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Last week the count went up to three thousand on the evening news.  Three thousand children separated from their parents and removed to detention centers and foster care all over the country.  No records kept of parent/child identities.  Three thousand.  Children.

All at once I am eleven years old.  Writing these words, my stomach turns. Something deep inside wakes up, alert, afraid.  My breath gets short.

I was eleven when I stood with my nine-year-old brother in the admissions office of the orphanage, being admitted.  He would become “Sam” as an adult.  Then, he was “Samuel.”  I was “Patsy.”

We had been living in one room on Pine Street in St. Louis.  Mama had moved us there because it was “a nice neighborhood.”  Brick homes, a tree-lined street.  But our room was in the basement, in the back of the house.  It was separated from the rest of the basement by a loose door.  On the other side there was a furnace and an open coal bin.  In our room there was a coal stove in the center of the space, a hanging light bulb on each side of the stove, one bed for the three of us, a hot plate, a small sink unattached to the wall, and three small windows up near the ceiling, at ground level outside. But the neighborhood was nice.

One day the woman who owned the building and lived upstairs pounded on the door to our room.  “Get out!”  She screamed at our mother.  “Get out! You are filthy! You have brought roaches into our home!  Get out!”

In truth, we probably had.  I have wondered about that woman.  Did she not see the children in the room?  Did she not care that they were there, listening?  Three thousand.  Children. Watching.  Listening.

In the admissions office, I remember standing close to my brother.  My mother was there.  An older woman behind a desk, a younger woman, taking notes.  Next to me, close to me, Samuel.  Many years later, in my fifties, I went back to the orphanage, and got some of the records.  The woman taking notes, wrote: “Patsy did not take her hand off her brother throughout the entire interview.”

The newspaper details an incident in which a twelve-year-old-girl wants to hug her ten-year-old brother, “to reassure him.”  She is told she cannot touch her brother.  In the orphanage, I was not allowed to see or talk to my brother.  He lived in the “boy’s cottage.” He sat at one of the boy’s dining tables at the far end of our common dining hall.  I could see his yellow hair, but I could not go where he was.  I have never written these things before.  I do so now to say, “don’t they see?  Don’t they know the children are even there?”  I am eighty-four years old.  These memories are still raw sores in my psyche.  I have come to understand that my mother had nowhere to go.  She said it was for my own good, so I would learn “good table manners.”  I understand now that what she meant was, I would learn how to cross class.  And I did.  And I suppose it was for my own good.  But they kicked my brother out in a few weeks, and he experienced the worst of things in a foster home.  Three thousand children are being placed in “foster care” and detention centers.  Their hurt is for a lifetime.  People, we have to see.  We have to act.  We have to care.  My way is to write notes of protest or thank you to people who act for the things I believe in.  One helpful way to do that is at the Americans of Conscience Checklist, at https://jenniferhofmann.com, which gives me well-researched information and exact addresses.

 

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