Growing up an orphan, author Su Anne Sherry often found herself adrift in life—belonging to no one. As Sherry struggled to navigate the sometimes perilous waters of her life without parental guidance, she just wanted to know what it felt like to be loved.
In her poignant memoir, Sherry, called Sophie in her childhood, chronicles a lost and lonely little orphan’s hunger for affection and her struggle to understand her world as she battled instinctively to hold onto her true self—and her sense of humor—in the face of institutional indifference, bureaucratic foibles, and human cruelty. Orphaned three months after she was born due to her mother’s untimely death and her father’s chronic illness, little Sophie began her journey through foster care and subsequently life in an orphanage, where she learned to embrace random acts of kindness, develop her personality, and overcome daily challenges. As she slowly unveils memories from her coming-of-age journey, she illustrates the power of the human spirit to overcome even the greatest of challenges in order to realize true happiness.
My Three Lost Girls shares a heartrending, often humorous account of one woman’s pilgrimage from an unpredictable beginning in an orphanage to adolescent independence, where she finally discovers what it is like to be loved.
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My Three Lost GirlsHow I Reclaimed Them from My Heart's Netherworld
By Su Anne Sherry
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Su Anne Sherry
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePart One: The Home
My mother died three months after I was born. The year was 1934. Her name was Sophie—the name also given to me at birth.
At the time of her death, my mother was in her late thirties. She had lived in a cold-water flat on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn, New York, with the man identified in the official records as my father, a Polish immigrant, who took the Anglicized name John Madison, after his arrival in the United States. John Madison made a meager living as a cabinet-maker. He was fifty-three years old when I came into the world.
My mother, also a Polish immigrant, was never legally married to John Madison but to another, a vague figure whom she had left almost a decade before my birth.
In my more romantic moments I have imagined a tempestuous triangle: a passionate young woman running from a tyrannical husband and finding happiness in the arms of John Madison, the man she truly loved. There exists no evidence for such a scenario. The cold records—birth certificates, citizenship papers, hospital files—contain no such dramatic details. Still, it would appear that my mother and John Madison loved each other, for though terribly poor, they stayed together until her death.
From what I gathered from a variety of sources as I grew up, my mother died because she had developed a serious heart ailment during the months before I was born, and was thus in no condition to bear a child. Although—even in those days prior to the easing of abortion laws—she could have found ways to end a dangerous pregnancy, she decided not to do so. Was this an act of bravery? Or was my mother's decision dictated by the mores of her class, and time? I shall never know.
Given the severity of the illness that kept my mother hospitalized until she died, I have often wondered if she ever held me in her arms. Did she ever look down into my face with the love found only in a mother's eyes? Was it her idea to name me Sophie, after her? Above all, what did she look like?
There are no photographs of my mother. Thus, I can only speculate. What was the color of her hair? What did she look like when she smiled? Do I resemble her? Such questions must forever go unanswered. For me there never has been, and never will be, a mother-face. That picture frame will remain empty—always. There will also never be a mother-voice for me to recall as a source of comfort and security. Still, I have fashioned a special place in my heart for the unknown woman who gave me life. I have not made my journey without her.
* * *
Born of a severely ill mother, I was, for the first few months of my life, a sickly creature who almost left the world before she was truly in it. According to the records, I was in and out of hospitals, treated for a variety of ills, and given at least one massive blood transfusion. Thanks to timely medical care, and a certain amount of luck, I survived. By the time I was five months old, I was considered a more or less normal infant, ready to be discharged from treatment. The trouble was that there was no place for me to go. My mother was dead. My father could not care for me because—as I was to learn years later—he had developed serious health problems as a result of military service in World War One. He had to spend long stretches of time in hospitals. In effect, I was an orphan.
Accordingly, I was turned over to a Catholic charity: Angel Guardian Home in Brooklyn, New York. I was almost immediately placed in a foster home. I stayed there until I was nearly three years old when, for reasons that still remain obscure, I was returned to the orphanage. I wasn't destined to remain in Angel Guardian Home this time either. In short order, I was given a home by a uniquely warm and tender person. I knew her only as Mrs. Platt.
If it is true that the beginning of life is crucially important, that the human spirit, personality, and soul are shaped during the early years of childhood, then I owe whatever spirit and soul I possess to this second mother of mine.
I don't know how I came to be under Mrs. Platt's care. I was never able to unearth the circumstances of that fortunate event. I have always supposed that Mrs. Platt was not one of the foster caregivers usually enlisted by Angel Guardian Home in those times, but a trusted friend of my father, who had offered to take me in. In any event, according to the scanty records, Mrs. Platt came to Angel Guardian Home one day in March, and carried home with her a smiling, little girl with wisps of blonde hair. I was to stay with Mrs. Platt for two-and a-half happy years, until wrenched away in a cruel act that causes my heart to ache to this hour.
It is with the advent of Mrs. Platt that my memories of little Sophie's life begin. Some of those memories are vague, general impressions. Others have been blended, by time, into composite recollections of many repeated incidents. They are no less genuine for that. Some, however, those most painful, or joyful, or tender, were long ago seared into my soul. These I can resurrect, and re-construct, as if little Sophie lived them only yesterday, for the events that create us, even if they take place in early childhood, are never truly lost in time. They come forth when summoned, by the need to tell of them. So it is with Mrs. Platt.
* * *
For some reason, I'm unable to conjure up any clear picture of Mrs. Platt's face. I can, however, reconstruct definite images of her otherwise. She was a plump, gray-haired woman, probably in her sixties—a grandmotherly type—full bosomed, soft, and lovely to hug. I particularly recall that she favored floral-print dresses.
Mrs. Platt lived by herself in a small, redbrick house on Marine Avenue in Brooklyn, New York. She was, I believe, a widow, though I have no recollection of her ever speaking of a husband. I am certain, however, that she had been married, because she had a daughter who was living somewhere else at the time of my arrival.
Mrs. Platt exuded warmth and caring. She was always gentle and very kind to me. She picked me up whenever I fell. She hardly ever scolded me. She taught me my manners. She loved me as if I was her own. She called me "honeybunch." Living with her, I had my first experience of what it meant to have a home. If I couldn't have my real mother, God sent me the next best thing.
Impressions of Mrs. Platt, whom I called "mummy," still glow brightly in my mind. She loved to work in her flower garden. She would spend hours pulling out weeds, humming as she did so. Weeding, apparently, was never a thankless chore to her. I guess that's why to this day I, too, love to weed my garden.
Mrs. Platt especially enjoyed what she called her tea time. Every afternoon around four o'clock, she would stop whatever she was doing, and put up a pot of tea. This was her quiet time, she said, and as I think about it now, it was the only time I recall her ever taking a rest from her many, busy activities.
Sometimes, Mrs. Platt would make a cup of tea for me, too. This was mostly warm milk with just a hint of tea, but it was fun, and made me feel grown up. Mrs. Platt and I would sit together at the kitchen table, look out the window into her garden, and sip our tea. She'd sigh once in a while, as if breathing in the beauty of her handiwork. We didn't talk much at tea time. We'd just listen to the quiet. It was a time for appreciating things, and letting our thoughts just wander.
Under Mrs. Platt's watchful, and always fond, eye, I grew strong and healthy. Because Mrs. Platt was a woman who knew how to nurture growing things, including a little girl, I went from a scrawny waif to a chubby, happy child, self-assured and curious.
As I look back now, I see clearly that Mrs. Platt filled those first impressionable years of my life with affection, security, and confidence. I know that her caring also fortified me against what was to come.
If I loved Mrs. Platt, I loved her house as well. It was always toasty in winter, and it smelled of cinnamon. I also loved the neighborhood where we lived. There were lots of trees. There was also a firehouse down the block, where a large Dalmatian dog usually lay asleep on the sidewalk.
And, there was Fort Hamilton Park, a big, beautiful, expanse of green not far from our neighborhood. It was there on a spring afternoon that I learned I had a father. Until then, I didn't know he existed.
* * *
It was a radiant, spring day. Mrs. Platt and I followed our customary routine dressing in our Sunday best to go to church. For me, this always meant an organdy pinafore over a light, blue dress, with a little hat perched on my blonde ringlets, and tied under my chin. Mrs. Platt always donned one of her floral-print dresses, sensible black shoes, and a wide-brimmed hat crowned with artificial flowers. What made this particular Sunday more memorable than most was the fact that, contrary to her custom, Mrs. Platt did not tarry to greet her neighbors after mass, but quickly took me home.
When we arrived at the house, she permitted me to remain outdoors, while she went inside to prepare Sunday dinner. She cautioned me not to get my dress dirty because, after our meal, we were going to the park, where a surprise would be waiting for me.
Excited, but mindful not to mess my dress, I rode my tricycle and amused myself, all the while inhaling the aroma of roasting chicken wafting out the slightly open kitchen window. The menu for Sunday dinner never varied. We had roast chicken with stuffing, mashed potatoes with gravy, and fresh string beans. Mrs. Platt was a very good cook.
After our meal, when the dishes were done, Mrs. Platt took off her apron, folded it neatly and set it on the counter. I remained seated at the table, swinging my legs back and forth as they dangled from the big chair. I waited patiently while Mrs. Platt freshened up. Finally, we left the house. We headed straight for Fort Hamilton Park where my surprise awaited.
As we entered the park, Mrs. Platt softly announced that my father had come to see me. My father? What father? I was confused, even a little frightened. Nobody had ever mentioned a father to me before. Why did he come? Was he going to take me away from Mrs. Platt?
Sensing my anxiety, Mrs. Platt reassured me, in her gentle way, that everything was going to be all right. I listened as she explained that my father had been sad for a long time after my mother died and that he was a very sick man. Mrs. Platt explained that my father had been hurt in the war and that he had to spend most of his time under medical care. He was now well enough, she said, to leave the hospital. She smiled, adding, "And who is he coming to see? You, honeybunch! You must be very important to him." Because I trusted her with all my soul, I believed what Mrs. Platt said about my being very important to this father I'd never met. Suddenly, my heart began to fill with anticipation. I was going to meet a very special man, my father, for the first time in my life!
Arriving at the park, Mrs. Platt led me toward a man who was standing at rigid attention next to a big, black, antique cannon. The man was wearing a dark suit with a starched white shirt, a gray tie, and a dark hat. His shoes were black and shiny. He was stockily built and clean-shaven.
As we approached, the man removed his hat revealing a full head of hair—thick, straight, black, and slicked back from his forehead. He had small, dark eyes and dark, bushy eyebrows. As we got closer, I could see that his face wore a shadow of stubble.
"Sophie, this is your father," Mrs. Platt said. It was one of the rare times she called me by my given name, instead of honeybunch. I looked up at the dark-haired stranger and whispered, "Hello."
The three of us strolled over to a nearby bench. Mrs. Platt sat down first. My father put his hat on the bench and then took a seat next to her. He picked me up and placed me on his lap. I squirmed and tried to get down. I wanted to go to mummy. I wanted to sit on her lap. But Mrs. Platt gave me a look that told me I should sit still—and behave myself.
I perched obediently on my father's knee, while he and Mrs. Platt chatted. His voice was deep, and when he spoke I found it hard to understand his words. I had never heard an accent before. My father asked if I was a good girl. Mrs. Platt assured him that I was, indeed, a very good girl.
After a while, Mrs. Platt suggested that my father and I go for a walk, so that we could get better acquainted. My father put me down, gently, and got up himself, very slowly. He reached down to take my hand. I looked at Mrs. Platt, questioning what to do. She nodded a reassuring "yes" and gave me a smile, letting me know it was all right. I slipped my small child's hand into my father's rough grip for the first time.
Leaving Mrs. Platt sitting alone on the park bench, my father and I, hand in hand, strolled across the soft grass that had already turned spring green. We didn't have much to say. I wondered what I should call him. Father? Daddy? Then I remembered that a friend I often played with called her father "pops." I had always liked that. I decided to call my father "poppy."
When at last he spoke, I had to listen carefully to understand my father's peculiar pronunciation. He pointed to the big river that flowed at the bottom of the long, green hill that formed one side of the park. That river, he said, flowed out to the ocean, and the ocean circled the entire world. I listened, enthralled by his words, mesmerized by the sound of his voice, and thinking the ocean must be a wondrous place.
All of a sudden, I had an urge to roll down the long, green hill that led to the river's edge. Though I had always begged Mrs. Platt to allow me to do this, she would never permit it. She used to say that she didn't want me to get my dress dirty, but I knew better. She was really afraid I'd end up in the river. But on this day, my father gave me his permission.
I lay flat on the grass, and smoothed my dress over my knees. Then, I crossed my arms over my chest, and turned myself over and over, until I was tumbling full speed down the hill. Squealing with delight, I rolled all the way to the bottom. When I opened my eyes and looked up, there was my father standing right next to me.
"Thank you, poppy," I said. It was the first time I called my father out loud by the name I had given him. He smiled down at me and took my hand, again. Of course, I wanted to repeat the fun, but my father said, emphatically in his gruff voice that one roll down the hill was enough.
As we climbed back up the hill, I could hear my father grunting, and gasping for breath. It alarmed me. I asked if he was sick again. Calling me "little Sophie" in his thick accent, he assured me that he was just tired. We struggled on, making our way slowly up the hill.
Nearing the top, I found myself hoping that Mrs. Platt had not seen me rolling down the hill in my pretty dress. If she had, she might be very upset with me.
When we reached the hilltop, I looked over to where Mrs. Platt was sitting. Her face was lifted to the sun. Her eyes were closed. I breathed a sigh of relief. She couldn't have seen me tumble down the hill. I was safe. My father and I shared a secret on that warm, sunny day in May.
When we got back to the bench, Mrs. Platt stood up and said good- bye to my father. She handed him his hat, and called him "John." They clasped hands for a moment. Then he turned, bent down, and gave me a quick kiss on my cheek. I hesitated. Now, what was I supposed to do? Mrs. Platt gave me another look, nodding her head in my father's direction. I obeyed and, standing on tiptoe, kissed my father's prickly cheek. He put on his hat, rubbed his fingers along the brim, turned, and walked away. The meeting was over.
Excerpted from My Three Lost Girls by Su Anne Sherry Copyright © 2012 by Su Anne Sherry. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Prologue: Little Sophie....................1
Part One: The Home....................7
Part Two: The Kruger House....................83
Part Three: The Dolan House....................163
Part Four: Lena's House....................254
Part Five: My Own Place....................283
Part Six: The House on 75th Street....................309