MY name is Willy Tilly. I can hear you laughing; don’t think I can’t. All my life everyone always laughed at my name. It’s awful to be laughed at—especially if you’re an immigrant like I was.
My life was like a quilt. That’s what Aunt Magic always said. “The most complicated ones are the most beautiful, Willy. Don’t ever forget that.” I always thought, “That’s O.K. for a bed cover, but I’m not sure I like the idea of my life being that way.” I never told Aunt Magic that. I just thought it. She could do just about anything and so it was no good crying when life was hard. She would just tell you to try harder.
We (I mean my sisters Lara, Lilly and I) lived during a complicated time just like you. There was war everywhere, even under the ocean. I discovered that on the boat coming to America. The boat was almost hit by a torpedo. I didn’t know what a torpedo was. But that year, every time I heard something I didn’t understand it was always followed by the word “war”. People said we could have sunk to the bottom of the ocean where there’s no light. I couldn’t imagine living without light. I was eight, Lilly was six, and Lara was old. She was fifteen. We came to America from Belgium. In Belgium we spoke three languages. We spoke French with our maman and bonne-maman [mama and grandma] because they were from southern Belgium where people speak French. We spoke Dutch with our papa because he was born in northern Belgium where people speak some flavor of Dutch. And we learned English in school.
We came to America in July 1940 on a ship that smelled like engine oil inside and cod liver [fish] oil outside. Cod liver oil is something that long ago your parents made you drink if you were sick. It tasted so awful we never got sick so we wouldn’t have to drink it. By the time we arrived in New York, we smelled like fish-engine oil. People thought we must be sick, smelling like that. We didn’t know enough English to make them understand that we were really normal. We had to let them think we were sick. It’s awful having people think things about you that aren’t true. It’s one of the hardest things about being an immigrant.
We had to travel steerage. That’s in the very bottom of the ship. When I told people in America that it was like being put in a big metal box for twelve days with someone banging on the sides the whole time they just looked at me. I said that the ship shook like it might break. But still they just looked at me. I said you couldn’t move without touching a stranger and that there was slime everywhere—a soft, wet, slippery, gross something on the floor—but no one’s face changed. Their eyes never got wet and they never cried. They just said, “Uh huh.” When I said the air was grey and smelled like a garbage dump, no one ever said, “Wasn’t it awful?! How did you breathe?” So I finally stopped trying to tell people what it was like.
I guess most people can’t imagine what I’m talking about because steerage is where they put immigrants—at least the poor immigrants. We weren’t poor and we weren’t immigrants (at least then we weren’t immigrants), but that was the only place left for three children and their nanny [someone who takes care of a family’s children]. Papa said there wouldn’t be another ship for a month and that it was too dangerous to wait. I always wondered if the ship that left the next month almost got torpedoed?
There were 400 of us in one big room. I never heard so many languages in my life. It made me wonder if there was some language without the word “war”.
WE went to New England to live with our Uncle Nikkk (with 3 “k’s”) and Aunt Magic. Uncle Nikkk said that one “k” went with his first name, the second “k” was for his middle name (Kaboom) and the third “k” was for his last name, Knickernoon. I was never sure if his middle name was really Kaboom or if he was just joking with me.
We called our aunt, Magic, because she did such amazing things. The one thing our new friends in America never laughed at was having an aunt named Magic. They all wanted one. She spoke English, Spanish, French and Dutch. None of her neighbors knew, because no one would have believed it. No one in America speaks 4 languages. Only Uncle Elbert knew that Aunt Magic understood other languages and people. He came here in 1939, the year before us. He spoke three and a half languages: Russian, German, Yiddish and broken English. He made the most beautiful clocks you ever saw—but no one in America ever saw them because he had to leave in a hurry and couldn’t bring his clock making tools with him.
Uncle Elbert brought one clock with him. Other than that, he only had a second shirt, two pairs of socks and underwear, and a warm scarf. He said he could find more clothes in America, but he knew he wouldn’t find a clock like his famiy’s clock anywhere. It was the most beautiful clock I ever saw in my life. When it ticked, it sounded like someone dropping grains of sand into a silver spoon. That’s how I learned that Uncle Elbert’s name was really Himmelstein even though his store was called Hammel’s and everyone called him Hammel. He let me explore his shop all I wanted to. The front part was Uncle Elbert’s store and the back was where he lived. He had one room where he cooked his food and one room where he slept and listened to his clock. The clock was next to his bed. I was sitting and waiting for it to chime. The big hand was between the 7 and 8 when I saw the name Himmelstein. It hurt to discover it, but I never said anything to Uncle Elbert. That was the other thing about being an immigrant. You had to give up both your country and your name if you didn’t want people to laugh at you. I think I was the only one who guessed that Himmelstein was Uncle Elbert’s real name.
When Uncle Elbert came in and found me looking at the clock, he gave me a piece of chocolate. He told me his father made the clock when he married Elbert’s mother. It was his wedding present to her. Elbert laid in bed every night listening to it. It was like his father was there talking to him. We listened to it chime 3 together. I closed my eyes and, for a minute, I felt like I was back home.
ON one side of Uncle Elbert’s store he sold paint and on the other side he sold chocolates. Everyone needs paint and chocolate, so he did well—even though he missed making clocks and talking with people who understood him. People in New England said he wasn’t very smart because he spoke bad English. (They didn’t know they should say, “He spoke English poorly.”) But it’s hard to learn a fourth language when you’re sad. When I was in high school and had to take German, I learned that “himmel” means “heaven” and “stein” means “rock”. I never could see anything wrong with a name like that. The same year I started learning German, our geography teacher showed us a photo of the Rocky Mountains. She said the highest mountain in the Rockies is called Mount Elbert. The top of Mount Elbert was covered with soft clouds filled with light. As soon as I saw it I said, “Mount Elbert Himmelstein!” The teacher asked me if I had something I wanted to say to the class. They all laughed and so I said, “No.”
* * *
The Knickernoons lived in a house called Khoo House. Who knows why it was called Khoo. (By the way, Khoo rhythms with who.) I never told anyone because I knew they would laugh. The house was so big you could get lost going from one end to the other if you didn’t leave doors open behind you, so you could find your way back. The kitchen had two stoves and there was always something cooking on both of them. There was a dining room with a fireplace and a breakfast room where, every morning, big pitchers of fresh milk were put out on the table. Meals always made me feel far from home. And in school, every time I didn’t know an answer it reminded me that I was far from home. Even worse, every night when I went to bed without Bas (my dog) on the end keeping my feet warm, it reminded me that I was far from home. In school, the teacher told us to solve a math problem. I figured out that I would miss home 2,460 times my first year. When I gave the teacher my math problem, she got a strange look on her face and told me to solve a more important problem.
Khoo House had a library, a sitting room, a sewing room, a room for Uncle Nikkk’s tools, and the big room [where friends came to visit]. The big room had a fireplace so big that you could stand up in it. Most amazing of all, Khoo House had ten bedrooms. Each room had two beds and each bed had two quilts (a summer quilt and a winter quilt) and all 40 quilts were made by Aunt Magic. Khoo House had 5 staircases, 101 windows and 44 doors, not counting the secret door. I found it the same day I was counting bedrooms. No one but me and Finn (my pet mouse) knew where I had been that day.
I stayed so long that Aunt Magic finally gave up looking for me and gave my lunch to Uncle Irving. I didn’t mind Uncle Irving eating it. He was my best friend. He cut all the neighbors’ fields and sold them their own hay. For some reason, the neighbors didn’t see anything funny about that and so Uncle Irving kept selling them their own hay. He cut wood in the fall and ice in the winter. He fixed engines and sick farm animals, and built barns and stone walls. He could do anything. He even saved a skunk once. She got her head stuck in a jar and Uncle Irving got it off. After that, the skunk made friends with Irving’s cat. He put cat food out for both of them. When I asked Uncle Irving why he fed the skunk he said it was because she kept burglars away.
The neighbors also paid Uncle Irving to take things to the dump they didn’t want any more. [dump: a place where you throw away garbage or old things.] After a few years, he built a little summer house with all the things the neighbors paid him to get rid of. He didn’t need to buy anything, not even a nail. He called it The Peculiar. [If something is funny or strange it is called peculiar.]
“My-my, Irving!” all the neighbors said when they saw it. “You built a fine house for yourself! But why did you call it The Peculiar?” They would look around thinking that something was a little funny. They would scratch their heads and say, “That’s strange, Irving. I used to have a table just like that!” Or, “I had a rug like that, once. Too bad I had to throw it out.” They would shake their heads just like that old raccoon and walk away. When they left, Uncle Irving would laugh until he cried. He’d look at me and say, “Willy, people sure are peculiar!”
When Finn and I left the secret room that day, I decided to ask Uncle Irving if he had a log book I could have. I remembered from my history class at school that when Columbus discovered America he wrote about it in a log book. Uncle Irving found one that someone had wanted to throw away. When I saw it, I was shocked. “Uncle Irving this is a real log book!”
“Well that’s what you said you wanted didn’t you?”
“But I didn’t expect a real one! Why would anyone throw out a real log book?”
“People are peculiar, Willy. If you remember that life will be a lot easier. You won’t get mad at people that way. You’ll just feel a little sorry for them.”
I thanked Uncle Irving and ran home to write my first entry. The log had been for a ship called The Star Flyer. My first entry read:
EVERY summer when we still lived in our real home, we went to the North Sea. Bonne-maman rode in the back of the car with Lilly, Lara and me. Maman and Papa were in the front with little Bas, and Lucia sat in the way back with our bags. Lucia was our nanny. [Lucia is pronounced, Lu-CHI-a.] She was an immigrant. She came from Italy to live with us. (That was the first time she was an immigrant.) One night at 9:00 the telephone rang. We were having our evening supper. Lara got the phone and came back with a puzzled look on her face. [“puzzled look”: when you don’t understand something.] “Maman, it’s the train station. They say our baggage arrived. What baggage, Maman?” Papa went to the station and came back with Lucia. She even had a tag on her arm just like they put on baggage. That was my first lesson in what it means to be an immigrant.
Lucia didn’t talk a lot because none of us could speak Italian, but somehow she and Maman understood each other. She must have been lonely never talking—and people thinking she was stupid. They even said she couldn’t talk, that she could only make noises. But they never heard her sing. She had a voice that was as soft and gentle as a cat purring. She sang to us at night and when we cried. You just had to stop crying when she sang; her voice made you feel so safe. She painted us pictures on rainy days. She loved to paint pictures of the seaside. It reminded her of her home. She drew us a picture of Italy once. It looked like a pirate’s boot. She put a heart on the boot where it bends and said, “Ceramida-pellegrina. Home.” Her home must have been beautiful. It was beautiful just to hear her say it. Maman said Lucia had lots of special talents, but no country to give them to. After we were already in America, when I was in 4th grade, there was a world map in our classroom. I showed the class where Italy was. It was one of the few times I felt smart.
The happiest time of year was summer, when we were all together at the North Sea. Papa didn’t have to go off to work. Maman wasn’t tired, and Bonne-maman told us the most wonderful stories while the waves slid over the soft, pink sand. Even Lucia was happy when we were at the North Sea. We didn’t know the summer of 1940 was the last time we would see the North Sea, Maman and Papa, or Bonne-maman and Bas. That summer we went to Bruge and not to our seaside village. When we got out of the car Bonne-maman started to cry. Bas started barking and pawing the window trying to follow us. At first I didn’t understand why there were so many people and why we were there. Finally I saw it: the huge ship. Right away I didn’t like that ship. We looked at Maman and Papa with tears in our eyes. They said Aunt Magic would be taking care of us for a little while. They said they would come get us when the war was over. But when the war was over they never came. That’s when we became immigrants.
I don’t ever remember being so scared in all my life as when it was our turn to get in line. At first I didn’t realize that we were going to a building and not the ship. When we got near the building we heard children crying. It was hot and hard to breathe pushed up against all the people. When we got to the door, a big man took me by the arm and pulled me away from Lucia. Lucia tried to grab me but another man pushed her away. I don’t remember how I got into that steamy bath room. I was just there and a young man about Lucia’s age took my hand and told me not to be afraid. He said I was just going to have a bath and then I would be taken back to my family. I thought he meant my maman and papa and so I stopped crying. There were tubs with blue-colored water that smelled awful. Men were taking off their clothes and getting into them. The stranger took my clothes off and then lifted me into the tub. He washed me before washing himself. When it was all over, he used the bottom of his shirt to dry me off. Somehow the stranger found Lucia, Lara and Lilly, but to this day I can’t imagine how. Their hair was wet too, and the girls were crying. Lucia put her hand on her heart and said “Grazie.” [Thank you in Italian.] The stranger got the most shocked look on his face you’ve ever seen in your whole life. He looked at her and answered “Prego!” [You’re welcome in Italian.]
The next thing we knew, we were pushed into a line moving toward the ship. There were so many people! You couldn’t even turn around to try to see your bonne-maman one more time.