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Between the Darkness And the Light
By Donald J. Richardson
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 Donald J. Richardson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI never set out to serve God. In fact, I'm not sure I even know what serving God means. It's not as if I'm a waitress in a restaurant and God comes in asking for the special. Suppose there is no special? All I ever wanted to do was grow up and become a woman. I don't think that was unreasonable. But whoever my mother was didn't think far enough ahead to allow this to happen for me. The sisters said I was left on their doorstep April 26th, 1921. So that means I'm eighty-nine years old now. How did I get from being an infant left on the Sisters of Mercy Orphanage to being eighty-nine years old? I suppose it is a long, meandering story, but here goes.
The sisters said there was no message left with me, only a name; I was wrapped up in a blanket and placed in a basket. Since it appeared I was a few days old, they agreed that I had been born on April 23rd. This, I found out later, was important as it was also the date usually cited as the birth of William Shakespeare, the playwright. Right from the beginning then, I had a connection whether I knew it or not. Three hundred and fifty-seven years after Shakespeare was born, I was born. Of course, I had no notion of this until years later when I learned the supposed birth date of Shakespeare.
I was an easy baby to care for, they told me. Since the orphanage took in all ages, I seemed to have numerous sisters, all of whom looked after me. Because it was a charitable institution, the Sisters of Mercy Orphanage couldn't provide the residents with many worldly possessions. I don't remember ever having a new dress or new shoes while I lived there. Always we were happy to receive the donated items that parents of children who had grown out of left us.
The sisters discouraged us from claiming specific items of clothing. If a garment became favored by someone, she wasn't allowed to keep it. She was supposed to take something from the clothing storage unit that would fit her and be happy about it. Rarely were we happy, however. There were certain dresses or blouses or sweaters that it seemed all of the girls coveted. Once the sisters discovered this, they made certain that the item was rotated among the girls. If we became too possessive or contentious, they might retire the garment entirely so that no one got it. Their argument was that we should not put too much stock in worldly possessions.
Today, having lived all of those years, I recognize the truth of what the sisters were trying to teach us. Even my books—much as I love them and as few of them as there are—are worldly possessions. I read in Walden by Henry David Thoreau that our possessions own us. When I first saw that, I didn't understand. How can a physical object own a person? But after I read on and thought about it, I began to see what Thoreau was getting at and what the sisters had been trying to teach us. Putting too much stock into things is antithetical to what the Bible says; after all, Jesus said, "Sell all your possessions and follow me."
Still, it was hard to resist the urge to want things, especially at Christmas. Each of us was given an orange and a few pieces of hard candy at Christmas. Just having these was satisfying, but if one didn't want to lose the orange, it had to be protected. There were girls who might take it if we didn't watch them. And if we ate the orange, then we would no longer have it.
It was long after I left the orphanage that I realized the exchange of gifts was common among people not brought up by the Sisters of Mercy at their orphanage. For we never received gifts, nor were we encouraged to exchange them. That would have been too worldly, they would have said. Today, this practice is followed by nearly everyone, but then the Sisters of Mercy Orphanage no longer exists. In fact, there may no longer be any orphanages, either. At the time we didn't know, truly, what we were missing, and none of us felt deprived. But children today would feel sorely used if they didn't receive gifts at Christmas. Did this non-giving of Christmas gifts deprive us, or did it prepare us for a more exalted existence? I don't have that worked out yet.
I remember the first time I bought a dress which no one else had worn before me; I was awed. Here was a brand-new dress which no one else had ever worn and which now belonged to me. That happened years later, naturally.
Since I've become a woman on my own I have come to value clothing, perhaps sinfully. Even underclothing seems special to me. At the orphanage we were forced to wear unappealing garments meant to hide our bodies and be seen only by anyone who did the washing. None of us had the least suspicion that undergarments were anything but functional.
Still, life at the orphanage was not oppressive or exacting. Oh, certainly, the sisters expected us to behave properly, to say our prayers and always show courtesy to others, but there was occasional laughter, and we were permitted to cultivate friendships. In fact, as I look back I realize that life there might have been a true definition of a democracy. We were all forced to regard each other as equal, and we were made to behave equally. No one was permitted to lord it over anyone else, even those girls who were naturally prettier than the rest of us. Mary Kay Wilkins, for example, had beautiful blonde hair which just seemed to curl all by itself. Her complexion also was beautiful. But she was treated the same as any of the rest of us, despite her natural beauty. Even in class, the sisters reminded us that those of us who seemed to know most of the answers or who got the highest scores on tests were not permitted to look down on the others. We were imbued with the notion that we were decidedly equal, despite our varying abilities which were not to be overly exalted. Humility was a characteristic of Jesus Christ, and we were expected to emulate Him.
All of us at the Sisters of Mercy Orphanage were assigned duties. When I was just a girl of six, I had to help with gathering dirty dishes and carrying them into the kitchen after meals, gathering dirty clothing to take to the laundry, and sweeping the floors and dusting as needed. But I don't think any of us resented it because we all had out duties. Everyone helped out and no one received special treatment.
At night we slept in a dormitory which was filled with beds. The beds were close enough that we could whisper to each other after lights out, but they were far enough apart that each of us inhabited her own private world. The girls who developed special friendships managed to get beds adjoining and sometimes they even slept together. This wasn't actually permitted as each of us was supposed to sleep alone. But it went on, despite the sisters' disapproval. In fact, they probably knew what was happening, but perhaps seeing no harm in it allowed it to continue.
As I look back, I don't believe there was any harm in it. Someone who felt sad for whatever reason, might be comforted in the arms of a friend, and this sort of comfort we didn't receive any other way. I don't believe that such experiences caused any of the girls to become lesbians or to prefer women over men; they were simply lonely and needed comfort. Without the love of a mother or a father, or even a brother or sister, we were cut adrift, and it was natural, I believe, that we felt isolated and alone at times. Those were the times when we were most vulnerable. Who among us would resist comforting a child who had fallen and skinned a knee? And by the same token who would withhold affection from another person who needed comforting?
School was regimented as was most of our life at the Sisters of Mercy. We had three classrooms—one for the first, second, and third grades; one for fourth, fifth, and sixth; and one for seventh and eighth grades. I do not remember much of my life in the early grades. It has been so long ago and I have seen and experienced so much since then that looking back and trying to remember seems a bit self-indulgent. Even if I could remember, what benefit would it provide?
The sisters worked to try to make school rewarding for us. They observed the holidays and allowed us to pursue our creative interests in making posters or drawing pictures which celebrated George Washington's birthday or Arbor Day or Independence Day. When I was a girl, each of these holidays was regarded as special, and all of us looked forward to them eagerly. The treats we were given were not food or candy as is done today; instead, we were given privileges of drawing or painting or even reading. I seem to remember that both the intermediate grade teacher and the upper grade teacher read to us after lunch every day. Many times the books were chosen with the holidays in mind, so we looked forward to these special days with even more anticipation. And when that holiday was over, we didn't look backward in regret but focused on the next one, looking forward to it. In fact, much of my grade school life I remember as being forward looking, anticipating what was coming next.
Christmas and Easter were very special for us as we celebrated the birth of the baby Jesus and the resurrection of Christ. We also were given a few days vacation from school at Christmas, so that was an additional reason to look forward to the holiday.
Easter, on the other hand, was decidedly more religious. Those who hadn't yet made their first communion were urged to do it on Easter Sunday. This way the experience was made special and easy to remember, although few of us had trouble remembering our first communion. It was simply held in too high esteem by the sisters for us ever to forget it.
Soon after I mastered the alphabet and learned to read, I discovered books on my own. Prior to that I had enjoyed picture books, but now when I found I could actually read for myself, the world opened up into unending potential. I saw that the stories that went along with the pictures enriched the experience, and I began to read with abandon. I don't remember what year it was, but one of the first chapter books I read was Smoky the Cowhorse by Will James, an authentic cowboy. I think I must have been nearly ten years old at the time because I already knew something about writing and good grammar. Thus, I was nonplussed by James's apparently ignorant approach to writing. He wrote the way cowboys talked, not the way people wrote in books and, at first, I was somewhat annoyed. Ignoring subject verb agreement and other bugbears of the language, he just seemed to put words down on paper as they came to him. But I was captivated by his drawings of Smoky and of the western life. Maybe these drawings served to redeem his writing for me. Perhaps I saw that grammar wasn't all it was made out to be. All I know is that I loved that book, and once I finished it I re-read it. In fact, I don't recall how many times I did read it.
Then I discovered that James had written other books, and so I read those. I think my favorite after Smoky was Lone Cowboy, his autobiography. It was exciting to read about his being born on the plains, of living with his friend Beaupre, and heartbreaking when Beaupre was evidently carried away and drowned by a raging stream. Later on I enjoyed his stories of working in the movies in Hollywood.
As a result of reading the Will James books, I determined that I wanted to be a cowboy myself. Since we were already living in San Diego, I could hardly go farther west; in fact, I saw I would have to go east somewhat and north, to Montana or Colorado. The independence of being a cowboy called to me just as strongly as the sirens beckoned Odysseus. But, of course, I couldn't be a cowboy or even a cowgirl. Such dreams were meant to help me transcend my everyday existence, I suppose, to allow me to look past where I was and to dream of a future when I could control my life and not be answerable to anyone else. Such as this are our daydreams made up of.
After I had read Will James, I went on years later to the Eleanor Estes stories of the Moffat family. I suppose it was natural that I identify with Jane, the middle Moffat. Rufus was a boy, and Sylvie was too old for me to identify with. I think I was envious of the family relationship they enjoyed. I endured their poverty during and after World War I, and I enjoyed their triumphs with them on New Dollar Street. I was especially envious that they had a family, even though there was no father.
But by the time I had read about the Moffat family, I was getting too old for such stories. So I set out on a program to educate myself by reading. Naïve as I was, I thought that just reading a book like The Scarlet Letter would lead me to become smarter. In fact, it took me years to realize that the mere reading of a book and checking it off from a list didn't foster insight or wisdom; it meant only that I could read. It was only later when I found someone to discuss a book that I could begin to see its true importance. Not only that, I began to see that not all books were worth reading. At first I had the dogged opinion that if I started reading a book I was supposed to finish it. As a result, I waded through The Brothers Karamazov without enjoying it one little bit. It was a curse and a trial to try to keep the characters separate, and reading about their involved machinations within the family and their social group was simply not pleasurable. But at the time I think I regarded reading as something like castor oil: to be endured for its own good. If I got some pleasure from it, that was an added benefit, but if there was no pleasure, well I had to finish the book anyway. I wasn't to start anything which I didn't finish. This was a bone-headed attitude it took me years to get past. And I don't remember what book it was that I thought as I was reading, "This is not a good book. I do not have to finish it." Whatever book it was, the thought was a true revelation, akin to seeing a person's soul or character instead of her face, recognizing the actual essence of the person. But once I realized that, I saw that some books were just not intended for me. Some books might come highly recommended, but if they didn't speak to me, I didn't have to listen to them. Their voices were meant for other people's ears or eyes.
I suppose as a result of my reading I did become educated to an extent. Although I didn't fully understand Shakespeare, I read all of his plays, even Titus Andronicus and all of the history plays. I can't say I enjoyed all of them, but since it was Shakespeare and I was resolved to become educated, and since educated people knew Shakespeare, then I would read the plays. Probably seeing the plays on stage would have helped immensely. This I suspect from seeing a production of Romeo and Juliet. I recognized that it had been edited to leave out some of the nurse's speeches. At times she is quite direct in talking to Juliet. This I suppose might not be appropriate for everyone, but even after being edited it was still Shakespeare, and I enjoyed it. After that I wished I lived in London and could attend the Globe Theatre to see all of the Shakespeare plays.
I have continued to read all of my life, not consistently to educate myself as that, I suppose, was a somewhat misguided notion, but to inform myself and to derive pleasure. After I left the orphanage, I saw I could take control of my life, actually attending motion pictures which we had never seen at the orphanage, of course, and living my own life. I was defining my own rules, fabricating the cloth of my personality as I determined what was or was not moral behavior. When I began earning money, I saw that I no longer had to check books out from the library; I could actually buy and own books myself. This has led to a lifetime habit of purchasing books and holding onto them, even long after I felt any urge to re-read them. Oh, I justified myself, naturally. Instead of smoking or drinking or running around, I read, and books were not anti-social—unless one considered that reading itself is somewhat anti-social.
Excerpted from Between the Darkness And the Light by Donald J. Richardson Copyright © 2011 by Donald J. Richardson. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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