I started writing this post around Christmas, when the title was much more appropriate. It’s been on my mind the past three months as I struggled with sharing or not sharing. Around holidays you hear so many people searching for the perfect gift to give their loved ones and last Christmas, I heard some friends comparing the greatest gift they ever gotten. Many had to think a while to come up with an answer. Mine came to me so quickly, I was about 13 years old, but the story is rather hard to tell sometimes.
The sheriff stared at me. I stared back. I may have even smirked. I was getting good at this game.
I tried, as much as I could, to keep a straight face.
I was an annoyance, I knew, but this wasn’t my first time. The cops would take care of me.
“I’m getting tired of seeing you in here.” said the sheriff as he called around trying to figure out what to do with me.
This was the 9th or 10th time in six or seven months that I sat at the jail and watched them call around for help.
“This may take a while,” said another officer, “Cheryl, over at DFACS (Department of Family and Children’s Services) says she’s been through every home in the county that will take teenagers and they are looking in other counties. But they’ll send someone to pick her up soon.”
That wiped the smile off my face.
I didn’t want to leave the county. Didn’t want to change schools.
The sheriff must have noticed the change in my demeanor, “If I see you in here again, we’re taking you to Juvenile Detention.”
I didn’t belong in Juvie. None of this was going according to plan.
The plan was to disappear for 24 hours. Once a foster child has been missing for 24 hours, the foster parents have to report the child missing, and the child has to be put into a new home. I’d done this 8 or 9 times already. They should have been finding me a new home, not threatening me with Juvie.
Maybe if there were better foster parents, we wouldn’t have to go through all this trouble. My plan was to keep running away until I found a good family. I wasn’t quite sure what that looked like, but it wasn’t at the last 8 or 9 homes.
I had it with Melrose. She was my first foster mom. She was in her 50’s, a little sick sometimes, but she was fun and she taught me stuff. We listened to music together a lot, watched Golden Girls and Matlock every night. She taught me to cook, got me an after school and summer job and made lots of cookies.
I came to Melrose with the clothes on my back and a $200 voucher to JC Penney. Do you know how much clothes you can get at JC Penney with $200? Even for that time (the late 80’s) not much. I ended up with two maybe three outfits a pair of sneakers and a pair of church shoes.
It doesn’t take long to start getting teased at school when you wear the same 2 or 3 outfits all year. Melrose picked up on this and empathized. Then she broke a 15 year stretch of not speaking with her ex-husband to get me a job on his farm. With that money we bought fabric and patterns so she could make me a wardrobe that looked trendy and stylish.
One thing she did, that foster kids don’t often get, is teach me about money. She taught me what a foster parent gets paid per child, what percentage was her salary, and what percentage should be spent on food, necessities and clothes for the child. She gave me a checkbook ledger and when she got paid she would write a dollar amount in the ledger. When we shopped she would let me pick out the things I needed and balance the ledger. Maybe she taught me a little too much. I learned later that most foster kids are in the dark about this stuff.
One day, after living with Melrose for nearly a year, she stopped me as I’d just gotten home from school.
“Sit down, we need to talk,” she said. Her face was somber and serious. I wondered what I’d done wrong. What I’d forgotten to do. “You’re leaving me next week,” she added. These words still make me cry sometimes, when I recall the moment. An ache and emptiness fell over me as she explained that she was sick and couldn’t keep up with me and my school activities. She’d recommended I be moved to a home with a family do more for me and I’d be able to play sports and be in more clubs.
“I don’t need to do that,” I cried. I’d been asking be on a volleyball team. Practice was daily. “I can stay here and help you. Please don’t make me go.”
I sometimes wish I’d not had a week’s notice that I was leaving. My emotions were all over the place. I begged. I argued. I cried. Then I put up my walls. I made myself numb to smother the familiar feeling of loss and abandonment.
After spending 5 years in a children’s home without really knowing why I was there or why I couldn’t just go home. I was convinced my mother didn’t want me. I hadn’t seen my dad since I was 4 yrs old, in my mind, he didn’t want me. Now, Melrose didn’t want me. Even though, I’m older now and understand her reasons, I still remember the pain of not being wanted.
Continued in “The Greatest Gift-part 2“