Tomorrow is the day. Just think of it! Tomorrow I will be in America! Everyone is talking about how much opportunity and dreams coming true and hope awaits us there. No one cares if you’re Christian or Jewish, Italian or German, people say. Once we’re there, we’ll be free!
I guess that for most of the people here, that’s true. But for me, there’s really no opportunity or dreams coming true or hope. As soon as I get off this ship, I’m going to Huntington Station and boarding an orphan train.
I should be happy. Maybe someone will adopt me. Then I’ll finally have a family, finally have someone who loves me. But you’re in France, Mother. The whole time I was in the orphanage, I was hoping that maybe, just maybe, you’d show up at the doorstep and take me. I’d jump into your arms, and we’d hug each other, and you’d swear you’d never leave me again. I had it all perfectly planned out.
That hope is gone now. I am in America; you are in France. The Atlantic Ocean is big, Mother, far bigger than you can imagine. It doesn’t matter anymore whether or not you really are dead like everybody says you are. We will never meet again.
* * *
Sara insists that I should learn English. She learned it, and she said it was easy as could be. I know that English is the language they speak in America, and that it would help me ever so much if I were able to speak it. But my tongue refuses to learn that language. It is ever so confusing, and I always forget to put adjectives before nouns instead of after.
Sara is a friend I made on this ship. If she were going on an orphan train, she wouldn’t have to worry a single bit. She has silky hair, deep blue eyes, and is very pretty. She also has a talent for thinking quickly, something I’m not quite good at.
We were talking about the smell of the sea when suddenly there was a loud honk hink honk. A boat was docking next to us. A few people with white coats stepped out, ready to inspect our ship.
People started running all around, tripping over each other, all running toward the rails, as if in a hurry to jump overboard. I had no clue what was happening, so I told Sara, “Come on! Let’s go check it out!”
After falling over and being trampled a few times, we sat on a box of old ship things, the only place where we could find room. Then we saw it. I had heard about it, a gift from France to the USA, but never had I thought it would look like this. The Statue of Liberty. People were cheering, crying, going down on their knees and praying.
A person was talking to our captain, Captain Santelli. “S.S. La Gascogne, cleared to go!” said the person. We were put on a ferry going towards some island.
And that is all I can write now, Mother. I’ll try to write more soon.
* * *
I thought that as soon as I got off the ferry, I would be in America. That’s why, even though Sara was speechless, gazing at Lady Liberty behind us, I was sitting and looking at my train tickets.
“Think you’re going straight off to America?” someone asked. I jolted. What was that person talking about?
“We have to go through Ellis Island, you know,” he spoke again. He was dressed in rags, and he looked like a younger version of how I imagined my father would look.
“Pardon me?” I asked.
“It’s where all the steerage goes before they come to America. They inspect us and make sure we’re good to enter.” He attempted to scratch out the dirt from underneath his fingernails. “I found out from people on board.”
I tried to remember where I knew this person from. “I don’t remember seeing you before…” I said.
He suddenly turned red, then purple, then white, then green, and finally back to a normal face color. “I… umm… well… you probably never noticed me… I’m sure that’s it…”
He coughed. “If I tell you a secret, will you promise not to tell anybody?” he asked me.
“Well…” he paused for a moment, as if deciding whether or not to say this, “I was a stowaway.”
“I’m turning eighteen tomorrow,” he said. “I wanted to get away from my family, start a new life in America. But I didn’t have any money, so I snuck aboard.”
I was frozen.
“I hid in the bilge and snuck food from the garbage cans of the first-class deck.” He looked sincerely at me when he was finished. “Please don’t tell anyone,” he said.
Don’t worry. I won’t.
* * *
I’m so sorry that I forgot to end my last letter. We had just arrived at Ellis Island, and so I had no time to sign my name.
There were many people on the dock, as many people as the Atlantic Ocean was big. Never, ever had I imagined there would be so many people! Everyone was carrying their trunks, all trying their hardest in a race to get to freedom first. Me, I had no luggage, only my train ticket and what was on me.
Slap! An officer walked up to me and pinned a tag on me, eyes full of concern, yet covered by a comfortable blanket of confusion. I was number 137. I wasn’t sure, Mother. Was that all I was, a number printed on a piece of paper? I guess I was, for I had nobody. Nobody to meet me once I got out of Ellis Island. Nobody to hold my hand and walk through here.
I took three long, steady breaths and then proceeded through tall, wide, beckoning doors. But right before the entrance, I took a peek inside and stopped. I thought back at what the stowaway told me. If it was true, then this is it. When I walk inside, I’ll be at the mercy of whatever lies inside.
Mother, just then it was dawning on me that I really may never see you again.
* * *
The stairs loomed in front of us. Sara and I held hands and began to walk up one step, then another, on and on like the ribs of a seashell. The stairs spiraled for seemingly infinity, for we were all so nervous. Truth be told, Sara was nervous. I was part confused, part nervous, and part longing for home. My emotions were waging a war against each other, and their guns made my head hurt.
People, dressed all fancy in black and white, were looking down on us. They gave us all a quick glance. I truthfully didn’t think about it much. I was always being looked down on at the orphanage, so this was completely normal for me.
We walked into a huge room, as huge as there were people on the dock of Ellis Island. I never knew how big things were in America. I was so used to things being small that this was something entirely new.
“Isn’t this place huge?” I asked Sara.
She shook her head. “Nope. Huge isn’t the right word. Gargantuan is more like it.”
I laughed. “Imagine someone making it this far and not being able to get to America because they were lost in this gargantuan room!”
After we waited for hours, the line finally started. The sound was earsplitting. The voices of the people, with the voices of the shoes, combined to form the sort of noise I sometimes heard outside my orphanage window when cats were fighting to find mates.
Yet another doctor checked us over. I wonder how many doctors there must be in Ellis Island. Do they think there’s something wrong with us? I remembered the stowaway’s words. They inspect us and make sure we’re good to enter. If he was right, there might be a way out of this. Maybe, if I can somehow convince the doctors that there is something wrong with me, I’d be able to go back home…
That was a very wicked thought, Mother. I should have been grateful. But I couldn’t help myself. Before I realized what I was doing, I started making queer faces, scrunching my nose into odd positions, and sticking my tongue out.
Quicker than you can read this word (although, Mother, I suppose that wasn’t a good description because you’ll never read this), the doctor in front of me scribbled an X on my dress with chalk.
This wasn’t a good idea. I knew what an X meant. It meant you were out, gone. An X was the symbol for execution. But I was over imagining things. This was America, the land of the free. Of course they wouldn’t execute people.
Luckily, Sara is a quick thinker and knows English. She told the doctor that I accidentally swallowed something disgusting. “That is why she made all those faces,” she explained. He looked suspicious, but after some more convincing from Sara, he rubbed off the chalk. We continued walking though more unfamiliar gates and hallways.
“Amélie!” an officer called my name. I sat down at a desk. The officer picked up a piece of paper, cleared his throat, and started reading in extremely accented French. “What is your name?” he asked.
I thought this was a stupid question to ask. He obviously already knew my name, so why was he asking me? Still, I answered, “I’m Amélie.”
He looked at the paper, nodded, and then squinted, as if the type wasn’t clear. “And your last name?”
I didn’t know how to answer this. “I’m… not quite sure,” I said. The orphanage master told me my parents’ names, Marie and Louis André, but said that they didn’t have my last name on record.
“Oh, I see,” the officer said, skeptically. “What is your final destination in America?” he asked.
“Huntington Station. I- I’m going on an orphan train,” I said, shaking. The sight of the officer made me so nervous, like the officer was a cat and I was a mouse. I wondered what else he would ask me.
After asking me twenty-seven more questions, he said I was free to go on. Sara and I walked to yet another staircase. Once we reached the bottom, we stood in a line to exchange francs for dollars. I had nothing to exchange, so I just waited for Sara to be done.
Finally, we walked through the gate to freedom. Sara saw four happy gleaming faces. “This is the best moment of my life!” she exclaimed, running towards them.
As for me, Mother, I can’t really say how I felt. Right after Sara said that, a huge wave of regret swept over me. There was no going backwards through Ellis Island. I would never see you again. I imagined you knocking on the orphanage door. “Where’s Amélie?” you’d ask.
“She left. She’s in America now,” the orphanage master would say. And then you’d run out, weeping.
That image struck me so hard, I almost wanted to scream, “No! Take me back to France!” But I realized that everyone else was overjoyed, for they were finally free! And maybe I was finally free, too. Maybe someone will adopt me, and then I’ll finally have a family. It won’t be the same as having you again, but maybe it won’t be bad. Maybe.
* * *
While I was standing, waving Sara goodbye and listening to the cheerful orchestra of their family’s footsteps, that stowaway showed up again.
“Hello! Guess what? I’m now officially an adult! And free to start a new life!” he said.
I was surprised. I had almost forgotten about him when I was going through Ellis Island. “But how did you manage to get through?”
“Oh, it was a little tough when they wondered why my name wasn’t on the manifest,” he said, “but I managed to sort things out.”
I just then realized he had never told me something. “What’s your name?” I asked.
“Well, I’m Thomas Moreau, son of Geraldine Agathe and Louis André Moreau. But don’t mention my father to me. He abandoned me when I was three and went on to some woman named Marie,” he said. He had a dark look on his face.
There was something odd about what he was saying, yet I couldn’t make it out… “My mother was named Marie…” I said. “My father was named Louis André.”
He shrugged. “Those are all common names.”
“My father abandoned me, too.”
He shrugged yet another time, though less certain this time. “Well, then we have something in common.”
“You look like a younger version of what I imagined my father would look like. And you have brown hair, green eyes, just like me.”
He briefly had a dark look on his face, then he shrugged, and then he stopped to reconsider. “Well, my mother did tell me that my father had a child with another woman…” he said slowly.
But then he erased his words. “No, no, of course it can’t be true…” he said. “I mean, you’re my half-sister?”
That caught me by surprise. I had never thought of it that way. “And you’re my half-brother.” The words felt queer coming out of my mouth. We stared at each other for a few moments, but then I remembered I had an orphan train to catch. “I guess I have to say goodbye,” I said.
“Wait,” he said. “You know, I’m officially an adult now. And free to start a new life!” He came up to me and gave me a tight hug, warm arms around my cold body. I don’t remember ever being hugged before.
* * *
And that, Mother, is my story of coming to America. I’ve always just written these letters in my journal, but I’ve been thinking, maybe, if I get enough money, I can send these letters to you. I have no idea what address to put, and I know you’ll never respond, but for me it doesn’t matter. Maybe, just maybe, you’re still out there somewhere, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll somehow get the letter. Maybe you’ll read this, and know that your daughter is finally free.