I have tried to imagine how I would feel as an 8-year-old orphan traveling with a man posing as her uncle in search of a new life, but it is so hard to fathom what that would be like. In 1909, my grandmother was a brave young girl who did exactly that. She traveled by steamship from Europe to America, arriving alone, except for her designated escort.

The orphan who would become Mimi Gough’s grandmother made her way to the United States at the age of 8, traveling with a man posing as her uncle. Photo courtesy of Mimi Gough

In her later years, she shared some faded memories of this adventure and left behind an assortment of documents to help decipher some of the mysterious elements of her youth, but there are many holes still left to be filled from her past. I am lucky that she did provide some details, and there are a few photos that appear to be from this particular time in her life. In fact, there is one incredible picture that shows her standing on the upper deck during the Atlantic crossing, smiling and seemingly filled with hope, a vision she held throughout her life.

The dress she wore on that voyage remained in her possession till the end. She kept it in a trunk in her attic, along with a wool cape and treasured books signed by her caretakers, whom she left behind. They had made the difficult decision to send her to America, instead of moving her to a German convent. When young Suzanne landed at Ellis Island it was the start of a new chapter, a story that likely resonates with thousands of others who made that passage to this country, but how she acquired a sibling is rather remarkable.

A few years earlier, in November 1898, another ship was making its way through the Atlantic Ocean on its regular route connecting passengers between Boston and Portland. On the fateful night of Nov. 26, the SS Portland encountered a terrible storm and sunk, taking upward of 200 passengers into the frigid waters. Among the lost souls was a crew member who left behind a widow and their three children; sadly, she was unable to care for them all, so she decided to put her 6-year-old daughter up for adoption. The child was eventually placed with a wonderful Portland couple who had longed to have children, and Audrey became their first daughter.

My grandmother, upon her arrival, was placed with a family in Massachusetts, but apparently none of them spoke German, which made it an impossible situation. Their time together did not last and she was taken away in the hopes of finding another placement.

As luck would have it, the Portland couple heard of this young girl from Germany and were pleased to share that the wife had made several trips to Europe and spoke German. Arrangements were made and soon Suzanne joined this loving family. Suzanne and Audrey were thrilled to be sisters! They both left a legacy of namesakes and family who continue to search for answers about their incredible story to become siblings.

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