When I Was Ten


When I Was Ten


When I was ten, there was a major change in my life. I’m sure that each one of us can identify an event that became a pivotal point in time that changed everything. For me, it was December 1960, the month when I turned ten. That was when my sister, Vonnie, and I were separated from our parents because they couldn’t take care of us anymore. We were taken to a home for girls in Savannah. It was a long way from our home.

I remember being told we would only be in the girls home for six months which would allow our parents to take care of things so we could return home. I didn’t realize what was happening between my parents. I found out later that they were separated and thinking about divorce. In 1960 that was not a subject discussed in front of children. At least, it wasn’t discussed in front of us.

Neither Vonnie nor I really understood why we had to leave our mother, and I remember crying. I didn’t think it was fair that we had to leave while our other siblings stayed. Was it something I did wrong? Probably. But I was told I was a big girl and had to take care of Vonnie, who was not quite seven. I was told that a lot, that I was a big girl, so I dried my tears and took my sister’s hand and left my mother without looking back.

Now, we stood at the door of this big house, waiting for the matron to let us in. It was dark. It was the middle of the night. No one ever told me why we were there so late. Everyone else in the house was already asleep and the matron came to the door in a housecoat covering her pajamas. I remember being cold as she opened the door and greeted us.

After all, it was December. Even in Savannah, it gets cold in December. Vonnie and I had coats on, but we were shivering.

The matron was an elderly woman with gray hair and a kind face. I don’t remember what was said between the matron and the state official who dropped us off. But it only took a minute or two and we were ushered into this strange place and the door was shut and locked behind us. Then, Vonnie and I were alone with this woman we didn’t know and one small suitcase with our things.

A black, brown, and white dog came from the darkness and barked. Vonnie grabbed me, dropping the two bears we had been given by the state official, and she started crying. I held her close. “Don’t worry about him,” the woman said. “His name is Bumble Bee.”

I thought that was a very funny name for a dog. As soon as she said his name, he wiggled his tail and came right up to us, trying to lick our hands. But we were scared. I had been attacked by a dog when I was little and was deathly afraid. Both of us were shaking.

I drew Vonnie back with me, slamming up against the front door. I tried to remember that I was a big girl and had to take care of my sister, but I was deathly afraid of the woman, the dog, and this strange place. Being a big girl was terrifying and I just wanted to go home. 

The woman called the dog back to her and he returned to her side, reluctantly.

“He’s just trying to welcome you,” she said and patted his head. “He’s happy you are coming to live with us.”

We didn’t move.

“My name is Bessie. I’m going to be taking care of you,” the woman said. “You must be Debra.” She extended her hand for me to shake. I did not and kept holding Vonnie to me. “And, this is your sister, Vonnie, right?”

I nodded my head.

“Well, you must be very tired and hungry.”

I nodded my head, again.

“Follow me. I’ll see what I can find for you in the kitchen,” she said in a kind voice.

She turned on the lights as she walked away from us with the dog traipsing after her. I didn’t want to be left at the door, so we followed her. She talked about the house and the girls, but I was enthralled with the room itself.

I had never seen such beautiful furnishings in the large living room. There were couches and chairs all covered in a beautiful material. Beautiful pictures on the wall. A big fireplace and bookshelves. A piano stood at the end on the wall between two sets of double doors that stood closed to the porch beyond. The woman turned the corner and hurried through the dining room and then into another room where she stopped and picked up two glasses and plates from a cabinet, and a knife and napkins from a drawer. Then she led us into this humongous kitchen with a big table in the middle. Everything was so neat, clean, and beautiful. I could hardly believe how much room there was here.

The woman placed the glasses, plates, knife, and napkins on the table. “Do you like peanut butter and jelly?”

Vonnie still clung to me so tightly, I could hardly breathe. I knew I couldn’t push her away. I was as scared as she was,

but I tried to act like I wasn’t.

“Yes, ma’am,” I finally answered timidly.

“Good.” She smiled and tapped the table. “Sit here.”

She disappeared into an open door off the kitchen. When she turned on the light, it was an amazing sight for us. The room was filled with shelves from floor to ceiling containing boxes, cans, and bins of food. I had never seen so much food except in the grocery store. She picked up a jar and immediately returned to the kitchen.

“It’s okay,” she said, placing a jar of peanut butter on the table. She opened a large white refrigerator and asked, “Do

you like milk?”

“Yes, ma’am,”

She pulled out a bottle of milk and a jar of grape jelly, leaving them on the table, then pulled out a loaf of bread from a cabinet. “Just sit down and let me fix you a couple of sandwiches.”

I dragged Vonnie over to the closest chair and tried to sit her in it. She wouldn’t let go of me, so I sat down and placed her in my lap.

“Mmmm,” Bessie said, watching us. “You love your sister very much, don’t you, Debra.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You take care of your sister?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“How many brothers and sisters do you have, Debra?”

I didn’t answer. I was captivated as I watched her carefully. She had lain two pieces of bread open on each plate. Then, she loaded peanut butter on one slice of bread and jelly on the other bread. I was surprised. Two whole pieces of bread for one sandwich! Mother always made a thin wipe of peanut butter and then jelly on a piece of bread, folding it over so each of us had a sandwich.

She placed a sandwich on each plate, cutting them into four pieces. She set both plates before us and poured us each a glass of milk. Neither one of us moved. The sandwiches looked so good, but we didn’t move. 

“Well,” Bessie said, “why don’t I help your sister into another chair so you can eat your sandwiches?” She walked over

to us and reached for Vonnie, who screamed.

“Okay, Vonnie, let’s see if Debra can help you to your own chair. You’re a big girl, aren’t you?”

Vonnie looked at the sandwiches that were just out of our reach. She looked up at me and then back at the sandwiches.

 “I’m not a big girl, yet,” Vonnie said softly. “Debra’s the big girl.”

“You know that you can’t eat your sandwich if you are in Debra’s lap. So, why don’t you come here in the next chair?”

Bessie moved one of the plates and a glass of milk in front of the other chair and waited.

Vonnie was very hungry and looked at me. “Debra, is that okay?”

“Let me help you,” I said and picked her up, helping her into her own chair.

“There now,” Bessie said. “You have your own chair, your own sandwich, and your own glass of milk.”

Vonnie suddenly grabbed a piece of sandwich and shoved it in her mouth. Then, she reached for her milk, but knocked it over, spilling the contents on the table. Vonnie began to cry, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”

Both of us inhaled. “I’m sorry, Miss Bessie. It wasn’t Vonnie’s fault. I should have helped her.” I tried to soak up the milk with our napkins.

 Bessie laughed. Vonnie’s crying turned into a wail. I was scared. I kept saying how sorry I was, but Bessie continued to laugh as she grabbed a dishtowel from a drawer.

“Don’t worry, it’s okay.”

Vonnie and I watched as Bessie wiped up the spill. She rinsed out the towel in the sink, returning to the table with a second towel. “We’ll just need to dry everything off and get you another glass of milk,” she said to Vonnie.

I watched this woman in awe. She didn’t scream at us. She didn’t strike us. She just cleaned up the mess, dried the table, and poured Vonnie another glass of milk. When Vonnie wouldn’t stop crying, Bessie reached over and picked her up, holding her against her breasts.

“It’s okay, Vonnie. You can’t eat if you’re crying.” She rocked Vonnie back and forth in her arms until Vonnie stopped whimpering.

Bessie placed Vonnie in her chair and pulled the plate closer to her. Vonnie took a sip of her milk and a bite out of her sandwich.

“Debra,” Bessie said to me, “you need to eat as well.”

“Yes ma’am, Miss Bessie,” I said and took a sip of milk.

“Debra, my name is Bessie,” she corrected me and sat down across from us.

After I took a couple of bites of my sandwich, I said, “We have another sister and two brothers.”

Bessie smiled at me. “So, there are five of you?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Vonnie said, “And Debra takes care of us. Momma works. Daddy works. Granny and Papa work. Debra takes care of us.” She took another bite of the sandwich and said with her mouth full. 

“Don’t speak with your mouth full,” I reprimanded my sister.

Vonnie finished her bite and took a sip of milk.

Bessie looked at me. “You take care of your brothers and sisters?”

“Yes, ma’am. That’s my job.”

“A big job for such a little girl,” she said.

“I’m ten. I’m a big girl and I do my job like I’m supposed to,” I said proudly and took another bite of sandwich. Then, asked, “Aren’t you eating?” 

“No,” she said, “I ate earlier, and I’m enjoying watching you relish yours.”

I swallowed a sip of milk to wash down my bite of sandwich. “What does relish mean? I thought that was something with pickles and spices.”

She smiled at me. “Relish also means like or enjoy.”

“Oh,” I said and took another bite.

Not long after, Bessie returned us to the front hall to pick up our suitcase. “Follow me,” she said. “I can’t turn on the light to the hall, because it might wake someone up. So, be careful.” She turned and then said, “Don’t forget your bears.”

Vonnie picked up both bears and we followed Bessie to a room that had walls of yellow and yellow curtains. There were three beds with yellow and white bedspreads with a small dresser in the corner.

“This is the Yellow Room,” Bessie said. “Which bed would you like Vonnie?”

Vonnie looked at me and I asked, “Can we have the one in the middle?”

Bessie sat our suitcase on the first bed. “Okay, Vonnie, you take the middle bed and Debra will take the one against the window.”

Vonnie cried, “We don’t have to share a bed?”

“No, Vonnie. You can have one bed and Debra can have one. Will that be okay with you?”

“The beds are so beautiful,” I said.

Bessie opened a bag on the first bed. “We weren’t sure what you would bring with you, so we have pajamas for you to wear.” She pulled out pink and blue flowered pajamas and handed the pink ones to me and the blue to Vonnie.

“They feel new,” I said.

“They are,” Bessie told us. “We wanted you to feel comfortable at your new home.”

I shook my head. “We are only here for six months,” I said. “This isn’t home. This is only a stopping place for us until…until…” I didn’t know how to continue.

“You don’t have to worry about “until,” Debra,” Bessie said. “I’ll leave you for a moment so you can change. My room is right across the hall.” She pointed. “When you are in your jammies, come to me and you can brush your teeth in my bathroom.”

After Vonnie and I were in bed, Bessie gave us both a kiss on our foreheads and turned out the light, reminding us that she was just across the hall.

When everything was quiet, Vonnie whispered to me, “Debra, it’s so nice here.”

“Yes, it is.”

“I think I’m going to like it here.”

“We’ll see.”

“But I have my own bed and we don’t have to share.”

“Go to sleep, Vonnie,” I said.

“Okay.” I heard Vonnie yawn. “Good night.”

“Good night, Little Sister.”

I didn’t go to sleep for a long time. I couldn’t believe we were here in this grand house with lots of food and beds no one had to share. And new pajamas. New pajamas. We always had hand-me-downs, but now we had brand new pajamas. Things had certainly changed since we left Mother this morning. I felt guilty.

I closed my eyes and said a quick prayer to God to say, ‘thank you.’ Then, I fell asleep.

In the middle of the night, I heard someone whispering not to worry because all was going to be fine.

I thought it was God.

But now I realize that it was Bessie.



Debra Birdwell Winkler


My name is Debra Birdwell Winkler. I am a writer, passionate about sharing my stories.

 I was born and raised in the South, and now live in the West. Never thought I’d end up here, but life has moved me from one moment to the next without clearing my destination with me. Things don’t always end up the way I have wanted, but my children and my grandchildren make it all worthwhile. 

I won an award in 5th grade for my poem about my sister. Since that time, I have craved the written word. But life got in the way as I took care of my family and my writing dream fell to the wayside. Don’t get me wrong, I love my family and my teaching. I’ve written poetry and told short stories pretty much all my life. It wasn’t until I retired that I was able to fully concentrate on my writing dream. For the last year, writing has been my focus, my job, my joy.

 One of my short stories has been published online. It didn’t win an award, but I was so thrilled to type my name into Google and find it there for all to see. My grandchildren tell me how proud they are of me. One has even told me that, as soon as my first book is published, he will take it to school and show everyone in his class how famous his grandmother is.


  1. stories of yesterday help show what we have to deal with today. yet as an asian woman my story of yesterday is far different.

Previous Post Next Post