The other day my daughter and I were talking about books she’d loved as a child. The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles! I said. We both yelped. Yes! That one! Mandy! I said. I yelped. “I don’t remember that one,” my daughter said, “What was it about?”
I couldn’t remember exactly, just that it was a lot like The Secret Garden: a little girl, an orphan, finds a garden that she claims for her own and tends to it, coming more to life in the process.
A couple of days later The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles and Mandy arrived in the mail. I picked up the first, but then put it down. For some reason, even though that was the one I was most excited to read, I picked up Mandy and went outside, past the apple orchard, to sit outside the sugar shack where I could read surrounded by apple blossoms and the occasional whoosh whoosh of the ravens’ wings as they flew overhead, looking for trouble.
On the outskirts of a pretty country village called St. Martin’s Green, there stands a large, white house called St. Martin’s Orphanage.
Aaaah. I had that feeling. That I remember this story feeling.
I don’t remember the first book I fell in love with—I think this fierce attachment started early thanks to my mother who read to me, possibly from day one. My mother was a lover of words, and when she would sit on the edge of my bed to read to me at night, I had her present in a way she wasn’t normally because, as any parent does, she had a lot on her plate and mind, but when she read to me, typically, we both got to fall into story, together, close, in love with the imagined world.
I read page three, page four, page five of Mandy , and then put down the book, stunned.
Mandy had been there for as long as she could remember. She was a bright ten-year-old, with dark hair that fell boyishly straight and short around her sweet face. Since she had no known relatives, the orphanage was her home, her whole world.
She had many friend and she was much loved. Because she had been at St. Martin’s most of her young life, the staff favored her somewhat, and she was given certain privileges and more freedom than the other children. She could be trusted and relied upon. Apart from schooling and a few special duties, Mandy had plenty of time to herself.
Basically, she preferred to be alone. She was inventive and quickly-witted, but, above all, she was a dreamer. Most of the time she lived in a make-believe world of her own. She loved to read. She exchanged books at the local library at least once a week. The wonders of Robinson Crusoe and Alice in Wonderland and Gulliver’s Travels were very real to her and offered far more excitement than the reality of her life could ever provide.
On Saturday mornings she helped out at the local grocery store. She was given a small sum of money for her work, and she used it as she pleased. Most of her money was spent on her precious books and sometimes on paints, crayons, and paper for painting and drawing.
Only the younger children at the orphanage attended school on the premises. Mandy, with the other older children, was sent out each day to attend the local school, which was on the other side of the village green.
Sometimes, after her classes were finished for the day, she wandered slowly home enjoying the pleasures of the soft countryside around her. She loved the outdoors and everything to do with nature. More often than not, having first obtained permission from the staff, she would go for a walk by herself.
She was rarely lonely at such times. The trees and flowers were very special to her, and she knew the names of most of them by heart.
Living in her own dream world, as she did, it was never long before she had invented some situation to match her mood, and she was able to occupy herself for hours.
But it did not follow that Mandy was completely happy. How could she be? She had neither mother nor father and not even memories of them to sustain here.
She occasionally experienced sad, disturbing feelings. Sometimes she felt an ache inside her that would not go away. It seemed then as though were life were very empty.
She would cry for no reason at all, seemingly, and it frightened her when she did. She tried to be brave and put away her feelings.
“I’m having one of my attacks again,” she would think, trying hard not to let people see her tears.
Her attempts to keep busy were mostly an effort to fill her life so that she had not time to feel disconsolate. But the nagging sadness was persistent, and it would envelop her when she least expected it.
Was this a book my mom had read to me or had I read it to myself? At what age did she stop reading? I know she read to me from Little House in the Big Woods because I remember straining to sit up and look over her arm to see the picture of the children playing with the balloon they’d made from a pig’s bladder. Did I read Little House on the Prairie the first time to myself or did she read it to me?
How could I have read this passage and not shared it with others, saying, this is me! Maybe it was a case of the fish not knowing what water was, maybe I let my feelings stay projected on Mandy. How could I be so stunned now to recognize a little girl having the same feelings I did and not have felt the same shock as a young girl reading the same words?
Years and years later, when I was in college, I would give my mother my favorite book at that time, The Annunciation by Ellen Gilchrist, eager to share this treasure with her, but for some reason, she didn’t like it, and I just didn’t understand. We loved so many of the same books. I had been sure she would love that one, too. I had thought I knew my mom, but clearly I did not.
It wasn’t until recently, after coming out of the fog of living as though having a first mother and being given up for adoption was not the access point around which my life revolved that I realized The Annunciation was about a young woman who was confused and lost. A young, adopted woman.
So many of my favorite book, Mandy, The Secret Garden, Pippi Longstocking, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, The House at World’s End, all had characters who had lost their parents, and yet I don’t remember ever talking about this with my mom.
I think this was the disconnect: I think we were working from the assumption that I had parents. Yes, I was adopted, but that was over. Adoption was an event, a thing that had involved social workers, paperwork, a lawyer, and waiting time. It involved hope and some money. It involved, I would later find, finding a friend who knew someone since the first try to adopt was rejected. It would involve a woman who decades later, when I found her and called her on the phone would tell me I had the wrong person, that she, in fact, had not given birth to me when, in fact, she had. But that’s another story.
This story was that I had been adopted. Full story.
What I am writing about here is how confusing the brain of an adopted child is to me. How did I live and not talk about adoption with my parents as I read these books? How did we not talk about Mandy over the dinner table? How did we not talk about the possibility that one day I, too, could write my story in the effort of discovering lost elements of my past, such as who my (what words to I use here? Not real. And yet real.) parents were?
It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I carefully read all the papers in my adoption file which was kept along with my brothers’ adoption files and other old paperwork my parents kept stored in a metal storage container tucked away in a cupboard. It was then I saw a name that was not the name I had. I showed my mother. “Oh, I must have forgotten about that.” she said. “They left that there by mistake. It was supposed to be x’d out.”
But this is not what I want to write about here.
I want to write about Mandy and her cottage and the man on the horse and her rescue.
In the story, Mandy finds climbs over a wall one day and discovers an apple orchard, a seemingly deserted property, and, best of all, a tiny cottage with a tiny fireplace and a room whose walls are covered in seashells. Mandy takes this house as her own, sneaking away every day to tend the ragged yard, to wash the curtains in her little house, to build a fire, boil water, make herself tea.
She had found her home and she was so happy.
But. But her home was a secret from her friends and the matron and the others at the orphanage.
But. But she had to steal to have this life that she wanted. Mandy stole silverware from the orphanage, soap flakes, clippers to cut the grass.
But. But this home was something that also created anxiety because as soon as someone found out, it would not be hers any more.
And then one day, a gift showed up from An Admirer. It was a plant for her garden. Mandy had fantasies that the admirer was a prince, and that one day he wouldl ride up on his horse and rescue her.
And then one day there were big footprints in her little cottage. Mandy continued to fantasize about rescue.
And then one day her thievery was discovered by the matron, and, as punishment, she was forbidden to leave the orphanage for a week except to to to school and her work. Mandy, already sick, snuck away to the cottage in what turned out to be an awful storm. Drenched, cold, distraught, Mandy landed back at the cottage delirious with fever.
There were dark shadows all around her. And a shape in the corner, like a man. Arms raised high.
But this is my house, she thought. Get out. Oh, please, don’t frighten me so. Stop this spinning in my head. The pain in my chest. This noise. Will someone come from the orphanage? Will they know that I’ve gone out into the storm? But no one will know where to look for me.
Mandy’s panic was suddenly so great that she managed to stumble to her feet. She had to get away from the cottage. She must somehow get home.
She flung the shell-room door wide and was greeted by a blast of icy hair and sheets of rain driving in through the open front door.
The lighting split the sky once more, and it was too much for Mandy. Too frightened now and too ill to go anywhere, she sank to the floor, her hands over her ears to shut out the fury and the noise all around her.
“Mummy,” she hear herself crying. “Oh, Mummy.”
And then black spinning darkness engulfed her.
It turned out that a charming couple, Bill and Ann, and their fourteen-year-old son Jonathan (who attends boarding school) had recently bought the property, an estate that had been in Bill’s family for generations but that had fallen into neglect and disrepair, and Bill, the secret admirer, had seen Mandy tending to what she had claimed as her garden and house and had wanted to give the little orphan girl (my words) gifts and the freedom to continue to spend time in her fantasy world.
Back at the orphanage, Mandy’s disappearance was discovered and her best friend who knew about the cottage told the matron where to look for the missing girl. Matron calls Bill and Ann, and although the storm rages and it is dark night, Bill gets on his horse and races to the rescue.
He gathers up the delirious Mandy, tucks her in close, and canters home where Ann, a seeming angel of mercy, helps mothers her to health.
I’d like to talk about money here. When I was a kid, I used to fantasize that my mother was a queen. I loved to think that I had come from royalty, and that my life there in a house with peeling paint was, while my home, a place on many levels I adored, was also not my real house, and that someday I would be rescued and brought home to the castle.
That meant. of course, that I would lose this house with the peeling paint. A fact that kept me, perhaps from ever fully claiming it as mine, from ever feeling fully as if I belonged.
In the book, there are a few lines where Bill and Ann talk about their finances. Buying this estate was a stretch for them, they say, and they talk about being worried about the expense, but the fact is, they are rich and essentially Mandy was brought into a castle—not just brought, carried in by a near-prince on horseback. At one point during a celebratory dinner where Ann had filled the room with candles, Bill says something about the fact that she must have spent that and next week’s allowance, and she nodded, smiling, and he was also smiling. Expenses be damned! Let the candles burn!
So I had the feeling money wasn’t really an issue, especially since at Christmas Bill and Ann showered Mandy will all sorts of wonderful gifts, including a small gold ring with her initials carved into it. (What’s interesting is that Mandy’s last name is never mentioned, and we never see a picture of the ring, and so her initials, for the reader, have to be M.)
I think this story is a dangerous narrative for an adoptee, never mind any girl, to carry with her into adulthood: one day you will be rescued, adopted (yes!! It’s true!! Bill and Ann arrive at the orphanage late one night after she had returned to claim Mandy as their own if she would have them!) and treated like a princess.
Virginia Woolf wrote that, to write fiction (and, I would argue, to thrive in general) women need a room of their own and some money. Mandy was about a girl creating her own life through the act of claiming a room of her own, but that action was superseded by the fact that she was a young girl who could not support herself and was therefore in need of rescue. Hence the man on horse. Hence the angel-like mother. Hence the house so large it had multiple secret passages.
I am still waiting for the man on the horse, but less so.
I live now at Spirit Hill Farm, and I live like Mandy. I am in a small house that feels like it was made just for me, but it is not mine. I tend to a garden that needs care, and I love all the plants. I love the dirt. I love the animals, the birds and the ants and the maybe, one day, the gophers (right now I am fighting the impulse to poison them before they eat all the roots of all the plants, but I’m writing about fairly tales here and so the gopher business doesn’t fit. Let’s keep it pretty for the sake of the story.)
In this place I have the space to create. I can grow things. I can write. I can develop friendships. I can, in the solitude of working out under the sky, have the space to get to know and love myself, but if I am thinking that rescue is an option, that this life should not be enough for me, that a woman or a girl in the dirt with the birds needs more, then I am in trouble, for I am no longer entirely here. I am in limbo, waiting.
As an adoptee, I have lived in limbo since, I imagine, the moment I was born and was not handed to my mother. I have lived in a place of waiting, of not this, not here, not now.
Any spiritual teacher will tell you that the power we have is in the present moment, that now is where potential resides, that is where god is, where we are, where we can meet others truthfully, fully, and with love. If we have our face turned to the past, we are eating and breathing story, and story side-steps the present moment. We live in a way that shells our heart, gives us a protective coating, makes us unreachable because we have not agreed to now. We are not really here. We are hard and you can not find the softness of our heart because we have covered it with no.
I don’t think my mother and I could have talked about my adoption while reading Mandy together because the feelings I had about myself and my life were an inchoate mass in my brain. I do think, however, that my mother could have read me a story that would have fed my future, a story like Mandy without the man on the horse, the rich adoptive parents, the happily ever after. The only catch is that, as far as I can tell, that story doesn’t exist yet.
In Mandy, after Bill and Ann say they want to adopt her, Bill tells her the cottage is hers now, and Mandy tells him she wants, instead, to give it to the other children in the orphanage.
She doesn’t need a room of her own any more. She has been rescued.
I hate that story. I also, of course, love it.
To live in a big house and to not have to worry! To run from room to room knowing there are parents who love you, an older brother to play with, a warm bed to climb into at night, a cook to make you snacks during the day. Heaven! Only…only…there is the small issue of the other parents. Of Mummy. Of the fact that these parents are called Bill and Ann. And that this house that you live in is not really yours because these parents are not really yours.
To live with that kind of gelatinous foundation in your life can lead to so many problems.
We need more children’s book about adopted kids that show the hero’s journey of the child who loses their parents and yet finds themselves in an exiting, truthful, helpful way.
I need that book. I need to see that path of the healthy, engaged, fully-realized adopted person.
Clarissa Pinkola Estés, an adoptee, wrote The Women Who Runs with the Wolves.
I wish she would write The Adoptee Who Runs with the Wolves.
I want to hear that story.
Both Mandy and The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles were written by Julie Andrews (Yes, that one. The actress.)
After writing this piece, I was told that Julie Andrews is an adoptive parent.
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