94: He’s Waiting

94: He’s Waiting

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Hope & Miracles

He’s Waiting

If you knew that hope and despair were paths to the same destination, which would you choose?

~Robert Brault, rbrault.blogspot.com

My mother stood on the waterfront by New York’s Hudson River, searching for a familiar face. It was a warm September evening in 1946 and she was just off the boat, literally, from The Old Country. After a journey that included a six-hour drive to Belgrade, a twelve-hour bus ride to Trieste, and fourteen days on a cargo ship across the Atlantic, a tugboat had finally deposited her, her three sisters, and their mother onto the dock on Manhattan’s West Side.

It had only taken them sixteen days—well, eight years and sixteen days, and they’d finally made it to America. And now, they waited on the wharf in the new world with one solitary trunk and no one to greet them.

“Where is he?” my grandmother, Tsena, asked aloud, panicked.

The three younger children — Milka, thirteen, Jovanka, eleven, and Nevena, eight—were mesmerized by the twinkling lights of Manhattan. My mother, Maria, the eldest at fifteen, soothed her mother.

“Don’t worry, Mom. He’ll be here. We’ll find him.”

She’d been comforting her mother for eight years — that’s how long my grandfather, Elia Christoff, had been separated from the family and living in America. He’d left their hometown of Prilep, Macedonia, in 1938 when the extortion racket, The Black Hand, tried to steal his American dollars. Elia had been granted American citizenship when he was twenty, after he joined the U.S. Army during World War I (that time, he was fleeing the Turks).

Then, as each daughter and one son, Dimche (who died at two from scarlet fever) was born, Elia registered them as U.S. citizens at the Embassy. One day, he dreamed, they could make America their home.

With her sweet disposition, Maria was her father’s favorite. He would take the eight-year-old along with him on daily errands and they’d walk and talk and laugh together.

By 1939, Elia had everything ready for his family to join him in the United States. He’d bought a house in Steelton, Pennsylvania and found a job as an electrician in the Air Force. Just as he was about to arrange passage for them, Germany invaded Poland and World War II had begun.

Elia sent Tsena a telegram:

War. Leave immediately for Trieste for last ship to America. Passage is arranged.

But by the time they got it, it was too late. The ship had left with another family in their place.

For the next six years, as war exploded across Europe, communication was cut off. Without letters, Elia had no idea if his wife and children were alive or dead. He bombarded local politicians with letters, begging for help to get his family out of Europe. He saved every penny and bought U.S. Savings Bonds — so many, that the Air Force awarded him a propeller for his patriotism.

Meanwhile, back in Prilep, the beautiful girls were learning how to dive to the ground at the sound of sirens. One bright afternoon, as German tanks rolled into town, they stood at the side of the road and watched one of their friends dart into the street and get crushed.

Yes, the German soldiers had arrived. And they decided that my mother’s home, a two-floor converted schoolhouse, was ideal for their headquarters. They took over the house, leaving the family one bedroom and use of the kitchen.

In the giant atrium on the main level, fifty to sixty soldiers slept lined up in rows on the wooden floor. They were boys, really—seventeen, eighteen, nineteen years old.

As the years and the war raged on, despite lack of food or pretty clothes, Maria blossomed into a beauty by fourteen—she had a heart-shaped face, honey-colored hair, and chestnut eyes. My poor grandmother, I’m sure, didn’t sleep a wink. She covered Maria up with scarves and coats, but what about those sultry eyes?

“You are not to make eye contact with the soldiers,” Tsena ordered.

Maria tried to obey. But one afternoon when she lay in bed with a high fever, a shy, young soldier knocked on the bedroom door and offered Tsena aspirin from his medical supplies. In those few seconds, Maria turned her flushed face toward him and their eyes met. He was blond and handsome, with gentle eyes. In another world, in another time, the two of them might have walked to school together or shared a first kiss. But not in this world; not in this time.

[Two years later, for a high school class assignment in Steelton, my mother would give a speech about him. “The Germans soldiers were so kind and good,” she began. After class, the teacher had to escort her home. Students were waiting outside the classroom to beat her up.]

When the war was finally, thankfully, over, the U.S. Embassy arranged for the family to be on the very first ship leaving Belgrade—a cargo ship, courtesy of the U.S. Marines.

As it pulled into New York Harbor that September afternoon in 1946, the girls and their mother stood on deck as the Statue of Liberty greeted them.

“What’s ‘liberty’?” one of the girls asked.

Maria took a long, deep breath and smiled. “It means freedom.”

She looked toward the shore as they moved closer, knowing her father was standing there.

Suddenly, two hundred feet from land, the ship stopped abruptly. Moments later, a Marine found them to explain:

“The dockworkers are on strike, we can’t approach the port,” he said, as the anchor splashed into water. “We could be stranded here for days.”

This couldn’t be! After all those years, they were so close! Close enough to touch their dream.

There was nothing they could do but wait a little longer. They quietly watched the sun set behind the Manhattan skyline and the city light up like a Christmas tree. Six hours later, they were about to go to bed when the Marine returned, excited.

“Mr. Christoff paid a man with a tugboat to come get you!”

The Marine led them to a rope ladder against the ship, and one by one they carefully climbed down into the tugboat. Their father, meanwhile, had been told it would be a few hours still, so he’d gone to get a cup of coffee.

Which is how they ended up on the pier, uncertain, as Maria looked for her father’s face.

But it wasn’t his face she first recognized.

Off in the shadowy distance, maybe four blocks away and silhouetted against the street lamps, she recognized her father’s walk. Maria dropped her mother’s hand and ran.

“Tato!” she screamed, “Daddy!”

Her sisters ran after her.

“Stop! Maria! Girls!” my grandmother screamed.

As soon as he realized the far away figures were running toward him, Elia began to run, too.

In the middle of a Manhattan street, my mother leapt into her father’s arms. A minute or two later, so had her sisters.

The girls sobbed and Elia was in such shock, he couldn’t speak. It would be hours before he would utter a word. He held his daughters tightly, and together they made their way toward the dock and his wife.

It was time for the family to go home.

~Natasha Stoynoff

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