orphan train

They are building a bridge near my house. It will carry the highway over the Seekonk River. Every morning, the traffic moves slowly across the old bridge – there are trucks and cranes and construction crews. Piles of stone and concrete. As I drive home from dropping my son off at school, I can see the arches are in place. There are steel cables hanging down, and for a moment, when I look quickly, I think I see something – imagine I see a human form, dangling.

It is not, of course, but the image lingers and I am reminded of a movie I saw as a child. It was called Orphan Train and I remember being curious because of my own beginnings. The film is set in New York City in the late 1800s. I remember little of the story, but the opening sequence has remained with me all these years. Barely ten minutes in, there is a hanging. There are dozens of children - orphans - sitting down to a meal at a social welfare center when another child opens the door, yells in that “It’s time.” The children race out to the street and into a public square, where the gallows are visible. A crowd has gathered. A boy is led out, dirty, disheveled. He stops to talk to another boy, one of the orphans. He leans down and takes off his shoes, hands them through the wooden fence to his friend. “Take them,” he says. “You’re my friend and I want you to have them.”

The music swells. The boy is led up the stairs to the platform. His sentence is read aloud. He is fifteen years old, convicted of burglary and assault and is to be “hung by the neck until dead.” The boy begins crying as the rope is brought down around his neck. The music reaches its fevered pitch as a wooden lever is pulled and the trap door beneath the boy is released. The camera lingers on the rope looped around the crossbeam of the gallows – pulled taut now, with the boy’s weight.

At the funeral of my dear friend S. many years ago, we stand in the back of the chapel, my friends and me, while her relatives kneel and pray near her casket. Back here, we are closer to the photos of her – laughing, dancing – blissfully alive. We whisper to each other about the things we most want to remember. We hold the laminated prayer cards with her photo in our hands, turn them over and over, rub at her image with our thumbs, craving touch. We, who knew her longest say to her husband, “She loved you so much, you made her so happy.” They have been married a year, maybe two. He says, “She was just so easy to love.” We all nod, hold each other up. Yes, yes.

He moves away, the husband. Years later, he remarries, has children. We hear news of him now and then. His words stay with me, like a state of being to which I should constantly aspire: “She was so easy to love.”

My friend, barely forty-five, battles cancer. One evening, we are out together and she says she’s not feeling well, doesn’t know how long she can stay. We have ordered drinks and small plates, and as they arrive at the table, she slides off her chair, collapses to the floor. I call her husband. I ride with her in the ambulance, hold her hand. When we arrive at the hospital, her husband is there, waiting, so I leave them, wander the halls. I call home. M. comes to get me, takes me back to my car that I have left downtown. I move through the evening like I am sleepwalking. Shaken, confused.

It takes her the better part of a year to recover. When she is stronger, we have a party for her and toast her with champagne. We sit in the beautiful, gracious home of one of her dearest friends and eat fruit and cheese from delicate plates. We laugh and touch each others’ arms and hands. We talk about our children. It is a bright, cold day and the early afternoon sun streams in, falling across the upholstered chairs. I look around the room at us all and wonder at whose home we will gather next, and for what occasion – the bridal and baby showers of the last decade having slowly given way to this.

The date of my birth is estimated. At the agency where the first documents were created for me, the first file folder labeled with my name, an assessment was made and a date assigned. It is safe, I think, to assume that the date itself is inaccurate. The question then becomes one of degree. How far off? A week? A month? More than that? It is difficult to imagine how one might arrive at such a thing, just by looking at a child about whom no history is given. But perhaps they had their ways of knowing. My sister’s birth date, also estimated, is exactly six months from my own. One wonders whether certain dates were favored over others? Certain numbers believed to be particularly auspicious, and so given as small gifts to the children of such inauspicious beginnings.

I think of the orphan train – the film is a fiction, but based on fact – some 200,000 children relocated from the east coast to the midwest during the late 1800s and early 1900s. And I think of the plane that carried me between Seoul and New York. An estimated 150,000 Korean children sent out across the world, a century later. And I wonder, how is it that we ever can know if we are where we are supposed to be?

Hundreds of thousands of invisible threads stretching out across the country, across the vast, wide oceans. Pulled taught now, with the weight of us.