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Friday, September 2, 2016

Fifty Years

Fifty years. Five decades. Half a century. Such a long time ago, and such a short one. The other day I searched online for a September 1966 calendar. As we all know, the calendar changes and shifts its layout of weeks and days over the course of the years. It was interesting to me, though, that the calendar from September fifty years ago is identical to the calendar this year.

Chicago, Wednesday, August 31, 1966:  A family of six, parents with three daughters and one son, moves from their Chicago three-bedroom duplex to a two-bedroom apartment. The other family living in the duplex, the owners, received an unsolicited offer to sell the home, an offer which they could not and did not refuse. After the moving was done, the four children, ranging in age from 7 to 16, walked with their mother to a local grocery store. There were no cars owned by the family; walking or public transportation were the ways they usually got around.

The mother seemed troubled. Her children asked their mama what was wrong. She finally told them that she had a terrible feeling. Something very bad was going to happen. The children, in their youthful hope and innocence, gushed that everything was fine. Nothing bad would happen. Mama didn't need to be worried. The subject faded into the background of this day of upheaval and change.

Chicago, Thursday, September 1, 1966:  The children are all asleep in one bedroom. They are awakened by the screams of their mother. She cries out to them in Hungarian asking for help. She tells them not to allow the 7 year old child to come with them. Having never heard her mother scream for help before, the child runs to the bedroom with her siblings. None of them has any idea what to expect. 

Their papa is not in the bedroom with mama. She is lying on the bed crying and writhing in pain. Her head and the pillows and bedclothes are soaked in her blood. Things become a blur. Various authorities are contacted. The father has turned himself in to the local police and left his children to find his wife who has been bludgeoned with a hammer and has a fractured skull. Years later, one of the daughters tells another that the father called her via the neighbor's phone (there was no phone yet in their new home) and instructed her to hide the hammer. On another call, he told her to retrieve it. By the day's end, the children were in different locations, the two youngest girls in an orphanage. 

Chicago, Friday, September 2, 1966:  The two girls in the orphanage, the older of whom was allowed to visit their mother in the hospital, are told that their mother has died. The youngest feels almost as if she is not really there, like this is not really happening. She doesn't know how to act or what to think. She is overwhelmed, as is her sister. What will happen to them next? What about their siblings? What about their father? 

The two girls, who are no strangers to abuse or threats, are in the care of a nun who really doesn't care about them or their fellow orphans. They become numbers rather than names. The older one is referred to as 43-19, and the younger is 43-10. The numbers are inked on their clothes and stain their hearts. They are told over and over again that if something bad has happened to them, it is all their fault for being such terrible sinners. All of the orphans are told that they are unworthy, sinful people. They are subjected to physical and emotional abuse bordering on torture. Although there are occasional sunny moments in their lives, the nun pits them against one another. She punishes one sister for the real or imagined sins of the other, and punishes other girls in the same manner. She drives wedges between them so that they feel lonely and isolated even though they are surrounded by other girls.

Denver and suburbs, 1966 and beyond:  A woman named Elizabeth celebrates her 60th birthday in July, the same month that the sisters in Chicago celebrate their 7th, 13th, and 16th birthdays. She is known to her grandchildren as Grandma Bessie or simply Gram. Her daughter Alice is married to a successful attorney, William, who was born in Hungary. 

The following year he is told by his mother about the two girls in an orphanage, girls left behind after the death of their mother, his third or fourth cousin. He insists on becoming the guardian for the girls and giving them a home. His wife does not want the children; as an artist she would prefer children that, to her, are more interesting or exotic, like a couple of girls from a Native American Reservation. When she beats the youngest girl, she often tells her this, along with other painful things to try and crush her spirit. Within two and a half years both girls, first the older and then the younger, have been sent to live with her mother. As she is sent away, the youngest, who is secretly rejoicing because she will be escaping the frequent vicious beatings, is told not to be too happy because the grandmother hated her from the moment she laid eyes on her.

Present:  The father served less than five years in prison. Rather than being found guilty of the original charge of murder, he is found guilty of manslaughter. The youngest is still upset that her mother's death came with so little punishment for the perpetrator and so much for the children. Did his case go to trial, or was there a plea-bargain? She neither knows nor cares. She will probably never feel that justice has been served. The two sisters were forced to go to visit their father after his release from prison even though they felt nothing but hate for him. The visit did not change this. The father died in 1980 and was gone for a long time before any of his children even knew he was gone. Perhaps in an odd way some justice was served.

The grandmother, who became like a mother to the girls, is now gone. The abusive Alice and her husband are also gone. The brother is also gone. The oldest sister is estranged from the others, but the youngest two are sticking together. For both of them, some degree of pain accompanies the memories that remain. Some of them are terrible, and some are worthy of smiles or laughter. They never know what will pop into their minds or when or why. But the turning of August to September has its own set of memories. The calendar cannot be denied. Sometimes years go by without it being in the forefront of their minds, but this is a momentous number of years. If this were an anniversary of a marriage, there would be much cause for celebration. Instead, this date brings reflection and sometimes surprise. Surprise to realize that a parent was lost so many years ago. Fifty years gone by, such a long time, and yet such a short one.

p.s. I am the 7 year old, and the 13 year old is my sister Liz. I love you, sister.


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