Lawrence, the faithful, charming and ever-so-kind driver, pulls our sleek silver SUV into the gates of the orphanage. “It looks like a church,” I thought to myself as I peered through the windshield.
A statue of the Virgin Mary welcomed us from the middle of the entrance. I was surprised. I had totally forgotten that the orphanage was run by Catholic nuns. It was funny thinking that I had lived for the last 13-years without any semblance of organized spiritual or religious affiliation and here I was staring at a the place I had come from, and it was highly structured around and by Catholicism. Momentarily, it made me wonder if I should be Catholic, if Catholicism was somehow part of my denied heritage.
The director, I’ll call her Sister Karla, was waiting for us as we climbed out of the SUV. Sister Karla welcomed us and ushered us inside while making it clear she was glad to have us as guests. She took the time to explain many of the functions that her organization, Sisters of Cross Society for Education Development (SOC SEAD), had been working on in the prior years. I was amazed to see how large the organization was. I had thought it was just an orphanage, but no, since my days it had blossomed; now operating a women’s groups, a primary and secondary school, worker’s training programs and a program for young homeless boys.
Since 2004, they have created and maintained, somewhat, a website which does a better job than I of explaining their programs: Socsead.org.
Admittedly, this was my first time to an orphanage, well since I lived in one. I had no clue what to expect. My heart began to race as we climbed the stairs up into the administrative office. Sister Karla had told us that there was one caretaker, a very elderly woman, who said she remembered me and we would go and visit her first. I wondered how much she would remember, if she knew anything about my birth relatives, or if she could tell me what I was like as a child. It turned out, she could not speak English and I hadn’t the faintest clue what she was saying to me. We exchanged, via an interpreter, a few kind words and shared a hug. I was a bit disappointed by the nonchalance of our interaction but didn’t know how else to go about it.
Once in the office we sat down at Sister Karla’s desk as she told us about even more things the organization was working on. I was distracted. It was difficult to listen to her. My mind was off, at off in another place. I couldn’t believe I was here, I had so many questions…didn’t I? At that moment Sister Karla started me by asking, “would you like to see your file?” as LilaRose turned to see how I would react.
“You still have it?” I responded, hesitantly, unsure, almost incredulous, that they still had any information on me. It had been 13-years I figured this place barely had running water, let alone a record of the children who had been in their care (yes, I know incredibly ignorant and racist for me to assume the orphanage was run poorly, didn’t have resources and was disorganized. But, like I said above, this was my first real interaction with an orphanage). Sister Karla pulled a folder out of her desk, she must have had it ready in anticipation of our arrival. She handed it to me with a smile on her face and her large brown eyes beaming at me as I looked up and took the folder. I felt weird opening it in the presence of others. It felt incredibly personal. “This folder could contain information and secrets I have been deprived of all these years,” I thought as I gently opened the folder.
The contents were largely the same documents that I had found a few years ago in that blue folder labeled “Kumar” in my parents filing cabinet. Sister Karla could tell how excited I was about the folder, though. Ever once-and-a-while I would catch her watching my face as I flipped each page over, read them front to back, scanning for anything I could have possibly missed. Eventually, I got up and she showed me to their new Dell computer. It was a hulking square box of a monitor, much like the ones many of us use throughout the public school system. She opened folders and showed me pictures, pictures of me! I couldn’t believe they had photos. I think they were photos that my dad had taken while he was at the orphanage.
After about an hour or so of oggling at my past we headed downstairs to where the children were with their caretakers. By this point I was excited to see the kids, very very nervous, but excited. I think I envisioned it as a way of seeing what it might have been like for me as a child. I thought it might tell me about myself, maybe even reveal something about my “true” self. Fantastic hopes for a visit to an orphanage.
Check out the rest of the story, The Orphanage Part II: Meeting the Kids.