Thursday, May 01, 2008
This is my mother's mind boggling story, told in her own words. Someone asked me, after yesterday's post, how I knew her story. She always told us, when we were little, why she couldn't stand to see a child humiliated, or struck, or belittled. She told us a million times why she couldn't eat cream of wheat (not included in this telling) and why she loved dolls and wanted us to always feel proud in the clothes we were wearing. None of what she tells here was news to me. I've known since I can remember.
Judging from the reaction to the story, not very many other people did know.
Grab your coffee. Get a hanky.
When one thinks of children today it's easy to picture family dinners, outings at the neighborhood park and photo albums full of memories. Dorothy had none of those.
Born in Hannibal, Mo., she was dropped off at the orphanage, along with her brother and sister, by their father when she was not quite four. Dorothy's mother had died of tuberculosis, and her father couldn't care for the children. Dorothy, too, developed "consumption" as it was called then, which left her crippled.
There's one picture of her as a little girl.
She is smiling in the photo, but what followed soon after that picture was taken was anything but idyllic.
But you wouldn't know that today. Dorothy is a beacon of light in an often dark world, who leaned on her faith together through tough times and harbors no ill will toward anyone.
She married Earl in 1947, and according to Dorothy the couple enjoyed a wonderful life. "I don't feel sorry for myself, because I had a wonderful marriage, I really did," Dorothy said. "My husband was wonderful to me. September the 15th we were married 60 years. He died Easter Sunday."
As a mother, with no true role model to guide her, she raised two children, and according to her son, did so admirably. "She was an excellent mother, very loving, and could not stand to see a kid get hit. Any kid, anywhere. And she can make an amazing coconut cream pie."
"I was born in Hannibal, and I had a brother and a sister. I'm the middle guy. Our mother died when my sister was not quite six, and I was not quite four. My brother was 18 months. And our dad put my sister and my brother in the orphanage the week after mother died. They didn't put me in the orphanage right away because I had tuberculosis. See, my mother died with consumption, and I was the only one that got the tuberculosis, and I got it in my hip. So I always walked with a limp. They had to make sure I was free of TB.
They found out my grandma was taking me with her, my dad’s mother, and she didn't know where he was either. And she was gonna take me with her to Louisiana, was where she was gonna move to. And then the Catholic side of my family -my dad wasn't Catholic, my mother was - they found that out and they didn't want me with the Protestants. Plus the fact that they said our mother always wanted us to be raised together, the three of us. So I was put in the orphanage too, then. I was not quite four years old.
The thing I remember is you came up a big flight of steps, and up at the top stood this Sister Erharta. She was called Sister Superior. And that I can remember. She says, "Well, well, well, well, well." And I remember crying like everything. They got my sister, and I remember she stayed with me, but after that I don't remember a thing 'til I started going to school when I was 5 years old. We went to school in the orphanage.
We got up at 5:30 every morning, and you made your bed. And you had a job you had to do, like mine was to clean the steps, and you did that, and you got in line to go the chapel at five minutes to six, and we had morning Mass at 6 o'clock, and then we went down to breakfast.
We went to school, all four grades had one teacher. If you missed a word in spelling, or missed a question in geography, you had to stand for supper. You didn't get any supper. They ate, and you stood over in a place while everybody ate. And if the poor kids wet the bed they didn't get any supper either. That was their punishment. I felt sorry for the kids that wet the bed.
I remember one time we had a nun, sister Lucia, she was cruel as she could be. She was in charge of the girls. And every Saturday, she said whether you needed it or not, it was "payday", and she'd give you a whipping. Until the kids started talking about it and then she quit.
But with me, we three didn't have anybody that came to see us, except an aunt that came up to see us from Hannibal maybe twice a year, and so I always, as I grew older, felt that the reason we were picked on so much is because it was to show the other kids, "Stay in line, or this is what happens." And there was another girl, Kathleen, she just passed away last week, and she was treated that way, too. (My mother's best friend, who was like a sister to her, died the day after my father's funeral.)
It just seemed like this was the way it went. One time Sister Lucia said, “... now don't tell the boys, but they're gonna have to scrub the floors today. The girls won't have to scrub," and we were all delighted. And she said, "Don't tell the boys."
So my job was to go out after you dried the dishes and lay the tea towels out on the grass, if the sun was shining, to dry. And Frances Lambert went with me, and her brother came along, Earl. And Frances said, "Hey Earl, you boys are gonna have to scrub the floor." And I said "Frances, you weren't supposed to tell that." He ran up the stairs and Sister Lucia was standing at the top of the stairs, and he said, "Is that true we're gonna have to scrub the floors?" She said, “Who told you?” And he said, "Dorothy." And I didn't, but he wouldn't tell on his sister.
And she got me, and I told her, "I did not tell him. His sister told him." She made me take my hands this way (she had to clasp her hands together and put them under her chin), and she put them under my chin and she hit me in the mouth. (repeatedly) And when she was done my lip was even with my nose. Great big cuts. And then, so the other nuns didn't see it, she wrapped a great big tea towel around me and told the other nuns, well, she told them what I had done, supposedly, and the other nuns said, "Dorothy, you always got your big mouth open, can't you ever keep it shut?" And I stood in the basement with that towel around my mouth 'til suppertime. I didn't get any dinner because my lip was so sore, she didn't want anybody to see it. Nobody knew.
My brother one time, he was always in trouble. He was mischievous. He was accused of stealing someone's fountain pen. And he said he didn't do it. And he was locked in what was called a trunk room. The nuns all had trunks. It was a long room, and they put there trunks in there. There was no window. They'd come down every now and then and let him go to the toilet. And they brought him down a plate to eat for dinner, but then he didn't get any supper. And they did that for a whole week. And then that boy found his fountain pen, and they said, "Well, that's for something you did other times and didn't get caught."
So you were really just isolated from everybody, you know? I didn't even know streets had names until I was ready to go down to grade school, in the fourth grade.
You just couldn't believe that one nun ... Sister Erharda, she ruled the roost. She came into the kitchen every day and told what we would have to eat for the day. She controlled what kinds of clothes we wore. She was like a dictator. She used to call me an ungrateful wretch. "You ungrateful wretch." And I never knew what I was supposed to be doing. You're just a kid, you know? But if you did something wrong ...
I found that praying was a source of help that I felt. That was my only safety was to be able to pray and hope that things would turn for the better. No one ever gave you a hug.
I guess I was about 14 and these two nuns had their arms around each other, dancing around the drain in the laundry floor. And I stood there, and all of a sudden they looked at me and they grabbed me and said, "We're being transferred." They were that happy about it.
I hate to tell my last name, because the nuns would say it like it was the dirtiest word in the world. "You might know it's a ______ again. Ohhhhhhh, the big mouth _______ got her big mouth open again." To this day, I hate to tell anyone my name is ________.
My mother had an aunt that lived in California, and I think I was about nine years old. And that Christmas she sent my sister and I a doll. It was a little girl doll. Oh, I just thought it was the most beautiful thing. Mine had a green dress and my sister's had a lavender dress. We each had a drawer where we kept our private things, and I'd go down and look at that doll, and put it away again.
Every year they had a picnic to raise money for the orphanage. And my sister, I guess she wanted to be in good with the nuns, she gave her doll to the Sister Superior for the picnic. They changed the dress and put tissue paper on it and were gonna sell chances on it. Well I was just sick, cause I knew I couldn't keep that doll, and I just agonized about it. After she told me what she did I could've just killed her. So I went down very reluctantly and got my doll, came up and said, "Sister Superior, here's my doll." She said, "It's about time."
When Sister Erharda died, in '39 (my mother would have been 17 years old)then we got a new Superior, Sister Ignatius. And I mean to tell you it was just as different as night and day. She was just ... I really loved her. She was so understanding, she would listen to you if you had a complaint. And little by little, I bet within a year and a half, the only nun that had been there under Sister Erhahrda, was the cook. All the rest had been changed, and they went by (Sister Ignatius') rule. And it was altogether different.
And people thought that this was a wonderful, wonderful place. I've had friends, when I tell 'em some of the stuff that happened to us, say, "Oh we just thought that was the most loving place. You kids were so happy." We weren't.
But nobody would believe that."
Honestly, as sad and awful as this all is, it is the tip of the iceberg of what happened to my mother and all those other children, day after day, year in and year out. Always on guard for the back of a hand at an imagined slight, the wrong glance, never knowing when the next beating would come or why, "hoping that it wouldn't" as she told me just yesterday, "but knowing that it would."
Sorry for the very long post. But I've always felt, as many of her recent callers have expressed, that it is a long overdue truth that needed to be told.