As Long as it Lasts

The story of two mothers, a child, and a fair shot at the foster-care system

It's the middle of June and the air is cold inside a coffee shop just off campus. It's noon. I'm cooling off waiting for Jeanne, my lunch date, a senior whose summer days include morning class from eight to noon and a four-mile run at lunchtime when she can fit it in.

Jeanne walks in wet; class ended early and she managed to run and grab a quick shower afterward in the university gym. Her shoulder-length blond hair is smoothed back in combed grooves, baking on her head from the hot walk across campus. Her blue eyes open wider and she smiles when she sees me. Tan cheeks. Pink smile. Tank top, soccer shorts, Nikes, and a water bottle. All I can think is, My God, she looks so young.

Fair is a Myth

When I first heard Jeanne talk about her daughter in foster care, it was through a cubicle wall and I didn't ask questions. She worked twelve hours a week, more if she could get it, in the same office as I did on the campus where I had just relocated from the Twin Cities. A quiet out-state campus just far enough from the bustle so that there was room to breathe, to relax, to live like neighbors and families. Jeanne chatted with other student workers about running, about fitting into a size-twelve bridesmaid's dress by summer, about her latest poem for creative writing class, and about her daughter in foster placement.

It was something about the foster family that I heard first--something like, "They can give her the things I can't, the things she needs"--that cut through my wall before I'd even been introduced to Jeanne. I pictured an infant, a toddler at most, because Jeanne has a smile and a softness that date her right along with tattooed Chelsea and gel-soaked, ears-pierced Patrick. A baby for sure. A baby not wanted. Abused maybe. I thought about my own two-year-old and shuddered. Wondered what went wrong. What Jeanne did wrong.

A few days later Jeanne came to work with a shy blond preteen in tow. This girl sat at a student work station and wrote a book report on Egyptian queens while Jeanne put in her hours to meet the requirements for government-funded student employment. I thought the girl was a sister, a niece maybe. But I heard her whisper "mom" and I watched Jeanne walk around making quiet introductions, pleased by the inconvenience of having to sneak her bright and beautiful look-alike into the office. I was honored to be asked to proofread the book report. I was confused about how this articulate, tender preadolescent fit in with the bits and pieces about foster placement and the unnamed things Jeanne couldn't give. It was months later over our first shared coffee in the basement of the student union that I learned.

"Fair is a myth." That's how she started.

"Lots of women don't know that. They think, 'I'll get child support if I leave.' I knew when I left my husband I was going to face obstacles, but I thought there would be support. I thought, now we'll be happy. I thought the girls would get the life they wanted." She told me that for thirteen years of marriage in a tidy suburban Twin Cities home she tried to make a good life for her girls--Cindy, now nine years old (the book report writer) and almost-seventeen-year-old twins, Tracy and Rose. Thirteen years of marriage and three daughters. She let me figure out for myself that the softness I mistook for youth was something more like resignation, distant amusement, thirty-some years of hard-won self-worth.

More and more in the latter part of the marriage the girls had looked on with big eyes and closed mouths while dad drank and called mom names. Called her fat. Left, and came back the next day with warm words and kisses. Told her she was worthless. Told her if she dared to leave, no one would want her. She dared anyway. First, she did her best to prepare the girls. "We'll be poor," she said. "We won't have nice things anymore." It sunk in as far as world-weariness can with preteens, and the girls said, "Go. Please let's go."

They left in the spring of 1993. When the twins entered junior high that fall they were furious most of the time, mostly at their mother. Jeanne accounted for it two ways. First, she wasn't around much. Time she used to spend at home was now consumed by attorney's visits, court appearances, a new part-time job, and behaving like a grateful guest in mother's Twin Cities home. Second, for the girls with big eyes and closed mouths, freedom from dad meant first-time freedom to get loud and angry. They let loose on the only target they knew. They let loose on Jeanne.

At home the twins fought. The youngest one cried and tried to hide from the noise. At school the twins told counselors stories of abuse, of a mother who withheld necessities, of an unbearable new family dynamic. Jeanne was stunned. "I expected my husband to stalk me. I expected that. I didn't expect my children to go against me." Tracy led the rebellion. She moved farther and faster than her twin into bad-girl territory. The seventh grader coaxed her sister into leaving home and the two ended up at an urban center for runaway youth. Rose was scared and went home after a few days. Tracy stayed. She had a lot of sex. When she finally came home she launched a silent hunger strike that turned her slim body into a mottled pink skeleton. Jeanne wondered if it was because of her own weight, the constant target of taunts by the girls' father. Or maybe because now she was shedding it, exercising regularly, sometimes when she could have been home to referee one more fight.

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