When I was really little I didn’t realize I was an “orphan.” But with my mother dead, and no father… I felt this sense of absence almost every day while growing up. Luckily for me, I was raised by my maternal grandmother, so I wasn’t 100% alone, but that absence of parents still lingered like a ghost.
It wasn’t until I started school that I realized how “other” I had become simply for not having these mom and dad things that everyone else seemed to have and be so fond of. At least half of the kids I knew had dysfunctional, divorced or distant parents…but they still had them in their lives in some way. They could refer to them. They had experienced a “mom” and a “dad.” For me, those two words were always strange and felt unnatural coming out of my mouth.
If you read my graphic memoir Other Boys, there was an intentional use of the formal “mother,” rather than an informal “mom” or “mommy” when referring to my mother who had died by the start of the story. That was intentional, and how I referred to her. The word “dad” or “father” simply never came out of my mouth. But “mother” felt like something out of a fairytale to me.
You see, people (especially kids) talk about their parents a LOT. Which is something I’ve learned people with parents don’t even realize they do. “My mom is picking me up after school.” “I’m celebrating Christmas with my dad this weekend…” “I need to send my mom a text.” “I forgot to tell my dad happy birthday.”
Often, especially in the land of book readers and movie watchers I will see people call out the “orphan trope.” They usually say something along the lines of it being “overused.” They say it in this way as if it’s some sort of thing that doesn’t happen, or as though it’s a type of person that doesn’t exist in the real world. It feels, at times, as if people like me are being compared to dragons or gnomes. Some thing you read about in a book, but have never actually seen. I’ve heard that there are too many, and they’d prefer to see more of what I only imagine they define as normal families. But as someone who had no parents I would say I mostly see the opposite in the media. All I notice, whether in books or on TV, are stories with parents. Stories about parents. Married parents. Divorced parents. Kind parents. Cruel parents. Step parents. All sorts of them in all forms.
The thing is, I’ve noticed that when you aren’t something it stands out more to you because it’s not your “normal.” Like when there are people who think there are too many gay stories nowadays when, as a gay person, you’ll notice these handful of stories are only a small drop of rain in a huge puddle of straight stories.
In Other Boys I touch on how important these stories about orphans were for me.
In this panel you can see references to Meet Samantha, Anne of Green Gables, and a doll of Chuckie from The Rugrats; all characters who had lost parents. Matilda was a favorite, which follows a girl with a dysfunctional family who is ultimately adopted by a teacher who had been orphaned as a child. I intentionally showcase characters and stories from unconventional and parentless backgrounds. Characters like Spider-Man, who has lost his parents, all the way to Cabbage Patch Kid dolls who are born without parents.
Stories about orphans gave me comfort and made me feel seen as a kid. When reading them I felt like I mattered…like I was normal. Spider-Man was a superhero who stood out to me because he was being raised by his older aunt and uncle after losing his parents, and then loses his uncle, much like I had been raised by my grandparents and then my grandfather passed away. Stories like Anne of Green Gables made me feel more positive like I had possibilities, and often the way all of these characters were treated mirrored ways that I felt I was treated.
When you have no parents to defend you, you notice you’re more likely to be picked on and pushed around by both kids and adults. There were times when I felt truly expendable, and wondered if it would have been better for everyone if I had died when my mother did so that I wasn’t inconveniencing anyone. Much like Anna felt in the Studio Ghibli adaptation of Joan G. Robinson’s When Marnie Was There. She sits alone as a small child as the adults debate who has to take her, and eventually winds up in foster care. Not to say that kids with abusive parents can’t face similar experiences.
There is generally this strange sense of loneliness that creeps in when you look at other kids who have parents when you don’t. On the days where I had to trudge home alone in the cold snow until it soaked through my sneakers and khakis, as I watched other kids be picked up by their parents in warm and cozy cars. My grandmother didn’t drive, so I didn’t get that sort of comfort, and I didn’t want to inconvenience any other family members who did have cars. Sometimes I would just stare at these kids with parents and wonder what it was like. The closest I’ve seen this feeling represented on a screen was in the stop-motion animated film My Life as a Zucchini in the scene below where the orphaned and foster children stare at a mother buttoning up her son’s coat.
Sometimes when people would talk about their parents, just telling a funny story or something I would talk about my grandmother in a similar way. If they were someone who wasn’t super close with me they would look at me with confusion, and I realized they were wondering why I was talking about my grandmother adjacent to them talking about their mom or dad. Grandmothers were for baking cookies, knitting sweaters, and giving you $20 in a birthday card, not doing day-to-day parent stuff. Either a closer friend would explain to them, or I would have to pause and explain it myself. They would usually say, “I’m so sorry” as if the tragic orphaning had just happened, or be like “Oh.” Every time this happened I felt myself being slowly sliding over into the “other” category. They’d look at me like I was different, or like some tragic story. The same way teachers looked at me through elementary school. A tragic little outcome from a tragic little event living a little tragic life that they all had to bear witness to. One of the only books I have stumbled upon that actually expressed this feeling exactly like I did and do currently is Dancing at the Bitty Party: A Dead Mom Graphic Memoir by Tyler Feder. There’s a part where Feder mentions how awkward it is when you have to comfort someone else about your parent’s death because they feel bad. It was the first time I’d ever seen someone else talk about that weird moment I have experienced so many times, and made me feel seen.
When I was little I would make myself small. I’d cross my hands politely, keep my head down so people couldn’t see my face turning red, keep my legs as tight as I could get them, and I would try to make myself as small as physically possible. I figured if I could make myself tiny enough then maybe I just might disappear.
Often times, there are two types of orphaned kids depicted in stories. In A Series of Unfortunate Events the three siblings choose to accept that most adults are unhelpful, and that they are on their own. They see the worst, acknowledge it and keep moving forward. In Anne of Green Gables she chooses to be positive and brave, even when she does not feel positive or brave. She nearly always chooses to see the best in others and wants nothing more than to be wanted. Generally orphaned characters either have the intense desire to be wanted by anyone, or fully accept their belief that they are unwanted.
When referring to orphans I think most people automatically jump to the stereotype of the redheaded orphan from the mid-to-late 1800s. Anne of Green Gables, Annie from the popular musical/movie/comic, and Oliver Twist are a few, as well as Nellie from the American Girl stories. This recurring character was based on truth at the time that these books were written. The redheaded aspect is associated with the many Irish immigrants arriving in America between 1820 and 1860, around when these stories take place. Many immigrants were also poor and died of illnesses at the time, leaving behind their children.
I’m sure there are contemporary authors who might have studied these books and end up using the “orphan trope” as a lazy way to get rid of parents and get an adventure started. But I can tell when orphaned characters are written authentically or not. I can tell when the grief feels authentic or if it simply feels like a reflection of an idea an author saw once and tried to replicate. Drawing from your own personal experiences is the best way to tell a story in my opinion.
When I grew up and started dating I dreaded having to mention anything about parents and would avoid it as long as possible. Once, when I was getting broken up with, he told me he didn’t know how to deal with my “whole dead parent thing” even though I had only mentioned it once. Another time a new friend got excited when I told them about it, and said they’d “never met a real-life orphan before.” Generally, people brush it off, or say their awkward “sorry” before moving on, but these awkward and miserable little moments always hang over me as a possible outcome. One people with parents don’t have to deal with again and again. A scar I have to keep explaining to every person who is intrigued by my peculiar little life. Every new friendship, every boyfriend, every teacher, and everyone else in-between would eventually know, and they’d make it a whole thing. Like when I was talking to my psychologist about my seasonal depression and I had to forcibly speed him past the whole dead mom thing that I had already gone over with a half a dozen therapists, and wanted to move onto more current depressions before our session was over.
As a kid, I always craved the day that I was an adult and mention of parents became less important. But that day never really came. All the time, people pick up the phone for their mom and dad or talk about stories with them from their childhood or how they were seeing them on the next holiday. Each time, I listen to them as if they’re describing something out of a fairytale. It’s always felt to me that parents only existed in movies and TV shows and books. As a kid I was filled with envy and loneliness, stirred together in my head giving me a weird mix of feelings. As I got older I’ve learned to handle it with humor, like when someone mentions their mom and I’ll just say, “Wow, brag.” Though I generally only keep that humor for close friends.
I had always thought that as I got older the grief would fade completely, but I’m finding more and more that this somber sense of absence will always there.
When writing Other Boys I kept thinking about how there was possibly going to be readers who let its non-fiction status fly over their heads, and would judge it as “another orphan story.” Though I’m a real person, and Other Boys is a real story. I’m an actual person that is actually alive, and not just a character in a book. And that’s part of why I wrote Other Boys. My story is a real example of a real person who really experienced parental loss. Not a Disney Princess or a Victorian Orphan from 1904. I wanted to create a real example of “the orphan trope” that someone else who experienced loss like me might connect with. After doing a few virtual school visits I found there were kids who already connected with this part of my story. I guess that’s why I turned myself into a literary orphan. To make others feel more seen, and to let people with parents know that we really do exist.
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