Orphan's Home


Mimi Carmen

Why the Orphan’s Home in Syracuse came to be connected with the ominous box fits into the shifting reasoning of youth, since at the beginning I was but seven or eight, and filled with a fluid imagination that made up stories about my absent father. I had heard he was an orphan, and also a womanizer, but this sketchy information sifted through relatives talk made him mysterious with no real body or face. This Home, I believed in some way was a link to my father, so I viewed it as sinister and repulsive rather than as a shelter for the orphans. It was bulky, with several gables and had been painted a bluish-gray. It set back in the rutted yard that held nothing except a gnarled, leaning tree, and a few gravestones to the side. The yard was surrounded by a wrought iron fence, and there were hardly ever orphans there when I stopped to peek inside. The back yard, however, was for a long time an undisclosed place to me. The home sat on a corner, and a high, plank fence obscured the view of the happenings inside, but if you continued on, there were hidden voices, and sometimes a noise like that of a crying bird. This veil of secrecy and the elusive sounds contributed to my curiosity, even as I quaked inside. I passed the home often, as when my Aunt and I walked from town, she often swung from the main street, and it seemed as I recall, we always walked in dusky autumn. The shadowy purple fence was biting cold to my fingertips, and the sounds behind the fence seemed laced with danger as night deepened. The dreariness of the rut-filled yard with the skeletal arms of the leaning tree, and even the glimmer of yellow from the narrow windows felt a part of the awful information that reached me about this time.

My enlightener was a girl named Martha, who sported an enormous amount of dark hair on her arms. Martha was older than I, possibly ten or eleven. I can't remember her last name, Priest comes to my mind, but at any rate this girl had some details that couldn't be forgotten. To begin with she told me she had talked to her dead cousin Ray on the telephone. Another time she described to me why girls couldn't get into heaven. If a girl, said Martha, kissed a boy, the sin would make her have a baby. And if she didn't kneel and kiss the floor and ask Jesus to be her savior, she'd go to hell. All boys were excused from this law. Martha was tall for her age, with skewed teeth and yellow hair tossed over her ear to expose one bangle earring. I was banned from playing with her by my aunt, as I suppose she sensed an unhealthy factor in the association; if this assumption was correct, she was totally right. I had once kissed my cousin David, my best friend and only a second cousin, so that hour by hour I was feeling bumps I couldn't identify. Possibly I thought of Martha as a redeemer who could reverse it, since she had been the source of this revelation, so in the hot summer days, I slunk along at her side giving her gum and candy, as well as my new water-wings.

My memories of childhood have the shifting quality of a movie, where indistinct murmurs surround whispers, like silent witnesses illuminating clearly fixed areas at the dead of night. Like a shadow, my memory moves close, but refuses to surface to exactly where Martha lived, except for a vague recollection of a steep flight of stairs, an odor of tobacco, and a gloomy hallway leading into a room with miserable furniture. Why I was there, I don't remember either, but in any case I was there with Martha and my cousin David. It was the time in late afternoon when it's not quite dark. Martha was wearing an Indian dress, a veil covering all but her eyes. She had something to tell us but first she asked us if we knew where babies came from. Her black eyes peering over her veil for some reason looked forbidding.

I wasn't completely sure of the specific details, but I nodded.

"Of course. They grow from eggs hatched inside ladies stomachs," David said.

"Swear you won't tell this, or your mother will rot in hell." We must have sworn, but I can remember feeling something heavy and disturbing, hesitant about receiving further disclosures. Martha knelt and brought out something from under a bed. It was a box with something strange and white inside.

"Do you know what this is?" she asked.

It compared with nothing I had ever seen before. It was David who asked, "What is it?"

Martha waited, and her eyes over the veil, wore a cunning expression. After a few moments of keeping us in suspense, she said:

"It's the bones of a dead boy."

 I could only hear the tick of the clock in the silent room. David and I traded a sideways glance of dismay. I had no business there, I thought, looking away, but David was gazing at it enthralled in horror.

"Whose?" he asked finally. His voice was low and toneless.

"Why, see them holes in the top. Them are the eyes. And the teensey, weensy things under his under his belly. Those are legs,” she said.

David ran his fingers along the top of the box, and then clasped his hands tight together. He stared at the thing, and asked again. "Who? Who is this boy?"

"It's just a little old orphan," Martha said. "My uncle Henry sent it to me. He sends me lots of stuff."

I recall the soft murmur of our footsteps as we crept from the room, and the way our silhouettes moved on the walls of the dark stairwell which finally ended with a door to the street. I looked back once as we ran, and that closed the book of this Martha. But the white bones of the orphan in the box stubbornly persisted to haunt me for some time. One night in that place between wakefulness and dreams the IT climbed out of the box and came scurrying after me past the graves and around the old tree in the yard of the Orphan's Home. If my subconscious mind believed in the dismal house bursting with weird bones, it was kept in the layer of my mind reserved for children's reality, separated from the second layer, the enormous conspiracy of the entire adult world with their buried secrets. I huddled close to my aunt in the shadowy afternoons as we passed the home on our way from town. During this period, I knew none of the orphans, since they went to the Green Street School.

Some things happened a few years later, two incidents that related directly to the Home. Of course, by now I looked at myself as a big girl, and had passed the Home hundreds of times on my bicycle, and even walking alone. I had worked to make myself needed in my aunt's home after her husband died. Now the threats, the tremors I once felt had declined to an unusual curiosity, though I stared at the Home in passing. Still, there still lingered and bubbled, an image of my father as a symbol of some need, some affection to make me whole.

I watched the orphans, dressed alike in Sunday-best, navy-blue uniforms, marching two by two, gripping each others' hands. The tallest children led with the tiniest at the end. I was twelve when changes occurred that drew my attention back to the Home. I remember the leaves were beginning to fall when my aunt became a Board member of the Orphan’s Home. Then as the robins began to appear in the spring, the orphans were transferred to my Onondaga School. Four were in my sixth-grade class. The transfer was due to a change in boundary lines. At about this time, a former board member died. My aunt spent most of her time at committees and meetings, and was happy to be elected to the Orphan's Home Board.

The Board required my Aunt to visit the Home about once a month, and after a few visits, one Friday afternoon she took me. It was the end of the week with the expansive feeling of a holiday. I could see my breath as I shook off my boots, and the late afternoon sun spun blazing images on the window panes. Nothing I imagined was as uncomfortable as this. Inside, a chilly hallway with dark oak baseboard led into several rooms. I saw the two naked windows that threw the yellow light I saw when I walked by in the twilight. The floor was sparsely covered with rug scraps. The stove in the front parlor heated the dining room and the general sitting room beyond. Mrs. Tidewater, the matron of the Home was a tall, small-boned woman, with much of her thinning hair gone, and gray, empty eyes that became alive for only important people, it appeared. There was a thin line of hair on her upper lip "Good afternoon," she said, her voice dry as a stick of wood in the sun. I could sense no warmth or rise and fall to her voice, as though her emotions were hidden in the basket of clothes to be sorted. The clothes were donated by churches, which my aunt had collected, and referred by Mrs. Tidewater as attire for the children. They shut themselves into the cold parlor, while I was assigned to a girl of my own age. We went out to the fenced-in back yard.

First visits were always difficult for me, and I felt awkward among the twenty or thirty girls of all ages. The yard held swings, chutes, a parallel bar, a croquet set and a place on the ground marked out for hop-scotch. The confusion of so much activity made me see each child separately, yet merged into uninhibited action. A little girl came over and sat by me. She asked me what my father was about, and since I was slow in answering she looked perplexed. I could hear a whistle from the playground, the scuffle of the kids getting out of swings and chutes. I watched the children stand at attention. They had white legs and white arms at their sides or hanging loose, until a whistle made them get in the line leading back to the Home. In a flash of memory, the long white legs and arms of the girls took on the look of the bones in the box.

“My father is coming to take me to my real home with him,” she said. She ran to a swing and swung herself to the top of the bar. Her yellow hair hung straight down to her bony white arms, and she wore black flannel underwear.

Silence moved in for seconds as I managed my mind in some semblance of order. What difference did a Father make in any child, in this child within me?

She didn’t look back when she reached the ground, and ran up to catch up with the other kids.

I walked in some sort of peaceful acceptance, knowing the child was lying. Knowing she had her pride and pain.

Mrs. Tidewater stood in the doorway of the Home ringing a bell, her lips with their tight little smile of welcome without a soul.

My aunt stood in her shadow, the way she always seemed to be since my uncle died. She beckoned me with her hand to come along.

I suppose I was like my aunt, always in the shadow of my own wanting more than there was to be had. At that space, that time of a child’s life when she looks to bones for answers, before she realizes the bones she carries in her mind are a fantasy.

I went to a swing, sat in the seat for a moment and hung onto the ropes. Then I started moving my feet to make the swing rise and it was amazing the feeling of freedom. My feet began to go in a straight line in front of me when we went up, and I dug my heels harder every time I reached the ground and then went up, each time a little more. I felt the fiber of the smooth ropes, the sun in my face, the wind in my hair, until finally with a great pump, I felt a gigantic surge, and reached the top. In that split second, I knew I would fall. I didn’t have to, I should hang on I knew, but I would be free. Below, the ground was a blur of brown and green meshed together, the Home a block of wood with Mrs. Tidewater a fine line in the doorway, and my aunt barely visible, and I could imagine her in the shadows waving frantically. But I was ready now. I wasn’t afraid.