Today while sorting though some boxes, I found a beautiful crochet tablecloth made by my grandmother. Instantly I was transported back in time, back to the idyllic days of my childhood and special visits with my Nanny, as we children referred to my mother’s adoptive mother.
As a young woman, Nanny emigrated from Germany and arrived in the States in the late 1800’s. She and her sisters originally settled in Wisconsin; later they moved to a small town in eastern Nebraska where she met and married my grandfather, William, in 1903.
William was the love of her life. He died when my mother was only eight years old, but through Nanny’s stories I felt as though I knew him. In the first several years of their marriage they had given life to eight precious souls – eight “little angels,” as Nanny referred to her children. But life on the plains in the early 1900’s was hard, and illness claimed all but one of their children before they reached adulthood. How my Nanny mourned the loss of her babies! But she and William had big hearts, which embraced a little orphan girl who arrived on an orphan train one summer day in 1923. That little orphan was my mother, Margaret.
Mom was just two weeks old when her birth mother placed her in the Foundling Hospital in New York City. Twenty-two months later, Mom was placed on a train full of orphans and sent out across the United States to be placed with adoptive parents. Nanny and William were in their late forties and had one grown son, so by today’s standards they might seem like an unlikely couple to adopt. But in the days before adoption agencies and child services, it was a common practice.
The orphanages in the East were overflowing with abandoned children, and the Foundling Home, run by the Sisters of Charity, together with the Children’s Aid Society, had set up an adoption program through their respective churches. They would send out fliers to the churches announcing the date and time that the trains would be passing through. Anyone wanting a child was to come to the station on the appointed day.
When the day arrived for the orphan train, Nanny and William were there to receive their baby girl. They didn’t know anything more about my mother, but Grandma said that when the train pulled into the station, and the children were placed on the platform, my mother reached out for them. It was love at first sight – and I think it was also the beginning of my Nanny’s love for train travel.
Nanny entertained me for hours with stories about her travels across Europe as a young girl, and the places she had visited in her lifetime. She would sit in her rocking chair, and I would stand on rockers holding onto the back of the chair. This was our own private “train” from which we would travel all over the world. With a child’s enthusiasm and imagination, she made the sounds of a train whistling and wheels clacking along the railroad tracks.
Just like a professional conductor, she would announce each stop and then we would go on an imaginary journey to visit the sights of Germany, France, London and all points in between. Nanny would often point out of the window beside her rocker, and describe the scenery of these exotic places to me. We picnicked on the banks of the Danube, shopped in Paris, visited London’s famous bridge, and hiked through the Alps of Switzerland and the Black Forests of Germany.
I vividly remember the last time I stayed with Nanny. We had played our train travel game for hours on end as she made that lovely tablecloth I found in the box today. Just before bedtime, Nanny got very serious and said: “Come with me, I want to show you a special dress I have saved for my funeral. It’s my wedding dress, which I wore when I married my beloved Will.”
Opening the trunk in her bedroom, she lovingly took out the most exquisite bronze silk gown I have ever seen. Her eyes grew dreamy and she described the day she wore it when she married Grandpa William. Her face glowed with anticipation and joy at the thought of seeing him once again.
At first, I could only understand that my grandma would be leaving, and I would never see her again. As I sobbed and begged her to stay, Nanny lovingly held me close and told me that whatever I should do at her funeral, I was to watch how the candles would wave as they flickered in the breeze. Nanny said that would be my sign that she was still watching over me, and that I should be happy and not sad.
Shortly after that visit, Nanny died. I was adamant that Nanny said she was to be buried in her wedding dress. All the adults of course said the dress didn’t exist … no one in the family had ever seen it. They looked in the trunk at my six-year old insistence, but it was not there. All that was in the trunk was a thick braid of Nanny’s hair, which she had clipped off and saved from her younger days. Her beautiful locks had once upon a time crowned her head and reached to her knees.
Inside the trunk, Nanny’s braid was fashioned lovingly with beautiful tortoise-shell combs, a candle, and a photograph of her and William on their wedding day. The picture was of the very dress Nanny had showed to me.
Now, stroking Nanny’s beautiful tablecloth once again, I smile as I remember how Nanny taught me to see sights and sounds and smells that others were not able to see. She was totally blind, but she could paint vivid memories that transported a child through space and time. As to whatever happened to Nanny’s wedding dress … that has always remained a mystery. Perhaps Nanny’s description allowed my six-year-old eyes to “see” a memory that was so powerful, it seemed physically present at the time. My Nanny could see beyond the ordinary things in this world as she prepared for her journey home to Our Lord and to her beloved Will. She created adventure and memories in her heart, and Nanny’s rocking chair traveled farther than most trains ever could in one small child’s lifetime.