Sunday, June 5, 2011

Chapter V - Welcome to America!

The Statue of Liberty is usually the first image conjured by thoughts of immigrants arriving in America in the late 1800s and the first half of the 20th Century. This first iconic glimpse experienced by so many has been recounted in books and films myriad times and yet it never gets old. I suppose that is because so many people's families began their new life in just that way - with an uncertain boat journey from some torn corner of the world. So many hopes, dreams, expectations...fears. The scene in the Godfather II of Vito Corleone and hundreds of other people crammed on the deck of a rusty ship always leaps to my mind. All those faces, all different and yet all the same. What must each of them have been thinking? The film can not have been that far from the reality.

While Papou was working away in some New York diner, after his imposed U.S. Navy service had ended, Yia Yia and my uncle Manoual, who was then eight years old, were setting out from Piraeus for America on an old ocean liner. I have tried to determine which ship they might have come over on but there are so many going in and out of service or to the scrap yards at this time that it is too difficult to pin point. The name of the ship is not so important as the journey itself.

Yia Yia and my uncle can not have brought along a great many personal belongings, perhaps just one trunk since they did not have much anyway. From what my uncle has relayed to me, they had mainly summer clothing (they were coming from Greece after all) and the ship was quite crowded. The crossing of the Atlantic was particularly rough causing almost all of the passengers to suffer extreme sea sickness. My uncle's island genes must have kicked in because he was just fine. For an eight year old boy, the ship must have been an endless playground of mischief-making fun with much to explore. My uncle remembers running free throughout the large bulk of the vessel while the rest of the passengers were busy vomiting their guts out. He made no mention of disease on board but that was surely an issue as well that would lead many newcomers to weeks in quarantine.


Passenger ship entering
New York Harbour
So, on his way to America with his mother, this little Greek boy explored the ship from stem to stern, perhaps forgetting for a time the change his life was about to undergo, the fact that he would be arriving in a place bigger than anything he had ever seen and meeting the father he had never met. It was while making his way along the deck during a calmer bit of seas that the captain grabbed my uncle. "Hey you!" he said to the rampant Greek boy. "Since you seem to be feeling so fine and dandy, you can help me hand these out to everybody on board." With that he handed my uncle a bottle of Coca Cola. So it was that on his journey to America, that little Greek boy from Chios handed out bottle after bottle of Coke to hundreds and hundreds of sick and sea-weary foreigners from around the world. Is there anything more American than that?

Everyone can imagine a scene such as that which comes next. The sea calms and the ship's engines slow with the approach of land a few miles ahead. There is fog and industrial smoke but poking above it all are the peaks of some odd-looking structures. They are not cathedrals or ancient temples to long-forgotten gods but rather monuments to innovation, to prosperity and capital. These towering steel titans are the symbols of this new and strange world. When the Dutch first settled on those shores to create New Amsterdam in the 17th century, their first sight of land entailed little more than an emerald shore of thick trees with a few natives coming out of their long houses to spy the new arrivals. What must they have thought, the folks who arrived on ships bound for New York Harbour? As those that had gone before and those who would arrive as such for a time after, they would have crammed onto the deck of their transport and watched as the fog parted and Liberty herself stood before them, a beacon of freedom, a new goddess that was familiar and yet somehow foreign all at the same time.

 I can picture Yia Yia and my uncle on the deck, not too close to the railing since she was afraid of the water and could not swim. She would have held him close, to ensure he did not break free to get lost again at this crucial moment but also as her own personal string of worry beads. The feel of her son close would have been a comfort. Likely, as she gazed at the Statue of Liberty set against a backdrop of skyscrapers and concrete avenues, Yia Yia uttered several prayers to Panagia (Mother Mary) and several other saints of comfort, those who had helped her through war and solitude to this point. Perhaps she worried about what her husband would be like, if he had changed in the eight years since they had said goodbye back on Chios. Would he still like her and want her? Would he like his son? What had he left out of the few letters or telegrams that he did manage to send? It would be only natural for such questions to harass the mind at a time like that.
Ellis Island from the North

The reunion would not take place immediately however. Like all others new to America at this time, Yia Yia and my uncle would have to pass through Ellis Island to be registered, checked for illness and quarantined if necessary. My uncle did not remember a great deal of that time, perhaps because it was so overwhelming. But, what he does remember is the freezing cold. Like I said, they arrived wearing what to many North Americans would have been considered summer clothes. When the ship offloaded the passengers, excited, sick or scared, the waiting began. Long lines, endless lines of people funnelling into America.

They were made to stand in the snow on the jetty before they were led into the hall of Ellis Island. Standing outside, huddled against his mother, my uncle remembers standing in the wet snow and being so cold that he thought they were going to die right there before they were ever admitted to the city beyond.

Yia Yia and my uncle held on however, as resilient as any other who had come through so much hazard and emotion. They registered their names and gave the name of Papou who was waiting on the other side. Thankfully, there was no extended quarantine for them though others were not so lucky.

The 'Pens' - immigrants waiting to be processed in
the main hall of Ellis Island
I often imagine the next scene, where the uniformed officer finally says "All right," in an unnaturally loud voice since they do not speak English. "You can go now", he points toward a corridor with large doors at the end. "Welcome to A-M-E-R-I-C-A, Mrs. Caviar" Yia Yia would look surprised at the odd American pronunciation of her married name (a version I heard many a time when I was a child). Manoual would perhaps tug at her dress indicating that they should go in case the man changed his mind but the officer is already busy with the next newcomer. A deep breath, another prayer and they begin to walk.

On the other side, waiting with so many other expectant, husbands, fathers, brothers, sisters, cousins etc. etc. stood Papou with his own cousin, worry beads flicking nervously from hand to hand, cigarette going down at double-speed. He had received word the day before that his wife and son had arrived, that they were being allowed to enter the United States and that he should come to meet them.

The 'Kissing Post' - exit point of Ellis
Island where people were met by
loved ones and were free to
enter America.

It is hard to fathom the emotions of those moments, for each of them. The child who would finally meet his father, the wife who would be reunited with her husband, the man who thought at times he would never live to see either of them. After eight years, a war and an ocean of worry they stood face to face. Perhaps Yia Yia saved her eight years of tears for that one moment, perhaps Papou did too and kneeling he would have held my uncle at arms' length smiled through watery eyes and hugged him close and proud.

This last photo is the very first of Yia Yia and my uncle Manoual after arriving in America. The man on the left is Papou's cousin (off from his shift at the diner) and Papou is taking the photo, perhaps with a borrowed camera or one purchased just for this occasion. A man proud of his family before him and grateful for the chance to start again.

Ploumi and Manoual Haviaras - First picture in America