THURSDAY: Unclaimed


Copyright is held by the author.

IN THE early morning hours of June 19, 1988 I exchanged vows with the man I had grown to love since the playful age of eight. With my hands resting in Henry’s, I pledged my love and companionship to Henry Zolten, before his family and mine. Henry and I first traded smiles on the third day of school, in Ms. Waldoff’s classroom, in the third grade. His family had moved nearby during that summer and Henry knew no one. I did not even know that there was a brand new boy in town, for he stayed inside much of the time. It took three days before he would speak to anyone. But I knew, from our first encounter in the classroom that Henry would be in my future. It was not long after that we became inseparable. I often looked at Henry and knew precisely what he was thinking. As we became lovers and best friends, little changed. He still spoke very little to those he did not know very well. Consequently, I would hear him all day and all night long. Sometimes, I listened but often times I did not. Nonetheless, I loved the way he spoke. Sophisticated but broken, yet calming.

It was no shock to anyone when we decided to get married and announced our wedding date. My mother, although very fond of Henry, wanted me to wait.

“The world is always moving Emmalina. Don’t stay here all your life, go see it, move with it. Feel it,” my mother would say.

I knew she was right. I often felt guilty, knowing that I could never repay her and father for putting me through school. I knew how much they wanted me to leave home and become something exceptional, some place else.

For this reason, I did the only thing I could to please them both. I promised my mother to travel the world only after I married my best friend. She agreed. Father, was not so sure that my decision to please them both and Henry at the same time was the best thing.

“Emmalina, a husband wants a wife to have children. To make a home, not to run away and feed him wistful promises by my beautiful Emmalina,” my father would remind me in his calmest tone. He was such a complex man. Father, unlike Henry, was hard to read. I could never read his face. His forehead almost always wrinkled, regardless of whether he was sad or happy or even just in deep thought. He often slept with his face in this state. As I became a young woman, I studied my father and discovered that whatever father said aloud, his heart felt the opposite. When he would call my name and smile, his eyebrows lifted to his forehead and I saw through his smile to his heart, which often was often quite worried about me.

I was set to leave four days after my Henry and I married. I lay awake that night, unable to fall asleep. My eyes would not blink. They were fixated on the musty ceiling that father had repaired and repaired every year as long as I can remember. Thoughts of uncertainty came at me hastily. Should I just stay here? What’s wrong with here? Will our love make it here? All circuited my head. Henry is not like every other man here. He wants more from me than just babies. I grew anxious. I could feel sweat trickle down from my hairline to my temple before reaching my cheeks. My poor Henry, how can I leave him? How long will it be before I can actually be with him like a wife should? Maybe father was right. I am making a mistake or perhaps I already had. In the midst of those doubtful thoughts, mother walked in.

She always seemed to know when to comfort me. She carried with her a glass of water in her hand, and sat on the right side of my bed. With her pale fine fingers, she swept my hair further to the side and wiped the sweat away.

“My poor Emmalina,” she whispered and gently placed my head on her lap. The scent of her dress soothed me and immediately the sweat and the doubt simultaneously stopped. I said nothing. She said nothing. We both fell asleep.

I awoke as the sun rose that morning. Mother was still sleeping. I watched her aging pallid skin as I slowly moved my head, so as not to wake her and placed a small cushion near her head to block the sunlight from falling on her.

I went into the kitchen and began to prepare our final breakfast together, as a family. It was a morning that should not have been. Within moments, father joined me. He sat at the table in his usual chair. “Emmalina where’s your mother?” he asked concerned.

“She’s in my room father,” I answered. He smiled and nodded his head. We spoke very little as I readied the table. Father turned on the radio to the station covering the Olympics. He quite enjoyed listening to the Olympics but did not like to watch to it. “I like to envision it for myself. This television steals your vision. Soon no one will be able to listen well to each other and have no imagination, no self vision,” he would say when mother teased him about him not accepting change. He always disliked when mother watched the television we received as a gift from Aunt Helena.

“Sigmund! Turn that noise box down,” mother insisted as she walked into the kitchen and joined father and I. He smiled and turned it up.

“See Emmalina, there are so many women here in Austria. Truthfully there are so many more of us than men and yet only men go to the Olympics,” mother stated trying to prove a point.

“They are not all men,” father quickly pointed out with his peculiar chuckle.

“No mother, you know that there were some women there,” I added sounding like I was on father’s side. I couldn’t help it; I always seemed to be on father’s side according to mother. Mother always complained that I was more of the son that father never had and less of the daughter as best friend that she imagined. I quickly grew silent because I did not want to cause offence to mother and have her last memory of me loving father more than her.

“Yes, but Emmalina, how many?” mother questioned staring at me.

“Not many, but mother some is better than none,” I stated.

“When you go to America you will see. Women are the way of the world. You will see my young Emmalina! You will see,” she professed. We all went quiet. Reality was approaching; I was leaving. There was nothing to say. We all wanted our time as a family, in that moment before I left home, to be peaceful. We sat at our small wooden table and slowly ate the rest of our breakfast, hoping that morning would somehow freeze in time. Very little else was said but in our hearts we were saying our goodbyes.

Later that afternoon, father and mother accompanied me to Henry’s home. I would spend my last day in Austria with my new husband. Henry’s family always made me feel welcome. His sister Analiese was my maid of honour on our wedding day. We had become dear friends.

She and I were like real sisters; I never had one. My mother had suffered a stillborn loss the year before I was born.

Analiese conforted Henry. “You will join her soon in America. What are a few months when you’ll be with her forever?” He would smile. Analiese loved her younger brother. Growing up, she often took care of him like a mother. She also worried about him like a mother.

“Henry can never find out Emma,” she reminded me shortly after I arrived at at Henry’s. She had come to wish me a safe journey.

“I know my sister. I promise, you are not too worry,” I reassured her. It tore away at me to keep a secret from my husband. But under the circumstances, I could not chance the ruining of his relationship with his sister, who was now my sister. It was Analiese that helped me fill out the paperwork to go to America. She convinced my mother that it was the right place for me. She wanted to go also, but had married five years earlier at the age of 23 and was left to care for Dominik and Niklas. Yannick, her husband, worked in Vienna and would come home several times a year. Henry disliked his sister marrying Yannick, but he did not speak of his disapproval to her. He tried to keep her spirit up to ease her guilt and regret. At times, when we spoke of them in conversation, he would hold me close and say, “My Emmalina would never be left alone.” I loved him for that, whether it would be true or not.

Only Analiese and I knew that my plans were to work as a school teacher in the language department at a school in New York.

She had heard that the United States welcomed Austrian immigrants and that the women’s movement in American had changed the lives of women over there significantly. Like mother, she too spoke of the opportunities for women there. I knew she was right.

Henry and I spent most of the day outside. We stopped all around the town at our favourite places. Mostly, we held each other under our favourite tree at the bottom of the mountain we named Mount E. When we first sat under this very tree, many years before, I would sit in-between Henry’s stretched out legs with my back bracing his chest, while we looked out at the serene landscape before us. We named the mountains. We loved the Alps. I can’t think about us without picturing that landscape and the view from our tree.

One damp midday, Henry and I sat underneath our tree. Henry had me close my eyes, while he pretended to move the mountain for me as a gift. I could not compose myself after hearing him make superhero noises. I laughed hysterically. He held me still and opened my hands. I opened my eyes. In my hands, Henry placed a scroll like paper tied with a red ribbon. Immediately, I stopped laughing. By the look on his face, I knew it was significant. I untied the red ribbon and unrolled the paper.

It was the most beautiful work of art that had ever met my eyes. It was a painting of the mountains in the distance. At the top of the painting, in fine black ink was written “Mt.Emmalina.” I cried then and every time we returned to our tree. An emotion had stirred within me that day that was unlike any other. It was separate from love because I already knew I loved Henry.

It was as though life on its own had a separate purpose beyond what society created. Like it was necessary to love and be loved in order to truly live. And as if I had ingested love like it was a meal. I was filled for life.

I would have been proud to take Henry’s name, although I did not. It would have complicated my travel documents that were already in order. Initially, Henry did not like that. Although he was different from a lot of the men I knew, he was still very much traditional. “You are not fully mine, unless you accept my name Emmalina,” he said with a sense of disappointment in his voice.

“Oh no, I will Henry and I am yours. I always will be. You must believe me,” I quickly responded to reassure him. Once I promised that I would assume his name on paper as soon as he joined me in America, he finally agreed.

That evening we talked about having children again. He wanted them as soon as I was ready. I loved that about him. He always agreed to things “when I was ready.” He knew I wanted them too, eventually. I knew Henry was not Yannick. He did not want me in the kitchen and being with children all day. He always reminded me that he wanted to marry me to spend time with him; to be in his company, not to be in the kitchen or running around with children all the time. It was not his marital intent. “It is not my purpose for my Emmalina,” he would say softly. This sometimes reminded me of my father because my father always referred to me as “my Emmalina.”

I appreciated him even more for not telling me to stay. That night we spoke of many things and made intense love several times. I am sure we made life. We slept arms in arms, legs around legs, uncomfortable and in love.

In the morning, my father, mother and Henry accompanied me to the airport. At the airport, I hugged father and mother.

“Write soon and call sooner,” mother urged.

“I promise as soon as I find a phone,” I replied sarcastically. We all knew that the phone did not work at the house most of the time. They walked away to give Henry and I a private moment. Henry held me tightly. He placed an envelope in my pocket and kissed me softly. We had seldom displayed our affection around my father and mother. His lips were so soft and his tongue even softer. And like at breakfast the day before, I wished this very moment remained still. I wanted time to take a break so Henry’s lips could remain on me just a little while longer.

My head fell on Henry’s left shoulders. I began to sob into his white cotton shirt.

“Oh my Emmalina, I will see you soon. You will be fine. We will be fine. We will be together very soon and find us our own Mt. Emmalina in America,” Henry said trying not to weep. I squeezed him harder.

My father walked over and stood near us.

“Emmalina,” he said “No matter where you go, Austria will always be your home.” Father’s smile always seemed to calm my fears. I hugged them all and waved good bye several times before going through the gate.

I took a seat and waited for the plane to start boarding. I was up again in four minutes following the announcement made by the lady wearing a neat blue and white uniform that boarding would now begin. Within moments, I took my seat on the plane. I was fascinated by the very nature of the airplane.

It was enormous. It did not look like the simple machine I had seen in the sky many times before. It was captivating to know that this plane in no time at all could actually change ones life forever. I wondered how my life would change once I landed on the other side.

Shortly after I sat down, an older gentleman sat next to me. He reminded me of my father. They must have been near the same age. We exchanged a few words and I fell asleep. I dreamt of America. I dreamt of going shopping for new clothes and how they would look on me. I dreamt that I was leaping from building to building and would stay at a fancy hotel, like in the movie Coming to America, which is the first movie I was going to watch once I arrived. Then of course, I would see Bruce Willis in Die Hard and call Analiese to tell her how good it was before she would get a chance to watch it several months later.

Abruptly, I awoke to find my skirt wet. I guess I had spilled my drink that the stewardess gave me while I was partially asleep and did not even feel it. I asked for a blanket and placed it in my lap to absorb the liquid. I fell off to sleep again.

On Sunday June 26, 1988 my flight landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport. After several minutes, the pilot thanked us for flying with him and welcomed us to the United States of America. The passengers in front of me stood and proceeded to walk off the plane. It came my turn. I stood up. And fell right back down in my seat.

“Are you al right young lady?” asked the man who resembled my father.

“I’m not . . . sure,” I answered very slowly. I felt extremely dizzy. I did not know what to make of how I was feeling. Just then I could feel my legs getting weak. Within a minute, I felt nothing in my right leg. Again, I tried to get up, this time using the man’s arm as a brace.

Once more, I stumbled and fell right back down. I could feel severe pain moving up my body to my right arms. Minutes later, my right leg, my right arm and the right side of my face was completely numb.

“Help! Someone get help now! This woman needs help!” yelled the man in a panicky voice.

I looked up at him from the floor. I tried to speak to him but he couldn’t understand me.

“What did you say lady?” he asked over and over. “We need help immediately!” he told another passenger again. Noise aroused on the plane near my area and people starting making alarmed comments and quickly moved out of the way to make room for the stewardess.

“Oh my! What happened to her?” questioned the stewardess, while bending down and staring at me on the floor.

“I’m not sure,” he paused. “She was getting up . . . I think . . . to get off and she just collapsed. I tried to help her up several times. But . . . but she just couldn’t,” he explained.

“That’s unusual sir,” she responded looking puzzled. Do you know her?” she continued.

“No. Just meet her on the plane here today,” he confirmed.

With the help of the man and two stewardesses, I was carried off the plane.

I have no memory of what happened once I got off the plane. But one day I awoke in a hospital bed. I could see people busying around me and talking about different patients. Some were wearing white uniforms and others blue. Shortly after, two nurses came and checked on me. I must be in America, I thought to myself. I was waiting for someone to speak to me. No one did.

I tried talking to one of the nurses while she raised my arm and placed the band around it to check my pressure. She just looked at me and smiled.

“You poor thing,” she said and just kept smiling. “We are praying for you,” she continued before walking away. Later that day, when the other nurse arrived I tried again to ask her where I was and what was happening.

“Wa ya sayin pretty lady?” another nurse asked in a thick accent that I had never heard before. It was then I realized that they could not understand me. Later, I learned through doctor’s conversations with the nurses that I had suffered a severe stroke upon landing in America. I spent several weeks in that hospital. I cried internally and whaled out loud.

They were searching for relatives. I had none in America. They searched for my documents, I had little. I had not put mother and father phone number on the form because the phone hardly worked. They waited for weeks to hear something, anything. I could hear them talking about why no one was coming to get me and where I would go if my condition doesn’t change. They were hopeful; but no one claimed me.

Three weeks later, I was moved to Hopevale Nursing Home. There were many people there, mostly elderly people. Some walked slowly, while others were in wheelchairs. No matter how many weeks passed, I could not find the words to express what was in my head. Slowly, I could repeat things others said, but was still unable to find the words to get my own thoughts out so the world could hear where I came from and who I really was. I would remain at Hopevale for over two decades.

Nurse Marleen and Patsy became my Alps landscape in America. They kept me alive over the years. One week after my arrival at Hopevale, Marleen and Patsy received my things from the hospital. As I was in and out sleep, I could hear them as they unpacked my belongings.

“Has anyone come to see she yet?” Marleen asked Patsy.

“No. No one come to claim she or na see she at all. Meh feel so sorry fa she,”she answered with an accent similar to the one I heard from another nurse while I was in the hospital. The words were broken up but yet song like.

“But at least dem finally send ovah she tings,” Marleen stated.

“Well, wah she name? ”Patsy questioned with some excitement in her voice.

“Somethin like Emma…Emma..lina..oh Emmalina she name,” Marleen said as she read it from the only paper I had with my belongings that was required for the airport.

“Aww. What a nice name dat and it suit she well,” Patsy commented.

“And look at this!” Marleen said, as she held up the rolled up paper with the red ribbon tied around it. Eagerly, Patsy walked around to the other side of the bed to see what Marleen had found. They looked at the paper with anticipation. Marleen untied the ribbon and unrolled the paper. They both looked at the drawing and smiled.

“Wha, she hav a mountain name afta she. Wow, maybe she famous Patsy!” Marleen said and both women laughed. They decided to hang the picture on the pale yellow wall above my bed. I was grateful that although I could not speak somehow they read my thoughts.

As they neared unpacking my belongings, Patsy found a letter marked “Emmalina.” She looked at Marleen and whispered, “ look meh find dis to.”
It was the letter that Henry gave me at the airport. I did not even get to read it because I fell asleep on the plane. Once again, I prayed that either one of them would read my thoughts and read the last words from my beloved Henry out loud.

Patsy read:

“Dearest Emmalina,

Our love, without a doubt, will never stop growing. Regardless of where you travel to and what you may face. You have made me beyond happy by becoming my wife. It was the only dream I had since we first smiled in Ms. Holt’s classroom. I will dream of you until I meet you in America very soon. Love your husband Henry”

Marleen and Patsy remained silent. Patsy folded the letter and placed it on my chest. I will never know if they knew I was listening or just hoped I would hear what it said. I began to cry. Marleen noticed my tears. I began to make sounds of pain. They both sat by my bed side and while one comforted me the other one sang a song that I had never heard before.

Marleen sang: Don’t worry ’bout a thing,
‘Cause every little thing gonna be all right.
Emma don’t worry (don’t worry) ’bout a thing,
‘Cause every little thing gonna be all right! Hush

It was a melody unlike any that I had heard. Her voice reminded me of the times mother came into my room and made me feel as though I have nothing to fear.

Four years later at a movie night in the social room at Hopevale I finally watched Coming to America. It was very different from what I imagined. I now longed for any day before coming to America.

Over the years, I watched the world change. I saw it all from the television in my room: while I remained unchanged. And unclaimed.

My sweet Henry would come in search of me many years later. Only to be greeted by the painting of Mt. Emmalina that hung on the wall, above the bed where I once laid and dreamed we lived as husband and wife with children running around.


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  1. There is ‘suspension of disbelief’ and then there is downright disbelief. I don’t believe a word of this story..! She could have easily been traced by looking at her passport, through the airline reservation, and a simple check of local hospitals. Also there is a Austrian General Consulate in New York. And as for the family in Austria…words escape me.

  2. I was riveted all through he story — so succinctly you drew a portrait of people I could care about. Life does sometimes suddenly end as we might hope it could be as people seek their dreams. My friend recently had a stroke — out of no where — young healthy and fit. This was a great love story and a story of how tragedy takes away what we hold most dearly in a second. It was a captivating story about how love is not always “conventional”. I suspect you are a fine teacher after reading this piece — keep writing.

  3. […] we re-post a favourite story or poem from the CommuterLit archives. Today we present the story, “Unclaimed.” Click on the link to […]

  4. I’m with Highlander. Hard to believe her taking off to America in the first place, as well as her being “unclaimed”. Emotion was missing too, and the piece is longer than it needs to be.

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