Did I Ever Thank You, Sister?
By Sal Di Leo
As I worked the shiny new rental car up the winding driveway, some of the old feelings began creeping back into my mind. The large stone structure on the hill looked just as it did on the last day I was there 30 years earlier. It stood solid against the gray sky with three stories of windows looking down on the long driveway. It was as if the place had been waiting in silence over the years for me to come back and put things to rest, so it too could fade away in peace.
As I neared the uninhabited building I found myself looking up to the third-floor window where the older boys’ dormitory had been, to see if maybe I was somehow still there, looking for someone to come and take me home, as I had done so many times over the six years I was there as a kid.
As the car crept up to the large stone entranceway of the orphanage, I could make out the engraved letters in the wall: “The Guardian Angel Home.” My heart almost stood still as I read those words through the windshield of the rental car. I again felt the fear, pain, and shame that were associated with those words whenever anyone mentioned them when I was a kid. The gray of the day was a perfect backdrop for what I was going back to in my mind.
The old line of large cottonwood trees that lined the quarter-mile road up to the entrance hung their leafless limbs down and shook in the whipping March wind. They looked as if they had stood still in time, too, just like the building. They had always looked tired and cold in the winter, I remembered. They, too, had struggled along the way. I almost felt like they were saying, "Go away and don't ever come back. You don't need to do this.”
I took a quick glance in the rear view mirror on my way out of the car to reassure myself that I was the person I was now, a well-dressed professional, just coming from a national convention at the Chicago Hilton. I needed to remind myself I had a new life now and a wonderful family, too. Somehow, however, being here made it hard to escape the thought that I might still be that orphan boy of many long and hard years past.
As I stepped out of the car and looked up at the large front entrance to the building, a cold shiver ran up my spine. I stood still, for what seemed like a year, as my mind raced with thoughts coming out of nowhere. It almost overwhelmed me. Memories of kids who were there with me—I could almost hear their voices again—and questions unanswered wanted to come together at once. It made me weak in the knees.
I somehow managed to take a deep breath and forced myself to head up the cold deserted stairs of the orphanage to the massive wooden front doors. I knew I needed to go closer and feel the building with my hands and have my body feel the steps underneath, so I could conquer this thing once and for all. I knew I needed to go back and face it. When I mounted the last of what seemed like hundreds of concrete stairs, I slowly reached for the doorbell. It rang with an echo. After several unanswered tries, I headed back to the car.
I sat for several minutes in the car and just looked up at the old building. After a while, I turned off the engine and began to remember what I had tried to push out of my mind over so many years. Old memories started unfolding in front of me like I was watching an old black-and white-movie. I didn't feel I belonged in this story.
Title: Did I Ever Thank You Sister?
Author: Sal Di Leo
Sal Di Leo returns after 30 years to the Catholic orphanage outside Chicago that he and his siblings called home in 1963. This is the beginning of a journey of discovery and remembrance as Sal is forced to reconstruct his life as it really happened, including some of his most difficult years at Boys Town in Nebraska. As an adult, Sal tried to rise above his turbulent past in an aggressive quest for power and money. Successes soon led to failures. Eventually, a wise friend convinces Sal to go back to his roots and look for the good experiences and valuable lessons he learned as a nine-year-old orphan.
An entrepreneur who has successfully tackled many challenges in business and in life, Sal volunteers much of his time serving those in need. With his family, he founded St. Francis Lodge, a free retreat center where nuns, priests and others can reflect and rest to enhance their lives and work. The State Fish Art contest, which he started in Minnesota to help kids learn about conservation through art, is now offered in all 50 states and 12 countries. Sal has been actively involved with Rotary and the Lions Club, and he has spoken to service clubs around the United States about his life and the importance of gratitude. His self-published memoir, Did I Ever Thank You, Sister?, rooted in his childhood experiences in a Catholic orphanage, is available worldwide. The proud father of two adult daughters who have successfully left the nest, Sal has been married to his lovely wife Beth for more than 30 years. A longtime resident of Minneapolis, he is a 1977 graduate of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.