In the early 1920s life in Glasgow was hard. Thousands of people decided to seek their fortunes in the United States, where there was money, the movies and boundless opportunities. Elizabeth was just 16, and travelled over to join her elder sister who had emigrated years before. She was the youngest of the large family, and was looking forward to stretching her wings. She sailed across the Atlantic and landed at Staten Island under the watchful eye of the Statue of Liberty. New York was dazzling – think Leo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby – but Elizabeth’s sister was in Detroit so she travelled north to join her.
From another part of Glasgow a boy was making the same trip. 19 year-old John didn’t have the right papers to go through the official immigration process at Staten Island, so he caught a boat to Canada and sneaked across the border into the States. He worked his way down to Philadelphia, where he made friends and set about earning a living.
Elizabeth took a job in a dress shop, where she quickly became one of the best sales girls. She was enjoying her new life, but she hadn’t met anyone special, and she missed her parents, so she saved her wages and after about five years in Detroit booked to go back to Glasgow for a holiday.
John – by then with legal papers – also wanted to visit home, so he too made the long trip back across the Atlantic to Glasgow.
At the end of her holiday, Elizabeth boarded the ship which would take her back to her new life. John was on the same ship, and at last their paths crossed. John caught sight of Elizabeth and was immediately smitten, but Elizabeth was travelling with a friend who had a new baby, and as she loved children, frequently helped out, pushing the little girl around the deck. John saw the baby, and realised that his dream girl was already taken, so, without even having a proper conversation with her, he made his way back to Philadelphia.
Elizabeth went back to Detroit, never knowing the effect she had had on him.
And that might have been it, but not long afterwards, John and some friends decided to do a spot of travelling, and Detroit was on their list. They arrived in the town and asked around for somewhere they could go to meet other people. This was the time of Prohibition, when alcohol was banned in the States, so it wasn’t as easy as going to the pub. Someone heard John’s accent and told him that there was Scottish dancing going on. The boys found their way there.
John stepped into the hall and stopped. The music took him back to Glasgow, to his family and friends, to his home. He realised that he had missed it. The room was hazy, full of cigarette smoke, and packed full of people with familiar accents, all of them welcoming to the visitors from out of town. They sat down, enjoying the atmosphere, and took in the crowds around them.
One young woman looked familiar. John peered through the smoke. Unsure, he asked one of the locals if he knew who she was.
“That’ll be young Elizabeth Cullen,” said the stranger. “Do you know her?”
“Not well,” replied John, thinking of the sea journey. “Tell me, is she married?”
“Och, no!” said the man, shaking his head. “Not Elizabeth. But there are plenty who would be keen!”
“Then that’s the girl I’m going to marry,” announced John, jumping up and making his way towards her. Elizabeth turned to see him, and a smile lit up her face…
And did they both live happily ever after?
Actually, pretty much, they did. They married, moved back to Glasgow, had children, moved to Wales, and there, their eldest daughter met and married a scientist. Their youngest son – Elizabeth and John’s grandson – is my husband, the father of my lovely children. If John and Elizabeth hadn’t met again at the Scottish dance in Detroit, my children wouldn’t be here. And that doesn’t bear thinking about.
Every family has stories like that – stories of luck, love and surprises. Each of us has parents and grandparents who met, maybe fell in love, or maybe had a different story. Ask them – get them to tell you the little details which would otherwise be lost. Our memories fail, so capture what you can when you can, and learn a little more about what your parents and grandparents were like when they were young. They may have been just like you!
(And by the way, don’t forget – you have just 24 hours to nominate your favourite author in the 2014 Queen of Teen competition!)