During a year of upheaval, reflection and even amazing rewards, a walk back to beginnings can help to return a sense of balance, to find an equilibrium that helps make life make sense again. I’ve been going back to some significant and poignant moments for me for that purpose. One of those periods was returning home after time spent in child foster care. This story was also published a few years ago, but for anyone who hasn’t seen it, maybe something in this will resonate for you too…
I threatened to run away and never be found again if they made me go back to that home. The Department of Social Services, and my unprepared mother, gave in.
My mother had been struggling with escape from an abusive marriage, alcoholism, and no way to fully support her daughters. That’s how we ended up in foster care just after Christmas that year.
We were six girls, ages two to twelve years. I was twelve. They were my sisters, and because I was the oldest, they were also my beloved babies. There was no doubt that having already traversed a very rocky start together, we were a fiercely bonded ‘band of sisters’.
I was quite used to taking care of them, and the house as required, which it seemed was almost always. So, the demand to relinquish responsibility to the social workers who came to take us away or to the people who were to foster us was incomprehensible. It was shocking and infuriating and frustrating.
Many nights I’d lie awake planning our escape from that foster home and formulating the many ways I’d find our mom. I usually ended up crying myself to sleep immersed in the despondency of realizing how powerless I really was.
We were all together in that initial home, except the youngest who was instead taken to live with our father – another story for another time. I was eventually to move to two other homes within a year and a half. Only one sister was allowed to go with me; they gave me one day to choose between the four faces that pleaded to be taken. Despite everything that we’d already lived through to that point, it was then that I learned that a soul could feel fractured.
In short time, and with little choice, we adapted and carried on as kids are so able. Then two years later, suddenly we were all being taken to visit with our mom at her own new home. The visit went by as quickly as I’d dreaded. When it was time to say goodbye to her, it felt like the beginning of all the bad goodbyes again. I could not return to that pain; the next weekend I bolted for home, for her, for good.
So there I was, on the 14th floor in a small, sparse apartment, a temporary only child, but finally with my own mom. Life definitely took another turn in my day-to-day. I spent less time with my friends and more with my mother’s.
She had a friend on the 7th floor. Phyllis was one of those larger than life characters; a hard-drinking party girl, a queen bee who had great pride in being a full-time ‘player’. She seemed to take my mother under her wing. She was a louder than life distraction for a young woman bogged down with desperate problems.
Phyllis held court to an allotment of very proud and loud butch lesbians. They called themselves the girbols (girl boys, hard g). One of them was Margaret. She was pretty, a large woman, and very quiet. Though she liked to hang out with the crowd and indulged in the same drink and smoke, she alone remained quiet.
I came home from school one day, at the start of spring break, and went down to the gang. There was a brand new baby girl cuddled up in Margaret’s arms. I hadn’t even realized that she had been pregnant. The baby was so tiny and delicate, and wrapped in a pink blanket.
Spring Break began on a weekend and as on all weekends, it was time to get the girbol party started. I was immediately designated the girl baby’s guardian. I took baby, and all of her required possessions, up to my apartment.
The ‘weekend’ turned into nearly two weeks, during which I had full custody of baby night and day. It’s awesome, as in really awe-inspiring, how easily you fall in love with a child, even as a young girl, and you immediately wish to be everything it takes to nurture them to perfection.
She needed me for everything and I reveled in that. At night, I would wrap her next to me and listen to her breath and smell the top of her head until I drifted off in true peace. Every minute with her was another moment of reclaimed love. I was once again protector, friend, sister, mother. For awhile I was me again.
Spring break was over and I’d already missed two days of school, I had to go back. That morning, I reluctantly took her down to the 7th floor, gave her back to Margaret and left for school. When I came home, I dropped off my school things and grabbed one of her blankets to collect her. I sniffed her baby smell all the way to Phyllis’s apartment.
When I walked in, I saw Margaret sitting by the window, staring out with the curtains blowing around her. The girbol group was strangely quiet. I asked for the baby and no one said anything. I went to Margaret and asked. “Where’s the baby”? She wouldn’t answer, and then I saw her tears. I was instantly alarmed, even afraid that the baby had gone out the window.
“Where’s the baby Margaret”? I was ready to cry, but not sure why.
“They took her”, she said softly.
“Who took her”?
“Social Services. I phoned them today and they came to take her away”.
I know I asked her why, maybe a few times, but I don’t recall an answer. I doubt she gave one.
I turned from Margaret and I looked at everyone else. No one would look back at me; they kept their eyes on the floor or each other. I turned to Margaret again and watched her silently cry for a while. I walked to the door and quietly closed it behind me.
It was the last day I saw Margaret, or our baby. I went to sleep that night holding that baby blanket. I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. Somehow, I knew in my heart then, that no matter how much I dreamed, I was never going to get my family, my ‘band of sisters’, back in the same way again.
And, we didn’t, not ever in the same way again.