Thursday, July 3, 2008
Two American Ladies-A Story
I was fourteen when I boarded the old Navy ship, The General M. B. Stewart, in the port of Bremen, Germany. I was with my grandparents, who raised me, and hundreds of other people, many of them Hungarians like us,who were fortunate enough to have been accepted to immigrate to America.World War II had torn apart our lives and displaced us, making us refugees.
Though our arms ached from all the required shots, our hopes and dreams soared as we began our journey to America. Our prayers had been answered. Once aboard ship, women and children were ushered to one huge area below deck, men and older boys to another. Then we were all assigned sleeping quarters. I got the upper bunk, Grandma the lower. Grandpa, of course, went with the men. After settling in with our meager belongings, Grandma and I joined Grandpa up on deck.
As the ship pulled out to sea, the people on shore waved and shouted"Auf Wiedersehn" (until we meet again), and many had tears in their eyes, for we knew we would never see our homeland again. I remember studying my grandparents’ faces; their teary eyes revealed the bittersweet feeling I shared. But we were on our way to America, the land of golden opportunities. We had heard so much about America from friends who had gone before us. And two years before our departure, I started studying English in the refugee camp school, but my command of it was still poor.
Our Atlantic crossing took ten days, most in raging, stormy seas. My grandmother was seasick much of that time, but I thrived and soon made some new friends. A young America named Dave, who worked in the enormous galley, brought me my first Coke, a new taste delight. Then he asked me where I was going in America.
"I go to India," I had told Dave, shyly. He smiled at me and said, "That’s probably Indiana. Not India. In-di-an-a," he emphasized the last part, adding, "You will like America."
"In America, everything will be okey-dokey," I giggled, using the new phrase I had picked up from Dave.
Most of the kids on the ship whiled away the hours playing games and watching Roy Rogers movies in the huge recreation room. There was also plenty of excitement. One day while a friend and I were sharing an easy chair, an enormous wave hit the ship, throwing the chair across the room, sending us and everyone else in its path scrambling for safety. In the enormous mess hall, where we had our meals, we often had to hold on to our trays with one hand as we ate, to keep them from sliding off the table. Topside, we’d often watch dolphins at play in the water, bobbing up and down in the great waves. Sometimes, we even saw other ships passing, like the luxury liner The Queen Elizabeth, heading towards Europe with its American passengers! When we chugged past the White Cliffs of Dover, we sang "There’ll Be Bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover." Someone in the recreation room had taught us that song.
Then, one morning before dawn, my grandmother awakened me. "Hurry, getup, sweetheart. The lights of New York are visible in the distance!" she told me excitedly. I jumped down from my bunk and quickly dressed, and then we headed out to the deck, where hundreds of people had already gathered.Grandfather was there, waiting for us. I remember gazing sleepily into the black distance, becoming slowly entranced by the trillions of lights out there on the dark horizon. It looked like a fairyland. It was my first look at America! Then, as dawn broke, someone in the crowd shouted, "There she is! There she is! The famous Statue of Liberty!"
Mesmerized, I gazed upon the vision of that grand lady with the torch rising magnificently out of the sea. From my vantage point on the ship, she seemed to hold her torch higher and higher on the New York skyline. I was overcome with emotion and could almost hear Lady Liberty saying the words I had learned in English class at the refugee camp school: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." And it seemed like she was speaking directly to me. That vision is indelibly etched in my memory.
Later, as we pulled into the harbor, the "Star Spangled Banner" played over the loudspeakers, and we learned that it was the national anthem of our new country. Once again, tears filled our eyes, and many others aboard. We had arrived in America! After several hours of being processed, my grandparents and I were finally released to our sponsor, Mr. Levin, and his wife. We traveled with them by train to our new destination, Indiana.
During the long train ride, I answered Mrs. Levin’s questions in my broken English, painfully aware of my shabby condition. But I thought she was the most beautiful, kindest lady I had ever met. After helping us get settled into a small house they had ready for us, Mrs. Levin came by with some news for me.
"You’ll be going to school soon, so tomorrow you and I are going shopping," she announced with a bright smile. ‘And how old did you say you are?"
"I’m almost fifteen," I replied shyly.
"Well, I was thinking that a young lady of almost fifteen might like to get rid of her little-girl braids, so we’ll visit a beauty shop, too." Her smile was so kind and bright that I had the urge to hug her.
"Oh, thank you," I said. "I would like that very much."
So the following day was a day of transformation for me. I got a stylish new haircut and stylish American clothes and shoes. Then Mrs. Levin took me to see a movie, where I got another boost to my adolescent self-confidence when a couple of teen aged boys "made goo-goo eyes" at me in the lobby. That’s what Mrs. Levin said they were doing, while I blushed, but was secretly pleased about it all. She shared many other insights and in many other ways helped a shy young Hungarian girl become a confident young American woman.
So it was on that bright September day in 1951, I met two special American ladies who forever changed my life: one who welcomed me into the land of promise, and one who helped me make my way in this golden land. I will always remember Mrs. Levin’s kindness and Miss Liberty’s warm welcome.
First published in Mature Living Magazine, copyright (c) July 2004
Thank you for reading the long story of one proud American lady! Happy Independence Day, everyone! God bless America!