Litter of Angels
ISABELLE ROCHELLE DONHELLE. If you can believe it, that’s really my name. My parents absolutely adore it, and not surprisingly, I detest it. I’ve always considered it to be the creatively bland and tragically comedic outcome of my parents’ painfully oblivious concoction. I prefer to go by ‘Bella,’ but even that is an uncomfortable stretch for me. I know what you’re thinking though: “why doesn’t she just change it?” Well, that’s just what the problem here is, isn’t it?
My parents have always been proud of me, and I was almost proud of myself too until about a week ago. It’s funny how self-esteem can take a nosedive so quickly, when given the right opportunities. And even though things have gone about as downhill as they can, I’ll bet my parents would still be proud of me right now. From the outside, most people would probably call it unconditional love; from where I’ve been standing for most of my life, I’d just call them nuts. The kind of nuts you want to avoid like an allergic reaction.
If my parents had been telling this story, instead of me, they’d probably be proud of it too.
The Donhelles live in the small town of Ville Constance. That’s in northern Quebec. Ville Constance’s origins are believed to be tied to Saint Constantina, but all indications point to its literal meaning, ‘Constant City,’ as being a far more accurate interpretation of its history. Nothing ever seemed to change much in Ville Constance.
My father worked at the local paper mill, along with most of the other fathers in town. He worked hard and tirelessly to put food on our table. Mom didn’t work; she cleaned the house and cooked all day. Every day. I’d be willing to bet that our house was the cleanest house in all of Quebec, maybe even in all of Canada. There was always the aroma of food in our home, but the smell of warm pastries, soups and meatloaf was vastly overpowered by the smell of cleaning products. When Mom took another pie out of the oven, no one could tell if it was apple, blueberry, lemon, rose or pine.
She was never diagnosed, but my mother was an obvious obsessive-compulsive. One of the most traumatic events I can remember from my childhood was the day I placed my glass of orange juice on the coffee table without setting the cork coaster down first. She totally freaked out. To this day, I cannot bring myself to put anything on any coffee tables for fear of something ruining the finish. I don’t remember losing my first tooth, or getting my first ‘A’ in school, but I certainly remember The Great Coaster Incident.
They might sound a touch cliché, but those were my parents. The stern, burly father who works assiduously in the factory sixty hours a week, and comes home to find his pipe, slippers and daily sports page waiting for him beside his favorite chair. The happy little homemaker who makes her kid tuna fish sandwiches for school lunches, takes all the drapes down three times a week for a thorough cleaning and is never seen in the kitchen without her trademark pink apron on. The one with the word ‘MOM’ stitched right on the front. I certainly didn’t notice any of their faults when I was a kid; I loved them no matter what. I still love them today, but those annoying habits and eccentricities that went unnoticed when I was twelve-years-old have flared up to near-horrific proportions. We’re talking Mothra-like magnitude.
It’s as though I could stick my hand into a hat filled with quirks, foibles and idiosyncrasies, and Mom and Dad could match any one I drew. Here we go: Dad, you get incessant throat-clearing, involuntary use of the speaking voice while reading and complete unawareness of anyone within twenty feet of you during a hockey game; and Mom, you get washing the floors at three AM, spying on the neighbors at night from the second floor with the lights off and the ability to refer to anybody as ‘sweetheart.’ Anybody at all. The paperboy. Her gynecologist. Even the Prime Minister when she met him once. And here, you two can fight over unnatural flatulence.
As far as brothers and sisters went, I could never keep track. You see, there was an orphanage just down the street from us, and they were constantly running out of space for the children. So the orphanage struck a deal with my parents, and Mom and Dad took one or two of the kids off their hands for days, weeks or even months at a time. And just so the children didn’t get the feeling that they had it better than any of the others, the orphanage took them back in, and gave us another one. This exchange happened every week or so. I imagine that it couldn’t have been too good for the well being of the kids, but they seemed to like coming to the Donhelle home, even if it was only for a day or two. And nobody else asked any questions or ever showed much concern over the entire situation. In the time that I lived at home, I must have seen three hundred different children sleeping in the spare room next to mine. Three hundred different siblings sitting across from me at the dinner table. Three hundred different brothers and sisters stinking up the bathroom in the morning before I left for school.
For a while I thought that maybe I was just another orphan myself, the one kid that the orphanage didn’t want back. I presumed that my parents kept up the whole ‘child intern’ cover in order to make me feel special. Of course, whenever I thought of this scenario, it only ever made me feel worse about myself. Was I really an only child, or was I just one more from the litter of angels?
If I hadn’t been an only child.
I did form some close bonds with a small number of the kids we looked after. I even did what I could to find families for them. I put up posters on telephone poles and at school on the wanted board. I made flyers that I delivered to random houses, apartment buildings and local businesses, hoping that someone out there would consider something that they might not have otherwise thought about. I included hand-drawn pictures and biographies of some of my favorites in an effort that they might be chosen. However, some of them unintentionally started to sound like ads for used cars:
“Annie. A radiant little six-year old who loves pancakes and soda crackers. She’ll warm your home and melt your heart. Just passed her check-up.”
“Daniel. Nine years of age. Sporty. Enjoys bedtime stories and baseball. Speaks with fluent Sir’s and Maam’s. Claustrophobic. Has a small scar on his forehead, but no serious damage.”
“Looking for a new owner: Monique. Dark-skin with green eyes. Eight years old, and still runs like new. Very quiet, clean, reliable. Pigtails are optional.”
Daniel and Annie had subsequently been snatched up by brand-new loving parents, but poor Monique was still there when I left home for university. Honestly, I don’t know which kids were happier though; the ones that eventually left the orphanage or the ones that stayed there. And I don’t know which ones I was happier for.
The one kid in particular that I can still remember quite clearly is Antonia. A chubby little girl who had nowhere else in the world she’d rather be than at the Donhelle house. She was actually taken in by my parents dozens of times, which was unusual since I only saw any of my siblings two or three times in my life.
I remember one time when Antonia had come upstairs to unload her bag in the spare bedroom. She was crying, but this was the usual routine with her. There was always some kind of problem with Antonia.
If Antonia had been telling this story, she’d only have cried about it.
I asked her, “What’s wrong now Antonia?”
“Ostrich,” she said to me.
“They call me Ostrich at the orphanage.” She sat on the bed and wiped the tears from her mouth so she could speak without slurring. “Everyone gets a nickname they said, so I’m Ostrich.”
I sat down next to her. We’d had these kinds of talks before. The last time she cried was because Tommy Hamil told her that food had gone missing from the orphanage. My brother Tommy accused my sister Antonia of stealing the food and hiding it in her pillowcase for a late-night snack.
“Ostrich isn’t so bad,” I told her.
“Michel Bourdon said that the ostrich is the fattest of all birds. That’s why it can’t fly. Just like me.”
Michel Bourdon? He was here just last week, sleeping in this very bed, I thought to myself. “Have you ever seen Michel Bourdon fly, Antonia?” I asked her. A line of drool dripped from the crease of her mouth onto the bed sheet. My mental countdown had started; I knew Mom would have the sheets changed and put into the wash in less than ten minutes.
“No.” Antonia looked up at me, wide-eyed, as if just realizing something important. She had a habit of always believing the very last thing anyone ever said to her. So I fed her another one.
“What’s his nickname?” I asked.
A bubble of saliva popped from her lips. “Pipes.”
Seriously? Pipes? Was this an orphanage or the mafia? “Well, you just tell Michel that a pipe can’t do anything but sit and rust, okay?” That probably wasn’t the best line I could’ve fed her, but it was quite likely she’d just forget it anyway. “Okay Antonia?”
“Yeah, okay,” she said, her eyes lighting up with delight. Running to leave the room, Antonia turned back to me to double check her facts. “Pipes can’t fly either, right?”
“I’ve never seen one fly,” I told her.
She giggled a little to herself, and dashed out into the hallway and down the stairs. It took me a few minutes before I could pull myself off that bed. I wondered how many lies Antonia must have had to believe to get through just one day at that orphanage. And how many lies I would have to tell her just to keep her there; to keep her as far away as possible from the world outside that I knew she wouldn’t ever be able to handle on her own. To keep her inside the safest nest I could find. There couldn’t possibly be a better place for her than that.
Antonia would never be willing to change. I knew that. As much as I would have liked her to, I realized then the truth was that some people were willing to change, and some people weren’t. It’s as simple as that. I never told Antonia how I really felt, because I knew deep down she really just wanted to belong. And what kind of big sister would I have been if I had ever denied her of those dreams?