NEW YORK -- The three of us step off the ferry into a frozen sunlight and feel a little uncertain. Is this a kind of religious pilgrimage, or merely a visit to a stranger's family attic? The ferry ride took 10 minutes. But it's transported us back to another time, in search of people we've lost along the way.
My mother and my cousin and I have come to Ellis Island to look for lost artifacts of ourselves. Like a hundred million others in this country, we have ancestors who came through these doors in the early part of this century with tags around their necks, and not much in their hands, as little pieces of this great migration in human history.
We are the results of their courage, or their desperation. They journeyed across an ocean in the cramped, stinking belly of **TC boat. We've journeyed here by car, with a radio announcer barking commercial bargains for holiday shoppers. Our ancestors came with their fear and confusion. We are carrying only a vague wonder: What was it like for them when they reached this crossroads in their lives, and America decided to let them in?
A few months ago, at a cost of $157 million, the Ellis Island Immigration Museum opened its doors. It's cheap at the price. Or at any price. We've become a nation that moves so quickly we never take time to look in the rearview mirror of our own existence. Ellis Island makes us stop for a little while and consider how we got here.
My cousin's mother came through these doors about 65 years ago, from Galicia, Poland. Her name was Sara Pickel. She was a seamstress, and she rode in steerage. She knew no one on the ship and spoke no English. She bore an immigrant identification card with the number 3350.
My mother's grandfather, Max Strull, arrived here from Latvia about 80 years ago. He worked in a sweatshop on the lower east side of New York for a few dollars a week. I have an old brown photograph of him sitting in that sweatshop with other young immigrants, all of them stripped to their undershirts. The photo hangs on a wall in my home. But I have little concept of him beyond that picture, and no sense at all what it must have been like when he landed on this island in hopes of beginning a new life.
The immigration museum fills in some of the blanks: not of my great-grandfather specifically, but of millions of our forebears, what it felt like for them, what they looked like in their ancient clothing, and what that first, breathless sighting of land must have been like.
''I thought I was in heaven,'' an old man says in a museum film. ''My God, is this a city or in heaven? I had to cry.''
Rooms of black and white photographic blowups show the new arrivals entering the island's big hall, and going through customs, and then slowly finding their way into the streets and the tenements and the workplaces of their new nation.
Here is a man being separated from his family. He has tuberculosis, and America is sending him back. Here are 3,000 people being fed at a single meal. A man examines a banana, which he has never seen before. Here are a mother and daughter waiting for the immigration officer to make up his mind on their future.
''A person at a desk called my mother's name,'' a woman, now grown old, recalls. ''My mother turned to me and said, 'I was never here, how does he know my name?' I said, 'It's all right, mama, he knows it.' '' You sense the dread in their bones, and the confusion.
Who do you turn to in confusion? Police? To them, police meant men who had once cracked their heads. Government? Whose government? Their own was across an ocean, and this new one spoke a strange language and had rules they hadn't yet learned.
You find yourself riveted to people's eyes, those in the pictures and those who rode the ferry here with you. They're all looking for the same thing, this sense of who came before them. Do we find our very own ancestors in the photos? No, but it doesn't matter. We find a time, and a setting, and a mood.
It's like a page out of Joseph Heller's ''Catch-22,'' where a doctor tells the hospitalized Yossarian, ''There are some relatives here to see you. Oh, not your relatives. It's the family of that chap who died. They've traveled all the way from New York to see a dying soldier,and you're the handiest one we've got.''
''They didn't come to see me,'' Yossarian objects. ''They came to see their son.''
''They'll have to take what they can get,'' the doctor says.
That's how you feel walking around this old hall: Those aren't your own grandparents up there, but it doesn't exactly matter. They're somebody's. They came here under the same horrendous conditions, and they struggled with the same seasickness on water, and the same poverty on land, and they had children, and the generations passed along until they came to you.
And you look again at the people around you in the hall, and you realize we've all come from the same place: Somewhere Else. It doesn't matter where. For the moment, it only matters that this little island is where our grandparents all melted together for a moment in time, and then set out from here to start new lives.
You get to this place pretty easily. Take the Jersey Turnpike to Exit 14B and follow the signs. The trip takes less than four hours from Baltimore. But it's a journey across the generations to your own past, to a civilization crawling onto land, and to a sense of how we became the people we are.