On the ferry to Ellis Island in New York Harbor, I tried to imagine how my Italian great-grandfather Umberto Tosti might have felt when he arrived here at age 13, some 120 years ago. What would it be like to finally see Lady Liberty after spending weeks crammed on a ship with little more than the clothes on your back? I also wondered what he'd think of the selfie-stick-wielding tourists angling for Facebook-ready pics. Mamma mia.
Managed by the National Park Service, Ellis Island is a special place for many reasons, not least because, unlike many of our historic monuments, it celebrates ordinary people. An estimated 40 percent of us are related to at least one of the 17 million whose arrivals were recorded at this facility from 1892 until its closing in 1954. It would be tough not to be moved by the sight of the iconic Great Hall, now a quiet open space with high vaulted ceilings but once a noisy, crowded spot where many prayers were answered or (in 2 percent of cases) not.