You or your father or your grandmother or your great-great grandfather came from a long way off. You came with your things in a wooden suitcase or a steamer locker or a bundle made from a blanket your mother sewed. You came from Katowice or Poznan or Sidney, Australia, or Lincoln, England. You were young and old, frightened and happy. You came with others and you came alone, and you have a story to tell, many stories to tell, in fact.
Sometimes, we tell these stories, but we don't write them down. We figure nobody really wants to hear another story about coming to America, all that immigrant stuff, and what happens is that the story is lost. Over the years, millions and millions of these stories have been lost. It's a shame.
Thankfully, Frank Zajaczkowski has made sure his story won't be lost.
As a child, Frank came from England after the war and settled in America and spent his life writing screenplays and fiction and even a libretto. Recently, he's written a moving, compelling memoir about coming to America. It's called Passage From England, and here's a sample, taken from the first chapter and its description of leaving England.
It is 10:30 A.M., early August, 1956. I am five years-old and we are leaving Lincoln, England for America. It’s raining hard. My sister, Mary, who is nearly seven, stands with me inside the Lincoln Rail Station waiting for the 10:52 from Doncaster.
Nanny, our grandmother, hands us each a box of candy for our train ride to London and then onto Southampton to board the Queen Elizabeth ocean liner, the sister ship of the Queen Mary, for our trip across the Atlantic. Cadbury Chocolates for Mary and Callard & Bowser Toffees for me. Mine come in a good strong cardboard box covered in purple cellophane decorated with big dogs and beautiful ladies frolicking through the gardens of a country manor. I look carefully at the ladies to see if they’re chewing toffees as they race through the gardens. They don’t seem to be. Maybe they’ve stuffed them down their billowy dresses. Maybe the dogs have eaten them and the cardboard box as well, hard to tell with dogs. Then I give up wondering, and stuff another toffee in my mouth.
“You two stay right here,” Nanny says walking over to the little ticket window.
Mary and I nudge closer together.
All week Nanny has been telling us we’re going on an adventure. Even at my age, though, I know it’s a load of junk. It’s not searching for adventure that’s sending us across the sea to America. I think it has to do with my father who’s done something my mum wishes he hadn’t.
I look down at the small, chipped white tiles that form beautiful patterns in and out of the larger, blue chipped tiles on the floor of the Station. I follow one design as it spreads across the tiles like a river of spilled fountain pen ink, all the way to the door where my eyes run into the feet of my mum and dad. They’re talking softly. I see my mother is crying, forcing herself to keep on talking though I know my father wants her to stop.
Mary and I begin to drift closer to them, close enough that we can hear them speaking, my mother’s voice rising above his.
“You’re not being fair, Jack. It’s difficult for me, too. Very.”
“No go, then. We stay. What the point?”
His Polish accent is strong, roughing up the words, losing some of them in his mouth.
“You know what the point is, luv,” her own voice stumbles now, “to get a clean start…in a new country…lots of opportunity, for you especially, Zdzislaw.”
It’s not often that she calls him by his Polish first name, Zdzislaw, which she pronounces Zish-waf. I’m still learning how to pronounce my last name, Zajaczkowski, Zi-yunch-schof-ski, or something like that.
At the sound of my father’s foreign name, Mary and I stop where we are, afraid to go any closer.
“Not all again that,” he says.
“And if we don’t go now, you know your Travel Document expires soon.”
“I know,” he says harder.
“Fine, then,” she answers, wiping her nose on a pretty embroidered handkerchief, a going-away present from Nanny.
He looks at her, becoming silent again as he so often is.
“You’ll keep your promise, Jack, won’t you? Just keep your promise and we can be a family again. Things can be good for us.” She touches his arm, “Right, luv?”
I thought we were a family already. Now, I don’t know what to think as my mum glances in our direction. I look up to my sister, who’s looking down at me. When I turn back, my father’s heading out the door and into the English rain.
“All set?” my mother asks, leaning down to tie the lace of my left shoe, her hair so close to my face it tickles my nose as she completes the double-knot.
“Where’s daddy gone?” Mary says for both of us.
“To see about our bags.”
I’m afraid every time he walks away it’ll be the last time I’ll see him because mum told us he’s staying behind in England to sell our house and close up his taxi stand. My big brother, John, is outside saying good-bye to his friends. He’s twelve, and acts so much older than me and Mary I almost think he could stay in England by himself. I’ve been wishing he would so if I wanted to come back home he’d be here to take care of me.
“Frances! Oh, Fran! Thank heaven I got here in time!”
It’s the booming voice of Mrs. Marsden, Betty, my mum’s best friend.
“Bet, I told you I couldn’t stand another good-bye,” my mother bursts into tears.
“I know, dearie, but I had to see your face one more time.”
She wipes my mother’s tears with her handkerchief.
“Don’t you look smart. New coat?” My mother nods. “Very becoming.”
“Oh, Bet, am I doing the right thing?” my mother asks through sniffles.
Betty brushes aside my mum’s light brown hair.
“Course you are. There’s a whole new world over there. Ruthie will make you feel at home. I’m sure she will.”
She’s talking about my mum’s friend Ruth, who also married a Polish Airman during World War II. They’re the Levindowskis, who moved to America a long time ago. Ruth has been writing letter after letter telling my mum all about the great things waiting for us in the U.S.A. All our dreams come true. They’ll be meeting us when we get to California.
Betty points out the window, “Chucking rain since July. That about says it all, don’t you think?”
They keep talking, but it’s hard to hear them now above the shrieking whistle of the Doncaster train that’s pulling into the station.
My mum grabs my hand and Nanny takes Mary’s, and we hurry through the station door. My dad rushes up and carries our bags to the train. My mother gives Betty one last hug.
“Keep an eye on him, Bet. Will you do that for me?” she says keenly.
“I’ll keep him in line, don’t you worry,” she winks, which sends a tear down her cheek.
We walk closer to the train. Nanny bends down eye-level with us.
“Now listen, dearies. I’m not saying good-bye because I’ll be seeing you soon enough.”
I turn away because I know she’s fibbing. She tucks in my shirt and wipes Mary’s tears.
“Be brave, little Noddies,” she says in the voice she uses to read the Little Noddy books to us about his adventures and mishaps in Toy Town.
“Be brave, now, because before you know it, I’ll be knocking on your sunshiney door.” She reaches out her arms. “Give us a big hug, then.”
She pulls me and Mary to her, kissing our cheeks one after the other.
“Let’s just say ‘So Long,’ like the American Cowboys do.”
Mary’s taking deep breaths to slow her crying.
I whisper, “So long, Hop-Along.”
Mary never gets a word out.
My dad comes back for us after loading the luggage. He picks me up and takes Mary by the hand.
“I back tomorrow,” he says to Nanny.
“Yes, Jack, I’ll make tea for us tomorrow afternoon, and hear all about the Elizabeth.”
We walk toward the train, and I can see John already on board waving to his friends and throwing a kiss to Nanny from a window.
I look back over my dad’s shoulder where my mother and Nanny stand in the rain, holding hands like two school girls saying good-bye forever.
Behind them is our city of Lincoln. A red double-decker bus swooshes by, its big slick tires splashing through the puddles. People hurry in gray raincoats, their black umbrellas swollen with wind so that the raindrops bounce off like pebbles on a drum. Beyond them all, high in the distance, up on the hill, the Lincoln Cathedral looks down on me as it has done my whole life, its upper spires disappearing in the clouds like a soft, furry collar covering its pointy shoulders.
The train whistle blows again, louder now, and my father calls out, “Fran! Come on, Fran!”
His voice breaks open the sky, sending a burst of rain falling like a solid sheet of water that I look through as my mother’s fingers drop from Nanny’s hand. She dashes across the platform as if through an underwater world, my father reaching down and pulling her out of the pool and onto the train.
There’s a billowing of smoke. The smell of diesel flooding over us. Then distant thunder as I feel the first movement of my departure from Lincoln.
So this is how an adventure begins I think to myself as the train rocks forward then settles for the briefest instant, then rocks forward again, struggling to keep the momentum going, swaying from side to side, bumping along like some huge creature getting its rhythm before breaking into a full run. Clack-clack, clack-clack, clack-clack. Faster and faster, the sound of steel wheels on steel tracks, like hoofs over rocks, counting the time, clack-clack, clack-clack, counting the growing distance that separates me from my home. Clack-clack, clack-clack, clack-clack, clack-clack.…
Passage from England: A Memoir is available from Amazon as a paperback and as a Kindle. More information about this book--including reviews--is available online. Frank Zajzczkowski is also on Facebook.