Tuesday, January 10, 2012

They Cage The Animals At Night

I took this picture in China. I've always found it a little barbaric to cage birds, but it
seems especially cruel to cage them and then hang them from a tree.
I saw this several times in China.
I just finished reading Jennings Michael Burch’s memoir They Cage the Animals at Night. In it, he describes his 1950’s childhood spent moving from institution to foster homes and intermittently back home as his mother went in and out of hospitals. He does not present his story in a woeful, pitying manner. Rather he delivers the naivete and innocent view that he had as a child. It was a wonderful book, but like always, I brought my own life experience to reading of it.

Almost from page one, I connected Jennings with a woman I worked with named Dee. Dee was a very professional woman; a city administrator who kept much of her home life private, until the day she told me that she’d grown up in orphanages right here in Cincinnati. I’m not sure why that astounded me so much, other than the fact that I immediately pictured rag-tag street urchins ala Oliver Twist and Dee didn’t seem to fit the part. I knew it was a broad generalization on my part, but I couldn’t help waver between that and the image of abusive foster homes that I didn’t want to imagine Dee surviving. The truth, of course, was nothing of the sort. Dee described her childhood as uneventful; just a daily routine of school and living in an institution rather than in a home.
Burch described his childhood in a similar manner, though he didn’t have the luxury of staying in one place like Dee did. He was moved around sporadically. Some places were better than others. But what was similar in his case and in Dee’s is that they both had siblings who were not put into homes.
That’s the part of Dee’s story that I just couldn’t fathom. What must it feel like to know that your parent was willing to give you up, but not your sisters or brothers? How abandoned would that make a person? How unloved or bad would that make you feel?
I asked Dee about it. Briefly. Vaguely. We weren’t good enough friends for me to feel comfortable prying into an area that seemed so deeply personal to me. I know her mother didn’t send her to the orphanage because she was “bad” or a behavior problem. Nor was that the case in Burch’s book. But as a child, how could you possibly understand that? How could you think anything other than ‘my mother didn’t want me?’
Dee confessed that she has always struggled with that favoritism. She understandably feels that her sister is her mother’s favorite child. Perhaps this is why she has been very conscience not to favor any of her own children over the others. She is very family-oriented and has a close relationship with her daughters.
One thing that surprises me about Dee is that her mother and sister are both in ill health and she takes care of them. Oh, maybe that’s not surprising. Maybe I only think it is because I cannot imagine her childhood or family dynamics to begin with. Perhaps it makes sense that having been separated from her sister and mother throughout childhood she now wants to hold on to that family connection.
As usual, I looked for answers to my questions about Dee through Burch’s writing. I thought about Dee on every page. Their orphanage experiences were in the same time period. They were both the same age. Their circumstances were not so different. I have no idea what I would have thought about Burch’s book if I had not known Dee before I read it. As readers, we bring our own worlds to the stories that we read. I only know that now, having read Burch’s book, I wish I could reconnect with Dee and ask her the questions I was too afraid to ask her then. Like Burch, I know she had a story to tell.

1 comment:

  1. Oh man… I think some things just can't be understood by people who don't live them.

    (Note: I'm not saying we shouldn't try, or shouldn't have empathy. Just saying that at the end of the day, perfect understanding isn't always within our capacity.)