Writers know this: once they send something out and it is published, it then has a life of its own. The time has come for the writer to let go. No more revising. No more fretting over glaring errors or possible improvements the writer now sees.
For example, “Orphan Train,” a poem I wrote in 2007, contains a number of misconceptions. While for the most part still true—my mother did come to Nebraska on the orphan train—the poem nonetheless got a few things wrong. This is only to say that I would write it differently today.
The poem was published in Nebraska Life magazine. Later, a teacher in Michigan happened to see it, and now it is a part of an elementary school’s history lesson. A writer and speaker for the Humanities Council in Nebraska, Charlotte Endorf, included it in one of her books on the orphan train movement. And although I no longer read or recite this poem to others, it seems to have taken on a life of its own. But there is hardly such a thing as an authoritative accounting of any event, is there?
In recent years, The New York Foundling Hospital began releasing its records of children it placed out during the years of the orphan train movement. A little over a year ago I received a batch of photocopied records, said to be the complete file of one Madeline Yost. From these records I learned that Sister Michaela’s actual name was Sister Anna Michella; that my grandparents, John and Louise Bauman, had requested a girl child two years of age or younger. Further, I learned that in this case the children were not actually chosen on the railroad station platform. Into the hem of Madeline’s dress had been sewn a slip of paper with her name, date of birth, and the names of Mr. and Mrs. Bauman. Perhaps most telling of all is the tersely worded note my grandmother wrote to Sister Anna Michella in New York: Child received, and I must say, she is much older than we like.
As you read the poem with its imperfect version of a moment that took place in time, specifically, midnight of May 13, 1925, think of the way our words say what we think is true when we say them — assuming, of course, that we are sincere. Someday we may have better understanding of many things we now inadequately describe. Surely we will.
Mother came to Nebraska
on the Orphan Train in 1925.
Sister Michaela, named for an angel,
they followed you from the Foundling
Home, their haven, to board the train
going west to prairies, to farms. Of all
the Sisters, you were best at this. You
knew how to keep the children quiet,
taught them to answer politely and to
show good deportment while standing
in a row on the wooden platforms, one
depot after another, one chance to be
chosen after another, the boys holding
their caps in their hands. In May, 1925,
Sister, you delivered a child to an older
couple who met the train at Omaha; the
mister said though they had hoped for
a boy—to help with the work—they’d
agree to take the girl instead. The four-
year-old with somber eyes and Buster-
Brown hair you had carefully combed
then, at your word, stepped forward
for the wife to take gently by the hand.