Potato Soup and a Caring Woman

Sometimes I’ll write something innocuous and I have no idea where it’s going to go. Some years ago I put up a picture of the old State Orphanage that was torn down in the 60s, along with a picture of the children’s cottages that are on the site now, which are also closed and set to be demolished. What I got was one of the most active pages on my site, with dozens of people posting their stories of life at the old cottages. Some of them loved it, some of them hated it, but almost all of them look back on it as an important time of their lives. Today I got something so wonderful, though, that it needs to be brought to the front page where everyone can see it.

This remembrance of the Northern Nevada Childrens Home comes from Misty VanHavel.

Potato Soup and a Caring Woman
by Misty VanHavel 

I can hear my probation officers voice down the hall from my cell in Whitenburg Jail for Juveniles. Im cold; its always cold in here. Cinderblocks dont hold heat very well, especially when you hardly heat them to begin with. I know Mary Joe is here to take me to my new home. I am scared and excited at the same time. I am afraid of girls my own age in situations similar to mine. They can be mean and want to fight for no reason. I have a lot of anger, but I never want to hurt people because it makes me feel better. I dont understand why some people are like that. On the other hand, I am excited to have some freedom again. Though I am not sure how much freedom I will have in my new home, it cannot be any less that I have right now.

I am waiting in my cell wearing my own clothes, the ones I was wearing when I was arrested in Oakland, CA as a runaway, and brought to Whitenburg. My shorts and flip-flops feel like heaven compared to what I have been wearing for weeks now: jeans that 100 other kids have worn that never fit right, and Keds that have been bleached every Monday only to be passed back out to whoever wears this size. I hear Mary Joe coming down the hall and think to myself that I need to get my shit together. I hate this place and never want to come back. I have hope that my new home will hold some key to unlocking a better future than I currently see. Only time will tell.

*****

From some time in the 1960’s until 1992 The Boys and Girls Club in Carson City was the Northern Nevada Childrens Home (NNCH). Before the 60’s it was an orphanage and a foster home for kids who were not wanted, but from the 60’s until it was shut down in 1992, it was a juvenile correctional facility. Not in the way you would normally think a correctional facility would be; kids there went to public school and hung out at the mall when homework was done, but it was a correctional facility nonetheless. It was a place where kids with issues were sent when their home life was so out of control that the State had to take over guardianship. It was a place that I spent a little less than a year of my life.

I lived at NNCH during my sophomore year of high school. I drive by the place very regularly as my husband works in the Department of Transportation building nearby. Every time I drive by it, a new memory surfaces and I have to smile. I have not stepped onto the property since the day I was released from the program, on the last day of school in 1988, but I think about it every time I drive by.

Most of the cottages are boarded up now, and though the grounds are taken care of, the place looks sad. There are no children running in the field out back. The windows are bare of all the things we hung in them to personalize our own spaces. The front porch, where I would often sit and read, is in desperate need of a good sweeping. The bulbs that were planted in the box next to the porch no longer produce flowers. The entire place looks a little sad today, but it once was a place of contentment, and the first place I ever really called home.

Those months I spent there were some of the best I had in my youth. I ate every day, several times if I wanted to. I went to school every day, and even though I said I hated school, it was nice to almost fit in for once. I also had adults that I had to answer to for the first time that I could remember; Mom and Dad Moore Monday through Friday, and Mom Barbara on the weekends, with semi regular visits from my probation officer Mary Joe Ferrara. It was a structured environment, something I had supposedly been rebelling against through my teen years. But I loved it. It was what normal children had in their everyday lives, and it felt good to pretend for a while.

Just a few days ago I was talking to my husband about some of my memories from those days. One of the strangest memories I have of that place is one from one of my first days there. Dad Moore was in his office, a tiny room off the front entry to the house we now all lived in together. He was sitting at his desk and so had his back to the doorway where I stood. I had a question, though I do not remember now what it was, but I remember I needed to get his attention. I knew that all my cottage sisters called him dad, so I figured I would too. However, as I stood there, needing his attention, I could not say the word dad. It was as if while my mouth shaped the word, my stomach knotted and I was unable to use my lungs to speak it. It had never been a part of my vocabulary in that way. I mean, I used the word when talking about other peoples fathers, but I had no memory of ever having a man in my life that I had given the label dad. I literally choked on the word and stuttered it out that first time. It was so quiet that he did not hear it and I nearly walked away, afraid that I could not muster up enough nerve to say it again. Nevertheless, I stood there, palms sweaty and feeling ready to cry, and I did say it again. I got his attention and asked my question, but I will never forget how hard it was to say that one word. As the weeks went on I grew to love him very much, and gratefully called him dad till the day I left.

Mom Moore was an odd one. I think she had as many psychological issues as all of us juveniles did. Though on the surface she always seemed like a sweet woman, inside there was a control freak who could get mean if things were not just so. We had baseboard heaters in the bedrooms. Mom Moore told us that they were made special to draw air from all of our rooms into her room so she could smell it if we smoked anything. It was my first glimpse of the crazy side of her and it took a lot for me not to tell her I knew she was lying.

Mom Barbara was our weekend parent. She was old enough to be my grandmother but cooler than most of the people I knew my own age. She was the first grandmotherly aged woman I had ever seen wear t-shirts, jeans and Nikes. Being in the system as long as I had been, I was used to seeing women in skirts and pantyhose and if there was ever a pair of pants to be seen among them, they were polyester slacks. Yuck!! Mom Barbara was a great friend and I will never forget her. She made the best potato soup ever. She and I would make it together every other Saturday. We would peel potatoes together and we would talk about what she had done all week. Shed ask questions about me and my life and she often asked me to think about the future and how I would like things to be. She told me I was a smart kid and had the potential for great things. No one had ever said things like that to me before. But wed talk and laugh and she did this one arm hug thing that I loved. And the soup was always so good. All my cottage sisters were about sick of it. But I loved it, and if I thought I could have convinced Mom Barbara to have it every weekend, I would have tried. She was the first person I truly respected. I remember thinking after doing something stupid that she was going to be disappointed in me, and I remember it hurting. Realizing that I cared about an adult who in return cared about me changed my life forever. I learned from her that not all adults were like my mother. She showed me that there were adults that really did love me. And she taught me how to make the best potato soup ever. Maybe it was not so much the soup as it was the time I spent with Mom Barbara that I loved so much. And the one arm hugs. Either way, they are great memories.

All of my memories of the Northern Nevada Childrens Home are warm and happy. My roommate ended up being my best friend for a long time. She was the sister I had always wanted but never had. Tricia Heartfield was about a year younger than I was and had the best sense of humor. She and I would talk about all the things we were going to do once all the adults in our lives realized that we really did know what was best for us. She was a lot of fun and I miss her.

Christmas of that year is a memory that I will always hold dear. My favorite memory of the jolly season is of the night we wrapped our own Christmas gifts. The Moores had everything they had purchased for us in plain white boxes. They brought out one pile at a time and set them on the floor, each pile belonged to one girl. We would wrap them and the Moores would take them away to label them and bring out a new stack. We had been told to make a list of the gifts we would like to find under the tree. I asked for a peach sweater and Elton Johns Live in Australia with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. I remember wondering if what I was wrapping was one of those things. Turns out I wrapped my own sweater, but the Cassette was given to me by a woman who found it on a wish tree in a bank down the street. She had tucked a note inside that said I had wonderful taste in music for a fifteen year old. She said, You must be something very special. I could not remember ever having a stranger say that to me. I wanted to find her and thank her, but I was too afraid.

I do not have a single memory of that place that is not a good one. I loved it there; I did not want to leave, ever. So why then, do I feel sick to my stomach every time I think about asking the people in the office of The Boys and Girls Club if I can walk through that cottage one last time? I have nothing but good memories of the place and the people in it, so what am I afraid of? I am not ashamed of my time there. I dont care who knows about my childhood troubles. So where is the fear coming from? In that place I learned that I can be a decent human being, that there are people who care for me, and that I was never going to let my mother and her way of life make me anyone I was not happy being. I am me, and I dont have to follow the horrid example she set for me. NNCH was a God send.

Last summer, as we were driving home from an afternoon on the beach at Lake Tahoe, I drove past the place yet again. The sun was close to setting and there was a calm energy settling slowly in the air around me. Out of nowhere I had the urge to walk the grounds. I pulled into the side driveway and sat looking at one of the cottages lit by my headlights. I dont know how long I sat there or what I was thinking while I did, but it wasnt until my five-year-old called for my attention that I even realized I was there. Where are we Mamma? she asked. I opened my door and stood there for a moment. As I turned off the car and unlatched my daughter from her car seat, I told her that we were at a very special place. I propped her on my hip and headed for the cottage I once lived in. As we approached cottage number three she wiggled and asked to be let down. As soon as her feet hit the ground she was running to the field where I once spent time contemplating my future. And there she was my future. I realized in that moment that my time at NNCH was all for her. It was there I learned to care for myself, and in doing so learned to care for others. It was there that I learned how to accept love and show it as well. It was there that I learned how to make a wicked bowl of potato soup that could change lives.

After drying my tears and collecting my daughter I drove us home, and together we made our first bowl of potato soup. As we ate I told her a story about a fifteen-year-old girl, a bowl of soup and a caring woman.

One comment

  1. Thank you for sharing this. I’m crying, hoping my three year old doesn’t notice and think something is wrong is wrong with me. It would be hard to explain my tears of happiness for a stranger. 🙂

Leave a Reply to Tiffany Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.