The slender woman lifted her arm to push errant strands of graying blonde hair away from a forehead that was just starting to show signs of her age. The warm breeze that had dislodged her hair was like a gentle caress against her face, reminding her of the day years before when she had been on this same expanse. With a slightly trembling hand she opened her palm to shield her vision against the shimmering glare of dappled green water and stared onto miles of open sea.
If anyone had been looking at the woman as she sat on the wooden bench looking east across the sandy beach, they would have exclaimed that the sea’s color was almost the exact same vivid green as her eyes, but as the woman was alone she didn’t even notice the comparison, her mind was in another place and time, a time fifty-five years earlier when she had last gazed at this very same ocean.
The salty smells were the same but that was where today and yesterday parted, the Atlantic she remembered from so long ago had been slate gray, with gigantic foaming waves spitting their white tops against the prow of the large ship as it pushed its way, rolling and bucking, across the sea lanes that would eventually spill her family out into a place called Ellis Island, a place where they looked forward to a new chance at life, a life different than the one they had lived in Estonia. The early years had been ones of comfort, her father an engineer, had held an esteemed position in the government but the war had changed all of that when suddenly a dream of a safer life in a country that wasn’t torn apart by guns and bombs was the direction that her parents wanted for their children.
Europe was still in turmoil after the war, food was scarce and many immigrants from Estonia were making their way, just as her family was, out of their poverty stricken Country to a new life in the United States.
“What are you doing girl, you don’t belong here, get back below deck or I’ll throw you overboard,” exclaimed the young cook’s mate as he prepared to throw the barrels of food slop left over from the dinner served in the first class dining room overboard.
Dinner hour was over for those wealthy travelers who now danced in the ship’s main ballroom. Many of the men strolled along the upper decks smoking after dinner cigars, dressed in tuxedos and tugging on the starched white collars choking their necks, their modern wives holding onto their elbows to keep from lurching into the rails, smoking their own smelly cigarettes. Their long gowns looked much to fragile to withstand the wind that whipped them around the slender legs that moved quickly to keep up with the longer legs of their husbands. The cook’s mate didn’t approve of these wealthy American women smoking but he certainly wasn’t going to be the one to condemn them, after all they had paid full fare for this trip. On the other hand, the little beggar he had just sent scampering back below deck was a part of the smelly, dirty mass of humanity who had paid almost nothing to sail across in steerage. “It was going to take forever to get rid of the stench down there he thought as he screwed his face up in disgust.”
“Dad, can’t we do something? It was horrible, that little girl was just trying to get some food out of the garbage cans, she was shivering and wet and didn’t even have shoes on her feet.” “I’ve got to do something, that little girl looked like she was starving.”
Tears welled up in the young women’s eyes as she related what she had seen from the upper decks that evening when she had slipped out after dinner to get fresh air and watch the wild water careening past the ship.
The young woman speaking so passionately was returning to her parent’s home in New York City after a family celebration trip to Europe. She had just graduated from College and looked forward to using the teaching credentials she had obtained after her upcoming marriage to her college sweetheart. This was to be a last trip with her parents while she was still living in their home as a single woman.
“Shhhh, don’t be afraid, I won’t hurt you, and I certainly won’t let that seaman know that you’re here, “ the young woman whispered as she knelt down on the wet deck so she could be face to face with the shivering child and on eye level. She had waited patiently for two cold, damp nights after in an alcove on the lower deck, sneaking out of the dining room when no one was watching her. This was where she had seen the young girl previously and her wait paid off this time. Here was the girl once again, shivering and more ragged looking up close that the woman had realized, blond hair tangled and wind blown, hands and feet chapped and red from the cold.
“My name is Evangeline Morris, I’m going to become a teacher, what’s your name?” “Oh, I bet you don’t speak English do you, that’s okay, I just want you to give you some food and a cloak to keep you warm.” She said as she removed a blue cape from her own shoulders and gently draped it over the child’s slender body. Reaching into a large leather purse hanging from her arm she handed the small child a cloth bag filled with bread, cheese and fruit pilfered from the overflowing bounty of the Captain’s table where she and her parents were guests every night at dinner.
Evangeline had tried to talk to the Captain the night before at dinner about the people who were traveling in the bowels of the ship, but the Captain only changed the subject after asking if they were bothering her. If that had been the case he would, after all, take immediate action and reprimand those people, but since she was just curious she shouldn’t worry her “pretty little head about such slovenly human specimens.”
The next night, Evangeline waited again in the alcove for the young girl. This time she had another cloth bag full of food, but in it she had included a pair of cotton socks for the child’s feet, and even a blanket that she took off of the bed in her stateroom.
Out of the mist that shrouded the deck this night Evangeline could see two small figures coming tentatively toward her. The two children were holding hands and watching fearfully over their shoulders for any crewmen who might be in the area as they snuck into the alcove.
“I am Guna, said the little girl in faltering English, my brother is Ivan,” she said, as she pointed to the little boy holding tightly to her hand. The boy seemed to be about five years younger than Guna with the same blonde hair.
“You have the most beautiful and unusual green eyes Guna, Evangeline replied, I’m so glad to meet you both,” she smiled as she knelt again to look into their eager faces.
“I wish I could do more for you, but unfortunately we’re landing in a couple of days and I probably won’t see you again.” “I just pray you will both be safe in your new Country, I know I’ll never forget you.”
As Guna sat on the bench her memories then took her forward to the years following their landing at Ellis Island and on to Colorado. Her father had moved his family to Grand Junction those many years before. Prior to immigrating her father had had a degree in electrical engineering in Estonia, but in the United States he could only find work as a custodian. After a number of years he had eventually been put in charge of all of the custodial staff for the Grand Junction School District. Colorado was where he and his wife had raised their small family, living comfortably in a small house giving their family the life that would have been impossible in Estonia. Guna and Ivan had gone to school just like all of the other American children living around them, in fact the whole family had become U.S. Citizens only five years after immigrating to the United States, something her father and mother had been extremely proud of.
“Guna, come on, I’ve been looking for you everywhere, we have to get ready to head over to the conference,” her husband of forty years said as he hugged the woman who was the love of his life. “I still need to shower, besides it looks like you’re getting sun burned, you may want to put some lotion on before you change your clothes.”
Shaking her head as if in a dream, Guna closed her ocean green eyes, acutely aware that the past was just that, the past, and that the hunger and cold that she and her family had felt on those five days aboard the Ocean Liner fifty-five years before were just memories.
As she and her husband walked into the hotel conference room the orchestra was playing music from the late forties and early fifties, music that kept reminding Guna of the memories that seeing the Atlantic Ocean for the first time since her family had immigrated from Estonia had revived in her mind. She would have to shake this reverie because her dear husband was about the step on stage as the keynote speaker for this event.
As the clapping subsided and Guna’s husband stepped off of the stage to take a seat next to her Guna felt a bump against the chair she was seated in. Turning around she found herself looking into a face covered in wrinkles, but with eyes that were still lively and twinkling.
“Do you remember someone giving you cheese and bread?” said the woman who looked older than time. “Your name is Guna, isn’t it, I still remember your beautiful eyes?” “I’m Evangeline, do you remember me?”
With tears in her eyes Guna looked into the face of the woman who had kept her family alive aboard the Ocean Liner those many years before. “Yes, I could never forget you. “
As sixty-five year old Guna knelt in reverence in front of the elderly woman in the wheelchair so she could be at eye level with her she related her family’s story. She told Evangeline, who was now the 85 year old matriarch of her own family, that her younger brother Ivan had graduated from Princeton University with a law degree, and that she herself had gone on to become a teacher, just like the beautiful angel who had befriended them those many years ago in the middle to the wild Atlantic Ocean.