1937 at The Home for the Friendless, an old-fashioned children’s shelter
There was no way I could be lonesome for playmates at the Home for the Friendless in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Children who lived there ranged from babies to young teenagers. We were like a family because we had so many things in common, such as parents who sometimes lived together and sometimes didn’t. Some of the kids compared stories the way jail-mates did in the movies. The difference was that prisoners talked about what banks they had robbed or who they’d beaten up. At the Home, children whispered about fights their parents had or why their moms ran away.
Not me. As long as I kept that kind of information to myself, I felt normal. I didn’t tell anyone that when my parents clashed, Mama would yell and cry and break dishes and then run away from home, leaving my aunts to take care of us at Grandmother’s house.
I was embarrassed about my mother’s temper tantrums but it didn’t bother me that our family was poor. Everyone was hard up. When we lived with our parents, the county gave us free groceries like powdered milk, Cream of Wheat, and Wonder Bread. Sometimes people gave us clothes, shoes, and galoshes. I was thrilled when a cute hat with a matching coat came my way on Free Clothing Day. No child at the Home for the Friendless was poor on holidays, because people felt sorry for us. We probably got more attention than any other kids in town. Easter was special because nice ladies from the Women’s Club came and threw a big party for us under the elm trees. They looked pretty in their silky dresses, hats, and gloves. I pretended the short lady was Mama and it made me not miss her as much.
Before the party started, the ladies hid colored eggs everywhere on the playground. Each kid received a beautiful basket with a bow on the handle before being set loose. Dozens of scrumptious treats peeked out of secret places like under the peonies or behind tree trunks. Some of the decorated eggs were right out in the open. We bumped into each other in our rush to grab more than anyone else, but especially to find the golden egg that was really a big hunk of chocolate wrapped in gold tinfoil. Everyone hoped to win the prize for finding the most stuff. The winner wasn’t me because I ate all my treasures as soon as I found them. I couldn’t help myself.
Our Fourth of July party was even better than Easter. A man, his wife, and their dog Pardner entertained us on the front lawn. The cowboy was more dressed up than Hopalong Cassidy, and his pooch wore a cowboy hat and a gun in a little holster while he performed flips in the air. When the cowboy pointed his finger and said, “Bang!” Pardner rolled onto his back and played dead. His legs stuck straight up in the air and his head rolled to the side as though it was all over for him. It made us laugh so hard that seeing the trick just once wasn’t enough. We begged for it over and over, and each time that dog flopped on his side with his little legs pointing to heaven, we laughed until we rolled on the ground, hugging our sides. What a smart pooch. He could’ve been in the movies. Later, Pardner let us all pet him. He was the happiest little dog I’d ever seen in my life, but not as happy as I was that day. Each of us was roped and “captured” by Mr. Cowboy while Mrs. Cowboy strummed a guitar and taught us the words to “Oh, Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.” You could tell they loved doing it because the more we smiled, the more they sang.
After the show, they treated us to a weenie roast with cold soda pop and homemade ice cream. When it grew dark, grownups shot off rockets, sparklers, and cherry bombs as we kids sat protected behind an imaginary line so no one would get his head blown off. It was exciting to stay outside way after dark, feeling scared and excited at the same time. The fireflies were just as happy that night because they blinked their taillights faster than ever.
The last party that year was Christmas at the Elks’ Club. I was sure their tree was the most sparkly one in the whole world. It went clear to the ballroom ceiling, which was way up above the diamond chandeliers. Every kid got a decorated stocking filled with an orange, a candy cane, and all kinds of penny candy like we used to receive when our Dad paid the grocery bill at Combs Grocery Store. A real live Santa Claus showed up at the Elks’ Club. We knew he was not a fake because he let us pull on his beard … and because he knew all of our names.
We sat on the floor in front of him and when he called out each name, a different kid popped up for a present. When it was my turn, Santa acted like he had known me since the day I was born.
“Well, hello, Betty. Have you been practicing your violin?”
I was so amazed that my eyes bugged out and all I could do was shake my head yes. When it was my brother’s turn, Santa said, “Hi, Bobby. Have you been sharing the kiddy car with the other boys?”
Bobby was so scared that he didn’t know he was lying when he shook his head yes. He just did what everyone else did.
If our gift didn’t appeal to us, we were allowed to trade with each other until we were satisfied. Mine was a bottle of green liquid labeled “Toilet Water.” I had no idea what toilet water was, but an older girl said, “Dummy, you’re supposed to put some of it on your skin each day.”
“Why?” I asked.
“’Cause it’ll make you smell good.”
It didn’t make sense that water from a toilet could smell good. It sounded so icky and looked so putrid that I traded the green liquid for a set of dominoes. Even if we had not been given presents, holidays at the Home were so much fun that I forgot to be homesick for Mama and Dad.
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Illustrated by Betty Auchard