In an attempt to find the pieces of the puzzle that allowed me to survive my own “tough” childhood with a long-deceased mother and an alcoholic father, years shunted from relative to relative, more years in two different orphanages, here I am – husband, father, grandfather, an officer of the law, and now enjoying time to reflect over my life and career.
This is my story.
Born in Chicago's Lewis Memorial Hospital in 1952 and now living in the small town of Buchanan, Michigan, my life as the third child of Donald and Theresa Merriman, was good.
My two older sisters, Donna, born in 1948, and Frances, born in 1949, were both in school on a winter’s day in 1956. I was driving with my parents to visit my maternal aunt, Ceil, in Lawrence, Michigan. At four years of age, I sat in the back seat. We were headed north out of Dowagiac on M-51 in snow and slick conditions when an oncoming car started fishtailing….and soon pulled right into our path, hitting us head-on. I remember red lights, lots of people, and then sitting in Dowagiac Lee Memorial Hospital next to my dad in a hallway. Something was terribly wrong.
Later I learned my mom sustained major damage to her skull and scalp. At the time, the more serious problem was learning she was also suffering from pulmonary fibrosis, a condition that would render her bedfast for the rest of her short life.
In spite of this, the next four years passed in a somewhat normal fashion. My mom spent most of her time in bed, my mom's mom and my grandmother lived with us, my dad worked for the Buchanan City Police, and I remember wearing his police hat around the yard of our home on Moccasin Street. It would be years later that I would wear my own police hat and take my place as a third generation police officer.
In March of 1960 my mom, at age 32, passed away. I was seven, going on eight. Early one morning my dad gathered all three of us into the bedroom. Through a crack in the door, I saw people wheeling a gurney out front. I knew before my dad said anything that my mom was gone forever. My two older sisters were 10 and 11 then. It would be the end of our family life together.
After the funeral, my dad wasn’t around too much. I later learned that he started drinking then. Our grandmother continued to stay with us. My dad was in close contact with our parish Catholic priest, Father Janssen, who had visited often during my mom’s illness. I surmise that it was Father Janssen who may have been close enough to our situation to recommend sending the three of us to East Lansing to Saint Vincent Orphanage. From my perspective, it meant new kids to meet and a new school to attend.
Intervening years took the Merriman children from the Saint Vincent Orphanage to the homes of various relatives, enrollment in a Chicago Catholic school, and Jim’s eventual arrival at Angel Guardian Orphanage.
Angel Guardian Orphanage and Sister Lucy
In Chicago, Donna was enrolled in a private school where she was planning to become a nun. Fran and I were still living with Dad, but Fran would soon move in with an uncle. That left only me, and being the baby of the family did not come with benefits this time. Upon my return from school one day, I was met by several Cook County Child Protective Service workers. After a long afternoon of questioning about Dad’s drinking and how much time we spent unsupervised, I was driven in the squad car to 2001 West Devon, to the front doors of Angel Guardian Orphanage (AGO). I was now truly alone. I wondered if Donna and Fran even knew where I was. I wondered if Uncle Frank, Aunt Ceil and Uncle Ray knew where I had been taken.
Escorted into a lobby, I was told to sit in a chair. The lobby was empty, extremely long and full of white marble. I wondered how long I would be here. It seemed especially lonely in the dark of the winter’s evening. I lost track of time. From my seat I could see down a very long corridor. Shortly, the protective service men left, and the girl behind the counter locked the front door of the lobby. Hearing footsteps coming in my direction, I saw a nun walking down the hallway. She was wearing the traditional long black dress with a habit that blocked her side vision. The interior of the habit was white and it matched a large white bib. The nun approached the counter to talk with the girl. She turned, pointed at me and motioned for me to come to her. I was now officially more afraid than I had ever been in my life. As I walked to her, she smiled and said: “Hi, Jim. My name is Sister Lucy; welcome to Angel Guardian. Follow me.”
It must have been very late because I didn’t see any other kids. Each hallway seemed to be a city block in length. We climbed the stairs to another long hallway until we came to doorway number 27. For the next five years, this was to be my home where I would grow from fourth through eighth grade – very formative years in the life of any boy.
Number 27 was one of the cottages, part of a system that included ten boy cottages and ten girl cottages. Putting her finger over her lips to quiet me, Sister Lucy unlocked the door and I entered Cottage 27. One wall had 35 cabinets with numbered doors. Later I learned these were the Junk Boxes where kids kept their toys, books, and any other belongings. Sister Lucy took me to Locker #31 where I saw a pair of pajamas. She told me to change into the pajamas and hang my clothes on the hooks. She also told me there was a pair of slippers on the bottom shelf to wear – good for the floors that were extremely cold.
When we entered a large dormitory, Sister Lucy walked me to an empty bed. It was made with a green bedspread. Sister Lucy showed me how to slowly, neatly fold the bedspread near the foot of the bed. I noticed all the kids’ beds were the same way. I then climbed into bed as Sister Lucy bid me good night and walked from the room, turning off all remaining dim lights. I could see in the corner of the dormitory a small window with vertical blinds on the inside. The light in there made me believe that it was Sister Lucy’s room. After a short time, Sister Lucy’s room went dark. I looked at the ceiling as I fell asleep wondering what tomorrow would bring.
“Little Boy Blue” is concluded with PART II in the Spring 2014 issue of Word Gathering, found HERE.