My earliest childhood memory comes at about age 3. Most likely, this memory sticks in my mind because of the trauma involved.
We were walking down the street. I had one of my mother’s hands, and Steve had the other. Mom was telling us about the wonderful place for which we were heading that had a lot of kids and a lot of toys and that we were going to have so much fun there!
As we arrived at the long front walk, I remember thinking that the house was a castle because it was so big! We had arrived at “The Children’s Home.”
The Hornell Children’s Home was founded in 1917 by Miss Theo Hoel, Hornell City Nurse. The mayor had given Miss Hoel permission to use four rooms and a dispensary in the Municipal Building so that she could care for needy children. At that time, World War I was in full swing, along with an influenza epidemic. Ms. Hoel had seen children lose one or both parents to this epidemic, along with other illnesses or misfortunes. Two women who each had five children were desperately ill and a father of three was a war casualty. In each of these situations, a parent was unable to care for the children and maintain the home at the same time. Miss Hoel recognized the need to establish some type of assistance for these types of families.
Later in 1917, a committee of women had a fundraising drive to buy a more permanent residence for the children and, in July of that year, the house at 233 Main Street was purchased — the location of the facility to this day.
Funded in the early years, in part, by the “Red Feather Organization,” (an ancestor of today’s United Way) the Children’s Home was managed by Miss Hoel and her two assistants, Miss Helen Gibbs (from 1917-1955) and Miss Isabel Coleman (from 1918-1962). Through the years there would be more short-lived employees but, for the first four decades, these three women were its mainstay.
The Home became, for lack of a better description, a sort of “group foster home,” specifically for children whose lives had been disrupted by the loss or incapacitation of one or both parents.
The Children’s Home was often mistakenly thought of as an orphanage and it was not unusual for people to contact the Home and ask if there are/were any adoptable children. In 1967, the home was changed into a Day Care Center and remains one today. They still occasionally get calls looking for adoptable children.
The sight of this home was not intimidating, as I recall. It was lovely and inviting, with its nicely painted exterior, neatly trimmed lawn and neat landscaping. For a three-year old, it was enormous and looked like the kind of place a princess might live in. It didn’t look much different in 1958 from what it looks today.
I remember a front sitting room, very neat and formal — not the kind of place where children played. There was a large staircase that came down into the sitting room, with highly polished, wide banisters that curved around at the end of the stairs. Miss Hoel had passed away six years prior to that, so we were met by the Home’s fourth director, Miss Florence Baker. I have very vague, fleeting memories of Miss Baker and, while I remember her name, I don’t really remember much else about her. This indicates to me that she probably wasn’t terribly involved with the children — at least, not like the women I remember. And, frankly, while I remember going into that front sitting room, that’s all I remember about it on that first day.
What I do remember is that, when we went into the main room, the place was full of kids doing all sorts of activities. It was noisy, as a place with a good number of children would be, yet it was calm and orderly. I remember benches along at least one of the walls — benches that were either built-in or attached to the walls somehow. They had cushion pads on them, and their seats lifted up to show what was hidden inside — TOYS!
Steve and I began to play while our mother talked to the women there. I don’t know if my mother came to say goodbye or just how I realized that we were going to be left there, but the idea of being left there terrified me, and I began to cry. My mother tried to comfort me, but I wasn’t having any part of it. I put my head down on the cushion of that bench and wailed loudly, not wanting our mother to leave. I cried and wailed for what seemed a long, long time and, when I finally stopped and lifted my head, my mother was gone. They had apparently told her that it would be best for her to just leave. And so I put my head down and wailed more, louder. And they let me.
That first night was terrifying. I don’t know if I’d ever been away from my mother before, but I suspect that, by the way I acted, I hadn’t. I was taken to a room that had four beds in it, and was assigned a bed. I asked about my brother and was told that he would sleep in the boys’ room. I was scared, and felt alone. I was alone — my mother was gone, and my brother was elsewhere. I was helped into my pajamas, then tucked into bed by some nameless, faceless woman whom I don’t remember. My roommate, Helen, was already in bed, two beds away, but was awake and watching everything.
The light was turned off but the light in the hallway was left on and our door left open. I had an opportunity to look around a bit in the dim light and saw nothing remarkable other than the four beds, and another door inside our room, near the door that led to the hallway. I was scared, and cried quietly. I wanted my Mommy and my brother.
I don’t know how long I lay there crying, but I became aware of movement. Someone was walking down the hallway, toward my room, and with the hallway light behind her, all I could see was a black shadow of a figure, with wispy hair that fell wildly below the shoulders. It was a witch! I lay there, paralyzed with fear, watching the dark figure approach our room and then enter into the doorway inside our room. When the door closed, I scrambled out of the bed, and crawled underneath it.
I have a vague memory of being awakened the next morning by a woman’s voice calling my name. I opened my eyes, not knowing where I was, and as the fog of sleep dissipated, I remembered the witch and realized I was still under my bed. I saw a woman, peering under the bed, saying my name in a soft voice. Her eyes were very kind, and she asked me if I had slept under the bed all night long. She reached out her hand to me, and I took it, and crawled out from under the bed. I told her I had been afraid of the witch. “What witch?” she asked. I told her about the witch I had seen the night before, and she carried me over to that door, and opened it. Fully expecting to see a witch’s lair, I gingerly peeked inside. It was a small bedroom with nothing more than a bed and a dresser. The woman told me that this was where Isabel slept and that Isabel was a very nice lady. I wasn’t so sure about that. The woman introduced herself to me, telling me that her name was Ethel.
Life at the Children’s Home was very regimented. It almost had to be, I suppose, with the number of children in residence. Each morning we would line up outside a room that was filled with nothing but drawers — not dresser drawers, more like sewing cabinet drawers. When we reached the head of the line, we were given our clothes for the day, clothes that had been supplied by our families or, in some cases, donated through charities for those less fortunate.
We dressed, then went downstairs for breakfast. There were two tables that, to a three-year-old, seemed gigantic. I couldn’t begin to guess how many children were seated at these tables, but back then, it seemed like a thousand. Realistically, I’d guess ten to twelve at the most. The smaller children ate at one table, and the older children at another. The older children had started breakfast a bit earlier since they went to school, but I remember having meals with them. After breakfast, we brushed our teeth and then went down to the basement to stand in a line to use the bathrooms to have a BM. Regimented BM’s — something I’d long for today, given my age. I remember the bathroom as being similar to a port-a-potty, except it was an interior structure with indoor plumbing. I remember more than one line so it’s possible the boys may have had one line and the girls the other, I’m not sure.
I’d go in, sit on the toilet, and fail to have a BM. When I emerged, I’d be asked “Did you have a BM?” and I’d say “No.” I would then be sent back to the end of the line to go through once more. After a couple of years of this, I finally figured out that if I said “Yes” when asked if I had a BM, regardless of whether I did or not, I’d be let go and I’d have more time to play outside. To this day, I sometimes need a brick wall to fall on me still.
After some time at play we would come in for lunch and, after lunch, we had “school.” We were taught our alphabet and numbers, and engaged in age appropriate activities such as coloring. After school, it was nap time. Everyone had a blanket that they put down on the floor in the activity room and, with instructions to lay with our backs to the television, we were expected to nap, while Isabel sat in the chair watching her “programs.” On her lap, Isabel always had a paddle.
Paddles. I don’t know who invented Paddle Ball, but I seriously doubt that person thought their invention would be used to discipline kids. Every member of the staff carried one of these paddles — like prison guards upon the tower armed with rifles. Many a kid felt the sting of a wooden paddle on their behinds. I remember seeing two older girls getting paddled in the shower — both of them completely nude and wet with the shower water running down, but being paddled anyway. I don’t remember who paddled them, I just remember being frozen in fear, unable to move, terrified by what I was seeing, but unable to look away, either. I steered clear of those paddles as much as I could. I saw the boys get paddled a lot, and a few girls, but even though the boys seemed to get it more, I did whatever it took to not know what that paddle felt like on the soft flesh of my little rear-end.
After nap, we went outside again (weather permitting) and then it was dinner, baths, prayers, and bed.
I suppose that, being so young, I adjusted to my new life quickly. Steve certainly had. My roommate (Helen) and I became quick friends, and did everything together. Helen had two brothers (that I can remember), Bobby and Billy. Helen’s father would come visit his kids and I always got a huge kick out of his visits. The man had a wooden leg that made a hollow “thumping” sound when my little balled up fist knocked on it. I think he got a huge kick out of the small kids’ interest in his leg.
After some time, we were allowed to stay up late on Friday nights because our mother would come and visit us. Looking back, I suppose it was very hard for her, and I certainly didn’t make it easier by crying each time she left. One Friday night, my mother informed me that if I didn’t quit crying so much when she left, they weren’t going to allow her to come and visit any more. I didn’t want that to happen, so I learned to be brave, internalizing all of my worries and fears.
I remember the stench of lamb cooking. The odor permeated the entire house the day Isabel cooked lamb. I’ve never had lamb since. It’s amazing how much of a role our sense of smell plays in our memories and future lives, isn’t it?
I remember one of the older boys making a negative comment about John Kennedy and something good about some guy named Nixon. One of the staff members went over and thumped the boy on the head for what he said about Kennedy.
We spent a lot of time playing on the slide. One day when I was four or five, Steve climbed the ladder behind me. As I reached the top of the ladder, ready to sit down and slide back down to the ground, I looked down and my brother was already on the ground waving at me. As we began the climb up the ladder again, I asked him “How did you get down so quickly?” and he simply replied “I jumped.” No sooner had I reached the top of the ladder again, and there he was, back down on the ground, laughing at me. I slid back down and asked him again how he had gotten down so fast, not believing he had jumped all that distance. He repeated his claim, “I jumped!” This time, he reached the ladder ahead of me and quickly scaled it and, in what seemed a blink of an eye, I saw him land on his feet on the asphalt below.
Amazed, and not to be outdone, I stood at the top of that slide, working up the courage to jump. It was so far down! But if Steve had done it, surely I could do it! And, without another thought, I jumped.
I hit the asphalt hard, the wind knocked out of me. I couldn’t breathe and everything hurt. Surely I had jumped to my death. The world around me whirled quickly in circles, and everything had a dark tinge to it. I heard Steve’s worried voice asking me if I was okay. After a few moments, I was finally able to draw breath. “You dope!” Steve chided me. “I slid down the pole, I didn’t jump! I can’t believe you actually thought I jumped!” Thankfully, I was uninjured, other than my pride.
From time to time, throughout our childhood, whenever Steve bragged to me that he was stronger, faster, or braver, I would remind him who had the backbone to jump off that slide, and who didn’t.
And so, time went by. I started Kindergarten and was academically ahead of my age group when I started — probably because of the “home schooling” we’d gotten at the Children’s Home. When I was in Kindergarten, Steve taught me to read easy, basic words such as “the,” “and,” “he,” “she,” etc. By the time I entered the first grade, I was reading extremely well and I remember my teacher telling me that she had to get a different book for me. She gave me Fun With Dick and Jane books — I was the only one in the class reading them. Dick and Jane books weren’t primary readers, they were readers for older kids, in more advanced grades. I loved to read! Reading took me places, it made me feel different and, I have to admit, I was feeling pretty darned arrogant about my reading abilities in the first grade. I had not yet learned the biblical lesson of “Pride goeth before a great fall.”
We had a substitute teacher one day. Helen and I thought it would be a hoot to swap the paper hats we had made early in the year, that had our names on them. My hat read “Helen,” and Helen’s read “Patty.” The substitute teacher called me Helen all day long. When it came time for reading class, the substitute had me stand in front of the class and read, for some reason. She raved and raved about how well I could read and then walked me across the hall to the second grade class, asking the second grade teacher if she could have me read for her class. She introduced me, told the class that she wanted them to hear how well a first grader could read, and that they should try to read as well as I could. I proudly read the page out of the book and, when the second grade teacher asked her class “Wasn’t that really good?” my brother’s voice from the back of the room chimed in with “She can’t be too good at reading if she can’t read her own name! Her name’s Patty, not Helen!” Red faced and horrified, I remembered the stupid hats and, when I gave a sideways glance to the substitute teacher, I saw that she didn’t look any too pleased with me. The following day, when our regular teacher came back, she chewed Helen and I out royally.
It was the only time I felt the sting of a paddle on my backside at the Children’s Home.
The year I started kindergarten, we began going home on weekends with our mother. The following year, we only went to the Children’s Home during the day — before and after school, and full days on holidays or school vacations. We were no longer “residents.”
But, as it turned out, home wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, either.
In 1967, the Children’s Home became a Day Care Center, which still operates at the same location today.