Note from the writer: The following is based on fact. Details about the people described have been slightly altered to conceal their identities.
You see those posts on Facebook, the ones where people reminisce about “Growing up in the 1980s” or “Coming of Age in the Seventies.” On weekends, these children of generations past were locked out of the house and forced to play outside all day, until dark. On weekdays, they walked to and from school, in the snow, uphill.
Promoting a grittier childhood, like those described in these posts, seems unfeasible in this age of entitlement, but I know someone who’s doing it. And it works.
Bernice was approved as a foster parent with my agency a few years ago. After my first interaction with her, I was not impressed. The senior citizen had the voice of a heavy smoker and the linguistics of someone who hadn’t graduated high school. Her bad dye job, in combination with her constant sarcasm, put my guard up. I figured she wasn’t in it for the right reasons.
Fast-forward a month and I’m beckoned to her home. As the adoption worker for the foster care department, I was referred to work with a child in her home nearing her birth parents’ rights being terminated.
I couldn’t figure out where to park in Bernice’s run-down neighborhood. There was a pothole-laden alley behind her house, from where I could see her dragging on a Pall Mall on her back porch. Approaching the house, I saw four girls looking at me with suspicion from a porch swing.
My assigned case was 11 years old. Anna was a beautiful girl who had been removed from her mother after Mom showed up to get her from kindergarten, drunk, driving and combative. Dad was her next stop and he was no better. Choosing teenage girlfriends over her, he allowed his paramours to “discipline” Anna. Her first two foster care placements found her to be aloof and rude. She was removed from each at the foster parents’ request.
I recognized another girl on the porch. Fifteen-year-old Debbie came at me with a wide grin for a hug. I couldn’t resist and opened my arms. I had worked with Debbie at another home where she was almost adopted. Getting her to weekly outpatient therapy and monthly medication management appointments had proved too demanding for her foster parents. That, plus she never stopped complaining about her “pain,” which they found irritating. After nearly reaching an adoption date, they asked she be removed from their home.
The other two girls were sisters and I didn’t know their story. They seemed polite enough and smiled cautiously once they knew my role. I heard Bernice holler from inside, “Door’s always open!”
It was like visiting my grandmother’s house years ago. And in the dining room, there sat a woman so old, I was in awe she was actually alive.
“The kids call her Gram,” Bernice said, introducing me. Gram lived in the adjoining home next door, with Bernice’s grown daughter and grandson.
Over the next six months, I watched Bernice adopt both Anna and Debbie. It turns out Anna had arrived at the home standoffish and aloof. Bernice told her to “get the stick out of her ass” (always a poet) and relax. The other girls already established there exhibited their trust of Bernice and made Anna feel safe. The four girls slept in bunk beds, all in one, dingy, shag-carpeted room. They shared their personal stories, hopes and fears, late into many nights.
When Anna stole food from the kitchen and hid it in her bed, Bernice understood and said simply, “The kitchen is open. Go get something whenever you’re hungry.” There was no punishment, no call to report it.
When Debbie complained about the pain in her hip, Bernice made an appointment and took her to follow-up appointments. The records had shown she had been thrown from a car due to a broken car seat while in the custody of her birth parents. Over 10 years later. though, all her caretakers had chosen to believe she was just trying to get attention. Debbie had a full hip replacement for a never-treated, shattered hip and never complained again.
My work with the girls included building a “life book:” a scrapbook of their history, so they could understand where they came from. Foster kids often have a lot of questions about their past, and filling in those blanks can help them succeed.
The day Anna showed Bernice her finished life book, she beamed with pride. We had done research and obtained records. There were report cards from kindergarten forward. There was a birth family tree, and a Bernice family tree, showing where Anna fit in.
Tears sprung in Bernice’s eyes. “Don’t make me cry now,” she said gruffly.
I learned Gram was Bernice’s aunt. She had taken over raising Bernice after Bernice’s own mother abandoned her. Bernice included Gram in every part of family life. She was surrounded by children, and was loved and revered as a saint.
Anna, Debbie and the two sisters live a simple life. Their shared phone is attached to the kitchen wall. They walk to school, over a mile, in all weather, together. A day out is the four of them walking to the donut shop or the convenience store for a treat. Extracurricular activities like gymnastics, karate and travel sports teams are not on their radar. Their summer schedules are filled with camps offered at their school, by their city and at the United Neighborhood Center. Their one luxury is a Wii and “Just Dance” is their favorite game. They play in that dirt-grass lot in front of their house, with a half-inflated football and the other neighborhood kids.
I got Bernice wrong. From my upper-middle-class world, she was a low-life. Since realizing how much the girls in her home thrive, I have given in. I give in to whatever Bernice has to offer. I’m still not quite sure what it is — maybe just unconditional love and simple acceptance. Her girls are doing well in school. They smile most of the time and no longer have behavior problems. They may get up early to trudge to school, and their only entertainment is each other. But they are family.
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