Orphan Fear

boys1950When I was about five years old,  I became convinced that my parents were going to send me to an orphanage.

They did argue a lot.

Their loud, frequent and contentious disputes made me nervous and I usually retreated into my room when it happened and closed the door so I wouldn’t have to hear them. I’d put the pillow over my head and cover my ears.

But it was impossible not to hear them. 

My mother and father seemed to be at odds on a number of issues. He couldn’t seem to understand why she couldn’t be the person he wanted her to be, rather than the person whom she was. And she couldn’t understand why he was so stubborn and set in his ways. She was thirteen years younger than he was.

Old people can be quite stubborn,” I thought.

It also didn’t help my anxiety regarding the tenuous and precarious nature of my relationship with them that my father complained to me about my mother. I was only five, after all, and just beginning to find my own place in the world.

On one particular train trip my father and I took to Jacksonville, Florida to visit his mother, my father confided to me about how frustrated and unhappy he was with my mother. I was only six or so, and after listening to his side of the story, I tried to cheerfully console him. I told him very earnestly and looked him right in the eyes while I said it, that I was sure he could find someone else, perhaps someone more to his liking.

But even this didn’t seem to satisfy him.

I remember one particular argument they had was over how many pairs of shoes my mother had. My father seemed to think that she had too many. They both worked, and she ran a business they owned together, but still he sought to control her. My mother was not the type of person to be controlled by anyone, much less my father, and once or twice she was not even able to control herself. If she had been, I wouldn’t be writing this.

But that’s another story.

I had heard of this thing called a “divorce” and had a vague notion of what that entailed. I loved both of them very much in my own way and wondered anxiously to myself which one I would eventually end up with.

Would it be my mother, with her great laugh and free-spending, fun-loving ways? She did go to the movies a lot. I liked movies. She even bought me popcorn and a drink.

Or would it be my father, a somewhat reserved, but fun-loving man, who dressed well and took me to church on Sundays, the very church he and my mother were married in fifteen years before, although I think that might have been the last time my mother had been there.

My father seemed to enjoy nothing more than driving down to Florida to visit his mother or sisters. My mother never accompanied us on a single one of those trips. Something else which my father seemed to resent and could not understand. He was a different person when my mother wasn’t around. A happier person. He was more relaxed, more himself.

More free.

Then I thought about the old lady who lived next door to us. I wondered what life would be like with her. She and my mother’s mother had been friends for many years before my father and mother and I came to live with my grandmother in the little brick house on 51st Street. Mrs. Draughon, as everyone called her, for that was her name, was soft-spoken and kind and seemed always to have a white apron strung around her flowery print dress. When I was a child and playing in the driveway between our houses, she would frequently beckon to me to come to the white picket fence that separated her property from ours so that she could hand me a basket of hot biscuits, fresh from her oven, which she had covered with a red-and-white checkered napkin, and she bade me to give them to my grandmother who had fallen and broken her hip and was confined to bed or to her wheelchair.

Yes, I could be quite happy with Mrs. Draughon and it would be quite simple to move all my things over to her house since she was right next door. The thought of it gave me some relief from my worries.

Then those letters started coming.

I used to meet the letter carrier on the front porch and go through the mail and remove the letters from Father Flanagan of Boys Town in Nebraska. But those letters kept on coming, now, it seemed even with more frequency than before. There was a picture of a Catholic Priest, Father Flanagan, on the outside of the envelope and the return address was a place called Boys Town, in Nebraska. I didn’t know a thing about Nebraska, except that they grew corn there and there were probably a lot of farms. I didn’t like the idea of getting up before the sun had come up, especially to milk a cow.

Having lived my entire life as an only child, I did not relish the idea of living in a big orphanage and taking my meals in a big mess hall and sleeping in a large dormitory with hundreds of other boys.

So I made those letters disappear.

The top drawer of my father’s dresser was a constant source of wonder and amusement, especially on a rainy day–or on any day, really. There were old pocket knives, an occassional pack of Dixie Boy firecrackers, old watches that didn’t work, old sets of car keys with tiny flashlights attached to them. Brass keys to God-knows-what. Just the kinds of things to keep a boy’s imagination happily engaged for hours. And there were matches. Little books of matches which had been taken as souvenirs from various restaurants and places he had been.

Those matches were very conveniently placed for one who might be in urgent need of them in order to burn some unwanted correspondence from Nebraska out in the lane back behind the house.

Years went by, and the letters stopped coming.

But the arguments continued.

Just when I was starting to feel a bit more secure, my mother informed me that Mrs. Carter, another old lady who was friends with my grandmother, would be coming in a day or two to take me out to Bethesda, the local orphanage for boys on the outskirts of town. Horrified  and rendered speechless at the idea, nevertheless, in a day or so, I found myself dressed up in my Sunday best and in the passenger seat of an old blue car being driven by an old woman with reddish brown hair whose face reminded me of nothing so much as a chicken. A happy chicken, I’ll admit, but a chicken nevertheless. I nervously asked the lady chicken why I was being taken to the orphanage.

Purportedly it was so that I could,  “…see how the orphans celebrated Christmas.”

I had expressed no such curiosity about the celebratory habits of orphans to anyone and strongly suspected that I knew the real reason I was being taken there.

They wanted to interview me to see if I would fit in.

I was determined to be uncooperative when the time came.

The chicken lady parked her car near a large brick building that seemed like some kind of castle– or prison, maybe. She took my hand and led me up the steps and we entered through a large open door into the biggest room I had ever seen. There was a huge Christmas tree set up in the middle of the room with thousands of lights on it and many presents underneath and I could hear the sound of voices, many voices in unison, boy’s voices—orphan voices— and the orphans were singing as they began to slowly descend a large spiral staircase one step at a time–directly toward me and the chicken lady. Each orphan boy wore a  white shirt, and in his hands each boy held a white candle which illuminated his orphan face. These were the faces of the unloved, the motherless and fatherless children. With each step, the singing, unloved faces came closer and closer to mine. My heart began to beat with a sudden ferocity. I thought it might burst. I quickly let go of the chicken-lady’s hand and raced for the door. Not quite running, but not quite walking.

She let me go.

In about ten minutes, she walked back to the car and found me waiting there for her. We got in and she drove me back home. If we talked at all on the way back home, it wasn’t very much. I felt ashamed of myself and guilty that I had two parents–even if they did argue a lot and were secretly conspiring to get rid of me.

She parked her old blue car in front of the house and we got out and went inside. She went back to the rear bedroom to talk with my grandmother. I wasn’t really sure what they were talking about, or if it involved me, because I went straight to my room and closed the door and locked it.

If they were going to put me in an orphanage, next time they were going to have to break the door down and take me out by force.

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