I have read The Loss That Is Forever by Maxine Harris, PhD, focused on the lifelong impact of the Early Death of a Mother or Father, until I can recite it, until the pages are dog eared. Death of a parent is the ultimate abandonment for a child.
Unwrapping my life, peeling it back like an onion, has given me perspective I wish I’d had much earlier. Perhaps we lack the insight we need earlier as a form of protection against that which we can’t assimilate anyway.
My father died when I was 22 months old and my brother, never knowing him, was still in utero. I had to become a mother myself to grasp how insanely difficult that must have been for my mother. After a Depression and the coming of war, she was really up against it. With little choice, she placed me and my older brother in an orphanage, to be followed when my not yet born brother was three years old, the minimum age for admission.
This was an enormous blow for my older brother, who was ten. He had real memories of his daddy. I was too small to remember the man. So orphanage was harder for that grieving, angry boy who had been for so long an only child, having his parents all to himself. For a long time, Jerry was rebellious, uncooperative, insolent, raging. All that reduced to smoldering, with flames always threatening to erupt. The very air around him was electric and crackling.
Mama turned her back, walked away and looked for a means to make a living. She made ammunition for the Navy. She, along with 6 million other women, carried the nation while the men went to battle.
I remember crying a lot for a long time. Little children are amazingly resilient, and after a while I became acclimated to my new home, but always, always looking for Mama to come back and take me home. My recall of those days is seamless, a trait found in the abandoned, something I learned from Dr. Harris. Good thing, too, because for years I thought there was something wrong with me that I clung to these memories.
For a tiny girl, the orphanage was huge, filled with 98 other raucous children of various ages. Dormitory living was the norm there. I slept with twenty five other little girls, joining them in tearful nights with the black shades drawn and the air raid sirens wailing. We wailed right along with them. When one little girl cried, 24 others wept too. Matron would come rushing in to comfort us, cuddling the worst offenders so everyone would settle down. It was like some sort of exercise of the sad little soul, and in itself became a sort of comfort. Have a bath, brush your teeth, into your jammies, counterpane pulled up to your chin, begin the crying.
Every single night.
I dreaded morning because with it came breakfast, so revolting I couldn’t get it down. A white bowl of glue resembling snot had a name: oatmeal. Thick, glutinous, bordering on cold, I sat in tears, unable to spoon it into my mouth. There would be nothing else. Well. Nothing and no one could make me eat it. So every day I sat and stared at the breakfast I couldn’t stomach. When the bell rang, I could leave the table. It was months before Matron understood that I began every day without breakfast. She took me to the kitchen where cook lifted me to the steel tabletop and sat me down on it. The surface was always cold, not designed with little bottoms in mind. Cook would whip up a raw egg, stir it into a tall glass of goat’s milk, add a bit of sugar and hand it to me. I couldn’t believe I was rewarded a treat for failing to eat my breakfast. Thing were looking up: this would be my breakfast, all by myself, with soft, comfortable cook beaming at my ability to down it in one go.
Beginning and ending my day was traumatic for me, but there was coming a surprise. On his third birthday, literally, my little brother, who I barely remembered from when he was just a baby, came to live with me in the orphanage.
I didn’t recognize him.