One of my favorite family stories involves one of my great grandfathers who immigrated from Sweden with a mangled hand and landed on Ellis island in the early 1900s. People with deformities had a hard time passing inspection at Ellis Island. They were usually detained for extra scrutiny when they arrived but often they were also sent back to their countries of origin.
Although my great-grandfather had lost most of his fingers on his dominant hand in a farming accident in Sweden, he still had most of his thumb and a large pinky stump that consisted of what remained of his other fingers sewn together. He got by fairly well because he could still grab and hold on to things on account of still having his thumb and another finger (of sorts) to make a clasping motion.
And that is how he also managed to hold his hat the day he went through inspection on Ellis Island. So no one noticed his deformity—his hat covered it. He passed inspection without a hitch. After he was through and outside waiting for the boat that would help him travel onward into America where he'd become a hard-working farmer, he sat next to another Swede and they got to talking. The other Swede was surprised my grandfather had made it through with his hand (by this time his hat was back on his head since he was outside). My grandfather hadn't understood about the inspections.
And he was mortified. He could not accept that he might have tricked his way into America. So can you guess what he did?
He went back into inspection. He wanted to be legit. He was honest to a fault. At least that's how the story goes.
The officials who'd already processed him waved him away like a pesky fly. And so he became an American.
I thought of this story as I read all the history and walked the great hall of Ellis Island last month when I was in NYC for an SCBWI conference. And also as I walked under Lady Liberty and her torch the same day I visited Ellis Island. Mine isn't the only family with immigrant tales of honesty and a will to do hard work for a better life.
I also thought of modern-day immigrants and how they likely share similar stories to my own with different details from a newer time. I'd be willing to bet there are a lot of common threads at heart.
NOTE: I originally posted this story on facebook, this is mostly a repeat of that post. Also I've since learned from my aunt that my Grandfather did end up having to pay a fine. I wonder if I'm missing any more of the story?