It’s maybe her first memory:
The rocking boat, tempest-tossed* and cutting through Atlantic waves.
“You always remember what makes you afraid,” she smiled.
Fear mingled with hope as the USNS General M.L. Hersey entered the safety of the Lady’s harbor. Embrace was not a word she understood. Not in English. At three years of age, neither could she read a word of the sonnet, cast in bronze at the statue’s feet. But she would forever feel the meaning of words penned and posted for her: a poor, huddled and homeless survivor of storms. (“The New Colossus,” Emma Lazarus)
Seventy calendars have turned since, and she still feels the rocking, the fear, and the embrace. I listen, and perceive her three-year-old frame huddled on the deck. All of them are tip-toed straining for a glimpse of the welcoming woman — herself an immigrant — poised at the golden door. *
I am the daughter of them both.
She breathes in and exhales out her family’s story. I’m taken in by all of the twists, turns and what if’s; the frayed and fragile threads holding it all together.
What if my grandfather hadn’t survived the Siberian prison camp, or the Red Army bullet in his leg? These were the prices he paid for contesting the Revolution.
What if the gold wasn’t enough? As German troops moved into war-torn Ukraine, they combed through the country for human cargo to work their factories. My grandmother held out my grandfather’s gold watch, ransoming his release. The guard conceded, a “fair” swap among hundreds of others, plucked from their families, perhaps never to return.
What if their panicked pleading fell on deaf ears? Once again, the men were rounded up like stray dogs, crammed and locked inside the Romanian village church-turned-holding chamber. Only the gassing of Russian men would do, least they flee to rejoin their homeland’s army. My grandmother and the other women begged the Nazi guard for mercy. In a miracle moment of compassion, the men were released.
What if they would have opened the door? My grandmother begged them to, as Allied bombs spun through the Berlin sky. The bridge ahead made no promises of protection. And yet it somehow sheltered her under its wings. The closed door and all that hid behind it were reduced to rubble.
What if she said “yes” to the German camp doctor who delivered her twins (my mother and aunt) and asked to keep one? He, childless. Her, with two more than she could handle, ragged and displaced. But she didn’t. She endured it all — keeping her children together through factory beatings, separation from her husband and the persistent unknown.
What if the American pastor hadn’t said “no” to the man who indentured them, but failed on the food he promised? He, preying upon new immigrants for cheap labor to work his Illinois soil; them without recourse. Instead the preacher’s country church said “yes” to strangers; to food, fair work, shelter, and a chance.
What if they hadn’t dreamed of a new life in a new world, beyond the hypothetical?
Would I be too?
My “Mother of Exiles”*
The crowned Colossus** of Rhodes towered over its city — the tallest statue of its kind in second century, B.C. Taking the form of the Greek god Helios, it celebrated the island’s defeat over Cyprus’s aggression. Presiding over New York Harbor is my mother’s welcomer — the “New Colossus,” from Emma Lazarus’s 1883 sonnet.
Apart from their shared heights and crowns upon their heads, the two colossuses are the antithesis of one another. Lazarus’s words paint visions of Helios looming over his land as a symbol of victory, superiority and might. The Lady embodies all that he is not, extending a “world-wide welcome” to the “wretched refuse,” “yearning to breathe free.” * She is the “Mother of Exiles,” who ushered my own mother in.
I am heir to her embrace.
“. . . I was a stranger and you welcomed me . . .”
It’s fresh in my memory.
The rocking of the boat, cutting through choppy Caribbean swells.
We chat easily, as vacationers do, leaning in to drown out competing noises of winds, water and the motor’s thrum. In the usual cadence of new-acquaintance-speak come the words “vet school,” “New Jersey” and “born in Brazil.” I wonder at the unspoken more that binds them altogether. Later, she fills in the silent spaces, and I’m taken in by all of the twists, turns and the what if’s; the frayed and fragile threads holding it all together.
What if they had stayed? It was either flee or face the death threats her mother received. She testified to the offender’s crimes, and could pay for them with her own life. So they ran for the Lady with the torch and the sanctuary of her shores.
What if they couldn’t leave? The rented-out New Jersey room offered protection from the outside — but not from within. Lacking legal rights, there was no recourse for the landlord’s advances. He preyed on their vulnerability, so they sought another living space. It was one more in a succession that came at great cost with few guarantees.
What if she hadn’t believed? Against and despite nearly impossible odds, she persisted. She crossed climates, countries and cultures. She scaled walls of leaving, language and learning.
What if she hadn’t dreamed of a new life in a new world, beyond the hypothetical?
Would she be too?
At such a time as this — especially — I ruminate about the harbor statue that is and the ancient one that was. The Colossus of Rhodes had little time to preside over his city. Within five decades an earthquake snapped this symbol of power and victory off at his knees. I think about the Mother of Exiles, still standing, and how she harbored my mother-exiled into her keeping that day.
I think about the others, before and since, who’ve felt her embrace. I think about Jesus — stranger and lover of strangers — and that I am his heir, also. To follow him means becoming both, too.
I remember a love that crosses climates, countries and cultures, from sitting by the Samaritan woman at the well to healing the Canaanite girl and the Roman centurion’s servant. I compare the fleeting, fragility of victory to a love that never fails. ***
And I chose which I want to hold my story together.
With deep gratitude to Dr. Jess Portela, my mother, Tamara, and the Solowjow family for bravely living and sharing their sojourner stories.
And to Margaret Becker, who inspired this piece’s title.
* From the sonnet, “The New Colossus,” by Emma Lazarus
** Ancient Greek for “Giant Statue”
*** I Corinthians 13:8