Continued from September 28, 2016
“Rosalia!” Her mother’s voice jolted her out of her reverie. She worked her way down creaking wooden steps into the kitchen, stopping on the bottom step. A pungent onion-y odor told Rosalia that Mama as always had been awake since well before dawn, preparing ingredients for the week’s pierogi. Dark circles under wrinkled eyes, graying hair pulled back into a severe bun…this would be Rosalia’s memory of her mother for years to come, this and images of the dark rye bread that was rising in the cracked blue and white bowl, almost ready for its second kneading. Piles of potatoes and mounds of shredded cabbage spoke to the monotony of the week’s dinners.
Katarzyna, Rosalia’s older sister, was already at the table. The girl’s hand shook as she poured a cup of weak tea—the hand that had been promised in marriage to Janusz, a farmer who leased the six acres on the next plot of land. Katarzyna had agreed to the arranged marriage only a few days previously, a marriage to a wrinkled, toothless old man who’d already buried two wives. Land-owning gentry depended on the labor of commoners, and commoners like Rosalia’s family had little to depend on other than what food they could grow on leased land. Unless they joined the convent, unmarried women had even less. Rosalia had already watched four of her sisters and two of her friends marry men they barely knew, local farmers whose wives had died in childbirth. It was typical for a girl in Poland at the turn of the 20th century to choose food and shelter in exchange for her labor—knowing that the choice would mean sharing nights on a lumpy mattress with a man old enough to be her grandfather.
The threadbare gray coat that hung on the peg near the back door swallowed Rosalia’s tiny frame. It was the same coat that her older sisters had outgrown but Rosalia’s skill with a needle and thread had kept it serviceable if not overly warm. She knotted a red wool babushka under her chin, grabbed the basket of eggs, and headed for the village.
Market day in the tiny village of Bielany meant a two-kilometer walk. But even in bad weather Rosalia looked forward to escaping the drudgery of the farm. More important, she recognized the weekly market as an opportunity to collect orders for the dresses she sewed for wealthy Krakow ladies. She needed that income to help raise the money for passage from Bielany to Hamburg and from there to New York City. She knew how much she needed to get from Bielany to Hamburg by train and then to Ellis Island via steerage. Thanks to the egg money and her sewing skills—honed over the years as an apprentice seamstress at her village church—her goal was now in sight. But there were still questions. How much would she need for food in the United States? For a place to stay in Hamburg before the ship left the pier? For train fare to her cousin’s Chicago apartment? And the scarier question…would she need bribe money?
Stubbornly, she put out of her mind stories she had heard in the village about people who had been denied passage to the new world because of insufficient funds or, even more frightening, by failing medical screenings for diphtheria, trachoma, mental instability.
Rosalia’s daydreams kept her going as she walked, her mind full of all she’d heard of America–a land of milk and honey, a land where the streets were paved in gold. And even in her small village, where news was usually delayed, she’d heard whispered talk of a growing political unrest. America’s streets were becoming more and more appealing.
She trudged over roads of packed mud rutted by decades of horse carts, past rows where unharvested shriveled cabbages and rotted potatoes from last autumn’s harvest told of farmers who had tried to grow food in overworked soil. An old man, dressed in a worn black suit, tipped his ragged cap to her as he walked next to his swaybacked horse. The meager load of hay it pulled did not appear as if it would feed an animal for very long. “This will be a bad winter,” Rosalia thought to herself. But first she had to solve more immediate problems…like a sponsor. The letter she’d been waiting for from her cousin in Chicago was long overdue and without it, there could be no passage to America.
To be continued