True Immigrant Stories: Ida and Thomas Jefferson

[This is another true story from my oral histories collection of immigrants who came through Ellis Island as part of my research for my historical novel, Guardians of the Gate.]

Ida Napolitano was just three years old when her father emigrated from Italy into the United States, with the plan to earn enough money for the family to join him.  During the three years it took for him to reach that goal, he faithfully sent a letter back home telling of his adventures and his love for them, and offering advice as a father and husband.

As Ida grew older, she developed an especial fondness for those letters that arrived on precisely the same day each week.  When the postman walked near, she’d run to him to get that precious letter.  Recognizing the U.S. stamp with a picture of Thomas Jefferson on it, Ida knew the letter was indeed from Papa, and she would hurry into the house to tell Mama, insisting she read it to her immediately.  With no picture of her father in the house and no distinct memory of what he looked like, Ida gradually internalized the vision of her father as looking just like Jefferson.

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Finally, the day came when the family was able to travel in steerage to the United States. Sadly, typhoid fever broke out on that ship during the voyage.  A number of passengers died and were buried at sea.  Ida’s older sister contracted the disease but, fortunately, recovered.  Once the passengers reached Ellis Island, they were quarantined in the Contagious Diseases Hospital for 30 days to ensure the contagion would not spread elsewhere.

While they were sequestered, Ida’s father came to the island to see them. Peering from a second-story window, Ida’s mother said, “Ida, look!  There’s your Papa!”

Excitedly, Ida ran to the window, looking for Thomas Jefferson.  Instead, she saw a bald, short, and pudgy man.  Disappointed, she cried to her mother, “That’s not Papa!  That’s not Papa!”

“Yes, it is, darling.  That’s your papa.  Look at the present he brought you.”

Her mother held a basket of oranges that she had just raised by rope from her husband below.

“What are oranges, Mama?”

“They’re fruit, darling.  How wonderful it is for Papa to give them to us.”

Ida took an orange and bit into it, skin and all.  The bitter, acrid taste was the final straw.  Not only was her father nothing like Thomas Jefferson, but now he had tricked her into eating this terrible “fruit.”  Returning to the window, she threw the orange at this man, and—with uncanny accuracy—hit him right in the middle of his bald head.

When the quarantine period ended, the family was at last reunited and Ida went on to discover the truth in that old adage that, hopefully, all of us do—you can’t judge a book by its cover.  Her father proved to be a warm, loving, incredibly likeable man.  Her childhood and family life were nearly picture perfect.  Thomas Jefferson her father was not, but he was her “founding father,” providing for her the best foundation in life a child could ever want.


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