About five years ago, I sat with my mother on the roof of the Ritz Carlton Hotel in New York’s Battery Park. As we gazed across the Hudson at the Statue of Liberty, my mother talked about her grandmother Rosalie, who came to America from Italy in 1893, with all of her belongings in a single trunk. Like many in those “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”, she was young and alone when she entered through Ellis Island. It was a dangerous trip. Many seeking our shores, if they could afford the passage, did not survive the journey due to shipwreck or disease. And America promised absolutely nothing but a chance.
Rosalie made it. She built a life on the far Upper East Side of New York City, in what is now Spanish Harlem. She worked hard and brought up seven children, including my grandmother, Carmella. Rosalie’s children had no easy life. After finishing seventh grade, Carmella went to work in the garment factories as a seamstress. She was just 13.
Following the stock market crash of 1929, Carmella and her Naples-born husband lived a modest life above a grocery store, where they raised my mother and her siblings. Their dreams were simple. Better for their children. Having lived and worked in a tenement nearly all her life, my grandmother’s other dream was a home where she could just “walk outside”.
Carmella died ten years ago at age 97, beautifully, just moments after coming in from outside. When EMS arrived and took over CPR from my mother, my mom held Carmella’s hand and noticed all of her fingers were crooked and broken. Marks of a life of hard work.
And so there we were, my mother and me, celebrating my sister’s wedding, atop one of the most exclusive hotels in the world, and taking in the view of that marvelous French copper sculpture, as if it was just a stunning piece of architecture on the city skyline. To Rosalie, at the end of her long brave journey, it had meant something much more. And now her legacy were gathered safely, comfortably, ashore, enjoying all the pleasures that she had sacrificed and hoped for us just three generations earlier.
That dream still exists today. And it’s promising, though the perils are just as great. Every day people try to get into America, land of the free. Home of many brave enough to embark on a most perilous voyage.
In October, hundreds of African migrants were rescued and hundreds more perished while trying to reach Italian shores. Just Thursday morning, a boat dropped 20 Haitian hopefuls off the coast of Fort Lauderdale. The last bit of their journey was a swim several hundred meters to shore. Floundering toward freedom they could see but just barely reach, some were spotted and rescued by lifeguards on or off duty. Sadly, several are still missing.
The Sun Sentinel reported the story, but it’s not nearly as compelling as my colleague’s firsthand account that details both the rescue effort and the emotional connection lifeguards feel toward their victims, and the circumstances in general, in this case the plight of refugees. What follows are excerpts from his post:
Ocean lifeguarding can be challenging, rewarding, exciting, and heart wrenching.
Two women with their heads low in the water were doing their best survival crawl. We
jumped in, rescued the two bathers, dressed head to toe in street clothes, and tried to
calm them down and ascertain their medical condition. I asked in my slowest most
articulate English if there was anyone else in the ocean. They just closed their eyes,
shook their heads, and prayed.
Later we got a call that a body had been spotted in the shorebreak. We had seven of
our best lifeguards on the scene, a combined 127 years of experience. In spite of all
our best efforts, and the highest quality support rendered, we were unable to revive
the patient. This unfortunate soul had been submerged for some time, maybe hours,
and there was nothing that could be done.
I can’t stop thinking about how this person’s day started with the hopeful anticipation
of a new life in a new land, like so many of our ancestors, family members, and friends.
But it ended so horribly wrong. I could give my opinion on immigration policy and the
reform I think is needed, but I don’t have the energy right now. My lifeguarding day
has run the gamut of human emotion—all before 10:00 AM.
Several local and federal agencies came to the Haitians’ aid, and capture. To survive both smuggling and swimming and then be sent home is news that is happy and sad. While policies and practices have certainly changed since Ellis Island closed in 1954, the immigrant experience in America is the same now as always—thrilling in every sense of the word—hopeful, longing, exciting, and terrifying. The only differences between my great-grandmother and those Haitians are time and place.
Rosalie’s journey and ensuing struggle for a better life, among other things, made it possible for me to CHOOSE to be a lifeguard. I find it interesting that my colleagues and I are bound by duty to meet people where they struggle and bring them to safety, so often in the water, a place of uncertainty and peril for so many, but where we feel confident and free.
Since this is the official BYLG blog, I feel I should say something that connects all of this to our company. So I will end this story of migration with an invitation. There is a huge 3,000-mile swath of middle America where the high quality of lifeguarding that protects the nation’s coasts is grossly underrepresented and so desperately needed. Open-water lifeguards, come. You are welcome here. This is the land of opportunity.