Sunday, July 29, 2007

Background and Early Life

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) was a Scottish author best remembered for his adventure novels, "Treasure Island" and "Kidnapped," and his supernatural thriller, "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." Despite being plagued by chronic illness, he traveled extensively and documented his travels in essays and books.

Robert Louis Stevenson was born Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson on November 13, 1850 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was the only child of Thomas Stevenson, a wealthy civil engineer, and his wife Margaret.

Stevenson spent his early years bedridden, suffering from several illnesses. He was a frail child, but had a vivid imagination and amused himself by making up stories. When he was six years old, before he learned to write, he won a writing competition by dictating a story to his mother.

Stevenson started school at the age of six, but frequent illness prevented him from attending regularly. His parents also removed him from school periodically so he could accompany them on trips around Scotland. Stevenson was a mediocre student when he did attend classes, and preferred writing and languages to math and science.

Upon entering his teens, Stevenson decided that he wanted to be a writer. He observed how people interacted with each other and took notes on their conversations. He read voraciously, and wrote original prose in the style of other authors to improve his own composition skills. In 1866, Stevenson financed the publication of one of his own essays, entitled "The Pentland Rising." It was his first published piece.

His health having improved, Stevenson enrolled in Edinburgh University in November 1867. He was reportedly more interested in socializing and strolling around the campus grounds than attending classes. He became involved with the bohemian culture, an anti-establishment movement made up of artists and intellectuals, and took to drinking and visiting brothels. In 1869, Stevenson was invited to join the Speculative Society, a prestigious campus literary club, and he changed his name to Robert Louis Stevenson.

In 1871, Stevenson confronted his father and told him that he wanted to be a writer. Thomas Stevenson was disappointed, and worried that a writing career would not be lucrative. He had hoped his son would become an engineer like himself and enter into the family business of lighthouse design.

Thomas Stevenson urged his son to study law, if not engineering, as a career to fall back upon should he fail at writing. Stevenson agreed, encouraged by his father's promise to give him £1,000 if he passed the bar exam.

Stevenson's law studies were interrupted by a bout of respiratory illness, which drove him to Menton, France to rest and recover in late 1873. He remained there until the following April, and wrote and published a handful of essays until July 1875, when he passed the Scottish bar exam.

By Jamie Aronson


Friday, July 20, 2007

Family Reunion

Editor's Note: While this is a fictional story, the following is based on facts about immigrants' experiences at Ellis Island and the photos are of real immigrants or scenes at Ellis Island.

Angelina Palmieri's heart pounded so hard, she thought it would leap from her chest. She was going to see Papa again!

Ten-year-old Angelina thought about Papa all the time -- she missed him so much! But she also was nervous about seeing him after such a long time. Papa had not even met Angelina's youngest sister, Maria, who was born after he went to America.

Angelina's father had left the Palmieris' village of San Cataldo in Sicily, Italy, four years ago, when she was only six. He went to make a new life for his family in America, and now he was living with his brother in a place called Pittston, Pennsylvania. Papa's last letter contained tickets for Mama, Angelina, and her three sisters for a steamship voyage to New York. They had to travel in steerage because that was all Papa could afford.

With as many of their belongings as they could stuff into satchels and suitcases, the Palmieri family took a seven-hour train ride to the port city of Palermo. There, they boarded the ship -- called the Sicilian Prince -- that would take them to America. Soon after their journey began, however, Angelina became sick with a fever and swollen glands along her neck.

She survived the 13-day voyage, though, and the Sicilian Prince pulled into New York Harbor on July 22, 1907. Its crew held back Angelina's family, as well as a large number of other passengers, but allowed some people to leave the ship.

"Why can't we get off like those people?" Angelina asked her mother.

"They might be Americans, or they might be passengers who traveled in first or second class. If you are new to America and traveled in steerage, like us, you have to go to Ellis Island first. They do not let just anybody into America."

Angelina began imagining the worst. What if she or Mama or her sisters were not allowed to enter this new country? Would she ever see them or Papa again?

The Palmieri family waited its turn to take the short ferry ride from the ship to Ellis Island. When Angelina, Mama, and the girls finally entered the Main Building at Ellis Island, all they could do was stare at the thousands of people. "How will Papa ever find us?" Angelina thought to herself.

"Stay close together!" Mama said. Angelina, holding tightly to Maria's hand, could barely hear Mama above the tremendous noise in the building's baggage room. It was overwhelming to have so many different people speaking so many different languages all together in one area.

Authoritative-looking men in uniforms took papers out of Mama's hands. Someone attached a tag to Angelina's shoulder. She looked around and realized that everyone had on a tag that identified him or her by name, ship's name, and the page number of the ship's manifest on which his or her name appeared. One official tried to take Angelina's luggage, but she resisted. She was not about to hand over her personal things, which included a special gift for Papa.

"Angelina, you must give them your satchel. You do not want to be carrying it with you all day." Mama pointed to a nearby mountain of luggage. "We will get it back before we leave, I promise."

Reluctantly, Angelina let go of the satchel, and a worker ushered the Palmieri family toward a giant staircase. Prodded by officials and crowds of other immigrants, Angelina, Mama, and the girls walked up the stairs. At the top in the Great Hall, a doctor examined each member of the family as she walked toward him. The doctor spoke to Angelina, but she did not understand English.

"Tell him your name and walk a little for him," Mama instructed in Italian. "He wants to see if there is anything wrong with you." Angelina obeyed and then took her turn standing in front of more doctors, who were seated at a long table.

Another doctor approached Angelina with an instrument that looked like a buttonhook. Pulling her eyelid up, he checked to see if she had trachoma. The doctor also examined her nails and then her scalp for favus and lice. Indications of any of these diseases were reasons for immigrants to be detained and subjected to more inspections -- or worse, deported!

Although it took only a few minutes, to Angelina this process seemed to take hours. And there were so many questions! One wrong answer could send the whole family back to Sicily. Not understanding and afraid to respond, Angelina looked at Mama for reassurance.

When the doctor felt along the sides of Angelina's neck, she swallowed nervously, hoping her glands were no longer swollen. Then Angelina noticed a piece of chalk in the doctor's hand. She knew what chalk marks meant: detainment or deportation.

The doctor reached out to Angelina. She cringed and held her breath, but instead of a chalk mark, Angelina got a pat on the shoulder! She breathed a sigh of relief and smiled at him and Mama.

The legal inspection came next. Maria squirmed against Angelina as they waited in a long line until their ship number was called. Ever so slowly, the Palmieris moved along with others from the Sicilian Prince. Angelina's high-buttoned shoes pinched her toes, yet there was not even a bench on which to rest. She waved her shawl in front of her like a fan -- it was growing very warm with all the people inside the building.

After several hours, the Palmieris approached the inspectors' desks at the back of the Great Hall. A man checked their tags and spoke to Mama in Italian. He asked a lot of questions: What is your name? Where were you born? Where are you going? Do you have relatives in America? Who paid for your passage? How much money do you have? Mama answered them all.

The inspector checked her responses against the information on the ship's manifest. He seemed to be satisfied.

One official handed "landing cards" to Mama, Angelina, and her sisters. Relieved and excited, they made their way back downstairs and collected their bags. As they walked out of the building, they spotted him: There was Papa, with his arms outstretched and his face beaming with joy!

Steerage is the section of the ship, usually near the rudder, that offers the cheapest passenger accommodations.

Satchels are small bags, often with shoulder straps, used to carry hooks or clothing.

First or Second class is the most luxurious and expensive of accommodations.

A manifest is a list of passengers on a ship.

Trachoma is a contagious eye disease that sometimes can cause blindness.

Favus is a skin infection, usually on the scalp.

Lice are small, wingless, usually parasitic, insects.

Detained means kept from proceeding, or delayed.

Deported means expelled from a country.
'X' Marks the Spot

Like many others who literally had "just gotten off the boat." Angelina feared being marked with chalk. The immigrants knew that any labeling done in chalk was not a good sign. Sometimes a word, such as "hands," "nails," or "skin." was written. More often, though, simple letters, like the following, spoke volumes about the wearer to immigration officials:

X = suspected mental defect
B = black
CT = trachoma
E = eyes
F = face
Ft = feet
H = heart
L = lameness
N = neck
Pg = pregnancy
Sc = scalp
S = senility


The Kissing Post

There was a special spot on the first floor in the west wing of Ellis Island's Main Building that officials referred to as the Kissing Post. It was just a simple partition that separated travelers who were being processed through immigration from the family or friends who had come to greet them. Once the immigrants were free to enter the United States, they could embrace the loved ones waiting for them. Sometimes, this was after long periods of time spent apart, so there usually were plenty of hugs, tears, and, of course, kisses!
-- B.D.K.

By Barbara D. Krasner


Thursday, July 12, 2007

Look at my instrument

Labels: ,

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Donato's Window

From a hilltop overlooking the village, Bishop Ansano gazed down on Montefiacello. He shaded his eyes from the sun to better see the magnificent old church m the village square. The bishop felt great pride for what the people of this tiny village had sacrificed to build such a church. They had cut beautiful stone from the surrounding hills and carted it to the center of town, where each stone was carved and set perfectly in place.

Every time he visited the village, the same thought entered his mind--the church lacked only a beautiful window. He had avoided discussing the subject with Father Siano, the parish priest. Purchasing such a window would place a burden on the church that it could not afford. This time, however, he would talk to Father.

As the bishop approached, Father Siano greeted him. "Welcome, Bishop Ansano."

"Forget the ceremony, my dear friend Justino. Road dust has parched my throat. Let us relax with a carafe of wine as we enjoy dinner."

While they were relaxing after dinner, with a bowl of fruit, the bishop said, "Justino, the church needs; a window."

"A window? Good bishop, the church has windows."

"No, not just any window," declared the bishop. "A beautiful stained-glass window."

"A stained-glass window is expensive," replied Father Siano. "A beautiful stained-glass window is very expensive. We do not have the money for even a plain glass window."

"Come now, Justino. Donato, who is one of Italy's finest craftsmen, lives in this parish."

"He'll never do it at a price we can afford. I can't even get him to come to church," moaned the priest. "What is more, he commands the highest fees from the wealthy nobles and the large cathedrals."

"Perhaps I should talk to him?" remarked the bishop.

"You can try, but such a proud man is unlikely to be impressed even by a bishop."

"Take me to him tomorrow. Sometimes a man's pride is his undoing."

The next day, Father Siano led the bishop to Donato's home.

Donato greeted them skeptically. "Hello, Father. I see you've brought the bishop. A big fund drive must be underway."

"At last I meet the famous Donato!" exclaimed the bishop. "No, we are here only to collect some information from so talented an artist."

"I am your servant," Donato replied.

"We want information about a window for the church," said the bishop.

"A stained-glass window, no doubt," snapped Donato. "Stained-glass windows take a long time to create and are very expensive, if done right. I could not make one cheaply."

"No! No!" protested the bishop. "We could never afford a Donato window. We just want to know what to ask when we approach Billisimio for an estimate."

"What!" shouted Donato. "You would get that bull, Billisimio, to design a window for my church? He doesn't know red from green; the clumsy ox will break the glass instead of cut it. What will people think, my neighbors, my paisani, when they see a Billisimio window ruining my church. No! You can't do it. I won't let you."

"But it is all we can afford," said the bishop, sighing. "Afford? Afford? Who said anything about money?" bellowed Donato. "Windows are priceless, but I will create a beautiful one and donate it to the church."

"Ah, what a wonderful idea," said the bishop. "An homage to your artistry on your own village church. When can you start?"

"Tomorrow," declared Donato. "No! Today! I will start today, and it will be the finest window anyone in this village has ever seen."

"Splendid," said the bishop. "And now we will bid you good day so you can get started. Oh, and by the way, Jesus blessing the children."

"What?" asked Donato.

"The window scene," replied the bishop. "Jesus blessing the children."

"Human figures no less!" muttered Donato. "The hardest thing to do."

Donato shut himself in his studio from morning until night, determined to show the bishop and the village he could create a window that rivaled any found in the wealthier parishes. He used only the finest glass, painstakingly cutting and filing until each piece fit perfectly. He matched every Color to perfection, rejecting those he perceived as not just right.

Finally, weeks later, Donato summoned his wife into the studio.

"Gabriella, come see. I have completed my greatest window."

Gabriella gasped at its beauty. "Truly, Donato, this is your greatest. I have never seen another so beautiful. And you have finished just in time. The bishop visits tomorrow; he will be thrilled with his new window."

"His new window!" declared Donato. "This is my window, and it will stay mine."

"But you promised it to the church; how can you now say it is yours?" pleaded Gabriella.

The next morning, as he spotted the bishop climbing the path to his house, Donato hurriedly hid the magnificent window in his barn.

When he emerged, Donato heard the bishop call.

"Donato, where are you? You were carrying something. Was it the church window?" "Yes, it was the window," answered Donato. "But it is not for the church. It is my greatest work, and I have decided to keep it."

"Well, what belongs to you is yours," acknowledged the bishop. "May I just see it?"

"Why, uh, yes," stammered Donato.

Then the artist led the bishop to the back reaches of the barn, where he pulled the window from its hiding place and held it up for Bishop Ansano to see.

"The workmanship is superb," agreed the bishop. "But it looks rather drab and without luster. I am happy you chose to keep it."

"Drab? Without luster!" blustered Donato. "That is because it is dark in here. Wait until you see it in the light."

"Very well," consented the bishop. "Bring it outside into the sunlight where we can see it better."

Once outside, with sunlight illuminating it, the window took on a magnificence nothing short of outstanding.

"Yes," confessed the bishop, "truly this is the finest window I have ever seen."

"You see," said Donato, "it does not lack luster. I have created a masterpiece."

"But, Donato, you did not create the sun," remarked the bishop. "Without the sun, your window is just a window." Two weeks later, Bishop Ansano again topped the village hill and gazed down at the church. His heart thrilled to the sight greeting him. Above the church's main doors, a wonderful Donato window depicted Jesus seated on a rock, blessing the small children who gathered around Him.

By Anthony J. Nami