Teaching the Alphabet Wrong
We were children in an orphanage in Switzerland, the German part. It was in a small village. I did have a mother somewhere. She would come and get me once in a while. I was forced to be with her. She didn’t like me. It was always a nightmare to go with her. Whenever it was time for presents, like my birthday or the middle of summer, there was a chance I would have to be with my mother.
She once gave me a present for my birthday. It was in a big box full of little plastic cheap dolls, the kind that would cost 2 cents: the ugliest, cheapest, naked dolls. I was shocked. Why did she give me a whole box? One doll would have been bad enough, but a box of them? I couldn’t even scream, she hurt me so much. I don’t remember what I did with the box. I’ve blocked that out.
Soon it was my mother’s birthday—and I got my revenge. I was alone most of the time. I didn’t always come home and I wasn’t even noticed. So, I found a beaten-up dead mouse. Probably a cat had chewed on it. I wrapped it up beautifully with colorful wrapping paper and ribbons, way more than necessary, and gave it to her. I watched her unwrap it. She looked at me and said nothing. And nothing happened. Sometimes I wonder how I had the guts to do that. It was never spoken about.
In the orphanage, there was an old woman who lived there who made handmade dolls. She made all the clothes herself. They were gorgeous. She even made her own strollers. The dolls’ faces were knitted with thick cotton fabric. She made different sweaters and different shoes with real leather parts. They had hair made of wool—curly, blonde, or different colors…dark and white skin. She made black babies. Once in a while, on a birthday of one of the girls, she would get a doll. One day I did. I feel like crying just thinking about it. It didn’t last long. She took it away about a month later. It was devastating. I never found out why it was taken away. I think she regretted giving it to me or maybe she wanted it back.
When I was 6, the orphanage was closed down because the owner was violent towards the kids. I had to live with my mother then, which was far worse. She came and got us with a car. When I say us, I mean my younger brother and me. She had put us in the orphanage. She entertained everyone there. She had a big mouth. I didn’t want to get in the car, so she pushed me. Pretty soon, my mother arranged for my brother and I to stay in a house called House at the Sea. It was protected from the government. It was right by a lake. It was almost in the lake. The train went right by the other side of the house. The house was light blue and big with lots of windows and balconies, kind of like a castle with turrets. I lived there alone with my brother who was almost 2½ years younger than me. I was only 6½.
At the end of the week, my mother would come and bring food and then we were sort of a family. She cooked and left again. She left me a franc—one for each day of the week—to go to the village and buy food for me and my brother. She lined up the francs in a row on the table. I can still see them.
I didn’t buy sausage. I never liked meat. I bought candy. When I was in the mood for real food (I took the responsibility of my brother very seriously), we would go to a restaurant in the village. We would ride down the hill on our tricycles into the village. My tricycle was an old one I found. My brother was given a new one for one of his birthdays. So, we would just sit in a restaurant until the owners would give us food. Sometimes on the way there, people would take us back to our house or sometimes, further away, we would find a house in a neighborhood and we would knock on the door. Then we would invite ourselves in for a meal. It was always an adventure riding into the village.
Living alone in that house was scary. There were mice and cats and no heat. It always seemed like one of the grownups might come back, so it was expected that I clean up the house. My mother expected me to. I would pray to God that God would clean up the house instead of me. I mean, there is a God, right? And everyone says He’s helpful. I prayed with my brother for God to clean up the house. God was disappointing. I didn’t clean up. God didn’t clean up. There was a little anxiety about that. But, other than that, I began to wonder what my purpose in life was. To clean?
Sometimes, for fun, I would break the big vinyl records I found in the house into little pieces. I liked the sound of breaking. I would make a little mountain of them and put them under the carpet.
In the winter, the snow was so high I was afraid that we might not be able to get back home or we would freeze before we got there. We didn’t have winter clothes. I still sometimes look at my fingers and toes and marvel that I never lost any of them.
When we lived in the house, we would play “orphanage.” I would teach my brother what the nuns taught me. One day there was a phone call. It was the public school. Someone said that I had to go to school because I was already 7 or 7½ years old. They said I should have been there already. I was very excited, thrilled to go to school. It was far away from the house. It was an hour’s walk. The way to the school was between the lake and the railroad tracks. It was not safe. Not like in this country. In this country, none of this would ever happen.
On the way there, there were lots of things to do. We didn’t know what time it was. We would eat something for breakfast and then go to school. The school we went to was very small. There were two or three first graders and one second grader.
Sometimes we were an hour early or an hour late. The teacher told me I had to leave my brother at home. I just nodded and brought him anyway. My mother made it very clear I was not to tell anyone about our home life. The teacher finally accepted it and made a little place for him right next to me. He could do whatever he wanted.
In the evening, when we were home again, life was serious. We would go home and do more than the homework, whatever I thought was important. We would play “school” and I was the teacher. I decided we both had to do homework: the alphabet and math. He claims to this day that I taught him the alphabet wrong. I taught my brother how to tie his shoelaces. At least I did that right.
One day my father came home. There was an old laundry basket in the house and he told me to put all the things I wanted the most in the basket. Then he drove me to a new orphanage. My brother was in the car, but he didn’t go to the orphanage. I didn’t know what happened to him. I found out later that he lived with neighbors somewhere. He was devastated. Two years later he had to go to school because he was the right age and the police brought him to the orphanage.
As I said, I always preferred the orphanage to my mother’s house. They made me go home on weekends. By this time, my mother was married to a new person and living somewhere else. His name was Herr Haeberli. He was an alcoholic. He hated me. Why was he so mean? When my brother and I would arrive on the dreaded weekends, I had to check which room we would get and hope that I could lock the door. There was always tension, always fear.
One time the nuns told my mother that she had to get me some shoes or boots. I had broken sandals, even in the winter. When I got back home, even my mother thought I should have something for my feet. She got me cheap plastic boots. The kind you can buy for 5 francs. They were yellow. When my stepfather came home and saw them on the floor, he screamed, “Who bought those?” Nobody said anything. Then he sent me away. He screamed, “Get out of the house! If you come back, I’ll kill you!” I looked at my mother for support and looked at him and looked at her again. I knew what he was capable of doing. I remember when furniture went flying. Once he threw a big TV out of the fourth floor onto the street. I remember when pans flew and hit me when he tried to catch me. I knew he wasn’t kidding because I had seen him beat my mother. When I looked at my mother’s face, I knew I had to go. She said, “Just go. He said you should go.” I was 10 years old. I wandered around in the village at night in the street. I tried to go back to the orphanage, but the train wasn’t running that late. I just walked and walked. I finally got to the orphanage the next day.
When he was dying, many years later, I brought him flowers. I wanted to give him something, be there for him. He threw the flowers on the floor and said, “Get out of here!”
Because I hated going home to my mother, I was always selfishly thinking of ways not to have to go. When I was in school, there was a class for cooking. I learned to bake cakes. I baked cakes for the orphanage and tried to convince the teacher to let me bake a cake for a little girl in the orphanage who had asthma. If I baked her a cake and brought it to her, it would delay my going home for a long time. I would go back to my room and pack my bags to take the train, but first I would have to bake the cake. That would save me about 2 or 3 hours. I went on the wrong train on purpose. I told lies so often about taking the wrong train that even I believed them. Whenever vacation time would come closer, I would have nightmares at night. I would be screaming and a nun would come out and sit on my bed. But I never would tell her why I was screaming. I didn’t explain. I told you, my mother had always threatened us about ever saying a word.
And so, this last part is for you, Wolfie, dear sweet brother. I’m sorry I used to chase you onto so many roofs. I loved to climb roofs and you didn’t, but I didn’t realize that you were so scared. I didn’t realize it until that day with the kitty. I feel bad about that day even now. When it jumped into the lake, I had to try and save it even though I didn’t know how to swim. I had to. I saw you on the ground yelling to me, “Stanzie, come back, come back!” I was drowning. I was going under the water. But when I saw your face and you looked so scared and I heard your voice, I knew I had to get back to you even if I couldn’t swim. But Wolfie, that kitty died. It died. Can you ever forgive me?
Wolfie, we’ve been through so much together as children. Do you remember when Mother’s third—or was it her fourth?—husband held that knife to my throat and made me eat meat? He knew I hated it. He held that knife to my neck and I chewed and chewed, but I never did swallow it. I still can’t eat meat. I’m so sorry, Wolfie, for what I did to you. I made you play house with me and I held the knife to your neck. I made you be me and I was him and you had to pretend you didn’t like meat.
I made you do so many things. Do you realize you were everything to me? Because I had to protect you, I couldn’t allow myself to go crazy, at least not until later.
I’m sorry I tried to kill myself. I know Father wouldn’t visit me in the hospital because suicide is deeply inappropriate for a Catholic. I was afraid, Wolfie. The fear was like a cancer growing in me. I was afraid they’d find out I had mental problems like the nuns said I did. All I wanted to do was become a nurse so I could help people, people like me. I told myself that if I lived, my punishment would be to have to live in the present. I’m doing that now by begging you, Wolfie, to forgive me. I know you will because you are a priest now. And I hope you know I never meant to teach you the alphabet wrong.