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Coming to America

by Bernice McFadden

By Bernice McFadden |
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Ellis Island Immigration Museum
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Michelle Lee

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Even after ten years, the memory was still fresh in Ethel’s mind. She could easily recall each and every detail as if she had arrived in New York as recently as yesterday.
  
It was December. It was a Tuesday. The wharf was crowded with weeping and cheering people waving handkerchiefs and miniature sized flags of Barbados.

Ethel’s daughters didn’t know that they were supposed to feel sad about leaving the only home they’d ever known, and so smiled and waved back at the crowd. Ethel supposed that was okay, because she had enough tears for all three of them.
  
When the SS Munargo was so far out to sea that Barbados was little more than a shadow on the water, the passengers turned their attention to the setting sun.
  
When the fiery ball disappeared into the ocean, they focused their sights on the ever-darkening sky or the tremendous ocean and tried to imagine how life would be in America.

Two weeks later, the ship sailed into New York on a frigid, Thursday morning. The Hudson River was swimming with ice and tug boats. Overhead, flocks of sea gulls squawked and swooped frantically through the sunless, slate colored sky.
  
Layered in the scratchy wool blankets provided by the shipping company and every stitch of clothing they owned, the passengers rushed on deck.
  
The cold hit them like a wall. They gasped, and the sound floated out of their mouths in frosty, white clouds.

When The Statue of Liberty came into view, some passengers broke out into song:
Oh beautiful for spacious skies… Others dropped to their knees in gratitude or threw up their hands in celebration.
  
Little Gwen, just four years old at the time, glanced shyly at Lady Liberty, pressed her face into the side of Ethel’s thigh and softly chanted, “America, America… America…”

  *          *          *

Aubrey Gill had only one suit. It was navy blue. He only wore this suit on special occasion days, like night watch service and Easter Sunday. The day he went to collect his family from Ellis Island was as special as any of those days, so he donned that blue suit, sprinkled a few drops of Old Spice cologne on the lapels and headed to Manhattan.
In the receiving area, upon spotting their loved ones, many people whooped, screamed, broke into dead runs, flinging themselves into the arms of their beloveds.
  
Ethel watched with envy. Extravagant expressions of affection was not her way. She was a Barbadian – an extension of England of the royal family. Neither the British nor their faith but that was not Ethel’s way.
  
When she spotted Aubrey’s six-foot-six frame floating above the throng of people, she gently squeezed her daughter’s hands.

“There’s your daddy.”
“Daddy!” Irene yelped with excitement.
  
“Daddy!” Gwen echoed, even though she had no memory of Aubrey who’d left Barbados when she was only three months old.

Aubrey’s head as well as the head of six other father’s swiveled expectantly in their direction. Aubrey’s face lit up with recognition and happiness. He waved as he fought his way through the crowd towards them.

Husband and wife beamed at each other.
Aubrey bent down, brushed his lips against Ethel’s cheek, murmuring, “I glad to see yuh.“

Ethel’s gripped his forearm, inhaled the zesty scent of his cologne.

“I glad to see you too,” she whispered.

The moment was quick. Aubrey straightened, folded his long arms across his wide chest and peered down at Irene and Gwen.
  
“Who deez pretty ladies, Ethel?”
  
Irene blushed. “It’s me daddy!”

“Me? Me who?” Aubrey laughed.

“Irene!” Irene cried.

Aubrey pressed his palms against his cheeks and reeled back in mock amazement.

“My little Irene? Can’t be!”

Irene nodded her head vigorously.
  
“And this little one. What is her name?”

Irene’s face went slack and her tone turned serious.
  
“Daddy, don’t you remember Gwendolyn?”

Aubrey winked at Ethel, who used her hands to cover her smile.
  
“Are you telling me that this is Gwenie?”
  
‘Yes it is,” Irene responded earnestly.

Aubrey bellowed with laughter, bent down and scooped both girls up into his arms.

“You think I could forget you all?”
  
He planted kisses on their foreheads, looked at Ethel and joyfully announced, “They’re sweet-enough, heh?”

  *          *          *

Their new home was located in Brooklyn, on a long, east-west street called Fulton that was lined with sluggish, grey and red brick mixed-use buildings. Monday through Saturday the sidewalks teemed with peddlers, hawking all manner of pickled things, jams, vegetables, fresh baked breads and hard and soft cheeses.
  
The street itself was a hazard. Daily, some unwitting pedestrian was mowed down by a horse and buggy, bicyclist, kid on a pogo stick or trolley snaking its way along the latticework of silver tracks.

At night when all other Brooklyn streets had been put to sleep, Fulton Street still sparked and sizzled with life - marauding stray dogs, ravenous rats and drunkards loudly serenading the street lamps.

Located above a butcher shop, the apartment, originally intended for one family, was now rented out as single rooms, accommodating three families.

Their room was average size, consisting of a pair of double beds, one chest of drawers, one closet and one wooden chair painted a pale blue.

Dull and dark oak floors, the once white walls were grey with age and veined with cracks. Hanging from a cord, at the center of the distended ceiling as a naked light bulb sputtering on the verge of death.

Certainly not the home Ethel had hoped for.

A shadow of disappointment swept across Ethel’s face, Aubrey shoved his hands deep into the wells of his trouser pockets and mumbled ashamedly, “It’s just until we could do better.”

Ethel nodded her head, forced a smile and headed her mothers warning:

When you get there, I don’t care if he living in a box, you hold your tongue. No quarreling, hear? Yuh lucky he sending for you and the ‘chirren. You see how many wives here without husbands? How many women here without men?

World War I had emptied the American farms and groves of their workers. To remedy the situation, the United States government issued temporary contract work visas to Caribbean citizens who happily flocked to Florida, South Carolina, Georgia and Texas – as far West as California, and as far North as Maine.

Soon enough, the women of Barbados and her sister islands, looked up from their bubbling pots of rice, from hands plunged deep into galvanized tubs filled with soapy waters, up from the kneading of dough, the plaiting of hair and realized that the men were all gone.

They filled the church pews, silver and gold wedding bans gleaming on their ring fingers, babies in laps, children at their sides as flipping through the gold leafed pages of bibles in search of a psalm that could provide comfort for a lonely woman awaiting the return of her man.

At the end of the harvesting and planting seasons, ships carrying the contract workers sailed from America to the Caribbean, returning their men to their rightful land, eager women and children.

They arrived midday, when the sun was at its highest point. Those wives, sisters, lovers, mothers and daughters who could steal away from work, did. Dressed in vibrantly colored dresses and skirts, they swarmed the wharf like hungry rodents, congesting the air with their spirited chatter, hints of perfume and hair grease.

For some, however, the joy would be fleeting. Not all of the men returned. Weeks later the sad truth would arrive by post, telegram or the worse delivery of all – gossip – advising the waiting woman that she should get on with her life, because he had gotten on with his with a new woman, a new wife, in the lade of the free and home of the brave.

But not Ethel’s husband. Not Aubrey Gill. When his letter arrived, it contained American greenbacks and said: Buy passage for you and the girls and come.

So Ethel did as her mother told her. She held her tongue and placed both feet in the well of gratitude.

  *          *          *

“No window?” She questioned lightly, after looking around at the four walls.
“It’s just for a little while, Ethel.”

Ethel nodded thoughtfully.

“Who in the other rooms?”

Aubrey pointed at the wall to his left. “A family from Trinidad. Husband, wife. A girl and a boy.”

He aimed his chin at the wall to the right. “A couple from Haiti.”

Ethel frowned.

  *          *          *

A fine way to start a new life, she thought as she pulled back the dull brown bedspread to examine the cleanliness of the sheets.

She did not like Trinidadians. Her baby sister had married one. Three years and two children later, she was running for her life, the husband hot on her heels, swinging a cutlass dead set on her neck.

Trickster-dadians, Ethel called those people.

She reached for the pillow, raised it to her nose and sniffed.

The Haitians would be another problem altogether. Black magic dabblers, voo-doo practitioners who were fond of raising the dead, like Jesus Christ himself.

Cross a Haitian on Tuesday, wake up blind Wednesday morning, Ethel always said.
She grunted and dropped the pillow onto the bed.

Ethel would be polite, but she would never call them friend. She would offer them food if they happened in while she was preparing a meal - but she would never accept a grain of rice from any of them. “Where’s the toilet?”

“Down the hall,” Aubrey announced excitedly.

The bathroom was nearly as large as their bedroom. Bright white ceramic tiles covered the floor and the walls.

The girls oohed.

“Watch this,” Aubrey said.

With the dramatic flair of a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat, Aubrey tore back the blue and white cloth curtain to reveal a claw foot bathtub.

Ethel grinned, the girls squealed with delight.

Aubrey whirled the faucet handles, until crystal clear water rushed from the silver spout.

“We don’t go to the water,” Aubrey proudly announced, ‘’the water come to we!”

The girls clapped their hands with joy.

“See there?” Aubrey pointed at the toilet. “That is where you do your business and then flush it clean away.”

And with that Aubrey pressed the lever and they all watched the water swirl round and round in the bowl before draining down its porcelain throat.

Running water and flushing toilet was a luxury for Ethel and her children. Back in Barbados, they used an outhouse and fetched water for cooking, washing and bathing from the community standpipe.

“That’s real nice.” Ethel said, genuinely pleased.

Beyond the bathroom was a small, sunny kitchen, outfitted with one table, four chairs, stove, double sink and ice box. Outside the window, the bare tree limbs rattled and shook in the wake of the treacherous winter winds blowing down from the North.
Ethel shivered, took Gwenie by the hand and started back towards their room.

“Let’s get unpacked,” she said.

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