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  • Writer's picturecheryl mendenhall

An Immigrant’s Tale

My mailer image The Hat was inspired by my father’s grandmother Maria, who came to the U.S. in the late 1880s. Times were bleak. Her blacksmith father had died, leaving the family without support. The loss was especially hard on the daughters, who would enter adulthood with no dowry. Maria, still in her teens, embarked on her first voyage, leaving her rural village and crossing the Gulf of Bothnia to work as a maid in Sweden. That job ended when a spark from a steamer set fire to the city, leaving 9,000 people homeless, including Maria and her employers. Needing a fresh start, she wrote to her brother in America. He agreed to meet her boat on one condition: that his sister not set foot in the new world wearing the stereotypical country girl’s kerchief.

So Maria bought a new hat.

It was probably not as extravagant as the headpiece in the illustration. My interpretation pays tribute to a young woman’s outsized determination to overcome hardship and disappointment and create something new.

So in this season of thankfulness, here’s a tip of this hat to all dreamers who take a leap into untraveled territory. With flair.

P.S. Here are some family photos I used as reference for Maria and her steerage companions.

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