President Roosevelt, touring Ellis Island
in 1906, watched the people from steerage
line up for their six-second physical.
Might not, he wondered aloud, the ungloved handling
of aliens who were ill infect the healthy?
Yet for years more it was done. I imagine
my grandmother, a girl in that Great Hall’s
polyglot, reverberating vault
more terrible than church, dazed by the stars
and stripes in the vast banner up in front
where the blessed ones had passed through. Then she did too,
to a room like a little chapel, where her mother
might take Communion. A man in a blue cap
and a blue uniform—a doctor? a policeman?
(Papa would have known, but he had sailed
all alone before them and was waiting
now in New York; yet wasn’t this New York?)—
a man in a blue cap reached for her mother.
Without a word (didn’t he speak Italian?)
he stuck one finger into her mother’s eye,
then turned its lid up with a buttonhook,
the long, curved thing for doing up your boots
when buttons were too many or too small.
You couldn’t be American if you were blind
or going to be blind. That much she understood.
She’d go to school, she’d learn to read and write
and teach her parents. The eye man reached to touch
her own face next; she figured she was ready.
She felt big, like that woman in the sea
holding up not a buttonhook but a torch.
Copyright © 2014 by Mary Jo Salter. Used with permission of the author.