Monday, June 17, 2013

Amanuensis Monday - St. John's - Orphanage or Safe Haven (Part 3)

Here is Part 3 of my Great Aunt Pat's memories from her 5-year stay at St. John's Orphanage in Washington, DC.  You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

St. John's - Orphanage or Safe Haven? (Part 3)

By Pat Geiger

There are so many memories of my five-year stay at St. John’s – the two tall trees at the country house, one designated for the girls, and the other for the boys.  The girls had the better tree.  It was taller, leafier and closer to the road making the top more expansive.  We spent hours sitting at the top of that tree singing our lungs out.  “Springtime in the Rockies,” “Hand Me Down My Walking Cane,” “When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob Bobbing Along,” “Roll ‘Em Girls, Roll ‘Em,” and all the other #1 hits of the ‘20s.

I remember the swimming pool at the country home, not much of a pool, but how many private pools were there in 1925, outside of Hollywood.  This pool was enclosed in a building with barn-like doors which, when open, made the enclosure three-sided.  The boys and girls had different days to use the pool, and there was a large tent for changing into our bathing suits.  The pool was made of very rough concrete and wasn’t very deep which resulted in a lot of scraped kneeds but little fear of drowning.

I remember Sister Emily sitting smack-dab in front of the large Philco radio in the library listening to “Amos and Andy” with all the kids gathered around her.  If we were lucky she would also listen to “Myrt and Marge.”  If not, the radio was turned off, Sister Emily left the room and we went back to our homework or whatever we were doing at 7 o’clock when “Amos and Andy” came on.

I remember when Maryanne Brooks was adopted.  We were sure her adoptive parents were very rich because when whe returned for a visit she was wearing a pale gree silk dress with a wrist watch.

Not many of the children were adopted since most had at least one parent, but I do remember that the dentist, Dr. Martin, adopted one of the older girls.

Evelyn Robinson had been at the home since she was siz months old.  She grew up there and when she was 18 became a governess.

One memory concerns one of my life’s most embarrassing moments.  For a short while after leaving the home we lived at the Flagler Apartments just a few blocks from St. John’s.  Because of the proximity, it was easy to visit my old friends.  At the home we were required to wear long winter underwear, the little girls’ having a drop seat in the rear while the big girls wore what we called “Sally open splits” because there was a slit the full length of the crotch.  When I knew I was leaving the home, I told everyone the first thing I was going to do when I went home was to take off my winter underwear.

It was December when I left and, of course, my other wouldn’t allow me to change into lightweight underwear in mid-winter.  During my first visit back I was in the playroom with my friends turning carwheels.  My dress came up over my head revealing the still-present long underwear.  I was the laughing stock of the playroom.

I was just as happy to leave the home on December 7, 1930 – I remember the date because it was my mother’s birthday – as I had been that summer day in 1925 when I arrived.  But I did miss my friends and since my mother was remarried to a man ten years her junior and an alcoholic, life outside the home didn’t live up to my expectations.

For the better part of a year each time Elizabeth or I stepped out of line my mother would say, “Do that again and I’ll send you back to the home.”  After hearing this more times than I could count, I silently wished she would stop threatening and just do it.

St. John’s Orphanage operated for 86 years, from 1870 to 1956.  During those years it was often filled to capacity and sometimes, in its later years of operation, had as few as 14 children.  The average number over those years was 90 – 100.  Thirty-three children were admitted in 1925 of which I was one.  The average stay for a child according to the records for 1914-1929 was 3.1 years.  My stay of five years was longer than average and Elizabeth’s seven years longer still.  St. John’s was not a place to dump your child and forget him or her, but a place to keep your child safe until better times came your way.
St. John's Orphanage Country Home
Arlington, Virginia

The orphanage closed in 1956 because the need for its existence had dimished with modern-day thinking and other means of child care, mostly foster homes.  Also, the building housing the city home was old and in need ot expensive repairs.  The neighborhood was no longer residential and not considered a proper environment for children.  The few children remaining at the time of the closing were sent to other institutions or returned home to their parents.

While St. John’s ceased operation as an orphanage in 1956, its service to the community continued.  It became St. John’s Child Development Center located at 4800 MacArthur Blvd, N.W.  It’s name is now St. John’s Community Services and its mission, as stated in the brochure “Celebrating 125 Years of Commitment” is:  “To enable children and adults with developmental disabilities to reach their greatest potential by providing them with support and opportunities that enhance their efforts to make decisions for themselves and that offer them full participation in the life of the community.”

In 1959 the building at 1922 F Street, N.W. was sold for $515,000 to the National Association of Life Underwriters which still occupies the building.  The ten acres on which the country home stood became a housing development many years ago, after having been leased by the U.S. Government in 1941 for the duration of World War II.

While the word “orphanage” has come to mean something less than desirable, personal experience and very vivid memories give a different meaning to the word for me.  To all those who feel sorry for children living in orphanages or are shocked to learn that I spent five years in one, I want to say that those five years were the best give my mother ever gave me.  Rather than being called an orphanage, with all that word’s negative connotations, I prefer to call St. John’s my safe haven because that is truly what it was.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! I really enjoyed this series, and I felt so badly for your Auntie Pat until I read that very last line about the orphanage being her "safe haven". How sad, but also I'm glad she had a haven and not a nightmare institution like we often read about.


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