As I watch the news, my mind is constantly drawn to my grandparents, who came to the United States from Romania after World War II. Survivors of the Holocaust and family of so many of its victims, my grandparents came through Ellis Island with little more than each other. They set out to make a new life for themselves, and indeed they did.
Today, my grandparents are in their 90s. Since stepping foot on American soil, they welcomed into the world two children, five grandchildren, four great grandchildren (and one more on their way!). They learned a new language, successfully ran many businesses, and immersed themselves in American life, all while holding onto the sacred lessons they learned along the way.
My grandparents, like many other refugees around the world, granted their family and countless friends the gifts of these powerful lessons. I yearn to pass these teachings on to my children. These guideposts shaped my childhood, and I continue to turn to them in times of challenges and uncertainty.
1. The world is your oyster.When I typed up my grandfather’s memoir, I was in awe of the many misfortunes he endured to get to the United States of America. As I got to the end, I was amazed to see how his optimism was indeed what got him through the most tragic of circumstances. At the end of the book, my grandfather speaks of the excitement and jubilation he felt as he entered the United States through Ellis Island. “There is gold on the streets of America,” he wrote. “You just have to know how to pick it up!”
2. Love trumps hate.From the time I was very young, my grandmother taught me that hate was a “bad word.” We weren’t allowed to use it, and instead, we were encouraged to express love as often as possible. I still remember being in the back seat of my grandmother’s station wagon holding up a handmade sign that my cousins and I drew. To my grandmother’s delight, we were waving it proudly at the passing cars. The sign read, “I love you!” and we blew kisses at the strangers who stared at us through the glass window.
3. Mindfulness matters. My grandparents both lost a sibling in the war. They fled their homes and both spent time in work camps and in ghettos. With each new challenge, my grandparents somehow found a reason to keep going. After coming to America, my grandmother found her spiritual home in the Course of Miracles. She taught us to harness our thoughts to control our reality. My grandmother practiced yoga regularly well into her 80s. Now in her 90s, she continues to meditate. My grandmother has lost countless family members and friends over the years, and her memory, she says, is “not so good” anymore. But if you ask her how she is doing, she will answer with a smile and tell you of the wonderful food she eats and how well she is taken care of each day.
4. We are all connected to one another.Maya Angelou explained, “[t]o describe my mother would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect power.” Those who met my grandmother during her better years tend to feel very much the same. She was a powerful testament to the power of forgiveness and the strength of a survivor who truly turned her heartbreak and pain into resolute devotion to causes of equality for all. From a young age, she insisted that we, too, understood the importance of both giving and receiving forgiveness. To her, there was truly no other way to live.
My grandparents came to this country with little more than each other, but they settled into their new home surrounded by new friends and abundant opportunities. Like countless other descendants of immigrants, I do my best to share their story with my children. By doing so, I try to instill in them the invaluable lessons that blossomed from their journey. These lessons provided my refugee grandparents meaning and purpose during challenging times. I hope my children, like I do, cling to them as they traverse their own path.