Thursday, January 21, 2010

"Crossing": A poetic remembrance, 1909

A poetic remembrance, 1909 
by Lisa

A young, new mother and her little son.
A village farm. A loving family.
A husband in a distant unknown land.
Her task: to leave and cross the massive sea.

Sad looks and words and tears from family.
Her mother’s broken heart in deepest prayer.
A bag or two, her child, and they must go.
A world to cross before arrival there.

Across the continent by train to shore,
the port looms large and daunting, and right then
a thought suddenly shakes her halting heart:
she’ll never see her home country again.

With husband waiting on the other side,
she and her young son step off of the land
and onto this new vessel of the sea –
but their place is below, so they descend.

In steerage – tossing, shifting, dark and damp –
below the deck they wait and count the days.
In such close quarters her young son takes ill.
She nurses him and counts the hours and prays.

The days pass slowly, painfully – eighteen –
of engine noise and air too stale to breathe.
And fever! Purgatory on the sea!
Her hope is for the day that they may leave.

Amidst her pain and suffering she finds
more travelers in similar despair.
Some countrymen whose ways and words she knows,
but many foreign tongues are from elsewhere.

She finds herself within a strange new world
and wonders where this voyage will yet lead.
Her strength and faith are rising, falling, while
the ship is tossed and pitched out on the sea.

How glorious – the day she hears the news
that land is near; departure eminent.
But joy is short-lived as this mother learns
the place where her ill baby will be sent.

In pain with measles, he must be confined.
Son and his mother forced to separate.
Her salty tears form oceans near her feet.
All she can do is pray and hope and wait.

Then finally the flood of trials departs
when mother, son – and father! – meet once more.
The sea of separation which they faced
is now behind them as they step ashore.

A young, new mother and her little son.
Her husband by her side in a new land.
This family steps into a new life
holding each other tightly by the hand.

© Lisa / Smallest Leaf Press

Written in memory of the transatlantic journey of twenty-four-year-old Ilona (Bence) Ujlaki and her two-year-old son Ferencz. They traveled by train from Legrad, Hungary to the port of Fiume, Hungary (now Rijeka, Croatia). Their third class (steerage) voyage on the S.S. Carmania to New York harbor lasted for eighteen days: from February 13 to March 2, 1909. While on board the ship, little Ferencz became ill with measles.  After the ship docked at Ellis Island, he was separated from his mother and hospitalized. After being reunited, Ilona and her son were able to meet their husband and father, the elder Ferencz, and begin their new life in New York City. Ilona, later to be known as Helen Ulaky, was my great-grandmother.

This poem has been submitted to the 89th edition of Jasia's Carnival of Genealogy whose topic is Ode to My Family's History featuring family history-focused poems. (Thanks to footnoteMaven for this edition's poster shown here).

Want to read more of my poetry?  Check out my parody of Katharine Lee Bates' America, The Beautiful: 100 Years in America the Beautiful, my limericks honoring my Irish immigrant ancestor entitled A poem for Patrick, or the little ditty I wrote to describe myself as an Irish family history blogger: A limerick for the love of Ireland.


  1. Lisa,
    Lovely, just lovely. No more need be said!

  2. Lisa, Your beautiful poem brought tears to my eyes. How terrifying to travel to a far-away foreign land with a seriously ill child and then having him taken away and put in isolation.

  3. It is indeed a beautiful poem. I felt the entire trip as I was reading.
    Thank you

  4. What a great way to honor your ancestor! You've done her proud, Lisa.


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