A Mother's Story Of Ellis Island
Dutch Family at Ellis Island circa 1915. George Grantham Bain Collection. Library of Congress # 2014710706. GGA Image ID # 148c69db77
THEY were sisters in widowhood and motherhood, though in every other respect they were worlds apart.
The one was tall and full-throated as Juno, with coal-black hair and the languishing eyes of the southern Italian; her hair waved from her forehead and warm, white neck in soft undulations, concealing the little gold rings in her ears; the scarlet kerchief that followed the oval of her face just touched the purple peasant's gown that clothed her young figure.
With scarlet cheeks and vivid lips and rounded outline, she looked the embodiment of the sunshine that had shone on her since babyhood. When she spoke, it was with easy gestures of her expressive hands, with her head on one side and her eyes speaking faster than her tongue. On her breast lay a cross, an ancient cross of intricate workmanship, and her eyes glowed when they fell upon it.
The other woman was small and angular; the straight black hair was drawn severely, back from a pale and haggard face with the aquiline profile of the Ghetto—a nervous face, wearing the flat look of utter exhaustion. Maria's expansive nature smiled on all alike, as sunshine seeks out every little twig, her soft eyes catching sparks from other eyes as the Sorrento sky smiles back at itself in flowers.
Rachel sat still on the edge of her bed, her head hung low. It was the steerage. She sat with her face turned away from all the other immigrants, avoiding glances as if they were blows. She shivered, as if the cold from the dreary steppes of Russia blew on her. She was as nervous as the Ghetto when the czar's emissaries are abroad.
They spoke a different language, they knew a different world, these two women; but they were both exiles fast speeding toward the land of liberty—the one all sunshine, despite her widowhood; the other all shadow, yet with the beacon light of an only son.
Maria Bianchini gave a little gasp and clasped her large and shapely hand over the iron rod of her bed. As the long rows of gray beds rose up to meet her eye with the ship's motion, a small boy swung down the aisle. This was not strange. But back of him came his shadow—his shadow in the flesh.
Maria's white teeth flashed and she watched them come, navigating down the rolling floor. The other woman gave no sign, though her sharp black eyes were swimming with light, passionately keen to the existence of her chiefest treasure on earth.
Maria's son came to her and put a grimy, small brown hand into her eager clasp. His shadow swayed to Rachel Kohn and put a grimy, small brown hand into her thin, nervous one. Maria's rippling voice broke into little cries of delight. She bent and kissed her child on the eyes, forehead, and warm, moist lips; she surveyed him at arm's length; she said many nothings to him. All the while she gazed from one boy to the other.
The Jewish mother turned tense eyes on her son, as if they would draw his very soul to hers: but she said nothing.
For an instant the eyes of the two mothers met in wonder. The boys might have been brothers—they were as like as two peas: the same mischievous eyes of night flashing out from curling lashes; the same ivory skin, and jet-black curls lying like a cloud close to the warm white brows; the same impulsive, ardent faces; the same shrug of a shoulder and dramatic gestures of small brown hands.
The son of the southern Italian and the son of the Jew both showed the Oriental touches of color and lineament, with the characteristic curve of brow, of nostril, the high cheekbones, the curl of the hair, the passionate fire of the eyes.
Maria dapped her hands and laughed—it was manifestly a miracle, the resemblance between the two children. . She turned a radiant face to Rachel with many an exclamation of astonishment. But Rachel, drawn into herself with much brooding, held aloof. Her eyes dropped away from the smiling eyes of Maria, though she did put out a swift hand and lift Giuseppe's face with her small, supple fingers, till the boy jerked away with a blush.
During the long hours of storm and sickness, or the merry ones when the steerage, gay in spirit and plumage as tropical birds, smiled back at the smiling skies from the open deck, the boys played together.
They often ate their supper under the early stars; they played games, taking Maria into their counsel; and she was ever ready to be one of them. But Rachel sat in the shadowland, hugging her grief in dumb passion, with her eye following the wistful devotion of her son to Maria.
For he listened to her merry songs; followed her busy fingers as she cut out paper soldiers and war-boats or fashioned pigs out of potatoes; and because he was curious and venturesome, being a boy, he even made free to touch the cross with his finger, his eyes full of wonder. Whereupon Maria smiled and gave him a blue-mantled plaster Madonna and a little string of blue beads, at which Rachel frowned, though he pulled them apart for marbles.
Once he had stood with wide eyes watching Maria lavish warm, moist kisses on Giuseppe-bis mother's kisses were rare, light as flakes of snow. And Rachel resented Maria's smiles, her friendly overtures, her universal motherhood, the cross on her breast.
A fortnight brought the new land. It rose up one morning before their sea-weary eyes like a structure of fairyland woven over night—the vast range of New York dipping its feet in the bay, the snow-capped peak of the Singer Tower, blue with the early morning haze, rising above the lesser skyscrapers; the deep canons of streets, and the plumed feathers from myriad chimneys; with Lucifer, Star of Morning, hung low, like Destiny, for eager hands.
Maria wondered what Giuseppe would do, now that the boys were soon to be parted; but she need not have taken the trouble. The physicians at quarantine came aboard. Giuseppe had a little fever. There was a slight eruption over his body; and Isidore, his very likeness, was herein also not unlike to Giuseppe.
Then came the parting from the mothers. The boys were sent to Hoffman's Island, to quarantine, with the measles. The mothers, as is the Government custom, were detained at Ellis Island to await the recovery of their sons.
Maria cried and held her arms out to Rachel, seeking comfort in their common woe. Rachel gave no sign, unless her staying close to Maria was a response. She stared into space, more like a dead woman than a living, save that at times her body trembled, shaking hysterically. She shrank from Maria and her sympathy.
And Maria soon fell to quiet words; she touched Rachel's pallid cheek with the tips of her rosy fingers, saying in her melodious tongue—of which Rachel knew nothing save the broad vowel of gentleness—that their sons would soon be back—why should they not smile? The boys were not divided—what games there would be! And every day there was the report from quarantine!
The two boys in the children's hospital at the island occupied adjoining cots. The measles were light, and they never tired of playing . with each other. Sometimes Giuseppe, when the white-robed nurse was not looking, climbed up into Isidore's cot, and sometimes Isidore would return the visit. The nurse could never tell them apart, nor could the doctors, save for the little identification tag of cardboard, bearing the name, that was tied on each slender wrist.
Without rustle of garments or battling of wings, Fate entered the hospital ward in the innocent form of a marble, a small, white, shining marble in the hands of Giuseppe. Isidore's black eyes flashed as Giuseppe held it up, and he put out a swift hand for it. But Giuseppe did not like to part with it at the moment, so Isidore pounced down into his neighbor's little cot.
Giuseppe sprang to the floor, Isidore after him. There was a tussle. They tore at each other's hands. Over and over the two white-gowned little figures tumbled. There was a. cry—the marble had rolled along the floor to the register.
At the cry the nurse flew down the aisle, and the two small boys tumbled wildly into bed. Two pairs of bright, audacious eyes softly closed; the fighting little fists, with adorable abandonment, lay suspiciously still. The tags from their wrists were in little bits on the floor.
Their pretense at sleep made the nurse choke with laughter as she devoted herself to making new tags and hurriedly tied one to each wrist. The doctors were making their rounds; a little girl was shrieking in German for a glass of water, while a small urchin with placid face and unwinking eyes was politely admonishing her in Basque—which was not understood by any one—to be still; so it was no wonder that Giuseppe was tagged Isidore, and Isidore Giuseppe!
That night—a bleak night of cold, driving rain—something went wrong with the steam-pipes; and for several hours the best efforts of workmen and officials were unavailing to restore the hospital to normal temperature.
A damp chill crept through the ward, and, despite extra covers, the next morning, from more than one tiny cot came the sounds of labored breathing and the short, quick hack of suppressed coughing—pneumonia was demanding toll.
Three days later, as the clerk of the records was making out his daily death-report, he found the name of Isidore Kohn among the little pile of wrist-tags that were no longer needed.
The mother at Ellis Island was notified. She sat still, and her mind was a blank—till she heard the voice of Maria. Maria had her boy—and she—Rachel—was bereft! She could not look up into Maria's face.
Yet Maria was bending over her, Maria's tender face was close to her, and her great, warm white hands took the cold, thin hands in her own and strove to warm them; Maria's tears Were flowing for her.
The news of Rachel's trouble was already in the detention-room. As she lifted her wan face, she read it in the silent eyes of foreign women. She was a stranger in a strange land—the Government would bury the boy—it was the usual custom.
All that day Maria watched over her with an immense pity. She often timidly stroked her hair, longing to enfold the stricken, defiant little soul in her mothering arms; but Rachel, rebellious against fate, rebellious against the sight of this mother of a living son, opposed a cold steel shield of resentment to Maria, and would not be comforted. She wished to return to her native land, to seek again familiar faces; the new land had been for the boy, but there was no need—now.
As the Barbarossa steamed slowly down the bay in the dazzling white of the noon sunshine, a lonely figure in black hung over the rail on the steerage deck.
The sea-line of New York glittered into softer outline with distance and the haze, but the listless eyes of the woman did not watch it. Maria, in the detention-room at Ellis Island, waiting for her own boy to come to her, yet with sorrow for the other mother clutching at her heart, had parted from the dry-eyed woman with ineffable pity. But Rachel had given no response.
The city fast shifted into kaleidoscopic scenes under her unseeing eyes, and the merry voices of little children from a Government barge, rocked by the wash of the liner, reached her. They were gay—heart, costume, and eye—coming from the quarantine station to join their parents at Ellis Island.
It seemed an outrage to her that the little voices could be happy when a loved voice could no longer reach her listening cars. Yet as a traveler may peer over an abyss in sheer fascination, so she daringly leaned over the rail.
Her heart stopped—it ceased beating for a long moment. Then she pressed her fingers against her side to still the great throbs that suddenly beat there.
Her wide, motionless eyes, like a mother bird's who sees her little one restored to the plundered nest, looked into the sweet, wild eyes of her son. She knew the truth. With a tremulous cry she flung her arms, round a seaman, shrieking to him in Yiddish to stop the ship, that her boy—her darling boy—was there alive! alive!
And he, uncomprehending, gaped at the woman with open mouth—she was mad, mad indeed! He pushed her away, and she fell on her knees, yet boldly scolding him for his slowness, his stupidity. The west wind kissed her hard cheek and blew the hair about her face. He frowned, and called out to a deck-hand to take her away.
She saw them coming toward her. The ship was steaming up, and childish faces crowded over the barge rail to gaze at the departing steamer; among them all she saw but one small face, with mischievous dark eyes. With a sob of joy she was over the ship's rail and struggling in the green, dancing waves.
As the cry went up, "A mad woman overboard!" and the ship slowed down while a boat was put out, a seaman from the barge was grappling with the woman, and rescued and rescuer were soon aboard the barge.
Rachel, faint and exhausted, gasping at the chill that crept over her, and with her overjoyed arms around her son, opened her eyes. There were sudden smiles curving the lips of all classes on the big ship steaming outward; clearing of throats and abstracted smiles of callous deck-hands on the barge nearing the city.
The old doctor, his hand on her pulse, a mist in his eyes, knelt like a priest before a naked altar; yet lie chuckled in a very human way over her, as he watched her watch her son.
Suddenly he caught his breath, for her face had gone white. She rose and knelt on the bare deck, the tears flowing down her pale cheeks. She flung her soul into half-remembered prayers.
The turning of Rachel's life lay in that moment—she forgot herself. All looked on in wonder. Even the children ceased their chattering and were smiling faintly.
"Joy's been too much for her. Joy has been too much—" The old doctor shook his head.
But it was Maria she was thinking of, praying for—Maria, who would be down to meet the barge; Maria, who waited for her little son, with the sunshine in her eyes.
The barge, a floating house of laughing children, slowed up, backed into the break- water of Ellis Island, sliding in close to the heart of the island as to the hearts of the waiting parents. There was Maria, Maria with her beautiful smile, standing serene in the sunshine.
Rachel, woman of gloom, one arm timidly around her son, daring not to press him to her as she thought of the other mother, slowly went down the gang-plank. She threaded her way through the immigrants; her color had risen, and her voice faltered when she began to speak.
Maria stared at Rachel—stared at Isidore. Then a new light leaped in her eyes. Rachel's boy was not dead! Maria flung back her head and laughed—then the laugh caught in her throat. She took a blind step nearer—Rachel slowly walked to her, leading the boy, who hung back out of pure perversity of boyhood.
But suddenly the smile around Maria's mouth, the frantic demand of her eyes, or perhaps some subtle vision that belongs to childhood, made Isidore throw himself impetuously into her arms. And Rachel, with a wealth of sudden love like a stream whose dam is broken, flung her arms around the two as they stood in an embrace.
"Ours together—ours together!" she was crying in Yiddish.
Maria did not understand the strange words, but she felt their meaning, and all the truth flowed in upon her. As her great heart broke in anguish, and her tears mingled with the tears of Rachel, she leaned back against the strength of the thin, supple arms; she sought the sanctuary of Rachel's sympathy.
And Isidore, all boy—mischief and audacity—suddenly flung an arm around each woman and essayed his first English word—"Mother!"—truly one mother. His look was for them both, like the new language that would be theirs together; and the certain worship and wonder of his eye made Maria suddenly catch him to her with a pang of love.
The two women went out into the new land with their burdens, but side by side, and seldom letting out of eyeshot a venturing, wayward boy, who trudged on a little ahead, alive with the immortal hunger of youth.
Neumann, E. Howell, "The Mother," in Everybody's Magazine, Volume XXV, No. 6, December 1911