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We’re not just Kansans, not just Americans

There’s a photograph on a wall at Ellis Island, the place where millions of immigrants landed.

A mother and child. I looked at it for a long time. The photo will likely haunt me.

We went to New York recently and were surrounded everywhere by people speaking Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese.

Buddhist monks in Central Park tried to give us trinkets and strike up a conversation.

In a ticket line, a mother wearing a hijab carried her baby in a chest pouch and spoke Arabic on her phone. Ahead of her in line, a woman flirted with her American boyfriend, touched his arm, put her head on his shoulder – speaking in a thick Russian accent.

On the ferry to the Statue of Liberty and in the observation deck at One World Trade Center, people carried American flags, took pictures, marveled.

My wife took a picture of people crowded at the observation deck windows, photographing the skyscrapers of Manhattan Island as the night lights came on. As with the ferry passengers, most people up there were of every shade of color, speaking in accents from every continent.

They looked excited to be where they were – in America.

But at Ellis Island, the immigrant mother in the old photograph looks tired, wary and old before her time. The girl in her arms is spooning food from a cup. They wear hooded cloaks and clothing that looks crude, homespun, homemade, threadbare.

The placard beside the photograph says the woman and child were 1918 refugees from Bohemia.

That’s the province in the Czech Republic where my family emigrated from 150 years ago.

I’ve seen photos of my family from back in the 1800s. They arrived in America decades before the Ellis Island mother and child did, but in our family photos, they were all bundled in homespun clothes, like her. They probably looked worn and worried, too, when they landed. They knew no one. They spoke German and Czech – no English. They were broke after they landed here.

That’s why I can’t get that Ellis Island mother out of my mind. She looks like family.

My great-great-grandparents, Franz and Josephine Wenzl, were peasants in 1867. They were anxious to keep their sons out of the wars the Prussian Army was starting all over Europe. They and their children were eating (or so their grandchildren told me) almost nothing but potatoes day after day in the “Old Country,” as they called it. So they sold their meager belongings and bundled up more than 20 children, grandchildren and in-laws. And they sailed.

They were so anxious to get to America that they risked the voyage even though Josephine’s father, an old man by then, had died at sea the year before while trying to come here.

They were so anxious that they smuggled a baby aboard ship. Little Franz was 6 weeks old. When my great-great-grandparents learned there was a shipping company rule that said no babies were allowed on the ship to America, they soaked a little piece of cloth in milk and sugar. They stuck it in baby Franz’s mouth to keep him quiet. Then they hid him in a piece of luggage – and smuggled him onto the ship.

They had no choice. Nowhere else to go.

My New York visit dredged up memories of the stories my elders told about my Kansas tribe. And it showed me that we’re not just Kansans, not just Americans. When you walk among all those people with all those shades of color and accents, you realize that you’re part of a much larger tribe.

And that tribe can tell stories, too. Like this one.

The National September 11 Memorial consists of two square holes in the ground where the Twin Towers of New York once stood.

The people of New York after 2001 turned those twin basement foundations into waterfalls surrounded by continuous plaques that contain all the names of the 9/11 New York dead: all the New Yorkers who died there, all the police officers, the firefighters and the passengers from the jets that crashed into the towers.

We walked to the memorial and heard the lulling song of waterfalls.

We saw that the metal of the plaques was so polished and so reflective that you can see the blue of the sky reflected in them and the reflections of the white clouds scudding over all the names of the dead.

We saw flowers, lying here and there, beside some of the plaques.

We puzzled about this for a few minutes, until we saw two signs.

One sign encourages you to put your hands on the plaques. When you do that, you feel like you are touching something holy.

The other sign said the caretakers of this memorial know the birthdates of the victims of the 9/11 terror attack. And they put flowers beside those names on their birthdays.

I walked toward one of those flowers to photograph it. And I stopped, because an elderly couple got to the flower first.

I felt annoyed because I wanted to shoot the flower and because the breeze blew the old man’s heavy, unfiltered cigarette smoke into my face.

But then the old man raised his right hand and made a sign of the cross over the flower.

I have no idea what he said at that moment.

His language sounded Slavic but not Russian.

Definitely not English.

But he said his little prayer in a voice that broke with emotion.

Roy Wenzl: 316-268-6219, @roywenzl

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