During the winter of 1937, Mama took Bobby, Patty, and me to live at the Home for the Friendless. She said, “This is a nice place. You’ll like it here, and I’ll visit you every week.”
Whenever our parents broke up, we three kids stayed at Grandmother Peal’s house. But this sudden change made me so tense that my scalp hurt. The Home for the Friendless was a dark three-story building where a lot of other kids lived, too. I hoped they were as nice as our cousins.
The lady in charge looked grumpy, but she really wasn’t. She said, “You can call me Mrs. Kurl, even though my hair is straight as a ruler.” I knew she was trying to drag a smile out of us, but it didn’t work on me. She said, would you like a tour of our facility?”
Facility? That sounded like a jail. I just wanted to go home, but Mama agreed to see every room, and we followed.
The Home for the Friendless was musty like the basement in an old building. There were no curtains, so our voices echoed in the hallways. When I saw where each of us would stay, a hot, sweaty feeling broke out on my chest. We three kids would not be together. When Mama kissed us goodbye, she said, “You be brave now because this is a very nice place.” I squeezed back my tears Did this mean we were orphans?
Bobby and I saw each other at mealtimes, but I slept in the girls’ dorm, he slept in the boys’ dorm, and my two-year-old sister slept in the nursery. I never knew what she had for breakfast each day. When the children in the nursery played outside, they were right next to the girls’ side of the playground.
I waved to Bobby and Patty whenever I could. I wanted to show them the tooth I had just lost and the bloody hole it had left in my gum, but I couldn’t. We could only see each other on weekends when Mama, Damsy, or Grandmother Peal came to visit. By the time we got together, the empty hole in my gum was no longer repulsive enough to show anyone.
Bobby was happy at the Home and played with a red kiddy car that he pedaled with his feet. He yelled across the low peony hedge, “Sister, I like it here!” I wanted to squeeze him with a tight hug, but we couldn’t leave our assigned areas. My little brother didn’t seem to need me anymore and that’s when I sucked my thumb. It kept me from crying.
I saw Patty a lot because her playground was close by. I wasn’t allowed to play with her either but I spied on her as much as I could by hiding behind a tree trunk. I loved watching her up close because she was so cute with her rosy cheeks and bright red hair. If the nursery monitor caught me she would say, “Stay in your own area.”
One day when the air was so cold I could hardly talk, I noticed my sister crying. The monitor was busy with other kids and hadn’t noticed Patty’s bawling. My heart ached. She looked pitiful and cold. and her cheeks were as red as her hair. I could see her nose running and couldn’t bear her misery, so I marched straight to the off-limits playground to hug her and wipe her snotty nose with my mittens. Then I started closing her jacket. Patty tilted her head down to watch what I was doing, and I caught her bottom lip in the zipper. She screamed. I pulled the zipper back to set her lip free, and blood flowed down her chin.
When the monitor saw blood all over Patty’s mouth, her eyes bulged as she rushed toward us and screamed, “What have you done to this little girl?” She thrust her finger in the air and said, “Get back to your own area, and stay there. You are not uh-llowed on this playground!” She punctuated the words and spit flew everywhere.
I sneaked back to my private tree trunk and planned to kidnap Bobby and Patty. We would run away to Grandmother Peal’s house. I was sure I could find it. She would not be expecting us, but I could say, “Hello, Grandmother. How ya been? Would ya like some company?”
I knew I couldn’t really run away, so I sucked my thumb instead and counted the days until the weekend.
Excerpt from the award-winning memoir, The Home for the Friendless by Betty Auchard — available on Amazon as an eBook and audio book.
Going to bed at 7:30 was crazy. It wasn’t even dark. But that’s the way they did things at the Home for the Friendless in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The Home was an ancient brick building where my brother, sister, and I lived while our parents tried again to work out their problems. On our first night there, I bathed, brushed my teeth, put on nightclothes, and climbed into bed in the hot and stuffy dormitory.
Mrs. Stone, the monitor, shook her finger and said, “No more talking. Just stay quiet and go to sleep.”
“But it’s still light outside,” whined one little girl.
“Shhh.” As Mrs. Stone turned to leave, she stopped to add a warning. “If you get up during the night, don’t drink any water or you’ll wet the bed.” Then she disappeared into her apartment near the bathroom sinks.
Even though I was there with other girls whose families had problems, I felt terribly alone. It was miserable being separated from Dad and Mama and relocated to a strange place. I had pretended it was normal so my little brother and sister wouldn’t be scared. But that evening I couldn’t comfort them because they were in their own dorms. I knew I wouldn’t see them very often, and I already missed them so much I felt sick.
After flopping on top of the stiff sheets, I watched the last of the daylight spill over our beds from the windows. I felt abandoned. What were Mama and Dad doing while I was trying so hard to doze off? Were they arguing again or going to the movies? I got all twitchy, lying there thinking and waiting for cool air to arrive.
I could hear roller rink sounds from several blocks away. The organ was playing “Take Me out to the Ballgame,” and I could hear hundreds of skate wheels humming on the rink floor. The mingling of steel wheels and music in the air hypnotized me. I began to imagine how different things would be if I were a magician. I would soar back to the past and live with Mama and Dad again so we three kids could be cozy under one blanket and go to sleep after dark like normal people. It was not normal for my brother and sister and me to sleep during the daytime, in three different beds, in rooms filled with kids we didn’t know.
When the sun finally quit for the day, a kindhearted breeze wafted through the screens to cool my skin, and I finally drifted into slumber. I dreamed that I was flying with my brother under one arm and my sister under the other, and I was brave enough to fly wherever I wanted without asking permission.
It was fun zipping wherever I wanted to go, though something kept my flights from turning out right. It dawned on me that I had left Bobby and Patty behind, so I made a graceful U-turn back to the Home and into the boys’ window. Bobby was too scared to join me because he had forgotten that I knew how to fly. I grabbed the back of his pajama top anyway and whooshed into the nursery to scoop up Patty, but she was sound asleep. I fluttered above her, calling her name softly so as not to wake the other little kids.
My plan was to float through my parents’ window with Bobby and Patty and say, Surprise! But I didn’t know where they lived or if they remembered who we were. Mama and Dad were always moving. Why couldn’t they stay in one place for a while? It would make flying to them a whole lot easier.
Instead of gliding into my parents’ house, I found myself trapped inside a huge room that was inside another room that was inside another room. I got so airsick that I had to abort the flight.
I awoke tangled in my sheets. It took a while for me to go to sleep again, and then once more I was flying. That time we three kids made it to the great outdoors and were surrounded by blue sky instead of wallpaper. I loved the sensation, so I floated for a long time, holding Patty by her middle finger and Bobby by his thumb and kicking as fast as I could to stay up … until I saw telephone wires ahead. I dove under them and zoomed up, up, and away into wide open space only to find more telephone wires high above the earth.
I never did make it to freedom with my brother and sister that night, but since I didn’t know where freedom was, I decided it was a whole lot easier just to wake up.