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Memories of Julia
Her hair was fire red, and her eyes were as deep as the sea.
It's this image Pietro remembers, so many years later. When Julia had first come over from the village they both had lived in in Italy, he was there to find her at the harbor. Her eyes had been so bright and full of hope. They couldn’t move fast enough to take in all the sights in America! She would fire relentless questions: “What’s that? What’s he selling? Is that Triangle?” How they’d both laughed as he tried to explain everything in New York!
There was hardly time for laughing after she’d started work. It was at the Triangle Factory in the Asch Building, the biggest shirtwaist factory in New York, and he'd found the job for her. It payed four dollars a week -- enough for her rent and food, with some left to save up to bring her family over.
He worked cutting out shirtwaists at a smaller shop, not far from Triangle or their separate boarders. And over three months, their paths would often cross on the walks to and from work. The walks were long enough to exchange a brief conversation. That was how it had started, hadn’t it?
Worker to worker, person to person. Word of mouth travels fast, and in November 1909 that was the word that spread like wildfire.
At the same time she told him, she brought the news of her family’s death. Her eyes were red from crying. As he struggled to take it in, he saw the same determined light in her eyes. “I don’t have to work for my family anymore. I have to go on strike. I can really change something, Pietro!”
He was stunned, had to think. Finally, he said:
“When do we walk out?”
The winter of 1909 was a hard one. She marched, day after day, on the picket line. He was a speaker for the union, since he knew both Italian and English. He’d never imagined himself as much of anything before. But here he was, rallying people, rising spirits, organizing strikes.
He never saw her much those months.
Finally the factories settled, with resistance in the big ones like Triangle. They both went back to work. Life returned to normal. On Saturdays he had half days, but she didn’t; it was one of the demands Triangle hadn’t agreed to. He'd wait outside for her when her day ended. A year passed. He felt almost... happy.
Until the day that haunts him in nightmares.
It was March 25, a Saturday. He was in a good mood, practically whistling, as he waited for her outside the Asch Building; maybe he could afford a rose for her birthday.
That’s how unprepared he was when smoke began to pour out the windows.
His brain was slow; for a moment he couldn’t make sense of what he was seeing. And then his mind caught up to his eyes: fire in the Triangle Waist Company.
And then another realization: She works on the ninth floor.... there's fire on the ninth floor.
Oh my God, she works on the ninth floor!
He was praying, his lips moving without sound. The crowd seemed frozen to the spot. It was only a few minutes -- or maybe it was forever -- before something fell to the ground with a thud from the windows, so far up. His mind didn’t catch on until several of them fell... It was girls. Jumping to escape the flames.
He could only watch in horror.
Then the next girl stepped up to the window, too early for the fire nets, but ready to jump anyway. It was too far away to make out her face, but there was something about the way she stood and he suddenly knew. It’s her, it’s her.
“No!” he yelled, as if she could hear him, as if he could stop her. “No, don’t jump!”
There was a moment where everything seemed frozen, and then she did.
He watched her fall.
The image of her falling has stayed in his mind for all these years. Her clothes were actually on fire, her mouth open without a scream. He's struggled with the questions, with the memories, with the doubt, and he knows they will never go away.
But when he closes his eyes, he can still see her face. He can still see the determined light in her eyes.