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.