Over the years, I've known a handful of people who grew up in an orphanage. Not foster care, but 365 days a year, living with other children in a dorm-like setting. I met the first two orphans when I was a child. Because of some of the circumstances of my childhood, I somehow related to them.
My parents married and divorced twice before I turned 10. In between the divorces, there were umpteen "trial separations." My two younger brothers and I were constantly shuffled back and forth to my grandmother's house. I attended 11 schools in 12 school years. Seemed like I was always one parent short.
Still, I had my grandmother, Miz Lena. She was my rock. My stability. She proved her love to me over and over. It was important to her that I did things right. If I didn't catch on right away, there was the other way she showed how much she cared about me. More than a few times, I was sent out to find a small branch for her to demonstrate her determination and love for me. I ended up paying close attention to her every word.
The first I ever heard the word "orphan" was from Miz Lena. I was once again living under her roof and getting ready for my first day of a new school in Columbia, Tennessee. I was halfway through the second grade. I was anxious. I hoped that I would be accepted by the new kids I was about to meet. I walked into the kitchen for Grand Mom's daily inspection. I've said it before: She could have been a great Marine.
Elizabeth, Grand Mom's longtime housekeeper, an Aunt Jemima look-alike, turned back from the sink and said, "Oh my, look comin' here. What a handsome boy you is. He sho' do look mighty smart dis mownin', Miz Lena."
Grand Mom was sitting at the glass-top breakfast table, smoking a Salem, sipping coffee and doing her best at filling in the blanks of the morning newspaper's crossword puzzle. She looked up at me and said, "Good mornin', Honey Baby." Then, she looked back down at the blanks, wrote in a word, set down her pencil and began.
She said, "Looka here, I just bought yuh those good school clothes. Stand up straight and tuck your shirt in. Yuh want to go up there to yore new school lookin' like you just come in from a orphanage? Do yuh want yore new teacher to think yuh hadn't got nobody to take care of yuh? That yore a little orphan boy? If yuh can't straighten up better than that, don't you go tellin' nobody that yore my grandson."
She reached out, pulled me to her, rubbed my back and again reminded me to stand up straight. Then she gave me a kiss on the cheek and told me she loved me. She looked back toward the utility room and said, "Clarence, come on now, and get this boy to school." Clarence got off the stool and came into the kitchen.
Grand Mom handed him a list of errands for him to run and said, "After yuh drop Butch off to school, git on this list, then hurry on back. The day's gittin' away from us." Clarence said what he always said, "Don't worry, Miz Lena. I take care of it."
Clarence was a little black man who worked for my grandmother. He ran her errands and rode shotgun over her black construction workers. He'd worked for my grandmother almost as long as Elizabeth. He almost always wore gray work clothes and a little straw hat. For years, Clarence had his jaw wired up due to some complications from a severe bout with the mumps. He talked through his teeth. It took everything I had to understand him.
Clarence drove a light green 1951 DeSoto. I called it the turtle car. It kinda looked like a turtle, and he drove at turtle speed. I sat in the back seat. I could barely see the back of Clarence's head, but I could see his hands on the steering wheel that was about the size of a Ferris wheel. He installed a knob on it that made it easier for him to make the turns.
Usually, on the way to school, Clarence would talk about how he had made my grandmother rich. According to him, every real-estate transaction that she had ever made he had advised her to do so. Almost every day, it was the same spiel. He'd say, "Butch, if hadn't been fo' me, Miz Lena woodn't have no big farm. Yo' grand momma woodn't have no Cadillac neither."
This morning, he wasn't saying much. I finally broke the ice with, "Clarence, what's Grand Mom mean by 'orphan'?" Clarence told me, "That's when you ain't got no momma or daddy. Like me. That's what I am." I could tell he didn't want to talk much more about it.
Through the years, Clarence told me of his hardships, growing up without a mother or father, poor and never having enough clothes. His stories stuck with me. I began to realize, regardless of my problems, I had it pretty good.
When my brothers and I went to live with my dad, in Cleveland, Tennessee, I went to Arnold Junior High with several orphan kids from Bachman Orphanage.
One of those kids was a friend of mine, Louis Gibson. He, like I, was a little guy. Louis had wavy blond hair and was built like a little weightlifter — huge biceps, leg muscles, a six-pack and, most impressive to me, huge forearms. He could do a front and back flip standing flat-footed. Even his face looked muscular. He was always smiling. I had great respect for him.
Dad had to get special permission from the orphanage in order for Louis to spend the night at our house. When Dad and I went out to pick him up, he jumped in the car with no overnight bag — just a toothbrush, rolled up in toilet paper and tucked in his shirt pocket. I guess I really hadn't paid any attention until then that he often wore the same clothes for days in a row.
A couple of days after the sleepover, Dad asked me where all my clothes were. I had given almost all of them to Louis. It was terribly embarrassing when Dad drove me out to Bachman Orphanage to retrieve my clothes. To Dad's credit, he bought some shirts and pants for Louis from Parks-Belk Department Store. Louis was extremely grateful.
A week or so later, after taking my get-ready-for-bed bath, Dad noticed I had a rash in my groin area that stretched all the way around to my derriere. I reluctantly told the truth to Dad about the rash. I had given all my underwear to Louis as well. He never gave them back, and I was too embarrassed to ask him about it. Somehow, it all got worked out.
In the mid-'70s, there was a Canadian rock group called Bachman-Turner Overdrive, or BTO. Every time I heard their song "Takin' Care of Business," I thought of Louis and my drawers. Sorry, Louis. I'm sure you wouldn't want me to remember you this way. I assume you got married and raised a big family. I'll bet when your kids were growing up, they were showered with love and very well dressed. Right down to their BVDs.
When I was full grown, my grandmother told me that Grand Dad was an orphan. He was one of the finest men I've ever known.
Bill Stamps' new book, "Miz Lena," is now available in a limited-edition, signed and numbered hardcover. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through Facebook.