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Posts Tagged ‘orphanage’

My father was the oldest of six children. When he was eight years old, his father, an abusive alcoholic, had left the family. Not all together a bad thing. Except it left my grandmother without the financial means to care for her six children. So, around 1942, my grandmother made a decision that would greatly affect the life paths for those six children — she placed the five oldest in an orphanage in their town. In 1942, the only prerequisite for placing children in an orphanage was whether or not space was available — space was available.

My father kept the stories of the abuse he suffered there hidden from us, from everyone — only in the last year of his life did he begin to reveal some of the secrets he hid away so carefully. I spent a day recently with my uncle. He was a much more willing participant to tell some of the stories from the orphanage, as he occasionally held his wife’s hand for a memory jolt and a secure grasp. The boys were beaten, very often. My father bore the scars of those beatings on his back from the time he was 8, until he passed away at 72 — a reminder that time doesn’t heal everything.

My uncle told us of when they first went to the orphanage, he was 5 and my father 8. He said the boys were separated by age which meant my father was separated from the rest of his siblings. But at night, after the lights were out, my uncle would see my father make his way to the bathroom to relieve himself. My uncle would use that opportunity to go to the bathroom as well — with his big brother. They got caught one night on their way to the restroom. My uncle said that once the lights were out, you were not to get out of your bed — for anything. The rules of the orphanage were not to be broken. Young boys have a difficult time making it through the night without a trip to the bathroom. They paid the price. Their shirts were removed and they were beaten with a leather strap from their shoulder blades to the backs of their knees — blood, flesh, tears. Boys, 8 and 5, who learned that wetting the bed was a better alternative. Then, in an attempt to keep the boys from wetting the bed at night, the head of the orphanage would make them all swallow a spoonful of salt before bed — no water. Time does not heal all wounds and some memories remain close to the surface. But, I promised a story of baseball… so, let’s continue.

Kids have a way of surviving… of coping — a resiliency that adults sometimes forget they ever had. The boys from the orphanage had baseball.¬†They were allowed to work on a farm — that was their sanctuary. The farm was run by an angelic couple who brought what peace they could into the lives of the boys for the few hours each day that they were together. My father loved baseball. Lived baseball. My uncle is the same way. But not just any baseball team, the St Louis Cardinals. But neither my father nor my uncle ever played on a team… ever. There was no baseball team at the high school, no little league — but, they played every chance they got. They would prepare a spot in a field at the farm for a baseball diamond. And there, all their nightly beatings, all their scared feelings, all their lonesome hostilities would dissipate — if only momentarily.

The church’s in the area would all form baseball teams — a semi league. The church teams would take turns coming to the farm and challenging the boys. There were probably 30 boys who had, for a variety of reasons, ended up at the orphanage — they were tough and worn and they were, by all accounts… brothers. And during the day they were boys, they played and they fought. They bonded on the baseball field each day. A break from the hard work on the farm, a break from the memories of a house that used to be theirs, a break from their reality. At night, when they returned to the orphanage… they became battle-scarred soldiers. But at night, when everything was quiet, they could seek solace in the promise that the next day a new team would come to challenge them. Baseball was their refuge. Baseball gave them a reason to not succumb to the beatings of the night — because their field would be there, the next day, at the farm… waiting for them.

My uncle finished his stories with a distant look in his eyes… a memory perhaps, of an orphanage that he wanted to forget or of how baseball helped him to remember. The bonds of childhood and the game of baseball are still fresh in his memory — as they should be.

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Free Will

When my (then) husband and I decided to build a house four years ago, we picked a house plan that was two stories, four bedrooms — all upstairs. Now, at the time, we joked about how the kids would never be able to sneak out at night with all their bedrooms so high up. Of course, this wasn’t the only reason for picking this house plan — but it was a thought.

I am the youngest of four children. Our parents could boast that we never spent any time in a correctional facility, we never robbed anyone at gunpoint, we never ran away from home (I don’t think sneaking out the window and returning before sunrise counts), we all went to college. It wasn’t ideal I suppose — strictly because I’m not sure what ideal would look like. But, I’d say we had a pretty good growing up period (despite the fact that mom and dad were divorced for fifteen years, they re-married each other… but, that’s another story).

My father had a less than good growing up period. He was the oldest of six. His biological father was never around and his mother was unable to financially care for the kids. She placed them in a “children’s home” that was located near their town. My father very rarely spoke of his time there — as best I can recall, he went there when he was around nine. He did share fond memories of the other children he met there and of at least one woman who helped out on the farm where the boys from the “home” worked. He also had some profound nightmares that he never completely divulged to me.

There was a man though — who saw the potential in a scared little boy. A man who wanted to help my father escape from the nightmares of the “home”. His name was Fielding Chandler. He volunteered in the “children’s home” and was drawn to these siblings who had arrived there so young and so scared. Pop — as we called him — helped my dad achieve in academics (he went to college to become an engineer), athletics (he was a state track champ in high school), and mostly he showed him how to be a dad. He was our grandfather. That’s what we knew. I don’t think it ever really dawned on us that we weren’t really related — maybe later in life, as we were able to piece together my father’s childhood.

When my mother passed away a few months ago, I was going through some of her things and found some letters that were written to my grandfather from the headmaster of the “children’s home”. One letter was in regards to a request that Pop had made to spend Thanksgiving with my dad. The headmaster refused (although my grandmother had approved the request) siting that he believed Mr. Chandler would help my father more if he was an outsider. The rage that burned inside of me as I read this letter and subsequent letters from the headmaster was animal-like, raw, instinctual.

I wanted to immediately Google this man (yes, I live in an age where Google can answer all questions) — although I knew he had long since passed away. But, I had a need to tell his children and grandchildren what a complete ass he was. I wanted to defend this little boy who had no one. But, of course, I did not. My father didn’t need me to reach through time and save him from those horrible nightmares. Pop did that. This was my grandfather, no blood relation, no legal relation — yet this was my grandfather.

I think it would have been easy for my father’s life to turn out very different — he made choices. He didn’t always make the perfect choice, but he made the perfect amount of right choices. There must have been a weird cycle of dysfunction that was pretty mad at Mr. Chandler for not remaining an outsider.

So, the two-story house plan. Not necessarily chosen to completely keep my children at bay — but it will help. It’s so strange how life works isn’t it? Some people parent so much that their kids have no other choice but to rebel. And other people disregard their children and they turn out great. Free will — how completely strange it is.

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