This is the second part of a two-part series. If you haven’t read the first part check it out: The Orphanage Part I: Catholic?
We had just decided it was time to head down from the office and see the children. As we descended Sister Karla began telling us about their new building. She explained that the building where the children were currently, where we would see them, was not where they would be once the new building was finished. Sister Karla was aware of how “sensitive” outsiders, especially foreigners, were and how they would react to seeing a children kept in a run-down building. Partially out of pride and partially as a way to stave off any criticism she showed us the new building first.
We walked through its’ immaculate rooms, clean white floors, sturdy looking metal cribs, newly painted walls and curved arched doorways. We tried to look happy and impressed by their work and the scale of the improvements, we were, but we were eager to see the children. Before leaving we posed on the front porch of the new building for a few pictures.
It looked pretty rugged. In some ways it seemed fitting, for the orphanage to look run-down and unkept. Fitting, in that this is sort of what I had imagined, employing most orphanage stereotypes at my disposal. Sister Karla leading the way we crossed the dirt path towards the yellow painted concrete walls broken up by yellow metal screens. My heart sped up as we neared the metal doors. Through the yellow fence I could make out a few nuns passing to and fro, presumably tending to the children. “How many children would there be?” I had no idea. I wondered how many children had been in the orphanage while I was there. “Had I had friends?”, “Was I old enough to have had friends?” there seemed to be no way of knowing.
We passed through the metal door and into a large open room. There was no furniture anywhere I could see. It looked like it was more of an enclosed patio than a room. One wall was completely wire screen facing the new orphanage building. The floor was white tile, much like the new building. There were a handful of nuns some the age of my grandparents others looked a few years older than my sister. They were bringing out the children from the interior of the orphanage where the children must’ve slept. There were probably 10 or so children. Sister Karla introduced us to the women, none of whom spoke any English so our interactions were somewhat mediated by Sister Karla.They seemed pleased to hear that I had been in the orphanage as a child. I wished I could have spoken with them directly.
Unsure what to with ourselves we stood. Noticing our awkwardness someone instructed that we sit on the floor with them. The children were placed in the middle of a semi-circle we made with the nuns on the floor. The ones that were big enough were set on a sheet in the middle of our semi-circle and were allowed to explore and move about on their own. Some of them flailed on their bellies while others were able to sit up, point at things and make demanding noises. One boy, the oldest I later learned, was dressed in blue shorts and a blue sweater. He ran around a fair amount and seemed to be more or less in control of himself in this patio. I wondered if I was like him, the oldest in the orphanage. I wanted a family to find him, to adopt him. I didn’t feel like this was a bad place for him, I just wanted him to have a family.
We reached the orphanage in early January. There were also some very small children. One of the children, visibly the youngest, had been found on Christmas, alone and brought to the orphanage. He was very small and skinny but judging by the pudgy-ness of the other kids I felt confident he would soon be able to show off his own baby rolls.
We, the generous Westerners, had brought gifts for the children. We brought plastic toys for the kids and a nice green check for the orphanage. I assume our parents had inquired about what type of gift the orphanage felt was most needed/appropriate and they said toys. We took out the toys and distributed them amongst the children. The ones that took notice of them mostly put them in their mouths as they tested to see if they were edible. I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to touch or play with the kids so I just sat there and watched them clamber around eagerly tasting whatever they could get in their mouths.
Sister Karla encouraged us to play with the children. I hadn’t the faintest idea how to play with children. I had almost never been around people this young. I didn’t know how gentle I was supposed to be, how to hold them or what to do with them. “Was I supposed to talk to them?” I wondered as I thought about what I would do. I mustered enough courage, after scanning the room watching the nuns handle the children, to pick up one of the clambering children with a toy in his mouth.
He was very cute and I had been watching him in his orange shorts for a few minutes. He seemed light-hearted and curious. I doubted he would protest if I picked him up so I reached for him, trying to conjure images I had seen of parents picking up their children, and settled on grabbing under each armpit and lifting him towards me so our heads would be level. As I brought him closer to me I felt self-conscious, like I was being watched and judged by all these nuns. It was like this little boy had 6 mothers who were watching me, grilling me as I handled their pride and joy ready to judge me at the slightest twinge of irresponsibility. I held him between both armpits his white shirt hiked up exposing his cute belly. Wide-eyed we both stared at each other as his feet dangled 20 inches from the tiled floor. After a few seconds I realized I was being watched, a few of the nuns were grinning and commenting, probably on my awkward holding technique of this little boy in the orange shorts. I looked back at the boy, we both looked at each other not sure what to make of the other, I grinned and set him down.
I decided I liked him. We stayed there for a while interacting with the kids, hearing an occasional story from Sister Karla about the kids and answering a few of the questions the nurses asked us through Sister Karla.
I remember being somewhat sad when we finally left the orphanage. I had wanted to spend more time with the little children. I was curious to know each of their stories, or what was known. I wanted to hold the boy in the orange shorts again, give him a hug and talk to him.
Looking back on that visit, my trip back to India and more specifically to the orphanage, I wish I had stayed there. Knowing now how hard it is going to be for me to find any of my relatives, to learn my own story now 22-years after I crawled on that same white tiled floor I wish I would’ve stayed and tried to figure out their stories. It is surely naive for me to believe I could have helped all those children, but it is still a desire and I think it is partially what fuels my desire to find my own biological relatives, my first family.
Thanks for reading.