My 9 year-old Grandma on the Titanic,
a short story


My Grandma on the 
Titanic

When it comes to inspirational quotes and sayings, my Grandmother had some favorite quotes that you’ll find throughout this page. And she was on the Titanic! Yep, my mom’s mom was on the Titanic. She was on the actual ship, not the movie that released in 1997 featuring Leonardo DiCaprio. Even so, I couldn’t resist sharing a few of my favorite love quotes along side this piece.

On some occasions when I mention that my Grandma was on the Titanic I’m asked: “Did she survive?”.  Now let's remember that the Titanic sank in 1912 and I’m not THAT old!  

Helga's story was highlighted in an article first published in Thunder Bay’s Chronicle Journal back the 1970’s.  She was famous for a few minutes. 

Grandma Helga was 9 years old at the time of her great adventure. After the mighty ship collided with that famous iceberg and began to sink, someone put a life jacket on her and literally threw her into a life boat.  She was one of the lucky ones.  

Helga was traveling alone in steerage and making her way from Finland to Canada. The majority of the 700-plus steerage passengers on the Titanic were emigrants. Only 25 percent of the Titanic’s third-class passengers survived, and of that 25 percent, only a fraction were men. By contrast, about 97 percent of first-class women survived the sinking of the Titanic.

The term steerage originally referred to the part of the ship below-decks where the steering apparatus was located. However, over time, the term came to refer to the part of a passenger ship below-decks where third-class passengers were housed.

The Titanic provided the General Room, where steerage passengers could sit, read, play cards, and otherwise pass the time. Steerage passengers weren’t allowed into the areas of the ship boasting other entertainment, like the gymnasium or the pool, but they could have their own parties and dances.  The party scene in James Cameron’s 1997 movie Titanic offers a perfect example of the spontaneous gatherings in third class, complete with fiddle players and plenty of beer.

When asked, Helga would tell us the amazing story.  There was party music and the band kept playing even amidst the chaos. People were still dancing when she got to the upper levels of the ship. She said the Captain was drunk, but to a 9-year-old perhaps any officer in uniform could be mistaken for the Captain.

"He was bloody and crying when he slipped into the dark waters."

She told us that the men in her life boat used wooden oars to prevent those in the water from climbing into their already-too-full boat.  She particularly remembered one elderly bald man trying to climb up but couldn’t because they were striking him on the head.  He was bloody and crying when he slipped into the dark waters.

Helga lived to the ripe old age of 75 and for her entire life harbored a deep fear of the water.  Who could blame her? She once traveled six hours by car to my parent's summer home which happened to be on an island.  We would cross by boat or raft to get to the island.  Well, Helga took one look at the crossing and promptly did a one-eighty back to the car.  The crossing took only about 10 minutes and the lake was very calm, but there was no way she was getting on the water. 

Imagine living with such gripping fear.  She had faced the ice-cold North Atlantic waters in the dark of the night and won.  It was dark. There were screams.  People were drowning.  There were gunshots.  It was loud and chaotic. She survived what can only be described as a nightmare.  She survived, yet would not risk a repeat experience later in life. Fear, when left unchecked, has a way of taking over our logic to paralyze us.   

We all have childhood memories that just seem to stick. Perhaps our mental movie gets triggered by a certain song, color or odor. We have almost perfect recall, or at least we think we do, even decades later. If we actually had perfect recall, and most of us don’t, that would be one thing. But how much of our story is just that, a story?

And if it is just a story, can we change it? Let me know your thoughts and comments!



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