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Life Arts    H4'ed 2/22/10

My Grandmother's Orphanage

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In 1957, my family visited the Children's Home, an orphanage that my grandmother ran in Wheeling, West Virginia. I am the kid up front in long pants. My older brother, William, is directly behind me in the solid shirt. My Grandma, Matilda Kigerl (or Tillie), is the big woman, with the kind face, all the way back. As you can see, stripes were the fashion. Most of the orphans seemed happy, if not eager, to have their pictures taken by my mother, who I have to admit, liked to take photos. But there is more than meets the eye; all of the children are here because of misfortune, neglect, or abuse. Some parents did not have the means to care; others just did not want them.

My family--Mom, Dad, two brothers--felt like honored guests, and also star attractions--as orphans got to see and live with an intact "family" for three days that we stayed. We ate in the cafeteria, played on the grass, slept in the mansion--my memories are of a joyous time, and beautiful grounds, filled with a limitless supply of kids to play with. It seemed too good to be true. Of course, there were a couple of humbling incidents, which I can only attribute to possible planetary forces beyond my control.

This photo tells many stories; a lot of shining faces, a lot of covered-up pain: a frowning girl in back, hidden in the glare; directly behind me, to the right; the class clown, pulling his mouth; the little guy up front, who looks like young Al Franken, that the girls looked out for. The confident-looking girl in front, my mother said, was really helpful around the home. And the two girls holding hands--you will notice in following photos, they never let go--they are sisters, holding on to the only family they know. I remember my mom saying how fragile the younger one was, when she first got to the home, and how better she was now. Even after arriving at such a loving place as the Children's Home, and hopefully being placed with an adoptive family, brothers or sisters were sometimes split up again. It was rare to find a family that could afford to take two girls; two boys, never. Some, never found a home.

Incredible, looking at the postcard depicting the home's 1902 grand opening--what great resources a small town like Wheeling West Virginia was able to raise for children, compared to today, when greedy CEOs siphon off every last possible cent, and shortchange a generation of children, if not the entire future, of America. By 1957, the mansion had matured; the foliage was lush, the yard green, a vast playground. I am not sure why my grandmother chose to run an orphanage at age sixty-three. She was from Bellaire, Ohio, a small coal town, across the Ohio River, six miles downstream from Wheeling, W.Va., where her son, my Uncle Jack Jr., and family lived. Matilda's husband, a brakeman on a train, died in 1953.Her son, a survivor of the Battle of the Bulge, died of a heart attack at age forty a few years later.

Another group picture. Little Franken Jr. managed to wedge himself between the two sisters, maybe even break their grip, but I doubt it. There seemed to be an even mix of girls and boys, although at meals, they congregated at different tables. It was Saturday, lunchtime, I believe, that I made my mark as a visitor of suave purport. The cafeteria was downstairs, portions were generous, and everybody ate heartily. Dixie Cup ice cream was served for dessert, with cardboard lids you could pry out. The tab was stuck, so I pushed with my spoon. Splat!--Ice cream shot up, like a geyser, and spattered my face. The whole cafeteria erupted with laughter. Quite the echo chamber. Temporarily blinded by vanilla, I found a napkin, and blinked at my plight. Somehow, being laughed at by a hundred orphans, served as a rite of passage--for them and me--kids with parents were not perfect.

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Conceived on west coast, born on east coast, returned to northwest spawning grounds. Never far from water.

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