looking back

Revisiting a young Henry W. Maier at an orphanage

Charyl Gerring

My mother was visiting our family one Christmas when my daughter came home for vacation. She dashed into the parlor where her grandmother was resting; it had been some time since she had seen her. Returning to the kitchen, where I was roasting a duck (Henry’s favorite) for a holiday gathering, her voice had a note of disbelief about it, “She’s not old; she’s ancient.” Well, that is how you, the reader, would now describe me.

I have been working in child and family services all my life except when our children were young but even then we had a foster child and I volunteered in foster care. To live this long is to dare to profess some wisdom and to jump on any opportunity to try and enlighten. You will be spared an “organ recital” on “Best Practices”. Simply stated: since children were shipped west in orphan trains, many new approaches to child care with fervent protagonists presenting solutions continue to appear. Even with the frequent reshaping of these solutions as knowledge increases, all are still far behind the deteriorating plight of needy families.

Yet, I take hope. If, in any attempt to help, there is found a gentle brush of body, a soft murmur of lips, a leaning forward, a disarming smile, eyes focusing with respectful recognition, then a connection of worth is made. This then may glimmer in its own precious moment giving the young person a bit of respite from their cares “or they might even catch on to something that delicately grows toward the wonderful world of relationships.

Early days
Let’s peek inside an old orphanage, stuck in brick and stuck in the past, with a Board undeterred in their building of self-edifying edifices “a most unsuspecting place to find tender feelings. . .

For many years, the children had attended the neighborhood public school and that was all of their connection to the community; it was as though a moat separated the orphanage from the upper class community nearby. Children raised dust as they walked across the grounds from their dormitories of pale, unadorned walls and rows of beds, sat in their assigned place at rows of tables in the new brick dining room, and were overseen by their hall monitors, usually stern spinsters standing guard against too much moving about and giggling. An even more vigilant and discerning eye was that of the superintendent, a lady whose genuine, good heart and deep warmth had long since been frozen by Deaconess training and demeanor. But deep within her, she had wisdom and she had courage. Into this place, clinging hard to the past, she brought enlightened, invigorating, delightfully sociable, staff and she backed them.

Then with her clear vision and keen insight she hired Dr. Henry W. Maier, a diminutive, milk-toasty fellow with mellow eyes that seemed to be everywhere and a sometimes almost inaudible voice with a heavy, German accent (which he held until death). Well, milk-toast he was not.

Henry stimulates changes
After he had held lots of meetings with staff (quite reluctant staff at first) without fuss or fanfare, the orphanage moved toward becoming a community made up of people living together somewhat as “families”, each with their own, separate “home”. Despite the Board, which found the name orphanage advantageous for fund raising, although there were only two orphans there, the name was changed to the Children's Center. Eventually, married couples, sometimes with children, lived with every group of children who were by then grouped mainly by age and sex. The children's days were filled with the school in the neighborhood, tutoring with a skilled, softly spoken teacher, recreational activities on and off the grounds with a spirited leader bent on inspiring cooperative games, and family times in the evening with stories, lots of talk, private times and house parents who were free to give hugs. Intimate dinners and parties were held with dining hall food sent to the individual “homes”, children sitting on the laps of house parents and lots of presents, with house parents attempting to match children's requests, and always rationed sweets from the year’s supply of Christmas bounty.

The children were not so impressed with the changes. The more the staff exerted themselves on the children's behalf, the more the children demanded. At any one time you might see Henry, in perhaps the only exercise that he ever took, scurry across the grounds to respond to one demand or another.

The behavior of the children, under the less restrictive rules for living together, was not unexpected but it confounded, confused, and drove us “kinda crazy” at times. Many combinations of staff met in many meetings, sometimes the entire Center staff attended, including the grumpy janitor who ruled over cleanliness. When Henry cajoled him into taking on two older children as helpers, he proudly assumed his responsibilities and became less of a scold. Among other unlikely connections, Henry asked the withdrawn and almost mute cook if he would take on one of the older boys who loved cooking. They became pals in the kitchen, ever the talkative ones with each other.

One time the older girls” group got fed up waiting for an expected change in their unsmiling unit leader, a hard working, sturdy woman from a mid-western farm who had never found a farm hand to marry. Enamored with the new spirit of the place, this group took off one night long after lights out. When they were discovered missing by their drowsy leader, who never failed to check if everyone was in their assigned bed, staff were out to search. After running along the lake front, through the village and every dark, brick corner, Lynn, another social worker, and I went back to my room in the staff dorm. There were all the girls, sleeping soundly, piled on top of each other on my bed and my chair. Lynn and I shepherded them back to bed and placated their leader with compliments about how the children apparently trusted her enough to risk this stunt with her.

Henry believed in “Family–
No sheltering arms of house parents were good enough to ease the pain in the hunched over children who waited for parents who didn’t show for visits that they insisted on promising despite being cautioned about that. But all the staff bent their efforts to tie children to their kin. Sometimes we got lost in rather frightening parts of the south side of Chicago. On one such trip, up six flights of stairs, two lagging behind but still trudging children visited their old dad whose frail hand clung to them. He was still hanging on later when they were pulling away and looking back as they hurried off. On the way home, they animatedly described playing ball in the alley with their dad when they were younger . At their request, we went back again for a visit.

Another group of five siblings went in search of their mother at her last address and, after knocking on a number of doors, there she was, gaudily dressed up, about to leave. She stepped away a bit then spun around and ran back, embracing them all in hugs, kisses and cries of missing and loving them. The time came to leave and I got mean looks as I helped mother with words to say goodbye, my arms about the children as she peeled them off her neck. On the way home, the oldest defiantly announced to me, “We Long kids are rats but we stick together.” I thought that I noticed the five being a bit friendlier to me after this trip.

A long time resident at the Center was one attractive little girl, sad looking like the actresses who play the part of young Jane Eyre, only this girl’s eyes were sad and empty. Since it was almost a professional disgrace to any of us workers if we did not find her a permanent home, even though past efforts had failed, we just had to try again. An older couple, very attentive to each other and determined not to lose the joy of children even after losing their only son in World War II, began having her for home visits. It was short lived. They could barely speak with their weeping and turned away faces when I quickly came to take her back at their hurried insistence. The father mumbled, “Nothing comes from her–; the mother patted the girl’s hand and walked away. I was awakened to something within this girl that I had never seen before as she sprung out of the car, running toward the Center and saying in a loudness of voice that I hadn’t heard before, “I’m home.” Perhaps she drew solace, not so much from the people in her surroundings, but from the surroundings familiar to her. Of course, familiar people were a part of her surroundings, but how could we tell what she drew from them? I felt ashamed about my failure but no more placement tries were made.

*      *      *

From Henry Maier I learned something about how to move on; to neither lament nor complain but make do with what was before me: fiddle with, play with, put myself into the connections; some of these connections may become relationships “even relationships of ecstasy.

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