Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

by Kathleen Rooney

Clock Icon 5 minute read


The Road of Anthracite

There once was a girl named Phoebe Snow. She wore only white and held tight to a violet corsage, an emblem of modesty. She was not retiring, though, and her life spun out as a series of journeys through mountain tunnels carved from poetry. I never saw her doing anything besides boarding, riding, or disembarking a train, immaculate always, captivating conductors, enchanting other passengers.

No, there wasn’t. She was just an advertisement: the poster girl for the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad. Her unsoilable Antarctic-colored clothes were proof that the line’s anthracite-powered locomotives were clean-burning, truly—unlike their sooty and outfit-despoiling competitors:

Her laundry bill for fluff and frill

Miss Phoebe finds is nearly nil.

It’s always light, though gowns of white,

Are worn on Road of Anthracite.

*   *   *

I was five years old when I first laid eyes on her, on a postcard sent me by my dearest aunt, Sadie Boxfish, my father’s youngest sister, daring and unmarried and living in Manhattan. Sadie visited us in the District of Columbia, but not very often. Her rare physical presence she supplemented with correspondence in snips and flashes. After I scrawled back how much I adored Phoebe, star of the story-poems, they became the only kind of card Sadie ever posted.

The earliest ones my mother read aloud (though I could read):

Miss Phoebe Snow has stopped to show

Her ticket at the gate, you know.

The Guard, polite, declares it right.

Of course—it’s Road of Anthracite.

*   *   *

Mother clutched me in her lap, talking about the image—Phoebe in a hat, Phoebe in a dining car, Phoebe blue-eyed and mannerly chatting with the engineer—and reciting the poetry:

Here Phoebe may, by night or day,

Enjoy her book upon the way.

Electric light dispels the night

Upon the Road of Anthracite.

*   *   *

In her clear contralto above my ears I could hear, in her neat bosom behind my head I could feel, her disapproval: not of Phoebe, but of Sadie. My mother—who was well-educated, read widely, passably fluent in German, conversant with the works of Freud and Adler, married at twenty, and never received a dollar of wages in her life—was also a woman who took difference as a slight. Anyone not living a life that fit the mold of her own—wifedom, motherhood—constituted a personal affront, an implied rebuke, an argument against. I thought Sadie quite bold.

“What a smart girl,” my mother would say of Phoebe, who (I saw later) must have been so light and unburdened for having only air, and not one thought or care, in her golden head. Mother, stroking my own red-gold hair, meant only that Phoebe’s frock was smart, or her little white gloves. Not Phoebe herself. Not smartness of that kind.

“Aunt Sadie’s a smart girl,” I said only once. To no reply. To my mother, gritting her small neat teeth, pearly and needle-like, reading that day’s card more loudly than usual:

A cozy seat, a dainty treat

Make Phoebe’s happiness complete

With linen white and silver bright

Upon the Road of Anthracite.

*   *   *

Sadie, career girl, and Phoebe, socialite, embedded inextricably into one another in my mind. Both of them expressed the inexpressible, suggesting that sex appeal existed but probably ought not to be named while one was living at home. Suggesting not so much a passenger train as speed and freedom, not so much a gown as style, not so much a hairdo as beauty.

Mother saw Sadie as wasting that last, working as hard as a beast of burden as a nurse in a hospital in New York City. Though now I know that Sadie can’t have been living the life of Riley, I wanted to move there and join her. What a smart girl.

My mother resented Sadie like a stepsister resenting Cinderella, but she was polite. She did her no social violence. Was always hospitable and gracious on Sadie’s visits, both as a point of pride and because my father would not have abided otherwise. Though he, too, a lawyer, thought Sadie’s work beneath her.

My devotion to both Phoebe and Sadie has remained constant over the decades. When I think of either, I also think of lofty mountain chains and cool delights.

The New York I moved to eventually was empty of Sadie, though I’ve since walked by St. Vincent’s, the hospital where she worked, I don’t know how many times. She died in the influenza epidemic of 1918.

Phoebe, deathless, simply faded from public consciousness like a once-popular song. Anthracite, needed to fight the Great War, was not to be used on railroads anymore. The world changed, and Phoebe disappeared forever:

On time the trip ends without a slip

And Phoebe sadly takes her grip

Loath to alight, bows left and right,

“Good-bye, Dear Road of Anthracite.”

*   *   *

But I never forgot her. I didn’t want to be her, so much as to have her—to create her.

Sadie led me to Manhattan, but Phoebe led me to poetry, and to advertising. So enrapt was I at her entrancing rhymes that when the time came to apply for jobs, I rhymed my letters and my samples alike:

To work for you

Is my fondest wish

Signed your ever-true

Lillian Boxfish

*   *   *

Fifteen inquiries. Five favorable replies. Including one by telegram from R.H. Macy’s. This was the one I chose: my first serious job in New York City. A job which in some ways saved my life, and in other ways ruined it. What a smart girl.


Copyright © 2017 by Kathleen Rooney



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