The shoes were unlike any I’d ever had. I gently placed them on the windowsill next to the bunk bed, turning them slightly to the right so the sunlight would fall on them and create a shadow. We didn’t have curtains on any of the windows. Privacy was to be avoided at all times, but I didn’t give that much thought back then.
I had the bed on the bottom. I’d wanted a top bunk but had been afraid to ask for one. A little girl named Marguerite was above me. She didn’t say much, just pushed the ladder closer to her when she needed to go up or down. She must have been about six and small for her age. I was ten.
It was all my fault I’d ended up in this place for a month. If only I hadn’t wanted to join the Girl Scouts. Looking back, I guess I wanted to please my mother more than myself and that’s why she did what she felt she had to so I could have the Girl Scout uniform. But it didn’t matter now; in one afternoon everything changed and she was in jail and so was I, in a matter of speaking.
We went to court and I had to sit in the back with a social worker while my mom stood in front of the judge and answered his questions. Then I heard his gavel hit the desk hard and everyone stared moving around the courtroom. They let her come over to talk to me for a minute and she said,
“They’re taking you away from me, Connie. I love you.”
With that, two men led her away and I was left standing there and wondering what would happen next. She never turned around and then she disappeared out a side door and a man came over and told me I was going with him. It was a surreal experience and I followed him outside and got in the green Plymouth on the passenger side.
It was a long day and he had to make several stops. Each time, he parked and got out of the car without saying anything to me. The second or third time, I thought about getting out and making a run for it. But I didn’t have any place to run to and no one to call.
We finally arrived at our destination just before it got dark. There was a three-story hospital on one side and the building we went into was one level. The man I had been riding with all day disappeared without saying a word. A woman appeared and introduced herself to me as Mrs. Hobbs. She didn’t smile and I followed her into a dormitory where at least a dozen girls were getting ready for bed.
She pointed at an empty bunk bed and I sat down on the bottom. Two girls came over to say hello to me, while the little girl, Marguerite quickly went up the ladder and plopped down in the bunk above mine.
Cassie had long blonde hair and was also ten. She had been in the Kendall Home for Children for three months. Her twin brother, Andy was in the dorm for boys across the way. They got to spend one weekend a month with their grandmother, but she had a bad memory and always mixed up their clothes when they returned on Sunday night.
Robin had curly dark hair that was very short. She was almost twelve and had been there for about a month. She had a small brown teddy bear and asked if I wanted to sleep with it my first night. I thanked her and declined, because I didn’t want to take something of hers, even for a single night.
It was lights out at eight-thirty and I stared up at the bottom of the bunk above me until I finally fell asleep. It felt like just a few minutes had passed when the bright lights were switched on at six the next morning. Mrs. Hobbs and another, younger woman went from bunk to bunk to make sure everyone was awake.
On Saturday evening after we had dinner in the girls’ dining hall, Mrs. Hobbs praised me for eating everything on my plate. I hadn’t thought about it until she mentioned it, but I ate everything because I was hungry and stressed out from the past couple of days. It would only be later that I would learn that there were consequences for not finishing everything on your plate at every meal.
She invited me into her office and pointed to a folding chair in the corner. She asked me questions in rapid succession, including ones about my parents, my friends, and my religion. She said she knew I was a Jew, but I wasn’t and told her so. Then she said she had a present for me, if I intended on joining the others at church the next morning. It sounded like something to go to take my mind off my troubles so I said that of course I would go to church.
She pulled a key from her pocket and walked a few steps down the hallway. She unlocked the door and invited me to follow her inside. The room was filled with shelves of clothing and shoes. Everything was labeled and organized according to size and color. She asked me my shoe size and then took a pair of white canvas shoes down from the second highest shelf. She handed them to me and told me to rey them on.
I slipped off my old, worn loafers and slipped into the new shoes. They felt so good! I got up and took a few steps in them, and then stopped and turned around to thank her. She smiled and then the room was locked up again and she walked with me back to the dormitory. The girls were talking and visiting and she reminded them it was soon lights out.
The following morning I overslept. No one had bothered to wake me and I realized I had missed breakfast and was probably not going to make it to church on time either.
As I glanced up at the window, I saw that the shoes were gone. I had placed them carefully in the windowsill before going to bed. I jumped up and went looking for the other girls and Mrs. Hobbs. The girls were gone but she was sitting in a wicker chair on the front porch of our building.
“Now you understand how it works around here, Connie. You tell a lie, you don’t keep your promise, and you lose out. Understand?”
I nodded. She didn’t see me begin to cry, and I made sure of that by biting my tongue until I tasted blood. As I walked back to my bunk I was sobbing, and later on I would recall this incident as the first one in which I understood the concept of conditional love. Mrs. Hobbs would brag how how much she loves her girls, but it was all subject to then obeying her conditions.
Three Sundays later, my mother got out of a car I didn’t recognize and I flew out the front door to see her. She explained that she had been in a place like I was, but it was for grownups. She told me someone would come for me in a day or two, there would be a meeting with a judge, and then we could both go home.
She and I never discussed this month away from each other again, and she died not knowing that I knew she had been in jail while we were apart. I began protecting her even more after that, and that was the beginning of a different way of thinking, acting, and living for both of us.
I’m Connie Ragen Green, sharing the stories that are the fabric of my life, and in a way that gives you insight into who I am and what I stand for in my life.