You see, Great-Great-Grandpa Robert didn’t want to stay in Paisley. It was a small town, especially back then, and he wanted to do more with his life than work in the textile factory that had put bread on his family’s table for years. If he wanted to be a mason by trade, something he had just enough training and experience to claim, he would have had to leave Paisley eventually; there just wasn’t work there. His older brother James was much the same. James had left home quite a few years ago, also to be a mason, and Robert had always idolized him. So when in 1906 James came home with a proposition for his little brother, Robert saw little reason to refuse.
His parents, of course, could find plenty of reasons.
“America?” his father asked again, still incredulous.
“It’s the nation of opportunity,” James explained again. “There is unsettled, unclaimed land there bigger than the whole of Scotland. There’s plenty of work to be found and Robert will have a job, a home and a family in no time.”
“But in America?”
They were seated at the kitchen table, father, mother and eldest son. Robert himself was standing just outside the door, listening carefully. At the age of twenty-three, he found it a little galling to have to be eavesdropping like a boy less than half his age, but his father was a stubborn man and still persistently considered him little more than a child.
“The place we’re going: they just had a huge earthquake and then a fire burned down half the town. They’re desperate for people to help the rebuild. A couple of stone masons? We could make a fortune.”
“He’s not a mason yet.”
“He’s completed his apprenticeship. I can take him as a journeyman apprentice until he’s ready, which really shouldn’t be long.”
The elder James Brodie shook his head slowly. As far as Scots go, he had moved around rather frequently, but most of those moves had been within a few miles of each other and all had been within the bounds of his mother nation. The thought of leaving Scotland had never really occurred to him and he was having trouble understanding why it would to anyone else, let alone a child of his own blood.
Margaret had an easier time understanding; she always had. Taking her son’s hand gently, she said softly, “It’s hard to let go of her, isn’t it?”
He glanced away. “That isn’t what this is about, Mother.”
She pursed her lips, knowing he lied. “Running away from an old life is no way to start a new one. And dragging your younger brother along with you is-”
“I am not dragging him anywhere. He wants to go, and you should let him.”
James sighed heavily. “He only wants to go because you want him to go. You know he would follow you anywhere.”
“Maybe he would. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea.”
“He is too young to know the difference.”
“Robert is of age,” his son reminded him, standing from the table. “He is plenty old enough to know the difference. With your blessing or not, the choice is his. He only asks at all because he respects you. You would do well to not abuse that trust.” He left the room, passing Robert without acknowledging him.
James stayed at the house on Nethercraigs with his family for almost three weeks. During the day, he went with his father to the textile factory, doing whatever jobs around the place needed doing that didn’t already have someone to do them. He was a mason by occupation, but was a capable odd job man when there wasn’t stone to be cut. At night, James filled his brother’s head with tales of easy wealth to be had and adventures that happened all the time in America. Will listened with just as rapt attention as Robert and was desperate to go with them, but, at age fourteen, his fate was still in his father’s hands and he wasn’t quite brave enough to simply run away like the McCallister boy had the year before. In the end, Robert was given his parents’ blessing, and Will was not.
The next morning, Margaret Brodie told Elizabeth Pearson over the back fence while they hung laundry to dry in their back yards, and was overheard through the open kitchen window by Maggie who immediately went to deliver the bad news and found Tillie digging earthworms by the stream with Tom for fishing. The little girl took it hard. She was eight and far too young for devastation. She took ill a few days later and was determined to die if Robert was so determined to leave her. Of course, she didn’t. She was better by the end of the week, although she made her sisters swear to tell Robert she was on her deathbed. Lizzie thought that, although terribly romantic, it was also terribly silly, and so when she and Jessie went to tell their sister’s wayward love, she told it with such sarcasm that the truth was obvious.
Nevertheless, Robert felt bad. He had known that Tillie would be upset. He went in to town the next day and bought Tillie the most extravagant gift he had ever given someone.
He tapped lightly on the window and groaned inwardly as there was a small flurry of whispers and giggles from within. All of the Pearson girls, their number now up to six, shared a room and he should have known all six would hear. A knit shawl draped over her shoulders, Lizzie answered the window, she being the most knowledgeable of these sorts of affairs. “Can I help you, sir?” she asked formally.
He knew he was being mocked; Lizzie was always mocking him when it came to her little sister. “Can I talk to Tillie?” he asked, hoping she wouldn’t notice the large box in his hands.
She did. Glancing down at it curiously, she asked, “Might I ask why?”
“Lizzie, leave him alone!” Tillie hissed from somewhere within. A hailstorm of giggles also emerged from the darkness.
She had already seen the box so there was no pretending it wasn’t there. “I just wanted to give her a going-away gift.”
“Do I get one?”
She sighed with elegant boredom. “Very well.” She held out her hand. “I’ll see that she gets it.”
He pulled the box back out of her reach. “I- I have to explain what it is,” he told her, no doubt adding in his mind, And I certainly don’t want to do it in front of the whole pack of you. “Can she come out?”
“Oh, of course not. That would be completely improper,” she informed him primly, she who knew most everything about being improper with young men. Tillie protested in the background and Lizzie relented with a vaguely malicious grin, “But I suppose I could come along, too, and chaperone.” Maggie laughed and Lizzie’s smile widened slightly.
“Aw, come on, Lizzie,” he complained, getting annoyed. “She’s eight.”
At that, Matilda burst into tears and Robert feared for a moment that she actually was still sick. He glared over at Lizzie, but she stared back so innocently that he didn’t know how to counter her. “Fine, but not a word,” he growled, blushing already.
He stepped back from the window and away from the ledge. In another few moments, Lizzie and Tillie emerged from the dark hole in their nightgowns, both of them apparently adept at climbing through windows at night, and settled their bare feet comfortably on the shingles. Tillie looked like she could shove her sister right off the roof and not feel the least bit guilty about it. Despite the situation on the rooftop, Lizzie herself looked perfectly blameless and even managed a touch of sophistication in her airy smile. Robert was mildly disgusted. He led the pair to the ridge of the roof and sat down. Lizzie sat herself down next to him. Tillie, ever straightforward, shoved her sister away and forced her skinny hips between them. Lizzie laughed and allowed it.
Robert, doing his best to ignore the chaperone, smiled down at Tillie. “I’m glad you’re feeling better,” he told her.
She crossed her arms. “I’m not. The doctor said I’ll likely die of it.”
“I see. And what was it the doctor said you’d die of?”
“Of you leaving, of course!”
“How dreadful. I didn’t realize that was a medical condition.”
She scowled. After a long silence wherein Lizzie cleared her throat twice, Tillie informed Robert, “You don’t have to go.”
“Of course I don’t,” he agreed. “But I want to.” Before she could respond, he continued, “I talked to the doctor about the You Leaving Disease and he said that there’s a cure for it that works every time.”
She sniffed airily. “I doubt it.”
“It’s in this box,” he told her, holding it out to her. “Open it.”
She took it with both hands. It was heavier than she had been expecting. She lifted away the lid and frowned slightly, squinting through the night’s darkness. “Paper?”
“Five hundred sheets of it. Have you ever written a letter?”
“At school last October, we wrote letters to King Edward for his birthday.”
He lifted the top piece. “Each sheet of paper will be a letter. You write to me on one side, fold it into thirds and seal it, and then send it to me. Every time I get a letter from you, I’ll write one back to you and send it the very next day.”
“But Mother said you’re going across the ocean. It’ll take months for the mail to go back and forth.”
He set the sheet back in the box. “That’s why I got you a big box. You can send them as frequently as you like. If you want a letter once a month, send me one once a month. If you want one once a week, send one once a week.”
“What about every day?”
He smiled. “Then you can send one every day. But eventually you’ll run out of paper.”
She frowned down at the box, and then looked defiantly back up at him. “Then I’ll buy more.”
“And don’t forget about the cost of postage,” he reminded her.
Her frown deepened. “It’d be easier if you just stayed.”
“Probably.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small slip of paper, folded in half. He handed it to her and explained as she opened it, “The top address is where we’ll be staying in Glasgow. We’ll be there for about a week after we leave here. After that, you’ll have to send them to the second address. That’s where we’ll be for a little while in New York.”
“And after that?”
“I don’t know yet.”
She stared down at the paper; it was too dark to read either address, but she was already sure they were both hideously ugly places.
He smiled slightly, rather mirthlessly. “So do you think you might survive the You Leaving Disease?”
She lifted her chin proudly. “Unlikely.”
“In that case,” Lizzie interrupted, startling them both, “We should get you back inside. It would be tragic if you got sicker from the night air.” She stood and extended her hand to her little sister. “Come on, don’t scowl. Don’t make me bring Tom up here to fetch you back.”
Still scowling, she took her sister’s hand and stood. Robert stood, too. She looked up at him and said mournfully, “Goodbye, Robert.”
The two of them went back to the window, Lizzie helping Tillie back inside. Robert was a little irritated with the abruptness of the parting, but he couldn’t have asked for a cleaner farewell. Besides, Lizzie was right; it was mid-October and he wouldn’t be able to forgive himself if the girls got sick in the cold night air. He turned and went back to his own window.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
Robert jumped, a foot slipping perilously close to the edge of the roof and a two-story drop to the ground. He turned and glared at Lizzie, standing just behind him. Annoyed, he said a little more harshly than he intended, “I’m going back to my room. So should you be.”
She folded her arms across her chest. “You’re right; she’s eight. She shouldn’t need a chaperone. But she also shouldn’t be courted by a twenty-three year old man who’s leaving the country in a matter of days.”
“I’m not courting her!”
“She seems to think you are! That’s the problem. And you’re doing nothing to convince her otherwise.” She sighed. “The letters thing was very sweet. But where exactly is it going to lead?”
He shrugged, admitting a little helplessly, “I don’t know. I just thought it’d make her feel better.”
“She’s stubborn. She’ll hang on to you as long as she can. This just gives her one more thing to cling to.”
He didn’t really have anything to say. She was right and he didn’t want to admit it. Instead, he just stood there at the edge of the roof, his hands resting on the window frame and his face turned away.
Lizzie sighed and turned. “You’re a cruel man, Robert Brodie. Enjoy America.”
Robert and James left early the next morning for Glasgow. Robert had been to Glasgow before with his father, but never to the docks themselves. James knew the way and led his younger brother through narrow streets and alleys until they emerged in the sea-scented breeze and there was the ship tall and proud at the docks. They bought their tickets and checked in to their lodgings near a shipyard. They crammed into an upstairs room with several other single men, at least a dozen in a room the size of the one he had shared with Will back home. Seven of them were going with the Brodie brothers to America; the others were headed to destinations as close as Dublin and as far as Hong Kong.
Two days after they arrived, Robert got his first letter from Tillie; he wrote back as promised, though with misgivings. Other than that, he thought about little other than his upcoming travels. One trip to Edinburgh was the farthest he had ever travelled from home and he found himself at least as nervous as he was excited. Their mother had sent them with clothes and blankets enough, so their money mostly went to food and lodging, which had already been carefully budgeted. James knew what was a good deal and what was a scam, and steadily led his little brother through the turmoil of a major life change. James’ calmness seemed jarringly incongruent with the nervousness Robert felt, and he silently wondered in the noisy room they slept in with strangers if he was really ready for this. The night before they left, they exchanged their British pounds for American dollars and Robert felt like a man lost in a foreign land already.
On October 24, 1906, he and his older brother boarded the S.S. Furnessia, and it would be a long time before Robert saw a familiar place.
Records: Matilda Brodie obituary; 1891 Scottish Census; SS Furnessia Ship Manifest 1906; Robert Brodie United States Passport Application; memory of William Pearson