A few weeks back, I woke up with a little girl in my head. Not really a voice I could hear so much as a dream that had faded to barely a whisper.
I knew her, this little girl I’ve never met nor ever seen. I knew her.
I was barely awake and, as is usual, I reached for my phone. It was already buzzing in my hand with a text from a friend excited to tell me about a podcast he’d just listened to. It had been about a state hospital in a town near where he’d grown up. The little girl had been in a state hospital, but not the one he needed to tell me about via text message at 6:30 in the morning.
I turned the lights on, stumbled into the bathroom, and turned the radio on in time to hear a story on OPB about the Oregon State Hospital in Salem. “You’re kidding with this, right?” I’m certain I said the words out loud.
Every family has a few stories that are rarely if ever told: scandals or embarassments swept under the rug or boxed up neatly and stored away on the shelf in the hall closet behind hatboxes no one ever opens.
I hesitate to put this little girl in that category, but she was definitely a story we did not tell.
Born into our family in 1946, she was a beautiful child with a terrible malady, a disability that meant she might not live through the night, might not live through the week, would certainly never live to adulthood. I don’t know that her mother ever saw her as it was believed to be kinder to whisk her off to a residential hospital to live out the remainder of her life.
I’m told my grandmother would visit her, this beautiful child, at the hospital where she lived. It was feared that if the little girl were brought home to live, and she died due to the complicated nature of her illness, her caregivers might be charged with a mercy killing. She lived just over two years.
So, after waking with her in my mind, and with the morning’s other nudges pressing on me, I started making inquiries: first to the editor of the local newspaper in the town where she’d been born, then to the state hospital system in California, and last to the cemetery where some of her closest relatives rest.
The newspaper editor was kind, pointing me to an online archive hosted through the county library. I pored over pages of old newsprint, neatly scanned into the website and fairly easily searchable with key words, but found no sign of the little girl.
The state hospital contacted me to direct me elsewhere, explaining that what I was looking for was not within the services they provided. I’m not entirely convinced this is correct, as even a basic study of hospitals (and asylums, and poor farms) from the early part of the 20th century shows many services overlapped in state-run facilities.
The cemetery director was more conclusive. “We have her,” the email said. The director agreed to take a walk out to her plot the next morning to see if a marker had been placed for her. There is no marker.
I woke up May 15 with her in my head. Three days later, I’d know the place of her interment (or, possibly, inurnment), the date of her death (July of 1948), and her birthday.
May 14, 1946.
I don’t know what I’ll do with the assortment of info I found while looking for her, or what I’ll do to fill the holes where so much is missing. I might just wait for the next voice.