I once wrote a story about a reunion of children who had lived in a particular institution in Fort Wayne. Can’t recall the name of the place — Something House — and it had been closed for decades; the children were all of grandparenting age themselves when they decided to get together.
Something House was a place the likes of which we no longer have in our society. It wasn’t an orphanage, but for children whose parents could no longer afford to keep them. There was no welfare then, no AFDC, but we weren’t barbarians — we cared for children who needed care.
Kids stayed for weeks or years. Most had lost one parent, usually a mother, and the surviving one was simply overwhelmed with the responsibility. Others were from families who were just poor, or had suffered reversals that required the children be farmed out while parents relocated and reestablished themselves in another city or state. There was a procedure in place for parents to visit their kids, but not take them home. It sounded like visiting hours at any institution — everyone dressed up, small gifts, a nervous tousle of the hair and a quick goodbye.
It sounds perfectly awful, but the former residents described a merry Disney movie of bunk beds, raucous mealtimes and a pervasive feeling of love and camaraderie, “The Cider House Rules” with Michael Caine bidding them goodnight. The reunion was all fun and stories and laughter; the most uncomfortable memory anyone shared was of the weekly dose of castor oil.
Several of these adults expressed the opinion that our society needed to bring these places back, that giving money to poor people to care for their own children only invited waste of public money, that kids “need structure,” which Something House had in spades. It was a fashionable opinion at the time that had the added advantage of never having a chance in the world of happening, so purveyors of the “bring back the orphanage” movement only had to talk the talk; no walking necessary.
Some weeks after the story ran, I received an angry, nearly illegible letter from a woman from out of state, who said she wished she’d known about the reunion so she could have come and told the story about a delivery man who paid a weekly call and was given unsupervised access to the girls’ dormitory rooms, where he — well, you know. Fumbling and secrets and shhh don’t tell anyone. She cursed the place every day she lived there, and had spent her life trying to put the memories behind her. I tried to find her, but she didn’t respond to my letter. The more I thought about her story, the more I believed she was telling the truth. That didn’t mean the other residents’ stories weren’t true, only that not everyone had the same rosy memories, that child molestation is nothing new, and that predators will take advantage of the powerless. That’s all.
Around that time, my best friend was working for a publisher that specialized in the good ol’ days, and she supervised the production of a book of reader memories of the Great Depression. All these people had been children then, and their stories were like the reunion memories of Something House, of adults who kept up a brave front while standing in food lines, who made milk toast suppers seem like haute cuisine, who slept five to a bed with their siblings and remembered it as a nest of puppies, not a tangle of sharp elbows. A few weeks ago, “This American Life” ran a show featuring the oral histories collected by Studs Terkel, covering the same period. Many of these people were kids then, too, but were from the illegible-letter school — they remembered hunger, evictions, parents who came home and took their frustrations out on their kids, things common sense should tell us go along with a 25 percent unemployment rate, but things we’ve tried to forget. To talk to some, the Current Unpleasantness will fade some day, and we’ll be left with Busby Berkeley movies and a lot of new ways to stretch a food dollar.
All of this is, perhaps, a ridiculously long-winded setup for two stories I read in the Sunday paper, which I’m offering as a conversation-starter today:
One is about how worldwide unemployment is opening the door on a host of other issues, many of which could have an impact on the world’s political landscape. Idle hands aren’t only the devil’s workshop, they also tend to rewrite national economic policies in ways we might not be comfortable with, change or reverse immigration patterns and, um, smash windows. Recommended.
The second was the NYT Book Review, a look at “Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World,” about not the ones of our period, but of the late 1920s and ’30s, whose mismanagement of world economies led to, among other things, the rise of Adolf Hitler. Just in case you didn’t think the stakes were high enough, you know.
I guess my point is this: We don’t know what’s going to happen at the other end of this, but common sense suggests we should consider all the stories about the past, not only the ones that confirm our prejudices. Just a thought.
Happy Monday to you all, the start of another week.