Well, THIS sucks …

A post from the archives.

We didn’t win the lottery AGAIN, which is crushing because PLANS — I was on a quest to revolutionize my wardrobe by way of that venerated institution, the Sundance catalog. Please don’t sue me, Robert Redford, for naming names — I obviously can’t afford that since we STILL DIDN’T WIN THE LOTTERY.

It’s all so disappointing because my first new outfit as a gazillionaire was going to be killer, starting with the jeans, which are $108 and still have PIECES OF ACTUAL DENIM clinging to each other! There’s a sweet top, a twee rumpled creation weighing less than an ounce and going for a very reasonable $198. There’s a distressed-leather peacoat that looks fab with the little top — it’s only $548. The shortie boots in the same shade as the jacket, complete with fringe and studs, are a must — they retail for $575. To nail the look I’ll need the slouch bag for $368 and a cool nubbly belt at $120. Then we get to the fun stuff — the jewelry. Three necklaces, layered, at $1190, $3400, and $1300 respectively; eight stacked wrist cuffs totaling $4800; seven rings for $1603; and the earrings, $285. And a perfectly darling may-or-may-not-keep-time watch for chump change of $98. The surgery to add 10″ to my height is probably going to run into actual money.

So for just the debut ensemble, not counting height-enhancement because who knows, I’m looking at approximately $15,000 with shipping. And realistically I couldn’t wear the outfit every day because it isn’t wedding and funeral appropriate, so it’s imperative that I buy out the catalog in its entirety, including the furniture. My dreams are all-encompassing.

Way to ruin my life, Powerball — Bob and I were going to be besties.

Plan B: Snag this $98 vintage bandanna scarf and accessorize my overalls.

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Once in a while time stands still …

For all my new friends here, delving into the archives a bit … this one from May 2014.

There are times when I love people beyond words. A tiny girl in our neighborhood is learning to walk. Every day now we see her with her dad or mom, pushing a little Fisher-Price cart, slowly making her way down the sidewalk. This morning I was on the balcony dead-heading flowers and here she came with her mama. They waited until the coast was clear, then headed across the street in our direction. About the time they reached the mid-point, a police car approached from the east and stopped well short of the intersection … and waited … and waited … and then when Little Miss had safely reached the curb the car rolled ever so slowly up the street. Nobody hurried her, not a hint of impatience was displayed down there on that ordinarily busy street. Something very important was taking place and everything else could wait. You rock, Lawrence, Kansas, yes you do.

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Fixing myself on my own …

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No part of my world seems to be coming undone today, but in past days, weeks, months when it has been, writing it down has saved me.  If I can tell myself what happened, life loses its power to put me under.  When you’re broken, it’s good to know where the glue is.   

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Hello, goodbye …

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Getting Schooled

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Once upon a time there was a little red schoolhouse that was in fact a biggish red-brick edifice.  Until it was built sometime before 1920, at considerable cost for the times, the children of the local farming community attended classes in a drafty wood-frame building that kept the mothers stewing over its shortcomings.  Farming was booming, there was a homestead on nearly every quarter-section of land, and families were still moving into the area.  A bigger, safer, warmer, more forward-looking school was needed, and my grandmother, a teacher — although not in this building, which was three-quarters of a mile from our farm — was one of the motivating forces behind the cause.

The funds were raised and the school built.  Double-walled, with both facing and interior brick; a kitchen; wood flooring; full cement basement with a stage.  My siblings and I, in one of its later iterations, roller-skated in the basement, daring each other to take artistic leaps from the stage to the smooth cement floor three feet below.  My brain still knows whether or not anyone did, but the database is unfortunately down at present.  

My dad went from first through eighth grades here before attending high school in the small town six miles southwest.  My grandma took him, via horse and buggy, to his first day of first grade, and turned around a couple of hours later to find him standing in her kitchen.  The teacher had let the kids out for recess and my dad, having all he wanted of this “school stuff,” simply made a break for home.  He was bitterly disappointed to learn that attendance wasn’t optional, and despite being a thoroughly intelligent guy, formal education never became a favorite.

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As Murphy’s Law #11 states, “You get the most of what you need the least.”  So about the time the beautiful schoolhouse was nearing completion, the farming boom was starting to go bust.  The air was turning to dust, Wall Street was headed for instability, to put it lightly, and families stopped streaming into the neighborhood while others gave up the struggle and packed it in.  By the time the little six-year-old up there finished eighth grade in 1935, the student population had thinned considerably, finally making it impractical to keep the doors open, at which point the building became a community center, a polling place, the location for township meetings, and an ongoing setting for the Grange’s poetry readings, plays, and other literary endeavors, which sounds so quaint and genteel I can hardly stand it.  

In my lifetime it was the site of community Thanksgivings … mostly in the late 1950s, which were nearly as devastating as the Dirty ’30s and left people feeling tapped out at holiday time so they pooled their resources.  We also held big carry-in dinners for extended family, where all the old men brought fiddles and harmonicas and assorted other instruments for Frontier Karaoke while my grandma “chorded along” on the old upright piano.  

I haven’t seen that corner for a while so I don’t know what if anything is still standing.  Those few acres became part of the family farm, and my dad told the friends and neighbors who inquired that they could have what they needed.  He and my brother had started taking the building apart and cleaning all the brick, a project that came to an end following my brother’s unfortunate death,  and after that I’m pretty sure my dad didn’t care who did what with any of it.  He did, with tears in his eyes, bring me a load of brick my brother had cleaned so that I could have a cozy hearth built in my newly-remodeled farmhouse … meaning we still don’t know the end of the story.  An entirely different family, in another county, will keep it going forward. 

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It’s clear that bricks know the secret to longevity.  

 

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I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date!!!

 

 

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First post on my Facebook feed this morning was a Happy Anniversary wish from our son John.  It’s our 11th … and both of us spaced it off completely, a first in that number of years.  We are, joyfully and officially, The Old Married Couple.  We’ve been cutting Hallmark short since about year five, our favorite flowers ever were the ones at our wedding, and neither of us needs chocolates, so nothing lost — it rained a bit ago and cooled off the oven that’s been raging outside our door, so we’ll probably walk the half-block to Cielito’s, our home away from home, and celebrate on their big patio with the best margaritas in town. 

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Eleven years ago today, we got married after the close of the morning church service, and then our pastor and friends served lunch to about 300 people.  Simple, beautiful, memorable, sweet, and fun.

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Happy.  So happy.

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Our glamour photo shoot — a gift from Kim for my birthday not long after our wedding.

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Yeah.  This guy.

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The newlyweds today.  A lot of changes can happen in eleven years’ time, but the basics stay the same, and that’s so cool.

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The Birth of a Dynasty

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It began with a fifteen-year-old, working at the local Mercantile, and a young soldier home from the WWI battle front.

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ReeseFamFrameIt steadily grew to nine children and a grandchild … and my grandmother was just 36 years old when she reached that status.

My mom is at the far right.

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The siblings in reverse order of birth, starting in the lower left-hand corner:  Roger, Barbara, Jerry, Ron.  Back row:  Sterling, Victor, Virginia (my mother), Bette, Bob, and their mama, Jennie Marie.

With Grandpa now gone, my grandmother got to see all of her children together in one place for the last time.  Several would precede her in dying, which should never happen.  But no dynasty knows when the end begins, so they go right on …

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A fraction of the progeny brought forth upon the earth by the Reese Siblings.  We’re as fun, entertaining, intelligent, smart-mouthed, certifiable, damaged, and independent as any group you want to assemble.  Seriously … don’t mess with us, especially in light of the fact that I didn’t even try to list all of our stellar qualities.  Except for the old codger front row third from right, I’m the eldest of all the cousins, middle of the middle row.  And I’m clinging to that status for as long as possible while we watch the never-ending arrival of new babies.  Every once in a while, you start something you can’t finish …  

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The Tale of the Topless Dancer, the Baby Clown, and the Cross-Country Heist …

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In the end, it was the rain that did it.  Her breath stopped short that morning as a thread unraveled somewhere in her chest and let go while water kept falling everywhere-all-the-time non-stop, and she instinctively knew one more day of it would finish her.  That and the asshole she lived with.  Him more than the rain, because when things were new and exciting between them the rain had felt nurturing and cocoon-ish and hadn’t sent her mood into the toilet.  Zoe had to face it, The Asshole was the cause of her angst and just like that she couldn’t wait one more second to get far, far away from him.

Bits and pieces of past escape plans, the ones every smart cookie stores for eventualities, rattled around in her head.  When the guy shopping for groceries who persuaded you into his bed on sight … or had it been the other way around … lets you know, none too subtly, that you’re replaceable … a girl has to start reviewing her options.  There weren’t many, she didn’t even have a car, but she was pretty sure she could recruit Teresa and Bobby Lee, whose jobs took place after dark, to help her with the scheme she was beginning to cook.

Turned out things were currently loose-goosey for her day-tripper friends — they’d been hanging around for the next romp and picking up a U-Haul day-rental sounded like a nice little diversion.  So while The A-hole was away doing a job, she and Teresa and Bobby Lee — who was strung out enough to let the girls do most of the work, not that he was particularly chivalrous under primo conditions — loaded all her stuff — not a huge quantity — into the truck.  Zoe was possessed by a sense of urgency — go, go, get it done, get out of here — but it wasn’t easy keeping her friends on task, her brain was zinging like a sparkler, Teresa was wearing her usual 6-inch heels, and although Zoe had to admit her friend was as skilled at navigating her spikes on the ground as she was on the pole, all she wanted was to keep moving and be gone before HE got home, leaving no trace of herself behind.  In the kitchen she made a snap decision not to leave him so much as a fucking knife and fork.  She was done.  Finished.  Tired of being played, tired of living at the frayed edge of the law, tired of people she didn’t know showing up at her house at all hours, sometimes sleeping there, drinking her beer like it was water, stinking up her bathroom, leaving everything for her to clean up.  And the guns — she was weary of all the firearms.  The Big A, so recently thought of as The Desired Beloved, kept a .357 Magnum in the bedroom, handy but out of sight, and that had been preying on her thoughts more and more, not because she particularly feared finding herself on the business end of it, but because — HOLY GOD — she had a small son who was nothing if not curious.  Her SON!!  Her almost-four-year-old Jacob was at the circus with his second mom, her closest friend, and she had to figure out a way to pick him up on her way out of town!

The rain took a smoke-break, they wrapped up the load-out, and she got ready to say her goodbyes, but Bobby Lee had a different plan.  By now, the three of them had tacitly acknowledged that this was no day trip, and Bobby Lee, the proverbial good-hearted gangstah, one who would find himself cooling it in prison not long after, was reluctant to let her set out cross-country without a companion.  So when Zoe pulled out of the driveway, sitting in the passenger seat was Teresa, decked out in her CFM spikes, little ankle socks, and one of the off-beat — some might say bizarre — outfits she loved so much.  The three extra thongs she carried in her battered model’s bag would have to suffice for the duration.  And of course other stilettos and their adorable sock friends — a girl goes nowhere without choices.  The tops and little shorts and scarves and vests she favored for covering her lusciously-acceptable assets took up barely any room, and what self-respecting entertainer leaves home without her makeup?  Trip.ON!!

The day was getting away.  What if he came home, saw what she’d done, and started tracking her down? The girls beat a path to the circus, located Jacob laughing with his friends Izzy and Marc, and whisked him away as circumspectly as they could considering that he was having the time of his life.  Second Mom had taken the boys down on the floor to do face-painting and not only was little Jacob in clown-face, he’d won Best Clown Award for the amazing visage he’d given himself!  Irony of ironies it ended up as a full-page photo in the local paper, but not until after the little entourage was halfway across the country.

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It must have been a harrowingly hilarious trip from the coast to the heartland … the falling-apart former country girl, the miniature clown who declined to have his face washed in any service station restroom, and the drop-dead-hot topless dancer.  God only knows what Teresa thought up to keep Jacob entertained along the way, but she’d never been accused of lacking creativity.

They managed to get across the state border before the truck started breaking down and losing A/C.  Having no other choice, they pulled into the first U-Haul place they saw, where not only did the fine employees put them into a brand new truck, they transferred the load for them.  Meanwhile, Teresa nabbed the paperwork from the office and had a private moment with it in the ladies’ room, changing enough numbers to keep law enforcement off their tails.

Back on the road.  Drive, nap, snack, drive, nap, snack, straight through to the middle of the continent.  Zoe wished Teresa would get behind the wheel part of the time, but she trusted herself more so she kept her mouth shut.  Mile after mile over the next two days, through dark and light, her mind was occupied with the immediate past, the slightly-deranged present, and the murky future.  “How, really — time to be honest here — did you end up as a 21-year-old single mom living with a big-time coke dealer who finances his operation by stealing and chopping cars?  I mean, really.” Despite being more adventurous than most, she’d always seen herself as a good girl.  And despite rough patches with drugs and binge-drinking and heartbreak, resulting in some ill-timed decisions and close-call extrications, she still knew that’s what she was.  She just needed to get away from a bad situation and clear her head and she’d be fine.  She had to get clean, too, a process that was already underway since she and Teresa had fled with only so much.  Zoe knew she’d be crashing about the time they reached their destination.  This wasn’t going to be pretty … but when what you need is time and a fortress, you go home.

She didn’t call anybody, her reasoning emotion-driven … what if her mom or dad sounded dismayed at the news that she was on her way to the farm?  What if all they needed was that much warning to head to the mountains or somewhere?  What if they said, We can’t do this, you’re going to have to find a place of your own.  She knew, as worn down as she was, that anything less than love and acceptance at this point would break her, so she kept her foot jammed in the gas pedal and her eyes on the road.

Halfway through the third day out she turned in at the farm, her little clown asleep in a crumpled pile on the seat, his face paint smeary and faded, and the dancer scrunched up against the door, looking shaky and shop-worn.  And surprise, surprise, no mom and dad.  Genuinely stunned that her instincts were right for once, and so exhausted her knees would barely keep her upright, Zoe decided to pull a Scarlet and think about it tomorrow.

Sure enough, show up on the morrow they did, visibly displeased to see a U-Haul truck in the yard and the shock of their daughter and grandson in the flesh, big as life and twice as natural, standing in front of them.  Oh WELL, Zoe thought, so much for acceptance and a fortress … time will have to do it.  Wonder how much slack they’ll cut me on that?

As it turned out, slack-cutting was in Zoe’s favor, but Teresa had to go.  One look at her exotic, tall, blonde, stacked loveliness, her legs that went all the way to her ass, starting with the six-inch stilettos and those baby-doll socks that promised everything, and Zoe’s mom decreed that Teresa would be on the next flight out.  She was.  Zoe’s parents drove her to the airport the next morning, however much her dad may have inwardly wished for a week or so to get acquainted.  Nope, back to the coast, end of story, thanks and all that.

At home again, Zoe and her dad off-loaded the truck into an outbuilding, and a couple of evenings later around the table, he said “Shouldn’t we be getting that truck turned in?”

“Um, no, Dad, it isn’t going back — that’s the rest of the story.”

So she filled it with gas from the farm tank, and with her mom and dad following she drove, drove, drove, drove, far out into the countryside, parked it where it would be discovered, and in the pitch dark carefully wiped it down, leaving it unlocked and keys in the ignition.  The whole time she was industriously removing DNA from the truck, her dad fretted and urged her to hurry.  He kept saying “I just know we’re gonna get caught.”

Her mom finally told him “Hush.  You’ve seen entirely too much TV.”  That and her enthusiasm over the shenanigans almost moved Zoe to forgiveness for her mom’s initial coolness.  But no, not ready yet, and she had too many overwhelming things to figure out before she’d know who she was again … so she crawled into her parents’ back seat, nodded off on the way home, and lay on their couch in a fetal position while time took a vacation.

One morning she woke up to sunshine, and her old self-mocking mantra popped into her head, “Good girls go to heaven.  Bad girls go everywhere.”  Well, hell then, she thought … let’s go.

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{Not really fiction — you can’t make this shit up!}

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Honeymoon Time

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My mom and dad went to Mexico for their honeymoon, and on their way back to Kansas they stopped in Albuquerque to see family for a few days.  The little boy in front is my third-cousin Gary, who was born with something amiss but was forever the sweetest guy in the world.  The young woman on the right side of the photo was either a friend of my mom’s or a relative — all I know about her is that she and my mom were besties, otherwise why the Twinkie outfits?  1946 and my mom was only 18 years old.  She and my dad had been married 49 years when she died of a sudden heart attack at 67.  It would be easy to think of life as an unfair process, but it’s just life — not wise to take it too personally. 

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Still savoring stories …

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Remember this photo from the other day?  My Great-aunt Nora, my grandmother, and my Great-aunt Ruth in the middle dressed in white.  Christmas 1917.

Now we have this — taken same day, same location, when Ruth’s daughter Myrl was around two years old and my Uncle Ed maybe seven or eight and already missing his right eye.  Until my dad came along several years later, they would be the only children of their family generation.  There were eleven years between the two brothers, so they didn’t become friends until they were adults.

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Ruth’s life took twists and turns from early on, and at no time did she adopt the quiet lifestyle of her two sisters.  She instead embraced the 1920s, transitioning quickly from the chaste white dress to flapper gear more suited to The Party, wherever it happened to be.  RuthA happy Ruth …

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My grandma, who lived past 95, told me endless stories about life in the late 1800s and on, but I don’t remember her going into detail about why Myrl was raised by her Aunt Nora instead of her mother.  There are bits and pieces we could combine in formulating answers, but as in all things there are nuances to be taken into account.  Fortunately I have an inside track and a fact or two at my disposal.  1) As far as I could discern, not having really known them until they were what I thought of as old, my grandma and Great-aunt Nora, having been raised in challenging circumstances brought about primarily by their alcoholic father, were straight-laced to the max.  2) I heard mention of drinking when Grandma did talk about Aunt Ruth’s life, which would probably have required the equivalent of endless come-to-Jesus talks, but their objections to her lifestyle tell us nothing about Ruth’s feelings or her capacity for maternalism.  My guess is that Grandma and Aunt Nora offered to keep Myrl at every opportunity and gradually made that a permanent arrangement, Nora thus getting the child she never had despite two marriages (more stories, kids), and Ruth getting what she, maybe, wanted in the first place, which was simply the freedom to be.  That’s the trouble with photographs … they can tell us only so much.  Ruth was the baby, spoiled and indulged by her older sisters, and she came along just as social mores were evolving ahead of the more devil-may-care attitudes of the Roaring 20s.  The comparative drudgery and boredom of her growing-up years no doubt quickly lost out and fell away in the face of NEW, FUN, HAPPY, EXCITING!  By the time I was conscious that I had a Great-aunt Ruth, she was older, ill, married to the last of a series of hard-drinking men, although Uncle Erv did treat her like she was made of glass.  Her laugh, which she never lost, sounded like that same glass breaking, and I instinctively loved her.  Life ended up costing her dearly … but that’s a story for another day.  

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Mesa, Arizona, in the late 1990s.  Me holding Merle’s dog Su-Ming, my dad, and feisty Merle, who at some point shed the old Myrl and moved on under her own terms.  She was a party girl like her mama, but smarter about it, turning the discovery that her husband was a serial cheater into a flush retirement.  By this time Uncle Ed had passed away, so Daddy and Merle were the only remaining direct connections to my grandparents and their era.  Merle loved to laugh, she loved people, she loved family, she loved her little dog … and everything was “Oh, kid!” followed by delighted laughter.  My favorite story was about the times a neighbor would pick her up from Aunt Nora’s house and then go get her mother.  As Aunt Ruth was walking to the car, dark-haired little Myrl would giggle and shout at her “You tan’t fit, Roofie, you got too big a BUTT!!”  

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There are a million ways to make life work and it’s a bonus to come from hardy people who knew about some of those ways.  I’m in their debt but that isn’t how they saw it — they were simply surviving, in the end doing as well as anybody at that and hanging onto a healthy sense of humor through it all.  They’d be genuinely happy to know they left a mark.

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A Sunday freebie ..

Playing with old pictures while learning the basics of a new collage maker.  One of the perks of qualifying for Medicare is enjoying your own baby pics again and it makes me happy to see how happy this little girl was, whether reading, sitting in the chiggers, saying “Huh?” or plotting her escape from the farm, baby in tow.  Also my mom dressed me in a mini-skirt, a cool sweater, and a beret??  She clearly thought there was a future for me at one point.   

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Family Portrait

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My paternal grandparents, John & Clara Dierking Wagner, and their two sons, Edmund and Daniel (my dad).

This would have been in the later 1920s.  There may have been a smiling shot but we didn’t find it and the sober expressions in this one are striking to me.  My grandpa’s eyes look resigned but determined, my grandma’s merely resigned.  Life was a challenge every day and nobody emerged unscathed.  My Uncle Ed lost his right eye very young, the result of a misguided attempt to cut through an old inner tube with a pocket knife, thus the inadvertent leer.  I would guess my dad’s age at somewhere between five and seven — he still has that baby-soft aura.  Uncle Ed left the farm at seventeen and made his own way ever after, retiring from the U.S. Military after a career that could have involved spying for all I know, and I totally hope that’s the case.  My dad stayed and farmed with Grandpa … you’ve heard some of those stories, Faithful Reader.  There are others …

You know who my heroes are right now?  The people who invented and developed photography.

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Well, HERE’s something interesting …

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In my grandmother’s handwriting:  “Aunt Mary & Aunt Kate Miller, maybe 1883 or so, Atchison, KS.”

Okay, NOW what?  What does this mean for our Celia?  What was her relationship to Mary and Kate, and how will this change her story?  Answers must be found!  Stay TUNED!

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Old women are merely little girls with wrinkles …

The  recent photo sorting with my sisters has yielded much treasure, all of which I appreciate infinitely more than the first time I saw those pictures.  Some I’d never laid eyes on before, and I do a little dance over each one.  We’ve tossed bags full of bad pics — exceptionally bad pics of blurry armpits and floors and the back end of a cat — that nobody ever bothered to weed out, but we’ve glommed onto anything of interest, everything that sparks memories and smiles.  Today’s little collection has been making me smile all morning, so I’m sharing …

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My great-grandmother, Caroline Fuhrman Dierking (looking outward), and her sister Emma.

On the back, in my grandmother’s handwriting:  “Caroline Fuhrman, my mother, was born in Germany.  The family emigrated to America in 1872, with eight sons and two daughters, my mother being one of them.  Aunt Emma was born in Atchison County, Kansas after they came to America.  My mother and her sister loved each other very much.  This is at Aunt Emma’s Camp Creek home in Atchison County, sometime around 1920.”

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DugoutCaroline Fuhrman married Louis Dierking and after living northeast of Emporia for a time, they moved to this dugout northwest of Bushong in 1894.  Several sons were lost at birth or in childhood, but daughters Nora and Clara (my grandmother) survived, and after the move to the dugout, Ruth was born in 1896.  

This photo was taken when my dad, brother and grandmother went to a Camp Creek family reunion in 1966, and shows the house my great-grandfather Louis Dierking built onto the front of the dugout.  Pretty sure the horses, and whatever other livestock they had, lived in the lower part made from rock.  

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The daughters of Louis & Caroline Dierking, Nora, Ruth & Clara, Christmas, 1917

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Ruth Dierking Cox in 1920 — clearly things had changed a bit in three years’ time,

although my grandmother’s comment was

“I believe her car was a Studebaker.  Always breaking down or out of fix.”

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And now we’re back to sweet Great-Great-Aunt Emma, with pretty little Colleen, who was in some way my cousin, and 2-year-old me with my naked doll and a scowl.  Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1949.  Life is both long and unbelievably short.  



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Red Leaves

Celia 1 She stepped off the train in Atchison, weary and vaguely conscious of stares as she made her way to the station, maintaining a firm hold on the well-worn carpet bag she’d inherited from her mother.  The long trip out from New York had sapped her energy and optimism — just getting as far as Chicago had been a daunting challenge in itself — and she wanted nothing more than to find her boardinghouse and sleep for a week, not that she’d be afforded that luxury.

During the layover while arrangements were being made for continuing to Kansas on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, she had given serious thought to staying put.  Chicago in 1905, after all, was a place of substance — diverse, full of life and no doubt abundant opportunity.  But she’d made a commitment and when the time came she set her jaw for the Jayhawker state.

In 1887 the state of Kansas had opened the Soldiers Orphans’ Home in Atchison, and when St. Patrick’s Catholic Church wrote to the East Coast dioceses some years later appealing for young women of integrity to care for the children, our girl saw an opportunity.  Celia Miller (neé Mianovskis) desperately wanted out of the tenement flat on the edge of a New York ghetto that she shared with her father and two of her five brothers.  She was almost eighteen and beginning to picture herself as an old maid, and she didn’t appreciate the slightly breathless feeling that gave her.  As the baby of the family, whose mother had died as a result of her birth, she’d been spoiled and coddled by her father and brothers, gruff as they all were.  She’d been allowed to avail herself of the bits and pieces of education that were accessible, to ask questions about the world, to dream … now she needed to try her wings but there was no ladder in place for a lower-class girl with ambition.  The Orphans’ Home, ironically, offered freedom, independence, and excitement, three things notably missing in her life to date, and all she had to do to reap those rewards was  travel halfway across the United States, giving up everything she’d ever known.

Her father had told her stories of Lithuania, and her brothers, too, as if they hadn’t been born in America just like she was.  Proud and feeling unfairly disenfranchised by their first-generation foreignness, they pretended to remember, as their father did, a Lithuania before the Tsar, before all the strife, before hunger and relentless hardship.  Their bravado and inventiveness became an important part of the protective shield they tried to form around their small sister.  The brothers thought, and managed to articulate among themselves after a fashion, that if she had a “real” country to believe in, a “real” history to cling to, her own slightly alien persona would matter less to her, and thus come across in a more pleasing way to the people she met.  So their stories were wide-ranging and sometimes fanciful, but always with a lesson underneath.  For instance in Lithuania, they said, there grew something called a tallow tree, with heart-shaped leaves that turned bright red in the fall.  It was a temperamental tree, but once established it was difficult to uproot or control, and tended to eventually overtake the surrounding area.  That one they especially liked, and savoring their cleverness they repeated it to her over the years until it was part of her DNA.  There were other stories, most all of them about being brave, strong, and determined.  She was a lucky girl, our Celia — other brothers in their circumstances might have counseled a fey coyness, a manipulative sort of avoidance, a safe and chaste route through life.  And just so is a life determined.

Papa Mianovskis, baffled from the first hour by his tiny daughter and more so with each year that passed, was anxious to do right by her.  He loved her in his own way and didn’t want her to leave, but life had made him a realist — he knew he had nothing of worth to offer her, not even his continued protection.  He thought she might be beautiful, and he hoped that might somehow save her.  Thus confused, well-meaning, feeling slightly broken by all that had transpired since he last saw his homeland, he blessed her, and with a sob in his throat gave her more money than he could spare, wrapped in a handkerchief from the Old Country, along with his mother’s rosary.  Her two brothers were equally generous, not only with cash earned from prized American jobs, but also with small food bundles and bear hugs.  Her three eldest brothers were long out of the house, living by their wits like everyone else, and Celia knew it was unlikely she would ever see them again.  She wondered if Papa would hug her — he had never done so — but of course he simply patted her lightly on the shoulder, sniffed, cleared his throat, and took out his hankie, swiping it across his mustache before walking resolutely to the door.  It was time for him to go to work, and for Celia’s brothers to get her to the train station by hook or crook and still make it back for their own shifts.

As Celia’s various trains wended their way cross-country toward an entirely new life, she found herself watching for glimpses of red along embankments and in tree copses of every sort.  She was thankful for the benevolence of St. Patrick’s in providing funds for the trip to Kansas, that she would earn a small stipend for her work at the Orphans’ Home, that she would be provided room and board, at least in the beginning, and most of all that her heritage and the caring of family, haphazard as it may have been, had prepared her for life.  She sincerely hoped that was true, as she could only imagine the obstacles and challenges to be faced in an orphanage.  And Atchison — would it be anything like New York?  A red-leafed tree along the way would be just the thing for easing anxieties.  She knew her own heart, she knew she’d been strong under certain circumstances … but what more was life bringing?

Later, she couldn’t recall the details connected to locating her boardinghouse, or exactly how she got there.  She remembered being thankful that she had only the one bag, an ancient Persian once cherished by her dead mother, to safeguard.  She knew she’d had some soup — delicious! — and a night’s sleep on a feather mattress.  And then it was morning, with its eastern Kansas sunrise, and time to see what reality looked like this far from New York.

An officious-looking man collected her from the boardinghouse and trotted her to the orphanage forthwith, speaking not a word on the way.  She tried to think of ways to start a conversation, but the ride was jouncey and her head seemed to still be sleeping after the long journey.  It scarcely mattered, the distance was short and the destination in sight before she could fully get her wits about her.  Atchison, it turned out, was nothing like New York.

Her escort deposited her on the lawn stretching in front of the orphanage and she could only assume she was to present herself at the front door, so she set out on the curving sidewalk, looking around her as she went.  An imposing red brick building, along with others of the same description, how many she couldn’t tell, loomed in front of her.  She shored up her courage once again and had just rounded a shapely hedge when she saw it, ten feet from the main doors — a small tallow tree, its heart-shaped leaves turning from green to shades of red.  Celia Miller caught her breath, paused, and strode forward into her new life, looking for all the world like Papa.  She could not know then that she would marry well, bear children, and live a life of genuine service … but she was on her way, with a small red leaf tucked up her sleeve. tallow leaves

Soldiers Orphans' Home Atchison

Soldiers Orphans’ Home Atchison

******************************************************************

**Author’s note:  The preceding is fiction, made up out of whole cloth, based on the photograph of Celia Miller, found while sorting through boxes of family pictures with my two sisters.  The only thing I know about Celia is her name.  Correction, two things:  she was also beautiful.  She was clearly connected with Kansas and my family line in some way, and much of my Dierking/Fuhrman family settled around Atchison, so it wasn’t a stretch to imagine a story for her.  I’ve grown to love her and need to know more …

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