For today’s update, I thought I would give you something to read during one of those quiet moments (ha ha!) over the holiday weekend.
And so, here is the opening section of A Marble Heart. Happy holidays!
The performance began at eight. It was the third day of December, and the opera house was cold all through, from the lobby to the backstage area where the children huddled together in a mass of shivering. Their unfamiliar new clothes were not made for winter wear. There were ten boys and girls here and ten times that back at the Home in Kansas City. Rev. Litten was on the stage, and the children watched him from the wings as he quoted complex figures about the number of orphanages operating throughout the country. At the end of his talk he introduced Marie LeWald as the youngest woman working in the charitable field today. She left her place in the wings, wading through the crowd of children, and walked onto the stage, first bowing to the audience and then curtsying to Rev. Litten before he took her former position.
Flora stopped listening as her Aunt Marie began to speak. She had spent all of her twelve years listening to some version of this talk. The cruel adoption laws, the broken families, the lost little children who often never again see their parents. Marie spoke with sobs in her throat and with hands clasped in a prayerlike vise beneath her chin. From behind Flora came a sound like a loud purr, and she took a half-step back into a boy and stayed there as if to warm him. She was right. It was the growling of his stomach. As Flora stood there an object brushed against her thigh, and without looking she reached down and took it in her hand. It was Celia’s tiny palm. Celia was seven years old, the youngest child at the opera house. She had thick strawberry blond hair that was cut very short, above her ears, with a straight line across the bangs. It was the first time she had touched Flora by her own choice in weeks. She was sweet, like a stray dog that follows a stranger for blocks after a single friendly word or a kind look. Under her other arm Flora held her brother Joseph. He was ten. He was trouble. He was sweet, too.
Mrs. Baker’s speech was last and the longest by halves, and the children did their best not to move when she was onstage. She had a pointed nose and pretty lips, and dark hair that she piled on the top of her head. Her eyes were her most striking features, in particular when they were hit by any kind of light. They were like smooth jewels whose radiance grew more intense as she spoke outdoors or lighted by candles, or as now, in the amber glow of the stage.
“The luckiest children in the world are those that have a family,” Mrs. Baker told the audience. “They have parents to love them, and brothers and sisters, too. Apart from proper food and clothing, the love of a family is the most important thing a child can have. It is a very sad thing, then, that in this world of ours, with all of its people and with all of its homes, not all little children can be so lucky.
“You may ask, ‘What about the children’s homes? What about the orphanages? Are they not able to provide everything these little dear ones so sorely need?’ I am ashamed to say they are not. Most of the little ones in these places have at least one parent. How, then, do such institutions come into being? Oftentimes a parent is unable to care for their child. Perhaps they have had a series of misfortunes – they have lost their means of employment, they have succumbed to a sudden illness, they are unable to pay the rent – or perhaps only one tragedy has befallen them. This is when the orphans’ homes swoop in. The unlucky parents will be served with what is called an order of the court and will have their children snatched away. There is a term for this. It is called kidnapping. And, not unlike a bandit that grabs a child off the streets, the courts will invoke a ransom of some kind. In addition, the homes also will take in funds from the county. Those places are paid off per child – per head, if you will. Like cattle.
“Once a child is placed in one of these homes – although I hasten to call them such, for how can it be a true home where there is no love? Once the child is placed there, it loses its identity. He is no longer little Johnny, she no longer pretty Jane. They are nothing more than one of the many holy little beings to which a numeric figure can be attached. Think of it – our laws are set up to aid in this business. For that is all it is. A business.”
Mrs. Baker’s head bowed as if she were in mourning.
“That is why I embarked upon my mission. It is why I founded the Joseph Walter Home. This name holds a special meaning to me, for it is the same as that of my own son. The poor little thing, he died in infancy.”
Confused, Celia arched her neck to look at Joseph, who continued to stand next to his sister. Opening her mouth to speak, Celia pointed a stubby finger at him.
“But he’s right–”
Before Celia could finish, Flora motioned for her to be quiet, a look of panic flashing across her face. The girl stopped speaking.
From the stage Mrs. Baker squinted into the wings to ascertain which of them had done it. No one from the audience seemed to have heard, and after a few seconds she turned back to the crowd and resumed her talk.
“As I worked to raise my young daughter without the help of a husband – he disappeared after the death of our son, and I heard later that he himself had died, too – I saw the need for a different kind of home, one that not only provides the food and shelter each child needs, but also the love they need just as much. Since I first opened that home in Kansas City, I have helped to raise hundreds of children. I have been a mother to them. Indeed, that’s what they call me. ‘Mother Baker.’ Nothing makes my heart gladder.
“And of course, for those children who still have at least one parent, they are returned to their former homes once conditions there improve. This is not possible under the terms of a normal orphanage. Once those poor children are taken in by the county, they can be adopted, after which time they never see their true parents again. They are robbed of their families, their names and, I repeat, their identities. I guarantee you that nothing of this sort ever happens at the Joseph Walter Home. In addition to food, clothing and shelter, our children are given love, and they retain a sense of who they are. You cannot receive this guarantee from a county orphanage. The only guarantees those places can provide are broken homes and broken hearts. These things, dear friends, are forever.”
Mrs. Baker looked again to the wings and broke into a smile that showed as many of her teeth as possible.
“It is difficult work, and costly, too. But I am glad to do it so that children like these can get all the love and comfort they so need and deserve.”
She lifted her right arm with the palm out, and the children began to file onto the stage as they had rehearsed. Some held hands, while others stood close together in groups of two or three. All of them smiled and faced the darkened opera house as the applause boomed out like a hailstorm from the audience. The children formed a half-circle behind Mrs. Baker, who held up both of her hands until the clapping died down.
“And now, my children will favor you with a hymn whose meaning is so very important to us at the Joseph Walter Home. Thank you very much.”
A small band played the opening strains of “No, Never Alone” as she left the stage. The performance went well, with each of the adults joining the children at the conclusion of the song. They took in the last of the applause and went back to the wings together, waving and smiling at the audience. The sound gave no sign of diminishing as Mrs. Baker turned to the children.
“Which one of you did it?” she snapped. “Which one of you interrupted my speech?”
She walked up and down the line of children, staring into their faces. Although she was near the far end of the group, Celia began to whimper. Her face went red and her eyes stung. Flora squeezed her hand. Celia shut her eyes and hoped her tears would not be seen.
“I did it, Mother.”
It was Joseph. Celia squinted in time to see Mrs. Baker haul off and slap the boy hard across the lips with the back of her hand. Then Mrs. Baker returned to the stage to give a final joyous wave to the crowd.