Encountering My Great-Grandfather

December 29th marks the 114th anniversary of my Great-Grandfather arriving in America. He came from Armenia at the age of 18, I’m assuming looking for a better life and fleeing persecution. I never met my great-grandfather or his son, my grandfather and growing up I felt very little connection to that man who arrived in Ellis Island all those years ago. I’d heard stories of his education and the choices he made once here, but really could not grasp the immense difference that his sacrifices made in my life.

I’d never been to New York before, until last summer. My husband had to go for work and so I tagged along. I figured we’d check out Broadway, Times Square, the 9/11 Memorial, and maybe grab some pizza. What I didn’t plan for was seeing the Statue of Liberty, which would be one of the most moving parts of the trip. In fact, I left her out of my New York bucket list as she was too overrated. I had admittedly told people I was more excited about trying New York style pizza. Growing up, I’d seen the statue a million times. I’ve read about the statue as a symbol of freedom for the immigrants coming into New York, but I never really felt a connection to it. I did, however, have a desire to go to Ellis Island, as I had hoped to look up my great-grandfather at the Family Heritage Museum Office. I wasn’t sure what I would find or what the records entailed but I hoped to find some connection to the man whose namesake I grew up using.  

We arrived in New York on Sunday and were gifted tickets to a dinner cruise around the NY harbor. Once we boarded the ship I suddenly got excited to see The Statue of Liberty. I made sure to keep an eye out, awaiting the first glimpse of her and had my phone in hand to capture her image. We finally turned a corner and there she was, the Statue of Liberty, this symbol of freedom I had always heard about. It was in that moment, that I became awestruck. It hit me instantly, although never until that moment, that all those years ago my great-grandfather had also been on a ship in the New York Harbor, seeing this same statue for the first time. His knowledge of the country wasn’t from internet searches, or YouTube videos, magazines or even phone calls or FaceTime. He was leaving his beloved homeland because of the Armenian Genocide, to start a new life for himself, and eventually for me.

According to the ship manifests I found, he arrived in America, with only $10! He arrived after traveling about a month’s time. I was now experiencing a glimpse of what he felt as he approached this new land. I imagined the feelings of the passengers as they saw her. The relief they must have felt when they finally saw her after their long journey on the ship. The sickness, starvation, and possibly death that they had experienced, because of the hopes for a better life, now suddenly held new meaning. I imagined the anxiety they felt as they wondered if this new glory land would offer them the same lives they’d heard about in stories. Did they make the right choice by giving up everything to claim their future here?

Here I was 113 years later, the 4th generation since this man I’d never met arrived at the island for the first time. Here I was on vacation. My traveling to New York had been much easier, a 5-hour flight across the country, 2 movies and a couple snacks later, we arrived at the airport, and took an Uber to our hotel. The ship, which brought me to the Statue of Liberty, was a dinner cruise around the bay. My journey was significantly different than his, but would never have happened if he hadn’t boarded his ship.

I will be forever indebted for the sacrifices he made for me all those years ago. Generations including myself, my children, and maybe my future grandchildren and great-grandchildren, will benefit from his life-changing journey. A journey in search of freedom. A journey in search of a better life. While it may or may not have afforded him those changes, this land will forever afford generations to come, those freedoms because of him and his courage.

Copyright 2018 Courtney Vallejo. All Rights Reserved. 

Image Credit: 2018 Courtney Vallejo. All Right Reserved.