Celia sat in the swing on the front porch. With the younger children napping, and Sheila helping Caroline supervise the older ones, she could enjoy a few minutes of relative calm before starting her work for the afternoon. She was planning to balance the home’s checkbook, a tiresome chore that she always put off for as long as she could.
She looked out over the front yard as she rocked in the breeze. The rain had stopped for a while; the afternoon sun was shining through occasional gaps in the clouds. The home had a patchy front lawn, hard to keep green in this climate, especially with irregular maintenance. A magnificent flagpole rose from a concrete block in the middle of the lawn, soaring a good 15 feet higher than the roof. How or why the home had come to have such an overstated fixture had never been clear to Celia. And sadly they had no flag.
They had once had a big one, worthy of the pole, but it was buried out back five years earlier, and was not likely to be replaced. Its demise was tied to the most painful of Celia’s duties, that of finding a new home for Grace. Celia couldn’t put her finger on it, but there were somehow echoes of that time here, now, with this new boy.
A girl named Jolene, now gone, was handling flag duty at the time it was lost. Jolene was exceptional. At age 16 she was, by the standards of the home, an outgoing and talkative young woman. Arriving at the home at age five, she had been the picture of the severely withdrawn child, displaying a condition which was just beginning to bear the name autism.
Jolene quickly adapted to the home’s routine, but only as though from a great distance. She was generally responsive to requests and instructions, but she never looked at anyone. She was capable of speech, but would not answer questions. When she spoke, it was aimed at no one, and the words bore no relation to what was going on around her. She spent a great deal of time with books, but whether she was reading or simply looking at the pictures, it was impossible to say.
Then something remarkable occurred.
Around age 12, with the onset of puberty, there was an abrupt change in Jolene. Suddenly she made eye contact with those speaking to her, and she responded to questions that were asked of her. To Celia, it seemed as though she had somehow arrived. All at once, she began to initiate conversation. She would comment on the food or the weather, or approach Celia with questions about her own appearance: Did her hair look better this way? Was she getting too big for this dress? She began to have questions about the books she was reading, for it quickly became apparent that yes, she had been reading all that time.
Only now she put away the four or five picture books that she had been through countless times and began reading everything the home’s small library had to offer. She took particular pleasure in the Little House books and in the three Nancy Drew mysteries she found. When Mrs. West, the missions representative from the local Presbyterian Church (known to the children as the Mission Lady), observed this change in Jolene, she gave her a copy of the Bible, which the girl proceeded to read from cover to cover.
In addition to reading, Jolene began to learn to write. She told Celia that she planned to write a book of her own, which would be about a girl living on the frontier, or maybe a girl detective, or possibly a very rich and powerful king who travels to mysterious places. The Bible had been her inspiration for the last of these ideas; she had read the book as piously as she could, but was unprepared to grapple with theology and always reverted to a fascination with what to her were its exotic elements: kings, slaves, battles, miracles, olive trees (trees growing olives!), camels, golden calves, and on and on.
To Celia, Jolene represented the personification of the hope she nurtured for all of the children. Anyone who spent time at the home knew to avoid phrases such as a normal life when contemplating the future of one of their charges, but it was at least safe to say that more options would be available to Jolene than for many. As the years passed, she continued to read and grow in her understanding of the world. She had done well with the limited schooling that the home was able to provide. There was some talk of having her test for high-school equivalency.
Myra managed to get Jolene accepted as a part-time student at the vocational school. This was the only victory she ever managed in an ongoing war with the Superintendent of the local school system. For years, she had pleaded with the school board to allow her children admission to the school where the townsfolk sent their own special needs children. The Superintendent, a short, squat man with a fat face and a shocking rim of curly red-orange hair encircling a balding head, took the position that that the state funding the home received was intended to support the children’s education, and he was adamant that the home’s schooling facilities were adequate to the task.
Getting Jolene admitted to the vocational school had taken a direct vote of the school board. Myra came to the Board meeting with Jolene in tow, and allowed the girl to make her own case as to why she needed some schooling that the home was unable to give. It didn’t matter what the Superintendent said in response, or how much sway he held over the board. The board members could see the promise for themselves, and voted accordingly.
The vocational school was not the special needs school; it was for older students. Many of the more capable students from the latter were graduated to the former, along with others from the junior high school who, through a mysterious formula, had been selected for a vocational rather than an academic secondary education. At her new school, Jolene learned to type and picked up some appreciation of mathematics, at least to the level of making change. Because she "looked normal," that is to say, because her condition bore no visible mark on her face or in her mannerisms, and because she was a pretty girl with dark hair and dark eyes—tall and maybe just a little on the heavy side—and, moreover, because she had this remarkable facility for talking to other people (even strangers), Jolene managed to do something that no child from the home had ever done: she had made friends with some kids outside the home.
Down the road, who knew what might happen? She might be able to find a job, a real job, and live more or less on her own in a halfway house or some other partially supervised setting. Although that scenario would represent the realization of Celia’s fondest hope, she knew that she could not allow herself to become too enchanted by the possibility.
Up to that point, all of the children she had seen leave the home had been sent at age 21 (recently adjusted down to 18) to the State Home in Palmer. Each of these departures had been a terrible trauma for Celia, if not always for the child. She knew that the State Home was not a bad place, that in many ways it had more to offer than this tiny institution run by Caroline and Myra and herself. But it was always a bitter disappointment seeing them go there, a feeling that she had somehow failed in her charge to find something better for the child, even if her ideas around what better situation might be found for some of these children remained, at best, extremely vague. But this time there was nothing vague; the way forward seemed perfectly clear. And that, above all, was why Celia knew that it was important for her to curb her enthusiasm, to keep it from spilling over to Jolene. She knew that just because the way forward looked clear to her, it might not appear so to everyone else. A disappointment to Celia would be one thing, but a disappointment to Jolene could be disastrous. This was one of Myra’s cardinal rules for operating the home:
"The children have borne enough hardship," she had so often said. "Never build their hopes up with promises that can’t be kept."
But all those carefully guarded hopes came to an abrupt end the night they lost the flag. Jolene met Myra walking back into the home after bringing the flag down. The older woman was sitting on the old metal glider on the home’s front porch, having a breath of air between dinner time and the long procession of showers, pajamas, and toothbrushes that was bedtime.
Watching Jolene approach, Myra observed that the flag was not folded properly and that, as she carried it, the girl had allowed a corner of it to touch the ground.
Good evening, Jolene, Myra said as the girl walked up the steps and to the front door.
Good evening, ma’am, Jolene replied with a smile, and proceeded into the home.
Myra was a kind woman, but possessed of a variety of kindness not uncommon in a person in her position: a kindness tempered by a knowledge of, and strict adherence to, rules and procedures. Because flying the flag was one of the activities that occurred at the home, Myra had acquainted herself with, and made sure that all children assigned to flag duty were acquainted with, proper flag etiquette.
Unfortunately, on this occasion, as it had on just a few others over the years, Myra’s adherence to rules won the day in the struggle with her better nature. She called Jolene into her office and showed her the flag.
Did she think this was the correct way to fold it?
Did she know what the rules were about the flag touching the ground?
Yes, ma’am. That it should never touch the ground.
Did she know what would happen to a flag that had touched the ground?
The flag was buried that night, in a hole that Jolene dug out back by the tool shed while Myra looked on. Celia only learned what happened the next morning, and by then, it was clear that what had been lost was much more serious than a flag.
Jolene was gone.
She left no note, and took nothing with her, not even her Bible. A panic ensued at the home, followed by the realization over the next several days that she was truly gone, that not even any of her friends from the vocational school knew where she was.
What had happened to Jolene? How had the girl interpreted the flag incident? Perhaps she was embarrassed or ashamed. Or frightened. Or even angry. Celia could only speculate.
There was no doubt, however, as to the effect that this episode (and the remorse that accompanied it) had on Myra. She aged 20 years in the span of a few weeks, her plumpness giving way to thin frailty, her blonde hair fading to a dull white. Her voice, which had rung daily through the home announcing playtime, mealtime, bedtime—and every other time—with great cheer was all but silenced. When she spoke, it was barely above a whisper, and only to issue orders to Caroline or Celia.
Myra, who had always been tireless in her management of the home and all its affairs, became listless and uninterested in day-to-day operations, leaving virtually all of the care of the children to the younger women. She also began to lose interest in her administrative duties. Within a few weeks, Celia was managing essentially every aspect of the operation of the home, a situation that would continue (with only one interruption) for the next six years, until Myra finally stepped down and allowed Celia to take over in name as well as in fact. Celia found that she could never quite forgive Myra for her gross mismanagement in the matter of Jolene and the flag. Their interactions, which had always been warm and familiar, became cold and formal, and as infrequent as Celia could arrange.
It would be more than a year after her disappearance before Jolene was seen at the home again. Caroline answered the doorbell one evening to find the girl standing on the porch, dressed in a filthy and shabby coat and carrying a paper bag which later was found to contain only a stuffed bear and some old magazines. Her face was haggard; her once-long hair short and thin. And she was severely pregnant. She would not look Caroline in the eye, and seemed unwilling or unable to respond to anything that was said to her.
In fact, she said nothing at all.
Standing with Jolene was a police officer and a woman from Social Services who had been to the home a few times in the past. Jolene was picked up at the bus station, where she had arrived the day before, from where no one knew. No ticket was to be found. The manager of the bus station called the police after realizing that the girl had been there more than 24 hours, and finding that she did not seem to be able to understand him when he tried to talk to her. The police, in turn, called Social Services. One of the social workers thought she recognized Jolene from her visits to the home, so she and the officer decided to take her there.
Celia cried out in astonishment when she saw Jolene standing in the home’s foyer, and immediately went to hug her. The girl pulled away, seeming not to recognize Celia any more than she had Caroline, and obviously not wanting to be touched. It was only when Myra arrived on the scene of the homecoming that Jolene showed any sign of recognition. She allowed Myra to put an arm around her. Myra showed no emotion at the reunion, but immediately began to rattle off instructions to Celia and Caroline: the girl would need a bath and food and clean clothes, and she would need to see a doctor as soon as possible (this last instruction aimed at the social worker.)
Upon Jolene’s reappearance, Myra once again asserted her authority—at least for a while. She didn’t renew her interest in the operation of the home, but she took Jolene in and cared for her, full time, with no regard whatever for the home’s normal regulations and procedures. With a little help from Celia and Caroline, the old dispensary was cleaned up and turned into a makeshift private room. Myra took this extraordinary step because she knew that a young woman in her eighth or ninth month of pregnancy (they had no way of knowing for sure, but the girl was obviously well along) did not belong in a dormitory room with the younger girls. But she also did it because she was unwilling to let Jolene go to the State Home, where the girl no doubt belonged.
Jolene remained at the home for four months. After giving birth to her daughter, whom Myra named Grace, she became increasingly distant and difficult to care for. She showed no interest in her baby daughter, and could not be prompted to hold her or to feed her. Myra put the baby’s crib in her own room and began to try to care for both child and mother. Inevitably, the baby claimed the greater share of Myra’s attention. This new lack of attention may have been the cause of Jolene’s further withdrawal, or she may have been traumatized by giving birth, or possibly she suffered from postpartum depression.
But Celia believed the cause to be none of these things. There was no way to guess the specifics of the nightmare existence Jolene had known from the time she left the home until the day she returned, and Jolene was, of course, not talking. She had returned to the home because she had one last thing to do, to give birth, before giving up on life altogether.
And give up she did.
In her final days in the home, Jolene showed no recognition of anyone, not even Myra, and refused food and water. She would not bathe, would not allow her clothes to be changed, would not move from where she lay. She was in essentially a catatonic state, although both the doctor and then the psychiatrist sent by Social Services said that this was not technically the case. In the end, she was sent away to the state home.
Celia packed a bag for her before she left, packed her the personal items she had not bothered with when she ran away, and in which it seemed doubtful she would ever again display any interest. Celia saw her off alone: Caroline was too busy with all the other children, and Myra was busy with Grace. She could not spare five minutes of her time with the baby, Celia had thought bitterly; she didn’t even let the child see her mother leave. Not that that would matter, of course. It would be equally meaningless to both of them.
With some prompting, Jolene had been moved into a wheelchair. She was wheeled out of the home by Celia herself, transferred to the care of a social worker and driver from the state home who arrived in a van to take her away. Celia watched for a long time after the van pulled away, remembering the girl who had suddenly come to life, who had arrived unexpectedly. Now she was truly gone, assigned to the same fate as every other child Celia had watched grow up and leave the home.
But that was more than five years ago.
Now it was spring, that unusually warm spring. Myra had retired, having lost interest in Grace within a few months after the baby’s birth, and having never regained her interest in the home or in any of the other children. Her final years there were spent silently, aimlessly, and if Celia had never been able to forgive her, it was clear that she had likewise never been able to forgive herself.
There had been talk early on, from both Caroline and Celia, about moving the baby to a proper orphanage. It was the right thing to do, and it would have been accomplished easily enough. Grace would have been a good candidate for a foster home or adoption: a pretty baby girl with sandy brown hair and wide blue eyes. At first, this idea was blocked by Myra. Celia and Caroline didn’t push it because Myra was still ostensibly in charge of the home. Before long, however, when Celia (and to a lesser extent, Caroline) began caring for the child, the idea seemed just to fade away. It was only after Celia took over the management of the home that she began in earnest to try to find a new situation for Grace.
The decision to send Grace away was not an easy one. Grace had become, in effect, Celia’s own child, and she was the darling of the home besides. All the children loved her, to the extent that they were able to feel such a thing (or perhaps rather to display such a feeling), and she was doted on both by Celia and Caroline. But the home was not the right place for her; Celia knew it, had known it from the start, and knew that she owed it both to Grace and to Grace’s mother to see to it that the child be given every chance at knowing a normal life, which term was not only allowed in this instance, it was required.
Celia started by visiting each of the institutions in Greenwood and within about a 100 mile radius that were set up for normal children, children like Grace. There were five of these, and Celia had found them all wanting. While the facilities may have been better in one or two than what the home had to offer, and while Grace’s chances of being placed in a proper foster or adoptive home would be vastly improved by being placed in any of them, Celia was not convinced that they were able to provide the same level of care that she and Caroline could give. She decided instead to look for a home for Grace by herself. This was not unheard of; children from the home had been adopted before (in years past, before Celia had come to the home, but still she knew it was possible). It fell on Celia to find the perfect home for Grace; though she knew, of course, that there as no such thing. A good home, however, a fine home, even an extraordinary home—all of these were within reach. And it would have to be all of these things.
This is what she, Celia—along with Myra and the home itself—owed to Jolene.
A slight rumble of thunder of to the west roused Celia from her recollection. The sky had clouded up while she sat reminiscing. There was a chill in the air.
She got up and made her way back into the home. With rain threatening, the children who had been playing out back were rounded up and brought indoors. She found the new boy, Corey, sitting in a corner not far from where the other boys were playing.
She watched him for a long time. There was a tremendous stillness to this boy.
But there was something underlying the stillness: an awareness of the world around him that perhaps no one had seen. Or that perhaps his parents had glimpsed, but had tried to deny.
Why? Why would they deny what they could see in him? Why close off the possibility that their son could be more than he was? She shook her head, but she knew the answer.
She had seen it in their faces. It made no sense, but there it was. It was an uncanny, superstitious dread. They had a clear image in their minds of what their son was. They knew his limits. Anything that stood outside of those expectations was disturbing to them, even frightening.
Celia saw things differently. She would continue to believe that anything that stood outside such limits was cause for hope.
He likes music, the father had said. This was particularly troublesome to the mother.
The checkbook be damned, Celia thought. She had more important work to do.
"Corey," she said. "I don’t think you’ve seen our record player yet."
He didn’t move.
"Let’s go listen to some music."Posted by Phil at March 1, 2004 12:00 AM | TrackBack