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.
**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 …