The Little Things
In November 1964 my mother was told that it was time to celebrate Christmas. She knew something was wrong. Though she was only four years old she could sense that something was completely off. A man dressed in a Santa costume came bearing presents and a tense atmosphere filled the room. It was the first time she ever met Santa Claus and he made her cry. “I knew this man was not really Santa Claus and I had a feeling something very bad was about to happen”, says my mother.
The fake Christmas turned out to be a send-off. The next day my mother and her sister were brought to an orphanage.
Though they did not know it, that day was the last they were going to spend together as a family for a long time. My grandparents got the two little girls into the car. My mother did not know where they were going, but in the trunk were two little suitcases. When they got to their destination, my grandmother told her daughters that they had to stay. “How long are we going to stay here?” asked my mother. “Not that long” my grandmother replied. My mother is very hard to upset, but when she thinks of that moment, her soft, blue eyes flash with anger. “How can you tell your child that? A child does not grasp the concept of time, and “not long” can mean anything. It can be hours, days, or weeks.” She never expected it to be more than a year.
She was abandoned that day in November.
This is the story about my mother, who was abandoned over and over again as child. Her story is a story of transcendence and overcoming obstacles that would ruin most people. Her mother fluctuated in and out of her childhood. Africa, alcoholism, abuse, and a broken heart drove my grandmother away from her family over and over again.
Many children, who experience neglect and emotional trauma, carry around a heavy backpack filled with problems for the rest of their lives. My mother does not. Not only did she survive her childhood, she also succeeded in life. Despite limited schooling throughout her childhood, she graduated from high school with good grades, went to college, got two degrees, raised my brother and I, and is still happily married to my father.
Her story shows that some people can overcome extreme hardship and turn out great in spite of all odds.
My mother; Christine Klein, likes to tell the story of how my grandparents met each other. When people from different continents meet and fall in love despite of cultural differences it sounds romantic.
My grandparents met in 1958 at a jazz concert in my grandmother's home country Namibia the city Windhoek.
Karin, my grandmother,had just turned 19. She was a slim, blond girl, and her chubby cheeks made her look very young. That year, she had come the long way from the family farm in the bush to the big city. The same year, my German grandfather, Erland, had grown tired of life as a sailor. He had jumped ship, leaving his life on a whaling boat behind to pursue a career as a jazz musicianin Namibia.
Soon, my grandmother was pregnant and when my great grandmother found out about her pregnancy, she threatened my grandfather into marrying her daughter. It was not really a choice; a child outside of marriage was not an option. What their wedding picture did not show was a big baby bump.
In 1960, two years after their first daughter, Angela, was born, my grandmother ran away. “She was very unhappy and did not feel ready for motherhood”, says my mother. She disappeared for several months into the bush. “Nobody knows where she went, but eventually she found out she was pregnant again and returned. “I think she came to her senses when she found out she was expecting me”, says my mother.
After my mother was born, my grandmother decided to place her two little girls, Christine and Angela, with her parents on the family farm in the Kalahari Bush. Though my mother did not realize it at that point, this was the first time she was abandoned.
My mother’s first memories are of Julia and Hukeles, siblings from the indigenous Khoikhoi tribe, previously known as “Hottentots”.
“They were hired to take care of my sister and I and my first language was their language”, she says. The Khoikhoi speak a language mostly made up of exotic “clicking” sounds. To this day these sounds are stuck with her, though she no longer understands the language.
Barbara J. Roeber, M.S., from the Child Emotion Research Lab at the University of Wisconsin, has researched how young children learn and forget second languages by studying language development in adopted children from China. “What we know is that [children’s] first language disappears so fast, sometimes in a month or six weeks. It’s gone! Completely gone”, she says.
“And they're just soaking in the new language like crazy. So, their expressive language comes along very quickly and they learn words in English very fast.”
So, children, who are removed from the country in which their original language is spoken, tend to lose it, but for some reason, my mother did not forget these sounds, neither has she forgotten Afrikaans, which is an offshoot of several Dutch dialects spoken in Namibia.
She looks back at the first four years of her life as a good time. These years would be the lull before the storm.
In the mid 1960s my grandfather struggled to make ends meet in Africa and solely decided to put his family on a boat to Germany. They could only afford the cheapest tickets, which meant sailing around for two months before reaching their final destination. “I didn’t know we were leaving Africa. To me, it was just an adventure, and I remember riding on the back of a giant tortoise on an island where the boat stopped. I don’t know where it was, and I almost don’t remember the journey, but I remember that gigantic tortoise”, she says.
Eventually, they reached Germany and she and her family moved into my grandfather’s parent’s basement in a small house right on the Danish-German border in a village by the sea called Wassersleben. “It was tiny and dark and you entered through the bathroom. We were very poor”, says my mother. “I remember the rats. They came out of the toilet sometimes and we were so scared of them. Once, my father cornered one, and he kept hitting it and hitting it, but it wouldn’t die! I remember the rat kept screaming. It’s a horrible sound.”
Moving away from Africa also meant having to find a place to put my mother and her sister during the day. Julia and Hukeles from the Khoikhoi tribe were replaced with a day care center that lay right across the street from their new home. My mother would stand by the fence and cry for hours, looking at their house. “I remember being brought there every morning and bawling my eyes out. Every day I felt like I was going to be left alone forever”, she says. On some level she could sense that her mother was actually capable of leaving her and that some day she might not come back for her.
My mother’s fear came true when she was four. My grandmother had had enough. “She was not received well by her new German family. They treated her poorly and she felt unhappy and lonely”, my mother says.
My grandmother had experienced an enormous culture shock and could not adjust. Earlier that year, she had had a miscarriage. “Had it been today, the baby would probably have survived. She was very pregnant. My parent’s marriage hang by a thread and I think the miscarriage was the straw that broke the camel’s back”, says my mother. Though my grandmother tried to make things work, she felt drawn back to Namibia and the world she knew. During the fall of 1964, she decided to place her daughters in an orphanage.
Once again, she ran away and left her girls behind.
That fateful day in November, they drove two hours north of their home in Germany to a Danish city called Augustenborg to the orphanage called “Kystsanatoriet”, which roughly translates into “the coast sanitarium”.
Most of the children there came from dysfunctional and troubled homes. Either the children were sent there because their parents could not afford to keep them at home, or because the parents or children were mentally ill.
“Today, you would never place children in homes when there is a parent, or grandparent, who can take care of them”, says Lawrence M. Berger, Ph.D., director at the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin. “It was a different time and my grandfather was a man, and a man in the 1960s did not take care of little girls”, says my mother.
There are no orphanages in the United States today, and very few left in the wealthier countries in the European Union, but there were a lot of orphanages just two generations ago. “They are all gone now here”, says Barbara J. Roeber, M.S. “Now, children go to foster care. If children in the United States have parents, who cannot care for them, they go into foster care while the parents get their act together.” The goal is always to reunite the family.
The home was located next to a mental hospital. “I remember it as an eerie place. The building was old and we slept in dormitories in bunk beds, “ says my mother.
The orphanage was build in 1899 and was always a place where children from poor and dysfunctional families could come and live, some for years and some for shorter periods of time.
In 1974, it was closed down, due to lack of funding. The only thing that remains today is a website. It does not look professional, but more like websites looked back in the 1990s. On the front page, the Danish word “efterlysning” is written in big yellow letters. “Efterlysning” does not translate well to English, but it is a word with painful and negative connotations. It means a kind of "SOS search”: a search for other people, who have stayed there when they were children. Until now, the website has made it possible to locate 75 of the children from the orphanage. Almost 20 people have posted their personal recollections about their time there.
Now, the orphanage only lives on in the memories of the adults, who were placed there as children. Many of them have stories like my mothers, some even worse. Those who have shared their recollections, tell tales of loneliness, confusion, and fear.
When the children came to the home they were deprived of all personal belongings, including the clothes they wore.
Marianne Kristensen, born a year before my mother in 1959, came to the home in 1967, a few years after my mother left. She found the website because memories of her time spent there kept haunting her trough her adult life. She remembers it as a tough place. “I remember the øllebrød”, she says. “One time, a daddy long legs fell into my porridge. It was picked out and laid next to my bowl, and then I had to eat the rest of it. I threw up into the bowl, and then they just put a new spoonful into my mouth. Another time I had written a letter and drawn a picture, and then I was told to go the lady principal, who tore it up and told me that I wasn’t allowed to write that I did not like being there. She handed me a new piece of paper and told me not to write lies. I also remember crying because I was not allowed to wear the pretty dress my mother had made for me, but only their clothes.”
A lot of the people, who write on the website, do so in a desperate attempt to uncover this dark part of their childhood.
Annette Jepsen has written an “efterlysning” on the website: “How I wish somebody could remember my brother Niels and I from back then. I wish someone had pictures.” She thinks she came to the home in 1956 or 1957, when she was eight and her brother was four. She cried when she was separated from him, and also remembers how terrible it felt having her own clothes taken from her, and then told to put on the home’s clothes. Like my mother, she has no idea exactly how much time she actually spent there. She wrote on the webpage to try to find someone, who had also been there, since there are no files or any official information kept about the children any more.
“I remember that if we had any leftover food, we delivered it next door to the mental hospital in a little handcart. It was so strange seeing grown-ups sitting on those big steps by the entrance and play with dolls. The worst experience was when I got the mumps and was isolated with a German girl in a tiny room for what felt like weeks."
“The people there were strict and callous. It seemed as if they made an effort not to engage in our lives”, says my mother. “Everything worked on a schedule.”
Barbara J. Roeber has done research in Eastern European orphanages. She has researched why children in orphanages sometimes shut down: “When children are not exposed to stimuli and fed on schedule and have to sleep on schedule, they either become very sensitive and act out a lot or they stop reacting to things. This damages them. We're thinking that this treatment affects both the structure of the brain, so the sizes and the way the brain looks, and also the connectivity between the different parts of the brain, so the synapses don’t have a chance to grow and connect”, she says.
After a few months, my mother began shutting down mentally. She stopped reacting to things. This is often seen with children, who experience longer periods of institutionalization.
“Some of the children were like me”, my mother says. "They never reached out to anyone."
Then one day, someone noticed my mother and saw how alone she was.
“I remember a day when a young girl, who I think worked there, came up to me and whispered in my ear: “I know it’s your birthday, Christine”, she says. “And I can hardly remember her name, I think it was Henny. She is the only person I really remember from my time there, I didn’t even know it was my birthday, but what she did day that tore me out of my apathy.”
Henny approached my mother and told her to come with her: she had surprise for her. “She took me to her room in the attic. She had bought a little cake and we ate it together and then she whispered a birthday song in my ear. She told me that it was a secret, and today, I think she risked her job doing that, but it meant so much to me.”
My mother was lucky. Henny made sure she did not feel alone even though birthdays did not exist and presents were forbidden.
Henny is not just wishful thinking or a fragment of my mother’s imagination. Other people remember her too. Gudrun Højvang worked at the orphanage as a young woman, and she also remembers Henny. “I remember her, she was confirmed when I worked there. The lady principal celebrated her. Henny’s family came to the celebration and I helped serving them dinner that day.”
To my mother, visitation day was the hardest part about being in the orphanage.
“Every Sunday was visitation day. I remember these days as being the hardest days. My father would come and visit us. In the beginning he came every Sunday, but as time passed, more and more weeks went by without a visit”, she says.
The visits took place in room with glass walls -like those you see in prisons, and my grandfather would bring candy.
“The most painful thing about being left there was not not having my parents there. It was the fact that when my father finally did come around, he would not be able to resist all the other children, who looked at us with pleading eyes through those glass walls. He would invite them all in and hand out the candy he had brought for us. I needed my father to by our father, and sharing him with everyone else was harder than almost never seeing him”, she says.
In the end, my grandfather stopped coming to visit his daughters. Barbara J. Roeber says that she has observed that children in orphanages often learn to indiscriminately trust adults. They will trust every adult because maybe they think: “Maybe I'll get something from them”, she says. The children often become so desperate that they stop filtering, and “children from orphanages are often very trusting. They'll go to anyone. "Oh, you're my best friend". They'll hug and kiss you even though they've never met you before", she says. So my mother and her sister were not just fighting for the attention of a distant father, they were also competing for it with all the other children. Many of them never had any visitors, and to them, a father, who brought candy, was irresistible.
When I asked my mother whether it was any comfort having her sister there with her, she said no. “I don’t remember her, in fact, I have no memories of us being together at that time, and almost no memories of my sister from my early childhood in general”, she says. It is possible that like the siblings, Annette and Niels, my mother and her sister were separated when they got there.
Karin Andersen, who worked at the orphanage from 1962-1964 describes the procedure when new children arrived: “Some of the children were just dropped off by the front door, others were allowed to say goodbye to their parents in the visitation room. Then they were taken to the basement, were they were bathed and had their hair washed with soft soap (it was supposed to prevent lice). Then they were dressed in the home’s clothes and came up to all the other children. I can imagine the children must have felt very alone that day. They were divided by age and slept in different dormitories. It could be especially hard for siblings to be separated, especially when they had to sleep.”
The day my grandmother came to get my mother from the orphanage she did not hug her. She entered back into her life just as emotionally detached as when she left her there. “I was still very happy, I was too young to know whether she would ever come back, so I was relieved”, says my mother. However, she was also very skeptical and distrustful. "But only for a few weeks, then I started believing that I did not have to go back again", she says.
Nobody ever found out what my grandmother went back to Namibia for, or why she eventually decided to come back, but she did. In 1972, when my mother was twelve, my grandmother went back to Namibia once again. This time, she brought her daughters with her and they stayed for a whole summer. This is one of mother's fondest childhood memories.
However, when it was time to go back, she told my mother and her sister that she would not be coming back to Germany with them. “She wanted to stay”, says my mother. “She dropped us of at the airport in Windhoek and said goodbye. Then my sister and I had to figure out how to travel all the way back to Germany alone. We asked around and located the right gate. The connecting flight was hard to find, but we made it work. It was scary because we had only flown once before, and never alone. I don’t remember how many months she stayed in Namibia, but eventually she came back again.”
This was the second time my grandmother chose Namibia over her children.
I asked my mother what she thought my grandmother was doing there when she left them. My grandmother passed away in 2002, and nobody ever asked her what she was doing went she went back to Namibia. My mother has spent many years wondering why.
“I think she was in love with someone else, and I even think I met him once during that summer in 1972. I remember his eyes. I think that it’s where I got my blue eyes from.”
Once, in a heated argument, my mother heard her father tell her mother that she was not his daughter. This she forgot, maybe even repressed, but decades later a drunk cousin made a remark at a family reunion about how my grandmother had run away into to Kalahari bush and come back pregnant. This sparked my mother's memory and she came to think of the man with the blue eyes she met in Namibia that summer.
Whether my grandfather is really her biological father or not, does not bother her. “My father and I never bonded”, she says. "He is my father, nothing will change that. He was not a good father, but he is my father", she says calmly.
Mygrandmother did not only abandon her children physically. In the 1970s, she began drinking heavily in periods and abusing Valium. She missed Namibia. She was in pain. What made her so unhappy I do not know, neither does my mother. Maybe she grieved over the life she could never have in Namibia. Maybe she was in love with a man with blue eyes, who lived 7600 miles away.
Her abuse was not constant, but came in periods that would last from weeks to months. Then she would pull herself back together. This pattern lasted her whole life, and ended up causing her untimely death. During the times when she was abusing, she would neglect her family. My mother remembers taking care of her as child, sitting by her bed for days, watching over her. "She would say: "Christine, you're my favorite child. Don't leave my side", my mother recalls. She would sit by her bed, not angry, but feeling scared, confused, and alone.
My mother did not get an easy start i life. Her childhood was marked by cultural transition, geographical relocation, and neglect.
Why some children, who experience neglect and abandonment, turn out great in spite of the odds, is still a mystery to psychologists. There is probably no easy explanation to why my mother could take all of her heavy baggage, dump it, and create a happy life for herself and her family, but she did.
Barbara J. Roeber explains that temperament has a lot to do with why some children grow up and become dysfunctional and some do not.
During her research, Barbara J. Roeber would sometimes wonder why some of the children she studied were doing better than others. When reading their history, she would think: “oh this child is probably not going to be doing very well”, but when she came to see them they were actually doing really fine, and she would think: "how is that possible?"
“We asked the families if they knew anything about the children we didn’t”, she says. Sometimes, the families would tell stories that shed some light upon why their child was doing so good. One mother told her that her child’s bed had been right next the director’s office. Every time the director went in and out of her office, she would say hello to him, touch him, sometimes even pick him up and give him a hug. This child was getting more attention than the rest of the children at the orphanage. "Those further away… well, they weren’t as lucky”, she says. According to Barbara, little things like that “can make huge difference”.
My mother was lucky. Henny made sure she was not forgotten and reminded her that someone cared. “It meant the world to me”, she says.
I have never known anyone with a heart like my mother’s. She is one those people, who cannot hold a grudge, who forgives and lets go, and who always looks for all the beautiful things in life. There is a saying in Danish: “to walk through life with blinkers”, which means living life without paying attention to certain things around you. My mother is born with blinkers: she has a unique ability to always focus on the positive things.
I think people, who are able to do this, are those who can rise above terrible experiences and not only survive, but live. These are people with a psyche that allows them to focus on the positive things in their life and tune out the negative. When you hold on to the little things in life that makes it beautiful and let go of everything else, you can overcome extreme hardship.