Beatrice watched as the dust cloud rose in the distance. She knew her father, Ermanno, would be home soon. Herds of railroad workers stirred the cloud into existence as they marched their way home from another long day. Spokane was hot and dry in the summer. Hundreds of migrant workers gathered there to construct The Great Northern Railway. The plan was to have the rail yard completed before 1905 making Spokane a prosperous city. Beatrice had moved there with her parents in the fall of ‘85 and it was now August of the next year. She sat on the front stoop hiding her face and waited for her father to get home.
Ermanno came into sight. His tools were clanking as he plodded along with the other workers. Most of their neighbors were Italian, like they were. That is how it was in Spokane. Groups of shacks built in rows on the dirt streets were homes to many different cultures. He waved off everyone as he approached the porch. She looked at him nervously with her hand over her cheek. “Hi, Papa,” she said. “How was your day?”
“Same as yesterday,” he grinned and leaned over to peck her on the cheek. She flinched, and he caught glimpse of what she was hiding. Ermanno grabbed her wrist and yanked her hand away from her face. His eyes lit on fire, and he sank down next to her. “Who did this to you?” he barked. “Tell me which one of those little weasels got his hands on you.” He started to shake waiting for her to respond.
“Papa,” she started, but could not finish. She burst into tears and put her head on his shoulder. “Papa, I’m sorry.”
“What do you have to be sorry for? Those pigs are going to pay for what they’ve done.”
“It wasn’t a boy.” Beatrice blurted out. She wiped her nose on her dress sleeve. She knew she had to tell him everything. “I was with Junjie this afternoon. We were walking through the market and…” she looked down at the ground and nervously played with the laces on her shoes. “He grabbed my hand. We were holding hands and walking through the market together.”
“I see,” said Ermanno in an understanding voice. He knew Junjie would not have hit his daughter so he waited for her to finish.
“Some of the boys from school saw us. I tried to stop them.” Tears were streaming down Beatrice’s face. “They started to shove us. One grabbed him from behind while the others punched him. I didn’t know what to do.”
“It’s not your fault,” Ermanno sighed. He put his arms around Beatrice. His expression grew tired remembering the weight of all the things he had seen in his life. He had hoped his children would be spared, but never really expected his wish to be granted. “How did your face get bruised? Tell me. It’s all right.”
“Junjie’s mother got there after the boys ran off,” Beatrice continued. “She talked to the merchant and came over to help him home. I tried to speak to her, and she slapped me across the face. She told me to stay away from Junjie. I said I would, and they left.” She tucked her face into her knees and began to sob.
Ermann jumped up and said, “Wait here, Beatrice. I have something to show you.” He ran into the house. When he returned, he was carrying an empty jar. “Look at this.” He handed the jar to Beatrice and sat back down beside her.
She peered up and looked at the jar in her hand. “What is this, Papa?”
“That is my life,” he said proudly.
“It is an empty jar.”
“No,” he replied. “It is all my good memories. I would never say that your life has been easy, but you will learn. I look at this jar and remember everything good that has happened to me.” He smiled and pointed to the jar. “This is when I played with my brothers back in Italy when I was a boy. See? Oh, and here. This is when I first kissed your mother. Over here is the day you were born, my daughter. So many good things in this jar.”
“I don’t understand.” Beatrice stared at the jar.
“You are only fourteen, but you are smart. I want you to know that I am proud of you. I like Junjie. He is the type of boy I would like you to be around. I want you not be mad at his mother. The Chinese have it more difficult. She likes you, but she only wishes to protect her family. They faced many bad things coming here for work. Remember the riots in Seattle last year?” Beatrice nodded. “Their people were beaten in the streets. Times are not good for them right now in this place.”
“Papa, why? Will it ever end?” Beatrice held the jar to her face and peered into it.
“Why? Yes. That is a good question. People fear what is different. I think it will not end. I can only tell you not to let your anger over it destroy you. I was young once, too. I was very angry at everything. When your mother and I came here it was hard. Even when we lived in our own country, there was much hatred. You will have to learn to hang on to the good things you experience. Remember them when times get hard. Put them somewhere you can find when you need to.”
“I’ll try, Papa.” Beatrice looked up the street and saw Junjie’s family coming. Their wagon was packed. She met eyes with Junjie’s mother. Beatrice smiled at her. The woman’s stern face softened for a moment before she turned towards the road in a fixed glare. Ermanno and Junjie’s father acknowledged each other as the wagon slowly passed the porch. Junjie was sitting in the back with his head down. He stood up to look at Beatrice waving his arms to her as they disappeared out of sight. She watched the road in anguish.
“I’ll be right back.” Beatrice turned and ran into the house. She searched through the cupboards and found an empty jar. Returning to the porch, she declared, “Look, Papa. This is my life. There is you and Mama.” She pointed to the jar and smiled. “And there is Junjie.”
My grandmother’s family came from Italy and moved to the Northwest. I don’t really know a lot about them so I did some reading about what was going on back in the day.
Here’s a recent photo of Spokane by Bailey Sampson, a fellow RedBubbler.