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Journalist pens childhood memoir

As the daughter of an orphanage director, Sue Carswell spent her youth watching kids who could never be her friends. Read an excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY

Vanity Fair magazine writer Sue Carswell spent her childhood gazing out the window and watching the orphans at the Albany Home for Children where her father worked. Plagued with her own anxiety disorder, she soon realizes that these children from broken homes can never really be her friends. Carswell was invited on "Today" to discuss her new memoir, "Faded Pictures From My Backyard." Read an excerpt.

“It’s no use talking about it,” Alice said, looking up at the house and pretending it was arguing with her. “I’m not going in again yet. I know I should have to get through the Looking-glass again—back into the old room—and there’d be an end of all my adventures.”—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, 1872

Even when I was young, I knew there were two things my mother hated. She hated leaving her five children and she hated when the big brown cardboard boxes had to be packed up—signaling a move from one home to another. They were homes to my mother, not houses. On the day we headed toward our new home on Acsademy Road in July 1968 where my father worked with children who, as my mother explained to me, needed to feel better before they went home again—just like little birds whose wings needed to heal over time, or perhaps even find new parents to be loved by—my mother cried the entire ride. Her tears steadily dripped onto the bald head of my baby sister Sarah, whom she clutched in her lap.

Right before my mother got into the car, she stood outside our garage, the sun beating down on her curly red hair, and looked over the roof toward my father with her piercing blue eyes, shaking her head, and with a voice choking back tears, she said, "John, I can’t help it. You know how much I hate change."

Car rides became so stultifyingly quiet and places became so far away when my mother cried in the front seat.

Unlike my mother, I wasn’t sad about the move because our old house—which was really a rather beautiful barn-red house—was just too similar to the first house we had lived in. Both had made me feel spooky inside. I was happy about our move, and my breaths no longer had a nervous twitch behind them. I felt as lucky as a helium-filled balloon that had finally popped and could let all its tense contents out. I think balloons stayed intact just to make kids like me smile, but they would have really preferred to pop and let out their long deep breath, too.

I did feel sad, however, that my best friends, Cammy and Brad, had to move away from their home because we were now moving into their house. I would now be sleeping in Cammy’s bedroom. My father had a new and better job at the place where all the children played, as I saw it, and now we had to live there because my mother said it was a big job and my father was going to earn almost ten thousand dollars a year. Sometimes you move to new houses in order to become rich. Cammy and Brad’s dad, Mr. Cordes, had taken a different job working with children in St. Louis, which was very far away.

When I had asked my mother, a couple of weeks before our move, where Cammy and Brad were going, she walked right over to the large map she had tacked up on the wall in our playroom because my older brother, Jimmy (and that was only one year and one month to the day, so he really wasn’t older like Wally on "Leave It to Beaver"), and I were trying to learn the names of states. She put her finger on the red dot that stood for our house, then she slowly moved her finger through state after state until it reached the halfway mark on the map in between our dot and the long, thin state, California. Just to get an idea of how far away that was I asked, "Where’s Cape Cod again?" Cape Cod was as far away as I had ever been. But at the end of a long car ride, which would begin even before the sun came up and in which Jimmy and I slept the entire way in our pajamas, when we woke up hours later, there it would be—the magical sight of little green waves tipped with foam that looked like Mr. Bubble washing onto the off-white sand. Cape Cod was the yellow dot on the map, the place where the sun baked us in our bathing suits and where Jimmy and I spit salt water as we dodged cool waves. Red was where we lived. No matter where we went, all trips came back to the red dot, the stop sign color that signaled our home. My mother put a green dot on the state where Cammy and Brad were moving. She said someday we would visit and play with them again. Green meant go.

When we left our house, driving only a few miles to my father’s workplace and our new house, Jimmy and I sang the M-i-ss-i-ss-i-pp-i song the entire way in honor of Brad and Cammy, since we didn’t know any song for Missouri. My mother said that the Mississippi song was okay because the two states were friendly neighbors.

In our new blue station wagon, Jimmy and I always sat in the way backseat—the best place to sit because it looked out the rear of the car and not the front. Instead of looking forward to see where we were going, we looked at the places we were leaving behind.

When we finally pulled into our new driveway, hopping over into the middle seat, Jimmy bolted from the car and headed toward our new front door. But something kept me from moving and exploring our new surroundings. I was mesmerized by one of the movers: an older man with a bald head who smiled at me and kept taking his finger off and then putting it back on his hand. Each magic move he made began with this abracadabra wave of his hand behind a blue kerchief and then he would lift his thumb off his left hand, creating the impression that only a stump remained behind. The escaping thumb would then be miraculously tucked inside his right hand, raised into the air until the moment when he placed it back on the lonely stump again. When my father opened up the back of the car, the moving man came over and sat on the ledge, doing his trick over and over again—taking his finger off and putting it back on. I was so impressed by this that nothing else mattered, even our biggest moving day.

We were a large family and there were a lot of kids, so it was nice to feel like I was someone special, at least to the moving man. And that I didn’t have to worry about my mother, father, Jimmy, Billy, Mandy, and now Sarah, because in this new house we would be safe and there wouldn’t be a cemetery, slaughterhouse, and ghosts, like there were in our first backyard, or fast-moving trains plowing through the night like they always did in our second backyard. I could just be a regular kid without the fears that had been growing inside of me ever since right before I turned three and my mother had gone off to the hospital for what I presumed was forever. I didn’t understand days or tomorrows. I only understood gone. When she came back seven days later, instead of bringing toys my mother brought us twins that cried a lot.

While I was looking forward to having fun, riding my bike, and creating new kinds of cakes in my Easy-Bake Oven, I wasn’t going to let go of this moment of freedom. I sat in the backseat of the car almost all day, watching the moving man unload all our boxes. When he could sneak a break, he would come over to help me improve my own magical abracadabra style.

It was late afternoon when the moving men finally pulled away and I entered our new house. I headed for my bedroom, where my mother had already unpacked my things and made my bed with flower sheets and a new yellow blanket. I had played in this room when it was Cammy’s, but I never looked at its walls or the sliding-door closets, and I had never even looked out the window. Now the newly painted pale yellow room was mine. I was drawn to its window. Looking out my window on that first day made me feel happier than I had ever been.

My bedroom inside our redbrick ranch-style home, which was shaped like the letter L, was sandwiched between my parents’ large bedroom and Mandy and Sarah’s room, which was right next to Jimmy and Billy’s bedroom. My brothers’ room had three windows, one facing the direction mine did and two others that faced our new street. Their room was two doors down from mine. My parents’ room had the only windows that also looked out onto our big backyard. Nineteen acres, my father told me and Jimmy, made up the size of our new playground.

From all our bedrooms, we shared a view of the four little houses my mother called cottages. Sad children, she told us, lived in three of these cottages. Our windows faced the back entrances of the cottages as well as a parking lot where the people who worked inside with the children left their cars. My father told me that some of the workers were there all night long to make sure nothing bad ever happened to the children. I decided this move by our family was the safest thing we could ever do. Looking out my window, I imagined the child care workers were the night police. I hoped they would watch over our house, too.

Being in our new house felt a bit off. Jimmy and I had been practicing before we moved that day how to say the name of the grounds where we now lived. It was called the Albany Home for Children. The words were painted in gold block letters on a small blackboard sandwiched on an island full of flowers. Our home, my father explained, was separate from life in the cottages with the other children. Still, we all shared the same address, 60 Academy Road, and large elm trees planted closely together in the front—and a fence on the left side of our property—kept all of us snugly together on the property.

When we eventually started at our new school, we were to tell our new friends and teachers that we lived at 60 Academy Road. We were not to say we lived at the Albany Home for Children. I don’t know why we couldn’t say we lived at the Home: I liked the sound of it. It felt like a place where we had the biggest family imaginable. All my eventual classmates would want to live where I lived, too. Who wouldn’t want a rainbow full of children living and playing in their big backyard? For the first time in my life, I didn’t want to say exactly what my father told me I should. If anyone asked me where I lived, I would tell them my own way, and I would invite my new friends to come home and play with me and Jimmy and all the other children who lived in our backyard at the Albany Home for Children.

Excerpted from "Faded Pictures From My Backyard," by Sue Carswell. Copyright © 2005 by Sue Carswell. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.