Unpacking memories of Christmas past Suitcase was security for ex-ward of state

ATLANTA — ATLANTA -- When she was 8, she became a mother. Not in the physical sense, but a mother nevertheless.

Her own mother -- a dear woman who used to keep them dressed in such pretty dresses, their curly hair in bows -- died suddenly that year of pneumonia. They were living in Charlotte, N.C., in that big old Victorian house, during the Depression, before penicillin. She remembers the doctor and his black bag and how sorry he was when he told them there was nothing he could do.


"It was a loving home," Betty Glover, 63, now of Rockdale County, Ga., was saying. Her father used to take them for ice cream and to the park and even to Wimpy's occasionally for a hamburger. But after their mother died, it was all so different.

Her father lost his job, and suddenly she was no longer attending school but spending the days at home taking care of her sisters, 5 and 6, and their blind grandfather while their father looked for work. The old man always asked her the time, and Betty learned how to tell it on the old grandfather clock.


It was not long before "the woman in black" first appeared at their door. She took one look at the dirty waifs, the peanut butter crackers Betty was feeding everyone, and told them to start packing. "We didn't even know how to pack," Betty recalls.

The woman gave each girl a brown cardboard suitcase with ties around it. And like lambs to the slaughter, the girls packed some things and dutifully followed the stern woman to her car. There was no warmth, no explanation. There never would be. "We didn't know we were leaving forever," she says.

In the ensuing years, there would be orphanages and foster homes.

There was the farm home where an elderly couple needed the little girls to help pick cotton, which they did bare-footed, until they became anemic.

There was the home where an adult mentally retarded son chased the girls with pitchforks and once held Betty's head under creek water until she nearly drowned before her feisty sister, Anne, jumped on his back.

And there was always the woman in black coming to take them somewhere new.

Of the two Christmases Betty remembers best, the first was at the Thompson orphanage in Charlotte. By now, their suitcases had become a symbol of security.

"We would always run and look under each other's bed to see if their suitcase was still there," she said. Their greatest fear was of being separated.


A church group was coming and the girls had been told Santa Claus would pay a visit. Betty asked for a pair of skates. Caroline a special doll. Anne, a Sonja Henie doll. (Miss Henie was a champion figure skater from Norway.)

The church group came, all dressed in their fur coat finery, keeping their distance from the raggedy orphans, but bringing their own well-dressed children to stare. When the girls awoke Christmas morning, they found stockings filled with a bar of soap, a washcloth and a toothbrush.

The church group had brought them rag dolls.

"They were grotesque, handmade, with no underwear and arms that hung down to their feet," Betty said. "But they became very dear to us."

For the next two years, they would pack the dolls in their suitcases, each day longing for their mother and father. As we sat recently in Betty's home, where a grandfather clock gently ticked away the time, she showed me a picture her nephew had drawn of Anne and Caroline sitting atop the orphanage slide. The girls sat there often, watching for their father.

"We kept thinking, sometime he's going to come and get us. I was the one they always asked, 'When's Daddy coming?' I would say, 'Soon.' "


Their father did show up once at the chain-link fence, and they got a brief glimpse of him before he was chased away by the staff. They would not see him again for years.

"Sometimes when I think about it, rather than taking us away, they should have helped him," Betty was saying. "He never abused us." Only the system did that. "We felt dirty and unloved and rejected."

Some things never change, she was saying. You hear the same tragic stories about children, abandoned by their parents, only to be bounced from foster home to foster home. She sees herself in the saddened eyes of unloved children, her story in the story of others.

Today Betty is a mother and grandmother, still with curls, now gray. She wishes more people reached out to children who have no one. She speaks ever so softly but sometimes wants to grab parents by the throat and shout, "look what you're doing to your kids."

"Children don't need all these material goods," she was saying. "Children need two things -- a sense of security and a sense of love. If they have that, they can face the world."

The last time Betty and her sisters saw the woman in black was the day she deposited them with a couple who planned to keep them a week and wound up loving them a lifetime. Mother Nye, as the girls would call her, was a gentle woman of few words and unlimited kindness.


"She gave us back our dignity," Betty said.

Those first weeks, she sewed them new clothes and Daddy Nye propped them on a chair and cut their hair. He told them when he finished, they'd look like movie stars.

Mother Nye had had their suitcases packed at the end of that first week, but Betty and her sisters were fortunate. The system lost track of them; they never saw the woman in black again.

One day, after school, they found Mother Nye burning their suitcases in the old barrel she often used to burn leaves and trash. Their clothes, for the first time, had been neatly arranged in a chest of drawers.

"She didn't say a word. She just had this little half smile."

Eventually, the Nyes would send the girls to college, and Betty's sister, Anne, would write a book of tribute to them, aptly named, "Suitcases."


That first Christmas with the Nyes is the one Betty remembers best. The smell of turkey and pies, the cedar and pine Mother Nye had arranged on the mantle, the tree they cut down on Christmas Eve.

"She always had this twinkle in her eye. She kept saying, 'You've got to tell Santa Claus what you want.' "

When they awoke Christmas morning, Betty found her skates, Anne her Sonja Henie doll, Caroline her special doll. Their stockings were filled with fruits and candies.

"I think that's when I finally believed that I belonged," Betty was saying. "That someone really loved me."