Sunday, May 23, 2010

The invisible orphanage

My last stop on the Dad trail in Udorn was St. Mary's Church and School. He had visited there a few times and described the children in his letters home.

The kids mobbed me. They all wanted to be picked up. They are all toddlers from a few days old to 2 or 3 years. Many are adopted by Americans and taken to the States. A large number lost their mothers in childbirth. Sister said a lot of the mothers from the back country die in childbirth because of sanitation. It's easy to believe since even the water in the best hotels is not safe to drink. Sister said that quite a few of the kids had twin sisters or brothers who had died. - June 10, 1968

I picked up one little girl and the diaper pin came open as I did. Darn near jabbed her a good one. Sister gave me a new one and I pinned her back up. I hadn't forgotten how! - June 12

Chad and I got over just as school was letting out. We asked at the main office whether anyone there still remembered the orphanage, but a school employee said all the old nuns were gone. She directed us next door to the church, a very funky, Dr. Seussian sort of building.

We couldn't find anyone on the church grounds so I started snapping pictures through the windows, hoping to roust out a suspicious caretaker.

Finally we walked around some more and found a diocese office. Nobody there remembered the orphanage either, but they arranged for me to come back the next day and talk to the recently-retired bishop, who had served for over thirty years.

I can still see those kids' faces: Joseph, Francesca, Tony, Caroline, Buddha. Buddha got his name from being so pudgy. Caroline was a little mean. She would pinch the faces of the other kids, I think out of jealousy. She wanted to be picked up but wouldn't come close enough. The rest of the kids hung around my legs and crawled into my lap if I sat down. I hope the picture of Joseph comes out. He was perpetually smiling and always gay. If I could have walked off with him we would now have 6 children. 

One little girl just sobbed uncontrollably when I tried to tickle her and make her smile. I've often wondered if I somehow reminded her of her father. I guess I'll never know. - June 25

I met with the former bishop the next morning and gave him a printout of Dad's descriptions of the place for their records. The bishop was very kind, but he didn't remember the orphanage either, and he wasn't aware of any surviving photos or descriptions of it. Apparently it was run pretty independently by the nuns. He said nowadays the church has an orphanage up on the Laotian border for kids of HIV-positive parents.

He told me the church building was 50 years old, so it would have been there when Dad was there. It wasn't as much as I'd hoped for, but it was at least a tangible connection to those years.

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