Nancy Roman

Orphan Envy

Here’s a post from my earliest blogging days – (with a new drawing added, now that I know how to do that).


When I was eight, I was in a play.

The local Girl’s Club (like the “Y” without the yucky boys) offered afterschool classes, and I signed up for Drama.  Good thing they didn’t call it Acting.  I suck at Acting but Drama is my life.

The drama class put on a play (I think the same one every year) about orphans and dolls.  I think it was called “Orphans and Dolls”.   A beautiful rich girl has outgrown all her lovely dolls and they are very lonely in her attic.  The dolls somehow (I’m sure it was very realistic) convince the girl to give her dolls to an orphanage.  The poor orphans get dolls, the dolls get attention, and the girl is happy for having been so generous.  It’s a good play for an all-girls organization. There isn’t a single boy in it.

How I wanted to be a Doll.  Orphans were okay, especially like in a Shirley Temple movie when she cried and suffered and still had fabulous curls. But the Dolls got to wear makeup and frilly dresses.  Makeup was already my main ambition in life.

My problem was that I didn’t look like a Doll.  I looked like an Orphan.  I was the city’s skinniest eight-year-old.  The thickest part of me was my knees.  I had thin, straight hair cut off above the ears – at the barbershop (no hairdresser for me, since I had hardly any hair to dress.)  I had pale skin and thick eyebrows, and was too tall for my age.  When I see photos of the immigrants on Ellis Island, all the children look like me.

Ellis Island. Courtesy:  Wikipedia

Ellis Island. Courtesy: Wikipedia

But I wanted to be a Doll.

On audition day, the whole class got up on the little stage in the Drama room.  We sang two songs, “Oh You Beautiful Doll”, the Dolls’ number, and “Side By Side”, the Orphan song.  Then the teacher, Mrs. Barbara, divided us into two groups.  One by one, I watched her direct all the tiny, rosy-cheeked, curly-haired little girls to the front of the stage.  The Dolls.  Everybody left was an Orphan.

Well, if I had to be an Orphan, I was determined to be the ultimate Orphan.  I had a great source for orphan clothes, as I wore hand-me-downs not only from my sisters, but from the neighbors  – and many of them came down to me in such sorry shape that even my frugal mother wouldn’t let me wear them.  I would add some patches (or more patches) to one of the worst rejects, and I would certainly look more hopeless than all the other Orphans.

Only my mother wouldn’t let me.  Apparently she had too much pride to let me look that bad, even in a play.  I wonder now what she was thinking.  Could she have been some precursor of political correctness, where she didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings who might truly be an orphan?  Was she afraid that I already looked too pathetic in my natural state?

My mother was insistent.  Orphans didn’t wear rags.  They usually wore some type of uniform.  But I already wore a uniform to school every day – a navy blue jumper with a white blouse.  It wasn’t acting if I couldn’t wear a costume.

So my mother made some creative changes.  She had me put the jumper on first, and over it, my sister’s blouse with the sailor collar.  Too big for me, the blouse hung long over my jumper.  That’s a middy blouse, my mother explained.  Then she gave me black tights (my sister’s – I wasn’t allowed to wear black) and my Sunday shoes.  Now you look like a proper Orphan, said my mother.

I’d rather have worn the rags, but I did kind of like the long blouse.  To this day, I find myself attracted to long, loose tops over dark skirts and black stockings.

The night of the play, the dressing room (well, hallway) was filled with rouged and lipsticked Dolls.  Some of them even had mascara and eyeshadow.  The lead role, the girl who owned the dolls, was – by some weird coincidence – the teacher’s daughter.  She had a dance solo.  Mrs. Barbara Junior had full makeup and shiny hairspray—and tap shoes.  They were patent leather with big bows.  They were very clicky.  They were magnificent shoes.

I found the rest of the orphans in the back of the hallway.  Every one of them wore rags – with patches and tears.  Two of them were barefoot.  One girl – what a stroke of genius – had her arm in a sling!  And there I was, the Coco Chanel of the Orphan world.

I went on stage, mortified that my costume was all wrong.  But I played my part as dramatically as I could, which meant nodding my head emphatically, since I didn’t have any lines.

After the play, I sought out my mother in the folding-chaired audience.  She was chatting with a woman whose daughter was the tiniest and cutest of the Dolls.  My mother waved me over, but the little girl wore so many crinolines, I had to stand back about three feet.  The woman leaned past the ruffles as best she could, and said loudly that I had the most authentic costume of all the girls.  “Absolutely authentic,” she said.

I’m sure my mother put her up to it.

orphan me


  1. You were scarred early in life. Now oversized (not too oversized though) tops and black tights look fabulous on you and not a bit orphan-y!


  2. So what’s with you my friend? Yesterday you were Jealous of your husband, and today you Envy orphans – how can this be when you have it all (or o I am told). Good reads though. Thanks.


    • It was the Jealousy post that reminded me of this one. Not that I haven’t envious of someone or something every day of the intervening two years.


  3. you have a lovely sense of humour


    • Thanks. I’ve always seen everything from the silly side.


  4. So funny and so true about grammar school plays. You brought back a memory of a Christmas play at school where each grade was a different toy. Our class were dressed as tops and we had ridiculous hats, but all of us had hula hoops (to make it look like were were spinning)…. and the lead in that play just happened to be the Principal’s daughter!


    • Isn’t it the craziest coincidence how the people who get the best parts (in plays and in Life) happen to be related to someone important?


  5. I love your Age-8 blog post that is just as hilarious as all your posts all this time later. “The thickest part of me was my knees” had me LOL! Well at least you didn’t have to play an elderly grandma like I did. They put gray streaks in my hair but I still looked like a kid with knitting needles. Your role was nodding. Mine way to fake knitting.


    • I bet you were an extraordinary fake knitter.


      • A bit on the buxom side though and still have no idea how to hold needles.


  6. I once was an ear of corn in the school play. Rustle and sway. Makes your orphan part seem almost Broadwayesque. 🙂


    • An ear of corn takes a great emotional effort.


      • You are too generous:). We made the costume. I drew every kernel with magic marker, then colored them as if I chose to be butter/ sugar instead of Silver Queen. The toughest part was having no part. Speaking, that is.


  7. This reminds me of the Christmas Pageant at my primary school (I’d have been about 7 years old). I actually did get to be a doll, in a long pink dress with ruffles. But I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to play the Virgin Mary. Why would a good little Jewish girl want to play the Virgin Mary in a Christmas Pageant, I hear you ask. But just think about it – who could be more suited to play the Virgin Mary, after all?


    • We had Christmas Pageants at school. I NEVER got to play the Virgin Mary. But one of my dolls got to play Jesus.


  8. Hand me downs were a way of life in my family too. One new outfit at Easter (for good) one new outfit at the beginning of school (for school). No uniforms. As an, eventually, real life orphan I can tell you we never wore patches on our clothes. I think your teacher was a little confused and was doing the “Matchstick Girl” or something. Your mom was right.


    • I got a new Easter Outfit and a new First-Day-Of-School outfit – PLUS one new set of play clothes for Memorial Day, which I then had to save for Fourth of July. They were invariably red, white, and blue.


  9. What is it with having kids play food? Then there was the pert french maid in the play for French class … good thing I had only one line, it was in French. LOL.


    • I actually took one more Drama class – in high school. The teacher said I was the most self-conscious person he had ever met.


  10. Heh heh heh. I remember this one. Isn’t it in middle age we cast aside our inhibitions and get rid of our jealousies? I buried mine so deep, I can’t dig them out anymore. Heh heh heh.
    You must be the most normal, although not quite scar-free (from childhood’s traumas), I know. 😀


  11. I think your mom was thinking of French orphans like Madeleine – instead of the good old American Orphan Annie!


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