A Diamond In The Rough
In 1902, construction on The Home For Friendless Children was completed in the Highbridge neighborhood of the Bronx. The American Female Guardian Society erected this huge and beautiful Beaux-Arts styled building to house and care for abandoned and abused children. This facility was one of the, if not the, most advanced residences built specifically for children in need in America. Woodycrest accommodated 120 children with five dormitories, a hospital, a kindergarten, a chapel, a dining room, a gymnasium, an indoor swimming pool, and a quarantine ward for new arrivals.
Architect William B. Tuthill skillfully designed the structure to appear to be a mansion and not an institution. Mr. Tuthill was a renowned and often sought-after architect. He designed the world-famous Carnegie Hall so his work commanded high fees. In spite of the cost, the American Female Guardian Society insisted children in need grow up in a beautiful and safe environment. Sadly, many orphanages were in decline and unsafe as the bigger and older kids preyed on younger and smaller children. The mortality rates in these institutions were not much better than on the streets. Woodycrest was a safe environment to learn and build a new life for ones’ self. It was a true diamond in the rough!
I've written about the following drama before in my book "Three Dog Nightmare" and again in a story on my blog entitled "Twins Forever" ; however, as I find myself closer to the end than the beginning of my blessed and magical life, more has been revealed. I'm now able to contribute some context to this tired old tale with some new relevant information on the most devastating time in my life.
Normally, my day began awakening to an empty apartment. We lived in 4F at 1051 Sherman Avenue in the Bronx. My mother had already left for work and my twin sister, Nancy, was off to school. People were banging on the radiator with hammers and other objects in hopes of waking the super (superintendent of the building.) Others were yelling, “Put some coal on the fire you lazy bum!”
Cereal was usually available for breakfast; however, having on a few occasions eaten cockroaches living in the Raisin Bran, I left for school without eating anything. My mother always left me lunch money.
By the age of six, I stopped attending school to avoid the gut-wrenching anxiety, fear, and shame I endured attending class. It had become unbearable to continue being the stupid kid, the joke, the victim. At the time, I didn't understand why I was confused simply trying to tie my shoes and why I couldn't read like my sister, Nancy, and other classmates. I couldn't spell but a few words and barely understood math. Everything seemed upside down, inside out, and backwards.
A teacher is someone you respect and desire their approval. One day, in hopes of achieving that goal, I excitedly approached Mrs. Kraft’s desk at PS 90 Elementary School to inform her that I had won a medal at the school track meet. I was not prepared for what followed for it was the first time I was knowingly discarded and unwanted by someone. An adult, a teacher nonetheless, had given up on a six-year-old child seeing no worth in me. She looked down on me smiling with an indifference, with a meanness I couldn't understand, and said, "Well, at least you can do something Charles."
The day I decided I could no longer handle the stress of the third grade came after I misspelled a word in a class spelling bee causing my group to be eliminated. Thankfully, it was time for recess and fun in the schoolyard. One of the boys in my class had a handicap. He had one arm bent and shorter than the other. Two boys began making fun of him and I automatically reacted and stopped them. After they left, I asked him if he was alright. Instead of replying to me, he turned to his friend and stated, "This is the kid I told you can't even spell yes." Shame and hurt rushed through me followed by anger and the desire to hurt that boy. Instead, I left the school and didn't return for the better part of two years.
Being alone suited me. I thrived on the solitude and anonymity on the streets. The sounds of the city were like music to me and I was comforted by its rhythm. I wandered in and out of different neighborhoods inhabited by people of all colors, nationalities, and speaking many different languages. I sometimes walked for hours stopping to watch older boys and grownups playing handball, cards, craps, or bocce ball. What really lit me up was watching the fierce competition on the basketball court and baseball fields, not to mention the magical sound of Doo Wop echoing through the allies, hallways, subway stations, and street corners of this fantastic borough of New York. I truly can't remember ever being stopped by the police or even any adults asking what I was doing alone on the street and not in school.
One day I stopped by a crowd of people watching several men playing what I found out later was street craps. Colorful language and loud aggressive voices seemed to endlessly bounce off the walls of the buildings. The shooter—the player rolling the dice—was aggressively shaking the dice in his hand and talking a lot, but I really didn't understand him.
When he finally bent over and rolled the dice, another die fell out of his pocket onto the ground. This initiated a frightening silence that lasted just seconds before an explosion of ugliness and violence began. This was the first time I witnessed a knife being pulled on someone. I ran away and didn't look back.
One morning during school hours, I noticed a friend’s mother across the street at a
market. I was paranoid she had spotted me and would inform my mother. Now, the stress of being found out was becoming as stressful as attending school. Each day, the pressure mounted wondering if the school had contacted my mother again or if I'd been exposed by a neighbor. That's when I decided not to leave our apartment at all and remained there until school was let out at 3 PM.
The school periodically informed my mother of my truancy and she had to meet with the principal on a few occasions; however, she was more upset about missing work than my truancy and learning difficulties. It was confusing to me not being hit and yelled at, but my mother did possess the ability to wait before dispensing her justice—her form of psychological torture. The root causes of my truancy, my fear, and anxiety due to my learning disability were never addressed. Unbeknownst to me, my mother had already begun looking into a resolution to my truancy and a punishment—her retribution for disrupting her life.
I was unaware of my ability to separate, compartmentalize, and move forward from one situation to another without carrying baggage from the previous circumstances, but it served me well. I was grateful to receive happiness wherever and whenever I found it. I believed, and always had faith, that a higher power watched after me—God!
I learned how to comfort myself with sports, neighborhood friends, and girls!
My first validation came from a girl and I continued
to enjoy the friendship of those who thought I was special.
Girls are the best!
Most evenings around 6 PM my mother made the walk from the subway station to our apartment bringing her past the schoolyard I played in. She would yell out, “Charlie, be home in half an hour,” or, “Charlie, come home now!” It wouldn't be long now before I found out my fate. I might be verbally attacked, hit and told to get the belt, or nothing would be said if she hadn't been contacted. My mother rarely, if ever, spoke to us on an emotional level. If I was upset, scared, or hurt, I cried alone in the kitchen until my sister came to comfort me.
Some evenings, Nancy and I went to bed before mom got home, but it wasn't a big deal for we never had a children's book read to us before bed nor were we kissed goodnight. Going to bed alone was our normal. I wasn't aware that most parents spent time with their children at bedtime until some years later when we had a TV and I witnessed this special time between parents and their children on the television. I won't say we weren't loved, but somewhere in between.
One evening, my mother informed Nancy and I we were going out. It was exciting to have an excursion at night. No explanation or destination was given, but nevertheless, it was thrilling that all of us were going out together. Unbeknownst to me, my sister had been briefed and prepared well in advance for what was to follow concerning our destination and our future for the coming years. Nancy was told not to let me know and I wouldn't be made aware of this secret for decades.
We left the apartment and walked a few blocks to the Grand Concourse, a main thoroughfare in the Bronx. We began running and laughing as we tried to wave down a taxicab. Little did I know that we were heading to Woodycrest.
Years later, when I did learn the facts of that memorable night, I asked Nancy if she could forgive me for putting her through that dreadful experience. Her reply was unexpected and comforting. Nancy told me she really liked it there. It was nice not being alone anymore and having breakfast, lunch, and dinner with the girls in her dorm. She felt safe at Woodycrest and informed me that, at times, she was scared being alone in our apartment at night when mom hadn't come home and I was still in the schoolyard playing ball.
Perception Is Reality
Woodycrest was no longer the gem it was almost 50 years ago, but it remained one of the best facilities of its kind. Being only eight-years-old and 3' 9", this huge building with its dramatic entryway was frightening and overwhelming. At this point, I didn't know why we were even there.
This is where my penance came due, where the emotional and psychological corporal punishment would be disbursed. This punishment wouldn't be centered around traditional physical discipline, although that did happen for these wounds would be more permanent. Wounds and scars you couldn't see, but were always there, just below the surface inhibiting the ability to trust, to love, and to feel.
The modus operandi—the knockout punch—was, in fact, The Secret. Woodycrest would now be my home forever. It was the ruse that would break me, bringing me to my emotional knees, stripping away any remaining trust I had in people that I hung onto after my father left and didn't return. It changed who I could have been into who I would become.
How is it possible for a parent to drop off their child at the
front door of an orphanage without an explanation,
a hug, kiss, or comforting word? How?
Having seen the confusion and terror on my face, how did my mother not waiver in her resolve? How could she not abandon her desire to punish me and decide to explain the circumstances truthfully? She didn't. I had to be taught a lesson. I had to pay for intruding in her life!
With her hand on my back, my mother urged me to go with the lady in charge, but I couldn't move. Mother firmly, but gently, moved me forward repeating for me to go with the lady. The women took my hand and softly explained everything would be fine as we walked towards a grand stairway. I turned back towards my mother, but she was already gone.
Spiritual Heads Up
During the process of writing this, I've been physically compromised due to my COPD. For the last month or so, I've been on heavy doses of steroids and antibiotics. More recently, I started nebulizer treatments several times a day. The latter isn't the core of what I want to share with you, but it is a catalyst. I'll explain what happened that guided me to the reality that it is time to stop allowing this part of my life, this resentment, to be responsible for more negative consequences to me and my life!
While quietly sitting in my favorite chair, I experienced a visualization in my mind’s eye. The clarity of the message opened my mind and my heart.
You will never remove all the sickness
from your body and mind until you forgive your mother.
Forgiveness is the only avenue to your freedom.
Forgiveness is the answer to set me free, to unlock the cell I entered willingly by embracing my resentment and bitterness towards my mother. The key resides with my mother and to retrieve it I must forgive her.
Acceptance can be daunting, even nonexistent, if you are lacking in faith and a healthy spiritual connection to a higher power. Accepting that my resentment, well-founded as it might be, has drastically skewed how I see others and how it has negatively affected my mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing are the first steps to surrender and forgiveness.