At the orphanage, the Sisters dressed us in street clothes, brown leather shoes, and white socks that standardized our economic backgrounds. Yet, we could distinguish ourselves from one another by our thinness, broken or twisted limbs, cigarette burns, and other scars from abusive parents or caretakers. Even our facial expressions in scallop-edged, black-and-white photos shouted, “Caution!”

The other scars, those internal injuries that no one saw until we cried, bullied each other, or withdrew, we carried years later like a bursting backpack that rounded our adult shoulders wherever we went. Its contents might empty with hard work. But, how many of us pretended we could stand straight when we forged ahead into the world unaware that we needed a better sense of ourselves separate from our accumulated traumas? That we would struggle with forming a stable identity, of becoming autonomous. And how many of those internal scars would keloid into permanent mantras? “I don’t trust you. Love me. Don’t love me.”

But I had optimism. Some days, parents interested in adopting a child would arrive at the orphanage to decide which girl or boy would fit within their family, which one they could picture eating at their kitchen table, which one they could love. Around four or five us pre-selected by the nuns, bathed, and cautioned to behave, waited in a room. We had to smile, stand straight in a line, and not fiddle with one another. If we picked our noses, she added nose-picking. I liked to pick my nose.

While waiting for another nun to bring in potential parents, a Sister waited with us—saplings that one set of parents would pull out by its roots and transplant. She clasped her hands in front of her bib or fingered her rosary at her thigh while she scrutinized us as though attempting to guess which child the parents would select. Afterwards, she nodded her head and smiled at the designated child and parents as though, “Why yes, that is the child I would have selected for you myself.” And while I had waited and hoped they would take me, I continued to look up at them, smiling my best, hoping they would change their mind, their selection. Each time the parents left the room with one of my friends, I wondered why I stood behind.

Perhaps I had forgotten and picked my nose, so they didn’t pick me.


Sharon L. Esterly

As a freelance writer and journalist, Sharon has published articles in many newspapers and national magazines. She has taught highschool language arts, written educational grants, and provides private writing lessons to children and adults. She won First Prize in Nonfiction at the Philadelphia Writers Conference, 2016. In their Winter 2020 Issue, the literary journal Ruminate Magazine published a selection from her recently completed memoir, Bastard. At the University of Pennsylvania, she received her MLA in writing and worked for their Critical Writing Program where she edited and published 3808: Journal of Critical Writing, as well as res: A Journal of Undergraduate Research. Additionally, Sharon belongs to the Brandywine Valley Writers Group and The Authors Guild and is a board member at Glen Mills Schools.

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