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Battle Creek, Michigan
I was raised in religion, but it was not God who loomed largest over my girlhood and its earliest memories. That was Charles William Post, Charlie, or simply C.W. to those who knew him best. To me, he was only ever Papa.
He cut no particularly imposing figure, what with his narrow frame, standing at just over six feet tall, and his fine, blue-eyed smile. But the man molded my world, and then he went on and changed everybody else’s as well.
You might say the same about my education, too, for although I went to school for all of my girlhood, it was on Papa’s lap that I did the learning that would shape me. How Papa could spin a story, building worlds in my young mind until I came to believe that just about anything was possible. Because to Papa, anything was. There were the tales of the tall Springfield lawyer whom Papa admired, a family friend by the name of Mr. Abe Lincoln, who taught himself to read as a boy in a drafty log hut with nothing more than a tattered Bible and yet somehow found himself in charge of the White House. Of course Papa—and then I—knew all the presidents, but I loved the stories about Mr. Lincoln the best; Papa had made this singular man a friend while they lived in Springfield, after they’d both sprung up from nothing but their own grit and the fertile frontier soil.
Oh, but there were other good stories, too. Papa’s words had me forging across the Great Divide on the back of a mule, just as he’d done as a young man with his brother, my Uncle Cal, the pair of them sifting for gold amid the red mud and the pines. He had me battling Chicago’s Great Fire or else waiting out a night of dust storms in Oklahoma, shivering beneath a heap of scratchy wagon canvas as the coyote yips mixed with the wind skittering against a flimsy tin roof. He talked of pianos that didn’t need human fingers to play and buggies that didn’t need horses to pull them.
It always seemed to me that by the time I arrived in the world, Papa had tried his hand at pretty much everything: he’d been an inventor in California, a salesman in Illinois, a farmer in Nebraska, a rancher in the wild Oklahoma Territory. Success had come in fickle fits and bursts, with plenty of failure mixed in, but he’d managed to wed the sweetheart of his youth in the midst of it all. My mother, Ella Letitia Merriweather, a pale beauty with gray eyes and a reserved demeanor, came from a far more affluent family but the same Springfield roots.
The borders of my young mind and memory can barely contain Papa: fine-featured, with an easy charm and smarts to best anyone else in the room, a sharp humor and a kind voice—but then sick. Suddenly and frightfully sick.
It was this sickness that fueled our journey that winter, a journey that would end in a way that none of us, not even Papa, the incorrigible dreamer, could have possibly conceived.
Battle Creek welcomed us with a wall of cold air, the sort of air that stuns, needling your cheeks and causing the breath to stick in your nostrils on the way in. Beside me, Papa leaned on Mother to limp off the Michigan Central line train car and onto the frigid platform. After weeks of travel, we had arrived, and for that I was grateful, but I feared that our stop might be Papa’s final destination.
“Your father is near the end of mortals,” Mother had whispered to me on our long journey up from Texas, both her words and the skin around her lips pulling tight with worry. Our train car had rocked back and forth in a doleful rhythm as swaths of ice-slicked farmland rolled past our frosted window. Papa groaned where he lay in the berth, the extra blankets doing little to warm his thin, trembling frame. I didn’t know if perhaps he’d heard Mother’s words and was trying to respond or if he was simply giving voice to the pain that gripped his failing body. I also did not understand why Mother couldn’t put a tender hand on him or lean close to offer some soothing words of comfort, anything to lend him just a tiny bit of warmth. But then I’d rarely seen her do such a thing.
And to be fair to Mother, it wasn’t she to whom Papa called out when he had the strength for words. “Budgie,” he’d whisper, his breath a sliver of pearly mist in the cold compartment, his voice so faint that I almost couldn’t hear my nickname over the rolling thrum of the train’s forward motion.
“Yes, Papa, I’m here,” I’d say, taking his wilted hands in mine and lowering myself down to pass the hours by his side. Singing the chaste Christian hymns he’d sung over my bedside. Thinking with an ache, but knowing better than to say aloud: Papa, please don’t leave me. What would I do without you?
Papa’s symptoms were a list of words that meant little to me at my young age. Migraines, melancholy, dyspepsia, insomnia, anxiety—all in all, a nervous disturbance of both the body and the mind. Papa wasn’t the only man to suffer such symptoms, but it seemed to me that nobody could have possibly had them worse.
When at last the train lurched to its stop and we stepped out onto the platform, a weak winter sun was lowering itself over the bustling Battle Creek station. Grateful to be free of the train’s close-packed air and the scent of the many bodies riding within, I gulped in several large, cold breaths and immediately detected the belches of train soot mixed with the aroma of the countless cows that filled the flat surrounding countryside. There was another tinny smell, one that I’d soon come to know well enough: the promise of snow.
Porters jostled around the crowded depot, seeing to trunks and boxes and weary travelers. Passengers shuffled about, looking for loved ones and luggage. I stood there shivering, glancing up at each parent in turn and wondering who was in charge: Mother? Or Papa, even though his body was so visibly useless? A porter in a smart cap and dark wool coat approached us, pushing a chair and looking to Papa with eyebrows raised. “A wheelchair, sir?”
“Indeed.” Papa, leaning on Mother’s arm, nodded his feeble acceptance and collapsed into the chair’s caned seat with a relieved sigh.
“To the San?” the porter asked, looking from Papa to Mother.
We, like nearly everyone else on that darkening platform, had come for one reason: to seek the treatment of the famed Dr. John Kellogg. A physician by trade, the brilliant Battle Creek healer attracted the sick from the East Coast to the West—old money and new—and even from across the oceans. Slumped in his chair, Papa’s let loose a low, faint groan.
“No, to this address,” Mother answered. Even though Dr. Kellogg and his wife had adopted dozens of children over the years, they did not look kindly on little ones roaming the campus, disrupting the hundreds of feeble patients and busy medical staffers, so Mother had arranged for us to take furnished lodgings in a house just several streets from the San campus.
“It is the home of a widow, a Mrs. Elizabeth Gregory.” Mother handed the porter a paper with our destination scrawled in her stiff cursive, and she watched, rigid as the frozen lampposts, as the young man oversaw the unloading of our few trunks and boxes. While Papa’s body had gone slack with sickness, as though his bones could no longer hold him entirely together, Mother’s figure seemed to coil ever tighter under the strain of our situation. I don’t remember any hair color of hers other than white.
“I understand that the address is near the Sanitarium campus of Dr. Kellogg?” Mother asked the porter, who nodded and assumed control of navigating Papa’s wheelchair through the crowded depot.
“Oh, yes, ma’am. Everything in Battle Creek is near the San.” Mother nodded her terse approval, taking my hand in her too-tight grip as we followed the young man and made our way down the platform toward the noisy street.
Papa groaned as the porter did his best to gently lift him from the chair into a waiting wagon, where Mother and I also took seats. “You take care now, sir,” said the kind young man. “Dr. Kellogg will have you fixed up in no time. We see miracles every day—folks limping off the train for treatment who end up skipping their way out of town.” Papa did his best to answer the attendant with a dim smile and a nod. Mother simply folded her gloved hands in her lap, eyes fixed on some indeterminate point across the flat, frost-covered farmland. I sat up a bit straighter as Papa turned his gaze toward me and offered me a wink. We’d heard that Dr. Kellogg’s ways were unorthodox and his treatments expensive, but all our hopes hinged on the man. Papa was near the end of mortals, to hear Mother tell it, and we had come here at the end of our hopes and our pennies; if anyone could heal Papa after years of these baffling ailments, we hoped it would be Dr. Kellogg.