The prompt for this past Monday’s writing group was to write about flowers. My mother has a passion for flowers and flowering shrubs, her home resembles a small botanical garden. I spent a few days visiting my Mom, seeing her garden and talking about the six years she and her siblings lived in an orphanage, or ”as inmates in an orphan asylum” per the terminology of the day. After my visit, I researched the Passaic Home & Orphan Asylum, which began operations out of the Italianate mansion of the former W.S. Anderson estate in 1888. The orphanage remained on operation until 1962. While doing my research, I discovered an incident involving residents of the orphan home had garnered nationwide interest in the early 1930’s. The resiliency of my Mom and her siblings and my Mom’s love of flowers served as the inspiration for this fictional story that I wove around the true historic event that occurred in 1933. A brief recount of this incident will follow my story.
The driver of the garden delivery truck beeped and waved at the column of children walking two by two on their way home from school. The children waved back. The driver shifted gears, the truck lurched and a small mesh bag tumbled from it and landed at the feet of Dorothy Jensen and her sisters. She grabbed the bag and shouted after the driver, but the truck chugged on. The contents of the bag looked like small gnarly onions, scribbled on tag tied to the bag was the word “daffodil”. Dorothy heard her name called and turned to see her older brother, Edward, jogging from the front of the column.
“Dorothy, Ruth, Marie! Get back in line, we need to get back to the Home in time for dinner!”
Dorothy held up the bag that had fallen off the truck. “Daffodil bulbs!” Exclaimed Edward.
“They don’t look like daffodils” said Dorothy.
“Not now they don’t”, said Edward, “people plant the bulbs in the Fall and in the Spring they sprout flowers. Maybe we can plant them this weekend. Let me take them.” He smiled at his sisters, shuffled them back into line and waved the column forward.
After dinner, Edward sought out Dorothy and gave her the sad news that someone told the Headmistress about the bag of daffodil bulbs. She made him turn them over to her, they would be planted in the asylum garden, because “technically, they belong to the orphan home.” Edward told Dorothy not to fret, he had managed to sneak four bulbs out of the bag, one for him and his 3 sisters to plant. He said he knew a special place to plant them, where the asylum administrators would not see them. That Saturday morning, Edward led his sisters over the railroad tracks behind the Orphan home and to a corner of the baseball field just past the rail line. He had already cleared a small patch next to the outfield fence and the 4 of them each planted a daffodil bulb. “In the Spring, we will have the most beautiful daffodils,” said Edward. They returned to the Home for lunch.
Over the next 6 months, Dorothy and her sisters visited the spot where they planted the flowers as much as they could, weather permitting, even though there was nothing to see. They were worried when the snow covered them, but Edward assured them all would be fine. “How do you know?” They asked. He told them they were their mother’s favorite flowers, they were too young to remember, but she had planted them in several places around the house.
In late March, Edward and his sisters were delighted to see green shoots sprouting out of the ground. Some of the boys from the Home who were playing baseball came over to see what the four of them were looking at. Edward told them the story of how he and and sisters came in possession of the bulbs. He ended the story by saying, “So this is our little garden, it reminds us of our mother.”
The baseball players were silent for a moment, there were six of them. Finally one asked, “Could we plant some things here too? It could be our garden, our Orphan Garden.” Edward and his sisters thought it was a great idea.
Not long after the daffodils bloomed, a rare Spring thunderstorm blew through. For two days, between the flash of lightning and the roll of thunder, the rain fell in torrents. When the storm subsided, the six baseball players asked Edward and Dorothy if they wanted to come join them, to see how the ball field and small garden fared after the storm. Pulling on their boots and yellow rain slickers off they went to investigate.
Crossing the railroad tracks, and climbing the small hill to the level baseball field, they were astonished at what they saw. The infield looked like a lake, but part of the outfield had disappeared. Where it had been was now a ditch about 10 feet deep. The fence had fallen over, the flower garden was no more. Even more astonishing was the ditch had gotten wider and continued under the railroad tracks, the gravel and a few ties had collapsed into the hole, the lengths of tracks hung suspended in the air. The sound of a distant train whistle brought them out of their shock.
On the 6:00 P.M. train from Jersey City, conductors walked through the cars telling the passengers they would be arriving at the station soon. Up in the engine, the engineer and the fireman squinted out of their windows at the track that faded into the mist. The engineer suddenly swore and jumped from his seat, the fireman’s eyes flew wide open. Running towards them, in a line across the tracks were 8 kids, wildly waving yellow raincoats over their heads. They weren’t getting out of the way. The engineer reached for the brake handle.
The train screeched to a halt. Jumping down from the engine and swearing great oaths, the engineer stomped towards the 8 kids, who still stood in a line across the tracks, gulping great breaths of air. They were trying to tell him something, pointing to the tracks behind them. Looking to see what the kids were pointing at, his hands flew to his face, he let out a shriek and collapsed to his knees.
It became the feel good story of the Great Depression, the quick thinking kids from the County Orphan Asylum bravely ran towards a train to prevent a disaster and potentially save 400 lives. Perhaps the most famous orphan of the time, Babe Ruth, came to visit treated the six members of the orphan home baseball team to a day at Yankee Stadium. Yankee owner, Jacob Rupert, presented them with $2000 savings bonds.
Edward and Dorothy Jensen would not be forgotten for their role in averting disaster. The nationally renowned botanist, Constance Endicott Hartt, would visit the home. Hartt, a native of the town where the orphan home was, would use her skills and influence to establish the Jensen Botanical Garden on land adjacent to the home. Edward, Dorothy and their sisters planted the first flowers that would comprise the garden. They were daffodils of course.
Most of this story is fiction. The factual, historical portion of the story occurred in 1933, almost a decade before my mother and her siblings began living at the Passaic Home. On May 3, 1933, a torrential downpour had battered the region for most of day. By late afternoon, the storm had tapered off to light showers. Shortly before 6:00 PM, six boys who resided at the Passaic Home and Asylum donned boots and yellow rain slickers to evaluate what effect the storm had on a nearby ball field. The six boys were also students at P.S. #3 and played for the school’s baseball team. Arriving at the ball field, they were astounded to see the field was a muddy morass. But the most shocking thing of all was that the storm had washed out a 10 deep trench beneath the tracks of the nearby Erie Railroad line. In the distance, the boys could hear the clanging bell of an approaching train. It was the 6:00 PM train commuter train from Jersey City with 400 passengers aboard. Removing their rain slickers, six boys formed a line across the tracks and frantically waved them in an effort to stop the train. The train did brake to a halt, the engineer did exit the train to berate the 6 kids, the driver did fall to the ground when he saw he stopped just 50 feet from disaster. The incident did become the feel good story of the the time and the six kids were recognized as national heroes for their act of bravery.
The Chatham Writers Group
4 thoughts on “April Showers”
Ernie, you did a seamless job intertwining the real story (which is amazing) with your mother’s story. I felt sadness for your mother’s childhood. Even the photo looks sad. Nancy
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Thank you Nancy!
Dear Ernie, I am writing to you with tears in my eyes and and a pile of used tissues next to me. Even though I was only two or three I have many sad memories of that Orphanage that creep into my mind and heart at times, a few happy ones too. I loved your story it made me have a picture of my mother who I really don’t have any memories of but now I can imagine her with us planting a flower garden. Thank you for for a beautiful story, I will treasure it like I save all the wonderful pictures you send as Christmas card. You are very talented! Love, Aunt Ruth
Aunt Ruth! Thank you so much for your kind words. I now am teary reading your reply. I will send you and Uncle Dick photos of our granddaughter, Emilia. Hopefully we can see you the next time we are in Florida. Love, Ernie