What Were We Thinking?

“… Happy times together we’d be spending

I wish that every kiss was never ending

Wouldn’t it be nice?

Maybe if we think and wish and hope and pray it might come true

Baby, then there wouldn’t be a single thing we couldn’t do

We could be married

 and then we’d be happy

Wouldn’t it be nice?”

 Lyrics to “Wouldn’t it be Nice” by Brian Wilson, Mike Love, and Tony Asher (1968)

We met in the Fall of ’68 when we were both nineteen, working in the basement dishroom of the Bayliss-Henninger dorm at Western Illinois University. We flirted while Michael hoisted, then stacked  the clean dishes from the dishwasher and I scorched my fingertips sorting silverware. His glasses fogged up and our already-wavy hair frizzed under the humid haze.

By Spring, we were in love. We got pinned, which was a step up from getting lavaliered. This was serious. Mike went home to Storm Lake, Iowa, to work construction. I stayed on campus to get enough credits so that I could graduate on time. We missed each other, but we rarely called. Long distance was certainly not for idle chitchat. Instead, we wrote letters, now stored in a box down in our basement. On Fourth of July weekend, I took a train to Iowa for a short visit. It was a long summer.

When school resumed in the Fall, we were happily reunited. But the winter trimester loomed, and I returned home for student teaching. Another long separation. I think I may have taken the train down to Macomb once, a four hour trip. It was a long winter.

For the Spring trimester, I was back on campus, my graduation just a few months away. Then what? Would I get a teaching job in Chicago and live at home until Mike graduated? More separation faced us, and we mulled it over. What if I got a job in Macomb? Then we could get married, and end this constant string of goodbyes. Mike applied for married student housing and didn’t bother to arrange a fall-back place where he could live during his senior year. We crossed our fingers.

Miraculously, in May I was hired to teach fifth grade in Bardolph, a hardscrabble little town off the hard road about nine miles away. We were engaged! A diamond? As if! We had no money. Still, you didn’t need a diamond to get married, and we called home to announce the news. Or, did Mike just write a note? Possibly.

After graduation in early June, Mike went back to Iowa while I went home to Chicago to plan our wedding. In two months’ time, we put it all together – a pretty dress and veil, a bouquet of daisies, cute Mom-made bridesmaids’ dresses, tuxes, rings, cake, and the whole shebang. On a warm Saturday afternoon, August 15, 1970, we were married. “Our” songs – “Come Saturday Morning” and “Love Can Make You Happy” were sung. Our afternoon reception at Nielson’s Nordic featured an old-world tradition of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and my maid of honor removed my veil and tied an organza apron around my waist… really, that happened. We were both twenty-one years old.

After the reception, on our way to my parents’ house to change out of our wedding garb, I opened our wedding cards, dumping the cash into my lap while Mike drove our “new” Dodge, the one we’d purchased from my mom and dad at a wedding-gift discount. It was all the money we had in the world, and it would pay for our five-day honeymoon at a St. Louis Holiday Inn. We couldn’t have been more excited as we headed off into the sunset.

Forty-seven years later, we look at the pictures of these two starry-eyed children and wonder, “What the hell were we thinking?” I guess we were thinking that we loved each other, and that whatever happened, we’d be able to handle it. I guess that was true. And, we’ve had a lot of good luck on our side.

In the words to the song that we fell in love to,

“If you think you’ve found someone you’ll love forevermore

Then it’s worth the price you’ll have to pay

To have, to hold’s important when forever is the phrase

That means the love you’ve found is going to stay.”

(Lyrics from “Love Can Make You Happy”, recorded by Mercy, 1969)


No Fly Zone

“I still have a full deck. I just shuffle slower.” — Author Unknown

When dinner was over and the dishes were washed and put away, my mother would curl up on “her” end of the couch to watch TV.  Some nights she mended the heels of my bobby socks or sewed patches on my brother’s pants while she watched.  On Saturdays, to the tunes of the Lawrence Welk Show, she set my and my sisters’ freshly shampooed hair in pin curls so we’d look nice for Sunday Mass. But when those tasks were done, she’d keep one eye on Donna Reed or the Cartwright boys and the other on her Dell Crosswords magazine, her ballpoint pen ready to pounce.

My mother has done crossword puzzles nearly all her life, possibly inspired by her sister Liz, an avid puzzler, too. What is it about crossword puzzles that is so appealing? Mom says it’s the mental challenge. The now defunct Chicago Daily News used to feature a diagramless one, a favorite of hers, and according to Mom, “Once you figured them out, they weren’t hard.” Her explanation of the process made my head swim.

When she was a young secretary in a one-girl office of Hires Root Beer, she and a boss often spent down time doing a newspaper puzzle together. One day, when she deciphered a clue, her puzzle acumen so dazzled this guy that he grabbed her and kissed her. Even though he apologized, my mother was so creeped out that she quit within a week. Who would have thought that her word knowledge would result in sexual harassment?

Never, ever has Mom bothered with easy puzzles. She’d go directly to the back of her Dell (it had to be Dell, not some lame substitute) and tackle the hard ones. No pencil, either; just pen. And, when all of the hard puzzles were finished, she’d bring the book of leftover easy ones to work for her friend Nancy… “not that she was stupid,” she told me.

Mom’s love of wordplay doesn’t end with crossword jargon. She chuckles when she recalls witty conversations with her old friend Joe, a fellow puzzle fan.  They’d yuck it up about puzzle words and oddities of the English language. One of Mom’s favorites is disgruntled, as in “A disgruntled employee burst in and shot his employer.” Her question: If someone is disgruntled, can someone else be gruntled? Another: If someone acts in nonchalant manner, can her friend be chalant? These pressing questions never failed to amuse my mother and Joe, while my Dad and Joe’s wife Bernice surely must have been rolling their eyes at such silliness.

Macular degeneration put the kibosh on Mom’s puzzle-solving a few years ago, but this summer we’ve revived her old pastime when my brother or I visit. We read the clues, tell her the number of letters needed, and fill in her responses. And, we’re allowed to chime if an answer strikes us. Doing a puzzle without looking at it is challenging, but Mom is up to the task, dusting off her crossword puzzle jargon along with the plethora of factoids rolling around in her head.

What’s French for summer? Ete. An Asian celebration? Tet. A Mikado accessory? I guessed it was a fan, but I stood corrected. It’s obi. Mom knew what to fill in for Miami-_______ County without ever having been there. It’s Dade. First names of Hammarskjold and of Chekhov? Dag. Anton. What about a big name for a small train? Without a moment’s hesitation, Mom has it: Lionel.

This summer, we started with a toughie at the back of the book, of course. It was a thorny one, and we had lots of blanks to fill. One clue was precise and I stared at the six blank spaces as Mom racked her brain for the answer. “Exact?” she suggested. “Specific?”

“Nope, it has to have six letters.”

Hmmmm. We were stumped. “I’m going to peek,” I said, flipping to the solutions in the back of the book.

“You give up too easy, “Mom scolded, but I cheated anyway.

The answer: TOATEE. “TOATEE!” I cried. “What the heck is that? I never heard of that word!” Just who comes up with these words, I wondered. This is way beyond me.

In a flash, Mom’s look of perplexity switched to one of triumph. “It’s not TOATEE,” she said. “It’s TO A TEE.”

Well, duh. Of course she was one hundred percent right. TOATEE? Really? “I won’t tell anyone you said that, “she promised, but she couldn’t stifle her giggles. Neither could I.

My Grandma Dineen had an expression that described an elderly person whose mind was still sharp. “There are no flies on her,” she’d remark.

No flies on my mother, that’s for sure. That expression fits her TOATEE.






Separating Fact from Fiction

“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.” — Mark Twain

While I was writing Ellis Island, 1923, I could almost hear my grandmother saying, “That’s not true!” Her words rang in my ears as I played around with details of the voyage to America, so, while I don’t know exactly what happened to them on Ellis Island, I wanted to make the event plausible.

Here are the facts:

Yes, Jacob, Magdalena, and Elizabeth did come from Neu Banat, Romania in the summer of 1923. They traveled on the ship America, out of Bremen, Germany, and, according to a website called The Ships List, this ship and several others were detained off-shore until the first of August, because new quotas of the number of immigrants from each country began on the first of each month. Ships raced to arrive at New York Harbor first so that their passengers could be guaranteed entry. This was a potentially dangerous tactic, as the number of ships in a small area of the sea might have spelled disaster. America arrived at 1:02 am on a foggy August 1, 1923.

My grandparents’ ship carried 692 first class passengers and 1056 third class passengers… no steerage. The third class passengers had a small bunkroom with its own sink. These rooms had four bunks, but in my story I didn’t include other passengers in their cabin.

First class passengers didn’t go to Ellis Island. They were processed on the docks of New York, and third class passengers were ferried to Ellis Island. This system was similar to the special perks given to first class airline passengers of today, who avoid the long lines of baggage claim and customs and zip right to the front.

The procedures I’ve described for processing immigrants on Ellis Island are factual. People were inspected for trachoma and other health issues, and those who were unhealthy were sent back to Europe on the ships they’d arrived on, expenses paid by the ocean liner companies.  Since these companies didn’t want the burden of taking people back, they conducted some inspections of passengers before they debarked for the United States. The medical exams on Ellis Island, about eight minutes in length,  were stressful not only because of the fear of failing to pass. The new arrivals were afforded little privacy and their clothing was piled on benches with the clothing of others in line. Regularly, people didn’t pass the health inspections and were denied entry, often resulting in the heart-breaking separation of family members from each other.

Because my grandparents didn’t talk about it,  no one in our family is sure of the details that caused them to be detained. The issue seemed to be a misunderstanding about the amount of money required for entry. Detainees like my grandparents were separated, men from women and children, into crowded dormitories furnished with  cots like the two-tiered bunks described in the story. Detainees were issued five blankets, probably not clean, — two to spread on the canvas cot, and three for covers. They were allotted two paper towels and a bar of soap each night, for personal hygiene. Meals were free of charge.

The food served on Ellis Island was adequate. Breakfast may have consisted of eggs, coffee, and toast; dinner might have been barley soup, boiled beef, vegetables, potatoes, and tapioca; lunch might have been corned beef hash or jelly and bread. Immigrants were often surprised at the unusual foods they were served, and many tasted their first banana on the island.

Volunteers came to Ellis Island to assist the new arrivals. Women from the Salvation Army dressed in their blue bonnets often handed out donuts to the children, and some volunteers entertained the children with music and games.

The story about the baby Laney is sadly true. Laney died, probably of pneumonia, on January 27, 1923, after the family’s passport photo was taken. Throughout her life, my grandmother told my aunt Liz that Laney died because Lizzie let her go outside without a coat. Lizzie, who was three years old at the time of her little sister’s death, carried this guilt with her throughout her life.  My grandfather’s destruction of the cradle is pure fiction. While we don’t know how it got there, the X over Laney’s face on the passport is real. It doesn’t appear in the passport picture shown in the story because my aunt Kathryn had the X photo-shopped out so that she could see what her sister looked like.

My aunt Liz had little memory of Ellis Island, only that my grandmother cried a lot. Who could blame her? Mourning her daughter Laney, separated from her family and the only home she’d ever known, separated from her husband, no understanding of English… there was plenty for her to cry about.

As for my grandfather, he was the one who wanted to come to the United States and he promised my grandmother that it would only be temporary. He never returned to his homeland, however. My grandmother returned once, in the summer of 1937, with my mother Mary and my uncle Jack. My mother’s reminiscence of their visit provided me with the images of life in Neu Banat — the village, the homes, and even the roadside spot where the teenagers hung out. https://hellolamppost49.wordpress.com/2016/08/13/european-vacation-1937/

Perhaps Jacob’s desire to come to America was inspired by his older brother Andrew’s visit home when Jacob was about ten or twelve years old. In the Wolf family picture shown in the story, it is easy to see why an impressionable younger brother might have been star struck by the debonair Andrew.

On the back of the photo is a message written by Andrew that reads: “Much close friend, I grasp pen in best of health to write a few lines to you. Much new I can write about how it does not suit me at home, I wish I were again out there. I was supposed to have taken over my Uncle’s business but it is very weak — out there I earn more in one week than with the business in one month here and I haven’t any enthusiasm here on the farm. It is not like the city. I am well at home by my elders, I have wine and schnapps and what I wish to eat and girls but it still doesn’t suit me, that’s why I’ll be in one month again out there  — now I will close my writing…. Andras Wolf.”

I recently heard the war story about my grandfather and his brother strapping themselves to a train in order to get home from my cousin Maureen, Lizzie’s daughter. My mother has no recollection of the story, and it seems far-fetched, but I included it  because it shows some of the spunk that my grandfather surely had.

Andrew eventually sponsored my grandparents and arranged for them to live with him until they could afford a place of their own. He and his wife lived at 7177 West Grand outside of the city of Chicago, and when the taxi driver took my grandparents on such a long journey from the train station downtown, my grandfather was convinced that the cabbie was trying to jack up the fare by driving them out of the way. My grandfather did work with Andrew in his butcher shop and my grandmother cleaned houses. One of her clients, a wealthy Irish woman, kindly helped my grandmother learn English.

Unfortunately, Andrew’s life took a sad turn. He became an incurable alcoholic and spent his last years confined to Manteno State Hospital, a dismal asylum for the mentally ill. His wife Rose divorced him and took a job as a live-in housekeeper in Glenview. One of their daughters lived with my grandparents while she attended beauty school, and their other children were sent to Florida to live with relatives.

All of us Americans have our own immigration story, and this one is no more special than any other. Every person in the United States, except for Native Americans and African Americans, is here because someone before them made a conscious choice to seek a better way of life for themselves and their families. I am unfailingly awed by their courage, resourcefulness, determination, and work ethic.

Here’s a link to a piece I wrote previously about their first years in their new country.


Grandma and Grandpa, if you’re out there somewhere reading this, I hope you’re pleased with my efforts.

(Photo taken sometime in the 40’s with my uncle Bob, in front of their house on Mozart Street in Chicago.)




Ellis Island, 1923 Part 14

In the summer of 1923 my grandparents Jacob and Magdalena Wolf and their daughter Elizabeth arrived in the United States, heading for Chicago. When they landed at Ellis Island, however, they were detained because they didn’t have the required amount of money. My grandparents never spoke about their detention, but my aunt Liz recalled that my grandmother cried a lot during the ordeal. What really happened before they were allowed to travel to Chicago? My story mixes fact with fiction to show what might have occurred.


The New York lady with the pretty clothes had returned. When Lizzie saw her setting up her easel on the other side of the room, she tugged on Lena’s sleeve. “Come, Mama. I want to go to school again.”

“All right, let’s go,” Lena replied. It’s a good thing for both of us, especially now that Marion and her little girls had been dismissed yesterday. Lena and Marion had wept as they hugged goodbye, both realizing that their friendship would not be sustained as they each headed for different cities. Lena felt bereft. How was it possible that she and Marion had become so close in only a few days? She seems like a sister, Lena thought.

The teacher, dressed in a pale green skirt, a blouse of ivory silk, and shoes of dark green leather, propped up the alphabet chart on the easel. ‘All right, children. Sing with me.”

Children who had recently arrived in the detention hall looked bewildered, but Lizzie, who’d sung along with the teacher on a few occasions, chimed in lustily. “A B C D E..” Lena smiled at her daughter. She’s so proud of herself. I hope that she will learn English well when we get to Chicago. She sighed. IF we get there. Lena’s stomach ached with a knot of dread that she could not unravel. Just where was Jacob? Andrew must send money. But what if Andrew never did? Once again, her chin quivered and tears dwelled at the surface of her eyes, threatening to roll down her cheeks.

When the song ended, a matron came forward and spoke quietly to the teacher. She nodded, and then the matron turned to the group. “Mrs. Wolf? Is Mrs. Wolf here?”

Lena froze, then raised her hand. “Frau Wolf,” she said.

“Ah,” she said. “I’ve been looking for you. Come. With your child.”

Lizzie stared at her mother, and when Lena reached out to her, Lizzie grabbed her hand and allowed herself to be led away. Lena felt her face redden as the heads of the other women swiveled to stare at her. Two scenarios played out in her mind – We’ve been released for Chicago. No, we’re being sent back. Lena walked woodenly. She hadn’t been able to read the expression on the matron’s face. Was this good news? Or bad?

Then, the matron turned to her and smiled. “Get your things. You’re leaving.”

“Mama, where are we going?” Lizzie asked. “I want to keep singing.”

The matron leaned down and patted Lizzie on the cheek. “Honey, you’re going to America!”

Was this really happening? Lena’s fingers trembled as she assembled their belongings. She folded a still-damp blouse she’d hung to dry on the bedframe, methodically smoothing the wrinkles from it, then carefully added it to the pile of clothing in the valise. “Get your dolly, Lizzie,” she said, concentrating on keeping her voice from trembling. Lizzie obeyed.

“Ready?” said the matron, and led them out toward the door.

I’ll never be in this terrible place again. But now what, she wondered. Before she could form a complete thought, Lizzie shrieked and wrested her hand from Lena’s. “Papa! Papa! Papa!’

And there was Jacob, kneeling on the floor, smiling broadly, his arms outstretched to welcome his little girl who was now flinging herself at him.

“My Lizzie!” he cried, scooping the child into his arms and rising to his feet. His eyes met Lena’s. Oh, the sight of him! He’s here for us at last! Thank you God!

“Lena, we’re on our way. Andrew sent the money.” She nearly stumbled, and slumped into him. As he pulled her close with one arm, she was wracked with sobs.

“Shh, shh, don’t cry, Lena. We’re okay. We’re okay.” Yet, his voice trembled. Was this really the day I’ve dreamt of for so many years? He set Lizzie down on the floor so that he could take his wife into his arms. He held her close to his chest, stroking her hair, until her sobs dwindled. Then, holding her cheeks in his hands, he kissed her gently. “I’ve missed you so. I’m sorry you’ve had to wait so long.”

“I know. I know. It’s all right. We’re all right.” She gulped deep breaths, working to stifle her needless tears. We are all right.

“Papa, where have you been?” asked Lizzie, scowling up at her father, her hands on her hips. “Mama and I were sad without you.”

Lena and Jacob’s eyes met, glistening, and Jacob once again stooped down to pick up his daughter. “How would you like to go on the train today?” he asked her.

“Really?” she said, clenching her fists in excitement.

“Yes, really.” He pointed to the passageway to the ferries. Then, lifting up the valises, he said to his wife and child, “Come. It’s time. Welcome to America. We won’t ever forget this day.”

The End

(This photograph must have been taken about one year after the family arrived in Chicago. I’m struck by how prosperous and stylish they look, in spite of my dismay at Lizzie’s hair style.)


Ellis Island, 1923 Part 13

In the summer of 1923 my grandparents Jacob and Magdalena Wolf and their daughter Elizabeth arrived in the United States, heading for Chicago. When they landed at Ellis Island, however, they were detained because they didn’t have the required amount of money. My grandparents never spoke about their detention, but my aunt Liz recalled that my grandmother cried a lot during the ordeal. What really happened before they were allowed to travel to Chicago? My story mixes fact with fiction to show what might have occurred.

But tomorrow didn’t bring any news. Nor the next day. Jacob struggled to stifle his impatience, his growing dread. In a few months, when we are all settled in Chicago, this will seem like nothing, he told himself, but he couldn’t help grapple with the idea that maybe he and his family would never see Chicago. What then? I guess we move to Timisoara.  Maybe find a job there, like my brother Joe. But Joe had gone on to school and worked in a bank. He couldn’t picture that for him. Should we return to Neu Banat and try to farm once again? Each idea lay like a stone on his chest. He couldn’t conjure up an alternative to his plans for a new life. No, no, I won’t take my family back! And to keep himself distracted, he unfolded his list of words and read them over and over.


Another morning, and another day of anticipation. Bitte, Gott, bitte, he muttered as he straightened his blankets, joined the other men in the lavatory to wash and shave, then returned to his bunk to put on the shirt he’d rinsed and hung to dry the day before. He spotted an official carrying a clipboard entering the room and knew that the daily announcement of releases was about to begin. Hope fluttered in his gut, but he tamped it down. Be ready for another letdown and then it won’t feel so terrible.

Yet, Jacob’s optimism could not be quashed. Today could be the day, please God. Thrumming his fingers against his thighs, he stood facing the official, who held up his hand to silence the room. The official began, “Attention, please. Attention. Will the following men come with me for release? Guiseppe Fortunata…. Anton Miserski… Tom Feeney…” Jacob’s Irish friend whooped and  bolted toward the front of the room, pumping his fist in the air. Good for Tom. He’s a good man. Tom reached out the shake the hands of the two men whose names had been called, and the three stood grinning at one another as the list continued. The official stared down at his clipboard. Jacob held his breath and closed his eyes. “Two more: Michael O’Connor… and last one today… Jacob Wolf.”

A gasp escaped Jacob’s mouth. Jacob Wolf? He said Jacob Wolf? “Wolf here!  Wolf! here” he shouted.

Tears sprang to his eyes, but he brushed them away. Not a time for tears, man. He scooped up his belongings and ran to join the others, nearly tripping as he snaked his way through the rows of bunks.

Tom clapped him on the back, beaming. “We’ve made it, Wolf!”

The official smiled and gestured to all five men. “Come with me and we will get your documents in order.”

Outside the bunkroom, they were led to a counter manned by another clerk who spoke to each detainee one by one. Jacob, rubber-legged with relief, worked to stifle the grin that refused to leave his face. He watched as each man signed a document or two and headed for a passageway labelled “Ferry to trains.” His mind swirled. Finally! Won’t Lena be relieved. And Lizzie will get her train ride. We’ll be together, Lena, Lizzie, and me. Chicago, only a couple of days away. He shifted from one foot to another, waiting for the clerk to speak to him.

“Here’s your telegram and a wire transfer of money. You are free to go.”

“But my frau? My kind?”

“Ah,” the clerk said. “Follow me.” He led Jacob to the doorway where he’d last seen Lena and Lizzie. “Wait here. We’ll get them.”


Ellis Island, 1923 Part 12

In the summer of 1923 my grandparents Jacob and Magdalena Wolf and their daughter Elizabeth arrived in the United States, heading for Chicago. When they landed at Ellis Island, however, they were detained because they didn’t have the required amount of money. My grandparents never spoke about their detention, but my aunt Liz recalled that my grandmother cried a lot during the ordeal. What really happened before they were allowed to travel to Chicago? My story mixes fact with fiction to show what might have occurred.


Jacob paced around the exercise yard, clenching and unclenching his fists, scuffing the toes of his shoes into the gravel. This damned idleness! I’m not made for this. I only know work and here I’m trapped, nothing to do, stuck between two worlds. Earlier, he’d paced the bunk room inside, fruitlessly waiting to hear his name announced for release. When? When? Why aren’t we on their way? How is Lena fairing? And Lizzie? Are they frightened? Is Lena angry? And Andrew… what is he doing? Every scenario played out in Jacob’s mind as he squinted in the hot sun and stared through the chain link at the New York skyline. Andrew was rushing to acquire the extra money for the family, and it would be any minute now that it would arrive. Andrew had no money, was ignoring my request. Andrew was asking his friends for the money and he hadn’t convinced them to help. Andrew was disgusted with me for asking for more. As every possibility spun through Jacob’s imagination, his mood swung from despair to anger, hopelessness to determination. I will not go back, he told himself. We will get to Chicago somehow and I will make a new life.

His frustration and resolve brought him back to the end of the war, when he had ached to return home, to resume his life outside the military. If only I could take matters into my own hands, as I did then.

                                                                                (Jacob in uniform during World War I)

The German train yard teemed with soldiers, all recently discharged and each one muscling his way toward the edge of the tracks. “Go home,” they’d been told, but transport, especially to far-away Romania, was scarce. When a train finally screeched into the station, the mob swarmed forward and men who’d fought side by side in the trenches grasped and clawed their way past one another to climb aboard. Jacob and his brother Tony, reunited after the German’s defeat, linked arms to present a stronger force. But as hordes of grizzled, war-weary men packed the train cars, the brothers were still feet away from the steps.

“Jacob, we’ll never get on this train. We’ll have to wait.”

“No! I’m going on this one, and so are you.” Jacob boosted himself up onto the shoulder of another man and lunged forward, grasping the frame of the open window. “Reach, Tony, reach!” he shouted to his brother. “We’ll hang on the outside.” With one arm wound through the window frame, Jacob clasped Tony’s outstretched hand. He yanked Tony forward, and the two brothers each held on to a window frame.

“We won’t last for two hundred miles,” Tony said, but Jacob shook his head. “Yes, we will!” With one hand, he jerked the canvas belt out of the loops on his coat, and then, as the train began to move, he lashed the belt through the open window and around his waist. He struggled to buckle the belt, strapping himself to the side of the train.

“Tony, get your belt and put it through the window. We can do it!”

Men in the train car hung out the window, urging them on. ”Come on, soldier! You can do this!” one landsman shouted, and grasped Tony’s shoulders as he secured his belt. The train built up speed.

“Home! We’re going home!” Jacob yelled as the wind whipped through his open coat, snapping it around him like the sails of a windjammer.

“Jacob, you’re crazy, but we’re going to get there!” Tony yelled back, struggled to be heard over the clamor of the train. Mile after mile, the brothers hung on, until the train arrived into the station in Timasoara.

Jacob chuckled to himself, recalling the many retellings of the strapped-to-the-train story. He and Tony had stretched the story over the years, adding outlandish details that garnered guffaws and jibes from the older brothers. “We hung on to the roof!” “We strapped ourselves to the undercarriage, and had to spit out the cinders that flew into our mouths!” Ah, Tony. How I’m going to miss him and the other brothers. Well, I can hardly push my way out of Ellis Island, or strap Lena and Lizzie to the side of a train. So, Jacob, think, and be patient and do what you can do.

He turned from the fence and shuffled back into the building, pulling folded pieces of paper from his pocket.  Matthias and his sister, now recovered, had departed from the island a few days ago, but he’d left Jacob with a small understanding of English and a smattering of words and phrases. The two men had studied for hours during their two days together, and using Matthias’s dictionary, Jacob had looked up numerous words, copied them on paper, and carried the list with him.

Tuning out the drone of voices surrounding him, he huddled on his bunk, unfolded the paper, reading it and rereading it, forging the new words into his brain. “Good morning, sir. Good morning, missus. How are you today? May I help you? Car. House. Street. Beef. Pork. Chicken. Family. Wife. Daughter. Brother. Cold. Hot.” Jacob repeated the words over and over, stared at the ceiling.

Restless, he left his cot and hovered near the officials who conversed with immigrants, picking up more words to add to his vocabulary. “Money. Dollars. Relatives. Not permitted. Telegram. Regulations. Permission.” All part of the language of Ellis Island.

He looked around in vain for the German-speaking official, who seemed to have taken a liking to Jacob. Over the past several days, Jacob had inundated him with questions. “Excuse me, Herr Schultz, can you tell me how my wife and daughter are doing? Excuse me, Herr Schultz, can you tell me about Chicago? Excuse me, Herr Schultz, is it always this hot in America in the summer?”

“Herr Wolf, I am sure your wife and daughter are fine. They are getting good food.”

“Yes, it’s hot in New York in the summer.”

“I haven’t been to Chicago, but I hear that it is not much different from New York. Many, many people, and many Germans.”

He helped Jacob with his pronunciation: “Water, not vater. Walk, not valk.” He tossed out advice. “When you get there, be careful of those who would try to cheat you. Taxi drivers know you’re confused, so they go out of their way and charge you too much. Landlords overcharge you on rent. Don’t be gullible.”

But too often, Mr. Schultz was required to translate for other Germans who, like the Wolfs, were in some trouble, so he waved Jacob away. “Not now. Busy.” It appeared that Herr Schultz was busy elsewhere this afternoon. So, Jacob paced.

At dinner, a leathery-skinned man, eyes nearly hidden under the brim of a soiled cap, sat across from Jacob. He hunched over his food, shoveling in heaping forkfuls of meat and vegetables and mopping his plate with bread slices. What is it about him that reminds me of a guy from my platoon during the war?  He leaned across the table, extending his hand in greeting. “Hello. Jacob Wolf.”

His gesture was met with a sneer, but he continued to reach forward until the man dropped his fork and took his hand.

“Deutch?” he asked. The man nodded, then mumbled, “Schneider.”

Jacob smiled, and tossed out questions. “You look familiar. Where are you from? Where are you headed? Are you alone?” But Schneider pulled his hand away, shook his head, and resumed eating. Jacob sighed, glanced at the man – Irish, I think— on his right who’d seen the exchange, and shrugged.

The Irishman, eyes twinkling,  gave Jacob a sympathetic nod and commented. “A strange duck. I’m Tom Feeney. And you are Jacob Wolf?”

“Ja, Tom. Where are you going?” he asked in stilted English.


“Ahhh! Chicago!” Jacob pointed at himself. “Family?”

Tom nodded, then poured forth a stream of sentences that Jacob struggled to follow. Was he with a wife and children? Or were they back in Ireland? Tom stopped talking, chuckling at Jacob’s mystified expression. Through gestures and monosyllables, the two men pieced together information about each other. Tom was unmarried, joining two brothers and a sister in Chicago. He was the youngest sibling, and had left his parents back in Ireland.

Tom mimed hammering and sawing. “Carpenter.”

Jacob mooed like a cow and sawed. “Butcher!” laughed Tom.

“Ja, butcher.” It was one word that Jacob knew.

When the meal ended, Tom reached out once gain to shake Jacob’s hand. “Godspeed, friend,” he said.

Ja, Godspeed.”

Maybe tomorrow, he thought as he returned to his bunk. Maybe tomorrow.

Ellis Island, 1923 Part 11

In the summer of 1923 my grandparents Jacob and Magdalena Wolf and their daughter Elizabeth arrived in the United States, heading for Chicago. When they landed at Ellis Island, however, they were detained because they didn’t have the required amount of money. My grandparents never spoke about their detention, but my aunt Liz recalled that my grandmother cried a lot during the ordeal. What really happened before they were allowed to travel to Chicago? My story mixes fact with fiction to show what might have occurred.

In the dining room for the noon meal, Lena couldn’t shake her unhappiness. “Here. Lizzie, eat,” she said, but Lizzie, her elbows on the table, her head resting in hands, shook her head. On the plates in front of them, stewed prunes swam in a pool of purple liquid that drifted toward a piece of white bread and a slice of bologna. Back home, we’d be eating green beans from the garden, paprika chicken, plum kuchen. Jacob would be making Lizzie laugh with silly stories.  Her appetite, like Lizzie’s dissolved.

“I want to go home,” Lizzie said. Lena, blinking back tears, picked her up and they left the room. So do I, little one. So do I.

The afternoon dragged on. Lena and Lizzie slumped on their cot.

“What do you think Grosmuter is doing right now?” Lena asked.

Lizzie shrugged. “Maybe she’s feeding the chickens.”

“I think you’re right. I wonder if the rooster is crowing at her like he sometimes does.”

A small smile crept onto Lizzie’s face. “Cock-a-doodle-do!”

“Can you pretend we’re with Grosmuter? Close your eyes, and think about it.” Lizzie obeyed, and Lena stroked the little girl’s perspiring forehead and twirled her damp brown curls with her fingers as she watched her drift off to sleep. Lena closed her eyes, too, but sleep didn’t come. If only, if only. She longed to escape the grating din of voices bouncing off the tile ceilings above and the biting, sour stench of unwashed bodies jostling for space in this nearly-airless room. She pictured her mother, stout, with cheeks pinked by the sun, graying hair tucked into her white cap, reaching into her apron pockets for the feed she sprinkled on the ground. The murmur of chickens clucking and Mama’s sing-song “Futterungszeit, Huhner!’ drifted around the barnyard, dappled with sunlight streaming through the alder trees that stood along the fence. A pig snorted, a cow lowed, and a light breeze stirred the earthy aromas of livestock and poultry. The sounds, the smells were gentle, and comforting, and Lena let her mind sink back and wallow in the homey comforts they’d left behind.

Eventually, a matron opened a door to the outside, allowing a breeze to cut through the stifling heat. “Come outside,” a matron urged, walking around the room. Lena woke Lizzie and joined the others drifting through the door, eager to get out into the fresh air. But, instead of being led to the grassy lawns they’d seen when they arrived, they walked into a fenced, paved area covered with wire caging. Like our chickens in a coop, or prisoners. The sun bore down on them, radiating from the concrete pavement, but at least they were outside. Off in the distance stood Lady Liberty, and across the bay was the city of New York.

“Look, Lizzie, at all the big buildings!” Would we ever get away from this island, and on to the city?

Lizzie grasped the chain links and stared at the vistas before her.  “Are there people in them?” she asked.

“Of course!”

“How do they get to the top? Can they fly?”

Lena chuckled. “No, they don’t fly. When we get to Chicago, maybe we can go to a big building like that and see how it works.” She felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned to face a woman wearing a black dress similar to her own.  Her blue eyes stared intently at Lena, and she tucked a wayward strand of acorn-colored hair under her flowered babushka. Two apple-cheeked little girls around Lizzie’s age stood next to her, wearing clothing that could have come from Lizzie’s folded pile in Lena’s valise. Both stared up at her with eyes like their mother’s, the younger one sucking her thumb.

“Deutch?” the woman asked.

“Ja.” Lena nodded.

The stranger sighed, then smiled. “I am so happy to hear someone speak German,” she said. “My name is Marion Zaengle. My husband Frank is with the men, detained. Was ist dein name, bitte?”

Lena reached out to clutch both of Marion’s hands. A landsfrau! Someone to speak to! “Lena Wolf. This is Lizzie. Mein gott!” Delight bloomed on her face. “I’m happy to hear German, too.” Both woman continued nodding and smiling at one another, then dropped their hands, suddenly self-conscious.

“Mama, who is this?” Lizzie asked. “Meine tante?

Marion bent over to face her. “I am Frau Zaengle. These are my daughters. Barbara, she is five; Rose is almost three.” The children stared at each other, and Rose, with a loud pop, removed her thumb from her mouth and pointed her fingers at Lizzie.

The women fell into conversation, showering one another with questions. What ship were you on? When did you arrive? Why are you and your husband detained? Where are you headed? Squinting in the August sun, they told their stories. After a few moments of staring at one another, the girls began talking, too. I’m three and a half. I’m bigger than you are. I have a dolly. I ate a banana.

“Mama,” Lizzie said. “”These girls know what I’m saying!”  She clapped her hands and hopped up and down. Lena felt like clapping herself. Ever since she’d been separated from Jacob, the minutes had dragged. Now she felt less fearful, less overcome with dread. Marion’s circumstances were not unlike her own, yet her new acquaintance was calm, almost relaxed.  The Zaengles were sponsored by Frank’s uncle in Ohio, and they too, were short of money. They’d been on Ellis Island for eight or nine days already. Marion seems hopeful, shouldn’t I feel the same?

“Each morning,” Marion said, “I hear an official announce names of those who may leave. Many people detained from our ship have already gone. I only hope that our name is called soon. And yours, too,” she added, patting Lena’s hand.

At dinnertime, the two new friends and their children crowded onto a bench together. This evening’s meal was the strangest they’d seen. Plates of fat white strands of something covered in a red sauce were placed in front of them. What on earth was this? In spite of the dish’s savory smell, Lena and Marion eyed their plates with revulsion, and when Barbara screeched, “Mama, it’s worms and blood!” Lena felt bile rise in her throat. Lizzie, unaffected by the murmurs of disgust around her, speared her fork into the white and red concoction and, with a slurp, sucked the food into her mouth. “Yum!” she pronounced, then helped herself to another bite, the red staining her chin as strands of white dangled from her lips.

“My goodness, Lizzie! Please try to be neat,” said Lena. She tentatively took a bite of her own and chewed slowly.  “Noodles! It’s just noodles! I think with a tomato sauce,” she explained. Around her, others who had hesitated were now bringing forks full of the novel concoction to their mouths.

“Spaghetti!” explained the server, the same one who’d taught them about the banana at breakfast. Marion shook her head in wonderment at Lena. “What weird foods these Americans eat,” she said.

“And what funny words… banana, spaghetti,’ replied Lena. “We’re learning some peculiar English.”