Fiction: The Orphans

The orphans cannot possibly finish all that is on their plates. And they never do–their husbands or teenaged children help them, the same children who were told a few years ago your eyes are bigger than your stomach. These children are all taller than the orphans, with big shoulders and sturdy feet, raised as they were on the American food the orphans learned to cook in Home Ec once they had mastered English.

The orphans graduated to the wonders of the toasted English muffin, Campbell’s soup, canned tunafish mixed with Hellman’s mayonnaise, peanut butter and jelly, fresh fruit, chocolate milk, and all of the other food that a grateful nation enjoyed when War was over, ration cards forgotten, and none more grateful (and not just because they were constantly told they must be grateful) than the orphans—who ceased keeping kosher when they realized no parents were coming to get them from the Children’s Home.

The orphans now love to entertain and throw multi-course dinner parties for any holiday. They hug visitors and show them around. They intuit that the colonial look is unfitting somehow, that modern design suits them, and they are very house-proud. No photos of their own childhoods are displayed on the piano.

The orphans read magazines for recipes, decorating ideas, and parenting advice (How to Listen to Children!) and with the Super8 camera their husbands bought, they take home movies of the children in Halloween costumes, little kittens and ghosts clutching orange UNICEF boxes.

When the orphans go to each other’s homes for lunch, when it’s just say, three of them at a kitchen table in a nook in the New Jersey sun, they share one can of tuna on toast among the three of them, a one-slice sandwich for each, followed by coffee and a communal piece of pie, with the rest left over for when the kids come home from school.

The orphans speak excellent idiomatic American English, having arrived when the palate is still malleable enough to shed or gain an accent. Only sometimes in a restaurant while ordering from the menu do precise French or German accents emerge so one can hear the sounds of where they were born. At the beauty salon, the PTA, or the tennis court, they politely avoid queries about their own childhoods.

Their children read comic books and stay up late for The Man From Uncle, but are not allowed to watch Hogan’s Heroes. The children of the orphans haven’t been told their whole story, and plenty of other people don’t have grandparents.

The orphans feel something they cannot name when they go into a bakery or a small Upper West Side lingerie shop or luggage store and see an older person behind the counter whose arm wears faded blue numbers. They cannot ask Did you know my father, my aunts? Inside them a tiny voice almost calls out Mutti, Mutti, Mutti. The children of the orphans call them Hey, Mom.