RECOVERING FROM ABUSE AT HALIFAX PROTESTANT ORPHANAGE BRINGS THE MCLELLAN FAMILY TOGETHER
Other children called her orphan. And made fun of her clothes.
Adults forced her to eat “slop” and made her little brothers cry.
Joan Wilson cried too, almost every day, when she was eight.
But the Halifax woman is also grateful.
She wasn’t kept in closets or beaten with belts or tied to her bed like children from earlier generations. But her time in the former Halifax Protestant Orphanage left a mark on her and her mother Elaine Mclellan, who can’t forget having to place five of her children there for nine months almost 50 years ago.
Elaine can still see her then-six-year-old son Danny alone in the dark, lying by his dinner plate, when she came to visit.
She can still hear Joan crying on the phone, wanting to come home.
And Joan can still see matrons forcing Danny to wash his sheets after he’d wet the bed. Or forcing her to sleep by her own plate when she couldn’t choke down orphanage food.
“They were mean,” she says, sitting next to her mother in the 77-year-old’s Halifax apartment, remembering the matrons (female staff who enforced the rules).
They laugh a little, reminiscing about old times.
But it hurts too, flashing back and forth through the decades. And missing the one family member who’s no longer here: Elaine’s son Melvin killed himself six years ago. They don’t know why.
Like others tied to this former Halifax institution, founded in 1857 and closed in 1970, their family’s story is a web of hard choices and difficult circumstances.
And it’s as much about what came before and after as their connection to the building, which is now the site of Veith House, a community centre where former residents sometimes return, trying to make peace with the past.
That’s hard to do, as others—beaten with belts or paddles, tied all night to their beds, forced for hours in corners and closets—have previously told Halifax Magazine. (See “Confronting their demons” in July 2015 and “Stolen childhood” in April 2017).
Many of the children weren’t really orphans; their parents were too poor or sick or addicted to take care of them.
Mclellan sent her children there after leaving her alcoholic husband and trying, without success, to keep them together with extended family while she searched for a place to live. “Nobody would help me,” she says, perhaps the story of her life.
Her mother beat her. Her father drank. She married an alcoholic when she was 20 and they had five children. She married three more times after that and has another son from her second marriage.
Her childhood, and much of what came after, still makes her angry.
“My mother beat me every time I turned around,” she says, surrounded by pictures of her mother and father, her siblings, her children and grandchildren. “Hit me in the head or slap me in the face, [or use] broomsticks.”
Her father didn’t hit her. But he raged against invisible enemies, haunted by memories from the Second World War.
And she was scared.
She’d run and hide when he came home drunk, lashing out at people who weren’t there. “You goddamn Germans, I’m going to kill you,” he’d scream, eight metal clips in his head to mend the shrapnel wounds that came when his buddy was “blown to bits.”
It ricocheted through the decades.
He’d take “spells” and pass out.
He’d drink and lash out.
Her mother could calm him. But not herself.
Elaine married early, to escape. But the pattern of drinking continued. So in 1968 she left her husband and placed her children in the orphanage so they wouldn’t be separated.
And years later Joan had children of her own and soothed these and other childhood memories with drink.
Her orphanage memories come in “bits and pieces”: crushed tomatoes and boiled bread, “slop,” that matrons forced her to eat; the turnips that still make her sick.
The regimented days and nights. Asking permission to pee, permission to go outside, permission to leave the table.
“You could sit there until the next day,” if you didn’t finish the meals, she recalls. “I’d fall asleep at the table….I remember waking up in the morning and then it’s breakfast time.”
She learned to get sneaky: “At first I was hiding it in my napkins and then they caught onto that so then you wouldn’t get a napkin…After that I learned to bury it in the garbage because they left you there…I always remember being alone, no one to talk to.”
The stigma was also isolating.
“The kids would walk by the fence and just make fun of you: ‘orphans’ or ‘you’re scruffy’ and just mean things,” she says. “The kids in school knew where you came from because…clothing was whatever they got for donation so like nothing matched. I remember talking to mom and crying all the time and asking her every time she called ‘have we got a place yet? Have we got a place yet?’”
Matrons never hit them, she says, but “there was always fear that you were going to get into trouble.”
Some of her worst memories aren’t about herself.
She thinks of Danny, washing his soiled bed sheets or sitting all day in punishment rooms.
She remembers how they treated a developmentally-disabled child.
“They picked on him a lot,” she says. “They were very mean to him…I remember them grabbing him, pulling him by his arm, if he cried they would put him up in the dorm.”
Kids rarely played outside, she says, or with toys, which were allowed only on their birthdays when matrons let them pick out something from a toy room “filled to the brim.”
She picked hand-sized pink and blue cases with tiny dolls and carriages inside. “Now there you go,” the matron told her. “You’ve got two dolls that can play with each other.”
“But I don’t ever remember playing with them,” Joan says. “Where did they go?”
The orphanage itself is mostly a mystery to her oldest brother John. He knows he ran away once but doesn’t remember why. He recalls matrons forcing him to eat food he hated, but not much else.
They both remember fragments of kindness: from a cook, from several matrons, from a woman who told them ghost stories. “That’s part of my life, it will never go away,” Joan says of that time.
“I cried every day the kids were in the orphanage,” says her mother. “I’d talk to Joan and she’d be crying and it was like ‘oh my God I’ve got to get my kids out of here.’”
She eventually did. But it lingers. “Mom’s felt guilty a long time,” Joan says. “We used to tell her ‘mom don’t ever feel bad about the decision you had to make.’”
“But I still feel bad,” Elaine says.
John, on the phone from his Ontario home, says she shouldn’t.
“We told her ‘mom you did what you had to do for the good of the family,’” he says. “She kept us together as a family … and we are a close family and …you can’t say much more than that for a mom trying to take care of her kids.”
Joan, sober for 15 years, regrets not taking better care of her own. “I worked and I drank, that was my life,” she says “I was never home.”
But she’s raising one of her grandchildren now, trying to give her the childhood she and her mother didn’t have.
“Life can toughen you I guess,” she says, as both women soften, smiling, talking about their “perfect” little girl. “She’s my redemption…It’s my turn to do it right.”