The Orphan Chronicles

Dallas' own tribe of Oliver Twists can teach us much about the places they've been, and where we're all going

Obviously Buckner has always been a Baptist institution with a strong emphasis on religious training. That training seems to have had the same mixed results on the orphans that it did on everybody else. Even Mel Walls, who in his 20s used to challenge Baptists to a fight, has mellowed some, but he confided that he is still not a major devotee of organized religion.

Jerre Simmons, whose father killed her mother in front of her and then took his own life, feels very differently. For her, Buckner was both a haven and a salvation, then and in the rest of her life after she left the home, because of its religious teaching.

"We were taught to serve God and our fellow man," she said. "That was the key to happiness."

Lois Lillico, now a nurse, was orphaned at 12, when her father died, and virtually grew up at the Buckner Orphans Home, bottom, after that.
Mark Graham
Lois Lillico, now a nurse, was orphaned at 12, when her father died, and virtually grew up at the Buckner Orphans Home, bottom, after that.
Jerre Graves Simmons, orphaned by a murder-suicide, grew up at Buckner, returned later as a teacher and edited a book of Buckner reminiscences.
Mark Graham
Jerre Graves Simmons, orphaned by a murder-suicide, grew up at Buckner, returned later as a teacher and edited a book of Buckner reminiscences.

I asked her what Buckner would have been without religion.

"That would have pulled all underpinnings out of it for me, because my faith has remained very important to me. We didn't have a father, but God was our father, and there are scriptures that can be construed in that way, and that's what we were told in church."

One of the least told stories in The Orphan Chronicles is any memory of Christmas. A few writers here and there offer sketchy recollections. There was a tree, and hanging from the tree were ribbons. Each orphan was allowed to pull a single ribbon from the tree. Attached to each ribbon was a single apple, an orange, nuts or peppermint candy, which the orphans then pooled and stirred into a kind of trail mix they called "pig wash."

As I was leaving Simmons' home, she made a gesture, I think toward portraits or photographs of her grown children in the living room, and she said, "You know, maybe I should have told my kids more about it, about the hard parts like never getting a present at Christmas. But you don't want to tell them things that will make them sad."

The outside world was a matter of huge fascination for the orphans. Their term for the universe beyond the hedges, fences and guarded gates of Buckner was "away from here." Several of them mention "away from here" in their essays as if it were a place.

Walls told me that boys from the orphanage always "walked stiff-legged" around boys from the outside, ready for a fight, and regarded all girls from outside the orphanage as movie stars.

"Mostly my impression was that everyone away from here was rich, which was a complete denial of my own experience [before Buckner], but that was what it grew into," he said.

Simmons said she thought the Buckner orphans were protected from some of the sharper edges of envy by the fact that they knew so little of the world beyond Buckner's borders.

"We wanted a family life, but we had very little idea of what that would be like," she said. "It wasn't something that confronted us every waking moment. We were kept busy."

Another recurring theme in the essays and in the conversations I had with the orphans was the notion, imbued in them by their adult masters, that everything they had lost, everything that had been denied them in childhood would be gained in the life beyond if they worked hard enough and played their cards well enough.

In her introduction to the book, Simmons wrote: "We knew the rest of the world lived lives very different from ours; we felt true happiness was somewhere in the future and not available to orphans. Happiness would come when we were away from here, living in the real world."

It's strange, in a way, that we have stopped using the word, as if it were a bad word. Very few of us are orphans at birth, but most of us become orphans sooner or later. When we do, we're fortunate to have some Oliver Twists and Little Orphan Annies to help us across the threshold, over to their side. Eventually none of us is away from here.

« Previous Page
 |
 
1
 
2
 
3
 
4
 
5
 
All
 
My Voice Nation Help
1 comments
wiserpaula
wiserpaula

I hv a friend of 25 years that has been searchn for her two smaller siblings since the 70s leslie porter johnson and shana marie johnson. My friend tobye johnson simmons, and five siblins were placed at bucknersbuckners

 
Loading...