I don’t know much about her – how she lived or how she died. But I do know she was loved by the young boy who would become my grandfather, my PaPou. His love kept her close to his heart always, and his story kept her memory alive for generations. The story is now 100 years old.
My PaPou was 10 years old when his mother died. He said an angel was the first to tell him. “I already know,” my grandfather had said to his Uncle George, the human bearer of the sad news. “The angel told me.” No one believed him, but he believed what he saw. He never doubted it.
My grandfather’s eyes filled with tears every time he recounted the story. He remembered that the angel was so beautiful it took his breath away. Yes, it had wings. No, he wasn’t afraid.
The only record I can find of my great grandmother Elena Sitnas is when she came to the U.S. from Greece in 1907, presumably to marry my great grandfather Angelo Komnenus, who had arrived three years earlier. Her parents and her brothers followed. They all came through Ellis Island. Other than oral history, there is scant evidence of her life. The 1920 U.S. Census lists Angelo, four children, Elena’s parents and brothers at the same Manhattan residence. But not Elena. The angel had arrived before the census taker.
I know the family lived in Hell’s Kitchen, a gritty Midtown neighborhood for many immigrant families. I know Elena worked as a seamstress, making shirts. The conditions of shirt-making factories were notoriously bad in the early 1900s. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire – one of the deadliest industrial disasters in U.S. history – claimed the lives of 146 garment workers just four years after my great grandmother immigrated to New York City. Although that was not her fate, I imagine that working and living conditions contributed to Elena’s premature death, but I really don’t know. I have not been able to locate her death certificate. Multiple spellings of our Greek surname complicate the search.
I have two photos of Elena that I keep on our fireplace mantel, bookending an arrangement of candles. One serious, posed beside her husband, her hair pulled up in a chignon. The other, a complete contrast. She is dressed Roma-style, big earrings, her black hair cascading down her shoulders, her chin slightly tilted toward the sky. Her profile looks a lot like my mother, a grand-daughter she never met. She looks happy. My grandfather used to joke that we came from a long line of gypsies. Looking at this photo, I wonder.
Last year, I had a dream that I had to hide a white bird feather for a scavenger hunt. In the dream, I can feel the feather between my index finger and thumb. I’m twirling it. I know I am running out of time to hide it. I hand the feather to my oldest son. Even though I don’t see him do it, I know that he has hidden the feather behind the photo of my great grandparents on the mantel. I can sense it, and I feel good about his choice.
The next day, a friend handed me a white bird feather she found on a walk. I recognized it from my dream, and I knew where it belonged. I put it behind the photo of my maternal great grandparents. It has been there for almost a year.
This week when I dusted the mantel, I noticed the feather was gone. At least I thought it was gone. Working my way down the mantel, I rediscovered the feather, neatly tucked behind a framing nail in the opposing photo, the carefree portrait of Elena as a young woman.
I believe in angels. Those we can see, and those we cannot. They are here, always here, leaving their imprint, if not their footprints, behind.