This past spring, I found myself sitting, masked, at a wooden desk among a scattering of scientific researchers at the Museo Galileo in Florence. Next to me was a thick reference book on the history of astronomical instruments and a smaller work on the sundials and other measuring devices built into the churches of Florence to mark the cyclical turning points of cosmic time. The gnomon of Santa Maria del Fiore, for instance, consisted of a bronzina, a small hole set into the lantern ninety meters above that acted as a camera oscura and projected an image of the sun onto the cathedral floor far below. At noon on the day of the solstice, the solar disc superimposed itself perfectly onto a round marble slab, not quite a yard in diameter, situated along the inlaid meridian. I studied the explanations of astronomical quadrants and astrolabes and the armilla equinoziale,the armillary sphere of Santa Maria Novella, made up of two conjoined iron rings mounted on the façade that told the time of day and year based on the position of their elliptical shadow, when all at once it occurred to me that I’d wanted to write about something else altogether, about a person I occasionally encountered, a phantom living somewhere inside me: the young woman who’d decided not to leave, not to move to Berlin after all, to rip up the letter of acceptance to the art academy she received all those years ago and to stay put, in New York. Alive somewhere, in some other iteration of being, was a parallel existence in an alternative universe, one of the infinite spheres of possibility in which I’d decided differently and become a different woman.
Not long before this, a friend in Graz had told me that she’d been born on American soil and so, theoretically at least, was an American citizen. She’d never lived there, however, and this was her ghost, her own parallel existence. In July of 1950, her parents had sailed from Bremerhaven to New York on the United States Army Transport W.G. Haan, a ship of displaced persons that had been reacquired by the Navy and enlisted in the Military Sea Transportation Service. Their intention was to emigrate; they’d applied for their visas, all their papers were in order, and yet they were refused entry and caught in limbo for more than a year before being sent back to Europe. My friend was born in this limbo, on Ellis Island.
The first time she’d decided to research the ship manifests and to see what information she could find about her parents’ voyage and subsequent internment, she stumbled, one might say improbably, on a photograph of her mother, taken aboard the ship, posted online by the Immigration History Research Center Archives of the University of Minnesota Libraries. It was part of a series a Latvian passenger named Uģis Skrastiņš had taken to document his trip after leaving a displaced persons camp in Meersbeck, Germany, before eventually resettling in Minneapolis. The collection held a total of 87 photographs recording trains arriving, passengers disembarking, and people standing in line on a dock, waiting to board with manila tags attached to the buttons of their coats, blankets strapped to the suitcases resting on the pavement next to them. People crowded the ship’s deck, near-silhouettes against the churning, metallic-looking water below; crew members handled ropes as thick as their arms, with heavy black smoke curling upwards from another ship’s funnel behind them, and everywhere the latticework of huge metal cranes ready to haul up cargo. Again and again, I came back to the photograph of my friend’s mother. She was smiling, her eyes were downcast, and she seemed to be unaware that she was being photographed; her smile was private, reserved for my friend’s father, the man in the foreground with his back turned to us and his head slightly tilted, also smiling. It was July, and while the ocean air must have had a nip to it, as the people in the photograph were wearing coats, my friend’s mother was wearing hers open. She was two weeks pregnant with my friend; presumably, she didn’t yet know this. Her hair was in place, as was her husband’s: the day was not particularly windy, and two women seated in the background, one of them with a kerchief tied under her chin, seemed to be enjoying the sea air.
— read an excerpt from a new book-in-progress on Three Quarks Daily.