65: Our Dinner Partner

65: Our Dinner Partner

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Dreams and the Unexplainable

Our Dinner Partner

It’s a small world, but we all run in big circles.

~Sasha Azevedo

A cruise to Alaska was an item on our bucket list, so my wife Janet and I were excited as we boarded the Celebrity Infinity. We got settled in our cabin, explored the ship, and then met the other people at our assigned dinner table. We were seated with a family of three from Georgia and a couple from Tennessee.

We were all over forty, but we didn’t find some common ground to discuss until the third night when I mentioned that my mother was from the Philippines and that my older sister was born there. In 1948, my parents and eleven-month-old sister had sailed on American President Lines for San Francisco.

Hanna, the blue-eyed woman from Tennessee, set down her fork, and with her slight southern accent, announced she was born in the Philippines, too. Her parents were Czech and her father had worked for a Czech shoe manufacturing company in Manila until the Japanese invasion in December 1941. Her parents stayed in the Philippines through the war and Hanna was born there in 1942. But her father died after that and her mother was forced by the Japanese to leave the Philippines.

Two-year-old Hanna was left in the care of friends in Manila until her immigration paperwork was straightened out. Finally, in 1948, she was put aboard a ship for San Francisco to be met by her new stepfather. “The name of the ship was General M.C. Meigs of the American President Lines,” she said. “Is that the ship your family came on?”

It sounded familiar, but all my genealogy records were back in California. I also didn’t know the exact date my family sailed, but it was etched in Hanna’s soul since she was put on board alone as a six-year-old. “August 24, 1948,” she said. I told her I would look it up when I returned to California. After the war, there were so many ships ferrying returning vets and families across the Pacific that I was positive Hanna and my family were just specks in the flood of people. I wrote down all her information and let this strange encounter rest. At the remaining dinners, we all talked of other things and parted as new friends.

At home, I found a copy of the passenger manifest. The ship was the USS General M.C. Meigs. I gasped and set down the paper when I saw that the ship sailed on August 24, 1948. On the manifest, the names of my father, mother, and eleven-month-old sister were listed. Directly above my father’s name was that of Hanna. She was listed as Czech. I wasn’t listed, but I knew I had been along for the ride, “in the oven.”

I sent an e-mail to Hanna to let her know this exciting discovery, but I knew she and her husband were flying to the Czech Republic right after the cruise to visit relatives.

When Hanna returned from her travels about a month later, she e-mailed me to say I would be receiving something in the mail that I was not going to believe.

When a large manila envelope arrived from Tennessee, I quickly tore it open. Inside were several clippings from 1948 newspapers all over the United States. Each told the story of Hanna’s solo trip across the ocean from Manila as a six-year-old. She was a bona fide celebrity.

Clipped to the newspaper articles was a color photocopy of the ship’s farewell dinner menu. She’d attached a note instructing me to look at the back. I flipped over the menu and found a note in my mother’s handwriting to Hanna:

My dearest darling Hanna,

Jeanette Carolyn and I can never forget how well you have been during the trip. We love you so much and hope you’ll grow up to be a fine lady.

Love and kisses always —

Mrs. F. B. Zeilinger & Baby Jean

David City, Nebraska

My wife and I had, in fact, been seated at a table with a woman who was at a table with my parents more than a half-century before.

We’ve since become friends, but still haven’t figured out the cosmic significance of this meeting. Why was it important I meet Hanna at a dinner table aboard a passenger ship exactly like she met my parents so very long ago? Had we not met, I would never have known of this chapter in her or my family’s life.

To this day, I still choke up at the wonder of our small world.

~Will Zeilinger

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