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Early Memories


In 1962, I was placed at St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Burlington, Vermont. My mother, at 29, was a barmaid, and my father, at 43, was the hired help at a dairy farm. Together, they did their best to care for their nine children: six boys and three girls. We were all about one year apart in age. We lived in the main farmhouse. Dad worked hard on the dairy farm. Mom was gone most of the time working in the local town bar. There was a sugar shack on the farm, and during sugar season, Dad would tap the maple trees. I can still see him, smiling, carrying the buckets on a yoke across his shoulders. He would let us take a cup of the syrup. We’d boil it down and pour it over fresh snow for a treat.


My brothers and sisters were always around. We’d play hide and seek in the haystacks and tease the bull until it chased us to the safety of our big front porch. We lived in front of the railroad tracks. We’d put our ears to the track to listen for the rumble and to feel the vibration of an oncoming train. As it got closer, we’d place pennies on the track and watch the train flatten them. My sister Cheryl, who was one year older than me, would drop a sheet down a hole through the second story floor, where a stove pipe had once been. She’d tie the sheet to the bed and throw it down the pipe hole and we’d slide down the sheet and land on the floor.


Raspberry picking with my dad was my favorite event. As we crossed the trestle, I felt safe riding on his foot clutching onto his leg so that I wouldn’t fall through the cracks into the muddy waters below. We’d bring big buckets that had once held peanut butter; we’d fill them with plump, juicy raspberries.


I don’t remember any fighting, shouting or bad feelings with my brothers and sisters. At night, we were never tucked in. Instead, we all jumped into one big bed wearing the same clothes we’d worn all day.


My sister Linda stopped attending school at 13 so that she could stay home to care for us. She’d help us catch frogs by the pond. In the evening, she would prepare delicious frogs’ legs, cook beans in a big pot, and serve those along with our favorite snack: bread with butter and sugar.


We were free to roam the countryside that surrounded the farm. Often, we would visit an elderly man who lived in a little shack down the road. He had severe scoliosis, which caused his spine to curve to the side. He limped, using a cane, and moved awkwardly about in his tiny space. He would take advantage of my older sister and myself. He bribed us with food. We took turns watching out the window for anyone who might come near. I had the sense that this was wrong. But I never knew who to tell.


Our house was quarantined once, during a scarlet fever outbreak. My brother Douglas was very red and sick. Local farmers and town folk brought us groceries and left them outside the door. My oldest brother Tommy, 14 at the time, was considered old enough to care for himself. So, many nights, he’d stay with friends from school. Sometimes he’d wait all night in Mom’s car, so he could drive her home from the bar.


I remember a day in late fall, just after my brother Lonny was born. Three families were having their ninth child in close proximity, and the order of sequence was exactly the same in each family. A local reporter thought this would make an interesting story. For the momentous occasion of his visit to our home, my sister and I had our waist long hair cut to chin length. My brothers all had their hair neatly trimmed. The photographer organized us in two rows, according to age. Mom and Dad sat together holding baby Lonny and toddler Stephen. Cheryl and Tim sat beside me in the front, and Terry, Douglas, Linda, and Tom stood in the back. This was the only photo ever taken of my family. Soon after this day, my life on the farm would be over.


One morning, my mother came home with new shiny black shoes for my sister and me. Holding our new shoes in our laps, we went for an hour-long ride in the car to a place I knew would be filled with fun. We arrived at an enormous mansion with a 10-foot statue of a man with a long beard and a robe draped down to his bare feet. His hands were stretched out to 5 Sheila Grisard Early Memories the sky. With excitement I turned to the playground on the side where a large crowd of children were playing near the biggest swing-set I had ever seen. As my mother let us go, we ran to the wooden swings and hopped on. It took a long time to get up into the air, but once I did, I remembered the wonderful feeling of freedom. I tried to touch the sky with my feet. I started to sing a song quite loudly.


As I looked up to find my mother, I saw her drive away. I was not worried or afraid. My seven-year-old sister had followed me to the swings. She was also trying to touch the sky with her feet. I don’t remember my mother saying goodbye or providing any explanation. I was six years old. I would remain at the orphanage for eight years, until I entered the ninth grade and at that time I was moved to a foster home.


Sheila at four (second from left) and her family, 1958

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