Letter to a Dead Great-Aunt: A Personal Memoir

Did you ever want to write a letter to someone dead?
What would you say?
This is what I wrote to my Great-Aunt Celia.

Sheila Nevins
New York City
United States of America

July 2008

Great-Aunt Celia
Mount Zion Cemetery: Section 43
Queens, New York
United States of America

Dear Great-Aunt Celia,

It is nearly 100 years since your tragic death in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire on March 25, 1911, but it is just today that I discovered you really existed and that your death in the fire was real. It hit me hard and I cried for you; and yet I never met you. I had heard that Grandma Fanny’s youngest sister had died at the Triangle Fire, yet it always seemed like family folklore — and, anyway, my father was born some three years later. Occasionally your death would come up in family conversations, but I am sorry to say only briefly, and Grandma Fanny’s eyes would tear up and then we would go on to fresh borscht or stuffed cabbage and some relative from the other side would try to coax me to try some sweet-and-sour Russian food that I had no interest in. So here I am working on a documentary, called Schmatta,” on a Friday in the year 2008. The film is about the fall of the garment center as a microcosmic look at the fall of Industrial America. The producer mentioned immigrant labor and the fire. I say, “I think I had a great-aunt who died in it.”

“Really,” he said.

“Yes,” I said.

“Well, there is a list of all who died,” he said.

“Oh,” I say, “but I don’t know my grandmother’s maiden name. She was born in Russia and she married my grandfather there. I’ll ask my Uncle Seymour,” I say. “My father is dead. Uncle Seymour is my grandmother’s only living child.”

“Uncle Seymour,” I ask later that night. “Did you know Grandma Fanny’s maiden name?”

“Gittlin,” he says without hesitation.

“G-I-T-L-I-N,” I spell.

“No, two Ts.”

“And what was her dead sister’s name, the one who died in the fire?”

“I don’t know,” Uncle Seymour says. “But my name was supposed to be like hers.”

Uncle Seymour is sharp as a tack at 84; he says his grief-stricken mother left the United States several months later to go to Belarus because she had to tell her mother, Lypska, that her youngest daughter was dead. There were only telegraph wires then, Grandma only spoke Yiddish and no one in the Western Union telegraph office understood how to write it. Anyway, she thought her mother would die if she was alone when she found out Celia was dead. So, Grandma Fanny would take the nine-day trip back to Russia. My uncle said she didn’t know she was two months pregnant with my father. Neighbors on the Lower East Side had gathered money for her trip and she gave birth to my father in Russia. She stayed with her mother for two years before returning to America. Pogroms had broken out in Belarus and Grandma Fanny and her newborn son hid in her mother Lypska’s grocery-store basement for two years. For reasons Uncle Seymour didn’t know, his grandmother died during her daughter Fanny’s stay. Maybe it was grief over your death that killed your mother. Who knows? That’s the history, Celia; your history as best we can tell it — your mother mourned you. The factory listed you as Selina Gittlin, but we knew at the morgue, it was our Celia Gittlin. On the death certificate it was correct — Celia from Clinton Street. You spoke no English. Neither did anyone in the family. Immigrants’ names were up for grabs.

Dear Aunt Celia, you died at 17. The fire was on the 25th of March. Did you lay there suffering on Greene Street? Did you die immediately and your corpse lay alone on the curb? The death notice said your skull was fractured. Did you jump? Of course, your sister Fanny got you the job at the shirt factory in America. She summoned you from Russia and said that you could be rich someday and meet a good man in America. She said you could share their one-room apartment at 174 Clinton Street until your prince came to save you. There was plenty of room for you there — it was a big room. The bathtub was in the kitchen but don’t worry; it had a curtain for privacy.

You came alone on a ship in early November, 1910. You brought a samovar* and a small sewing machine. I have the samovar. It wound up with me. I never asked where it came from. Now I know. I wish I could have met you at Ellis Island. If only for a moment, for you died five months later — that’s what it says on your death certificate. I wasn’t alive then either or I would have been there. Aunt Celia, did you try the doors? Were you trampled by other women? Did you jump from the window because the exit doors were locked so the working girls couldn’t smoke? Did you smoke? You were just a little girl. Who taught you to sew? I’m left-handed and terrible at sewing. Do I look like you? Did you think any of the thoughts I thought at 17? What did you pack for lunch that day? Could you ever forgive your sister, my Grandma Fanny, for bringing you to America? Did you walk to work that day? A 16-hour workday. A seven-day workweek. Were you tired that Saturday or did you think you were lucky to have a job in this shirt sweatshop? Would you have liked me, Celia? I want to know. And I want you to know how sad I am that you died so young. Did you ever know love? You were certainly beloved. Was it scary alone on the boat to America? Did the sewing machine and samovar smell of Old Russia? Were you proud to go to your new job? Did you audition for the Triangle boss with your Russian sewing machine? Celia, I mourn for you, for the lack of safety and the treatment of immigrants because I am one. I am outraged and panic when a crane kills a worker, or there is a senseless fire in a nightclub, or an immigrant is ruthlessly deported; for I am the child of immigrants — your grandniece. My father was born in Russia. Celia, I think I see the ghost of you. I see the babushka pulling back your kinky long hair so that it won’t be caught in the sewing machine. Uncle Seymour’s name is like yours, Uncle Sey-mour, Ce-lia. We feel you, Celia, in our hearts as a relative who owns a piece of our being. Sheila-Celia.

I will visit your grave at Mt. Zion Cemetery and place a stone for you from all of us. I’m not religious, but I believe in remembering. I want to tell you how sorry I am that you lost your life. My heart aches for you and all the young immigrant girls who lost their lives for greed on that day in March … March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.

May all of you rest in peace.

With all my love,
In Memory,

Your Grandniece Sheila

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