A/N: The mother figure is called Kate in the 1982 movie. I've explained name change elsewhere and cover here a little; 1982 is more comic book-esque with a different timeline, but elements like most main orphan characters are logical. It makes sense she'd get one name from a house mother and another from Miss Hannigan when dropped off as an infant.
Girls left before the Depression wouldn't have red flags raised. It's normal, if not left on a doorstep (July, Annie), for a connection to be made to tell about the kid if nothing else, but that house mother would be there then. (They'd lose a few employees from late '29 on.) With 6.5 million people, there'd have to be at least 1 per borough to deal with all the orphans. So, a girl who is at least rather kind and caring would be needed. Hence, '82 Kate's personality. If she seems a bit too sweet, remember she's also cunning, as you'll see; she'd be emotionally smart enough to manipulate things, so she still has that tough side, but a great house mother helps.
July Knows Best (Molly's arrival and much more)
One – Taking Lemons and Making Orange Juice
Mrs. Leonard reluctantly told four-year-old Molly, flat out, "This is it. We are out of food."
They'd tried, but hadn't found any family or friends who could afford to take her. They had been out of food for a bit, except for soup kitchens. They'd sacrificed to get Molly through her worst grieving - they'd been watching her when word came, after all – since they saw her grief more easily than a baby or toddler's. Now? Who knew how long bad dreams or bedwetting would last. As Molly finished her lunch, a patient, understanding orphanage seemed best for her.
"Now I'm going to an orphanage?" Molly asked sadly. She'd been prepared for this eventuality - "out of food and money" seemed easier to the Leonards than sharing the complexities of having a baby on the way. Molly understood they couldn't take care of her, but still felt scared.
"Right. We found one to take you." It went by the simple name "Municipal" plus by the street it was on. "Miss Hannigan said she has a girl named Annie who will take care of you." Hunger pangs hit as she spoke – or, was it the baby kicking? At least Molly had known Mrs. Leonard was pregnant before the accident, so she didn't feel like she was being replaced. They'd ridden the same ferry boat for Molly's fourth birthday with her family; a very special treat!
"Is Annie nice?"
"I'm sure she is. Miss Hannigan said there's a really nice girl named July, too, who is great at comforting little ones," Mrs. Leonard said, careful not to mention nightmares. Miss Hannigan had seemed… well, not quite on the ball on the phone, but Mrs. Leonard had been told they had no house mother when she asked. Annie could be a caregiver. At least Miss Hannigan delegates responsibility. Maybe that's why she didn't answer a few of my questions like I expected. If there were huge red flags, Mrs. Leonard would take Molly to the next closest city one, in Brooklyn; she preferred that to a Catholic one, since Molly's parents hadn't been staunch Catholics.
"All right, Annie," Miss Hannigan demanded at the orphanage, "say goodbye to Miss Kathy so you can finish that dress."
"There's a new orphan coming," July said simply. "I better meet her if Annie'll be sewing."
"She'll be Annie's to take care of so she doesn't keep running off." When July kindly said one "caregiver" should be there, she relented. She knew one girl would manage to get there anyway, and it'd be a bad look if she was caught telling them not to talk to the woman. Miss Hannigan could sound mean, but she was very crafty. "Okay, come on, but don't mess things up."
When Mrs. Leonard and she came, it wasn't Annie like the woman had thought, but another girl. "Hi, I'm July," the eleven-year-old with brown pigtails – perhaps more accurately called bunches - said sweetly. This was good, because Miss Hannigan seemed aloof.
"All right, you got Molly's birth certificate?" Miss Hannigan seemed anxious to just get it over with, which concerned Mrs. Leonard, though she was sure Miss Hannigan was busy. That was why they'd talked on the phone earlier; otherwise, she'd have been taking more time here.
July's demeanor prevented more red flags - Miss Hannigan looked ready to take Molly's suitcase before Mrs. Leonard gave her the certificate. "Oh, Molly," July said kindly, "it'll be okay. We all have a couple things others can't touch, your doll and something in there can be yours. But, everything needs checked for lice or other critters. Let's give you a bath while Miss Hannigan does that," she suggested pleasantly. She told Miss Hannigan it would be less work for her, and continued to sell Molly on the idea.
"She's a little afraid of water… since her parents died," Mrs. Leonard whispered so Molly wouldn't hear. They'd been on a boat to celebrate their anniversary when the accident happened.
"I'm sorry, Molly. We always have to take baths together anyway. How about Annie and I take one with you. I'll hold onto you the whole time. Miss Hannigan can do the paperwork then. Okay?" Molly grinned; if someone was there with her that was okay.
"I told you about Annie; July is my best leader in training," Miss Hannigan boasted. She was secretly glad July was doing this; she couldn't stand to act that sweet.
Mrs. Leonard looked at the nice girl who was still kneeling and talking with Molly. This is why Miss Hannigan had said helping with crying or bedwetting or nightmares was the girls' concern. "I don't think you're in training – you are a leader. Don't let Miss Hannigan tell you otherwise." Is she the unofficial "house mother"? This July learned very well from someone.
July beamed. "Thanks, Mrs. Leonard. Annie helps me watch out for all the girls here. We don't have a lot, of course." She meant in numbers or money.
"Well, that makes it more like a family. She won't get lost in the crowd," Mrs. Leonard said. If Annie's this nice, too, I'm comfortable. She waved at an adult who smiled back at her.
"That's Miss Kathy; she's leaving, like I told you, for work." House mother till the 1930 school year had begun. She was the house mother, than she volunteered here for about a year. Butt, now she needs a second job besides teaching. But we have a great family here," Miss Hannigan said.
Mrs. Leonard nodded. She was starting to feel totally comfortable, but asked a slightly probing question to cement it. "It sounds like you do a good job overcoming during this Depression. Do you help Miss Hannigan a lot, July?"
"She loves it when I make her job easier. Miss Hannigan will let me handle all the girls' needs. Right, Miss Hannigan?" July asked. She'd reacted by comforting Molly, but knew the place was quite bad. Still, Miss Hannigan insisted on another orphan to keep Annie there; why not Molly? So, she forced Miss Hannigan to act in a way that would either send Molly elsewhere or give July more autonomy. July knew she could use the pleasant "yeah" later. She turned back to Molly and wiped a tear away. "I'm sorry you have to be here. But we'll make the best of it."
Molly and Mrs. Leonard hugged and Miss Hannigan and Mrs. Leonard said "goodbye" with July finally going to see Miss Kathy, who had gone to say goodbye to the others. Miss Hannigan promised to take Molly to see Annie. Molly looked back and waved at Mrs. Leonard.
"Do you know how to sew?" Miss Hannigan asked curtly once out of earshot. Molly shook her head in a confused manner as Miss Hannigan got to the sewing room and told Annie to stop. She practically thrust Molly at her. "Here, you take care of her. She'll keep you from running off."
Annie's kindness helped. She sounded tougher than July – she was learning to be a leader herself - but had a nicer side, too. She raced with Molly to see Miss Kathy. She hadn't wanted to believe that Miss Kathy would be leaving for good. Annie didn't realize Miss Kathy hadn't even been getting paid; and now with Molly there, there wouldn't be enough food.
Miss Kathy was talking to a girl named Pepper. "Remember, Pepper - I always said put others first. When you cook or run your fire drills, you are so good at those things. But, do it for them. I know you like to escape with your comic strips and writing, but I've taught you by giving you things to do. And, you do them so well. You like helping others. I know you."
"Yeah, sure." Pepper was very subdued. She won't admit how much she'd miss Miss Kathy.
Annie explained. "Pepper's tougher than any of us. She lived on the street a bit. And, she doesn't show her emotions much except by yelling. She gets bossy. But, she'll listen to Miss Kathy."
Miss Kathy praised all of them, even Molly. Finally, she came to July and brought up a "graduation speech" of sorts she'd given. "You're like a house mother even if it's not official." She closed with: "If you doubt, remember: She didn't respect me a lot, either. Choose your battles, but in certain areas, I've told her, you've earned the right to be the girls' mother here."
"So long, Miss Kathy. I'll make you proud. I'll make you so proud of everything," July bawled.
"I know, sweetheart." Their embrace ended after a minute. Miss Kathy left, a couple girls went to heat water on the stove as Miss Hannigan had ordered to add to the cold water in the tub to make it somewhat warm, and July took Annie and Molly into the bathroom.
Molly had all sorts of questions – ones she wished she could ask the adult, Miss Hannigan. Yet, as July and Annie – a couple months shy of nine - explained everything, she understood. Miss Hannigan didn't like working there, and didn't like orphans, period. Indeed, July had had no name when dropped off, and so Miss Hannigan had arbitrarily named her after the month. Miss Kathy had called her Kate, but – while July might go by Katherine later in life – since another Kate had come, she'd had to go back to her "Miss Hannigan name" of July.
Molly was glad to know she could keep her own name after hearing that weirdness. Still, she wanted to make Annie and July proud. Once they got out and dressed, with the other girls cleaning the dorm area, Molly was reunited with her doll. Miss Hannigan came in, and Molly blurted: "I love you, Miss Hannigan." Molly grinned at Annie, on whose lap she was seated.
"You do a nice job of that," Annie said after Miss Hannigan left. She went on to explain that Miss Hannigan had merely told Molly she would "keep Annie from leaving" because Annie was supposed to take care of her. "I left to try to find my parents sometimes. But, I'll be here for a while." She explained about the note they had left, along with half a locket.
"Can I see your note? Please?"
"I don't let anyone have it, but I'll read it to you." Molly sighed dreamily as Annie read. She soon began to feel drowsy. She was ready for a nap after the excitement of coming there.
July read from a Gideon's Bible the group had left years ago. She'd circled verses that gave her peace. As she saw Molly dozing, she remembered: "I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me." She'd learned a lot from Miss Kathy, but now she needed to trust her instincts – she didn't really comprehend a personal relationship with Jesus but she knew God had given her natural compassion and empathy.
The first problem would come soon. July held a finger to her lips as Miss Hannigan neared. She walked toward her with confidence, learning to be tough yet also react with kindness – let Duffy and Pepper be the enforcers, she thought to herself. "You want us to finish an order, Mill Hannigan? Molly's sleeping, I'll carry her."
Miss Hannigan rolled her eyes. "Letting a baby sleep? You're as bad as Miss Kathy."
Molly didn't awaken at Miss Hannigan's griping, but she did a while later. The sewing machines confused her as she looked around at the older girls as they cleaned up.
"I just got done. Duffy and Tessie are cleaning up from the other dresses we did," Annie explained for her.
"Tessie's a bit small yet," Duffy said. Tessie wasn't quite eight, while Duffy was eleven and a half. "I help her a little, though she's getting really good at sewing. These are the orders they told you about, Molly," Duffy explained.
"Miss Hannigan says I'm real slow," Tessie said worriedly.
"You care about doing a good job. That's what I always say," July said. She wasn't often very confrontational unless someone like Pepper challenged her, but she tried to spread positivity.
Miss Hannigan entered with boxes for the dresses. "Yeah, and I can't wait till you can sew like a pro. I should be able to do even more now that we got another orphan here," she boasted.
July asked Pepper to continue reading to Kate, helping her with one of their letter songs. "Miss Hannigan, Molly will need help. Even Kate's had trouble since you made her use a machine by herself on this order."
"You teach Molly how to sew. I didn't ask Mrs. Leonard to," Miss Hannigan snapped.
"So she wouldn't get suspicious?" Pepper, ten and a half, piped up.
"I'll have you know I run a very clean factory," Miss Hannigan contended in a huff. It was an illegal sweatshop, but that was beside the point. "What's the fire I tell you about?"
Pepper knew right away – she was bossy, but fire drills were in her wheelhouse, though not for that reason. "The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire," the older girls all declared at once.
"That's right. The annual orphanage inspection has to go through every room. The fire inspector has to come here. They always say it's up to code. Doors work, fire escape's unlocked, and there's a clean path to it. I told him you girls are nuts about sewing."
When Kate asked if that was a lie, Pepper cracked: "It does drive us nuts."
Molly didn't like Miss Hannigan's shouting. So, she looked at July. "The what fire?"
"That was a really bad fire where a lot of people died," July said. She knew they'd had more orphans and machines years ago, so Miss Hannigan had invented employees and said the girls sewed for fun. A few former orphans worked for almost nothing in another part of the building.
"That's why you girls clean. I want this place spotless before you get free time." A few girls groaned. "I wish Tammany Hall hadn't gone progressive. But, we got rules." She could have gotten away with more, but the organization – known for a century nationally for its corruption – had sponsored reforms in the last couple decades, especially in wake of the fire. But, she had ways to keep the Board of Orphans from "poking their noses in," including making people watch to make sure something else bad wasn't happening instead.
Molly was hesitant, but July reminded her this was one of the things they'd talked about. Still, once Miss Hannigan was gone, Molly was frustrated as she scrubbed. "I can't believe this. All the time it's clean, clean, clean!" she complained.
"And it's only your first day," Pepper moaned. "I've been in this dump for years."
"You've got a nice, loud voice, Molly," Duffy told her. "Try singing something." Molly did – it came out as more shouting than singing. "We can dance when we're done, but how about I give you some singing lessons while we clean?"
"Yeah. Miss Hannigan's a real lemon. You can't make lemonade out of what she gives us, so we try to change things and make orange juice," Annie quipped. The term "lemon" was slang for a "loser," though it wouldn't come to refer to defective cars for decades.
Miss Hannigan came back later to hear them singing. "All right, as long as you're working. Don't you know the Triangle Shirtwaist fire started on one piece of fabric?" she asked Molly. That spark may have come from a discarded cigarette, but Miss Hannigan didn't care.
"She'd never heard of it before today," Annie contended. She was young, but had a very confident attitude and easily stood up to Miss Hannigan. July picked her battles a lot better.
Miss Hannigan saw some were going more slowly. "All right, get to work. I said get to work!"
July saw Molly looked ready to complain loudly. "Let Molly tell them to get to work, that'll teach them. Do it, Molly, yell at them like Miss Hannigan does. Let out that energy."
Molly stood and screamed louder than Miss Hannigan had. "Get to work!"
"See, Miss Hannigan. They're going faster," July said. That they were doing so to let out their frustration was beside the point.
Molly stunned July by turning toward her and saying the same thing, even pointing a finger at July. She felt like she could trust July. "I said get to work!" the little girl hollered.
"Yeah, tell those rotten orphans off," Miss Hannigan told Molly, cackling as she left. If she could use Molly to antagonize the others and push them to work, so much the better.
Molly kept hollering after Miss Hannigan left. Annie finally got up and covered her ears in front of her. "Molly, please. Yell at us if you're upset. But tone it down." She toned it down a bit.
That evening, Duffy held Molly's hand in their dorm area. "Let's kick like I showed you in our free time outside." Molly looked down at her legs and over at Duffy's as they lifted their left legs, then their right, like in a chorus line. "Very good. I liked how you sang, too. We'll work on all that while you're here." She'd actually shouted just as much, but for a girl of four and a quarter or so, that was normal. She had talent, and Duffy knew she could work with her. "I've been doing it since I came." She'd always loved it. Miss Kathy had taught her as best she could. Duffy had natural talent to learn on her own, too.
Molly began to kick while singing softly – she was concentrating on the kicking - from a song Duffy had gotten them singing right before Miss Hannigan had entered. "Come on and hear, come on and hear, Alexander's ragtime band."
"Godo job," Annie said as July finished tucking Kate in after they had sung to her. "You got the words right." Annie was becoming the leader of the orphans, but she was still pretty young yet. Still, she encouraged the singing and dancing as an understudy of Duffy's, so to speak. She now had a charge of her own, while July was a mother figure for all of them. And, she could take control like Pepper or the other two older girls. "Okay, get in bed so we can sing to you."
"Thanks, Duffy," Molly said as she hugged Duffy, who returned the hug. Duffy expressed how pleased she was that Molly liked to hug – they hadn't done that as much before she'd come, but now she had them doing it more again, like when Miss Kathy had been there full time.
As the little girl laid down, Pepper came over. Pepper hadn't sung with the others – she felt the song to the tune of "Old McDonald" was too repetitious. They only changed the name. "Hey, we can't sing that same old song Molly's first night," she insisted. She held up a paper. "We gotta redo our letter M song anyway. I'll sing to her." Pepper began "The word me starts with M …" before the others knew what was happening. She sang other words that began with M, just as in their other letter songs, which was the "Farmer in the Dell" tune. However, she changed the last two lines. "…Marble, March, and May. Now we've got Molly, too, we love her all the way."
"Thanks, Pepper," July said. "I hadn't even thought about that song yet. We've been so busy teaching Molly all about this place." Each of them had their name in the song with their letter. She was glad others picked up what she missed – just like Miss Kathy had said would happen and had happened since a year ago, when she'd begun to be there only part time.
"Well, now we've got a new 'M' song that everyone can learn." Molly got up and hugged he; Pepper wasn't a big hugger, but she rubbed the little girl's back.
Tessie was almost eight, and didn't think about whether Molly might not want reminded of nightmares. "Tell her what you told me to stop nightmares."
"Yeah, Molly," Pepper said as she picked Molly up and sat her on her bed. "If you have any monsters come into your dreams, you just think of me. 'Cause I'll come in and give 'em a knuckle sandwich, so scary stuff can't bother you."
"Some of hers… involve water," July whispered delicately.
Pepper began an elaborate description of how – if a sea beast appeared – it couldn't get to Molly because Pepper would come in a boat, cast a huge fishing net over it, and drag it away while "punching it in the snoot." She said this would make sure it never returned.
Annie held up her hands. She was becoming more of a leader, too, with her confidence – though it was to the point of brashness at times. "I don't know if Molly knows the snoot is its nose. But, yeah. If something happens in a dream, it always helps to talk about it," Annie said.
"Yeah. Quietly, so I can get some sleep. And, if you wake me up, at least tell me how I can fix that monster so it won't bother you anymore," Pepper said resolutely. Molly would have almost no nightmares, thanks to Pepper's advice, except for those involving her mom on a ferry boat, and then disappearing. Pepper's plan worked, except for those dreams where there was nothing for her to defeat, there was just Molly's missing mom.
It wasn't the only thing Pepper insisted on protecting her – and others – from, though.
"Miss Hannigan drank and listened to the radio the whole rest of the afternoon," Duffy said a couple days later. She walked into the kitchen from where she had been – Miss Hannigan's office. "Ruffling papers. I think Pepper heard her mutter about her plans going to waste."
"She let Pepper cook supper," Kate, five, said happily.
Pepper looked at the little girl as she, Kate, Molly, and Tessie made sure the table was clean. "Yeah. But usually if she does, she's yelling at me to do it because she's busy. Or going on a date," Pepper reminded her, mostly for Molly's sake. This was only the third day that Molly had been at Miss Hannigan's orphanage. "Today, nothing."
They heard footsteps. Wobbly ones, to be sure, but still, Molly hid behind July and Annie. She watched anxiously to see if Miss Hannigan – who had been screaming earlier that day - would start yelling again. Pepper tensed, too; this was why she ran such tough fire drills. She'd seen violent drunks on the street. Miss Hannigan had never been a violent one yet, but now…?
July was the caring mother figure, but Pepper was the one to instinctively signal the others to leave; only Pepper and Duffy remained. July looked worriedly back at her friend. Pepper's so tough, and tries so hard. I'm thankful, but I wish she'd let me help her sometimes.