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A Shout From The Attic: Cinderella Children

...For a short time, I tasted the sweetness of being regarded as an object of pity, and that was the allure of being a Cinderella Child...

Ronnie Bray tells of a small wartime effort to help children whose fathers were serving in the armed forces or died in the conflict.

Cinderella Children

...For a short time, I tasted the sweetness of being regarded as an object of pity, and that was the allure of being a Cinderella Child...

Ronnie Bray tells of a small wartime effort to help children whose fathers were serving in the armed forces or died in the conflict.

Each year during the war, the Huddersfield Cinderella Society gave a Christmas present to the children who had either no parents, or a father serving in the Armed Forces of the Crown. Although René and I were unaware at the time, we had a father serving in the Royal Engineers in the Western desert as part of Montgomery’s Eighth Army. Otherwise, my stepfather was as remote from me as to be non-existent in any sense of having a father at all. My own father I knew only by reputation, all bad, delivered from time to time as chastisement for being like him, for having all his vices and none of his few virtues.

However, since I was almost five when war broke out and just a few months older then ten when it finished, I may, perhaps, be excused if I was less than honest when it came time to hand out tickets for the function. The schoolteacher asked, “Who doesn’t have a father, or has one in the army, navy, or air force?” I found myself joining the queue at the front of the class. There was no attempt made to spare anyone’s blushes or feelings.

On the prescribed Saturday morning in December, I joined the long line of children in Market Street, waiting for the Ritz cinema to let us in. There were hundreds of us, each bound to the other by sadness and a sense of loss that were more pervasive by the voicelessness of children of that era. This was a silence of the lambs, in which deep and unnamed feelings were enclosed in fragile containers, often at great cost to the child. Many suffered in bewilderment as the war went on around him, without his consent or understanding. Loss of a father was normal, but its scars were ineradicable.

The children in the queue were not noisy or boisterous. They knew they were different and endured a sense of deprivation that made them the objects of unspoken sympathy. That is the worst kind because it isolates and does not help to heal. The Cinderella Children were on public display. Their benefactors were large people, full of well meaning self-importance that cared for them as a class, but did not reach individual need. These kids needed holding, hugging close, crying over, and, above all, explanations.

These were the almost silent ones enduring the grace of benefactors who had good hearts, but who did not understand the needs of children deprived of a father’s care. Their response was to do all they could: give them two hours before cinema screen, before send them away with a pleasantly wrapped gift. That was the programme.

I stood among them clutching my ticket with a sense of shame. I had a father at home, and that was all that mattered, and so I should not have been there. But I was, and while I felt uncomfortable with my deception, I was unable to disgrace myself further by walking away lest any of the escorts ask me why, and I was forced to speak the truth. I remember that I carried off the cheating on more than one occasion, and never felt right, although I didn’t feel it wrong enough not to do it again. It was my introduction to the moral maze.

The films were shorts, mostly American comedic one reelers, such as Arthur Kennedy, and my lifetime favourites, Laurel and Hardy. The intermission was chaotic as two thousand children waited for ice cream. When the show was over, we were handed a small gift-wrapped package as we trailed through the foyer on the way out. Getting back into the daylight of the outside world was attended by a feeling of relief that I had not been caught out.

For a short time, I tasted the sweetness of being regarded as an object of pity, and that was the allure of being a Cinderella Child. For a couple of hours, I was in company of fellow sufferers. Their suffering was of a different order, but I did not know that, and neither did they. They had no daddy at home, and neither did I.

I didn’t see my dad until the middle of 1945 when he returned from the war and presented himself at the wall of the school playground. He did not know me. He asked one of my schoolmates to bring me to the wall.

“There’s a fellow wants to see you,” said the boy. I walked over to see the smiling stranger.
“I’m your dad,” he said. I was pleased and embarrassed. I didn’t know what to do or say. He talked for a few moments. I don’t remember what he said, only that he seemed pleasant. Was that a thrill I felt? I can’t be sure now, but I felt different somehow, as if I had a big secret that made a difference to my life. As if something important was about to happen.

It was another three years before I saw him again. I didn’t tell my at-home parents that he had come. That would only have started them off ranting again. I converted him into the perfect, heroic father. I enjoyed this surreal image of him because it made me of some worth and importance. I was much older before the scales fell from my eyes and he revealed himself to be just as he was, and I understood the denunciations, accepting their accuracy whilst smarting that they compare him to me as I struggled to grow up.

Almost simultaneously, as I lost the father I had lost and found, and as my stepfather grew even more distant, I found a Father who forgave my insecurities and began the long process of healing. I say ‘long process’ because it was another twenty-five or so years before I was able to shuck off the result of my low self-esteem and lack of confidence.

I know I hurt many people. I was fighting back against all the indignities and injustices that had been heaped upon me by uncaring authoritarian figures, ranging from those in my family circle, to schoolteachers and all those, and there were many, who exercised authority in my brittle life. Fending off the resultant paranoia became a full-time job that distracted me from the major aims of life.

I thought that my Father had changed Saul into Paul and made him a different man. I wanted to be so changed. It took a while to realise that God had not changed Paul, only his direction, and that Saul had been a good man going the wrong way.

I was the wrong man, and my direction would not change until I changed. It was a painful development, but one that is more than halfway finished and, for the past thirty years I have been at peace with my Father in Heaven, the world, my neighbours, and myself. None of this was possible until I first became reconciled with my Father-God.

Well it is said, sweet is the peace the gospel brings.

It is certainly sweet, and, for Cinderella Children it is the only way out.

**

To read earlier episodes of Ronnie's autobiography please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/a_shout_from_the_attic/

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