54: An Orphan’s Daughter

54: An Orphan’s Daughter

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Dad

An Orphan’s Daughter

Adversity enhances this tale we call life.

~Ever Garrison

“Dad,” I said, “can you help me with my homework? The assignment is to make our family tree.”

After supper, we settled at the kitchen table. I gripped my pencil, ready to take notes.

“I was adopted,” my dad said.

I swallowed hard and gazed at my father. “You were?” I was stunned, but full of questions.

“In 1923, your Uncle Harry and I rode a train from New York, and Grandpa and Grandma Gray adopted me.”

“What about Uncle Harry?” I asked with a fourth grader’s curiosity. Uncle Harry and his family lived in a nearby town.

“He was adopted by a different family, named Pistole,” Dad said. “My brother, Marshall, died in World War II, and I don’t know what happened to the others.”

I stared wide-eyed. “How many others?” I asked.

He paused in thought. “Well, I also had two older sisters named Greta and Hattie. And I remember seeing a baby who died.” He shook his head. “Once when Marshall came to visit, he said there were others. But I don’t know how many or anything about them.”

I listened quietly, trying to absorb this amazing story.

“I was born in Constantia, New York, in 1915. My father was fifty-four years old and my mother was twenty-six. They named me Ethel Franklin Wright.”

I squirmed in my chair, counting in my head the forty-four years since Dad’s birth.

“I hated my name,” he said. “It was pronounced Ee-thal, but kids teased me and called me Ethel.”

“Sounds like a girl’s name,” I admitted. He showed me his birth certificate where he’d scratched his first name from the paper with a penknife.

“We lived in an old house with two rooms and a pantry. The plaster was coming off the walls and you could see through the roof. My dad kept his bicycle and camera locked in the pantry.”

“What about your mother?” I whispered, almost afraid to say anything for fear he’d quit talking.

“My mother took us kids hunting for greens and leeks in the marshy wetlands near our home. We also hunted bullfrogs and dug clams and ate whatever we found.”

I tried to picture five children scrambling along a riverbank looking for food, but all I could see in my mind were the cookies my mother had baked that afternoon. Their sweet, chocolate scent still lingered in the air.

“We moved, probably because we were evicted, and lived in a large tent. We had a stove but slept on the ground.”

He paused again, and I knew he was thinking about those long ago days. I sat still, waiting for him to go on.

“Before winter, we moved back to the house with the hole in the roof, but life was no better. All spring and summer the bread man threw a loaf of bread on our doorstep each day when he made deliveries.”

“Is that all you had to eat?” I asked, thinking about our family favorite of fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy.

He nodded. “Sometimes we went to bed hungry.”

I sat back in my chair and chewed my lip. “Didn’t your dad work?” I asked. “Why were you so poor?”

“He worked at a sawmill,” Dad said, “but he didn’t have steady work. Times were really hard back then. New York was full of immigrants, and many died from the influenza epidemic. There were always black hearses in the streets.”

I saw lines crease his forehead at the recollection, and I buried my head and made notes on my lined, yellow pad. When I looked up, he spoke.

“My father liked to sit on the back stoop and smoke a small clay pipe.” He indicated the size of the pipe with his thumb and forefinger. “He let me smoke from it, too. That’s nearly all I remember about him, except he had red hair and a couple of fingers missing from a mill accident.” He smiled. “And he was really stern.”

I tried to picture the parents he described, but it was difficult, except for the red hair. Dad, my older brother and I were all redheads.

“When I was five, I was placed in an orphanage run by the Children’s Aid Society,” Dad paused and took a drink of root beer. “My brothers went, too, but my sisters went to private homes.”

A lump formed in my throat. I’d never been away from my family. I wanted to cry.

“I had my first bath in a real bathtub with hot water and plenty of soap, and got clean clothes, shoes and socks. They were good hand-me-downs, and each item was numbered for identification.”

I glanced down at my new pajamas and remembered the dresses Mom bought me for school. I’d never worn hand-me-down anything.

“We ate burned toast, hot chocolate, jelly, cooked oatmeal and mush for breakfast,” he said. “Definitely a much different menu than I was used to.” He patted his stomach.

“We only saw our parents once in the orphanage.” He paused a moment. “Then we moved to the Brace Farm School. Marshall ran away and returned to our parents. He eventually changed his legal named to John Ryan and joined the Army.”

I turned to a new page of paper and scribbled the names.

“Nearly two years after leaving Constantia, Harry and I were among a group of children involved in a ‘placing out’ process for relocating orphans from New York State to the Midwest. J.W. Swann and his wife, of Sedalia, Missouri, were our sponsors and traveled with us. We curled up on the hard seats of the huge train and slept during the long trip.

“We had a sack lunch and the clothes on our backs,” Dad said. “When we arrived in St. Louis, we were cleaned up and given a brand new set of clothing.” He smiled. “The first new clothes I ever had. They told us the Maryville, Missouri, newspaper had advertised our visit. We arrived at the First Methodist Church on a freezing November day in 1923, and stood quietly while townspeople heard our stories and looked us over.

“I worried when I wasn’t chosen that first day,” Dad continued, “and I stayed a few days in the Jake Wiley home. Mr. Wiley tried to reassure me, but it was scary. Kids that didn’t get picked rode the train to the next stop.

“I was lucky,” Dad said. “I got the best parents in the world. They named me Oliver and I never looked back.”

I nodded as I thought about my loving grandparents, Orville and Erma Gray, yet I found it hard to see my dad as the small boy born into the impoverished, undisciplined lifestyle. Dad learned tenacity and compassion, not laziness or bitterness. He always believed the future held promise.

“I always felt obliged to make the Grays proud of me, not because of who I became, but in spite of my background. They took a stranger into their home and family, and I was never treated like an outsider.”

That incidental, fourth-grade assignment was more than a study in genealogy. It filled me with appreciation for a man who worked hard to be a model citizen, devoted husband and son, and loving parent.

To me, that westward train movement of “placing out” orphans was more than a piece of history or the addition of a limb on my family tree.

I inherited an incredible legacy.

~Karen Gray Childress

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