does it mean to me to evolve on a spiritual level? What happens if I “evolve”? What will I find beyond the linear concept of time? It means that ordinary experiences have hella deep reverb for me, and I have to spend a lot of time making my own meanings for things. It means my perspective is enhanced by my ability to accept that somehow, these lives are in me, and intertwined, and that this one life has connections to so many others. I’m not sure of the why or how, but this experience gave me something powerful for the now.