In 1881 my paternal grandmother, Franziska Mensch, was a 16-year-old orphan in Germany who came to America as a sort of indentured servant to a wealthy family. She probably had very little to bring with her, but she did bring something that would become our family’s keepsake.

A 16-year-old German orphan named Franziska Mensch brought this ornament, a tiny tin coal pail, with her when she immigrated to America in 1881. Photo courtesy of Pamela Mause Vose

In 1882 my paternal grandfather, Louis Maus, arrived in New York City after sailing from Germany and crossing the Atlantic in the steerage section of a ship. His brother, having been convicted of stealing a horse, was given the choice of immigrating to America or going to prison. He chose America. The catch was: A family member had to make sure the convicted horse thief actually got to America. My grandfather was that family member. The story goes that his brother got off the boat, said goodbye to my grandfather and headed West, a better choice than Brooklyn for a horse thief, never to be heard from again.

Louis and Franziska met, married and raised six children. Like their immigrant neighbors, they struggled to make a life in a new country. My father told stories of chasing coal wagons so that when the wagon hit a bump, they could grab the coal that bounced off. That coal helped heat their flat.

The highlight of the year was Christmas. There was a tree, illuminated by burning candles, and an orange and sometimes a pair of socks for each of them. The tree also always had one ornament: a tiny tin coal pail that my grandmother brought with her from Germany.

In some ways it seems an odd item to take with you to a new land. It is not very attractive, but it was lightweight and very small, so perhaps practical considerations made it ideal as a keepsake from another time and place.

My grandparents died before I was born, but when I was a child the coal pail graced our Christmas tree each year. As an adult, I was honored when I was selected as the recipient of the pail.

The tiny tin coal pail is worth very little itself. Its value is as a connection to stories about people I never met. It keeps alive the memory of my ancestors, who traveled to a new, unknown land to look for a better opportunity. It connects me to our new immigrants and reminds me of their  bravery in leaving their homeland for a better life in an unknown land.

Each year, when I place the little pail on our tree, I am reminded of how immigrants made my life possible, and this enlarges my sympathy for those who face the dangers and difficulties to come to America today.

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