October, 1958. Everyone goes through life. No one has an option.
The train ride from Southern California took three days. Although airplanes made the trip cross country in a matter of hours, there were four passengers, which included the babysitter, and this on top of massive medical expenses made air travel impossible to afford.
Fifteen hours into day one, Las Vegas slipped by in the early morning hours before sunrise, an island of bright lights in an otherwise empty desert. Misses Swift made sure the sleepy eyes in her care saw it recede into their past.
There was an hour layover in Chicago on day two where Misses Swift made use of the delay to call the father back home. She returned as the train threw off a whistle indicating it was about to depart. She said, “Boys, I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell you this, but your mother passed yesterday morning.”
Steve said, “What does that mean, ‘passed’?”
This question made the woman uneasy. She was tiny, not much taller than the eldest child. She pursed her lips, removed her wire rim glasses and polished them, placed them back on the bridge of her nose and appeared ready to say something to clarify the subject, but instead said nothing.
The youngest asked, “Is Mom in heaven?”
“Yes, your mother is in heaven.”
The two youngest boys began to weep. The oldest was unable to react. There was a disconnect between what he was told and where he was standing such that he saw nothing, heard nothing, yet his senses were aware of all that transpired in the cavernous hall of Union Station: the smell of electricity and diesel, the sounds people made walking or running to catch a train, the woman who stopped and inquired of Misses Swift.
“What’s wrong? Why are those boys crying?”
“They just learned their mother died.”
They left Chicago, ironically the city of their mother’s birth, as the journey continued another day and night into Pennsylvania. Gradually, the information sank in that the wondrously beautiful, creative and intelligent if frail and for the last year bedridden parent, was no more.
They were eleven, ten and seven years old. It is uncertain any of them understood how their lives would be impacted; they certainly did not fully comprehend the meaning of the information they had received.
Dead. Their mother was dead. Ok. But she’s back home in the county hospital in Riverside.
Absorbing this loss would be slow and, even after a lifetime, may never have diminished. All they really knew was their father sent them chaperoned by the old woman to live with his brother on a farm 3,000 miles from where they were born.
When it was clear Elizabeth was probably not going to last another week, the father inquired of his married siblings whether or not they could take the boys. Then he offered his sons an opportunity to stay together and live in Pennsylvania, or two of them could go live in Florida while the other brother would be shipped to Pennsylvania. They chose to stay together.
The destination train station was a single story structure surrounding a large open space filled with wood benches. The four waited in a group until a middle aged man and woman approached. The woman asked if this would be Miss Swift.
“Misses Swift, yes.”
Idell was short and plump, but a head taller than Misses Swift who looked shrunken beside her. The man, however, towered over them all. He was skinny and his face was gaunt, the skin close to the bone and, as he approached, Steve nudged the youngest of the three boys to make sure he shared in the observation: the man walked with a loping gait like a ship tacking into the wind.
“Well, this here’s your Uncle Carl and I’m your Aunt Idell. We’ve come to take you out to the farm,” the plump woman said.
The couple held lighted cigarettes which they puffed frequently and from which they tapped ashes onto the station floor. Before Carl spoke, he cleared his nasal passages with a loud inhale that sounded as if he were scraping paint off a wall, then spit into a handkerchief he produced from one of his pant pockets. “Station wagon’s over there,” he said as he motioned with his cigarette toward the parking lot behind the building.
He did not offer to shake hands for which the boys were grateful. His right hand was missing two and a half fingers.
Within minutes they were driving through countryside which was fields and barns and hay stacks and older homes built far from one another, an isolation unknown in the boys’ home town with its population of 19,542 and an urban environment of sidewalks and houses, many of which were built within the last ten years, bunched up next to one other with green lawns in front and separated by hedges with topiary bushes and shrubs.
Idell leaned over the front seat to peer at everyone in back. She blew smoke and said this was dairy land and farm land and there were caves and lakes that froze over in winter.
Carl drove without speaking, but every few minutes he loudly cleared his sinuses and spat into a sheet of white tissue which he plucked from a box on the dashboard. He pressed each fouled Kleenex into a ball he deposited in a small paper bag with a hole punched through the top side allowing it to hang from the handle of the open ashtray.
Both he and Idell smoked constantly.
“This is Pennsylvania Dutch country,” Idell continued which prompted Carl’s one and only statement during the entire ride.
“Throw Mama from the train,” he said and began a loud, hard laugh which caused him to lurch into an uncontrolled cough as smoke from his last inhale blew around the interior of the vehicle.