Young Catherine stood on the ship’s bow as it sailed into Ellis Island. She was a teenager. Her hair was tied behind her head. She had a slender neck. Young face.
The passengers on the boat were excited. All 1,139 of them. They were speaking in strange tongues. Irish, Italians, Greeks, Hungarians, Scandinavians, Norwegians, Swedish, Jewish, Polish, French.
The shoreline came into view. Catherine had never seen so many buildings. There weren’t buildings like this in Deutschland.
She leaned onto the stanchions. Her fiancé, Jakob, the carpenter, stood beside her and kissed her cheek.
“Ist es das?” said Catherine.
Jakob nodded. “Das ist Amerika.”
“Wow,” said the teenage girl.
The journey had taken seven days. They had been canned oysters within the hull of the ship. After seven days, everyone smelled like body odor and puke.
Catherine’s parents had been upset at their decision to leave the old country. Leave Deutshchland? Why? Get married in a foreign nation? Huh? They were just teenagers. Had they lost their minds? Were they completely verrückt?
Nevertheless, youth is a potent hallucinogenic. And this was a New World.
It was a trip of many firsts for her. For starters: Catherine had never been on a boat. Tickets on this ship cost five years’ carpenter’s wages.
Also, Catherine had never gone to the bathroom overboard before. Which was fun. Men went over the portside. Women went starboard.
The ship eased into Ellis Island, all misery instantly vanished. This was a fresh start. A new life. A new culture.
Everything happened so quickly. Catherine and her beaux went to the registration room, along with a few thousand other hopefuls. They waited for nine hours.
A doctor gave her a complete physical exam as she waited in line. They were all herded into cattle chutes. She and her fiancé were asked a series of quasi-trick questions by clerks.
In the lobby, she watched families reunite. She saw people weep and kiss and wail. She saw aliens become American. She saw outlaws become in-laws.
And suddenly, just like that, it was over. She was American.
Within hours, she and Jakob were standing in a train depot. Life was about to change forever. The train would whisk them away to heaven knew where.
Jakob and his brother would part ways. Jakob’s brother would travel dead west. Jakob and Catherine would go south.
The depot was a madhouse. Iron locomotives shot in and out of the New Jersey trainshed like hellish creatures from Armageddon.
Catherine was sick with worry. This was all so overwhelming. So frightening. So enveloping. What would become of her? What were they doing?
On the train platform, they saw something unusual. Everyone was gathered in a mass. Hordes were standing around a priest.
The old clergyman was talking loudly, reciting from an open book. He was speaking Latin. A young immigrant couple, Italian maybe, stood before the holy man, locking hands.
They were getting married. The bride wore a makeshift veil. The groom wore a flower on his rumpled lapel.
“Eine Hochzeit!” Catherine exclaimed. A wedding.
Standing behind the bride and groom were dozens of immigrant lovers, all waiting to be married. A man was selling American marriage licenses for $1. Another man was carrying a squeezebox, playing ceremonial music for 25 cents a pop.
Young Jakob turned to face his fiancé. There was enthusiasm in his eyes.
“Heirate mich, Katherine?” he said. Marry me.
“Ya,” she said through her tears.
They waited their turn. The elderly priest wed them. Right there on the depot platform. The whole ceremony took a few minutes, tops.
The others in the train depot cheered and screamed for the young newlywed couples. Young Jakob kissed his bride. They signed the certificate.
Catherine could have no idea how difficult her life would become in the following years. She would bear Jakob’s children. They would build a cabin. She would watch her husband die from fever before she was 28.
She would encounter drought, famine, and wars.
But for now, their little train was heading southward, accompanied only by a gilded sundown.
“Gott bless Amerika,” said Catherine Dietrich.
And this afternoon, while touring Ellis Island National Monument, her descendant said the same thing.
— Sean Dietrich is a columnist, and novelist, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in Southern Living, The Tallahassee Democrat, Good Grit, South Magazine, Alabama Living, the Birmingham News, Thom Magazine, The Mobile Press Register, and he has authored seven books. Learn more at https://seandietrich.com/.
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