I was young, single, in a dead end job, generally unhappy, and feeling useless. So when somebody told me there were jobs available at a local Home for Children as a houseparent I thought that would be a rewarding job and an opportunity to go back to college. I never made it back to college but the rewards were priceless.
The Home for Children was located on a beautifully green and rolling campus with enormous trees and a winding driveway that curved by each of the several large houses. The homes were grand old brick structures with cavernous rooms. Each one housed from six to eight children. The house I was assigned to had eight children – two girls and six boys. They varied in age from six to twelve. Two of the boys were brothers. One of the girls and the youngest boy were siblings. There was only one orphaned child in the house – a twelve year old whose parents had died in a car crash. The other children all had parents but for one reason or another were not living with them.
I had been aware of homes for orphaned children all my life and I knew there were situations when children lived with relatives other than their parents for one reason or the other. But having no family who wanted to care for you was an eye-opening perspective for me. Some of these children had been removed from their parent or parents by court order. Some children had absent parents due to drugs and/or alcohol and grandparents too aged or infirmed to care for them. Sometimes available relatives declined to help out. Some children had simply been lost in the fray of divorced parents with neither parent wanting to be responsible for them. It was heartbreaking. These various situations left the children hurt and confused. The children lacked the ability to identify their feelings much less verbalize them which led to all kinds of behaviors in their attempt to sort out and deal with what was going on in their little lives. Dealing with the children and their unpredictable behavior was challenging, frustrating, and rewarding.
I had always wanted to have a large family and it seemed that I had landed right in the middle of a ready made one. Only this family was far from my starry eyed vision of the Waltons – who, as you might remember from movie or TV fame, were always kind, considerate, and loving to one another and everyone else on the planet. This real life crew was prickly, cantankerous, sneaky, occasionally explosive, and sometimes downright mean. I never blamed them but the bad behavior needed to be dealt with and it wasn’t long before I realized that I might be out of my depth. Some of these kids needed serious therapy.
Mornings in our home were not immune to problems but being slow and sleepy helped me get my eight charges up and moving into their routine of dressing, teeth brushing, breakfast consumption, book bags packed, and out the door to the bus stop.
Once the last kid had boarded the bus I enjoyed a cup of coffee and finished cleaning up the kitchen. Even though the children mostly cleaned up after themselves there were always straggling dishes and counters and tables to clean off and sweeping to be done. Meal planning and grocery shopping needed doing most days. Sometimes there were school meetings to attend. Occasionally, one of the children stayed home because of illness – usually no big deal but sometimes demanding – especially if it involved more than one kid. Of course, like every other job in the world there were always meetings with other staff – most of which were helpful. Early on I imagined that this would be the time that I would be able to attend a class or study but somehow that didn’t happen.
Most of the houses had a married couple and a single person working in tandem. Ours was no different. We each worked five days a week, which included every other weekend. Therefore, there were days that overlapped and we would all three be working together. I had two large rooms upstairs in the house with a large private bathroom between them. One room was furnished as a living room and the other was my bedroom. Although not particularly fashionable they were both comfortable enough. On days off there was another house available with a kitchen, living area and bedroom and mercifully quiet and free of children. At first I had the notion that I could just be “off” and stay in my own bedroom and living area but quickly learned that was no way to rest up for the five days to come! Even though the children mostly respected my space there was still a good bit of noise and the kids relied on me if I were present in the house.
The children under my care taught me unforgettable lessons about many things. Big things like: love and trust and betrayal. But countless lessons on things that seem simple but turn out to be pretty big in the long run – like how big small kindnesses really are; choosing which battles to fight; how to make the most of an afternoon in any weather; that sometimes there are things – situations and people – that can’t be “fixed”; and that peanut butter and jelly is best on toast. Probably the most amazing lesson I learned is that in a kid’s view a bad parent was better than no parent. And some of these kids had pretty bad parents.
Let’s start with Mickey. Mickey’s parents had divorced. When Mickey’s mother died in a car accident her parents were too feeble to care for him. Mickey’s dad had remarried a woman with three children and then they had two more children of their own. Mickey’s dad figured he had five kids to feed and clothe and that was his limit. On very rare occasions Mickey’s dad would take him for a weekend but more often than not he would say he was going to take Mickey for a visit and then he wouldn’t show. Poor Mickey would always wait with suitcase packed, hope in his heart, and great determination until bedtime – by then it was clear that his dad wasn’t coming. Trying to move Mickey from his valley of disappointment into the usual bedtime routine without an explosion was a real feat. Sometimes the poor little guy managed to hold it together until after he crawled into bed where he would cry himself to sleep. And who could blame him? I would sit by his bed quietly and rub his back if he would allow it. There were no words that could make it better. And his crummy dad never even called to apologize for the “no show”. Nor did the derelict human even call just to check on poor Mick – ever. Yet even with this deplorable treatment whenever Mickey got mad his big threat was that he was going to call his dad who would come and exact justice for Mickey. Favorite phrases that I heard often were: “I’m going to call my dad and he’ll come and beat you up!” or “I’m going to call my dad and he’ll come and get me. I don’t have to stay here!” It was unbelievably sad.
Sarah and Stevie had been found in the city eating out of garbage cans. Their mom was hooked on drugs, earned money as a prostitute, and was totally incapable of attending to their welfare. Social services had located a grandmother but she was frail and unable to take them. They were beautiful children but they were sullen and quiet. Stevie was six years old, preferred solitude, and balked often at any demand placed on him. Sarah was ten years old but she acted like a teenager already – experimenting with make up and boys. A couple of times we found her with boys in her bed after lights out. She had already seen and done much more than other girls her age.
Bryan and Johnny were handsome dark-eyed brothers only a year apart. Johnny was eleven; Bryan was ten. They had a much younger brother, Markie, who had been sent to a foster home with a young couple because the group environment was too overwhelming and over stimulating for him. Reports showed that he was flourishing with this couple and they very much wanted to adopt him. The boys were not orphans but their parents were completely absent from their lives. Their father was an alcoholic and had been abusive to their mother throughout all of her pregnancies. In fact there was suspicion that some of Johnny’s slow mental development was likely related to injuries sustained while in utero. The mother suffered from severe depression and was hospitalized after becoming psychotic at which point the dad left the boys with their one set of living grandparents and simply vanished. Although the grandparents felt fully responsible for the boys they were advanced in age and after the grandfather suffered a heart attack the grandmother became overburdened. The boys visited their grandparents on some weekends and holidays but even though they were basically sweet natured they were too exuberant to remain in their care full time. The mother’s mental state was never reported to be improving.
William was a blond haired, blue-eyed ten year old from an abusive home. His parents were divorced. Both had remarried and had several other children with their current spouses. Both parents did drugs and drank a lot. They also beat their children. When the new spouses got fed up with the drugs and drinking and beatings they took their children and left the situation. After William’s dad was arrested for assaulting a neighbor and his mother had skipped town William was left with no one capable of caring for him. Mostly he was quiet and had a very sweet smile. Unfortunately, he was also a practiced liar and thief. You could count on one thing: he was incapable of telling the truth. I wanted to believe in him. I wanted to trust him – just because somebody needed to – but the poor guy could NOT tell the truth if his life depended on it. He was caught shoplifting in nearby stores on numerous occasions. It was exasperating and so, so sad.
Eight-year-old Katie was one of the cutest little girls I’d ever seen – silky blonde hair, crystal blue eyes and a smattering of freckles on her cheeks and tiny nose. Her father was not in the picture. Her mother was an alcoholic and the court had intervened because of her neglect. Fortunately, her mother adored Katie, grieved her choices, joined AA, and faithfully collected Katie every Friday for a home visit. This sad, sweet pair lived for their time together – their faces openly reflected the fullness in their hearts when they saw each other and the sorrow when they parted. Katie’s mother also called her every single evening to ask about her day.
Tony was a handsome twelve year old and the only true orphan on the whole campus. His parents had been killed in an automobile accident and he simply had no other living relatives. A young man, Jim, who served as a Sunday School teacher as well as a Scout Master at the church we attended had taken an interest in Tony that had blossomed into a mutual friendship and mentor relationship. Jim took Tony to his home every weekend and holiday. Sometimes they went camping, hiking, sailing, or to visit Jim’s parents. We were all pretty sure Jim was gay but this was back in the day when folks were mostly in the closet and no one spoke openly about it. What we knew for sure was that Tony was happy and probably the most well adjusted kid on the whole campus. The campus counselor concurred.
Weekends left us with less children than during the week. Tony and Katie were reliably out of the house from Friday afternoon to Sunday evening. Often Johnny and Bryan were with their grandparents or Markie’s foster parents. Occasionally Mickey would be away with his inconstant dad. But I could count on William, Sarah, and Stevie being my weekend companions at the very least. Some Saturdays we would plan outings and some we left open for creative play. We flew kites, played tag, planted flowers, carved pumpkins, strolled the campus, baked cookies, watched cartoons, or read. On Sunday we walked a few blocks to church and then spent the afternoon preparing for the week ahead. Who had homework to do? Who had a project due? Who needed clean clothes? What about shoes – invariably someone was in need of shoestrings.
If this sounds idyllic – well, there were days when it almost was. But, trust me, there was always something brewing – or exploding. Somebody was out of sorts. Somebody was mad at somebody. Somebody hit somebody. Somebody lost something. Somebody stole somebody’s something. Somebody crying. Somebody screaming. Somebody bloody. It was like a three ring circus – only more rings and more stuff happening. Even so I loved those kids – they completely stole my heart. So why did I leave? Well, sadly it wasn’t the kids. It was the other adults in that household. They had more drama than those eight children combined. And that is all I have to say about that. I wish I had been more mature and had possessed the tools to deal with such – but I didn’t have enough strength, wisdom, or life experience. I walked away with a heart full of gratitude for my own family and the wonderful childhood I’d been privileged to enjoy – and a heart burdened heavy with love and pain for those eight children I had been honored to know. It has been many, many years ago yet I can recall each one of those beautiful faces. I often wonder where they are now and what happened to those precious souls. I hope with all my heart that each one of them found their way to a good life. They gave me more than I ever gave them.
*Note: names have been changed to protect the innocent.