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Untitled Document

By Gail Skroback Hennessey

Jake Quinntree brought the yellow school bus to a gentle halt in front of Abigail Wentright’s home on Saddlewood Creek Lane . It was the second to the last stop of the school day. Abigail grabbed her purple backpack containing her history book,her gym clothes which badly needed cleaning, her notebooks, as well as her math book and got up from her seat. Giving a quick , “See you, tomorrow,” to Chelsea Bookings, Abigail walked down the aisle of the school bus.

“Bye, Mr. Q, “ Abigail said as he opened the bus door and she exited down the two stairs to the road. “ Enjoy your afternoon.”

“Don’t forget to bring me one of your mom’s delicious homemade snow ball cookies.” I overheard you telling Chelsea that your mom was making some for you today,” smiled the bus driver, Mr.Q, the title by which all the students called him. “I remember the first day of school in September you gave me a couple. Mighty fine cookies,” said the bus driver whose protruding belly jiggled as he nodded his head.

“I promise, I’ll bring you a couple of cookies tomorrow,” called back Abigail.

Abigail walked the circular paved driveway up to her home lugging her heavy backpack. Tall fo twelve years of age, her long dark hair pulled back in a pony tail, bobbed along as she walked toward her house. A contemporary red wood colored home, it had a large deck which overlooked a beautiful view of the valley, with trees in full October foliage. Abigail hurried up the front steps and went to the front door, already opened by her mom who had gotten home earlier in the afternoon. Melissa Anderson worked as a professor at the local university where she taught in the history department, Russian history being her area of concentration.

“I’m in the kitchen, Abby,” called out her mom. “Cookies are just about ready to remove from the oven. Perfect timing. Another five minutes and we can sit down and sample some.

Abigail walked into the kitchen, dropping her backpack onto the coral and gold floral couch and began to walk over to the kitchen area to greet her mom and sit down for the snack of cookies and hot tea. But, before she could make another step, her mother called out, ”How many times have I asked you,Abby, to not put your backpack onto the couch in the family room. Either take it up to your room or leave in on the tiles near the kitchen. That couch is only a year old and I’d like to see it stay new looking for a bit longer.”

“Sorry, mom, “ said Abigail sheepishly as she lifted the backpack containing all her school things off the couch and placing it onto the terra-cotta colored tiles.

“So, how was your day? Do anything interesting at school? Have much homework tonight?” inquired Melissa as she lifted a tray of snowball cookies(also called Russian Tea Cookies) from the oven with her sunflower oven mitt.

“Only some math and a history assignment. School was OK. In science we did an interesting activity. Mr. Franklin gave us owl pellets and we had to open them up to see what was inside. Pretty disgusting. I found the skull of a tiny mouse! Brittany found two skeletal legs of a mouse,” related Abigail as she poured herself a cup of tea from the teapot sitting on the trivet. She waited impatiently for the cookies to be ready for eating. ”In history, Ms. Louisa wants us to learn about our family origins. She also is asking that each of us try and bring in some sort of visual of our family heritage. “ Abigail told her mom that her best friend, Brittany Revere, said that her family could trace their family history back to the Revolutionary War and that Paul Revere was a distant relative. Brittany had said that they actually had some silverware that had been made by Revere and she hoped her mother would bring it to school to show their 8th grade class. “Shawn Powerhouse said his family still has a spinning wheel that was his great-great-grandmother’s and Hannah Boucher told her that her family has a sword that was used in the Crusades. And, Pete Holt says he has a Bible that’s been in his family since 1656 with a list of all his relatives, “ sighed Abigail. “ Do we have anything from our family history, Mom, which I can bring to class next week for “Ancestor’s Day’? asked Abigail as she stuffed a snowball cookie into her mouth, confectionary sugar sprinkling onto her upper lip.

“Well, we don’t have any famous people in either your dad’s or my family’s history. Nor, do we have anything like your friends, Brittany,Shawn,Pete or Hannah. “But, said Abigail’s mom,” we do have something .” Melissa Anderson hurried from the kitchen and went into the dining room. There was a sound of the dining room hutch door opening and closing as Abigail’s mother retrieved something from the shelf and brought it back to the kitchen and set it down onto the kitchen table in front of Abigail.

“ An old small wooden box? This is something from our family heritage?” asked Abigail in an obvious disappointed tone of voice. How she wished she could bring something into class which she could show proudly instead of a stupid old wooden box.

Noticing the obvious look of disappointment, Melissa said, “This old small wooden box has an interesting story behind it. It belonged to my mom’s mother. What’s more, if you want to know about some of your family’s history, you’re eating it! This old wooden box once contained a batch of snowball cookies which your great grandmother Maruina Porcina ,carried with her as she made her way from a tiny village outside of Kiev , Ukraine , to the United States back in 1912.

“Cookies? This recipe for cookies comes from Ukraine ? And, she carried some of the cookies in this old wooden box?” repeated Abigail with a spark of interest as she reached for her second cookie.

“Yes,” said Abigail’s mother as she went over to the white laptop computer sitting on the kitchen counter. Let me retrieve a photograph to share with you,Abby, and I’ll tell you some of your family’s history. I think it’s wonderful that Ms. Louise has assigned this project. Knowing about your own family history is important and if it isn’t passed down from generation to generation, it will be lost and forgotten for those of future generations.

Melissa Anderson brought up an old brownish and white photograph of a pretty young woman sitting with twelve other people, two of whom looked to be her parents. She carried the laptop over to the table where Abigail was sitting. The people didn’t look very happy, as none had a smile on their faces. “This is a photograph of your great grandmother, Maruina. It was taken when she was eighteen. It was just before she left for a journey that would take her first to Hamburg, Germany, and then by ship across the Atlantic to America and Ellis Island, the first stop for immigrants coming here during that period of time. She’s the young woman standing in the back row.”

“No wonder no one is smiling in the photograph. Everyone knew that that would most likely be the last time they’d ever see Maruina again,” said Abigail sadly. “Why did she wish to leave her home and come here?”

“ Life was very difficult for those living in a small village of Rohatyn , several hours from the city of Kiev . Most people worked the land for landowners as they did for hundreds of years. The work in the crop fields was long and hard.The work in the crop fields was long and hard. Maruina was eighteen. Her step mother was very mean to her and wouldn't let her go to school because she had to care for her younger step-siblings. She slept on a mattress filled with straw and had little to eat. Additionally, her favorite brother was shot and killed by the landowner having been accused of being a thief. His crime, stealing some twigs on the ground to bring back to heat his hut! She decided she wanted to have a better life. Her older sister, Tatiana, had left a couple of years before for the United States . Tatiana sent Maruina the money to make the journey to America , ten dollars, a lot of money for someone like Maruina. She didn’t want to leave her village but wanted to make a better life for herself,” explained Abigail’s mom. “Back then, a person wishing to come to the United States , had to have a person who would sponsor them,help get them started here in the states. Tatiana promised to do so for Maruina.”

“So she left for America by herself?”, asked Abigail interestedly.

“ Yes, she was very brave to make the trip. It was a long train ride across many lands to get to Hamburg , Germany , where her ship would take her to the United States . The rail car ,carrying people with little money, had small windows which the passengers took turns looking through as they passed many small villages, mountains, and rushing rivers.”

Abigail thought about making a trip like Maria did when she was only a few years older than Abigail was. Thinking about what she’d pack to take

with her, she asked her mom what Maruina took for her trip to America . “ Well, she couldn’t take very much, nor did she have very much,“ began her mom. “ She brought along another dress, underclothes and socks, a cross, one of her mother’s bowls, a bracelet her siblings, Slawka and Wasyl, had made for her, and a locket. Inside the locket, was a lock of her mother and fathers’ hair. All these possessions were carefully tied inside a sheet. She also carried along a wicker basket containing food her mother had prepared for her trip, including some pierogis, hulupkis , dried Kabasi and this wooden box, her father had made for her, which containing a batch of these cookies.”

Abigail reached for another, her third cookie and asked her mom to continue telling her about Maruina’s trip to America .

“ First, no more cookies, or you won’t have any appetite for dinner tonight, Abigail, “ announced her mom who got up, collected the platter of cookies, and put them on the counter. “Because so many people wanted to come to America , the shipping companies had lowered the transatlantic voyage from $20 to $10, the amount which Tatiana had sent to her. She also had another five dollars which she had hidden in her stockings for safe keeping. Maruina was very offended by the delousing procedure, checking for bugs and disease, which all passengers in steerage class had to go through. She felt that the ship workers were insulting her personal cleanliness.” recalled Abigail’s mom.

“I think I remember reading in our history book that passengers who reached Ellis Island that were sick were sent back at the ship’s expense, so that’s probably why they checked the passengers before boarding,” Abigail added to the discussion.

Melissa made a few clicks on her laptop and brought up another photograph to share with her daughter, pleased that Abby was interested in hearing the story about her great grandmother’s coming to America .

Picture from:

“ This is a photograph of the S.S. Amerika, owned by the Hamburg-Amerika Line. The ship could take 420 first class, 254 second class, 223 third class and 1765 steerage passengers. It was a very modern ship for its time having a Marconi Wireless system, automatic fire extinguishing system and was the first ocean liner to have a passenger elevator! It was the ship which Maruina took America back in April of 1912. Notice the women sitting on the deck chairs reading a book? Life wasn’t so pleasant for Maruina and those in what was called steerage class. This was the cheapest and poorest accommodations on the ship. I understand the name comes from the fact that the control strings of the rudder ran through this level of the ship. Hundreds of passengers were crowded in the hold of the ship with about 15 other women and children sleeping in a tiny room on bunk beds, all speaking different and strange languages to Maruina. She wrote in a journal, which that she was sick for days on a voyage that took more than two weeks, not only from the motion of the ship but from the unbearable stench of the room with no windows and ventilation. “ Melissa told Abigail. “ And, unlike the upper classes where dinner was served on beautifully etched china with scrumptious foods, Maruina’s dinner was doled out of huge kettles, with the passengers pushing and shoving to gather their meals.”

Abigail was listening with great interest to her mother’s telling of a family history which she had never taken an interest in learning about until now, thanks to her history teacher, Ms. Louise. “ What about icebergs? Did Maruina tell of seeing any on her voyage to America ?”

“ Interestingly, the SS. Amerika did see two large icebergs in the North Atlantic on their passage. In fact, the ship sent a wireless to the Titanic reporting their location several hours before the Titanic stuck an iceberg and sank in the same location.”

“ So, when great grandmother Maruina got to America , she had to pass through Ellis Island . Did she write anything in her journal about her experience there?” asked Abigail.

Melissa nodded her head and said,” She said the room was bigger than anything she’d ever seen in her entire life. It looked like a ballroom for kings and queens.


A loudspeaker called the people to assembled in the language of their homeland. She wrote that a man was placing strange letters on the backs of people. Some people were crying because if they had a circle with a cross on their back, it meant they weren’t able to stay in America. She worried about whether she’d pass this test. When it was her turn, the letter F was written for a facial skin rash she’d gotten on the ship. She was given some lotion to clear it up.”

Abigail wondered about being in a strange land with a language you didn’t understand and how hard it must have been for Maruina. “Mom, I wonder, did she write in her journal the first words she learned in English?”

“ She sure did, Abigail. She wrote that she waited for hours in the main building at Ellis Island before getting permission to leave. She had memorized the words on the door where those allowed to leave would pass. The words said, “Push for New York .

Abigail looked at the old wooden box with new appreciation for its history. “I can’t wait to tell my class and Ms. Louise about my family history. Can I take the wooden cookie box to class? I think I’d like to make a batch of the snowball cookies to pass out to my classmates, too.”

“Of course, you can bring the wooden box to class, but be mindful, it’s a treasure, isn’t it?” reminded Abby’s mom. Abby nodded her head with new appreciation for the old wooden box which had be housed in the dining room hutch for as long as she could remember.

The next morning, Abigail waited for the school bus to come to a complete stop and for Jack Quinntree to open the school bus door. She walked up the steps, stopping to greet the bus driver. *Morning, Mr. Q. I didn’t forget those cookies. By the way, these cookies are very old, almost hundred years!” giggled Abigail with pride as she handed the bus driver a plastic bag with three confectionary covered cookies. When Mr.Q gave her a puzzled look, Abigail added, “ You’re eating something from my family history,” said Abigail proudly and walked down the aisle to her seat.


From the author:

Once the people in your family are gone, it is very hard to retrieve the stories about your family past. Make it a point to sit and chat with your aunts, uncles, grandparents,mom and dad. Ask them things about their childhood. Did they play sports? In which city did they grow up. Do they have any interesting memories about their childhood? Ask them the names of their parents and siblings and where they came from. All these stories are what make you who your are today. I remember my dad telling me how during World War 2, as a pilot, he escorted bomber planes on missions from Great Britain to Germany. He told me that he was so excited when the war was declared to be over, that he landed his plane at the base in Great Britain without the wheels, wrecking his plane. Fortunately, he got out of the plane unhurt but was in trouble with his superior officer. Realizing my dad was just excited about the victory over the Axis countries, the officer didn't call for any disciplinary actions against my dad's actions. My mom told me how as a girl she didn’t like to invite her friends back to her home. Her parents didn’t speak very much English and she was embarrassed that they spoke French in the home. Such stories would have been lost had I not taken the time to talk with my family members! Gather this information so you can continue passing the information along to the next generation of family members. Basically, all you need is a pen, paper, perhaps a tape player and the interest to sit and talk with your family. I hope this story may have sparked that interest in you!


Recipe for Snowball cookies(or Russian Tea Cookies)


* From:

1 cup butter or margarine

1/2 cup sifted confectioners sugar

1 tsp vanilla

2 1/4 cups Gold Medal flour

1/4 tsp salt

3/4 cup finely chopped nuts



Mix butter, sugar, and vanilla thoroughly. Measure flour by dipping method or by sifting. Stir flour and salt together, blend in. Stir in nuts. Chill dough.


Heat oven to 400 degrees. Roll dough in 1" balls. Place on ungreased cookie sheet. (Cookies do not spread) Bake 10 to 12 minutes, or until set but not brown. While still warm roll in confectioners sugar. Cool. Roll in sugar again.


I'd love to hear what you think of the story. Email me at:

Mail Gail:
Gail Hennessey