Thursday, February 26, 2009

Thinking of the children

I'll be in Russia in less than a week. I recently started to look forward to seeing the orphans again. I wonder how they'll receive me.

I thought about Liosha, who missed me last time I was gone.

I also thought about a little girl from the second orphanage. She came up to me once and asked if it was okay to say "Hi." I said yes, thinking she was smart for knowing that it was an alternative to "Hello" (she was only 6 or 7).

Then I heard the same little girl joyfully announcing my answer to others. And I realized that she equated saying "Hi" to addressing me informally. She looked up at me adoringly as if it had just sealed the friendship. And after that, she would always run up to meet me with a triumphant "HI!"...

A book I read recently about the famous Dionne Quintuplets reminded me of some of the orphans I know. The Dionnes were essentially institutionalized until their father protested and they returned to the family at age 9. But it was already late for them to bond and they remained alienated from their family, living at home yet missing the nursery which they (reportedly) described as a happy place.

A Russian orphanage may not be a palace or smother the kids with as much attention as the Dionne kids received. But the orphans often remember their childhood with pride and fondness. Along with the trials of childhood, they cling to memories of their groupmates and beloved caregivers. They hold on to prizes won in different academic and cultural events.

It is a perplexing dilemma. Children in the orphanage, of course, should be given a happy childhood. But promoting the orphanage as ideal encourages them to be content with less than normal circumstances. When they enter the world, as did the Dionne sisters, it is a shock. They miss the "comforts" of the orphanage, such as routine, having all their food cooked for them, being with the same group of friends, etc. And the blessings of the outside world, mainly various freedoms, seem strange and difficult to face.

Just as the Dionne quintuplets grew up to fall in love and have their own families, many orphans will turn out just fine. But I can't help feeling that something has been stolen. And I wish I knew how to give it back.