Eilis and I had rather too much in common.
I am not sure how old she was when she left Ireland in 1950. I was twenty three when I left England in 1963. She left because she had no job and no prospects of getting one, while I had no job, but I made my decision sometime before I finished my course and I had plenty of time to apply for a position, especially armed with my letter from the Minister . O dear, I forgot I had written that account when I wrote about it again, this time with a visual aid. I know I went for adventure. Eilis made the trip to New York by boat. For someone leaving home for the first time, she looked remarkably calm and brave, although sea sickness took its toll. I flew to New York in an old turbo pro plane. I had flown once before, when I went to Geneva to visit a friend who was working there. Nasty feeling crossing the Alps. When I got to New York I had a day to kill before I boarded the plane for Los Angeles. I know I got from JFK to Manhattan. How? I know I wandered around a department store. Which one? I have a photo I took of the Empire State Building, but I decided the cost of going to the top was too much for my meagre budget. Somehow I got back to the airport and on to LA.
Eilis had a place to live, an Irish boarding house with four or so young Irish girls whose journey to New York had been arranged by their Catholic priest. The boarding house was presided over by a woman who presumably had the job of keeping the girls out of trouble. But how much Eilis learned from her fellow boarders! I was supposed to be living in a graduate dorm, but when I arrived I was told it was unfinished and that I would be living in the undergraduate dorm for one semester. My roommate was a grad student from Lubbock TX (as if I had ever heard of Lubbock, TX!) She was an opera vocal student. I, however, spent a lot of my time with the undergrads. How much I learned from them! It was the era of the Beatles and being English made me quite an attraction to these younger students.
Eilis had a job arranged for her in a department store. I had a job set up for me in the University, although towards the end of my three years, when it was obvious to me that I would not be staying to complete my Ph.D, I also worked part time in a department store to make some extra money. I sold handbags and Ernie will never let me forget how I was as stiff as Eilis was when she started out and how I shooed him away from the handbag counter.
I suppose it goes without saying that Eilis and I were both homesick as we got to know our new surroundings, but it was less of a problem for me as I fully intended to return to England. And Brooklyn was somewhat of a cocoon for Eilis with its Irish dances and fellow immigrants.
Like Eilis, I went home for a visit: she because her sister died, I because I wanted to see my parents and brother and friends. Like Eilis, when it was time to go back to America, I hesitated. She already had a secret husband in Brooklyn, but the ties to Ireland were pulling at her. She eventually boarded the boat back, this time a mentor to a young girl as she left to start a new life. I hesitated because I knew that if I went back to LA I would never leave. My reason for returning was not unlike Eilis'.
It all worked out just fine. Thomas Wolfe was right when he said that you cannot go home again. But sometimes it is hard to know where home is.