Monday, March 10, 2008

On babies and trans-Atlantic crossings

It was just a few short years ago that my husband and I took a very memorable trip to Europe. We traveled accompanied by our children, including the newest addition to the family: our baby daughter just shy of five months old.

The trip was challenging in many ways. Long plane flights, long walks, luggage-toting, frequent adjustments to new sleeping arrangements in hotels and guest houses...

The trip was not for the faint-hearted. Each child was tasked with toting their own suitcase and/or carrying a backpack, etc. I carried my baby almost continuously for two straight weeks. Time strapped into her car seat was very limited (only a couple of taxi rides and one rental car trip required it). We traveled almost exclusively by train through France, Switzerland and Germany, baby in my arms. We didn't even consider taking a stroller. It was hard enough to get on and off the Paris metro with a baby and her siblings not to mention a bulky stroller!

Our littlest one loved the trip. She constantly had new things to look at. It was the dream vacation for a baby who has not yet had the inclination to crawl.

Some friends with similar-aged children thought we were crazy to attempt such an adventure. One, whose baby was the same age as ours, said, "I can barely make it to the grocery store. How did you make that trip to Europe?"

During some of the more difficult moments of our trip, when things seemed momentarily overwhelming for this traveling mother and her young family, I found inspiration in the memory of my great-grandmother's journey from Europe with her toddler to meet her husband in America, who had left several years before. Ilona (Bence) Ujlaki, known to me as Grammy Ulaky, had faced her trip alone with her young son. His illness and his resultant stay at Ellis Island had to be a trial extraordinaire for a young mother, only age 24. Surely, if she could make it through that ordeal, I could make it through my journey. I pressed on knowing that my struggles were not half as difficult as hers.

Now, several years later, I have additional inspiration in the perseverance of motherhood: my great-grandmother Maria (Németh) Tóth. Like Ilona, Maria had crossed the Atlantic alone on her way to join her husband in a new country. She, however, had three young children with her - plus a baby!

You may have read the post about my discovery of baby Lajos' name on the U.S.S. Pennsylvania passenger list originating in Hamburg and then again on the list at Ellis Island. I was amazed to find the name of a family member who I had never heard existed. After further contemplation, I am even more amazed at the fact that this poor mother, my great-grandmother, survived such a trip with her young children and baby and made it to America with her sanity intact.

Imagine this: one adult with four young children ages six, four, two and five months. No disposable diapers. Not even a toilet, for goodness sake. No bag full of extra cookies, snacks and juice boxes. Probably not even decent meals or clean water, if enough water was even available. Fifteen straight days in the steerage section of a ship after a cross-continent trip by train from Hungary to Germany.


Don't forget to consider the fact that along the way Maria faced difficulty in communicating with fellow passengers, train and ship employees, and workers at the ports of Hamburg and Ellis Island. I wonder how many Hungarian speakers she actually encountered along the way. It must have been a relief to speak with someone in her native tongue.

I know from traveling with young children that no trip is easy. But what I know about the journey of my great-grandmother Maria (Németh) Tóth is almost unthinkable to me as a mother. In pondering the struggles that she must have faced on her journey to America, I can only hope that somehow she received special grace from God during her trial and met a few kind and helpful strangers on her way.

I never had a chance to meet my great-grandmother, known to her family as Grammy Toth. If I could do so today I would thank her as a great-granddaughter and a fellow mother: with thanksgiving for her perseverance during what was possibly one of the greatest trials of her life. Her courage and sacrifice made it possible for our family to begin a new life in America.


  1. Great post and I am with the crowd that wouldn't attempt traveling with young children. My feeling is that they would not get as much out of the experience as would perhaps a teenager or even a "tween" plus I would just be plain old exhausted.

    Also from my "childless" person's perspective, encountering children while traveling, especially on airplanes is not always pleasant for all travelers. This past weekend I managed to use an upgrade for first class and this time it was not the refuge I usually enounter - I had a family with an infant, a three year old and a five year old behind me. This is why I travel with earplugs.

    I hope I don't seem too harsh and I'm not trying to be judgmental - I say may power too you if you can swing traveling with young ones. I've encountered young travelers that amaze me with their good behavior. But there are also some families who tend to treat an airplane as a station wagon with wings.

  2. Yikes, Thomas! Sounds like you’ve had some bad experiences running into difficult little travelers. I can relate. There is nothing so unpleasant as being seated next to misbehaving children.

    Of course, my children were little angels on our trans-Atlantic trip together!

    Actually, they did each behave beautifully. We timed the trip nicely so we did not have a child in the toddler age range, which made it do-able. Our western European tour continues to be one of those experiences that is a strong part of our “family culture” today. With the exception of our littlest one, of course, each child has fond memories of our adventures. Our travels truly enriched their lives and gave them a perspective on life outside of their own little ethno-centric world. If only more children (and adults) could have that experience.

    Looking back I am always glad that we took the trip, although it was a trial at times. Thankfully, I don’t believe we ever inconvenienced any other travelers along the way. In fact, we had quite a few people that really enjoyed our childrens’ presence throughout our travels.

    Now, fifteen days in the steerage section of a ship after a trans-continental train crossing in 1907 would not have been the same joyful experience, I am sure. I’m guessing that you are as thankful as I am that we don’t have to journey that way, children or no children!


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