A Boy Jumps Overboard


Here is a tiny story of American immigration, set down here exactly (or as close to exact as I can get it while going against my own nature and resisting completely the instinctive urge to embellish and embroider it, re-tell it in my own way – as told to me in my childhood by my maternal grandmother).

“Your great-grandfather, my father, Paul Ajas, was French Basque, raised in the Pyrenees Mountains of France. He was sixteen years old and living at a Catholic boarding school not far from his family’s home. His mother had been sick, and the day came when he overheard someone from his village in the headmaster’s office, asking for him.”

‘And he knew that his mother was dead,’ said my grandmother,  ‘and he walked out of the classroom, and he walked down the mountain, and he walked right past his family’s home without stopping, and he walked to the sea, and he stowed away on a ship bound for America.’

And a few days into the voyage, he was discovered. The captain put him to work below decks, and as the ship approached New York Harbor, he was locked up, so that they could return him to France upon their return.’

But he managed to get free from the hold, and in the middle of the night he made his way up to the deck, and there he saw New York City before him. And he dove off the side of the ship, and he swam to the shore, and there he hauled himself into the city.’

And when dawn came he approached a man in the streets and asked him where might he find work. And he spoke no English – he spoke only French – and the man answered him in French.'”

And that is the story of how my grandmother, Reine Eugenie Honoree Ajas Kirsch, came to be born in America, in New York City, which to her eyes, and all her life long, was the only real city in the world.


  1. ben · November 16, 2008

    that’s an incredible story, alison. i’d like to hear your embellished version =)


  2. Sam Ridenour · November 22, 2008

    It’s quite fitting that you come from people who swim to shore and haul themselves up into a new life. I agree with ben above – I’d love to read the embellished version.


  3. alison · November 24, 2008

    i channeled my grandmother’s voice telling me that story, which happened literally hundreds of times since i had breakfast with her every summer morning, and tried my best to write it as i heard it. it was awfully hard though, not to embellish. you really need to see her in her housecoat, sitting at the formica table in the trailer kitchen, smoking her first lark of the day, me watching to see the ash grow perilously long and then saying, “flick,” so she’d ash it into the ashtray and not her coffee. and listening to her tell her stories of new york, and how she always wanted to go to paris, but didn’t have the chance, while i drank my hot chocolate and spread margarine from a little plastic tub extremely thickly on two pieces of toasted roman meal bread.


  4. Gabrielle McGhee · August 28, 2011

    It was a monastery, and he was studying to be a priest, which never would have worked …!


  5. francoise lewis · January 22, 2013

    Please write to me because I am making some research on men from my grand father village who came to america. I know where Paul AJAS was born in the Pyrenées mountains. I know that Reine had a sister named Germaine. That was the name of Paul AJAS mother


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