Monday, May 20, 2013

Strawberry Festival at the Orphanage

Sweet red strawberries poured over melting Hershey's vanilla bean ice cream, scooped up with a big spoon and shoveled into one's mouth without restraint, is summer's rendition of heaven.

I'm four years old. The day is hot and muggy, the sun high in the summer afternoon. I have had a cooling bath and I know the tables have been set up and the festival has begun. As I hurry across the macadm playground I stumble and fall, scraping my knee badly, the wound filled with tiny bits of gravel. The palms of my hands are scuffed, too, and hurt enough to make me cry. I was all clean and now I'm dirty, which adds to the pain.

Someone behind me lifts me off the ground, takes me back into the main building and hands me over to Matron. She has most of my care in the orphanage and knows how to soothe me. She cleans my small wounds and paints them with mercurochrome....ouch! that stings!...wipes my tear stained face, pats my bottom and sends me back outside. I walk carefully toward the strawberries and ice cream.

"Barbarann, honey, would you like some ice cream and berries?"

"Yes, please!" I say, and she fills a bowl and hands me a spoon. I thank her and scoot under the cloth-covered lengths of table laden with huge bowls of strawberries and heavy cardboard containers of vanilla ice cream. It is shady and cooler under there and I sit on the warm black macadam, fold my legs and nestle the bowl in my lap.

The first spoonful of vanilla and berry fills my mouth with sweetness, the berries bursting against my tongue, bathed in melted ice cream. I close my eyes in pleasure, happy to be all alone with my treat. I am very careful not to spill on my pinafore, but don't want the ice cream to get all soupy in the summer heat. Still, I eat slowly,  making it last. The berries stain the ice cream and my lips as I spoon with a steady rhythym, until the treat is all gone.

I sit there beneath the table for a little while, wondering if my little brother has been given any of this dessert. I see the shoes passing by me as other children stand in line for ice cream and strawberries. The table cloth nearly skims the ground. Before long, all the children have taken their dessert elsewhere, beneath the sheltered picnic tables, or under the porch overhang. It is quiet as I sit there, content. The table cloth is lifted; a curly headed older girl peers at me.

"Barbarann, would you like some more? Hand me your bowl; you keep the spoon!"

Shortly, she reappears with a full bowl for me. I can't believe I can have seconds. I get busy with my spoon, digging into the cold ice cream and the syrupy strawberries. This is all mine, not be shared with anyone,  unheard of here, where all things belong to everyone, even our treats. My eyes glaze over, my tummy is full, and I feel complete contentment. I have been here since January 20th. Today is August 13th. It is my birthday. I miss my mother badly. My younger brother has recently arrived to live here with me. I have felt very lonely for a long time now. But with berries and ice cream, things are looking up!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Transitions take a long time

In an already challenged life, it is transition time again. It is, for many cancer survivors, difficult to grant ourselves permission to be well. It just takes such a long time. "A long time" should be old hat by now. Should be comfortable and familiar.

I waited a long time for Mother to get through her widowhood and the War and the recovery of her children to get us to a normal life with a new husband and a new baby. For four years I waited. From the time I was three and a half years old until I was a month and a week shy of my eighth birthday, i waited for my family to be whole again. I waited in an orphanage with care and a "family" of 97 other kids, all waiting. In that time I grew to understand that there was no better,  no other, choice. A widow with three kids in a time of war did what she had to do.

She made ammunition for the Navy, supervising hundreds of very young women dealing daily with nitro and sulphur. Sometimes the place exploded and the on-site hospital was full of injured girls. Sometimes they died. Many of them, including my mother, suffered powder poisoning from inhaling gunpowder blown around the whole plant by huge fans to keep the air circulating, since there was no air conditioning then. While she was doing the best she could...and these women were well brothers and I, all young, were trying to understand why we were put away, albeit in a safe place. Small children only want their mother. We could have been ensconced in a palace with a world of toys and ice cream, but without mother, it is meaningless, comfortless and full of heart ache.

I spoke some time ago to a woman who worked in a munitions plant. She said it took her ten minutes to walk the distance from her work station to the bathroom. While she was gone there was an explosion. When she left the bathroom, half the barracks was blown up. While rebuilding her unit, they all went back to work around the reconstruction. In truth, these women were in the middle of hell. They would be a long time waiting for things to improve. And then, at the end of the war, the plants were locked up, the women sent home to farms and small towns and the money stopped. The freedom stopped. The life stopped. They were once again relegated to the non-role of women. They learned you can't go back.

Many of them were heavily involved with soldiers and sailors gone to war. My mother fell in love with a young blond from a town close to her own. He declined to marry her until, indeed if, he returned from the front. He allowed as how he didn't want to make her a widow for the second time. He swam from the English Channel to the French beach and immediately fell to strafing shrapnel across the water and the sand. He lay there among the dead, trying not to die. He waited three days, a long time bleeding, until the dead truck came and discovered he was alive. They took him off to a French hospital where he spent nine months recovering from his wounds. He waited a long time.

The women at Triumph Explosives were known nationally as the Boom Boom Girls. They often won the production contests for their output. She survived the huge explosion in May of 1942, when five buildings blew up, killing fifteen people outright and injuring many others. Perhaps she was up home to visit her siblings on that weekend. If so, we were with her, for she swung by the orphanage often, so we could visit Gramma Daisy.

Finally home, and hardly healed, he married his sweetheart, got her pregnant and came to the orphanage to claim her children. A life change occurred for all of us. We'd wait a long time for the fallout.

Transitioning from happy toddler to unhappy orphan to freedom and no clue how to be a little girl, took a long time. But to do it we gained a whole town surrounded by open fields that were ours to roam, and in that atmosphere we recovered as best we could from our abandonment. My constant companion was my little brother. From breakfast to dinner time we were on our own in a rural community surrounded by Amish farms, idyllic and serene except for the disappointments and disillusion and danger living in our new home with us. It would affect us, especially me, for a very long time.

Remnants of that time still remain. Childhood never lets go.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Life in the Promise Choir Community

When there is so much support and so much sharing across a quarter century, there is an epiphany when that existence seems threatened. I'm talking about the cohesiveness of a choir in existence without much change for that long period of time. By that I mean that the core group of approximately 60 singers remained the same. We saw each other more than we saw our spouses so our spouses decided to sing, too. We expanded and contracted across those years to about 120 voices but essentially maintained the same headcount of about sixty. But in that time, over nine hundred people sang for some time with this Choir.

We grew from singing in small churches in the region to singing abroad. That story is one of a journey of faith led by a woman whose eyes remained fixed on God and mission. For the first ten years or so we were the morning choir in our own church, and singing concerts in the afternoons or early evening in other churches. We sang in prisons and for other facilities where people were down on their luck. We sang impromptu in local malls. We sang the Trees of Hope program at our local hospital, performing for cancer survivors celebrating their victories, and finally, a quarter of a century later I had to choose where I would be in that place: singing or being sung to. Cancer provided another place for personal victory. We sang three- night concerts in our own church. For nearly 25 years.In the singing we spoke the written Word in song and knew the Holy Spirit came down with some frequency to use us mightily, not because we were gifted singers, but because we were gifted and tasked to share our faith.

We sang in Russia, visiting the Ukraine and missioning with our own in-built medical team. We sang later in Hungary and Romania, treating those who were ill. We sang in the world, taking with us the clear and present message of the love of the Lord for his people. One often wonders, who benefitted more? We think it is us. To give is the greatest gift. To minister to the sick and the helpless, the victims of oppression and the hope of others struggling to serve their Lord brings with it such great reward that we came to know it was the cement that held us in community together. Out of that was such amazing grace given to each other, such a picture of what it means to give oneself away. Such a tremendous sense of how it feels to know beyond doubt that we were an instrument of the Lord, weak but willing servants in His army. And we followed a woman possessed. Her vision never waivered. Her energy was boundless. Her purpose was so beguiling that we all wanted to be aboard her train. She knew the route to the Feet of Jesus. She was fearless. She was driven to spend her waking hours in that service. The choir and its triumphs were the visible picture of her faith. She knew how to get there. We were desperate to follow.

Contrary to words out of  mouths that knew better, we did not worship her. We worshipped Him.We admired her. Believed in her. Followed her faithfully. She took us to heights we would otherwise not have attained. She was the dynamic. We know there is no other like her.Those who would fault this faithfulness on the part of the humble misunderstand. We followed her because she followed Him Simple concept, that.

Are we fabulous singers? No, indeed. We are faith driven and trusting that the Lord who called us to this forum is working His will through the instrument He built. We are envied, not for our glorious singing, but for our sense of community, the natural result of praying and caring for each other. We know full well how to lead worship. An attitude of praise and prayer in singing, the highest form of praise, is what God has given us.

We are a flawed people. Our gift is that we know it. We are, none of us, movers and shakers in our church. We simply love God and show it. We love each other and let it be known. We are the microchosm of the congregational body. with the face of the unsucsessful, the needy, the helpless, the average. We are just people, trying. Our focus is in two places: to praise God in song and to bring the congregation with us. And God has for a quarter of a century, held us up to His calling.

We don't do prison outreach anymore or visit other churches. We are waiting until God provides another with some of the previous talents we have enjoyed embodied in three directors who knew what they were about in His name. They are the ones who have blessed us, shaped us, nurtured us, loved us through thick and thin. Our prayer is that we might again be led by one who is called to the work with a heart for outreach.We are so far from international effort. Age does that. A less strenuous schedule might be a better answer in today's world where demands are way too high on everyone. That we wear the face of God in our music for the community around us is testament to how little it is about us and how much about Him.

It is no small thing when God raises up a leader. He prepares that one without their knowing, until it is time to know. God's hand upon a shoulder, His voice nestled in an ear, is no small thing. But it is insistent. He leans on a heart. He is persistent. The chosen just KNOWS.  God has been faithful to bless us with selfless directors who place Him first. So I leave this to Him who called us in the first place. He has led us clearly and with insistence across an impressive length of time. We trust Him. We know Him. Looking back, we see His face and feel His hand upon us. And so we wait for that next one who is designated, to realize what his or her desire means. And go.

Orphanage Discoveries

Looking for corrections and facts that i can hang my hat on, I called the Children's Home of Reading, PA, seeking solid dates for my presence there. When did i enter? When did I leave? What about my brothers?

There were some surprises. I was not there as long as I thought! I believed my entry occurred in my third year of life and it did. I was three years and four months old. I thought I entered on my birthday. I entered with my older brother who was seven. I have no memory of that, which probably means that we were separated immediately on our arrival. He was sent off to the boys' wing, i suppose, and I saw him mostly at meal time. My younger brother arrived on his third birthday.

My brother remained in this place for only eighteen months, and then was sent to Hershey Industrial School, a different environment entirely. There, cottage living with two "parents" assigned to a small group of boys felt more like a family unit, and while he did not thrive there, he was manageable.

My younger brother was there for three years, when we were both removed to join out mother and her new husband and the baby they shared together. So that means I spent four years and seven months in the orphanage, longer than my siblings. My older brother, though, in total, spent many more years in an institutional environment than we did. Closer, i think, to ten or eleven years. And he was far more negatively affected.

Life in the orphanage was essentially good, as i recall. What was missing, as i have said, was Mother.
I asked in my phone call today for the name of my Matron, a woman who afforded me much comfort and support, took me under her wing, taught me how to pray, helped me memorize scripture verses and kept me diverted and entertained when missing Mother was overwhelming.

But she could not protect me from the assails that all of us experienced: sharing new clothes brought by other relatives....there was a common closet....and having the identical haircut, which meant lots of long curls of many colors littered the cutting floor. We dug shoes that fit from the common brown box container of donated used shoes. Shoes other kids had outgrown. Shoes that fit poorly. Most of us there never saw these things as problems, though when my aunt took me shopping for a Christmas program was red velvet with a large lace collar...that dress was placed on the small body  of another little girl. I never wore it. And I remember it.

I am surprised at the interest in this subject, probably because it is my history. I understand that it is not the norm for children today. But that orphanage today can claim help to eight thousand children in that state, who, though the needs are different, and the care provided is greatly expanded, today children are launched into the world better equipped and better placed.

So I will continue, for a while, to tell this story of how little children coped in a time of tragedy.  WW II would add to the list of needy children missing a parent, finding respite and safety in such a place across the country.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Life in an Orphanage

It occurs to me that not many folks are drawn to the topic of memoir, especially  at a blog site. I just completed a portion of a free telesummit conference and discovered that, to the contrary, memoir is HUGE in the nation both with writers and readers. So I must be hard to find, or hard to get, or just hard?

It was suggested to me that i might write or submit a piece of my memoir here to stimulate interest. But that would be like yodeling across a chasm or yelling down a well. I am here and you, apparently, are not. I am supposed to find a place on this site to click to see how many of you read but not write. Of course, I can't figure out where that button is either. Blogspot is deep into mystery. Which indicates to me I might decide to wander over to some other host where it might be simpler. Why can I not just click and write?

Life in an orphanage feels exactly like this. Where is the door to "out"? Does everything have to be a maze? Can we not get out of our own way? In the age of endless technology, the nerds seem to think tweaking IS the way out. So daily the page changes and the path to the page changes. And I must constantly drop breadcrumbs to the path in and the path out.