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When we had an orphanage – San Diego Children's Home

Rose Bryant remembers

Rose, Bill, Agnes Miller Wade, Betty, Uncle Arthur, Agnes Mondon, and Charlie (kneeling), c. 1943
Rose, Bill, Agnes Miller Wade, Betty, Uncle Arthur, Agnes Mondon, and Charlie (kneeling), c. 1943

AT THE TURN OF THE CENTURY, they were called orphans, and they lived in a home on five acres in Balboa Park. Those who weren’t orphans were “half-orphans,”“abandoned children,” or “those for whom we temporarily provide.” The San Diego Children’s Home was built in the days when a home was supposed to look like one, and it did: three stories, all wood. White paint, brick chimneys, balconies, and dormers on the corner of 16th and Ash. At Christmas, the children were treated to a ride past the San Diego Free Public Library on a wooden-wheeled, flatbed truck that had been decorated with ribbons and boughs by the Elks.

Rose Bryant Sanders. Mrs. Bryant had custody of Rose, Betty, Bill, and Charlie.... the baby-sitter called the police, who took the children to 16th and Ash.

By 1913, the number of children needing beds on any given day was over 90. That was the year a Mr. and Mrs. Jennings gave the children’s home $10,000 to build a nursery called the Nellie-Inez Cottage. Mr. Jennings and the members of the board agreed to furnish the cottage — despite the extra cost — with hardwood floors, tiled bathrooms, fireplaces with ornamental tiles, and “other features of beauty” This was for babies and children under five.

The big white house was torn down in the 20s and replaced by a new one, Spanish stucco this time, with an auditorium for the Christmas pageant, a dining room, a library, a little girls’ dorm, a middle girls’ dorm, and a big girls’ dorm.

When the police brought Rose Bryant there in 1940, she was 10. She came with her 13-year-old sister Betty, 7-year-old Bill, and Charlie, who was 4. Rose would sleep in the little girls’ dorm, and Betty would be a “middle girl.” Bill would go to the boys’ cottage, and the baby, Charlie, would live in the nursery. But first Mrs. White led them to a room full of second-hand clothes.

“You’ll have to come with me,” Mrs. White told Rose, Betty, and Bill, “and we’ll pick out some school clothes for you.”

“Well,” Rose said, “I don’t need any of these. I’ve got a dress or two, and I’ve got a brand-new bathing suit.”

Mrs. White laughed, but she was serious about facing facts. Twelve years later, when she was still the director, she would tell the San Diego Union, “Children can take a lot. But there is one thing that they can’t take. That is a lie. They need to know they can depend on you.”

Rose, Betty, and Bill would come to know Mrs. White as the Old Bag, the woman in the cardigan sweater and squeaky shoes whose husband was dead and whose only son was away at military school. Mrs. White would wash their backs, spoon sugar onto their porridge, lead them in nightly prayers, and give them doses of cod-liver oil during flu season, telling them to open their mouths wide like baby birds.

But right now she was handing out used clothes. She told Rose she wasn’t in a position to be fussy. “You’re going to have to wear the clothes that we’re assigning you,” she said, “because you children came here with nothing under the sun.”

In 1940, Mr. and Mrs. Bryant were newly divorced. Mrs. Bryant had custody of Rose, Betty, Bill, and Charlie, and she’d left them with a babysitter for what she said would be a few days. It wasn’t just a few days, so the baby-sitter called the police, who took the children to 16th and Ash. That was the beginning. But the problems had started a long time before that, as problems always do.

“There are two main things that you learn from your parents,” Rose says now. “Only two things,” Rose repeats. “How to do things, and how never to do things.” She draws out the word “never” for a long time, but she’s not bitter and she’s not holding a grudge. She has her own car, her own grandchildren, and a 27l/i-foot boat called the Avalon, on which she lives. She’s over 60 so her hair isn’t dark anymore, and she wears it in a neat French twist, but otherwise she looks just like the grown-up girl in the family photograph taken years after the Bryant children left the home. Rose is smiling and her mother Is smiling. So are Betty and Charlie. They all hold each other by the waist.

In 1941, Rose Bryant’s father worked at the new state employment office in San Diego. The divorce had been final for a year or two, and Mr. Bryant paid the rent for his wife and children. He paid a little child support, but not much, because his salary was low.

Their mother Agnes liked to dance and sing and play the ukulele. She was thin and pretty — “darling,” Rose says — and she’d grown up in a rich family that lost everything during the Depression. Rose’s darling mother had spent her summers in Avalon on her father’s boat, the Dreamer, a wedding present from her father to her mother and the flagship of the Catalina Island Yacht Club. That’s where Agnes Bell met the man who would become her first husband.

“Dad had someone introduce him to her,” Rose says, and Agnes was delighted to meet a man in this way. Her own parents had met in the same romantic place, Avalon, in 1900.

Gardner William Bryant was a handsome aviator who’d served in World War I and the son of a Los Angeles paving contractor. He was eight years older than Agnes, and since leaving the service, he’d become a civil engineer. Agnes Bell became Agnes Bryant.

By the time he and his pretty wife had four children there would be no jobs for engineers. In the summer of 1935, the Bryants moved aboard another boat, not the Dreamer this time, but the El Toro, a 45-foot sloop without mast or engine. The boat couldn’t leave Los Angeles Harbor, but it was elegant inside. Rose says, with red mahogany paneling, and at night, after Rose and the other kids were in bed, their mother would put jazz records on the phonograph or play the ukulele while their father strummed the guitar. Their father knew the constellations and Greek myths. He told them stories about famous men like Benjamin Franklin, who also, he pointed out, had to eat porridge when he was growing up. He knew fairy tales, too, and he was good at telling them. It was so nice living on the El Toro that Rose said to her parents, “Boy, I hope nothing changes. I hope we do this forever.”

Rose remembers what her father said in reply. “No, my dear, nothing lasts forever. But just remember, bad things never last forever either.”

Rose and her family lived on the boat for two and a half years. Her father refused to work for the WFA because he was an engineer, not a laborer, and the professional jobs he found in the newspaper were always too far away — up in Modesto or in Brawley, where it was impossible to go if you didn’t have your own car. It wasn’t until the State of California opened its own employment office that he found fall-time, steady work and sold the El Toro for almost nothing and went down to San Diego to look for a house. While he looked, he left his wife and four children in a big rental house that was also occupied by a family named Cook. That was the first time his wife left him for another man.

“Mother was out trying to look for a job herself,” Rose says, and she found a job as a pollster. “It seems that one of her fellow workers was very attractive to her, and she went off for a week with him.”

The Crooks hadn’t expected to baby-sit for an adulteress, and they called Mr. Bryant to come and fetch his children.

“He had no idea,” Rose says, “that his wife was goofing off like that.”

Things were fine again for a while, at least for the children. With their mother gone, Rose’s father moved the family into what Rose calls “a little house behind another house” in Coronado. Five days a week, her father walked to the ferry, crossed the bay, and walked up G Street to his office.

Eventually, Agnes Bryant returned. She joined them in the little house behind another house. But housekeeping didn’t interest her.

“She invented the automatic dishwasher’s main purpose,” Rose says. Five minutes before Mr. Bryant was expected home, his wife would put the dirty dishes in the oven. When Mr. Bryant walked in, she’d give him a list of groceries, and he’d ride off on the family bicycle or pull one of the wagons to the store. While he was out shopping, Mrs. Bryant washed the dishes and started water boiling for mashed potatoes.

“But there was a big fight about something,” Rose says, “we were never sure [what). I think it was money.”

In any case. Rose knew her mother was unhappy, and when Agnes Bryant left for the second time, she took Charlie, the baby of the family, and went to live with her mother. Rose’s father started divorce proceedings seeking custody of the children, and her mother also fought for custody, though Rose says she doesn’t know why.

That was the summer the children sat on the roof of another house in Coronado, this time a rental on Adella Avenue, and read what Rose calls funny books while they waited for the sight of their father getting off the street car and walking from Orange Avenue. That was the summer they had a piano and a fireplace and a housekeeper with a cleft lip. The housekeeper was named Rosie, and it was Rosie who pleased Mrs. Bryant most when she came back. Finally someone else could do the dishes. But Mr. Bryant had different ideas.

“No,” he said. “Either you stay and we get rid of Rosie, or else you can’t stay. Are you going to take care of the house and the children, or are you going to run off?”

Rose’s mother said she’d do the housework herself, but divorce proceedings had already started, and in time, her father moved out. That left the four of them alone with their mother on Adella Avenue, and Agnes started spending time at the Hotel del Coronado. She went to bars and she met handsome airmen, whom Rose calls “fliers.” She met someone she liked, as she had when she was polling in Los Angeles, and the two of them went off together. When they’d been gone for ten days, the woman who was tending the children called the police. She told them Mrs. Bryant had promised to call and check on the children, but Mrs. Bryant hadn’t called, she hadn’t left any money for food, and the grocery store had refused to give them credit.

Here the adult Rose, the one who’s had children of her own and a divorce of her own, interrupts the story to say she doesn’t hate her mother for what she did. “Mother was Mother,” she says. “We all knew it. Dad knew it. She was a spoiled girl from a wealthy family that lost everything during the Depression.”

Rose even ventures to say that it cost her mother a lot to go on those sudden trips, because while she was gone the police came and took her four children to the San Diego Children’s Home. Mr. Bryant was informed. He decided the home was probably a better place for them under the circumstances. He would have to pay for their keep while they were in the home, but he was already paying for their keep. Rose observes that her mother, in the meantime, “was free to do whatever.”

So in the summer of 1940, Rose, Betty, and Bill followed Mrs. White down the hall to the room full of second-hand clothes.

“We were there,” Rose says, “all the rest of the summer.”

For the first time, but not the last. Rose became “one of those for whom we temporarily provide.” She met orphans and half-orphans and children like herself.

In some cases, “their parents were in jail or sick or in the hospital or something,” she says, “and no one was able to take care of them.” Some children’s parents had separated or died and no one had claimed them yet. The home wasn’t a had place to wait, Rose says.

“In fact,” she says, “[the children] wanted to stay when it came time for them to go live with an aunt or uncle or something like that. Then they really didn’t want to go, and we had big going-away parties, and we gave things to each other to remember us by.”

Rose says orphanage life taught her to be organized. Her possessions belonged in a locker at the foot of the bed. Every morning, according to the rules, she pulled back her sheets and blanket to let the bed air while she ate breakfast and brushed her teeth. Bath day came twice a week — tubs for the girls and showers for the boys. On Saturday evenings Mrs. White scrubbed the backs of the girls and told each one, “Now don’t forget to wash between your toes,” a code for all the places you were supposed to wash but not talk about. If you ran more hot water than you needed to cover your legs, someone would come in and turn it off. If you forgot to scrub your teeth with the bamboo toothbrush and salt-and-soda tooth powder, someone would come in and get you back out of bed. In flu season, you lined up for a dose of cod-liver oil.

Rose also learned to be her own best friend and to get, as she puts it, some smarts. If she didn’t, she feared she would always be a fool.

“Mrs. White would send me into the auditorium,” she says. “There was a big clock in there. She said, ‘Rose, would you go in and bring us the time, please?’ And I literally was going to carry the time back to them, you know, that’s the way I looked at it. So I’d come back, you know, just as positive as I could be, and say, ‘The little hand is on the 12, and the big hand is on the 3.’ And then she’d say something like, ‘Oh, thank you, Rose.’

“And I’d go skipping out, thinking I had done something really helpful to them, and they were laughing behind my back.” Rose was mortified when she realized they were laughing and she went to her sister Betty, who explained how many minutes were in an hour, a half-hour, and a quarter-hour.

“So finally it made sense to me,” Rose says, and she vowed to get the right information from then on.

As the summer wore on, Agnes Bryant found what Rose calls a sugar daddy. He was already married, but he gave Agnes some money and a car, and when he invited her to come and live in San Francisco, she saw a means of taking her children back. To the officials at the home, Agnes Bryant showed her car and an address in Larkspur, up near Sausalito, and the Bryant children left the orphanage for a new life in Northern California.

Larkspur was beautiful, Rose says. The Bryants lived there long enough to attend one semester of school— “just long enough for the grass to go bald and the house to be wrecked.”

The man’s wife had found out, and the deal was off. Agnes Bryant loaded her children back into the car and drove them south to her mother’s house in Los Angeles.

“And there was a big fight there,” Rose says. “They were arguing over what the devil they were going to do with four little kids.” Agnes’s mother and Uncle Arthur were already caring for their own parents in the house, and they didn’t need more responsibilities. Uncle Arthur insisted that Agnes take the kids back to the San Diego Children’s Home.

“They promised they would come down [to visit],” Rose says, “and we were all crying because we didn’t want to go there... we knew what it was like and we really objected strenuously, but Mother had no choice.”

They drove back to San Diego, to 16th and Ash, and the children went back into the home.

“There we were,” Rose says, “for two and a half years.

Their father was still working on G Street at the employment office, but he didn’t come to visit very often because his appearance always resulted in a demand for payment. Rose says the person in charge of releasing children for visits would say, “Oh, you’re Mr. Bryant. You know, you have this running account here, and, frankly, we only have children here temporarily.” He was hounded for money, and so was his ex-wife, so they usually stayed away.

All the school-age children at the home went to a makeshift school in an industrial building near the park. It was a short walk, just down the hill, and because there weren’t many houses nearby, many of the students lived in the home.

The grounds outside the building had been paved over and swings had been erected for a playground. Rose’s favorite teacher was married to a flier, and “she was the cutest thing ever.” She taught the children in her class how to make airplanes out of balsa wood kits and how to identify planes in the air. They learned about blackouts and bombs. They sang the Army Air Corps song. Then they went home and changed into their play clothes.

Rose was not unhappy there. Her cheerful account of life in the home matches newspaper articles of 1940, 1948, and 1953. In 1940, the year the Bryants first entered the children’s home, a Miss Beatrice Warren was hired to teach nursery children like Charlie Bryant about the principles of democracy, an aim announced in the San Diego Union under the headline, “12 Little Boys, Girls Learn Citizenship at Nursery.”

“It is a natural instinct,” the article says, “for a child to seek possession of a toy which he desires, but in the school he learns, through sad experience, that his peremptory grabs meet with resistance, and often with actual disastrous results to himself.”

According to the article, the nursery matrons, including Mrs. White, encouraged each child to dress and undress himself, to wash his own hands and face. The rooms where the children drank their orange juice and learned “very simple rhythms” were bright, airy, cheer-ful, and inviting. Charlie and

the other children slept in white beds under blue-and-white coverlets, and when they woke up, they were tended by adolescent girls from the home who considered it a privilege to help in the nursery because it would help them be mothers someday. Life in the home sounds exactly like life among the young rabbits of The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes.

What did the girls tell Charlie if he asked why his mother, his father, and his grandparents didn’t come to visit? How did the abandoned or orphaned girls respond to questions about dead parents, alcoholic parents, parents who just disappeared? The article doesn’t say.

In 1948, the children’s home would celebrate its 60th year with a tea party. Mrs. E Minton Fetter would pour. The Union would describe the almost daily letters that came to the home from former residents who wrote lines of gratitude “as one would write to a mother.” In 1953, under the headline “S.D. CHILDREN’S HOME MENDS FAITH — Institution Restores Youngsters’ Trust in the World, Reporter Finds,” the photographs show children who might afterwards have posed for a Christmas card. Girls in dresses and barrettes sing and play the piano under the direction of a man in a jacket and bow tie. The man has one hand on the shoulder of a black boy and the other on the shoulder ofa white

boy. The children all have their mouths open like baby birds.

In another picture, five little girls in pinafores sit around the “receiving unit” table and listen to a story read by Mrs. Lillian Loob. Every ponytail, pigtail, and braid is tied with a stiff bow. You can see the comb marks in their hair. They’re the newest “young victims,” the ones who have just been picked up by police responding to calls of abuse or abandonment. “It is pretty hard to talk to them,” Mrs. White told the reporter. “It’s especially bad when they are wondering what will become of them and you can’t tell them because you don’t know.”

For fun, Rose played Monopoly and Parcheesi and cards in the boys’ cottage with her brother Bill, and she visited Charlie in the nursery. Someone put up the money for her to go to Camp Cuyamaca with the Girl Scouts, and she was thrilled, even though it meant she had to wear the second-hand uniform of a much larger girl who had gone home sick. At Christmas, sorority girls ca me a nd made a list of what the children wanted. Mrs. White’s handsome son, the one who was away at military school, came home for the holidays and helped with the Christmas pageant.

Usually, there was entertainment on Saturdays, like “Our Gang” movies shown on the projector. If your parents didn’t come to take you out. Rose says, you were treated to ice cream after dinner. If you had your own spending money, you could go out to a matinee. The Bryants’ grandparents in Los Angeles never kept their promise to visit, but they did send letters containing dollar bills, so sometimes Betty, Bill, and Rose went to the movies.

One week, Rose’s father called to say he would come for a visit the following Saturday. “He had told us that before,” Rose says, “and had not shown up.” But Rose decided he might come this time, and if he did, she wanted to have her father all to herself. Charlie was in the nursery, as usual, and Rose told Betty and Bill to go with the rest of the group to the matinee.

“This is a very, very important thing in my life that happened,” Rose says, remembering how guilty she felt about encouraging Betty and Bill to go and how disappointed she felt when the home’s librarian— a woman who came in Saturdays to straighten the books — called Rose to the phone and said her father was on the line. Rose says she “just sank because it looked like he was not gonna come up.”

“Well, where are the other kids?” her father asked.

“They’re all at the movies,” Rose told him. “They didn’t think that you were going to come.”

“Well,” her father said, I'm not coming up just to see you.” Rose says that before she became hysterical and threw herself on the floor to cry, she said, “You made me miss the movies, and now you tell me you’re not coming up here?” Once she started to cry, her father said he wasn’t going to talk to her further, and he hung up.

“He didn’t mean to be mean to me or anything,” Rose says, “but it’s true. Why should he walk all the way up there to...?” She doesn’t finish the sentence.

While Rose was crying on the floor, the librarian came in and asked Rose what was the matter. Rose explained, and the librarian asked, “What is it that you fed you’re missing with your father not coming up here? You did talk to him on the phone.”

“I need to ask him questions to figure out how to handle things,” Rose said. “And I need to talk to him face-to-face.” The librarian told Rose that what she needed, then, was wisdom, which came from years and years of seeing actions and consequences. The best way to find what she needed, the librarian said, was to follow her to the boardroom. It was normally kept locked even though the books were there. It held a few comfortable chairs, and it was the only room in the home with a fireplace. Rose said she liked it instantly because she’d been to the public library in Los Angeles with her father when they were all living on the El Toro. After that. Rose spent her Sundays reading.

Once World War II started, certain things changed at the home. It was harder to staff the place now that good-paying jobs were everywhere. Rose’s father was in the employment business, so he tried to send qualified applicants to the home for interviews, but “the standards got lower and lower,” Rose says, “and finally there were people there who were very questionable around children.”

It could be a difficult place to sort out things that happened to you. Rose started her period when she was 13, during the last summer that she spent in the home. Her sister Betty hadn’t started yet, even though she was older, and it scared Rose to death. Although there were sometimes understanding people on the staff, like the Saturday librarian, Rose had no one to ask about this.

At some point, too, a girl in Rose’s dorm began getting into other beds after lights-out. Her intentions. Rose hints, were sexual. “She tried to get in bed with me, and I refused,” Rose says, “and I thought maybe I’d better report this to somebody, ’cause she was a big girl, and I didn’t trust what her motives were.” So Rose told the assistant matron, and the next week, when Rose was playing on the playground, she saw the two of them walking hand in hand. This made Rose feel that she couldn’t trust the matrons anymore.

Either to economize or to build character, the children did some of the work. The boys raked and trimmed. So-called “little” girls swept the dining room after dinner. Middle girls like Rose were on the crew that pulled the beds out from the wall every Saturday, cleaned behind the dressers, washed the windows, and wiped dust from the four casters beneath the legs of each bed.

Rose says she didn’t mind cleaning or mending, that it wasn’t too much to ask. The staff always phrased it so you felt you were volunteering for a particular job, she says.

But one Saturday morning, the outdoor crew was offered a reward for raking up the dead leaves, which had been deemed a fire hazard. That crew would be taken to the zoo afterward.

“Well,” Rose says, “I thought that was exactly what I wanted to do.” But Rose was already on the chart for routine Saturday cleanup in the dorm. She and the other three girls skimmed over everything, cleaning as fast

as they could, and when the inspector came, it was the same matron Rose had ceased to trust. “You didn’t clean the casters,” the matron said.

“Yeah,” Rose said, “1 cleaned them really good, but I might have missed a couple in my haste.”

“Well,” the matron asked, “what are you in a haste to do?”

Rose said she wanted to go rake leaves so she could go to the zoo afterward.

“No, you’re not going to the zoo,” the matron said. “You’ll have to do all of the casters and pull the beds out and do the whole thing from start to finish because you’re just trying to cheat on us.”

Rose insisted that she wasn’t cheating, just hurrying. “And what’s a little dust here and there?” she asked. Rose says she was so disappointed that she threw herself on the bed and cried to the point of illness, and the matron notified Mrs. White that Rose was “going into a fit or something.”

Mrs. White proved more sympathetic, perhaps because she believed that it was the home’s business to restore every child’s faith in the adult world. She promised Rose that she would send two big girls to help her. “We’ll get this done real fast,” she said, “and vou can go down and rake.”

Finally, Rose reached the eucalyptus trees and started raking as fast as she could. Only 30 minutesofwork remained, but “just as they were pooping out,” she says, “I come bubbling up and I’m working away,” and then the supervisor, Mrs. Smith, began to read the list of those who had helped.

When Rose didn’t hear her name, she explained that she was late because she had to clean the dormitory first.

“I’m sorry, honey,” Mrs. Smith said, “you’re just not on our list.”

Rose is quick to point out that no malice was intended. Rose had tried and tried to persuade Mrs. Smith to let her go, and Mrs. Smith had made the usual adult arguments. “She explained that I had not signed up for it, and I had only been there a few minutes, and that it isn’t fair to the ones that — oh, have I heard this many times— if I let you get away with it, then I'll have to let everybody. ”

So Rose didn’t go to the zoo.

Then one summer, the very last summer, as it turned out, the home couldn’t find anyone to work in the laundry. Many of the private bedrooms that housed workers were empty and “things were getting too bad on the books,” Rose says. It was 1943 and Rose liked to hear / Ixrvea Mystery, The Ijone Ranger, and The Green Lantern on the radio, but most of the shows aired after lights-out in the middle girls’ dorm. Rose hatched a plan. She asked Mrs. White if she could sleep in one of the private bedrooms. She said she would ask her dad for a radio, and she promised she would keep the volume down if only she could listen to those wonderful shows.

“Yes,” Mrs. White said, “but you must earn it.”

That’s when Rose learned to work in the laundry. “They had great big tubs, you know, that you’d throw all the clothes in,” she says. When the huge cylinder had finished sloshing the clothes and the soap around. Rose let the water out and filled it with rinse water. She learned that you could use the wash water three times and the rinse water only once. Then she fed all the clothes through an electric wringer. “Oh, I worked for the whole summer there,” she says, “and that was the summer that Mother married Mr. Miller,” and her father finally managed to take them all out of the home. Rose says, laughing, that she had mixed feelings about leaving just as she was about to get her own room. To this day, when she listens to the song in My Fair Lady where Eliza Doolittle dreams about having her own room somewhere. Rose thinks, “God, that was me.”

While the children were living in the home, Agnes Bryant had been looking for a new husband. “She found,” Rose says, “a Mr. Miller.” Mr. Miller had a wholesale bakery route and Agnes worked for him first, then she married him.

Rose’s father was not impressed by Mr. Miller. “Dad met him,” Rose says, “and he said, this man is an alcoholic.’ ” Agnes Bryant responded that he was a good man and he was going to take her children out of the home.

But it wasn’t Mr. Miller who took them out. Mr. Bryant had proved, by then, that his ex-wife “was incapable of the longterm, taking-care-of-the-kids thing.” Now that he had custody, he took his four children out of the children’s home and moved them to his sister’s in Burbank, where they stayed until he rented a beach cottage on Newport Beach’s Balboa Island for $35 a month.

About 15 years after his divorce from Agnes Bell, Gardner William Bryant married a schoolteacher he’d known at Hollywood High. She was a widowed redhead named Mary who was seasick on boats and didn’t care for his cigars. They went to Europe on their honeymoon, and after his retirement, they lived in Europe for three years. Just before a planned trip to the Orient, after bon voyage parties and the packing of books, Rose’s father died of a bad heart. “It’s a happy ending,” Rose says. “He wanted to travel — that’s what he said he wanted to do.”

Agnes Bell Bryant Miller eventually married a third man, Mr. Wade, with whom she lived in what Rose calls a little G.I. house, where she was “just as happy as a clam.” They were married for 20 years, and before Agnes died in 1970, she paid off her debt to the children’s home.

The San Diego Children’s Home was torn down in 1959 to make room for I-5. The new home or “plant,” as its new director called it, was built in Kearny Mesa the same year.

Rose Bryant Saunders lives on a boat named for the place her parents fell in love. Of her father’s failure to visit on that Saturday almost 50 years ago, she says, “I came to a rather adult attitude about things.” She vowed to educate herself and befriend other kids who found themselves alone. She couldn’t trust her mother, and now she knew her father wouldn’t always be there either. “So,” she says, “it was myself that I must trust. I created a whole person, you know, so it really turned out to be good.”

Laura Rhoton McNeal is the author — along with her husband, Tom — of a picture book called The Dog Who Lost His Bob. Her essays and short stories have appeared in the Threepenny Review, the Georgia Review, and the Quarterly.

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Rose, Bill, Agnes Miller Wade, Betty, Uncle Arthur, Agnes Mondon, and Charlie (kneeling), c. 1943
Rose, Bill, Agnes Miller Wade, Betty, Uncle Arthur, Agnes Mondon, and Charlie (kneeling), c. 1943

AT THE TURN OF THE CENTURY, they were called orphans, and they lived in a home on five acres in Balboa Park. Those who weren’t orphans were “half-orphans,”“abandoned children,” or “those for whom we temporarily provide.” The San Diego Children’s Home was built in the days when a home was supposed to look like one, and it did: three stories, all wood. White paint, brick chimneys, balconies, and dormers on the corner of 16th and Ash. At Christmas, the children were treated to a ride past the San Diego Free Public Library on a wooden-wheeled, flatbed truck that had been decorated with ribbons and boughs by the Elks.

Rose Bryant Sanders. Mrs. Bryant had custody of Rose, Betty, Bill, and Charlie.... the baby-sitter called the police, who took the children to 16th and Ash.

By 1913, the number of children needing beds on any given day was over 90. That was the year a Mr. and Mrs. Jennings gave the children’s home $10,000 to build a nursery called the Nellie-Inez Cottage. Mr. Jennings and the members of the board agreed to furnish the cottage — despite the extra cost — with hardwood floors, tiled bathrooms, fireplaces with ornamental tiles, and “other features of beauty” This was for babies and children under five.

The big white house was torn down in the 20s and replaced by a new one, Spanish stucco this time, with an auditorium for the Christmas pageant, a dining room, a library, a little girls’ dorm, a middle girls’ dorm, and a big girls’ dorm.

When the police brought Rose Bryant there in 1940, she was 10. She came with her 13-year-old sister Betty, 7-year-old Bill, and Charlie, who was 4. Rose would sleep in the little girls’ dorm, and Betty would be a “middle girl.” Bill would go to the boys’ cottage, and the baby, Charlie, would live in the nursery. But first Mrs. White led them to a room full of second-hand clothes.

“You’ll have to come with me,” Mrs. White told Rose, Betty, and Bill, “and we’ll pick out some school clothes for you.”

“Well,” Rose said, “I don’t need any of these. I’ve got a dress or two, and I’ve got a brand-new bathing suit.”

Mrs. White laughed, but she was serious about facing facts. Twelve years later, when she was still the director, she would tell the San Diego Union, “Children can take a lot. But there is one thing that they can’t take. That is a lie. They need to know they can depend on you.”

Rose, Betty, and Bill would come to know Mrs. White as the Old Bag, the woman in the cardigan sweater and squeaky shoes whose husband was dead and whose only son was away at military school. Mrs. White would wash their backs, spoon sugar onto their porridge, lead them in nightly prayers, and give them doses of cod-liver oil during flu season, telling them to open their mouths wide like baby birds.

But right now she was handing out used clothes. She told Rose she wasn’t in a position to be fussy. “You’re going to have to wear the clothes that we’re assigning you,” she said, “because you children came here with nothing under the sun.”

In 1940, Mr. and Mrs. Bryant were newly divorced. Mrs. Bryant had custody of Rose, Betty, Bill, and Charlie, and she’d left them with a babysitter for what she said would be a few days. It wasn’t just a few days, so the baby-sitter called the police, who took the children to 16th and Ash. That was the beginning. But the problems had started a long time before that, as problems always do.

“There are two main things that you learn from your parents,” Rose says now. “Only two things,” Rose repeats. “How to do things, and how never to do things.” She draws out the word “never” for a long time, but she’s not bitter and she’s not holding a grudge. She has her own car, her own grandchildren, and a 27l/i-foot boat called the Avalon, on which she lives. She’s over 60 so her hair isn’t dark anymore, and she wears it in a neat French twist, but otherwise she looks just like the grown-up girl in the family photograph taken years after the Bryant children left the home. Rose is smiling and her mother Is smiling. So are Betty and Charlie. They all hold each other by the waist.

In 1941, Rose Bryant’s father worked at the new state employment office in San Diego. The divorce had been final for a year or two, and Mr. Bryant paid the rent for his wife and children. He paid a little child support, but not much, because his salary was low.

Their mother Agnes liked to dance and sing and play the ukulele. She was thin and pretty — “darling,” Rose says — and she’d grown up in a rich family that lost everything during the Depression. Rose’s darling mother had spent her summers in Avalon on her father’s boat, the Dreamer, a wedding present from her father to her mother and the flagship of the Catalina Island Yacht Club. That’s where Agnes Bell met the man who would become her first husband.

“Dad had someone introduce him to her,” Rose says, and Agnes was delighted to meet a man in this way. Her own parents had met in the same romantic place, Avalon, in 1900.

Gardner William Bryant was a handsome aviator who’d served in World War I and the son of a Los Angeles paving contractor. He was eight years older than Agnes, and since leaving the service, he’d become a civil engineer. Agnes Bell became Agnes Bryant.

By the time he and his pretty wife had four children there would be no jobs for engineers. In the summer of 1935, the Bryants moved aboard another boat, not the Dreamer this time, but the El Toro, a 45-foot sloop without mast or engine. The boat couldn’t leave Los Angeles Harbor, but it was elegant inside. Rose says, with red mahogany paneling, and at night, after Rose and the other kids were in bed, their mother would put jazz records on the phonograph or play the ukulele while their father strummed the guitar. Their father knew the constellations and Greek myths. He told them stories about famous men like Benjamin Franklin, who also, he pointed out, had to eat porridge when he was growing up. He knew fairy tales, too, and he was good at telling them. It was so nice living on the El Toro that Rose said to her parents, “Boy, I hope nothing changes. I hope we do this forever.”

Rose remembers what her father said in reply. “No, my dear, nothing lasts forever. But just remember, bad things never last forever either.”

Rose and her family lived on the boat for two and a half years. Her father refused to work for the WFA because he was an engineer, not a laborer, and the professional jobs he found in the newspaper were always too far away — up in Modesto or in Brawley, where it was impossible to go if you didn’t have your own car. It wasn’t until the State of California opened its own employment office that he found fall-time, steady work and sold the El Toro for almost nothing and went down to San Diego to look for a house. While he looked, he left his wife and four children in a big rental house that was also occupied by a family named Cook. That was the first time his wife left him for another man.

“Mother was out trying to look for a job herself,” Rose says, and she found a job as a pollster. “It seems that one of her fellow workers was very attractive to her, and she went off for a week with him.”

The Crooks hadn’t expected to baby-sit for an adulteress, and they called Mr. Bryant to come and fetch his children.

“He had no idea,” Rose says, “that his wife was goofing off like that.”

Things were fine again for a while, at least for the children. With their mother gone, Rose’s father moved the family into what Rose calls “a little house behind another house” in Coronado. Five days a week, her father walked to the ferry, crossed the bay, and walked up G Street to his office.

Eventually, Agnes Bryant returned. She joined them in the little house behind another house. But housekeeping didn’t interest her.

“She invented the automatic dishwasher’s main purpose,” Rose says. Five minutes before Mr. Bryant was expected home, his wife would put the dirty dishes in the oven. When Mr. Bryant walked in, she’d give him a list of groceries, and he’d ride off on the family bicycle or pull one of the wagons to the store. While he was out shopping, Mrs. Bryant washed the dishes and started water boiling for mashed potatoes.

“But there was a big fight about something,” Rose says, “we were never sure [what). I think it was money.”

In any case. Rose knew her mother was unhappy, and when Agnes Bryant left for the second time, she took Charlie, the baby of the family, and went to live with her mother. Rose’s father started divorce proceedings seeking custody of the children, and her mother also fought for custody, though Rose says she doesn’t know why.

That was the summer the children sat on the roof of another house in Coronado, this time a rental on Adella Avenue, and read what Rose calls funny books while they waited for the sight of their father getting off the street car and walking from Orange Avenue. That was the summer they had a piano and a fireplace and a housekeeper with a cleft lip. The housekeeper was named Rosie, and it was Rosie who pleased Mrs. Bryant most when she came back. Finally someone else could do the dishes. But Mr. Bryant had different ideas.

“No,” he said. “Either you stay and we get rid of Rosie, or else you can’t stay. Are you going to take care of the house and the children, or are you going to run off?”

Rose’s mother said she’d do the housework herself, but divorce proceedings had already started, and in time, her father moved out. That left the four of them alone with their mother on Adella Avenue, and Agnes started spending time at the Hotel del Coronado. She went to bars and she met handsome airmen, whom Rose calls “fliers.” She met someone she liked, as she had when she was polling in Los Angeles, and the two of them went off together. When they’d been gone for ten days, the woman who was tending the children called the police. She told them Mrs. Bryant had promised to call and check on the children, but Mrs. Bryant hadn’t called, she hadn’t left any money for food, and the grocery store had refused to give them credit.

Here the adult Rose, the one who’s had children of her own and a divorce of her own, interrupts the story to say she doesn’t hate her mother for what she did. “Mother was Mother,” she says. “We all knew it. Dad knew it. She was a spoiled girl from a wealthy family that lost everything during the Depression.”

Rose even ventures to say that it cost her mother a lot to go on those sudden trips, because while she was gone the police came and took her four children to the San Diego Children’s Home. Mr. Bryant was informed. He decided the home was probably a better place for them under the circumstances. He would have to pay for their keep while they were in the home, but he was already paying for their keep. Rose observes that her mother, in the meantime, “was free to do whatever.”

So in the summer of 1940, Rose, Betty, and Bill followed Mrs. White down the hall to the room full of second-hand clothes.

“We were there,” Rose says, “all the rest of the summer.”

For the first time, but not the last. Rose became “one of those for whom we temporarily provide.” She met orphans and half-orphans and children like herself.

In some cases, “their parents were in jail or sick or in the hospital or something,” she says, “and no one was able to take care of them.” Some children’s parents had separated or died and no one had claimed them yet. The home wasn’t a had place to wait, Rose says.

“In fact,” she says, “[the children] wanted to stay when it came time for them to go live with an aunt or uncle or something like that. Then they really didn’t want to go, and we had big going-away parties, and we gave things to each other to remember us by.”

Rose says orphanage life taught her to be organized. Her possessions belonged in a locker at the foot of the bed. Every morning, according to the rules, she pulled back her sheets and blanket to let the bed air while she ate breakfast and brushed her teeth. Bath day came twice a week — tubs for the girls and showers for the boys. On Saturday evenings Mrs. White scrubbed the backs of the girls and told each one, “Now don’t forget to wash between your toes,” a code for all the places you were supposed to wash but not talk about. If you ran more hot water than you needed to cover your legs, someone would come in and turn it off. If you forgot to scrub your teeth with the bamboo toothbrush and salt-and-soda tooth powder, someone would come in and get you back out of bed. In flu season, you lined up for a dose of cod-liver oil.

Rose also learned to be her own best friend and to get, as she puts it, some smarts. If she didn’t, she feared she would always be a fool.

“Mrs. White would send me into the auditorium,” she says. “There was a big clock in there. She said, ‘Rose, would you go in and bring us the time, please?’ And I literally was going to carry the time back to them, you know, that’s the way I looked at it. So I’d come back, you know, just as positive as I could be, and say, ‘The little hand is on the 12, and the big hand is on the 3.’ And then she’d say something like, ‘Oh, thank you, Rose.’

“And I’d go skipping out, thinking I had done something really helpful to them, and they were laughing behind my back.” Rose was mortified when she realized they were laughing and she went to her sister Betty, who explained how many minutes were in an hour, a half-hour, and a quarter-hour.

“So finally it made sense to me,” Rose says, and she vowed to get the right information from then on.

As the summer wore on, Agnes Bryant found what Rose calls a sugar daddy. He was already married, but he gave Agnes some money and a car, and when he invited her to come and live in San Francisco, she saw a means of taking her children back. To the officials at the home, Agnes Bryant showed her car and an address in Larkspur, up near Sausalito, and the Bryant children left the orphanage for a new life in Northern California.

Larkspur was beautiful, Rose says. The Bryants lived there long enough to attend one semester of school— “just long enough for the grass to go bald and the house to be wrecked.”

The man’s wife had found out, and the deal was off. Agnes Bryant loaded her children back into the car and drove them south to her mother’s house in Los Angeles.

“And there was a big fight there,” Rose says. “They were arguing over what the devil they were going to do with four little kids.” Agnes’s mother and Uncle Arthur were already caring for their own parents in the house, and they didn’t need more responsibilities. Uncle Arthur insisted that Agnes take the kids back to the San Diego Children’s Home.

“They promised they would come down [to visit],” Rose says, “and we were all crying because we didn’t want to go there... we knew what it was like and we really objected strenuously, but Mother had no choice.”

They drove back to San Diego, to 16th and Ash, and the children went back into the home.

“There we were,” Rose says, “for two and a half years.

Their father was still working on G Street at the employment office, but he didn’t come to visit very often because his appearance always resulted in a demand for payment. Rose says the person in charge of releasing children for visits would say, “Oh, you’re Mr. Bryant. You know, you have this running account here, and, frankly, we only have children here temporarily.” He was hounded for money, and so was his ex-wife, so they usually stayed away.

All the school-age children at the home went to a makeshift school in an industrial building near the park. It was a short walk, just down the hill, and because there weren’t many houses nearby, many of the students lived in the home.

The grounds outside the building had been paved over and swings had been erected for a playground. Rose’s favorite teacher was married to a flier, and “she was the cutest thing ever.” She taught the children in her class how to make airplanes out of balsa wood kits and how to identify planes in the air. They learned about blackouts and bombs. They sang the Army Air Corps song. Then they went home and changed into their play clothes.

Rose was not unhappy there. Her cheerful account of life in the home matches newspaper articles of 1940, 1948, and 1953. In 1940, the year the Bryants first entered the children’s home, a Miss Beatrice Warren was hired to teach nursery children like Charlie Bryant about the principles of democracy, an aim announced in the San Diego Union under the headline, “12 Little Boys, Girls Learn Citizenship at Nursery.”

“It is a natural instinct,” the article says, “for a child to seek possession of a toy which he desires, but in the school he learns, through sad experience, that his peremptory grabs meet with resistance, and often with actual disastrous results to himself.”

According to the article, the nursery matrons, including Mrs. White, encouraged each child to dress and undress himself, to wash his own hands and face. The rooms where the children drank their orange juice and learned “very simple rhythms” were bright, airy, cheer-ful, and inviting. Charlie and

the other children slept in white beds under blue-and-white coverlets, and when they woke up, they were tended by adolescent girls from the home who considered it a privilege to help in the nursery because it would help them be mothers someday. Life in the home sounds exactly like life among the young rabbits of The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes.

What did the girls tell Charlie if he asked why his mother, his father, and his grandparents didn’t come to visit? How did the abandoned or orphaned girls respond to questions about dead parents, alcoholic parents, parents who just disappeared? The article doesn’t say.

In 1948, the children’s home would celebrate its 60th year with a tea party. Mrs. E Minton Fetter would pour. The Union would describe the almost daily letters that came to the home from former residents who wrote lines of gratitude “as one would write to a mother.” In 1953, under the headline “S.D. CHILDREN’S HOME MENDS FAITH — Institution Restores Youngsters’ Trust in the World, Reporter Finds,” the photographs show children who might afterwards have posed for a Christmas card. Girls in dresses and barrettes sing and play the piano under the direction of a man in a jacket and bow tie. The man has one hand on the shoulder of a black boy and the other on the shoulder ofa white

boy. The children all have their mouths open like baby birds.

In another picture, five little girls in pinafores sit around the “receiving unit” table and listen to a story read by Mrs. Lillian Loob. Every ponytail, pigtail, and braid is tied with a stiff bow. You can see the comb marks in their hair. They’re the newest “young victims,” the ones who have just been picked up by police responding to calls of abuse or abandonment. “It is pretty hard to talk to them,” Mrs. White told the reporter. “It’s especially bad when they are wondering what will become of them and you can’t tell them because you don’t know.”

For fun, Rose played Monopoly and Parcheesi and cards in the boys’ cottage with her brother Bill, and she visited Charlie in the nursery. Someone put up the money for her to go to Camp Cuyamaca with the Girl Scouts, and she was thrilled, even though it meant she had to wear the second-hand uniform of a much larger girl who had gone home sick. At Christmas, sorority girls ca me a nd made a list of what the children wanted. Mrs. White’s handsome son, the one who was away at military school, came home for the holidays and helped with the Christmas pageant.

Usually, there was entertainment on Saturdays, like “Our Gang” movies shown on the projector. If your parents didn’t come to take you out. Rose says, you were treated to ice cream after dinner. If you had your own spending money, you could go out to a matinee. The Bryants’ grandparents in Los Angeles never kept their promise to visit, but they did send letters containing dollar bills, so sometimes Betty, Bill, and Rose went to the movies.

One week, Rose’s father called to say he would come for a visit the following Saturday. “He had told us that before,” Rose says, “and had not shown up.” But Rose decided he might come this time, and if he did, she wanted to have her father all to herself. Charlie was in the nursery, as usual, and Rose told Betty and Bill to go with the rest of the group to the matinee.

“This is a very, very important thing in my life that happened,” Rose says, remembering how guilty she felt about encouraging Betty and Bill to go and how disappointed she felt when the home’s librarian— a woman who came in Saturdays to straighten the books — called Rose to the phone and said her father was on the line. Rose says she “just sank because it looked like he was not gonna come up.”

“Well, where are the other kids?” her father asked.

“They’re all at the movies,” Rose told him. “They didn’t think that you were going to come.”

“Well,” her father said, I'm not coming up just to see you.” Rose says that before she became hysterical and threw herself on the floor to cry, she said, “You made me miss the movies, and now you tell me you’re not coming up here?” Once she started to cry, her father said he wasn’t going to talk to her further, and he hung up.

“He didn’t mean to be mean to me or anything,” Rose says, “but it’s true. Why should he walk all the way up there to...?” She doesn’t finish the sentence.

While Rose was crying on the floor, the librarian came in and asked Rose what was the matter. Rose explained, and the librarian asked, “What is it that you fed you’re missing with your father not coming up here? You did talk to him on the phone.”

“I need to ask him questions to figure out how to handle things,” Rose said. “And I need to talk to him face-to-face.” The librarian told Rose that what she needed, then, was wisdom, which came from years and years of seeing actions and consequences. The best way to find what she needed, the librarian said, was to follow her to the boardroom. It was normally kept locked even though the books were there. It held a few comfortable chairs, and it was the only room in the home with a fireplace. Rose said she liked it instantly because she’d been to the public library in Los Angeles with her father when they were all living on the El Toro. After that. Rose spent her Sundays reading.

Once World War II started, certain things changed at the home. It was harder to staff the place now that good-paying jobs were everywhere. Rose’s father was in the employment business, so he tried to send qualified applicants to the home for interviews, but “the standards got lower and lower,” Rose says, “and finally there were people there who were very questionable around children.”

It could be a difficult place to sort out things that happened to you. Rose started her period when she was 13, during the last summer that she spent in the home. Her sister Betty hadn’t started yet, even though she was older, and it scared Rose to death. Although there were sometimes understanding people on the staff, like the Saturday librarian, Rose had no one to ask about this.

At some point, too, a girl in Rose’s dorm began getting into other beds after lights-out. Her intentions. Rose hints, were sexual. “She tried to get in bed with me, and I refused,” Rose says, “and I thought maybe I’d better report this to somebody, ’cause she was a big girl, and I didn’t trust what her motives were.” So Rose told the assistant matron, and the next week, when Rose was playing on the playground, she saw the two of them walking hand in hand. This made Rose feel that she couldn’t trust the matrons anymore.

Either to economize or to build character, the children did some of the work. The boys raked and trimmed. So-called “little” girls swept the dining room after dinner. Middle girls like Rose were on the crew that pulled the beds out from the wall every Saturday, cleaned behind the dressers, washed the windows, and wiped dust from the four casters beneath the legs of each bed.

Rose says she didn’t mind cleaning or mending, that it wasn’t too much to ask. The staff always phrased it so you felt you were volunteering for a particular job, she says.

But one Saturday morning, the outdoor crew was offered a reward for raking up the dead leaves, which had been deemed a fire hazard. That crew would be taken to the zoo afterward.

“Well,” Rose says, “I thought that was exactly what I wanted to do.” But Rose was already on the chart for routine Saturday cleanup in the dorm. She and the other three girls skimmed over everything, cleaning as fast

as they could, and when the inspector came, it was the same matron Rose had ceased to trust. “You didn’t clean the casters,” the matron said.

“Yeah,” Rose said, “1 cleaned them really good, but I might have missed a couple in my haste.”

“Well,” the matron asked, “what are you in a haste to do?”

Rose said she wanted to go rake leaves so she could go to the zoo afterward.

“No, you’re not going to the zoo,” the matron said. “You’ll have to do all of the casters and pull the beds out and do the whole thing from start to finish because you’re just trying to cheat on us.”

Rose insisted that she wasn’t cheating, just hurrying. “And what’s a little dust here and there?” she asked. Rose says she was so disappointed that she threw herself on the bed and cried to the point of illness, and the matron notified Mrs. White that Rose was “going into a fit or something.”

Mrs. White proved more sympathetic, perhaps because she believed that it was the home’s business to restore every child’s faith in the adult world. She promised Rose that she would send two big girls to help her. “We’ll get this done real fast,” she said, “and vou can go down and rake.”

Finally, Rose reached the eucalyptus trees and started raking as fast as she could. Only 30 minutesofwork remained, but “just as they were pooping out,” she says, “I come bubbling up and I’m working away,” and then the supervisor, Mrs. Smith, began to read the list of those who had helped.

When Rose didn’t hear her name, she explained that she was late because she had to clean the dormitory first.

“I’m sorry, honey,” Mrs. Smith said, “you’re just not on our list.”

Rose is quick to point out that no malice was intended. Rose had tried and tried to persuade Mrs. Smith to let her go, and Mrs. Smith had made the usual adult arguments. “She explained that I had not signed up for it, and I had only been there a few minutes, and that it isn’t fair to the ones that — oh, have I heard this many times— if I let you get away with it, then I'll have to let everybody. ”

So Rose didn’t go to the zoo.

Then one summer, the very last summer, as it turned out, the home couldn’t find anyone to work in the laundry. Many of the private bedrooms that housed workers were empty and “things were getting too bad on the books,” Rose says. It was 1943 and Rose liked to hear / Ixrvea Mystery, The Ijone Ranger, and The Green Lantern on the radio, but most of the shows aired after lights-out in the middle girls’ dorm. Rose hatched a plan. She asked Mrs. White if she could sleep in one of the private bedrooms. She said she would ask her dad for a radio, and she promised she would keep the volume down if only she could listen to those wonderful shows.

“Yes,” Mrs. White said, “but you must earn it.”

That’s when Rose learned to work in the laundry. “They had great big tubs, you know, that you’d throw all the clothes in,” she says. When the huge cylinder had finished sloshing the clothes and the soap around. Rose let the water out and filled it with rinse water. She learned that you could use the wash water three times and the rinse water only once. Then she fed all the clothes through an electric wringer. “Oh, I worked for the whole summer there,” she says, “and that was the summer that Mother married Mr. Miller,” and her father finally managed to take them all out of the home. Rose says, laughing, that she had mixed feelings about leaving just as she was about to get her own room. To this day, when she listens to the song in My Fair Lady where Eliza Doolittle dreams about having her own room somewhere. Rose thinks, “God, that was me.”

While the children were living in the home, Agnes Bryant had been looking for a new husband. “She found,” Rose says, “a Mr. Miller.” Mr. Miller had a wholesale bakery route and Agnes worked for him first, then she married him.

Rose’s father was not impressed by Mr. Miller. “Dad met him,” Rose says, “and he said, this man is an alcoholic.’ ” Agnes Bryant responded that he was a good man and he was going to take her children out of the home.

But it wasn’t Mr. Miller who took them out. Mr. Bryant had proved, by then, that his ex-wife “was incapable of the longterm, taking-care-of-the-kids thing.” Now that he had custody, he took his four children out of the children’s home and moved them to his sister’s in Burbank, where they stayed until he rented a beach cottage on Newport Beach’s Balboa Island for $35 a month.

About 15 years after his divorce from Agnes Bell, Gardner William Bryant married a schoolteacher he’d known at Hollywood High. She was a widowed redhead named Mary who was seasick on boats and didn’t care for his cigars. They went to Europe on their honeymoon, and after his retirement, they lived in Europe for three years. Just before a planned trip to the Orient, after bon voyage parties and the packing of books, Rose’s father died of a bad heart. “It’s a happy ending,” Rose says. “He wanted to travel — that’s what he said he wanted to do.”

Agnes Bell Bryant Miller eventually married a third man, Mr. Wade, with whom she lived in what Rose calls a little G.I. house, where she was “just as happy as a clam.” They were married for 20 years, and before Agnes died in 1970, she paid off her debt to the children’s home.

The San Diego Children’s Home was torn down in 1959 to make room for I-5. The new home or “plant,” as its new director called it, was built in Kearny Mesa the same year.

Rose Bryant Saunders lives on a boat named for the place her parents fell in love. Of her father’s failure to visit on that Saturday almost 50 years ago, she says, “I came to a rather adult attitude about things.” She vowed to educate herself and befriend other kids who found themselves alone. She couldn’t trust her mother, and now she knew her father wouldn’t always be there either. “So,” she says, “it was myself that I must trust. I created a whole person, you know, so it really turned out to be good.”

Laura Rhoton McNeal is the author — along with her husband, Tom — of a picture book called The Dog Who Lost His Bob. Her essays and short stories have appeared in the Threepenny Review, the Georgia Review, and the Quarterly.

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