My Mother Was an Inmate

It says so, right there on the 1930 United States Federal Census: “Ezra M. Gaul, Inmate.” She was 17. Her sister Evelyn isn’t on the list, so she must have escaped by then. There were 60 others between the ages of 2 and 18 who were living at the Louisville Methodist Orphans Home in 1930, and every single one of them was an inmate.

I was shocked, aghast, the first time I saw that Census record. How cruel it seemed to refer to these orphaned children as “inmates”! If they had known, back then, that they were thought of as inmates, wouldn’t they have been shocked and hurt, too?

No. They knew they were different.

 

methodist home

The Methodist Orphans Home in Louisville was a three-story brick building. The first floor was divided by a central hall and staircase. To the left were a parlor and a chapel, where they had religious services. On the right of the hall were the business office and a dining room. An ell contained the kitchen, matrons’ dining room, and laundry. The second floor contained the boys’ accommodations and two rooms for Mrs. Williams, the superintendent. On the third floor were the girls’ accommodations, another matron’s room, ironing and sewing rooms, and an infirmary.

The day Ezra Mae and Evelyn were dropped off at the Home, Mother was crying. Mrs. Williams took her hand and said, “We don’t let little girls cry here.” Do you think she meant, Don’t worry, we’ll look after you and you won’t have any reason to cry? No, it was just the fist step in toughening them up. Maybe today we would call it “tough love,” but I think that’s being overly generous.

She and Evelyn were taken to their “room” on the third floor. Big beds lined one wall and little beds lined the other. At one end was an adjoining room which contained a large table and was lined with individual lockers where the big girls kept their clothes. At the other end of the dormitory was a playroom for the little girls, which had half lockers for their clothes and toys. No closets, dressers or shelves … but that was okay, remember, because they had hardly anything to their name. An adjoining bathroom had two bathtubs and two toilets.

There was a stigma attached to being an orphan, and they all knew it. It may be that the stigma was self-imposed, a result of feeling unwanted and unworthy. When adolescence arrived, without warning or explanation, my mother asked her older sister, “Is this something that happens only to orphans?” As if the stigma was visible in a stigmata.

Growing up in an orphanage would have an impact, in big and little ways, on the rest of their lives.

Here’s a little one: Breakfast every day at the Home consisted of oatmeal and biscuits. Once she left the Home, my mother refused to eat another biscuit. I don’t know for sure about the oatmeal, but I never saw it.

Here’s a pretty big one: Mother told me that one reason she chose to marry Jack Wild was that he had two sisters and she knew they would be good to her children (read: would never put them in an institution).

When all was said and done, however, I think the biggest impact was in the development of Mother’s hopeful attitude toward whatever the future would bring. During our talks about her life, she told me, “It seems that everything in life that I thought would be bad turned out to be for the good.”

Even an inmate can choose happiness.

 

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