Journey Through the Golden Gates This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

November 23, 2009
Honnnk. Honnnk. I woke with a start to the blasting, obnoxious noise.
I rubbed my eyes and yawned, vexed after being awoken so soon and sore from sleeping in my cramped berth. I was grateful to have one at all, though; there weren’t enough bunks for the children. Almost every child in steerage slept on the floor, except for the very young ones, of course. Even though I had a bed, however, I knew I could say farewell to any more sleep. For me, once I was fully awake, that was the point of no return. I scowled to myself in the darkness.

Then I realized something; that obscene noise could only mean that our ship was pulling into the harbor! My mood swung from irritation to delight in the blink of an eye. It seemed too good to be true, although we had been on the Hamburg for almost two weeks since we left our home in Messina, Sicily.

I peered over the edge of my bunk to take a peek at my six-month-old daughter, Caterina. She was lying next to my husband Forunato, in the berth above me. Thankfully, the horn hadn’t woken her; she was still sleeping peacefully and her pale, worn-out face was serene. The poor girl had been seasick for almost two whole weeks, so I was glad to see her getting some uninterrupted sleep.

As I squinted around in the darkness, my eye caught a shifting mass of blankets on the floor across the room, near the wall. Suddenly, two legs shot out from underneath, followed by a little body. The child stood up, and I could tell who it was even without seeing her face: Concetta, without a doubt. Of my six children, she was the quickest to get out of bed once awake.

She stepped over her snoring siblings as carefully as she could, but I had to stifle a giggle as she accidentally stepped on her older brother Paolo’s head. "Owwwww, mia testa, my head..." he moaned as he rolled over to see who was hovering over him. "Concetta! Vai al letto, go to bed! Io voglio a dormire, I want to sleep!"
Concetta shushed her brother, muttering an apology. "Shh, mi dispiace, I'm sorry," she murmured, irritated with herself for waking Paolo and trying to ensure he didn't wake up anybody else.
After giving Paolo her teddy bear as consolation for being stepped on, Concetta tiptoed past the rest of her siblings and bounded lightly across the room. Her bare feet were perfectly silent on the hard, wooden floor and her jet-black ringlets swung back and forth. I raked my fingers through my own chestnut curls, yanking through a monstrous knot. I’d forgotten to braid my hair the night before to keep it from tangling.
Concetta reached the bed and climbed up onto my lap, careful not to jab me with an elbow or a knee. For a six-year-old, she was very aware of her body and space. Concetta leaned her face in close to mine and kissed my cheek. “Buongiorno, mamma,” she whispered. “Good morning, Mama.”
I stood up, lifted Concetta off the floor, and kissed her forehead. “Concetta?” I said to her.
“Sì, mamma?”
“Tu vuoi andare in qualche luogo con me? Do you want to go somewhere with me?” I asked.
“Oh, sì, certamente! Oh, yes, definitely!” she squeaked quietly. I set Concetta down gently on the floor and handed her clothes to her.
Dressing quickly, I sent Concetta to find the stairs to the upper deck of the ship. Our ship was one of the few that permitted its steerage passengers above decks to get some fresh air. Concetta found the stairs, and I motioned her to climb them with me. I wanted to see exactly where we were.
Just when I thought my legs were about to fall off, we reached the upper deck. Dawn was breaking, and the sky was hued with the violet and scarlet of the rising sun. “È una bella mattina,” Concetta remarked as we gazed up at the skies. “It’s a beautiful morning.” I agreed completely.
Concetta and I skirted the edge of the crowd of anxious people milling on the deck, and made our way to the bow of the ship. We stood right by the side, leaning over the railing to take a look at the water below with curious eyes. I lifted my head to see where I was, and was stunned by what I saw.
A magnificent statue of a woman stood at the entrance to New York Harbor. She was striding forward with a determined look on her face, a torch in her hand to light the way. Lady Liberty. I was enraptured by her grandeur. “Lei è bella,” Concetta mumbled, dazed by the statue’s splendor. “She’s beautiful.”
But there was more to her than just beauty. She was a symbol of friendship and a promise of freedom to immigrants, not just from Italy, but from around the globe. I could almost hear her saying, “Benvenuta, welcome to America.”
Eventually I tore my gaze from the face of Lady Liberty and took in the tall, gleaming buildings that lay beyond her. Upon laying eyes on the bustling city, I suddenly felt a pang of fear. This is America, I thought, and we’ll be living in a city! I’ve never lived anywhere besides on our small farm in Messina. What if we can’t make enough to support ourselves? Non parliamo inglese, we don’t speak English, so how will we make a living?
My thoughts were cut off by a gentle tug at the hem of my skirt. I looked down to see four-year-old Benedetta smiling up at me. She flung her arms around my legs and burrowed her face into my skirt. Around her gathered the rest of my children, faces beaming like the rising sun that was just peeking over the horizon. I heard a murmur of “Buongiorno, mamma” as they joined Benedetta in a group hug: Paolo, Giuseppa, Placido, and lastly Concetta.
Suddenly, I heard someone call out my name. I turned around and saw Forunato, doing his best to get through the throng of people to where we were standing. He was holding Caterina in his arms. "Scusa, scusa," he said to the ones around him. "Excuse me." Eventually he made it through all the people, and the children enveloped him in the hug. Forunato kissed my cheek, whispering, “Buongiorno, Grazia,” before he passed Caterina to me. I stroked her forehead. She was awake, and some of the color had returned to her cheeks. I knew she’d be just fine.
That was when I realized that our family would be just fine, too. We were strong, and we would pull each other through any troubles that might come our way. We could handle whatever life threw at us, be it unemployment, poverty, or even illness. This was the Land of Opportunity. As I was surrounded by my loving family, I knew that we would find a way.
I held my head high as the Hamburg pulled into New York Harbor, firmly convinced that we would prosper in America.

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