|To Always Remember
Author: DragonRiderofPern PM
A short story about an Italian immigrant named Francesca. It is her tale of living through the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, coming out of poverty and how God has worked blessings in her life.Rated: Fiction T - English - Hurt/Comfort/Tragedy - Words: 4,391 - Published: 09-07-11 - Status: Complete - id: 2950411
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
To Always Remember
By Emma Justis
"April tenth, nineteen sixty one. An Interview of Mrs. Francesca Bianchi Romano, who is a survivor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Okay, Mrs. Romano. You know that it has been fifty years since the fire?"
"Yes, Mr. Porter, I am aware of that fact."
"You and your sister worked at the factory right?"
"Would you please begin your story by telling me a little bit about your family?"
"It would be my pleasure. We were immigrants from Italy. Our family had come to America in 1910 and made our residence in New York City. Originally, Papa had planned to move out to the country side. However, due to the fact that we were destitute, we could not afford any way out of the city."
"Could you describe New York for me?"
"It was dirty and crowded. Although, I remember the uptown neighborhoods looking classy. When it came to where all the immigrants, like us, worked and lived it was filth all around."
"My records say that both you and your sister worked in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory at the time of the fire?"
"If you would let me tell my story you would know for sure. Isn't that true Mr. Porter?"
"My apologies Mrs. Romano. There will be no further interruptions."
"As I was saying, the city was filthy. It didn't suit anyone, especially Mama. I remember at night she would weep into her pillow, calling out to the Saints and asking them why they had cursed her so. Mama was always a good Catholic woman. At first my sister, Andrea, and I looked for simple work, such as being a nanny or a seamstress. Unfortunately, no one wanted nannies or seamstress' who couldn't speak any English. One day we met two immigrant girls who were Italian as well. They worked at the Shirtwaist Factory and told us that we could find jobs there. My sister and I had never set foot in a factory before. I can't say that I would ever like to set foot in a factory again. The conditions were miserable, just like New York. Air was thick and there were hundreds of girls sitting at machines on each floor. I remember, when they hired me, I could barely walk through the the lines of machines to get to the back of the room. If I was not careful, my skirts would get caught in someone's machine. I think the floors were the worst part. Fabric was strewn all about. Most of the time you couldn't see the floor boards. Andrea and I didn't work next to each other. I was in the back of the room and she was in the middle. I missed her so much on our work days. Mostly because the environment scared me. Different languages and dialects mixed in the room and jumbled your understanding of even your own language. Because the operators yelled at us in English, I was quick to pick up words. They were not good words, mind you. Once I repeated something that our operator had said while I was at home. Papa, who understood a lot of English, promptly gave me a beating and washed my mouth out with soap. I never said those words again."
"How old were you when you began work for the Triangle Company?"
"I thought you weren't going to interrupt me any more?"
"I thought this was an interview? I have to ask questions."
"I was around fifteen."
"What about Andrea?"
"She was seventeen. Our jobs at the factory were to sew various parts and pieces of the blouses. You would work on one piece then pass it down to the next person, who would then work on their piece. For instance, I was in charge of sewing the sleeve onto the blouse body. I must have done hundreds of sleeves every week."
"How much did you get paid?"
"I think I was getting paid about three dollars a week. Andrea got paid four dollars every week. But that was because one of our operators liked her, so he would increase her salary. Papa was also working at a different factory. He made seven dollars a week. Between the three of us, we were able to survive. If it weren't for our expensive rent and large family we would have left New York City much sooner."
"How big was your family?"
"Andrea and I were the oldest. Then came Joseph, Maria, Antonio and Anna. Joseph also worked somewhere down town, but the owner of the business often cheated him and wouldn't pay him. Joseph was only eleven or twelve at the time and didn't want to stand up to his employer. As for the other three, they were too little to work and stayed home to help Mama. I remember that baby Anna died while we were in New York. She was the littlest and when there wasn't enough food on the table. Anna would get the least amount of food."
"Doesn't that seem rather cruel? I hope you don't mind me being frank."
"No. It was not cruel. Anna was not even two. She couldn't do any work. When times are hard you feed those who are going to allow you to survive. If we had given much of our food to Anna then we would surely have perished ourselves."
"Tell me about the fire. Were you at the factory that day?"
"That day had been one of the most beautiful spring days that I had ever seen. It was beginning to be warm outside and the sun shone bright. I remember that Mama was even in such a good mood that she was humming as she did the laundry. Andrea and I went to work as we usually did, but what I really wanted to do was go to town and have fun. I had befriended some Italian girls at work. They were quite the rambunctious sort. Mama wouldn't have liked them at all. That day they had all decided to show the operators what for and miss half of our work day. The plan was to meet during the operator's ten minute breaks and sneak out of the building. The girls had convinced me to join them in their play. I tried to make Andrea tag along with us but she would have none of it. 'You should be ashamed of yourself, Mama and Papa work hard for us. You should learn to do the same for them Francesca.' Andrea made sure to scold me. I can still remember those words as if it were yesterday."
"Can I get you a tissue Mrs. Romano?"
"Will you be alright talking about this?"
"Indeed. So, the girls and I escaped out of the building. Probably by a miracle of God. No one was supposed to leave the building until the work day was done. It was only because I was misbehaving that I survived the fire... A-A-Andrea died even though she was doing the right thing. I-I should have died with her instead of leaving her all alone."
"When did you find out about the fire?"
"I had actually been on my way back home when the fire happened. Our plan was to get back to the factory in time to walk home with all of the other women. The girls knew that they wouldn't get their paychecks, but I was confident that I would get mine because Andrea would have been there to take it. The fire was almost out when I arrived. We were a little late coming back from town. Smoke was still billowing up from the building. The top three stories were scorched black. A mass of people had crowded around to watch the spectacle. All around there were men, women and children who were looking up and around. Their eyes told me that they had just seen a nightmare. Fire fighters and police men surrounded the perimeter of the building, still working to douse the final embers. I had pushed my way through the crowd to get to the front. The sights of the dead bodies are still engrained in my head to this day."
"Did anyone speak to you? Do you know how Andrea died?"
"Please, do not ask such questions."
"I am so sorry. I didn't mean to upset you further. Is there anything else that you would like to share with me?"
"No Mr. Porter. I-I think that this interview is over."
"Thank you for your time Mrs. Romano."
James Porter stopped the recording and took it back to the beginning for future playback. He had interviewed many survivors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in the past week. The tales were awful, many times unbearable for those with delicate stomachs. Each survivor was left with a piece of their heart missing, losing a loved one or friends in the fire. How could a mass death occur and the survivors not be scarred? After listening to Francesca Romano the previous day, James had seen something in the woman which hadn't been detected in the others. She held almost a different kind of sadness in her heart. Was it guilt? He knew that there was more to her story. The journalist inside of him was aching to get his hands on it. However, James also knew that it wasn't right to push her to her emotional limits. At his first look at Francesca, she still held her youthful beauty despite old age. Raven black hair was pulled back into a loose bun and her brown eyes told many stories. When they had shook hands James could feel the rough wear on her delicate fingers. There was no doubt in his mind that Francesca had dutifully barren the unbearable. How he wished he knew the story of her life! Yet, he did not, and the story was not James' to take. Being that as it was, James put on his hat and jacket, again on his was to interview another survivor of the fire.
Francesca sat in her house that next morning. She was still thinking about the interview of yesterday. It had been decades since she had talked about the fire to anyone. Actually, come to think of it, had she ever talked about it? Francesca hadn't even discussed it with her late husband. Throughout their marriage she knew that he desperately wanted to know. The memory was something that ate away at her very soul. Christopher had only wanted to help his wife. Now, Francesca wished that she had opened up to Christopher, or anyone for that matter. Why was it that she had been willing when James Porter had called? James was a man who looked to be in his mid to late 30's. He was a journalist for some big newspaper, she couldn't remember which one.
What have I done? I have given my story to a reporter. A reporter! Why would I want to have my tale published? Francesca thought to herself. She laid down on the couch and closed her eyes. She had gotten very little sleep last night. Maybe she could catch an extra hour or two of sleep. It would be good to not think about the memories replaying in her mind. But even in her sleep, visions of her life came back to Francesca as clear as day.
Francesca pushed through the crowds. Awful smells of oil, wood and death filled the air. Even ladies strong perfumes could not overpower these terrible stenches. Tears began streaming down Francesca's cheeks. She had no idea where her friends were, she had lost them in the crowd quite a while back. The police had blocked off much of the street surrounding the building, but she pushed through anyway. Where was Andrea? She had to be alright! She had to be! Whatever had happened here, Francesca wanted to believe that Andrea was really at home, waiting for her to return. Something below had interrupted her step. Francesca looked down at her feet and saw the remains of a scorched body.
"Is it a man or a woman?" A reporter nearby asked the fire officer, he was pointing to another body which looked exactly like this one.
"It is human." The officer replied through a breaking voice. "That is all you can tell."
Immediately, Francesca turned around and ran. She couldn't take any more of the awful scene before her. Andrea had to be at home! She couldn't believe that her sister might be one of the bodies lying limp and lifeless on the pavement. She turned and ran for home.
Racing up the many stairs to the floor of their tiny apartment, Francesca was quickly out of breath. Everything seemed normal. The floors were being cleaned by Mama as Maria and Antonio played quietly in the corner. Andrea wasn't there. Mama looked up from her cleaning to embrace her daughter. She had received news of the fire from a neighbor. She did not let go of Francesca, instead she held her close and whispered praises to God and the Saints. No other words were spoken. Francesca knew that Mama didn't have the heart to ask where Andrea was. Mama asked for no explanation of why her younger daughter was alive and Francesca didn't provide it. The rest of the day was a daze. Francesca could hear the sound of Andrea's voice in the small room and outside the door. More than once she had answered the door in hopes that her sister was there. Every time the door opened only a blank wall met Francesca's face. Maria and Antonio did not know what had happened. Being only two and four they were too engrossed in their own world to notice that their oldest sibling wasn't home. When Joseph and Papa arrived home, it was evident that Joseph had been sobbing. Papa was not himself either, although he held his composure like that of an untouchable man. Mama fled into her husbands arms, violent sobs arresting her body.
"They have the bodies in a warehouse. They are going to allow families to come and identify the dead tonight." Papa informed Mama, but Joseph and Francesca were close enough to hear.
"I cannot go." Mama wept. "You must. I must know if my baby is there, but I can't bear to see her if she is."
"I will stay with Mama." Joseph said dutifully. "She needs someone to take care of her." He carefully hugged onto Mama's waist. Papa looked at Francesca.
"I will go with you Papa." Francesca said.
"No Dear One, don't look upon the dead." Mama protested. Francesca's eyes told her parents the sad truth, her eyes had already seen the horror.
"She may go if she likes. If Francesca wants to see then let her see." Papa ended the conversation.
Waiting outside of the giant warehouse made Francesca cold and nervous. The huge crowd of friends and families were anxious to get inside. Francesca knew that they were aware of the harsh truth that was set before them, that their loved ones were never coming home. But inside, Francesca was sure that the people were just like her and Papa. They needed to see their daughter dead before they could truly grasp the reality that she would not be coming home tonight. A wagon full of caskets passed the crowd and entered into the warehouse. What if Andrea was in one of those caskets?
It was late when the crowd was finally let in. A few reporters had cameras with them and snapped a photo of the grieving families. Francesca wished they would put those machines away and let people simply mourn. One at a time cries went out in a variety of tongues, but the weeping sounded the same. Was this the price for coming to America? Had their family left a barren Italy only to bury themselves in a different deathbed? It wasn't right. It wasn't fair. How could this be the land of plenty?
Francesca could barely look into each open casket. Some bodies had rings still on their fingers and necklaces melted into them. It took Francesca and Papa almost all night to search through the dead. Finally, in the last row of bodies, they found Andrea. Francesca knew it was her sister because her once beautiful hair was still somewhat intact and the shoes on her feet were the ones which Francesca had always wanted. Francesca knew that her sister must have jumped, because she was barely burned. She turned her head away, the picture of Andrea's face now burned into her memory for all of time. Francesca buried her face in Papa's jacket. He embraced his daughter and it was then that she realized that Papa was crying too.
Francesca woke up from her dream, or more like a nightmare. This wasn't the first time that the day of the fire had come back to haunt her in her sleep. Cruel memories had a habit of constantly replaying themselves. As she sat up she stretched, her 75 year old body didn't feel quite like it used to. Her phone began to ring but Francesca ignored it. There was something more important that she needed to tend to. Reaching into the far depths of a hall closet, Francesca pulled out an old box. It was wooden but in relatively good condition. Removing the lid, various letters and a journal were unveiled. Scents of times that were well past filled the space around her, flooding her thoughts with many more vivid memories. She first opened up the journal, reading the first entry which dated back to the fall of 1911.
September 28th, 1911
We are leaving New York. Mama has finally convinced Papa to go out to the country, despite the fact that we still have no money with which to do so. Ever since the fire, Mama has been pleading with Papa not to make anyone return to a factory for work. I think that Papa has simply had enough of Mama's complaining, rather than her actually convincing him to leave. I informed the people at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory that I was leaving. The operator didn't care much, but at least they know. My next paycheck will give us three dollars more to travel with. We are going to need all the money that we can get. Mama says that she wants to go far away, but Papa told her that she was going to have to settle for some country side on the East Coast. I think we are going to Pennsylvania.
October 1, 1911
We are walking to Pennsylvania. Papa says that if we get lucky someone might let us ride on their wagon for a while. I pray to God every night that someone would only be so kind. From the attitudes of the people here, I highly doubt anyone would let us ride without a small fee first. I know better then to complain of our traveling methods. Papa would only say that we will walk because the Lord gave us legs.
October 6, 1911
We have been traveling for six days now and have reached the border of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We are still on the New Jersey side. We did get a ride on a wagon. On the second day of our journey, a traveling salesmen let us have a ride and carried us ten or eleven miles down the road. He told us of a town called Emmaus. It is about fifty or sixty miles outside of Philadelphia. I suppose it is a quaint farming town. My feet are sore and my thoughts are dreary. It is hard to keep happy when the little ones always want to be carried on your back. Antonio likes to pretend I am his horse and he yells in my ear. I think that he is enjoying the trip. Maria doesn't care for it so much. She misses New York, although I don't know why. Everyone else is happy for the fresh air. I don't know what we are going to do when we get to Emmaus. We have no money to buy a farm. Mama says that the Lord will see us through. When she says this, I have to wonder where God was when the fire happened.
October 8, 1911
I have had nightmares about the fire two nights in a row. In my dreams I am there on the burning floor with Andrea. I am the midst of the flames and I see girls being burned all around me. Andrea is at a window on the other side of the room. I call out her name over and over but she doesn't here me. I begin to fight my way through the crowds to reach her. By the time I get to the window I see that she is about to jump. I reach my hand out to my falling sister, only to see her hit the ground below. It is then that I wake up.
October 30, 1911
We have been in Emmaus for a while now. The land is truly beautiful here. When we first arrived we took to sleeping in someone's barn. Their names are Joan and William Summer. Mr. and Mrs. Summer found us in their barn two days after we had arrived. They told us that we could stay here for as long as we needed so long as we helped around the farm. Mr. and Mrs. Summer are not old, but they are not young either. Because they have no children of their own, us kids help them with their work. Joseph has loved keeping care of the cattle and I have been helping around the house. Truthfully, I love Mrs. Summers and her husband. The barn isn't bad to sleep in either because the warmth of the hay and the horses keep us from freezing. Mama and Papa do not like how we are living though. Papa wants to be able to provide for us and Mama wants her own house. But the Summer's give us food and pay Papa for his work. Maybe one day we will have a farm of our own.
Francesca turned through the next few journal entries, remembering the days which they had spent working for the Summer's. How great the Lord had been to them! Why couldn't she recognize how great the blessing was while they were living with the Summers? She should have been praising God every day! Instead, she could only feel the pain of losing Andrea. Francesca turned her attention to the many letters that were piled neatly inside the box. She already knew what they were before she read them. They were all letters from Christopher. She smiled and a tear slid down her cheek. A year after Christopher had come to work on her father's farm, they had taken a great liking for one another. Throughout the work day they didn't have much time to talk and after that they were with her family. To express all of their thoughts of love, they would write letters and place them in the tall maple tree every morning.
My Dearest Francesca, June 3, 1915
You looked so lovely last night. I can't bear to wait any longer to marry you. If I ask your father tonight, do you think he would allow it? I have saved enough money, Francesca, to buy us some land of our own. Would you raise a family with me? I must express to your family my intentions towards you. I want to take you as my wife if you would have me as your husband. I am madly in love with you! The sound of your name is music to my ear and candy to my lips. It is my desire to cherish you as mine forever.
Simply reading Christopher's later letters made the blood rush to Francesca's cheeks. She pressed the notes close to her heart. How she missed her husband! After a while she began to place the journal and letters back into the box. That was when something had caught her eye. It was a picture of Christopher and herself after they had their daughter Sarah. No one was smiling, but from Christopher's stature Francesca knew that he was brimming with pride at the sight of his lovely daughter.
Never again had Francesca ever been in want of something. She never had to see a factory again and although hard times had fallen, God had provided Christopher to take care of her. She was so overwhelmed with emotions that Francesca sat on the hall floor and cried. She cried because she missed her sister and her husband. But the tears pouring forth were also thankful, thankful because in all of her 75 years God had carried her through everything, and she had never truly thanked him for it.
James Porter's phone rang the next morning as he was putting together his news piece for the 50th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
"Hello. This is James Porter." He answered. The voice on the other line surprised him. He had not expected this call.
"Mr. Porter, this is Mrs. Romano. Remember? You interviewed me yesterday."
James eagerly put his work down. "Yes! I remember! How can I help you Mrs. Romano?"
"As I recall I didn't get to finish telling you my story. I left out some important parts. I have a lot to be thankful for Mr. Porter, and I want people to know. Can you come over and continue the interview?"
James was practically ready to race out the door. "I can be there in twenty minutes. See you soon?"
"See you soon. Good-bye Mr. Porter."