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Sunday, February 14, 2016

Nuns And Orphans

I'm not sure of the exact dates, but we are at about the time of the year that is the anniversary of the day that my sister Liz and I escaped from one of the prisons in which our father's crime placed us. When my father killed my mother, Liz and I ended up being placed in an orphanage. Liz was thirteen and I was seven. I hear that there aren't any more orphanages in the United States. Nowadays children are placed in foster care. I guess there are good and bad things about both. 

The children at Angel Guardian Orphanage in Chicago were carefully separated by gender. In some cases, brothers and sisters never had a chance to speak with one another. There were very tall fences separating the girls' side from the boys' side, and there were lines painted a few feet from the fences that one was not allowed to cross. After all, if boys and girls spoke with one another through the fence, that might lead to some terrible sinning. Because of these buffer zones, siblings of a different gender might only be briefly glimpsed outdoors or in the hallways at school.

The orphanage had some beauty in its grounds as I recall, with lovely tall trees and a wide walkway lined with park benches. Not that we got to stay out there all day, mind you. Every child was assigned to the care of a specific nun who presided over her "cottage." It in no way resembled a cottage; it was a section of a floor in one of a number of large brick buildings. Each cottage had a large common room for activities, a dormitory room in which all of the girls slept, and an office (and most likely a bedroom) for the nun. Liz and I were assigned to Cottage 43. Every child was assigned a number. This number was written on the label of every article of their clothing. This ensured that when the clothes went to and from the laundry they were returned to the proper child. Liz's number was 43-19 and mine was 43-10. 

The nun charged with our care, whose name I don't remember, often called the girls in our cottage by our numbers rather than our names. Instead of asking, "What are you doing, Liz?" she would ask, "What are you doing, 19?" She wasn't the only one to do this. It was one of the many ways in which we were depersonalized and stripped of our individuality and humanity. Some of the nuns were dear sweet women who genuinely wanted to serve God and truly loved children. The Sister in Cottage 43 was not one of those people. On more than one occasion we were invited to activities courtesy of her family. I seem to recall that her family had a pool in their yard, so I suspect that they were fairly well off. I remember thinking, even at that very young age, that she didn't really want to be a nun, but was pushed into it by her parents. The children in her cottage bore the brunt of her unhappiness. Every night as we fell asleep, she sat in her chair in the corner with a lamp on a table next to her. She would lecture us about what horrible sinners we were, that Jesus died because of our horrible sins, that if we so much as looked at anyone's flesh we would burn in hell. My first bath after that lecture was a doozy. I looked at my arm and thought it meant I was going to hell. I was too young at the time to realize that she was obsessed with the idea that we constantly had thoughts of a sexual nature.

Most of the nuns in the orphanage seemed to think that their charges were in there because they were terrible sinners. In the world according to AGO nuns, if something bad happened to you, it was because you were a sinner and were being punished by God. In other words, my father bludgeoned my mother to death and Liz and I ended up in the orphanage and it was ALL OUR FAULT. Yep. And they generally seemed to consider all of us to be liars and ingrates. 

I remember being outside one day and speaking with two nuns from other cottages. I don't remember how the subject came up, but as I sat in one of their laps, I said that I could speak German. I was born into a family that spoke three languages at home - Hungarian, German, and English. The nun looked at me and said, "You're a liar. You can't speak German." She then proceeded to say a few things in German and gave me a smug look. "If you think you can speak German, then what did I say?" I repeated everything that she had said, but in English. "You do speak German!" she exclaimed. But of course, no apologies or saying that I wasn't a liar. After all, I must at the very least be a liar if God sent me to an orphanage.

As for being an ingrate - the nuns all seemed to have the opinion that we were lucky for anything and everything they gave us, whether it was a piece of chocolate or a lecture and a beating. The fact that they allowed us to live was more than most of them thought that we deserved. One of my worst memories has to do with a dinner that we were served. I ate heartily of everything on my plate on this particular evening, except for one thing. The smell of the slimy canned spinach on my plate turned my stomach. I simply couldn't eat it. That wasn't good enough for the nuns, though. I should be grateful for whatever was on my plate, even if it made me vomit.

After being told more than once to eat the spinach, and me telling the nuns that I couldn't because it made me sick, they decided to teach this sinner a lesson. Now, in those days, I was so skinny that Gram would have said I needed to turn around twice to make a shadow. In spite of this, three nuns came together to teach me my much-needed lesson about being grateful and eating everything that their good Christian charity provided to me in spite of my unworthiness. One nun held me down in my chair. Another held my jaws open while the third shoveled the spinach into me with a spoon. And she didn't put it in my mouth and force me to chew and swallow. Nope, she shoved the spinach and the spoon quite far down my throat. It was a horrible experience, to say the least.

To this day, I cannot and will not eat canned spinach. I can eat and enjoy a spinach salad, and will eat foods that have a small amount of fresh spinach mixed in them. If Trent were to feel a craving for canned spinach, I wouldn't object to buying some for his enjoyment. He knows that if he wants it, there are two things he has to be prepared for. One is that I will not prepare it for his consumption, and the other is that I will not be in the same room where it is being prepared or eaten or washed up afterward. Just thinking about it makes me feel nervous and queasy. I felt very fortunate when living with Gram, that she did not believe in forcing us to eat something that turned our stomachs. She encouraged me to try new things but never forced me to do so. I guess that in the battle between the nuns and the orphans, she would have come in on the side of the orphans. I was glad to live with that.






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