Yesterday's Magazette

13 – In Mama’s Footsteps

In Mama’s Footsteps

By Madonna Dries Christensen

From behind the ironing board I watched Poppy slap a flannel rag across the tops of his black work shoes; first one, then the other. He worked on the sides and backs in the same manner. Then, wearing one oxford on each hand, he held them at arm’s length for inspection. He seemed satisfied with the shine, but more often than not he dabbed on more polish, followed by more rubbing and inspection.

“Slip off your shoes, Elena Rose,” he said. “I’ll polish them for you.”

“They’re fine; you did them a couple of days ago.”

He motioned for me to do as he asked. I nudged off my shoes and slid them across the floor. I had never understood why he was so fussy about shoes, keeping mine and his glowing with polish and having them repaired before they even showed wear. While I finished ironing the blouse I would wear tomorrow for my first day of business school, I recalled a time when I was a child, and clomped into the parlor wearing Great-aunt Hilda’s high-buttoned shoes and green felt hat with a peacock feather in the band. Twirling for inspection, I said, “Don’t I look spiffy?”

Poppy had folded his newspaper and laid his pipe in the ashtray. “Take off the shoes, and put yours on.” He didn’t mention the hat, but I removed it, too, and retreated to my bedroom, wondering what I had done wrong. I was only playing dress-up. I wondered if spiffy was a bad word, but decided it must not be because Aunt Hilda used it.

Another time, when I was a teenager helping in Poppy’s grocery market, a woman asked if I was going to step into my father’s shoes and run the store some day. “Yes, Mrs. Stahl,” I said, intending to explain about my plans for business college. But Poppy stepped forward and told her I had shoes of my own and didn’t need his. Mrs. Stahl looked as confused about his remark as I was.

While I’d been lost in thought Poppy had gone to the bedroom and returned carrying a threadbare carpetbag. “Come, sit down,” he said. I laid the flatiron aside to cool, and joined him at the table.

“Do you remember when you came to America?” he asked.

“I was only six.”

“I know, but do you remember?”

“I have a dim memory of playing on the ship with other children, and of the day we saw the Statue of Liberty. Sometimes when I smell something musty, it reminds me of where we slept, below in the dark.”

“Steerage was all I could afford.” From the bag Poppy took a packet of letters tied with a faded yellow ribbon. The top letter bore his name, Josef Trier, at an address in New York City. The return address was that of my mother, Anna Magdalena Trier, in Kerpen, Germany. “The story is in the letters. And here.” Poppy thumped his chest, over his heart.

I took the top letter from its envelope and unfolded it. “I can’t read it. It’s in German.”

Poppy’s pale blue eyes looked tired behind his wire-rimmed spectacles, and his hair and bushy moustache seemed grayer than they had yesterday. His hand still rested over his heart.

“I can’t read your heart, either,” I said, smiling. “What story do you mean?”

Drawing a long breath, Poppy began, “The letters start after I came here, in nineteen-aught-four. You and your mother stayed in the old country on the farm with my folks. I hated leaving; you were a baby, but the plan was that Anna and you should come when I scraped together the money. I worked for Uncle Fritz in his market but it took four years to save enough. Business was not always good and Uncle Fritz could not pay much, sometimes only room and board at his house.”

I knew that during the war just past, when German immigrants were often taunted and their stores boycotted, Uncle Fritz had given up. Poppy kept the store going and earned a reputation as an honest businessman. Uncle Fritz left the store to Poppy.

“When you and Anna arrived, she did not pass the medical test. She knew before she left the old country that she was sick, but her letters to me said only that she was tired, and anxious about the voyage. I know now she did not want to worry me or have me come back. She knew if she did not pass the test in Germany she could not bring you here. But if she got here and then did not pass, the shipping company would have to pay her return fare. They were responsible for bringing healthy passengers. So Anna made a plan to trick the doctors.” He paused, as if expecting questions, but I waited for him to explain.

“Her sister, Clara, who looked like Anna’s twin, was examined. Then they switched places and your mother set sail with you. When Anna was examined at Ellis Island they said she had consumption, or tuberculosis, and could not stay. Like she expected to happen.”

Poppy drew a letter from the packet. “This was given to me by a woman who brought you off the ferry. Anna did not know if she would see me again and the letter explained why she must return to Germany. She said they marked her coat with chalk to show she had a bad illness. A man who spoke German called your names over a loudspeaker. Anna Magdalena Trier, return to Germany. Magdalena Rose Trier, stay in America. She wished he had not said it for all to hear.”

Seeing me nod, he asked, “You remember this?”

“Fragments. Go on with the story.” As I listened, blurred images and sounds blinked through my mind; people crowded into a cavernous, noisy room, a babble of languages, names being called, crying as people were reunited with loved ones. I remembered laughter, too.

Now, something about the laughter unsettled me, but the details stayed out of memory’s reach. Poppy handed me a cardboard tag bearing my name, the name of the ship, my mother’s name as my traveling companion, and Poppy’s name and address, my destination. “The tag was pinned to your coat. The woman who brought you off the boat held a sign with my name on it so I would find you. I was looking for Anna, of course. When I read the letter the woman gave me, from Anna, I was frantic, confused. You were crying. You were afraid of me. You did not know your vater, your father. You kept asking for your mutter. I did not know what to do with you.” Poppy’s hands fluttered helplessly, as if it were happening now. “All I could think, forgive me, was that I wanted Anna. My heart and my attention were torn from you to her.”

He walked to the window and stood with his arms folded across his back at the waist. “Anna died before the next ship sailed. God rest her soul. I am thankful she was in America and not buried at sea. Nine days in the infirmary. I visited her every day but I was not there when she died. I think maybe they did not take good care of her. She was just another German.”

He returned to the table. “No; I should not say that. She was very sick.” He looked away and I did not intrude on his thoughts.

As a child, I couldn’t understand where Mutter had gone. Poppy took me to the cemetery and said she died after we came to America. Died? What did that mean? He said I should call her Mother, if I spoke of her, and him Father. That was the American way, and Mother wanted me to be American. But, taking my cue from a playmate, I called him Poppy and her Mama.

He handed me a photograph. Glancing at it, and then at him, I asked, “Is this you and me?”

He nodded. “A man took it at the dock. He wrote down my address to bring me a copy. It cost half a dollar. I wanted to give it to Anna but she died too soon.”

“Why haven’t I seen it before?”

He shrugged, and I studied the sepia photo. Poppy wore a dark suit, white shirt, dark tie, and a dark hat. His smile looked fixed, as if the photographer had told him to smile. He probably had; Poppy would have had no reason to smile when he had just learned his wife was dying and would not be staying in America. He stood beside a bench on which I sat, my hands folded across my stomach. My eyes looked fearful and I was biting my lip. I wore a dark skirt and a dark jacket with buttons missing and the passenger’s tag pinned to the lapel. Thick braids hung from beneath a flowered scarf, knotted under my chin. My legs were covered with wrinkled black stockings, and on my feet were a pair of odd-looking shoes. “My shoes were several sizes too big,” I said.

Poppy lifted a pair of black leather high-top shoes from the carpetbag. They were hard and cracked, the laces brittle, the blocky heels unevenly worn. He held the shoes in his hands, staring at them.

I looked at the photo and back at the shoes he held. “These were mine?”

“No; they were Anna’s. Your shoes fell apart on the voyage. Anna had small feet; still, these were far too big for you. She said you were as proud of them as if a cobbler had made them to order for you.”

“Yes; now I remember something. Women pointing at us, laughing at us.”

Poppy nodded. “Two women. Anna felt ashamed when they laughed at her old-fashioned language. At her clothes, and yours, at the holes in her stockings, and at you, wearing shoes too big.”

Through Poppy’s words, the scene came to life. I heard the laughter, felt its scorn, and knew Mama’s hurt and shame.

“We were sitting on a stairway,” I told Poppy. “The women stopped. Mama tried to hide me from them. She lifted her skirt to cover my feet. They pointed at me, and laughed.”

Poppy squirmed, seemingly uncomfortable with my recollection. “Anna wrote in the letter that the first thing I must do was buy you new shoes and clothes. And I should speak only English to you. She did not want you laughed at for speaking German.”

“And did you, speak only English to me?”

“Not right off. Aunt Hilda said we must learn to know each other first. But soon we spoke only English and you were quick to learn. You were smart. And pretty. Your hair was brighter red than it is now. Red like Anna’s.” Poppy reached out, but stopped short of touching my hair.

When I was little, he had combed and braided my hair. He brought the hair down over my face, then found my nose with the tip of the comb and worked upward, parting the hair and smoothing each side. If the part lay off center, he started again, telling me to hold my head still.

“Anna said I must call you Elena Rose, that Magdalena was an old-country name. I bought you new shoes that first day and Aunt Hilda had already made dresses for you. We burned your old things. They had bugs from the ship. I repaired and polished Anna’s shoes and took them to her the next day, so she would not return to Germany barefoot. I took you with me to the infirmary. Do you remember?”

“I have no memory of that.”

“Well, you did not actually see her. They would not let you in the quarantine ward. I had to wear a mask over my nose and mouth. I had to sign a paper that I came at my risk.” Studying the photo, Poppy said, “Your jacket was red. Anna liked red. Aunt Hilda made you a new red coat.”

He sighed from deep in his chest, the way he often did after a busy day, and caressed the shoes. He had saved them all these years. Had he saved her clothing, too, or burned it as he had mine? Where was her jewelry, if she had any? Her wedding ring? Maybe in the satchel. Or had she been buried wearing it? I would ask another time.

Poppy glanced at me. “Now you know why I always wanted you to have good shoes.”

“I understand, but I wish you’d told me about this long ago.”

“You were a child. A girl. I did not always know the right thing to do. Aunt Hilda helped, but after she died we moved to our own place and you grew into a young woman.”

“You did fine. I never wanted for anything. You’re a good father.”

“And you are a fine girl; not like those silly girls, those flippers.”

“Flappers, Poppy.” I looked at the picture to hide my smile. “May I keep this picture?”

He nodded. “If you would like.”

“Do you have others?”

“In Anna’s trunk. You should have everything in the trunk. There is lace work she did. Fine lace. Some baby clothes. Jewelry. Other things.”

“Will you read Mama’s letters to me sometime?”

“If you would like.” Poppy picked up my shoes; the ones he had polished. “You should have new shoes for your first day of college. Something stylish. We will go to the store first thing in the morning, before classes begin.”

“These will do. They look fine.”

“For everyday; yes, but not for school. Not for my college girl. And maybe a new coat.”

I started to protest, but then said, “A red coat?”

Poppy smiled and nodded. “Ja, I think red.”


[This fiction story was inspired by the photograph at the top of the page and by a premise presented by Thema Literary Journal: Laughter on the steps. The story was published in Thema.]

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