When I think about my family history, I tend to think about my mother’s side of the family. Maybe because the history on that side is more romantic. My paternal heritage is morbid and cyclical and inevitably leaves me with heavy, sad feelings for my future. But my maternal history is different – dreamy.
My mother’s great-grandmother lived in Poland. She married, and had two children. First a boy, then a girl (my mother’s grandmother). Then, while the children were still very young, her husband died. She remarried and had another baby.
By this time, Poland was a place of desperation (I have never checked the timeline on this – it’s just how the story goes). The new husband couldn’t get work in their hometown, so he set sail for America, promising to send money for them to follow.
Eventually, he did send money. He sent enough for two tickets. He wrote my great-great-grandmother and told her to bring the baby, leave the older children with family or friends, and when they could afford two more tickets, then the older children would come to America. But she was afraid he’d never send for them. After all, they weren’t his children, and they hadn’t been married very long.
So she sent the two children by themselves. At ages 6 and 4, they boarded a boat that brought them from Poland to Ellis Island. Alone. She took the risk that they would not make it, or that they wouldn’t be able to find their step-father, or that he wouldn’t take them in and care for them, or that he would never send more money. Any one of these are huge risks.
They made the trip. As they went through Ellis Island, they even managed to stay together, speaking no English, as they navigated through the checkpoints to get in to America. My great-grandmother had her name changed. We don’t know if it was changed intentionally or accidentally by an official, or if someone in our family decided to rename her at this point. But at 4 years old, she became Mary. The boy, the 6 year old, was thought to be ill. An official wrote ‘Quarantine” on the back of his jacket.
After some research, I now know that Ellis Island officials used chalk and wrote symbols on many immigrants, marking their path through the maze. But this marking was special – it separated people into a part of the island where they could be held for days, months, or even be sent back to their countries of origin. But loved ones and traveling companions could not accompany them. Being sent to quarantine would separate my great-grandmother from her older brother, and make reuniting with their stepfather (who was not expecting them) that much harder.
A decision made by a stranger on the boat changed my family history. Someone who had noticed that these children were alone removed the boy’s jacket, turned it inside out, and put it back on him. This person must have been quick, and must have done this discreetly if the Ellis Island officials never noticed. Who was this person? What language did he or she speak? Had this person befriended my ancestor and her brother earlier in the trip? Did my great-great-grandmother implore someone getting on the boat with her children to look out for them? A stranger? A friend? Or maybe this person was just a caring observer. This person, who remains a mystery to my family, played an essential role in my family history.
After my great-great-grandmother and her older brother got through Ellis Island, they did find their step-father and he did eventually send for their mother and his child. The family was re-united and made whole in America.
My great-great-grandmother was not interested in learning English. She just wasn’t interested. Eventually, she took one of her grandchildren to live with her as a translator. My great-grandmother protested the forcible retaining of one of her children in service to her mother. She worked for years to get her child back. My grandmother talks about this strange abduction of her aunt and remembers it from her childhood.
My great-grandmother was a woman who is remembered with much love and fondness. She is reported to be a caring woman with a jar perpetually full of cookies and a house full of warmth.
Sadly, my grandmother’s sister has been removed from her home and relocated against her will. Her daughter, my mother’s cousin, has moved her from Michigan to Florida. Since her disappearance from her home, my grandmother has received only one phone call, broken off and disconnected, from her sister. My mother’s cousin wanted control of her mother’s estate and was holding her against her will to gain it.
On my maternal side, the family history sounds much less morbid. Because the wretched behavior is playing out in this generation instead of previous ones. It becomes slightly easier to disconnect from the romantic beginning and subsequently ignore, but this black mark is no less unsettling.