Thursday, August 25, 2011

The World Turned Upside Down

The summer after my fifth birthday—the summer of 1941—my idyllic life collapsed around me. One day I lived with my parents and little brother. The next day they’d gotten into a car and driven away. They left me behind with the next-door neighbors. I stood crying, waving good-bye to the car. The neighbors took my hand and shooed me inside their house.
            I remember little about those neighbors. Did they have children? What did they do when I had an asthma attack? Did they accompany me to my first day of kindergarten? Did they like my crayon scribbles? I don't know. Mommy and Daddy and my baby brother, who was two, were nowhere to be found. I was alone. And lonely for them. My world was upside down.
          Why would such loving parents leave their child behind?
           Years later, Mom told me Dad got a better-paying job in a munitions factory in Parsons. They’d had to live in a refurbished chicken coop.
            “That would have been the death of you,” she explained. And she was right, it would have been. I had asthma and was allergic to all but nine things the doctors had tested me for.
            Did she explain before they left? I don’t know. I remember only that I was without the world I’d always known. My family. The movies. The bedtime songs. The porridge for breakfast. Our visits to the zoo.

            For the first time in my life, I was without my parents. Totally confused. My head dizzy with questions: Didn’t they love me anymore? What had I done? Were they ever coming back? Would I ever sing to my little brother again? Why did they take him and not me?
            Once a week during the following year, I walked the three blocks to my grandma’s house for tea and shortbread cookies. Grandma always said the same thing. She hammered it into me.
           “Your shanty Irish mother made him move,” she complained. “He’d never have left me if she hadn’t gotten her hooks in him.”
            I remember the tone of shanty Irish and hooks. Why was she so mad? Why did she look at me that way?
            It was Grandma who taught me the words abandoned and deserted.
            “They’ve abandoned you, Dodo. Just like your father abandoned me.”
            Her words sounded mean and I wanted to go home. Where was that? Mommy and Daddy and my little brother were home. Where were they?
            “Well say something! They’ve deserted you. Left you here with those no-accounts next door. Probably your mother’s doing.”
            “What does desert mean, Grandma?”
            “It means you’ll never see your Mommy and Daddy again. They’re never coming back.”
             Tears trickled down my cubby cheeks.
            “Stop that crying! I'm only telling you the truth. They love your brother more than you."
             I loved my brother too. He had curly yellow hair.
             "Do you want to know why?” she asked. "Why they love him more than you?"            
            “Why, Grandma?” I managed to ask.
            “You’re naughty, Dodo. You’ve a naughty little girl and no one loves you.”
            I sat silent as we drank our tea and ate our cookies. “I’m going to take a nap now,” she said when we’d finished. “You'd best go on home.”           
            I left. I didn’t cry. Maybe crying was why they’d left me behind. Maybe that’s why they’d deserted me. Maybe it was because I giggled. Maybe it was because I didn't have yellow curls. 
             Once I’d used crayons to draw in the book Mommy was reading. Maybe that was why they’d deserted me. Once I hid Daddy’s lunchbox. Maybe that was why.
            Three blocks. At one end was Grandma’s house and she was always mad. At the other end was the neighbors’ house and they sent me away to school each day and didn’t look at my drawings. Deserted. Abandoned. That’s what happens to naughty little girls.
                                                                        (to be continued on Saturday . . .)


  1. I am so sorry. No wonder you went looking for solace and a home.

  2. This breaks my heart. I wish I could find that darling little girl, rock her and tell her how wonderful and amazing she is. Tell her I love laughter and drawings. I'm so sorry you went through this. So sorry . . .

  3. What a shock to a five-year-old! And when you are told such things when you are small you believe every word. You had a heavy cross to bear at a very young age. So sad that unhappy, bitter people don't truly realize how they spread that around to others--or if they do, they don't care because they're so miserable they want the rest of the world to be miserable, too.

    You have had a difficult path, but you have walked it well to be the person you are today. :):)

  4. This is horrific! How on earth could a grandmother treat her grandchild so despicably? If that had happened today, she could have been had up for child abuse! As for your parents, I am at a loss for words! Clearly, you were reunited at some point, as they were there to bring you home when you left the convent, but what could possibly have induced them to agree to living in a chicken coop and to leave you, their precious first born little daughter behind with the neighbours, who were seemingly strangers to you? Even if, ostensibly, to earn a bigger salary! Surely there must have been a better solution.

    Your grandmother sounds as though she was related to the Wicked Witch of the West! Such an embittered, mean woman! Even if life had dealt her some nasty knocks, her behaviour towards you was appalling!

    I hope you don't mind me voicing my opinion so strongly, Dee, but I really find it very hard to get into any of their heads to figure them out! Had you been living in Europe at the time, their decision might have had something to do with keeping you somewhere safe during the war years, but this was not the case. It's a complete mystery and I do hope, as your story progresses, we'll find out exactly what occurred behind the scenes, in 1941.

  5. How sad for you to have such bitter memories of your grandmother! How could someone say such terrible things to a sweet innocent child?

    My dad's parents lived with us when I was very little. I remember sitting on the floor in front of "Bubby" while she ever so gently brushed my hair to get the snarls out because when my mom did it, it hurt. This is the kind of memory EVERY child should have. I wear a ring that she left me & WILL NOT take it off!

  6. My reaction to this post is in line with the general consensus of those who've already posted: how could your parents leave such a precious little girl with strangers; how could your grandmother say such cruel and embittered things to a young child; and how deep and abiding the pain must be - to this day - to have been abandoned by those who are supposed to protect you from all harm.

    You are precious to me. You are loved.

  7. I think grandma had some very uncontrolled mental illness going on. ~Mary

  8. Oh Dee! I'm crying. Truly crying. I can't stop the tears at the thought of the horror of this. I wish I had been there. If I had been your grandma you would have lived with me no matter what.
    Dear God above. This makes me angry, sad and honestly I just want to hug you.

  9. I'm new to your blog thanks to Elisa...this is amazingly sad. I am so brave you had to be at such a young age! My heart goes out to you and the little girl in you. I hope you're taking care of both.

  10. This is mouth-dropping sad. That grandma was mental in some way, or disturbed. No way should someone who says hateful things to a child be allowed to live in contact with children!!!

  11. Oh Dee! I've read the previous comments and don't think I can add anything that hasn't already been voiced. It's unbelievable that your parents would make the choice they did, but somehow I think they thought they were doing the best they could in the circumstances. Your grandma is another story. She sounds like a bitter and hateful old woman. But, people aren't born that way, there is always a story behind the bad behavior. I'm looking forward to reading more about this time in your life.

  12. I am struck by the knowledge that every child, placed in a similar situation, ultimately blames themselves. What is it about us that makes us believe we could be responsible for our own poor (or misguided) treatment? I hope that little girl inside of you has had many years of acknowledgement and love to begin to turn the tide of self-blame and nurture her spirit.


  13. Why? Why? Why? Something terrible happened to my husband when he was 8. It is also the story of abandonment, unintentional cruelty and heartlessness. Fortunately, his abandonment was short-lived -- only a few months. But it did affect him and his relationships and most importantly his ability to really trust people...

  14. How horrible! Most suredly, life-changing. I feel so much for that five year old girl who understood little but that she'd been left behind. I could cry for her. It's heartwarming to learn that your parents did so out of love and concern for you, not the reverse, but it still must have been devastating.

  15. My throat was swollen with anguish the whole time I read this. It's understandable why your mother left you behind: because of your allergies, but your grandmother should have comforted you. It was a time when the two of you could have bonded, but . . . my goodness. Very sad. Words can be so violent sometimes.

  16. Your grandmother was beyond the pale -- if that's the correct expression. Confused, sad, feeling abandoned by her son, and without empathy for the feelings and permanent harm done to a child. So sad.

  17. I clicked over from the free of freedom post and bloody hell this post makes me sad and mad your grandmother seems like such a cold woman, I would never say such things to my grandchildren...........