“Babci! Can I have a cup of tea?” I skipped into the kitchen and plopped into a chair at the kitchen window. From upstairs, I had watched Dziadzia heading across the lawn to the barn where he would milk the cows.
“Yah,” said Babci. She opened the upper cupboard for tea cups and tea bags, then pulled a teaspoon from the drawer below.
Babci’s kitchen continued to be a good place for a lonely girl to get away to. She and I spent many quiet afternoons in mostly companionable silence. We always drank tea. Lipton or Salada. No sugar or milk. If we were having tea alone with no bread or pie, we sat near the kitchen window with a low oak cabinet between us. The cabinet stood in front of the west window where a sill full of potted red geraniums bloomed plentifully all year ‘round. Their strong herbal fragrance lifted into the air when Babci pinched off a dried blossom or plucked a withered yellow leaf. Even today, years and years later, I always have geraniums in my planters, and I always remember Babci as I remove the spent blossoms.
It was during one of those tea-infused afternoons that I learned Babci had been only seventeen-years-old when she set out for Antwerp and across the ocean beyond on her way to America. I don’t remember how the subject came up, but soon Babci was blurting out the whole story of her travel on the steamship Finland.
She was standing alone on a train platform somewhere in western Russia in 1911, six years before the Russian Revolution. Her family lived in Kolno, in rural eastern Poland which was part of Russia at that time, and she managed to find a ride in a carriage that would pass by the station.
The moonlight sparkled on the crust of the deep frozen snow. Young Róża drew her cheap coat closer against the bitter cold and stamped her feet to warm them.
When the train arrived at the station, Róża boarded and handed her ticket to the conductor. It departed soon after with her trunk in the baggage car, and its shrill whistle merged with the howling of the wind and wolves in the forest. Some of the travelers, those bound for fancy destinations in Western Europe and the Christmas holidays, were elated to be on their way. Others, like Róża, may have shed a few tears for her Mama and Ojciec left behind.
She layered her hand knit shawl over her coat and pulled it tighter. Being peasant Polish, she couldn’t afford a stylish pheasant-feathered hat like those she had seen entering the First Class compartments. More likely, she wore a babushka tied beneath her chin, like the one she wore almost every day of the rest of her life.
Arriving at Antwerp the next day, Róża’s trunk was transferred to the waterfront. She carefully removed some money from a pocket hidden in her petticoat and bought a Steerage Class ticket to New York at the Red Star Lines’ ticket window.
The dock was a beehive of activity. The ships of the Red Star Line were always full occupancy with travel between eastern Europe and the United States. Many of them were Jews until the threat of the Nazis stopped their exodus.
Wagons were being unloaded left and right. Róza walked the gangplank onto the ship Finland with the other young people, first watching to be sure that her trunk was stacked on the baggage wagon and hauled on board. She knew to be careful. Everything she owned was in that trunk. Her clothing, her Sunday church shoes, her featherbed, and even—a basket woven of willow that sits on a shelf in my kitchen today—right beneath my cookbooks. Róża fingered the rosary in the pocket of her coat, one bead at a time, her lips moving silently with her prayers. She found her way below deck to the Steerage Class bunks. Soon the ship was underway.
Babci told me that the trip at sea was scary. Girls in the nearby bunks whimpered and moaned, crying and vomiting with seasickness. The food served below was “nie dobzre”—“no good”—she said, but she had to eat in order to be strong for the medical examination upon arrival in the United States. She stood in line with her tin plate to receive a grey meal consisting of a chunk of bread and a scoop of watery stew ladled from a big pot. The smells of seasickness and the boiling meat blended together, so, like the others, Babci mostly stayed in her bunk with her queasy stomach.
She shared that when she first made her way through the ship’s windowless hold to her assigned bunk, she saw people with dark black skin nearby. The lady in the next bunk told her they were devils.
“Devils.” Babci repeated the word. “Devils!”
She laughed self-consciously when she told me this. It was the slightly embarrassed character of Babci’s laugh that communicated to me—a ten-year-old who had only seen black people on television—that she might have actually believed it at the time.
We shook our heads at such a silly thought. Who would believe such a thing?
As the Finland steamed westward, Róża preferred to keep to herself. Christmas came and went. She told herself her Christmas gift would be stepping ashore at Ellis Island. And so it was, although it took some time. The steerage passengers were transported on unheated barges, and by the time they got to the Great Hall, her hands were cold and her nose, dripping. There were examinations and interrogations.
“Where are you going? Where are you from? What is your occupation? Who is meeting you? Do you have a job to go to? How old are you?” and more. Those were the questions that were asked as she stood before the official in Immigration. The answers were scribed in a ledger and Róża was officially permitted entry into the United States of America.