An Orphan’s Journey

Written by Tara Clark

December 24, 1864. 

Sister Mary Margaret gave me this book to write in and said I should write down all of my memories, as it could be important someday.  I don’t know why the writings of a 10-year-old would be important, but if I don’t do it, the sisters will get mad.  I don’t like when they get mad at us, as they can be mean sometimes.  I secretly think they are especially cruel to me over anyone else, because I’m sad all the time and refuse to participate in these stupid Christmas “festivities.”  They know I despise Christmas more than anything, and they know why, yet they are constantly harassing me to join in their ridiculous activities.  I just wish everyone around me would disappear and let me be. 

December 25, 1861. 

Although I was only six at the time, that date is stuck in my memory forever.  That morning we had just finished getting ready to go to Grandma’s house and was outside hitching up the horses, when a man showed up at the barn.  He handed Dad a piece of paper, tipped his hat, jumped back on his horse and rode off.  Dad opened up the small paper, read it, and gave me a small smile.  “What is it Dad?” I asked.  “Nothing for you to worry about son.  I need to run back in and get something.  I’ll be right back.”  Dad slowly walked back into the house, leaving me to wonder what was going on.  After what seemed like an eternity, he came back out carrying a burlap sack that seemed to bulge from the sides.  He tossed it into the back of the wagon, then hopped up onto the seat, grabbed the reigns and turned to look at me.  “Let’s get going or we’ll be late for grandma’s Christmas dinner,” he said.  We rode in silence the entire way.  I knew not to say anything, so I spent most of the ride looking out at the glittering snow draped across the land.  I’ve always loved this beautiful view and the crisp clear air, but today I was too distracted to notice.  I snuck a peak at Dad out of the corner of my eye.  He seemed to be lost in thought, chewing on his lip and looking like he could cry at any moment.  I didn’t know what was going on, but it was starting to scare me.  I was relieved when, after a few more minutes, we finally arrived at grandma’s house.  I was just climbing off the wagon when grandma came rushing out the door.  “Bobby!  I’m so happy to see you!” she exclaimed as she rushed up to hug me.  Her hugs were bone crushing, but I didn’t care.  I loved it and looked forward to the rare times I got to spend with her.  “John!  I was starting to worry!  What took you so long?” she asked.  Dad just gave her the same small smile he gave me.  “Uh oh.  What’s wrong?” she inquired.  “Nothing to worry about, Ma.  We can talk later.”  Grandma walked over and gave him a huge, long hug.  “Let’s just go in and enjoy our dinner.  Come on Bobby, I’ve got my special pie already for you.  I know it’s your favorite!”  Grandma winked and smiled at me as she took my hand and lead me through the door. 

Grandmas’ small and modest slat house only had two rooms with a small alcove for a kitchen.  Wooden plank floors and a single, tiny, one-paned window were the only other attributes that the tiny home boasted.   It was warm, comforting and inviting, and I loved it there.  I cozied up to the fireplace, trying to warm my frozen hands and feet, when Grandma smiled knowingly and handed me one of her handmade quilts.  She always seemed to know what I needed or wanted, without me saying a word, and that was one of a million reasons I adored her.

 After a wonderful family dinner, I was playing on the floor with my new toy when I heard Dad and Grandma whispering in grandma’s room.  It didn’t have a door, and it seemed that the whispering was getting quite loud.  I stopped playing, trying to hear them.  “I don’t have a choice, Ma.  I have to do this,” Dad said.  “I just don’t see why you have to.  Can’t you just tell them no?  You have a kid to take care of,” Grandma whispered back.  “That’s exactly why I have to do this!  How can I teach him to be a man if I’m seen as a coward?  How will he be treated?” “And what will happen if you don’t come back?” Grandma retorted.  “It won’t last long, Ma.  I’ll be back before you know it.  I just really need you to do this for me.  He has nowhere else to go.”  I was confused.  What were they talking about?  Is dad going somewhere?  I could hear grandma softly crying as dad came out of the room.  “Hey Bobby!  What are you doing?” asked Dad.  “Just playing,” I said.  “Well, come here.  I need to talk to you for a minute.”  I crawled up on my Dad’s lap, worried that something bad was going to happen. “Bobby, do you remember that paper I got today?”  I nodded.  “Well, that paper said I have to go away for a while.  You are going to stay here with Grandma until I get back,” said Dad.  “When are you coming back?” I asked.  “I don’t know yet.” “Where are you going?” I pressed.  “Well, I’m not sure you will understand this, but I have to go to war.” Dad replied.  “What is war?” I asked.  “Well, son, it’s where two groups of people fight each other because each side thinks they are right and the other is wrong.”  I looked at him, confused.  “Can’t you just tell them they are wrong and show them how to be right?” I asked.  “I wish it was that easy son, but that’s not how it works.  I have to go get your stuff out of the wagon now.  I’ll be right back.”  I looked at Grandma, hoping she would explain in a way I could understand.  “Don’t worry Bobby, we’re going to have lots of fun and your dad will be back before you know it,” Grandma said, trying to reassure me.  Dad came back in, shaking the snow off his coat.  “Here you go, Ma.  Please take good care of him and don’t worry too much.  I won’t be gone long.”  He gave Grandma a big hug, then turned to me, picked me up and gave me a hug and a kiss.  “Be a good boy for grandma and I’ll see you soon,” Dad said, sounding like he had a frog in his throat.  “Bye Dad.  I love you.”  Dad put me back down on the floor, gave us each one last look, and walked out the door. 

Grandma looked down at me, sadness covering her usually happy face.  “Well Bobby, I think it’s time to clean up and get ready for bed now.”  “Yes ma’am,” I sighed, struggling to be a big boy and not cry.  Grandma stood there looking at me, then sat down in her rocking chair.  She gathered me up in her lap and asked, “How about we just sit here for a while instead?”  I nodded, burying my head in her chest looking for as much comfort and love as I could get.  Grandma wrapped her arms around me and gently rocked back and forth until my tiny silent shudders became deep sleeping breaths.

 April 18, 1862

Grandma and I had created a wonderful new life together.  Spring was beginning and we were looking forward to starting Grandma’s garden.  Dad hadn’t come home yet, and it had been a while since we had gotten a letter from him.  I knew Grandma was worried, so I did my best to be a good boy, do what I was asked, use my manners, and at least try to make her smile.  I was helping Grandma boil water in a pot outside, so we could do the wash, when a man rode up and handed Grandma a letter.  He tipped his hat and rode off, while Grandma stood there watching him disappear over the hill.  I suddenly remembered that last Christmas Day on dad’s farm, when another man had done the same thing.  I felt like my heart was going to beat out of my chest as I slowly approached her.  “Grandma?  What is it?” I asked.  She didn’t answer.  “Grandma?” I asked again.  “Yes?” Grandma distractedly repied.  “What is it?”  “I don’t know yet,” she said.  Grandma slowly opened the letter, her hands visibly shaking.  She quietly read it to herself, then fell down to the ground screaming, “Oh God no!” over and over again.  I had never been so scared in my life.  I didn’t know what was wrong, but I ran as fast as my legs could go to the neighbor’s house a few miles down the road.  Mr. Williams, the neighbor, put me in his wagon and we quickly rode back to Grandma’s house.  When we got there, she was still on the ground and didn’t seem to move.  Mr. Williams scooped her up, careful to mind her dress, and put her in the back of the wagon as gently and quickly as he could.  It seemed to take forever to get to Doc Baker’s house, and I had prayed with all my might the entire way there.

 April 22, 1862

Doc Baker did his best to help Grandma, and for a couple of days, she seemed to be getting better.  Mr. Williams said I was too young to go back to her house alone, so he let me stay with his family until grandma got better and was able to go home.  Last night, though, Doc Baker came by Mr. Williams’s house and told us that Grandma had died.  I thought I was going to die, too.  I loved her so much and couldn’t imagine my life without her, and since we hadn’t heard from Dad in such a long time, I didn’t know what was going to happen to me.  Mr. Williams informed me that I could stay with his family until after the funeral, but he would have to find someone else to take me after that.  He said he would keep me if he could, but he already too many mouths to feed and there wasn’t enough to go around.  I knew he felt horribly guilty about not letting me stay longer, but I didn’t blame him.  I was just grateful that he took me in when he did so I wouldn’t be alone. 

April 25, 1862

Mr. Williams brought me back to Grandma’s house for the first time since the letter arrived.  It was odd seeing the house so dark and full of people quietly talking amongst themselves.  It was even weirder to see Grandma laid out in a pine box, on the table in the middle of the room, covered in salt and surrounded by flowers and flies.  She looked like she was sleeping, but swollen and smelled bad.  I had never seen a dead body before, so I wasn’t sure if this was what it was supposed to look and smell like or not.  I wanted to ask someone, but I was too afraid to say anything.  Mr. Williams let me get a few of my things and load them in his wagon, and when no one was looking, I took her handmade quilt.  I didn’t know if I could have it or not, so it felt like I was stealing, but I didn’t care.  No one loved her like I did, and I wanted it to help me feel safe by remembering her warm and loving arms around me.  After a while Reverend Harper, from the little school / church in town, read from the bible.  Afterwards, we all sang some hymns and said prayers for grandma’s soul, then some men picked up the coffin lid off the floor and nailed it down over her.  They carefully carried the coffin outside and set it on Reverend Harper’s wagon, and we all followed him to the cemetery.  When we arrived, we saw a hole that was already dug, it’s open darkness maliciously waiting to swallowGgrandma up for all eternity.  I started to panic.  What happens if she gets lonely, cold or scared of the dark?  Who would be there to calm her and keep her company?  Mr. Williams heard my terrified, heavily labored breathing and picked me up.  He whispered that it was O.K. to be sad and that I could cry if I wanted to.  I sniffed, rubbed my arm across my face, and shook my head.  I promised Dad I would be a good boy, and I was going to keep that promise.  After slowly lowering the box into the ground with ropes, we prayed again, and some other men started to fill the hole with dirt.  I desperately wanted to crawl in there with her so neither one of us would have to be alone.  She was the only person in the world, besides Dad, that loved and wanted me, and dad was nowhere to be found.

April 30, 1862

Mr. Williams told me he had found a place where I would be taken care of, and I might even find someone that wants to love and care for me.  He helped me gather up my things in the wagon, and we rode to the train station in silence.  Once there, he again apologized for not being able to keep me.  I told him that it was ok and thanked him for letting me stay as long as I did.  He gave me a hug and a ticket, told me the conductor would watch out for me, and that Sister Mary Margaret would be waiting for me at the station when I got there.  I nervously boarded the train, found a seat, curled myself into a ball as small as possible, and waited to see what horrible thing would happen next.  I missed Grandma terribly and was pretty sure Dad was dead, though no one would tell me, and I was absolutely terrified of whatever it was that was still to come.

I must have cried myself to sleep because the next thing I knew, the conductor was gently shaking me to say we had arrived.  Sister Mary Margaret found me standing, lost and confused, on the platform.  She took my hand, introduced herself, and said she was taking me to something called an “orphanage”.  As we walked, she talked about all the other kids that lived there, and said she thought it wouldn’t be long before I was adopted.  I didn’t know what adopted meant, but I knew I didn’t want it.  I just wanted to go home.  When we finally arrived at the orphanage, which was a large brick building with a huge oak door and very few windows, I was overwhelmed with sadness and intense fear.  There was something about this place that felt final; like I would never leave here or see anyone I ever knew again.  I reluctantly followed her up the stairs as she showed me where my bunk was, then she cruelly took my precious burlap sack.  I begged her not to take it, as it was all I had left of Grandma and Dad, and I didn’t want to lose it.  She calmly said I couldn’t keep it because of the possibility of lice or fleas that might make the other kids sick.  I screamed, cried and fought to at least keep Grandma’s quilt, but I didn’t have a choice. She took the sack anyway.  I sat in my bunk, crying and feeling sorry for myself, until someone else came and demanded they show me where we ate and what my chores were.  Every day since, this has been my life.  We wake up, eat, do chores, do some studies, work, eat and sleep.  That’s it.  There were several people that came to “look” at me, but I refused to go with them.  I would scream, cry, bite, kick and try to run away every time.  Eventually, the prospective parents gave up and picked someone else.  As much as I hate it here, I would rather…

December 26, 1864

I found Bobby’s journal on the floor by his bunk.  This was created for him in hopes that he would work out his anger and frustration, while keeping his memories alive for posterity.  This War has been difficult on everyone, especially the orphaned children, and I just want to help them the best way I know how.  After reading this, I understand him so much more, and only wish I had known about this when he was here so I could better help.  Regardless, I feel I must finish what he started, then send this to him as soon as he can be located.  Yesterday, Bobby was angrily writing in this journal when a Christmas miracle happened!  I was out in the main area helping the children string popcorn, when a man walked in.  He was dirty and matted, with ripped and stained clothes and shoes with holes in them.  He smelled VERY badly and was so skeletal, he looked like he hadn’t seen a bath or food in months.  I tried to be polite and ask him to leave, but he was very weak and I could barely hear him.  Feeling pity, I brought the poor wretch to the kitchen and gave him food and water.  I didn’t know what happened to him, but whatever it was, it looked and smelled pretty bad.  Afterwards, he was offered a bath and his clothes were cleaned as best as possible.  When he was clean and dressed, he introduced himself as John and, after thanking me for the kindness, explained that he had been wondering around looking for someone.  He explained he’d been captured in battle, spent the last year and a half at a prisoner-of-war camp, and hadn’t been able to get any letters in or out.  After the war ended, he managed to make his way home, only to find his mother dead and his child missing.  The neighbor, Mr. Williams, had told him that his son had been sent to this orphanage, but wasn’t sure if the son had been adopted or relocated.  John stated his son was the only thing that had kept him going, and he couldn’t bear the thought of never seeing him again.  I asked him his sons name, just to be sure, and he confirmed my suspicions.  He was Bobby’s father!  I was overjoyed for both of them, and beyond thankful that Bobby hadn’t been adopted yet!  I excitedly confirmed that Bobby was still here and John, as malnourished and weak as he was, leapt out of the chair with a surge of strength I didn’t think he was capable of.  I led him to the room where Bobby was and stepped back, while John just stood there staring at him.  “Are you sure that’s him?” he finally whispered.  “It’s been a few years, but that’s him,” I said, reassuringly.  John slowly walked up behind Bobby, and after a couple of seconds, he took a deep breath and said simply, “Son.”  Bobby froze, his whole body going rigid.  I could see his breathing speed up as he slowly turned around.  They both just stared at each other for what seemed like forever, then Bobby jumped up and rushed into Johns arms.  “I thought you were dead!” cried Bobby.  “I can’t die.  I promised I’d be back and we always keep our promises, right?”  “Right,” croaked Bobby through an avalanche of snot and tears.  I just stood there, crying, wanting so much to hug them both.  God works in mysterious ways, and I know it was His will that Bobby never got adopted.  He must have a wonderful plan for them, and I just hope that whatever happens in the future, they are happy, healthy and together.

Sister Mary Margaret   

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Trina M. Mioner

    One hell of a western, kept me on the edge of my seat. Was as good as Gun Smoke. Thanks Tara for a gripping story. Trina M. Mioner

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