As Drew and I entered the Titanic Artifact Exhibition at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, we were each given a boarding pass.
Mine was ticket #17758, belonging to Mrs.Victor Penasco y Castellana (Maria Josefa Perez de Soto y Vallejo), of Madrid. She and her husband had boarded Titanic at Cherbourg on April 10, 1912, two days before the ship hit an iceberg and sank. Other particulars were listed on the reverse side.
I would not learn of Maria's fate until the last room of the exhibit, where all passengers were accounted for. Maria and Victor were guests in First Class cabin C-65. Knowing that women, children and first class passengers had the greatest chance of securing lifeboat seats, I predicted that Maria had survived. But perhaps not. She could have refused to leave her husband; they both could have believed the boastings of an "unsinkable" ship and ignored the crew's instructions, or...
I carried Maria's card around with me as I looked at artifacts salvaged from the wreck. A comb, shoe, diamond bracelet, razor, perfume bottle. What had been her story that night? What possession of hers still lay on the ocean floor?
According to the boarding pass, Maria (age 17) and Victor's Reason for traveling to New York was "an adventurous two-year honeymoon. While staying in Paris, they decided to extend the magic with a transatlantic voyage on Titanic." Victor was described as extremely wealthy.
The Passenger Fact at the bottom of the card intrigued me: "Maria's mother-in-law had warned the couple against taking a trip by sea, saying it was bad luck for a honeymoon. To fool the families, Maria and Victor left their butler in Paris, instructing him to mail several pre-written post cards to Spain while they traveled to New York and back." A ruse that backfired, badly.
The large white placards loomed on the wall beside the exit sign, row after row of names - 2208 of them; 1503 lost, 705 survived. I scanned the First Class Survivors' list. I did not find Maria. My eyes dropped down to those Lost. Sadly, Victor was there; but not his wife. Once again, more slowly, I searched among the Survivors, and there.... there she was. She and her maid, Fermina had lived!
The boarding pass lay on my writing desk for a week. I'd look at it and wonder, "What happened to Maria? A very young widow, her husband tragically and suddenly gone. After Titanic, then what?" Today, I googled her and to my amazement found --
--Titanic, Woman and Children First by Judith Gellar
She died in 1972 at the age of 83.
A woman I know only through the random selection of a card with her name on it.
A woman whose story I'm privileged to know, even briefly.... and to share.
** The Titanic Artifact exhibit closes on May 30, 2016.