She still sleeps with the lights on.
But can’t forget the dark.
Children tied to beds.
And her days as a little girl “lost.”
“I’m 66 but it’s like I’m still that kid,” says Linda Gray-LeBlanc, looking through the rain-streaked windows of her living room to the corridors of her past.
Fading photos and haunting memories fill her Halifax apartment, near the former Halifax Protestant Orphanage that felt like a prison but also a sanctuary from the alcoholism, beatings and squalor of home.
And she cries, like she did long before she moved there; long after she left the four-storey building on Veith Street, where Leonard Chater looked out another window and sang himself to sleep, long ago.
Today, preschool children happily play in the rambling 91-year-old building where Gray-LeBlanc remembers spankings with a wooden paddle, being tied her to bed in a straight-jacket, having her head submerged in bathwater.
She was seven.
Chater was five when neighbourhood children shouted “orphans, orphans, orphans” and threw rocks through the wrought iron gates.
When matrons forced him to stand in corners, arms high and heavy “until it hurt pretty hard.”
When he and his brother Bill, seven, soothed themselves to sleep to the rocking of a deformed child, the breaths of other boys in their beds, the beats of flashing lights across the harbour.
Singing Esso, Esso—a neon lullaby in a desolate new world.
“We’d sit there for hours and we’d just watch this sign reflect on the water,” remembers the 64-year-old retired postal worker, whose youngest sister Grace slept in the girls’ dorm below. “I remember falling asleep there and waking up on the floor. It was hard for us, we missed our previous life…the switch just turned off and we were moved to another planet.”
But today he and others come back. A “pilgrimage of sorts, for peace,” says Tamsyn Brennan, executive director of Veith House, a community centre for low-income families, in the building that housed the orphanage from 1924 to 1969.
Staff have been trying to help them find it, developing a memorial room, documenting their stories and Brennan hopes one day, organizing a reunion for the parentless, abandoned or abused children who once felt alone and afraid.
“There’s no one who doesn’t want the best for the kids who lived here,” she says of the memorial room that started eight years ago when an elderly woman walked outside staff member Monica Marsh’s office, fell to her knees and sobbed.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” says Marsh. Her cluttered, cheerful office used to be the orphanage’s quarantine room, what kids called “the horror room.” She soon learned what they endured and wanted to help them heal.
For Gray-LeBlanc, that room (doors locked, lights out, a bucket to pee in for her first two weeks in the facility) is the first trace of the scar. “We were so isolated,” she recalls. Officials believed the quarantine room could prevent the spread of disease or lice.
“Utter cruelty,” even to those overseeing the facility, according to minutes from a March 1958 “ladies committee” meeting she found decades later.
“We weren’t allowed out and we slept in the dark and that is [behind] a lot of my phobias,” says the Halifax mother-of-two, grandmother-of-four, placed there with five of her 15 siblings in 1957. “I’ve got to have a clear window. And I can’t have my doors closed. Never….If I go into the hospital, they can’t pull that curtain around me because I start panicking.”
She’s panicked too about the paddling, punishment for everything from wetting the bed to being rambunctious. The bed restraints. The night a matron pushed her head under bathwater for not placing soap on a ledge.
“She was holding me there and I was screaming and gasping for breath and [the head matron] came in and caught her and she lifted me out of the tub and…they fired her right on the spot,” she recalls. “I never forgot that.”
Chater can’t forget his first moments there, like walking into The Wizard of Oz. “It’s black and white and when she opens the door…everything’s colour and it’s like a new awareness…a milestone in my life.”
So were those catcalls from other kids, running sticks along the fence, clacking back and forth as they chanted “orphans” and threw rocks as he clung to his big brother Bill. “I couldn’t understand why they would do this,” he says. “I was kind of scared but I started to realize that we were different.”
Different, since that night, just before Christmas 1956: his Navy father out to sea, he and his siblings in bed when he woke up to see his mother, sick with an internal disorder, coughing up blood and crawling on the floor.
“I remember her being rolled out on the ambulance and she put her hand up and she grabbed the ambulance guy’s arm to stop and she looked over at me and we caught eye-to-eye and she smiled and then her arm dropped and they took her out.”
She died that night. His father came home to bury his wife and place three of his children in the orphanage. Not an uncommon scenario, says Brennan. They were called “orphans” but many still had one or more of their parents, forced to give them up for economic or other reasons.
Chater was too young to understand the reasons but now, like others, he has a complex, forgiving outlook on a place he believes was of its time.
In many ways, it was much better than what followed.
The Ontario man still has scars inside his lip from regular beatings by his paternal grandmother, who he says eventually helped raise the kids, including his oldest sister Anne, who hadn’t been in the orphanage. He can still see the welts from a belt rising on the back of his sisters’ legs and naked bums, and feel the searing slice of leather on his own legs and behind.
Gray-LeBlanc’s book (I Was Called “That Foster Kid”) recounts harrowing details of her years in foster homes, emotional cruelty and sexual abuse that lead to depression so deep she was hospitalized for a year.
Memories of her alcoholic parents torment her too: her mother’s drunken rages and beatings. The neglect of her younger siblings: she once changed her baby sister’s maggot-filled diaper. The cockroach and mice-infested apartment. And the constant hunger. “I don’t remember a meal.”
So they have other stories to tell.
But for now, Brennan and Marsh hope they’re helping them close at least one painful chapter. “I’ve never seen anyone who’s been here …leave upset,” Brennan says. “They usually leave very at peace and happy they’ve come.”
And she invites more to return.
When he returned last summer, Chater felt like that little boy once more. He choked up walking along the fence. But felt comfort again, standing by the window in what’s now the memorial room, rickety old wooden lockers retrieved from the basement, pictures of orphanage children on the walls, cozy chairs for quiet reflection.
“I closed my eyes and I could just see that” old Esso sign in Dartmouth, he says. “[It’s] gone now, but I could see the letters lighting up at night.”