She comes on a ship, from the "old country," just a young woman alone, with her steamer trunk. The trunk holds everything she owns. She has turned her back on the sad, hungry years and faces the future with trepidition. Since her mother died, she is sent from house to house, where ever someone needed a helping hand. There is food and a bed of sorts and hand me down clothing. These things she does not lack. But is there love or kindness or empathy in a world so sparse and cold and sere? Little of these things has she seen. Her older sister has been in America for some years. She has sent for her. Now she will go to this land of plenty she has heard of so often. This far away place. Will it prove more of a home than what she leaves behind? Only time will tell.
These people travel in steerage. It means the belly of the boat. It means crowded, stifling, noisy. It means a rough ride, sea sick people, being too hot, or too cold. It means days, weeks of travel. It means wondering if you will ever arrive in one piece. She climbs out to watch for New York City. Like Zacceaus she is too short to see above the crowd. She joins in the cheering and laughter, at least glad that she will soon be on land again. Hopeful that she will find her way and understand what is going on.
From long ago and far away, I see her. I feel her fear, her embarrasment, her loneliness. She looks young, she hesitates from with in the crowd, not really liking being shouldered along. Strange people brush against you. They are all in a hurry. It seems they would not notice if they knocked you down. She feels claustraphobic. She is fair skinned and fair haired. I know that. I have been told that I look like her. She is gentle. She doesn't push into situations, but hangs back. I see her, like me, at the end of the line, walking down the gangplank, going through the ropes at Ellis Island. How did she manage to communicate? To find her way to the train station, to travel the dirty long miles, the rocking, rolling ride, finding something to eat and drink. Sleeping with the rhythm of the rails, changing trains. I feel her relief when she arrives in the Copper Country.
Does she make friends? Did she have friends she was traveling with? Was her sister there to meet her when she arrived? I'll never know, so I have to imagine, to live vicariously for her. I see her travel weary, bedraggled, frightened. Still waiting patiently to get up at the end of the line. I see her searching the crowd when she exits the train. Will she know her sister? She has not seen her for a long time. She is married, has a home, has an American life. Perhaps she panics, just a little, wondering..
I see a slow smile flit across her face. I see her tenative wave to a woman far down the walkway. I see them embrace, feel the deep relief, the lessening of stress, the welcome feel that she is home at last. Do they go to her sisters home and freshen up, meet her new brother in law? Get a good nights sleep, in a bed with clean sheets and warm blankets? Do they feel like they have never been apart, or do they have to get reaquainted?
Her sister lives a ways out of town. How soon does she go back to the town to find a job? I think not long. She has to earn herself a living. She probably used any money she had on traveling expenses. There is a lot of Finnish speaking people in the area. Not every one would speak it, though, so I picture her sister going with her to translate.
She finally gets a job. It is not ideal for a young, single girl, but it is a job. She cleans a tavern at night, after the bar closes. She gets a room in town and stays there all week so she can sleep in the day and clean at night. She gets Sunday off, when she can walk out to visit her sister and maybe, get a ride back for Monday. Her name is Mary.
This Michigan town is Boom Town in that day and time. The copper mines flourish. The landscape is dotted with them. The trains come and go, many each day, bringing people and goods. The trolleys run with in town and to surrounding towns. There are still horses, but automobiles are beginning to be common. There are stores and hotels and restaurants and bars. Things don't stop much, night or day.
Oh, Mary. I see you going into the dimly lit bar, gathering your cleaning supplies and getting down to work. Is your golden hair braided and wound around your head, like a flaxen crown? Is your skin the same as mine, so easily blushing crimson when any one singles you out? I konw you wear long skirts and clean, crisp blouses. You probably wear sensible brogans. How do you do things? I think there was always a real mess left for you. Did your straw broom sweep easily over the board floors? Did you dust and polish the woodwork and stools and tables and chairs and mirrors until they were smooth and shimmery in the lamp light? Did you have to wash and polish the glasses and bottles, streak free? I know the last thing you did was scrub those wide pine floors on your hands and knees, wiping out the traces of debauchery and stain. Making them white and clean for the morrow.
Were you weary , then when morning came? Did you stand and stretch and rub the small of your back? Did open the door, and let in the morning, and the fresh air and the birdsong? Did you turn back and look at your job, well done? Sometimes did you have to quickly go finish some small thing,straighten some thing, give something one final rub? Did you marvel at your first earnings, touching them , smoothing them in your hands, like I do? Did you go paying your debts, buying something you need, stashing some small amount, for a rainy day?
I know you were still there, in the morning, scrubbing that floor. The burly delivery man coming in with his goods stops in surprise. He stares frankly at your fresh, young loveliness. "Holy Moly" he says, wonderment in his raspy voice. "Holy Moly." You look up, surprised. You like the sound of the words, they way they roll off of his tongue. You smile and continue working, but you say the words over in your mind. You practice them, over and over. You are begining the english language journey.
When you lay your tired bones on the bed and drift off to sleep you dare to whisper them aloud to the empty room. "Holy Moly." Did you surrender yourself to sleep with a smile on your face, then, Mary? How many times did you say it that week, smiling and greeting the folks that crossed your mornings?
I feel how joyous your day off was, walking out of the noise and commotion of the town. Out to the country. Out to the farm, where you are welcomed in and fed fresh eggs, newly made bread, fresh clean milk, vegetables from the garden. How sweet to chatter in Finnish and be understood. "So, have you learned any english, yet?" they ask you. "Oh, yes," you so proudly tell them. I have learned to say "Good Morning". "Holy Moly". You sing it out into the room! I am learning! I can say something in English! Do you hear me, rolling these strange words over my tongue? Do you?
They explode into merry laughter. They gasp, and hold their arms over their chests. Are you stunned? Are you hurt? Embarrased? Your brother in law has tears, he is laughing so hard. I feel the shrinking in your heart, the stubborn wish to just forget it and never learn english. The quick pain in your eyes. I know that you hid it, though. Like me, you smiled, and laughed along with them keeping the scar in your heart for a long time.
You never do learn english very well. When I am a small girl, when I am a teenager, you can't really talk to me. Not in English. Your english is quaint and broken. But you have a love language that you speak to me, and we have our own silent chats. Chats that are touch, and teach, and smiles, and tears and laughter, and song. We know the same songs, we just sing them with different words. When you are old, and in a nursing home, I bring you my first born. He has a thatch of white hair and eyes of blue, blue. You hold him, and croon to him, the same songs you sang to me. I brush your hair, you always liked me to do that. Its is silver, thin, brittle. I braid it down the back, a thin silver strand. You ask for your 'lippers, and I bend down and put them on your feet and we shuffle over to your chair. We talk over this sleepy, golden baby, you and I, and we smile and we don't cry. We know that we won't see each other again. I am going far away, and you are only here for a small while longer. But "Holy Moly!" We will meet in the morning!
From stories my mother told me on January afternoons.