A Leap of Faith

A Leap of Faith

From Chicken Soup for the Grandma's Soul

A Leap of Faith

Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.

Anais Nin

In the early 1900s, when thirteen was, sadly, far from a tender age, my grandmother escaped the pogroms of the tsarist regime in the Ukraine with her father, baby brother and sisters for the “gold-paved” streets of New York City. It would be ten years before she would see her mother and her other brothers again.

To help her father begin to squirrel away enough funds to send for the remainder of the family, she endured the stifling summer swelter and finger-numbing winter cold, the severe eyestrain, and the loss of many precious days of her youth in the pursuit of piece work in the garment industry. What differentiated her from many immigrant girls and women in similar circumstances was the specific “sweat shop” in which she worked: the ill-fated Triangle Shirt Factory. For on March 25, 1911, shortly before her fifteenth birthday, my grandmother would become the instrument of her own survival, when the building would burst into flames, ultimately killing 146 of her coworkers. Almost seventy-five years later, I had the opportunity to learn more about this infamous day, right around the time I was facing major challenges in my own life that would test my mettle, resilience and courage—just as the great fire had tested my grandmother’s.

In the mid-1980s, when my grandmother was nearing ninety, declining somewhat physically but still as sharp mentally as the needles with which she so lovingly continued to sew and repair our family’s clothes, I read a human-interest article about the “last known” survivor of the Triangle fire. I knew the premise to be false, but rather than contact the reporter and diminish the fifteen minutes of fame of the brave subject of that story, I set out on a personal quest: to find out the details of the peril in which my grandmother found herself that day and the circumstances that enabled her to survive to enrich my mother’s life and mine in so many ways for so many years afterward. I studied the history of the event and interviewed my remaining great aunts and uncles, but my best source of information was my grandmother herself. Although her short-term memory had declined over the years, her long-term memories were still intact and richly detailed.

They led me to a picture I hold deep in my mind’s eye and in my heart: a young woman with long, auburn hair, strong legs and a determination to survive that led her veritably to leap across tall buildings in a single bound. I envision her with a heavy, patched apron, high black shoes and a set jaw as she refused to take the death leap like so many of the young girls with whom she worked. Following her instincts instead, she trusted the one supervisor in whose honesty and compassion she believed, forming a human chain with others from her work crew. I can see that chain weaving through the smoky haze as he led them around doors locked to “cut down on employee theft” to the one door they could force open and, ultimately, to the roof. There, she and her cohorts made the leap to the roof of the next building intact, defying their potential fate.

It was that image that sustained me when, at the age of thirty-five, I underwent heart surgery, and once again a month into my recuperation when I entered premature menopause and learned in my first year of marriage that I would never be able to conceive. And I would summon up her figure in midleap a year and a half later when I learned I had breast cancer, and throughout my year of ensuing chemotherapy treatments as well.

Now, at age fifty-four, a successful professional counselor, writer and adoptive mother of two young children, I know that my second mother and best friend, my inspiration and my rock, provided me with one of the most precious legacies a granddaughter could ever receive: the courage to take her life into her own hands with self-reliance and positive resolve.

Hannah Amgott

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