NEW YORK -- Long ago her father, Francesco, had sailed into the same harbor, bound for the same place, a place described in many languages, including Italian, as the Isle of Tears.
Her father was just a boy then, clad in a new suit and red hat, and in those hours when the Statue of Liberty appeared for the first time in his 5-year-old eyes, his hat fell overboard and was swept away. Virginia Yans-McLaughlin is cutting through the harbor in a work boat, thinking of the hat her father lost 86 years before as she docks at Ellis Island.
"There's a separation story for you, and because of it I've never lost the sense of this place," she says. "The power of a place like this occurs at the level of mythology, a level deeper than historians go. This is a holy place. A temple."
The temple of America is shimmering in the summer sun, lonely and wind-swept on a small island near the Statue of Liberty. The Main Building is empty and still, and Yans-McLaughlin's footsteps echo under the 60-foot barrel-vault ceiling of the Great Hall. But years of slumber and decay have been swept away, and the Great Hall echoes with the sounds of crews working. The four towers of Ellis Island are polished and poised.
Come September this land-filled mud flat in New York Harbor will house the world's newest and largest immigration museum.
The masses, tourists this time, will be returning to Ellis Island.
Yans-McLaughlin was the only pilgrim making the trip on a recent morning. A professor of immigrant history at Rutgers University, she docked shortly after 9 a.m., eight years after she joined Lee Iacocca's crusade to transform the decrepit landmark into a museum of immigrants.
Ellis Island is a place of 17 million stories -- the number of immigrants who passed through its gates from 1892 to 1954, when it closed. Iacocca, the immigrant's child-turned-corporate car king, is one of them.
Yans-McLaughlin is another. Her personality, her childhood, her ambition, the failure of her first marriage and the success of her second have all been largely determined, she believes, by the fact that she was the daughter of an Italian immigrant who came through Ellis Island in 1904.
Yans-McLaughlin is an expert on Italian immigration. Not long ago she realized why she became a historian in the first place. It was scholarship in search of self.
Now, on a fine summer morning, she was in the process of closing a circle.
Yans-McLaughlin served on the advisory board of immigration experts who helped shape the 100,000-square-foot museum. Thanks partly to her input, it will not be a museum devoted simply to Ellis Island, dominated by its European flow around the turn of the century, but a museum of all American immigrants who have entered through many ports and border points for two centuries.
On this morning, workers on the third floor of the main building were assembling the display cases of "Ellis Island Galleries," one of four main exhibits, along with "The Peopling of America," "Through America's Gate" and "Peak Immigration Years (1880-1924)."
"Ellis Island Galleries" includes the history and restoration of Ellis Island, and narratives of 12 families, chosen, like a small battalion of soldiers in a vast war, to represent the tales of all who passed through the immigration station.
Before his red hat fell overboard, Francesco Iannuzzi had been changed into his best clothes by his mother, Vincenza, who wore her best long, dark dress, typical of the times.
Many immigrants changed to their best clothing as they approached Ellis Island, hoping it would hide the evidence of their long voyage and poor beginnings.
As they entered New York Harbor, Yans-McLaughlin says, her father and grandmother must have looked agape at New York City, whose tall buildings, as high as 15 stories, were the marvel of the world.
"There is tons of fear and awe in the oral histories" as immigrants tell of their approach to the island, said Fred Wasserman, an art historian for MetaForm, one of the builders of the museum. "And there was tons of hope. These people knew their lives hung in the balance here."
The Ellis Island that Francesco Iannuzzi entered was heavy with the smell of thousands of people who had spent weeks in close quarters, in the steerage holds of ocean liners. The Great Hall's tile wainscoting was hosed down six or eight times a day.
Eight out of 10 immigrants sailed through in fewer than five hours. One out of 20 got this close to the New World and was shipped home.
At the east end of the baggage rooms, all the immigrants climbed a stairway into the Great Hall. At the top of the stairs they were met by U.S. health officials who gave the immigrants the famous "six-second" exam, pulling up their eyelids with metal button hooks to look for signs of trachoma, a highly contagious eye infection; rubbing the tops of their heads feeling for favus, a scalp disease.
The immigration inspectors wore uniforms like old-time train conductors, with navy caps bearing a "USIS" insignia. With a piece of chalk they marked the lapels of immigrants suspected of illness -- X for mental defect, E for eye problems, K for a hernia.
The immigrants didn't realize they had already been observed as they climbed the stairs by doctors watching for signs of lameness, or respiratory trouble that could indicate tuberculosis. Restoring that stairway, which had been removed, became important to Yans-McLaughlin and other historians. "Immigrants were being observed before they even knew it," she says, "and historians felt that moment in time should be preserved."
In the Great Hall, they were herded through a series of wire pens and partitions as they waited to be questioned by immigration inspectors seated at a wooden desk along the west end. The inspectors called the immigrants from their ship's manifest and questioned them about their reasons and prospects for immigration.
The sick were shunted into cholera wards, or typhoid wards, or measles wards elsewhere on the island. Anarchists and other suspected political misfits were quizzed by the board of inquiry. Mental detainees were given a battery of tests by doctors, such as puzzles. In the nationwide call for artifacts, the son of one of these doctors donated a steamship puzzle to the museum.
When the questions were finished, there was no piece of paper that said "you made it," Wasserman said. But they had. They were led to a staircase, 37 blue slate steps down to the New World. "It was called the stairs of separation," Wasserman said. "One stairway to New York, one to Jersey, one to the ferry."
At the bottom of the stairs was the "kissing post," where immigrants reunited with their relatives awaiting them in the New World.
Standing at the kissing post, Yans-McLaughlin said, "A lot of this is archetypal. I'm sure the Greeks wrote about this -- and modern airports, the arrival points of the new immigration, are just like this. It's the same passage, the same emotions, the separation and reuniting.
"You come through that place and you come out to a new land."
Francesco's mother was in her early twenties. Her husband had sent for her. Like many Italian "birds of passage," as they were called, he had been traveling between Italy and America for four years, taking seasonal work. He had worked as a coal miner in Pennsylvania, and hated it. In Italy he was a gardener, and a gardener he would be in Mamaroneck, N.Y., a large Italian settlement.
The early years were hard. A boarding house where the family lived burned down, destroying all their belongings. They moved to a farm.
Francesco Iannuzzi became Frank Yans. His grammar-school teachers in Mamaroneck had changed his too-foreign-sounding name, and given him a Flemish surname. He met and married Isabella Gnocchi, the daughter of a northern Italian baker. They had three children, American children.
Isabella became "Betty" in the new country.
Frank and Betty's youngest daughter also would have an American name.
"My grandmother wanted me to be named after her, Vincenza, in the Southern Italian tradition, but my mother said, 'This is America and we are going to give her an American name,' " Yans-McLaughlin said.
Vincenza Iannuzzi wouldn't do.
Virginia Yans was born.
Yans-McLaughlin regrets that her parents didn't speak Italian at home. She was born in 1943, a war year, and there was "tremendous pressure" on Italian Americans to assimilate, to prove they weren't America's foes.
At Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Yans-McLaughlin began what would be her lifework, study of the immigrant family. At the State University of New York at Buffalo she did graduate work on the topic. And then she began to see her family's struggles as "a classic American success story.
"My father's family came with zero -- nothing -- and what little they had was burned up. My mother's family came with capital -- skills, baking and furniture making. My mother and father came up in trades associated with the Italian American experience, such as carpentry. And their three children have all been successful." Yans-McLaughlin's brother is an executive, her sister, a nurse.
Yans-McLaughlin made her mark by "exploring my own cultural identity." Her 1977 book, "Family and Community: Italian Immigrants in Buffalo, 1880-1930," explored the importance of family in the Italians' ability to survive immigration. It's an obvious idea now, thanks partly to Yans-McLaughlin; it was pioneering work at the time.
Today, as editor of a new book, "Immigration Reconsidered," she searches the new waves of Asian and Hispanic American immigrants to find common threads with immigrants of our nation's past.
Between classes teaching immigrant history at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, Yans-McLaughlin is writing a book and making a public-television film on the anthropologist Margaret Mead, a Philadelphian. Mead, Yans-McLaughlin says, was inspired by her mother's studies of the Italian immigrants in Hammonton, N.J.
All who come to the Ellis Island museum should be looking for their family, their community, themselves, she said.
"If you can't integrate your past into your present, you're not a well-functioning person. Those who don't understand the past are mired in it... . That's very human.
She was returning to the Battery on a tugboat, and Ellis Island was behind her now, and growing smaller. "Birth and death are the two transforming experiences," Yans-McLaughlin said. "This was a worldly place that transformed in the biggest way an individual's life -- it's a casting off of your maternal bonds, your home place, all primal. It's constructing new bonds, a new world, a new identity."
Out of sight now was the American Immigrant Wall of Honor on Ellis Island, facing the Statue of Liberty, bearing, among others, the small inscription that the former Isabella Gnocchi, now 83, and her three children paid for: "Frank Yans' Family," is all it says. "My mother insisted on it," McLaughlin said.