In honor of Saint Patrick's Day
Excerpt from a novel in progress tentatively titled A Better Life,
by Tammi J Truax, all rights reserved.
Maggie hadn’t really wanted to leave her home in County Cork, but her family had needed to send her to America where a better life was assured, and she would be able to send money home to help her large troubled family. It was 1898 and she had only recently turned twenty years of age. Her parents thought she was old enough and sharp enough to venture out on her own and they had worked hard to save the steerage fee and send her off with a carpet bag containing a blanket, two dresses, a few invaluable odds and ends, a cake, and a handful of coin. Truth was she hadn’t fought the idea of coming with the ferocity she might have if she hadn’t known that if she stayed in County Cork she would have to relent and marry Frankie Sullivan, a boy she’d known all her life and who made her sick. Her older sister had already married a Sullivan, had four Sullivan babies so far, and they were all miserable. Seemed to Maggie you couldn’t be a Sullivan and be happy. Frankie was drinking and carousing at this very moment she was sure, and if not, was asleep in a stinking heap somewhere.
Though she hadn’t truly wanted to come to America, she now couldn’t wait to set her feet upon solid ground again. The journey across the sea on this lurching steam ship was the most unpleasant experience of her life which had never been soft and easy. She couldn’t wait to wash the stench of the ship off of her with a hot bath. And while she knew she wouldn’t find her Mum’s cooking in America she was so hungry she felt hollow and was certain her belly would be filled when she made her way ashore. The boat was making an agonizingly slow entrance into the harbor and the wind whipped Maggie’s curls about her head so that her hair pins were rendered useless and she clasped her shawl at her throat while the wind tried to take it back to Ireland. Then she saw it. A huge stone woman reaching up into the sky with a blazing torch and holding fast to the holy book. It was indeed a welcome sight, and Maggie had no doubts that she was welcome and she would find a better life. She could also see the tall buildings of America in the distance and a big long bridge that seemed to be hanging in the sky. The children were jumping up and down, and some of the women cried. More amazing then the Lady of Liberty to Maggie, was the palace. She saw an enormous and beautiful castle on an island and everyone said that was where they were going. That was Ellis Island. It did indeed look like a paradise.
After dropping off the upper class passengers in one place the captain motored the ship to another port where the steerage passengers were finally allowed to board a barge that took them all to the front entrance of the big brick building. At last they could disembark and climb on American soil. It was time to get in line, first just to get up the main stone stairway where hundreds and hundreds of other people also fell in. It was noisy and exciting and quite frightening. Maggie saw people wearing the strangest clothes, hats and hairstyles. She saw women carrying parcels on their heads and some with baskets on their backs. She saw people trying to walk who were too weak and sick to make it to the end of their journey. She saw family members being separated from each other and terrified children clinging to their loved ones. The uniforms worn by the inspectors were especially intimidating to many of the foreigners. It was clear in short time that not everyone was being welcomed and there were so many people; men, women, and children from all over the world, trying to get through. First, Maggie had to answer 29 questions. That task was easy for her, she always had an answer and didn’t mind telling it. She didn’t even mind when she was asked a trick question like “How would you wash a staircase?“ That one made her smile.
Next came a medical examination, and she could see quite a few people were failing this inspection as they were whisked off in other directions after a chalk X was drawn on their backs. There was much illness on the ship, but Maggie was strong and healthy. She hadn’t seen many doctors in her life, but this inspection reminded her of how her father had examined a horse he was considering purchasing. When it was her turn a doctor looked her in the eyes, nose and mouth, turned her around, told her to cough, and slammed a stamp across her documents with a yell to move on.
The next line was the slowest one and Maggie didn’t understand what it was about. When it was her turn she was given a chair to sit down in while an official examined her documents. “You are unmarried?” “Yes,” Maggie replied. “Who will support you here?” he asked. “I will support myself,” Maggie answered nervously. “You have no male relatives here? No one is here to receive you?” he quizzed. “I have friends on the boat, and there are many other people from my village living in America,’ she offered. “I am a very hard worker, and have a letter of introduction from my church,” she added. He shut her passport book and slid it back at her across the little table. “Without a means of support you cannot stay, and will have to return with the ship. Entry denied. Next!”
A guard drew an X on Maggie’s back and pointed her in a direction different from her fellow passengers who looked at her with sad and serious silence. She was led by a matron with several very sick and forlorn people to an area of the great hall designated for those denied entry. She sat on a hard wooden bench and listened to languages being spoken that were the strangest sounds she had ever heard. Someone might have noticed her fatigue for eventually she was given fresh water and soda crackers. This first act of kindness made her cry a little. As the day wore on she was asked to tell her story a few times to guards and officials, and she always hoped for a reprieve. Each time she was told she would be put back on a ship bound for Europe in the morning because she could not become a public charge.
At supper time one of the guards took them to a cafeteria where they were served a soothing and delicious meal of fish and white bread, with all the milk they wanted to drink. Everyone filled their bellies. Maggie noticed but did not care about the absence of potatoes. Later she was taken to a special sleeping dormitory, and was allowed to use a lavish bathroom with sinks, pull flush toilets, and running water. Everything they had ever heard about America was clearly true, and Maggie was heartbroken about being denied entry, and failing her family. Everyone in the detention pen was heartbroken and the guards kept a close watch on them, looking out not so much for escapees but for suicides.
One of the guards, Henry Hogancamp, was taken aback by the beauty of the brave young lady he’d met. Her dark curly hair, bright green eyes and haunting brogue stayed with him all the way to his neighborhood tavern in a New Jersey town that evening. After a couple of pints he shared her story with the boys. “So sad, really, fellas. Such a sweet and decent lass who has come so far just to help her family. Seems a shame to send the pretty ones back,” he said with a laugh. All the boys nodded and sipped in agreement. Then one at the end of the bar, a shy and young regular named William Gordon, said “I’ll marry her.”
Everyone looked at him. William, a brick layer by trade, who came here most nights for refreshment and companionship, rarely drew attention to himself. “What?’ said Henry.
“I’ll marry the girl.” he declared with a defiant placement of his mug on the bar. “If what you say is true, I will marry the girl and give her a home. She can find work here.”
After a few moments of silence and staring everyone began cheering and laughing and patting William on the back. He and Henry agreed to return to Ellis Island first thing in the morning together. Henry laughed some more and yelled to Jimmy to pour another round. “We’re going to have a wedding tomorrow!” he hollered. They spent the next couple of hours toasting and boasting, blessing and advising the groom, and singing songs from their own homelands.
While in the dormitory Maggie had a fretful night’s sleep in the cleanest, softest bed she had ever slept in, after praying to God not to see fit to take these bountiful gifts from her. In the desperation of the darkness she made a promise to him, and she was sure that he could hear her in this place that proved prayers were answered.