The empty suitcase.

May 25, 2012 § 7 Comments

We caught the ferry to Ellis Island to admire my brother-in-law’s work.

A museum writer, Paul Rosenthal, had put years into the explanatory text that went with each exhibit.

We began our visit intent on reading, but were quickly overtaken. Vacant rooms still seemed to reverberate with footfalls and quiet conversation, a Babel of many languages. Daunted by fatigue and doubt, held upright by the stories they’d heard of this new country, potential immigrants waited in patient lines to be processed into America.

Like many Americans we had a personal stake in this place. My Swedish grandfather, Carl Axel, was the eldest of four boys who accompanied their mother to America. Their names are on the roles of Ellis Island: Helen, Carl, Earnest, Theodore and Emil.

Here is where they stood in line to fill out their paperwork.

Nearby is the infirmary where they waited to be graded for quality. A chalk X on the back of a shirt branded an applicant as not healthy enough to become an American.

Though the lines of aspiring new citizens were long gone on the brilliantly sunny day of our visit, on display, heaped floor to ceiling, were some of the suitcases they once carried.

These suitcases contained everything being transported from the old life to the new.

As my brother-in-law’s writing made clear, these suitcases rarely had much in them; a second shirt a pair of socks.

Some contained nothing at all. No one wanted to advertise that they were taking on a new life empty-handed.

What was carried in those seemingly empty suitcases was pride.

We live in an era of conspicuous ownership, often measuring ourselves and each other by the value of what we have. We sometimes complain of having too much. Do we own our stuff, or does our stuff own us? Even we know our pride in what we own is hollow.

But when your sole possession is pride, it is a possession worth having.

My Italian grandfather, who entered America through Castle Rock, another New York port of entry, wore it like a tailor-made suit. No matter how little the family had, no matter how hard-bitten their daily lives he assured his wife and two children, “We are better than this.”

Pride could not be eaten or keep out the cold, and yet the Bontempis lived on it.

Their belief in what they knew themselves to be manifested itself over time as my grandfather excelled as an inventor, as his children grew up, went to college and pursued successful careers.

Maybe if we emptied our own over-burdened suitcases we would find that one last thing at the bottom. Absent everything we own, we might discover a legitimate pride in who we are, and who we have the potential to become.

Note: This was written as an example of a personal essay for a memoir workshop I just taught. Each of us chose a lofty verb and responded to it based on life experience. My verb was pride. In the abstract I would have said I disapproved of that verb, but as I wrote my grandfathers weighed in. The value of writing a personal essay is often the surprise of discovering that, when filtered through a life, the abstract and the genuinely felt diverge.

Please take the time to click on the Fogelin family’s immigration document. You can read every word.

§ 7 Responses to The empty suitcase.

  • Linda Guy says:

    What a treasure to have that document!



  • ammaponders says:

    My husband’s grandparents came through Ellis Island. I’ve always been jealous because no one seems to have kept track of my ancestors or where they came from.


  • I also have inlaws who came through Ellis Island and now I want to research threir paper. My family had to have come by land or sea, but I, too am sad that no one has bothered to note “how we got here”. Maybe I need to look further. I know there was lots of pride—my mother has made certain that I know that they always had “good’ addresses. The depression and the loss of the Civil War greatly scarred and skewed my mother’s thinking. Suitcases can evoke such lonely pictures. So well expressed.


  • It sounds as if pride kept your family afloat as well.


  • Sue Riddle Cronkite says:

    My father’s family came in the late 1700s, first from Scotland where they were collected, then dumped in Dublin where they intermaried with the Irish. I don’t have any paperwork. Adrian’s document is priceless. Our family legend is that they were on a ship that docked at Newport News, VA. Some were named Byrd, some were named Riddle. I followed Census records and found some in Georgia, then in Southeast Alabama. It is so exciting to track your family. I stopped because it can take up a great amount of time, of which I don’t have much to spare. I’ll get back to it one of these days. Thanks, Adrian, for a great story.


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