My great grandmother, Annie Elizabeth Aldrich, was born in Hertfordshire, England in 1859. In this snapshot , she’s about 45 years old and has long since moved to Nottingham. As mother to 11 living children (9 girls and 3 boys), it’s no surprise that she looks a bit weary. Even so, she was by all accounts a very happy woman who probably imagined herself living out her days among the people she knew and loved, in the homeland she cherished.
But when World War I erupted, Nottingham was hit hard. Annie’s boys enlisted in the military, and my great-grandparents sought refuge on American soil. They were second class passengers on the USMS Philadelphia, which was chased by German submarines for countless, terrifying miles.
Her daughters found work at a local corset factory, and Annie — who, by then, was 56 years old–set about creating a new life for them on Pleasant Street in West Brookfield, Massachusetts.
She and her husband George worked hard, saved diligently, and eventually purchased a comfortable home on an old country road, across from a yeast-making factory and adjacent to the railroad tracks. Annie planted flowers on the hillside and was feted by her beloved children on the occasion of her 50th wedding anniversary.
Within a month, the Great Depression hit. They made do and did with less, so as to lend financial support to those in need.
Just five years later, my great-grandfather passed away. Annie was 75 years old. A widow now, she once again rolled up her sleeves. She endured floods and other hardships, but as it was with her pet canaries, she never lost her song. Local historians told me that hobos etched friendly symbols in the dirt roads that led from the rail cars to her house. “Hot meals offered here,” they said. “Everyone’s invited.” How utterly Annie, to share what little she had!
When I met the current owners of her humble abode, they offered me a gift.
Pulled from the crumbling remains of the original foundation, this brick reminds me of my personal roots. Too, it grounds me in the truth of things, within and beyond the current narratives we’re hearing. That is to say, that we are a nation of immigrants, settled by great-grandmothers who sacrificed much in the name of safety and freedom, and who were welcomed equally at Ellis Island.