The Bustle in a House: A Change of Title and a Deeper Journey into the Lives of Those I Loved and Thought I Knew

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I could have figured it all out many decades ago. Even for someone who trembles at the sight of numbers, the math isn’t complicated. In 1920, my mother was five years old, and it was in 1920 that my grandmother took six of her seven children, ranging in age from twelve years old to only one, to the Masonic Home in Montgomery, Alabama, and left them there.

She might have come back to visit. I have no way of knowing whether she did or she didn’t. But I can’t see how it matters too much. In any case, she didn’t visit often and she didn’t continue her visits for long.

All six of the children spent the rest of their childhoods at the Home, leaving when they graduated from the local high school.  I have the impression that the Masonic Home wasn’t a bad place. I know my uncle spoke well of it. They had school for the younger children.

But it was, however pleasant, an orphanage, and my mother, her sisters, and her brother were orphans from the minute the door closed behind them, from the day they  came there to live, from the day they were brought there and left.

My mother was five years old on the day she and her siblings watched their mother drive away in the car that belonged to her new husband. She was five years old and that means she spent at least twelve years at the Masonic Home. It also means that the Masonic Home was most likely the only home she remembered.

There are postcards with pictures of the Masonic Home as it looked in 1920. It is an imposing white building that sits among old-growth trees. I understand they had a large piece of land.  One of the postcards shows the building at the end of a long drive or road, and I wonder what the older children could possibly have been thinking as the car made its way slowly down that road. I am afraid that, before I am through writing, I will have a much better idea about that.


The title change occurred because I needed to find a title for a chapter in which the children are cleaning the farmhouse and washing clothes the week after their father dies and the opening line from Emily Dickinson’s poem came to mind. It seems an ideal title for the book.




“The bustle in a house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth,–

The sweeping up the heart
And putting love away
We shall not want to use again
Until eternity.
(Emily Dickinson. Collected Poems, XXII)








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7 Responses to "The Bustle in a House: A Change of Title and a Deeper Journey into the Lives of Those I Loved and Thought I Knew"
  1. joseph says:

    you write so lightly with such grace

  2. Mitzy says:

    Wow wow always wow! There is no more honest or pitessnwriting anywhere.
    If there is retroactive soothing or warming the hearth for little strangers we send them.
    This is where your intense love comes from . Thanks again.

  3. MJC says:

    With what you’ve written here, Dean, I can only fathom the painful chain of events started by your grandmother’s abandonment of her children. In that day of no psychiatry and a “stiff upper lip” mentality, the heartbreak inside each little doober must have been unbearable!

  4. Mal says:

    Miss Dean, you did it again, Mam. Seemingly magically, you transferred intense emotion from your pen to my heart. I am five, Southern, afraid of anything unfamiliar, and I’m behind a window screen pushing little squares onto the tip of my nose, sobbing, just sobbing, as my momma drives away.

  5. Diane Gurganus says:

    Very touching story . Thank you for sharing .

  6. javsimson says:

    Poignant. No, heartbreaking. And I can tell you that my parents gave up for adoption a younger sibling when I was four years old. They already had two children and it was the Depression, and… It will leave any child with the fear of abandonment. Will we discover how your mother fared? Sorry I am just getting to this, but my attention to social media lapsed seriously for a couple of months.

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