Sorrows, Fears, Newspapers, and Sisters
Hanna, Age 12, Fairfax, VA
“There they go again,” I thought. Those little Irish girls were whispering and pointing. My sister, Gabrielle, had her back turned, but I knew that if she were to turn around, she would start crying, and we might loose our jobs.
“Extra! Extra! Read all about it!”
I cried the cry of a newsgirl from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. This time, was crying to drown out the whispers of those two girls, more than to sell papers. They teased us all the time. I suppose that it relieved their pain.
At a young age, they were withdrawn from school and made to work in a factory, then switched to selling papers on street corners when they were fired.
Sometimes, in some distant corner of my mind, I thought that they belonged here. This was their place in life, but it was not mine.
In my heart, I knew that here, in America, we were equals, but back in Paris, that was a different story.
War is such a tragic thing, and when you try to run away from it, some other tragedy always finds you to make up for it. That’s what happened to me, Marie, and my sister Gabrielle.
Countries in Europe were once again stirring. Papa decided that we were in real danger economically and said that we had to leave. No matter how many times I questioned him, he would tell me nothing else. He said that “being under economic threat,” should be a good enough reason for me, but I’ve always wondered.
The hardest part of leaving for me was leaving the Paris Opera Ballet. It was my life. Every day, all day, I would dance. Music, which I so rarely hear now, consumed me. We were one, moving together across the stage, telling a story of heroism and love to all who watched.
When we packed, my father did not allow me to take any of my ballet things, but I hid my toe shoes in my bundle of clothes. Now, they are literally coming apart at the seams, but I have no money for new shoes, and no use for them, so I make do.
Performing jobs are hard to find in Hartford, CT, and I needed to pay the rent somehow, so I landed here, selling newspapers until I can no longer speak from shouting every day.
Sometimes, I miss Mama and Papa so much! I cannot deny that if they were here, I would still be working along side them to pay for food and clothing, but I find it so unbearable sometimes to have to care for Gabrielle as if she is my child when I am but four years older than her, and have so much more in life to learn myself.
Mama was killed the day before we left for America. I do not know how it happened, and I do not think that my mind could handle it if I did. All I remember is waiting for over an hour, crying my eyes out over my last ballet rehearsal at the Paris Opera. When I finally came to my senses, I decided to go home because Mama had not come to get me.
Gabrielle was sitting at the table by herself, waiting, when I came
in the door. That picture is firmly set in my
mind, but the rest of that night is a blur. We got a
message from our landlady, and Papa went to sell Mama’s ticket to
America while I unpacked her luggage in shock.
Gabrielle turned around to tell me something, and spotted the two Irish girls making fun of her again. She ran to me, sobbing her eyes out, and as I embraced her, all of my sorrows and fears came pouring out, too. No Papa, no Mama, no money, no dancing, no food, no coats or boots on this chilly January morning, no sleep, no break from work, my shoulders aching from my bag, my ankles swelling from standing all day, Gabrielle looking even more weak and sickly each day. Pain and misery were flooding my mind. I felt that I could never think another happy thought, and then we were fired, just like that.
“Why, Papa, why!” I cried as I walked home. As I said this, I wondered where he was, if he was alive.
The trip across the Atlantic was sorrow, mourning, and misery. We had spoiled food, and disease plagued the passengers constantly. The cry of “Land!” was long awaited, yet when it did come, Papa was very sick.
He gave me our money and told me of his plans, even what to do when we got to America. I could tell that he was seriously worried, and he had reason to be. Papa made the voyage to America, only to be forced to turn back to Europe because of disease.
I wrote to family in France once, and their reply told that he had never returned. We can only assume that he died at sea.
You would think that our tragedy and hardships ended there, wouldn’t you? There are still miserable things to come.
As I trudged home through the snow, I felt suddenly aware of how cold my bare feet were. Even the rags I had tied around them were no match for the ice and snow. I was glad that I had saved up enough nickels and dimes to buy Gabrielle shoes. Even if they had to be stuffed with newspaper so that they wouldn’t fall off until she grew into them, they were warm.
We got back to our apartment and went to our room. It was simple. Our landlords had graciously given us a mattress that was now lying in the corner. Our small table and two chairs that I had found were right next to it, with our only lamp sitting on top. There was also a makeshift dresser that we had made out of old discarded milk crates standing on the opposite wall.
The rest of the apartment, where another family lived, was very cramped. There were only two other rooms besides ours. I always felt uncomfortable in the kitchen because the family was there all the time. It was the children’s bedroom as well as the living room. The family that rented us our room was also French. We were very lucky to find them, because there aren’t many French families in Hartford. They really helped us to get used to life in America.
We adapted quite well to our new lives, considering the circumstances. We had jobs, food, and a home, and could communicate fairly well in English. I tried to become more fluent in our new language, but whenever I was upset, I started to speak in French again.
As I comforted Gabrielle, the people in our apartment building looked at us like we were crazy because I hadn’t bothered to close the door. Jabbering in some foreign language while we sobbed our eyes out, our newspaper bags still slung across our shoulders; we must have been a funny sight. I decided that we would have to eat some dinner and get to bed soon, because we’d be up before the sun tomorrow, looking for different jobs.
While we ate some cheese, bread, and homegrown “window box” vegetables, I tried to read one of the newspapers that we had walked away with.
“The headline says ‘Movement to Establish Child Labor Laws Still Pending,’ "What nonsense,” I told Gabrielle. “It says that they will be inspecting factories in the city, but I don’t understand why.”
Gabrielle shrugged, only halfheartedly, and continued to eat our feast. Although we were out of jobs, I’d let us eat a lot of food because I was feeling weak and tired.
After we finished, we lay down on our mattress. Thoughts of government inspectors, new jobs, and my boss screaming at us floated around in my head.
The next morning, we awoke at 4 am and practiced our English as we got ready. I knew some English, but Gabrielle was still learning the basics.
Our family spent summers in England when I was little, so I learned a lot of things from my playmates, but Gabrielle, not being alive at the time, did not have this advantage.
I could interact with the general public fairly well, and I was trying to teach Gabrielle. She picked up on it quickly, but still did not like to use English when we were alone. I, as well, preferred French, but the more that we practiced, the better we got, so I kept plugging away at English.
We walked to the shoe factory where I had bought Gabrielle’s mismatched shoes at half price. They’d had a “Help Wanted” sign in the window before, and with any luck, it would still be up.
Sure enough, the sign still hung, bright red, in the window. As we entered, we were asked to sit down in a waiting area. It looked as if it were also the dumpster, and smelled like garbage, too!
A very skinny, frail man called us over to a desk and asked us some questions.
“Country of birth?”
“Name, age, gender, and time of US residency?” the man listed off, so fast that I could not answer right away.
“Gabrielle and Marie,” I said, indicating each of us as I spoke our names. “My sister is nine, and I am thirteen.”
“Goodness!” the man cried. “Nine and thirteen?!! The government will put us out of business! You must be 16 to work now,” he told us. “Out!”
As we were shoved out the door, I felt like I was walking on air, while at the same time, my heart felt like lead. We could go to school! No more working! How would we pay our bills? What would we eat, where would we live?
Ah, well. I was very tired again. We went home, and I slept the rest of the day, once again. My dreams were troubled, though, as I did not know what tomorrow may bring.
This page was last updated on January 30, 2006 by the KIWW Webmaster.