Going Home, Part 2: The Man You Wanted To See

In the early part of the century, the Samuel Gridley Howe House — or Howe Building, as it was commonly called — was for twenty years the only male dormitory on the the Exeter School reservation. In those days, it was a notoriously dangerous and despairing place, so overcrowded that, by the 1950s, close to 200 adult men and small children — from violent criminals to those with profound disabilities — were living together at once under the same roof.

On the following Sunday I made visit to the Exeter School and stayed in the office waiting for Phillip to come over from the Howe Building where he lives. After a short while the boy entered and a telephone operator said, “Here’s the man you wanted to see, Mr. Hartford.”

Phillip obviously had no awareness of why he had been sent for or who I was. Without delay I asked the child to step into another room, and there we talked at length about his future. No one had ever spoken to Philip about his mother before.

“Phillip my name is Mr. Hartford, and I work for the Children’s Division. Do you know what that is?”

Phillip answered hesitantly, “Yes, that’s the State Home and School, aint it?”

I said, “Yes, that’s right,” and then asked, “Do you remember the State Home and School?”

Phillip answered, “Yes, I was there you know.”

“When were you there?”

“Oh, a long time ago, six years ago, I guess. I was in I Cottage.”

“And then what happened?”

“And then they sent me to Exeter.”

“Who sent you to Exeter?”

“Oh, a lot of People, I don’t know who they were. They just talked to me and took me into a car down here.”

“Where do you live now?”

“In Howe Building.”

“How do you like it there?”

“I don’t like it at all.”

“Why don’t you like it?”

“Ah, nobody ever comes to see you and I don’t know, I just don’t like it. I’ve never been out of the place for six years.”

“Hasn’t anybody ever visited you?”

“No, who could visit me? Then Phillip hesitated and said, “Well, in 1946 a lady, a Miss Freeman, who used to be a social worker at Exeter, came to see me, but she is the only one — she is the only one who ever came.”

“How about your mother?”

“Have I got a mother?”

“Why yes, you have a mother. Don’t you remember her?”

“No, I’ve never seen my mother in my life.”

“What do you think about your mother?”

“I don’t know. I thought she must have been dead or sick or in jail, or maybe she didn’t like me. I don’t know. Sure, I think about her all the time. Do you know her?”

“Yes, I do, Phillip. I went to visit her last week.”

“Oh, yeah, how is she?”

“Oh, she’s fine. She seems like a very nice woman, Phillip.”

“Yeah, why didn’t she never come to see me.”

“Well, Phil, it’s probably hard for you to understand, but when you were a very young boy, your mother was not able to take care of you and that’s why you were taken care of by the state. That’s why you lived in I Cottage, and your mother says that when the State began to take care of you, a judge told her not to come and see you anymore.”

Phillip looked amazed. “Yeah, I never knew that. No wonder nobody comes to see me.”

“Would you like to see your mother?”

“Sure, I would like to see my mother. I guess everybody wants to see their mother.”

“Well, I have been talking to her about you and she wants to see you too. She married another man since you were born. This man isn’t your father, but he wants to see you too, and you have a little brother named Billy who is only two years old.”

“Yeah, I bet he’s cute, huh?”

“I think you’ll like him.”

“When can I see my mother?” Phillip asked, and then with some reluctance, said, “Is she going to come here to see me? I hate this joint, you know.”

“Well, Phillip, she don’t have to come here to see you. Would you rather go to see her where she lives.”

“Yes, that would be swell. That would be real nice.”

“OK, I’ll talk with Dr. Ladd and see if I can’t make some arrangements so that you can go to see her. What do you do here, Phil?”

“Oh, I work, I scrub floors and I work outside with the carpenter some time.”

“Do you like what you do?”

“Naw, not so much. Once though I help them pick apples and peaches. I like that.”

At this point, I thought of a foster home that had recently asked for a boy on a work-wage basis. This was the Pasco farm in Lincoln. It’s a small truck farm where vegetables are planted and picked, and I felt after thinking about the situation for a few moments that Phillip might fit in well into this family setup, and be readily accepted because of the fact that he was Italian as well as the family, and he apparently was not of an aggressive nature.

I said to Phillip, “Would you like to have a job?”

“Why, yes I would like to have a job.”

“Well, would you like to work on a farm?”

Rather hesitantly Phillip said, “Yes, I guess so.”

I then said, “Well Phil, you don’t have to tell me you do want to work an a farm if you don’t, you know.”

“Well, I’ll do anything to get out of here.”

“But that’s not the point, Phil. Lets say that you are going to get out of here. That’s one thing, but what you do when you get out of here is another.”

“Well, what kind of farm is it?”

“Well, it’s a small farm. They have tomatoes and peppers and they plant them and pick them and box them and sell them.”

“Oh yeah, I like that, I thought you meant a farm with a lot of animals to take care of.”

I said, “No, there’s no animals on this farm.”

“I think that would be good then.”

“Well,Phil, I’ll tell you what. I’ll go and talk to Dr. Ladd and then I’ll talk to your mother and I’ll talk to these people who own the farm and I will be back to see you in a very few days and we’ll see if we can’t make some of these things happen real soon, OK?”

At this point, the boy said, “OK,” and put his head down.

I said, “Well, Phil, I’ll be seeing you pretty soon. You keep thinking about what I said and take care of yourself.”

Phillip then turned around rapidly and began sobbing. I put my arm around the boy’s shoulder and said, “You go ahead and cry, kid, you have a good reason. It isn’t every day that somebody you don’t even know comes down and talks with you about a mother you have never seen and the realization that you’re going to be released from an institution all at one time. I’m sorry it had to be this way, but I didn’t know what else to do. Can you understand that?”

Phillip sobbed, “Yes” and continued to cry in convulsive gasps.

I stayed about five more minutes with the boy and then we walked out of the building to go. I gave him a cigarette and he said, “Thanks a lot, Mr. Hartford and don’t forget to come back ’cause I’ll be waiting for you.”