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Authors: Viola Shipman

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BOOK: The Charm Bracelet
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“I remember a lot of things from the past,” she said. “Because I choose to.”

Lolly sipped her coffee and tossed a quilt over her and Lauren's legs. “Speaking of which … you mentioned sharing some memories yesterday. You said the doctor thinks it would be helpful for me to start ‘mentally exercising.' Well, ironically, I gave that a lot of thought last night. And I think we should do that. All of us. The things I never told you, all the questions you never asked, all those little details that slid by, I guess it's time for me to share them. And the best way to do that is by telling you about these charms around my wrist.”

Lolly lifted her tiny wrist and shook her arm, which was as tanned and spotted as a bird's egg. Her fingers and wrists were knotted and gnarled, but still had a delicateness to them. The bracelet sagged with charms, singing with every little movement Lolly made.

“These charms capture every moment of my life … and yours, too. None of us would be sitting here today without them. They tell the story of where we've been, how far we've come, and where we still hope to go. I still believe that my life is like that dragonfly charm I gave you when you were a girl: Despite any sadness, it
has
been filled with good fortune.”

Lolly held her charm bracelet up to her face and squinted.

“So, let's see … where's the best place to start?”

As her old hands rifled through each charm, her eyes grew misty, as if touching each one were unlocking some long-ago memory.

“I think the best place to start is with this one,” Lolly finally said. “My sewing machine charm. And it's only fitting as we're covered with this quilt. Lauren? Are you ready?”

Lauren nodded.

“Arden, are you ready? I know how much you always hated that old sewing machine,” she said. “But I think this will give you a different perspective.”

Arden thought of the sewing machine and all the embarrassing homemade clothing she had to wear as a teen, recalling all the kids who teased her so much that all she wanted to do was run away from Lost Land Lake. Forever.

As if on cue, a breeze swept through the screened porch and rattled a wind chime, continuing its path to jangle the charms on the charm bracelet.

“I think they're ready, too,” Lolly laughed. “This sewing machine charm was the first one I ever received. It was from my grandmother, Mary, and it's the reason we're all sitting here today.”

 

part three

The Sewing Machine Charm

To a Life Bound by Family

 

Eight

1901

The ticket was nestled in the straw, right under an egg.

Mary O'Connell looked up, her blond hair sticking through the top of the wire in the chicken coop, and blinked big tears out of her cornflower blue eyes.

“I don't want it! What if I never see you again?” Mary asked.

Her father, John, stood outside the hen house as snowflakes tumbled slowly through the air like forgotten confetti. He held out his gloved hand for the egg. When Mary handed him the ticket instead, he refused it.

“It's a miracle, Mary!” he said in his Irish brogue, grabbing the egg from her and placing it in a wire basket. “It's a ticket to America!”

America,
she thought.

At seventeen, all Mary knew was this tiny plot of land, these chickens, and her parents' garden. She could hardly imagine a place so far away. And yet she knew there was no work in Ireland. Her job prospects were bleaker than the weather.

“We can barely survive as it is, Mary. We will follow you when we get more money.”

John O'Connell called himself an “egg dealer,” but even he knew that was generous: His few chickens gave him just enough eggs to sell from a ramshackle cart every weekend at the town market, and his garden gave him just enough vegetables to keep his family upright. The rest of the year, he worked as a laborer, but no one really had enough money to hire outside help.

Marian O'Connell had worked as a seamstress before the local factory closed, and now she made specialty dresses for wealthier families—communion and wedding dresses, a few times a year—but she mostly sold her quilts at market alongside her husband's eggs. Mary worked alongside her mother at the sewing machine, studying her, watching her, learning her mother's craft by the flicker of firelight in their tiny thatched cottage.

“Eggs and quilts, Mary, eggs and quilts,” Marian would chant as she sewed. “Just enough of both to keep us from dying. That's no way to live.”

Marian's sister-in-law and brother, a skilled wood carver, had traveled to America two years earlier, and he'd found work as a furniture craftsman in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

“Many immigrants are here,” her brother would write, “logging or crafting furniture. You must come. There is work in America!”

And then one late winter's day—out of the blue—he and his wife had sent a prepaid ticket to the O'Connells with a note: “Only enough money for one. You must decide who sails.”

It had never been much of a decision. “Mary,” her parents cried when the ticket arrived. “Mary.”

As the snow melted atop Mary's head—white on white—Mary crawled on her knees over to another chicken and roused it from its home. It cried and squawked, but reluctantly found another resting place. Mary felt its anguish and mouthed,
I'm sorry.

She looked at the ticket as she felt for more eggs:

June 14, 1901.

Prepaid Passenger Ticket

Steerage to America

Four months later, she stood at the rail station, one suitcase and one ticket in hand, ready to board the train that would take her to the ship that would take her to America.

“We will try and send money, but you will need to work when you reach America,” her father said. “Then you can go live with your aunt and uncle in Michigan.”

“We love you, Mary,” her parents said, holding her tightly, kissing her cheeks, her head, her eyes. “Write! And we will see you soon!”

Mary could feel her knees buckle and her heart crumble as her parents let her go, but she could see the hope in their eyes and that alone carried her forward.

Mary boarded and took her seat next to a window, watching her dark-haired, handsome father hold his tiny, blond wife. When the train began to move, Mary's parents ran alongside, waving goodbye, until the platform ended.

It would be the last time Mary saw her parents.

When Mary arrived at port, she couldn't believe the size of the giant hulled steamer ship and the number of people boarding. “It's as if all of Ireland are going to America!” she said to another young girl as she waited to board.

For a brief moment, as Mary boarded with hundreds of others, she walked the ship, wide-eyed at its opulence: Grand salons, flamboyant ballrooms, stunning dining rooms with white tablecloths, silver, and crystal. One of the ballrooms seemed as large to Mary as her whole county.

“Miss! Ticket?”

Mary jumped at the sound of the voice, and turned to find a man in a white uniform holding out his hand.

“Steerage,” he said, before pointing toward a stairwell outside the ballroom. “Down. Down, down, down.”

Mary disappeared down a steep winding steel staircase, her bag banging behind her, until she emerged at the bottom of the ship and was herded—just like she used to do with her father's chickens—into a tiny pen.

If the top deck were heaven, Mary learned, than steerage was more like hell: It was dark, noisy, smelly, and stuffy.

“Better find a bunk,” an older woman cautioned Mary, as people jostled one another in a near panic.

Mary passed by a series of large bunk dormitories, with little or no privacy. She peeked into bathrooms that were open to all. A sign read that access to the open deck was limited.

Mary tossed her suitcase on an upper bunk, crawled in, and stayed until the same elderly woman who had helped her before brought her soup that night.

“I'm scared,” Mary told her. “I miss my family. Why is everyone leaving home?”

The woman smiled at Mary and swept her locks out of her eyes. Her touch was soft and gentle, like Mary's mother's. It grounded her.

“Hope,” the woman whispered. “Hope.”

And for seven days, Mary lay in the dark, eyes closed, fighting seasickness and homesickness whispering that word, “Hope!” to herself, as if it were a life preserver in the middle of the ocean, a parent in this vast world in which she now found herself alone.

“We're here!” she heard one day. “We're here!”

A flood of people rushed for the steps, swimming up the stairs, like salmon.

When Mary made it to the deck, exhausted, dirty, dragging her only belongings, she thought she was going blind: She had seen little light in days, and it took her eyes a while to adjust.

Slowly, slowly, the first thing that came into focus—as her hair blew in the early summer wind—was a giant woman, wearing a crown and raising a torch in her right hand, her sandaled feet trampling a broken chain.

“Is that…?” she started.

“The Statue of Liberty!” people were yelling. “America!”

Mary didn't know why, but she started to cry, weep, and—for the first time—she didn't feel totally alone.

The steamship docked at Hudson's Pier to disembark first- and second-class passengers, while third class and steerage boarded a barge to Ellis Island. Mary stood on the barge, clutching her suitcase, the cool wind of America tossing her hair around her head, like the clouds above. The grandeur of the immigration station was unlike anything Mary had ever seen: Towering on Ellis Island was a stunning French Renaissance structure in red brick with limestone trim.

Is America so grand?
Mary thought.

Mary was ushered with hundreds of other steerage passengers to the Great Hall Registry, where they waited to undergo medical and legal inspections.

Mary watched as doctors scanned patient after patient, listening to their hearts, looking into their mouths and eyes, studying their skin.

Each time a doctor would state, “Quarantine,” and mark a patient with an
X
, Mary would struggle to hold back tears.

After hours of waiting, she heard: “Mary O'Connell?”

As a doctor began to look over Mary, her heart raced.

“You are nervous,” he said. “Just take a deep breath…”

Mary inhaled, shut her eyes, and said a prayer.

“Next,” the doctor said, pointing toward another man sitting at a desk, who then checked Mary's identity against the ship's manifest.

“Welcome to the United States,” he said.

Mary didn't move. Tears came.

“Welcome to the United States,” he repeated.

“What do I do now?” Mary asked.

“Anything you want,” he said, smiling. “This is the land of opportunity.”

“Mary,” the girl heard a woman call. “Mary, this way!”

The older woman who had calmed Mary on the ship was motioning for her.

“My family is headed to a boardinghouse in New York City,” she said. “You can come with us where you will be safe.”

When they arrived, Mary was immediately overwhelmed by New York: It was loud and crowded. People moved at a pace Mary had never experienced.

The family set up a cot at the boardinghouse and Mary slept in a room with eight others. Between the snoring and the noise of the city, Mary was unable to sleep, so she arose and went to the living room of the boardinghouse where she sat in front of a fire.

Mary began to cry, as she thought of home, of her mother, of that sewing machine in front of the fireplace. And—just like the man at Ellis Island had promised—opportunity came to Mary.

“I heard you crying,” the older woman from the ship said to Mary.

“I miss my family,” she said.

“Do you have any skills?” the woman asked.

“I can sew,” Mary replied.

“Then you will find work,” she said. “Now, let's get some rest.”

Mary rose at dawn and began blindly meandering from tailor shop to seamstress shop in New York, inquiring if they had any jobs available.

“We don't hire immigrants,” they replied.

“How old are you?” others asked. “You're just a child.”

By late afternoon, Mary was exhausted and hungry. She felt as if the pace and hubris of New York were eating her alive. As she stood outside a dressmakers shop, rejected again, a well-dressed woman emerged from a carriage carrying a sack. Mary watched as the woman entered the shop and began gesturing excitedly to the owner behind the counter, her giant, feathered hat and long, ruffled skirt moving in concert with her motions. She pulled beautiful white fabric that looked like clouds from the sack.

Mary walked to the shop door and cracked it slightly.

“We cannot do that,” the man with the moustache said. “I'm sorry.”

BOOK: The Charm Bracelet
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