MY Cousin Fred was a brakeman on the Michigan Central Railroad. He was about twenty years old and he lived with his sister Emmy and his Grandmother Bogardus (who was my grandmother, too) in the village of Wayne, close to Detroit.
My father and mother and I lived on a farm about eight miles south of the city of Jackson, which was seventy miles from Wayne. My Cousin Fred always came to see us when he had a free day because he could ride on the train for nothing, and so he did. He could get passes for his relations, too. So when he was visiting us on one of his free days he told my mother he would get a pass for her so that she could go and visit my grandmother. She could take me. I was not quite eight years old.
My mother had not been to visit my grandmother since my grandfather died three years before, and then she had to pay her fare. She was terribly pleased and said she would be delighted to go. My Cousin Fred said we’d have to go on a freight train because a brakeman couldn’t get passes on a passenger train, but we’d ride in the caboose.
Well, my mother was pleased, but my father was not. In fact, he was anything but pleased. He hated having my mother go away from home under any circumstances or at any time unless he went along. However, he very seldom wanted to go along. He hated going anywhere to stay all night, or where he couldn’t go to bed at eight o’clock. He wouldn’t have wanted to go to my Grandmother Bogardus’s even if Cousin Fred could have got him a pass, because he didn’t like Grandmother very well.
‘Goin’ to Wayne!’ he shouted. ‘What in tunket you goin’ to Wayne for? Anybody dead?’
My mother was frying salt pork in a spider on the stove, but she just stopped and held the fork up in her hand and said, ‘’Lije Thompson, you’re a coldblooded brute. Can’t a person go to visit her relations, I’d like to know, without they’re dead? ‘
My father said ‘Hunh!’ through the roof of his mouth and his nose. Then he went outside and took some rain water out of the barrel without even stopping to scare the wigglers down and began to wash his face. A wiggler got into his nose and he snorted and shook his head and flung the water out of the basin without looking, and it hit Cousin Fred right on his new brakeman’s shoes where he was coming around the corner of the house. He had been out in the garden to pick some red ‘ rawsberries ‘ for the shortcake my mother was baking.
‘Hi there, Uncle ‘Lije!’ said my Cousin Fred, surprised. ‘You want to drownd a feller?’
My father just looked at him, with his bald head all wet and rain water running down on to his Greeley whiskers.
Cousin Fred followed him in and handed the berries to my mother, and glanced at my father and looked real hurt, for he liked my father very much. My mother didn’t say a word, either. She just took the shortcake out of the oven and split it open and began to larrup the butter on with a knife, the way my father greased a wagon hub. My father took the comb from the clock shelf and combed out his white beard and the fringe of white hair around the back of his head, and then he turned around.
‘Well, Fred,’ he said just as if he hadn’t seen him before, ‘how d’do? How’s your sister Emmy?’ He didn’t ask about Grandmother.
My Cousin Fred said, ‘How d’do, Uncle ’Lijer?' as though he hadn’t seen him, either. ‘She’s pretty well. How’re you?’
My father grunted and looked at the supper table. My mother spread the rawsberries all over one half of the shortcake and sprinkled sugar over them. Then she picked up the other half and set it down on the berries like a lid.
‘You better wash,’ she said to Cousin Fred. ‘Supper’s most ready.’ She was troweling butter over the top of the shortcake and flinging the rest of the berries over the top of that. The juice was beginning to leak out and dribble down the sides the way to make your mouth water. My father looked at it, and his lips didn’t seem so grim.
My Cousin Fred came in and took the comb from the shelf and combed his hair. My father motioned him to the table. ‘May’s well set down,’ he said. ‘Mebbe we’ll have some supper by ’n’ by.’
My mother was taking up the potatoes — new potatoes with their jackets on. She sat them in the warming oven and then took up the slices of pork and made the gravy. She sprinkled flour into the hot fat and let it bubble till it was a little brown, and then she poured in milk and cream and stirred and kept stirring until it was just right and plenty of it. My father and Cousin Fred sat and looked at her. Neither of them said a word.
‘Delly, you fetch the bread and get that dish of pickled pears off the butt’ry shelf.’ My mother poured the gravy into a white gravy boat and set it on the table. Then she brought the potatoes and the platter of pork and set them down before my father, and I brought the bread and the pickled pears.
My father helped himself to the potatoes and then passed them to Cousin Fred. Cousin Fred passed them to my mother. We peeled our potatoes and mashed them.
‘Help yourself to the bread,’ said my father to Cousin Fred. ‘We don’t seem to have any butter. Prob’ly your Aunt ‘Miry’s got it all packed up to take visitin’ with her.’
My mother looked the table over, surprised like, and then she flounced up and went to the butt’ry and got it.
My father buttered a slice of bread and took a bite and then he said, ‘Well, I hear you’re takin’ passengers on the freight, train now’days.’
Cousin Fred looked troubled, because my father sounded fierce. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘sometimes we can get passes for our relations, and I thought — ‘
My mother interrupted him. ‘Your Uncle ‘Lijer,’ she said, ‘don’t like it because Delly and I are going to visit my mother.’
My father raised his head, and held his knife and fork up off the plate. ‘Miry!’ he shouted. ‘You mean to stan’ there —'
‘I’m not standing,’ interrupted my mother with dignity. ‘I’m setting.’
‘— Stan’ there and tell me you intend to take Delly on any such fool’s journey?’
‘Of course I’m going to take Delly.’ My mother stared back at him with her eyes snapping, and her potatoes still unpeeled. ‘You don’t want to cook meals for her, do you?’
‘No,’ said my father bitterly, ‘I don’t want to cook meals for nobody.’
‘Well,’ said my mother, ‘if you know any woman ‘t’s stayed to home more’n I have in the same number of years, you can go and get her.’
My father looked shocked. My Cousin Fred was worried.
’I’m awful sorry,’ he said, anxiously. ’I thought mebbe Aunt ‘Miry’d like—’
‘Well,’ said my father, mopping up the gravy on his plate with a piece of bread, ‘she prob’ly would. But what with a crop of rawsberries to pick and hay to cut — ‘
‘Ain’t a word of truth in all that,’ said my mother sharply. ‘You ain’t got a thing to do ‘t you can’t get along alone, and you know it.’
My father looked hurt — as he always did when he was in the wrong, so you couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. I was near to tears myself.
My Cousin Fred told my mother to be ready on Tuesday morning, and she was. Fred said to take our dinner, so she killed three young chickens the day before and got up extra early Tuesday morning and fried them. We had to be in Jackson at six o’clock, which meant we had to leave before daylight. My father got his chores done and came in while she was wrapping the chickens in a clean napkin. He said nothing, but washed his face and combed his hair and beard, all the time looking at the chickens she was doing up. There was a whole one left in the spider, but he didn’t look at that. My mother didn’t talk, either.
‘Well,’ said my mother when we had finished breakfast, ‘I guess you’ll find enough to eat while we’re gone. I’ve cooked a chicken for you — I’ll put it in the cellarway in a butter crock. And there’s fresh bread, and plenty of butter.’
‘You figger you’ll be back before the month’s out?’
‘Land’s sakes, ‘Lije,’ she said irritably, ‘what good’s it do you to act like that! You know we’ll be home Friday. Fred told you that.’
‘Fred,’ said my father, rising and putting on his wamus, ‘said you could come home Friday. I didn’t s’pose you’d want to.’ He went out the door.
My mother was biting her lips to keep from crying. She was mad, too. He always acted as if he were being abused when she went away anywhere. But he had never acted quite so bad as this, because she’d never been away before to stay all night since my grandfather died. So I knew she was sorry for him, even though she kept right on putting on her things and mine.
Well, when we went out to get in the buggy, my father just sat there all humped over. He clucked to the horses, and we started out just as the sky was getting light. We didn’t talk at all.
When we got to Jackson, there was a long train of freight cars standing on the tracks. A bell was ringing on the engine. My mother threw up her hands and cried, ‘Oh, for the land’s sakes! There it is! They’ve started!’
My father looked up and down the track, and his face lit up. ‘ It’s standing still,’ he said reassuringly, but you could see that he hoped it would move.
‘Yes,’ said my mother excitedly, ‘but the engine’s puffing — down there! See? ‘ She was all for getting out of the buggy, but my father said sharply, ‘ Set still.’
The man that watched the tracks so people wouldn’t get hurt was looking at us. My mother called, ‘Is this the train for Wayne, mister?’
‘It’s the way freight for Detroit, ma’am,’ he said. ‘The passenger train’s late. They’ve had an accident up the line.’
‘Oh, my soul!’ exclaimed my mother, growing white. ‘What’s the matter?’
‘Nothing bad,’ said the man casually. ‘Run into a flock of sheep ‘bout ten miles up the line. Got to clear the track. This train’ll be out the way in a minute — you’ll have lots of time.’
‘Oh,’ cried my mother, sitting on the edge of the seat as if she were ready to spring, ‘but this is the train I want. Where’s the caboose?’
The man looked surprised. ‘The caboose?’ he repeated, as if he hadn’t quite heard. ‘You goin’ to ride to Detroit in the caboose?’
‘To Wayne,’ my mother correcled him. ‘My nephew,’ she continued anxiously, ‘is the brakeman on this train. He got us passes. We’re to ride in the caboose.’
A whistle shrieked. My mother cried despairingly, ‘Oh, there they go! ‘Lije Thompson, you let me out!’
My father sat perfectly still like a stump. He did not try to stop her, but the railroad man put up his hand.
‘That train ain’t goin’ yet, ma’am,’ he said. ‘Mebbe not for half an hour.’ The train jangled and rumbled past. Presently we saw a man running along the top.
‘Oh,’ cried my mother, starting up right in the buggy, ‘there’s Fred now. Yoo-oo-ey! Fre-e-d!’ Her voice rang out shrilly and she waved frantically. Fred did not. look. He was whirling a little wheel around in his hand.
The train came to an end, and passed. The flagman waved his hand. ‘Go ahead,’ he said. ‘The caboose ain’t even on yet. She’s out in the yard.’
Well, we went along. My father hitched the horses to the iron rail across from the depot. My mother and I got out. My mother took out the lunchbasket and was tugging at our satchel when my father took it out of her hand. He was very deliberate.
‘Hurry, ‘Lije,’ said my mother impatiently. ‘You want to make us lose the train?’
He just looked at her. We went through the depot and came out on the other side — and there was Cousin Fred!
‘Oh,’ she cried, ‘I thought we’s going to be left.5
Fred laughed. ‘No,’ he said, ‘won’t be ready for quite a spell yet. You better come along, though. Might’s well take you to where the caboose is and put you on.’ He picked up the satchel and the basket and started off down the track. He turned to my father. ‘You cornin’ along, Uncle ‘Lijer?*
We turned to look back at him. He looked as if he had been -planted on the depot platform. ‘You want to come, ‘Lije?’ my mother asked doubtfully.
‘No,’ he said feebly, ‘I may’s well go home — got a lot to do.’
Suddenly I was torn with pity. ‘Oh, Pa! Pa!’ I cried. ‘I want to go home! I want to go home with you.’
He was not given to caresses, but his face brightened. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘come on, then. I don’t know why you should be dragged off and mebbe thrown into a ditch like them sheep —’
‘You stop that, ‘Lije Thompson! ‘ My mother stamped her foot. ‘You know you couldn’t get meals for her. You won’t get any for yourself after what I’ve cooked’s gone. Delly, come along. And ‘Lije, you be here Friday night—’
‘’Less I hear to the contrary,’ my father interrupted glibly. But my mother took me by the hand and followed Fred down the cindery track. My father still stood there watching us.
Well, we found the caboose and got on. Fred said, ‘It ain’t very clean, but they’ll put some water in the tank and you can set down.’
These seemed all the hospitalities he had to offer, and then he went. ‘Don’t get off the car, Delly,’ he said to me. ‘The train might hitch on and you’d be left.’ I could see he was fooling, but my mother didn’t. ‘I won’t let her get off,’ she said earnestly, and told me to come and sit down.
She looked very worried and she was pale. Now, my mother was a robust woman, with dark hair and dark gray eyes, and she was very healthy, except for one thing. She was subject to periodic attacks of sick headache.
Well, when I looked at my mother now I thought to myself she looked like sick headache. I said, ‘You sick, Ma? You going to be sick?’ And she said ‘Why, no-o, I don’t think I’m going to be sick,’ but she looked around the caboose kind of wild and scared. ‘I wish I had some cold water,’ she said, ‘so I could wet my handkerchief.’ She went over and turned the spout on the big tin tank that stood on a little shelf, but there was nothing in it, so she came and sat down. She said, ‘Maybe if you’d open that back door, Delly — it seems awful close in here.’ So I went to open the back door, and at that very instant there was a huge freight car coming on the track smack-bang toward us with an engine ahead of it. The engine was steaming and smoking, the whistle was blowing and the bell ringing. A man was hanging to the iron ladder at the side of the car with one foot swinging out and one hand waving. I screamed and hollered, ‘Ma! Ma! The train’s running into us!’ and started toward her, but the freight car hit us full tilt and knocked us ahead on the track almost as far as from our house to the barn. I fell headlong on to the floor, and my mother went down bang on the long hard seat. We kept bumping and bunting and rolling along, with bells clanging and the whistle shrieking, for a little way, and then we stopped. My mother was trying to hold her head up and looking very white.
While we stood there a man came in with a big piece of ice and put it in the tank. Then he brought a pail of water and poured it on the ice. Then he looked at us and said, ‘How d’do? Hear you’re goin’ on a trip.’ I got some water in the cup and took it to my mother. She wet her handkerchief, and she took a bottle of camphor out of her reticule and poured some on. Just as I was starting to go back to the water cooler, the train gave an awful jerk and I went bang to the floor again.
The train ran along smoothly for a while, and then my Cousin Fred came in and he was shocked to see my mother lying flat on the hard wooden seat that ran along the side of the car and nothing to put under her head. He said, ‘ What’s the trouble, Aunt ‘Miry? You sick?’
She could only nod her head. I said, ‘She’s got a sick headache. She gets them.’
He looked awfully worried, and went and got some old coats and overalls and things and made a roll to put under her head. They smelled terrible, and she gagged. Then he went out and shut the door.
So I sat there and looked around at the grimy sides of the car and the grimier floor. There was a small iron stove with a fat round belly and square base, and a big wooden cuspidor filled with fine shavings. There was a bracket on the wall with a red-handled axe, and oil bracket lamps on the walls. Lanterns hung by the door. The windows were small and very dirty. There was a cupola on top of the car, wit h two little seats in it. I wished I could ride up there.
My mother could not lift her head, nor even open her eyes. The day was unbearably hot. The caboose smelled worse than Old Co veil’s pipe and his old pants put together. Old Covell was our next neighbor on the farm. He was never clean. My mother said feebly, ‘Open the door.’ It was very hard to open, but I managed and it stayed open. I stood in it watching the rails slipping away from us. Cinders flew in, but the air was better. I heard my mother call and I ran to her. ‘Stay away from it,’ she whispered, and I sat. down.
The paint was peeling off the water can. I looked at the axe and wondered if they stopped to chop wood. I thought if they did perhaps I could run out into the bushes for a minute. We stopped every little while, but I could see no woodpile nor any brush. Besides, I was afraid to get off for fear the train would go and leave me. And what would my mother do then?
At the next station the conductor came to see us. My mother tried to sit up. The conductor asked to see our passes. Then he said he was awful sorry my mother was so sick, but she said she would be all right.
The engine shrieked every time a road crossed the track, and the bell clanged. There was another track alongside of ours, and once I saw a train coming on the other, tearing madly after us. It didn’t look as if there were room to pass. The engine of the other train screamed and screeched as it went by. I could see faces in the windows — after I dared open my eyes.
Horses in the pastures gave us a look and then threw up their heads and tails and galloped away. A man in a wagon was standing at a crossing waiting for us to pass. His horse pranced, the way Old Ned would sometimes do when he saw a train.
I learned the stations along the Michigan Central that day, and even now can recall the different streets, stores, livery stables, blacksmith shops that we passed. Michigan Center — a mill pond and a milk Leoni — a pond with water lilies growing on it. Grass Lake a lumber yard, where the road crossed the tracks; then the track ran along behind the stores. Chelsea; Dexter. And at each place we stopped and shuffled cars back and forth from one track to another, the whistle blew, the bell clanged, men ran down the iron ladders on the freight cars and waved their hands. Sometimes they would uncouple the caboose and we would stand for an hour or more in the blazing sun, and when we stood alone I would go out on the platform and look every which way to see if I could discern some secluded spot to which I could dash, and get back again before my mother missed me. But I was afraid the train would come and I should be left.
Once when we were standing so, my mother got up and staggered out on to the platform and retched. She was very sick, but. she felt a little better and sat up. She said, ‘Oh, if I only had a cup of tea!’
My Cousin Fred ran in. ‘I’m awful busy today,’ he said. ‘We’re a man short. You feel better, Aunt ‘Miry?’
She said, ‘Some better,’ but she was white as a ghost. And Cousin Fred looked almost sick himself.
‘Delly,’ he said, ‘what you got this door open for?’
‘I told her to,’ said my mother quickly. ‘I couldn’t stand it.’
Cousin Fred looked around curiously. Seemed as if he hadn’t noticed it much before. ‘It is pretty bad,’ he said apologetically. ‘I don’t pay much ‘tention.
I ain’t inside much.’ He added, ‘I’ll have to go. I’ll come in as close to noon as I can and eat with you. Delly, don’t you get off, and you keep away from that door.’
Pretty soon the train came and bumped us again and shot us off down the track and stopped, and then took a fresh hold and away we went, steaming and whistling and ringing and clicking and clucking, in and out of side tracks, over what my Cousin Fred called ‘frogs’ where rails joined, halting, and then bumping and jerking us ahead.
I watched the fields go by: farmers drawing hay, with children and dogs running around; a man drinking out of a jug; men hoeing corn. I wished I were with my father pulling suckers from the hills. I was very hungry, but there was a stronger call of nature which was paralyzing me with misery, and nothing to be done. If my mother had been well, she would have told my Cousin Fred; but a little girl — or a big one, for that matter — could not speak of such a thing to a man, even though he were a cousin. And either he did not think of it or else his own embarrassment kept him from mentioning it. And he couldn’t have done much about it, for there were no sanitary conveniences included in the car’s architectural design.
Then another trainman came in. My mother had had to lie down again as soon as the cars began to bump. He looked at her and then at me and said, ‘How’s your ma, sis?’ He took his dinner pail and tiptoed out.
At last I could not look out of the windows. I did not want to see little girls riding on loads of hay or women ringing dinner bells. And when I saw a stoop-shouldered farmer with white whiskers and a felt hat walking across a hay field beside his team, I put my head down and thought about my own father and was almost as ill as my mother.
Finally my Cousin Fred came and said, ‘Well, Delly, you starved? I’m hungrier’n a wolf. How’s Aunt ‘Miry?’
My mother opened her eyes. ‘ You go ahead,’ she told him, ‘you and Delly. I won’t get up just yet.’
‘ Gosh! ‘ My Cousin Fred looked sorry enough to cry. ‘Don’t you s’pose if you et a little something —’ She shook her head and closed her eyes.
So Fred got our basket and unwrapped the bread and butter and the chicken. He was half starved, and he fairly gobbled. ‘Got only a minute,’ he said between mouthfuls. ‘Here! Why don’t you eat?’ He shoved a chicken leg toward me, and I nibbled at it, but I could not eat. ‘You sick too?’ He looked scared and worried, and a little disgusted. I shook my head. He finished the dinner, — all but a chicken wing and a piece of bread, which he put away for me, — wiped his mouth with his hand, and ran.
I saw the train come backing up, but I did not care. When the bump came I tried to get up, but fell. And I fell almost on top of the huge wooden cuspidor — still uncontaminated. I did not think.
I followed an impulse beyond denial.
The wooden container was not waterproof. My mother roused, lifted her head, and said, ‘Dellyl’
She fell back upon her pillow and groaned. I wept. My mother said,‘Oh, if I could only get up! ‘ I could but sob with shame. Then my mother said, ‘See ‘f you could find a mop.’
A mop seemed to be one household appurtenance left out of the Michigan Central’s housekeeping budget, but I did discover a broom. I will pass over the result. Also, but not to seem chary of candor, the rest of that sultry, dusty, cindery, interminable afternoon. However, it passed, and I felt better. My mother, as the day waned, was able to sit up, her head swathed in wet handkerchiefs reeking with camphor.
As the day waned, too, the caboose came to be more bearable. Cool, pleasant smells came in from the woods at the side of the road — marsh grass, and little streams. A slight fog arose from the lowlands we passed through, and the windows blurred more than they had with dust. I lay down on the long seat, which was covered with cinders and grime.
The conductor came in from time to time to see how my mother was. I think he was worried as well as sorry. I think he wished we were safely off his train.
At sundown we arrived in Wayne. My Cousin Fred set us off with our satchel and the lunchbaskct — now completely empty, since I had been able to finish its contents — and went on to Detroit with his train.
No one, of course, had been able to predict the time of our arrival, and so there was no one to meet us. We picked up our luggage and started off the short distance to Grandmother Bogardus’s house. We got there as Grandmother and Emmy were sitting down to supper. Emmy, who was a lovely girl of eighteen with short black curly hair and blue eyes, sprang up, exclaimed over us with delight, and hugged us happily. My grandmother, who was shorter than my mother and plump of bosom and hip, approached us with dignity. Her China silk dress rustled.
‘Well,’ she said crisply, pecking my mother’s cheek with maternal gesture, ‘you’ve done one or two foolish things before now, Almiry, but I didn’t think you’d take to riding on a freight train like a tramp!’
My mother was still white and shaken and had no repartee. My grandmother’s eyes fell on me, shy and bashful, clinging to the shadow of my mother’s skirts. ‘Well, Delly,’ she said, ‘it’s easy to tell where you rode. Emmy, take this child off and clean her up.’ The inference was such as might apply to a mongrel cur picked up in the gutter. And, doubtless, not unapropos.
‘You want to wash up, ‘Miry, before you eat?’ Her condemnatory glance swept my mother’s soiled, crumpled, and malodorous attire. Tears came to my mother’s eyes, but also a little of the dangerous spark that bespoke a limit to her patience.
‘Yes,’ she said, tartly, ‘I should. I’ve had a sick headache.’
Grandmother Bogardus backed off. ‘You look,’ she said stiffly, ‘and smell as if you’d had the plague. You can go in the spare room.’
‘No,’ said my mother with returning spirit, ‘I ain’t fit to go into the spare room. I’ll wash here where I can get plenty of water. Then I’ll put on a clean dress.’
Cleaned, refreshed, and presentable, we sat down to a beautifully set table, with spotless and daintily creased linen, shining silver, handsome glass. My grandmother had made fresh tea and my mother drank of it greedily.
‘Now,’ said grandmother, pouring tea and passing small biscuits and honey, ‘I’d be glad to know, if you feel like telling me, why you’re traveling around the country like this. I knew you’d married a poor man, but I didn’t think he’d send you off in a cattle car!’
This was not a tactful thing to say, and after copious cups of tea my mother’s asperity again asserted itself.
Her cheeks grew red and her eyes snapped.
‘My husband,’ she said with dignity, ‘didn’t send me. In fact, he was much opposed to our coming. But when Fred found he could get passes for us, we thought we’d come to see you.’
Grandmother passed the cake—white mountain cake with thick frosting — and dished the sauce. She wore a white lace cap and tossed her head. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘I hope you enjoyed it.’
‘Yes,’ said my mother brazenly, ‘it was quite an experience. For Delly, too.’
We stayed two days. Cousin Fred had told us he would get passes for our return on Friday. He was home but little while we were there, but when he came to supper on Thursday night my grandmother told him that if he had any passes for us he could give them to somebody else. She wasn’t going to have her folks riding on freight cars. Emmy was going to buy our tickets on the passenger train.
I think my mother would rather have gone back in the caboose, because she hadn’t any money herself. She wouldn’t have asked my father for any, because she was mad at him for acting as he did, and he wouldn’t have offered her any because she was traipsing off away from home. She resented Grandmother Bogardus’s bossy ways, but she couldn’t do anything about it. Emmy bought our tickets and we went.
Fred had told my father that the train would probably be in around six o’clock, and, as a matter of fact, the train we went on (with red plush seats and a place marked ‘Women’) got in at halfpast five. But there was my father. He was all dressed up with his best kip boots on and black alpaca coat, and he looked surprised to death. But the first thing he said, grimly, was, ‘Well, you’re late.’