|Promised to Me, Coming to America Series #4|
Robin Lee Hatcher
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Shortly after Karola and Jakob were betrothed, Jakob emigrated from Germany to America, promising to send for Karola as soon as he had a home for her. As Karola waited faithfully for Jakob to send for her, she watched her sisters and friends marry and turned down a proposal from another man. After eleven long years, she finally receives Jakob's letter and invitation to America. But when she arrives at his potato farm in eastern Idaho, she discovers that Jakob has already married. His wife had died and he needs help taking care of his two children. Karola's dreams of love and a family of her own are shattered.
Although Jakob is a changed man, he has a tough task redeeming himself in Karola's eyes. He knows it won't be easy, but he is determined to do so if she will give him a chance. Promised to Me is a story of love renewed as Karola and Jakob build a life together out of the rubble of broken promises and shattered dreams.
It was good that God made Jakob Hirsch the son of a farmer, for he could never have been a sailor. Seasickness had plagued him from the beginning of this voyage.
But at the moment he wasn’t feeling so bad. The steamship was making its way into New York harbor. Today he would feel the good, solid land of America beneath his feet.
Laughter reached his ears, and he glanced across the deck toward three young women standing near the ship’s railing. The unlikely group of friends—as different from one another in appearance as night is from day—had first captured his attention soon after the RMS Teutonic left Southampton, England. Something about their nervous excitement, their sense of adventure, their unspoken hopes and dreams for the future—obvious to anyone who looked at them—defined this trip for Jakob.
The English girl, an elegantly dressed, auburn-haired lady of means, was pretty and shapely. The blonde from Sweden was plain, unusually tall, and much too thin for Jakob’s taste. The Irish girl with the wild mane of black hair—the one with the wedding ring and slightly rounded belly—had an earthy beauty and a spark in her eyes that must spell trouble for her husband, poor fellow.
Not that Jakob had met the woman or her friends. Nor did he want to make their acquaintance. Jakob had a girl of his own back in Germany. Still, watching those three young women had helped dispel some of the boredom of the shipboard journey.
A gust of wind caught Jakob’s cap and nearly swept it away. Just as he caught it, he heard someone exclaim, "There it is!" He surged to his feet and rushed to join the others at the rail as the Statue of Liberty came into view.
He’d made it. He was here. America! Here he would make his way, buy his own land, have a freedom and a hope that a poor farmer, the youngest of five sons, couldn’t have in his homeland. Here he would find his future.
"Amerika," he whispered. "I have made it, Karola, mein Liebling. Soon you will come, too. I promise."
Ellis Island, May 1908
Miss Breit?" The inspector looked at her, bored indifference in his gaze. "Are you traveling
"Ja," Karola replied.
"And who will be meeting you?"
This time, Karola answered in English. "I will not be met. I am going by train to Idaho. I am to be married when I arrive there to Mr. Jakob Hirsch. He is a farmer."
"Do you have proof of those arrangements?"
"Ja." She removed Jakob’s telegram and the train fare—in American dollars—from her satchel, just as she’d been told she would have to do.
The inspector looked at them, grunted, then marked something on a paper and sent her to the next line.
Helga Wehler was already there. Like Karola, Helga was traveling alone, coming to America to be married. Unlike Karola, Helga was only seventeen and afraid of her own shadow. The girl had attached herself to Karola soon after they’d met in the crowded women’s quarters below deck.
Helga turned around, her eyes wide. "Are you afraid, Fräulein Breit?"
Helga was referring to the next inspection, one every immigrant dreaded above all others. Using a buttonhook, a doctor turned up both eyelids, looking for trachoma. If the disease of the eye was detected, the immigrant would be detained on Ellis Island, then sent back to Europe on the next available ship.
"Nein," Karola answered. How could she be afraid now that she was finally in America, now that she was finally about to be married to Jakob Hirsch?
Eleven years. Eleven years since she’d promised to marry Jakob. Eleven long years of waiting and wondering and doubting and despairing. She had lost hope, of course, with the passing of time, but now she was here. She was to be Jakob’s wife at last.
After leaving for America, Jakob had written to Karola regularly until the spring of 1901. Then the letters had stopped. Never a reply, no matter how often she’d written to him. By the end of the following year, believing that something terrible must have happened to him—he had to be dead—she’d stopped waiting to hear from him. Only pride had kept her from allowing others to see her broken heart and shattered dreams.
Then, last December, a letter had arrived from America. A letter from Jakob.
She remembered standing in the parlor of her parents’ home above her father’s bakery, holding that letter, her heart racing, her emotions swinging wildly between hope and bitterness, anger and joy, love and hate.
He owned a farm in a place called Idaho, Jakob had written. The soil was rich, and there was a fine house and outbuildings. If she was unmarried, would she consider coming to America to be his wife?
As she’d read his letter, she’d pictured herself seated with her parents in their small church each Sunday or working with her father in the bakery every day. She’d felt the pitying stares of the young married women of her village. Poor Karola. No one wants her now. Others, she’d known, laughed behind her back. Serves her right for thinking she’s better than everyone else. Going to America. Ha!
Oh, she’d known what they whispered when she was out of hearing.
In those first years after Jakob left, she had bragged to everyone about how rich they were going to be in America, about how much Jakob loved her, about how perfect their new lives would be once they were together again. When other men had tried to court her, she’d rejected them, firmly and plainly—even at times, she supposed, cruelly.
Then Jakob’s letters had stopped arriving, and by the time she’d stopped hoping, most of the suitable young men of Steigerhausen had either married or moved away. The few who remained wanted nothing to do with the baker’s daughter. Who wanted a wife with a head full of impossible dreams and a heart that still longed to see the world beyond the borders of their small village? No one, it had seemed. Not until Helmutt Schmidt. The very idea of being married to him made her shudder.
And so, as Karola had read Jakob’s letter, asking if she would come to America, she had made a quick decision: Ja, she would. She would do anything to get away from the life she’d been leading. Anything.
The first steps of her journey had begun four months later...
All of Karola ‘s worldly goods were packed in a battered old trunk and two suitcases. Tomorrow morning, she and her father would begin the journey to Hamburg, where she would board a ship and sail to America. She was certain she wouldn’t sleep a wink all night.
Her mother sat in the chair beside the bed, her Bible open on her lap. "It is not too late to change your mind."
"I do not want to change my mind, Mother. This is what I’ve dreamed of."
"Oh, Karola, Karola. You always have your head in the clouds. I fear the pain it will bring you. What do you know of America? What do you know of Jakob Hirsch? He is no longer the boy who went away. He cannot be. Remember that marriage is forever If you make a mistake because you are rash—"
"Would you have me stay and marry Herr Schmidt?" Karola pictured the cobbler, a man older than her father, with skin as tanned and rough as the leather shoes he mended. He’d asked her father for her hand in marriage last year.
"Nein, but I would not have you act in haste either"
"Haste! Mother, I have waited eleven years. Every day since Jakob went away, I have worked in the bakery and shared this apartment with my parents, as if I were still a child. Every day, I have known others whisper about me because I want more than what I can find here. They think l am haughty and proud. Maybe I am. But Jakob understood me. Jakob is like me. And now he owns his own farm in America. He owns it, Mother. He is not a tenant. No man tells him what to do. He made his dreams come true. I want to do the same."
Her mother shook her head as she lowered her eyes to the open book in her lap. Softly, she asked, "Have you asked God what he wants you to do?" She didn‘t wait for an answer "Karola, mein Tochter, you will never be truly happy until you choose God’s way instead of your own. I will pray that he will have mercy as you learn this truth for yourself"
* * * * *
Jakob sat on the front porch, enjoying the cool of evening after a day spent in the fields. His muscles ached, but in a good way. The way of a man who works hard on his own land.
He glanced down at the letter in his hand, one he had read numerous times. If all had gone according to schedule, Karola Breit arrived in New York earlier today. Even now, she should be on a train, headed west. Headed toward him.
Memories of his own arrival in America flooded his thoughts. He remembered the elation and fear as clearly as if he’d come through the immigration depot yesterday. Only it hadn’t been yesterday. It had been more than a decade ago. He’d been a young man of twenty with a head full of unrealistic expectations, but he’d had courage to spare. America was the land of opportunity, overflowing with milk and honey. Nothing, he’d believed with the arrogance of youth, could stop him from having anything and everything he wanted.
Life had a way of cutting an arrogant man down to size.
Jakob closed his eyes as he recalled the moment he’d seen the Statue of Liberty, the first thing every immigrant watched for at the end of a long and torturous journey.
Give me your tired, the lady proclaimed, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
He opened his eyes again.
Lady Liberty hadn’t lied. America had welcomed Jakob Hirsch. She had allowed him to breathe free. Although nothing had come easily and he’d suffered much, he now owned this farm, free and clear. Three hundred and twenty acres of good land, land he’d earned by the sweat of his brow. He wasn’t rich, but neither was he poor. He’d put down roots, deep ones, and he’d made a home here. He was an American citizen. He’d managed to remove all traces of a foreign accent from his speech. He thought and talked and acted like those who’d been born in these parts. There was little about him of the youth who’d left Germany so long ago.
His thoughts returned to Karola, imagining her as she moved from one line to another in the immigration depot. He hoped the experience hadn’t been too difficult.
Would he still recognize her? Had the years changed her as much as they’d changed him? Had life been kind to her? She’d been a girl of seventeen when they’d said their good-byes. What was she like today?
Jakob had carried Karola’s likeness with him in his pocket watch when he left for America. But the watch had been stolen, and without the photograph, added to the relentless passing of time, her image had faded, becoming misty and unclear in his mind.
When he’d sent his letter to Germany last winter—a rash act, he acknowledged—he’d never expected a reply, let alone one of agreement. At best, he’d thought she would have forgotten him. At worst, he’d expected to be despised.
Jakob rose from the rocking chair and stepped toward the railing that framed the porch. The setting sun had stained the horizon blood red, and shadows stretched across the ground to the east. The evening air was crisp and smelled of freshly turned soil—ambrosia for a farmer’s soul.
He was thankful Karola had agreed to come to America. He needed a wife. He’d known it for some time. Of course, there were several unmarried women in this valley between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five, but he hadn’t been able to imagine himself married to any of them.
Then one night last fall he’d dreamed of the old country and of his father, now dead; of his brothers, now living in Berlin; of Gottfried and Freida Breit, the baker and his wife, and of their only child, Karola. The dream itself had made little sense, but for some reason, Jakob hadn’t been able to shake Karola, the sweetheart of his youth, from his thoughts.
And so he’d written his letter.
Now he wondered what had happened to her since they’d parted all those years ago. He wondered if she’d never married or if she’d been widowed. She hadn’t told him any of that in the few letters they’d exchanged these past months. Nor had she commented upon the circumstances of his life after he’d detailed them for her in his second letter. Perhaps she thought he’d said everything there was to say.
Well, he supposed none of that mattered. He would be able to ask her anything he wanted soon enough, If all went according to plan, she would arrive in Idaho in less than a week.
Promised to Me by Robin Lee Hatcher, copyright 2003.
Used by permission. All rights reserved.