“Do you, Mary Elizabeth take Johann Michael Gutknecht to be your husband?” the pastor asks.
That day seems so far away now that it’s only a quiet memory. At present my husband Johann, our son Christian and I are on a long, perilous journey to the colonies in America. We are joined by our childhood friends Amy and Albert and a sea of strangers all searching for something new and fresh. For us the journey started years ago in the year 1745 and here we are now six long years later in 1751. In six years’ time we have left everything and everyone to make the dangerous voyage to Scotland and then on to Ireland and to dreary, rainy England. Now we press on to the colonies in Pennsylvania then on to the Carolinas and the promise of a future we can only dream of.
We’ve been on this ship for what seems like an eternity, but in truth, it’s only been a few weeks and I mutter to myself, “I never want to be on a boat again!” I look around praying that I didn’t say it aloud as the pastor is reading the scripture.
“The tossing and turning of this wretched ship never ceases!” I scream in my thoughts as I think back over the storms we’ve survived. I’ve seen waves so high, that they look like mountains crashing on the ship. Sometimes the sea is merciless during storms and we are fearful we will never make it to the new world alive. Then the dawn comes and I see a rainbow and am reminded of God’s promise.
The crew is anything but Christian and they detest us and mock our prayers. I tell myself over and over again that God will deal with them at the Great Judgment; we must persevere and be the light. But a few of them are kind and gentle of spirit to the children aboard the ship. I remember on one day my son Christian running to me one night to tell me the stories the sailors had told them that morn. Tales of reddish-dark skin people that wear skins for clothes. He was so full of excitement and adventure that we thought he would never go to sleep that night. He talks of nothing else but seeing a savage when we land.
“God please keep our little family safe.” I plead.
All of us, about 170 souls, are packed into the hold of this ship like cattle waiting to be sold at auction and that is true of some of the poor souls when they arrive. They will be sold to the highest bidder just like cattle, to work for the right to be in America. We are some of the fortunate ones that have family already there waiting for us in Pennsylvania and that we have just enough money for our passage. But after that, God will have to provide. The stench of so many people is most unbearable and death is always in the air. It’s so heavy that you sometimes feel it pressing on you, especially when the seas are unforgiving and everyone is being tossed this way and that in the hold of the ship.
The saddest part of the journey is hearing the heartbreak of a mother’s cry. It’s inconsolable on this wretched ship and one cannot run from it. Children are among some of the first to die on these voyages as disease is an unwanted neighbor always knocking on the door and there’s no way to do a proper funeral aboard ship.
“Isn’t it bad enough that we left our family, our home, our friends, and our belongings, everything behind? Must I now leave my child behind too?” Amy screams in despair to her husband as her son’s body is being prepared for burial at sea. He was only 3 years old; so beautiful with a life full of promise until he became sick and it overtook his little body. This is the worst part and it’s unfair. I know that everything is in God’s hands but this is so hard to take.
I try hard to help her, but there are no words to comfort my dearest friend, now a grieving mother. Her husband Albert tries to cling on to her and hold her, but she pushes him away with great force and runs to the edge of the ship and throws herself hard against the railing. She leans over the railing heaving sobs that only a mother can. Albert looks so helpless but seems to summon up what little strength he has left as he looks toward the heavens.
We all scream, “Amy, no! Stop her!” The crew and all gathered on deck begin to desperately charge towards her, but then she turns slowly towards us and then collapses into a heap of tears with her dress skirts puddling around her on the hard, freshly scrubbed deck. Albert ran to her meeting her on his knees and without a word took her hand in his and wiped away her tears with his other. “His hands are so rough”, I thought to myself, “farmer’s hands”. They’ve harvested and plowed since childhood and his callouses are well earned. But in that moment, when he took her face softly in his rough and worn hands and told her “We will get through this. This is not the end.” Those hands must have felt so soft and tender to her.
Amy’s strength was resurrected only briefly at that moment and he gently lifted her to her feet and nodded for the make-shift funeral to begin. I clutched onto Christian’s shoulders as the pastor spoke. He’s only five years old and very healthy; I begin to think, not really listening to the sermon. I can’t bear to listen to another child’s funeral! He has seen so much in his young life; so much hardship, sacrifice and upheaval. Thankfully God is gracious to young children and some of it he will be too young to remember, but this, I’m afraid he’ll never forget. Will it stay etched in his memory as it is in mine? What a blessing it would be to be able to forget this moment.
This voyage started out in our homeland in Germany, such a beautiful land. I can still picture it when I close my eyes. I see our humble little home, the fields growing, family and friends gathered together for meals. My husband is a farmer, a wonderful farmer just like his father before him and so on. “Dirt farmers!” they say with distain by those that are rich and powerful as they mock our humble little farm that helps to feed them. But then, the constant wars and rumors of wars, the shortages of food, homes being burned it was like a dream, a very terrible dream. Then one by one, families left our villages and country sides to get away from all the heartache and sail to the new colonies under British rule. Trading one crown for another, will it truly be better?
I try to imagine what it will be like when we land as the pastor continues with the readings. We will have to build a new home and farm, but first, we must get off this ship I think as a wave slams into the side of the ship and rocks us hard and it brings me back to the reality of where I am and Johann grabs hold of my arm to steady me.
“Amen” the pastor says, and we all say “Amen.” in unison.
Even the rough and heathen-like crew joined us in our prayers for this little one I notice turning around viewing the crowd which is growing smaller by the week. We said goodbye to one more soul today and I pray it will be the last.
I go to Amy and she is trying so hard to be brave in front of the mass of strangers offering what little comfort the can. Amy and Albert’s families are still in Germany as they are the first to leave. How sad their families will be when news gets back to them about this horrible loss of one so young. I hug Amy and she weeps on my shoulder as the noon sun rises high in the sky. I can feel it burning so hot against my face that the spray of the sea is of little comfort. The reality of the day is sinking in so deeply as cling on to Amy as we weep together and I realize it could have been my son today.
“Oh please God protect my son” I pray in my heart as we women try to comfort Amy and the men try to be strong for Albert.
The crew has done their duty and now is back at their monotonous work. As the sun is burning hot on my face and I feel a soft spray of the sea, Christian runs to the railing and yells “Dolphins mother, dolphins!” It was nice to see something beautiful again after today.
“Look, they are playing with me!”
“Yes, they are Christian” and we laugh together. Oh, God it feels good to laugh!”
We are definitely getting closer to land now and you can feel the anxiousness of everyone on board. Amy is doing a little better now as the worst of the shocking loss of her son is beginning to slightly pass. It’s been two weeks since the funeral, of course she has a long way to go and will never truly be over the loss of her son, but our conversations are somewhat easier now and we share stories about our children and sometimes I even see her smile through her tears. God has given her a strength that surpasses anything I have ever seen.
“What do you think the savages really look like?” Amy boldly asks.
“I can’t even begin to imagine” I giggle back. It’s like we’re little girls again without a care in the world. Amy, Albert, Johann and I all grew up together in our sleepy little village. We are young, all of us in our 20’s now with the other side of the world coming up on us quickly.
Amy and I talk for hours about our new lives ahead and what we’ve left behind. We talk about what we will miss and what our new homes will look like once we’re settled. We both just want to get off this ship and never sail again. As we were reminiscing our husbands joined us and we continued talking till dusk and one by one the stars begin to show themselves.
“Did you ever think we would make it this far?” Albert asked Johann.
“I had my doubts some days.” Johann drew an anxious quiet breath. “I wasn’t sure when Mary took pregnant.” “I thought we may just stay in Ireland.” “But she urged me that we needed to continue on. She’s never one to not finish what she’s started; she’s a little stubborn that way.” Johann loves to tease me and as I pretend to be slightly perturbed we all burst out in laughter.
“I understand my friend, I understand. But here we are on the voyage of our lives!” Albert says like a boy set out to conquer the world. He looks at Amy and gently smiles and then the two boyhood friends discuss all the preparations that they will need to do in Pennsylvania.
Just then Christian runs up with another story to tell us that had been passed on to him by one of the crew. He pulls and pulls on his father’s shirt trying to get his attention. “Well its night-time my friends and we must get Christian to bed and take our place with the rest of the cattle, um passengers for the night. Goodnight.” Johann scooped up Christian in his strong arms as he eagerly began his own bedtime story about savages with red skin.
“Goodnight.” Amy and Albert said in perfect harmony. I looked back to see them holding one another trying to take comfort in each other as the stars begin to twinkle one by one overhead. It was a gorgeous night at sea and a perfect night for a couple in love to adore each other and the stars overhead. God will give them peace again one day, I think to myself and I say a little prayer that night for Amy and Albert, my family, and for the many blessings that we do have. Then we drift off to sleep in our cramped quarters among the many other passengers being gently rocked to sleep by the swaying of the ship as if in a mother’s arms.