Family Histories: Family Traits Good and Bad

“They said in the D.A.R.E. class that since my real mother did drugs Then I probably would too.”

(D.A.R.E. is the anti-drug class taught in many public schools in the U.S.)

This is why too much information given to children may sometimes be a bad thing. Our newly adopted daughter is only mildly intellectually disabled which really means that she seems “normal” until you realize that everything you say to her she takes literally. Some of you may remember the funny antics of Amelia Bedelia the main character of the children’s book series who constantly mixed up things like steaks and stakes.

In real life the concrete thinking goes more like this: My real mom does drugs and smokes. Therefore I will do the same by begging other students through email on my Chrome book during class to let me vape with them.  I will side with the devil and really believe that there is a tiny devil on my shoulder. I will then say I had to try since my mother did and the people teaching the DARE class said I would.

(once my husband caught her bringing to school an inappropriate note. The body parts mentioned in the note were spelled wrong. my husband sarcastically told her to ask her teachers the next time about the spelling — and so she did the next day).

Anyway, it made me think about how our parents affect us. Sometimes we like to blame parents for everything — I think  this is a trap to keep us from reaching our full potential –and sometimes we neglect looking back in gratitude for some of the better traits they’ve passed down to us.

With the holidays in full swing most of us are probably thinking a lot about family memories — the good and bad. Or maybe we are dreading seeing parents over the holidays …

Lately I’ve been getting deep into my genealogy and wondering which strands of DNA have been passed down to me. Am I more like the stoic and heroic men and women on my mother’s Dutch/English side of the tree or more like my father’s Irish side with its sentimental streak and love of the underdog? Am I fearful of the neighbors because of the peasant blood of my father? Am I rebellious when it comes to religion because my great grandfathers were all seekers?

On both sides of my family is a deep love for humanity and storytelling and for those things I am truly grateful — fear and self-loathing, not so much.

Now what about you? What family traits are you most proud of and which would you rather were tossed a few generations back?

Please let us know in the comments. It may be cathartic. LOL.

“Characters so deep you follow them into the abyss, hoping to come out unscathed, but never returning the same. They will haunt me forever.”

Foster Care to Adoption

Happy Thanksgiving!

For us this holiday comes a week after adopting our foster child.

Some readers may remember some of the more harrowing events of the past three years — years filled with doubt, fear and moral dilemmas.

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This girl is thrilled that I can finally share her picture!

This summer after a host of obstacles (some created by the system and some by us), we were asked to make our final decision. I’ll be honest, my husband and I hardly spoke to each other for the month of August as we each grappled with the finality of the decision. I realized that I’d been sort of waiting for this girl to do something bad enough to justify backing out.

Foster kids have a way of pushing you to your limits, and I wondered what my limit would be.

The county gave us a month to decide. No more hoping the kid would do something insane so we’d have an excuse  to say goodbye. We had to decide if we could love this girl “as is.” Plenty of people told us to cut our losses. Even the county workers had said this girl was a “hot mess,” but … my heart said she was already family. One day as I walked the dogs my decision was made. Biblical love is really hard. You have to lean into the pain. You have to work harder and you occasionally have to step back to see how far you’ve come.

I’m basically a selfish person who wants to write books and ride horses all by myself. I don’t feel like helping others all the time, yet in some deep way I know we’re called to do it.

My husband was driving home from work one day and suddenly felt that he was Jonah fleeing God’s calling on his life. Despite it all he knew McKenzie was already his daughter.

Not quite the Hallmark happy ending but that’s real life for you.

Once the decision was made, a weight was lifted. Maybe that’s God’s grace. McKenzie has come a LONG way. We all have.

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McKenzie with my niece (her new cousin)

At the adoption McKenzie gave an impromptu speech before the judge. Three years ago she was so jacked up on meds and so traumatized she could only drool and occasionally threaten to stab people. Now with her two sisters (adopted by another family), her new family, and countless county and foster care workers in attendance she spoke from her heart with power and eloquence about finally having a family. I was so proud of her. Even my son got choked up. The county workers were sobbing.

I didn’t cry, but I did feel at peace. I remembered the day I first met McKenzie. I told my husband that I already felt like she was my daughter. That feeling ebbed and flowed over the three years, but on adoption day it was as if we’d come full circle.

 

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Just some of the members of McKenzie’s new family. The entire family is coming to our house to celebrate Thanksgiving and the adoption!

The Tenafly Road Series

“Characters so deep you follow them into the abyss, hoping to come out unscathed, but never returning the same. They will haunt me forever.”

The Motherless Ones

Not just poets and heroes lose mothers.  Some lose their mothers to childbirth, still others to drugs and some when they are rescued from women who fracture the skulls and clavicles of children not old enough to walk.

William Cowper at the age of six lost his mother. His baby brother was the cause. They lived the only two of seven to survive childhood in Cowper’s family.

William grew close to his mother’s family, he attended school and studied Latin. It is said that he fell in love with his cousin Theodora, but his uncle refused to let the two marry. From time-to-time he suffered depressions that on occasion plunged him into insanity and stays at the asylum. He tried to commit suicide multiple times but destiny and friendship prevented his success.

At a post-adoption support group we started attending my husband and I listened to the stories of women who became mothers to orphans. These women had many years of experience behind them and a learned patience and strength I marvel at. One woman spoke of a 5-year-old Chinese orphan who tried to strangle her as she drove down a highway. The girl was so frightened, so possessed with an animal fear she could not be convinced of safety in her new home.

These motherless ones often have difficulties. My husband and I leave these meetings with an odd sense of elation. Children do progress (maybe not in the ways we dream for them) and adoptive parents do often survive. No longer do I think it’s that weird to have a child who has been institutionalized. After reading only a small portion of my child’s files I wonder why more children aren’t institutionalized.

The devoted lady who has run this support group for years asks me, “Yes, but what do you love about this child?”

I know she asks because so often these meetings become places where we laugh and vent and paint horrible pictures of all we’re going through with these motherless children.

William Cowper went insane. Did the first spark of insanity come at the loss of his mother? Who knows, but he went on to write some of the most beautiful hymns and poems. He inspired Wordsworth, Coleridge and Martin Luther King Jr. who often quoted from ‘The Negro’s Complaint‘. He befriended John Newton (who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace“) and became an ardent supporter of the abolition movement in England.

Cowper recovered his sanity for long periods of time allowing for his hymns and poems to be written. Broken children can be incredibly scary to adults. One is tempted more often then one wants to admit to desert. Cowper had people in his life who came beside him, but he had something even more important.

The lady asked me again what I liked about this child who has upset my writing and reading schedule, hurt my animals and threatens to rob my sanity with her incessant talk.

In the quiet of the basement room in the municipal building surrounded by folding chairs under ugly fluorescent light I remembered the day last week when this girl read the neuro-psychological evaluation because she thought I was hiding something from her. She read about her sister’s broken bones and so much more that only now she was beginning to remember and understand.

On the drive this weekend to drop her off at camp she looked out at the blue sky and the soft Adirondack Mountains that seemed to go on forever, one soft peak after another. ‘Let’s worship God for this,’ she said. ‘God did this. Isn’t that great?’ she asked me.

I told the lady at group that I loved how this motherless child cut to the core of things. I told her how I loved how despite being broken physically and shattered mentally she still wanted to get up each day and worship God. If I think about God at all it’s usually with complaint.

Everything is a cliche, you see. Special gifts are given to special children. Beauty can often survive great suffering. Redemption is real. Oh, it’s so boring sometimes.

But sometimes it’s not.

Anne with an “E” and the Reality of Orphans

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We all have something of the orphan in us. Rejection, loneliness and the bleak reality that we die alone color some of our darker imaginings. I’ve a soft spot for fictional orphans.  As a writer I collect broken people. I give them homes in MY BOOKS. They tend to wreak havoc. The same is true for real orphans.

Watching the first episode in the new series about the red-headed orphan girl Anne of Green Gables with my own orphan girl last week offered striking contrasts and similarities. I applaud the new edgier Anne. She comes far closer to the reality of orphans.

Here’s what orphans do (well, my orphan in particular):

THEY TALK. Non-stop. Anne talks about poetry and at times is quite insightful. Our orphan girl was so brutalized at a young age we may never fully understand how much of her  potential was lost. Entire blocks of learning do not exist. The level of trauma was so severe in her early school years that while she was there, she really wasn’t there at school. Her last IQ test score was a 57.

But talk she does. When not talking about earrings or insane arguments that make no sense she sings gibberish songs. A rink-dink-dink-dink-dinky-doo is one of her favorites. My teenage son  whispered to me in the kitchen the other day, “Oh my god, I’ve got a rink-dink-dink-dinky-doo stuck in my head. Please kill me now.”

Kids with reactive-attachment disorder (RAD) never shut up. They rob the air from the room. They MUST be in CONTROL of all time, all space and all people. Anne makes it look kind of cute but in reality it can be “nerve-grinding” (a new phrase I’ve learned from books on RAD).

This winter the incessant talking and stalking caused me to question my sanity many times. Not cute. According to the books, people who take in RAD kids have a higher suicide rate. (Don’t worry. I’m not there yet)

ORPHANS CHARM: When I first met our orphan she told me I was the most beautiful woman she’d ever seen. After ten awkward minutes of playing  a board game she didn’t understand our orphan announced that she loved me and wanted to live with me forever.  The director of the children’s shelter told me  not to feel too bad if it didn’t work out because no one thought it would. I remember how eagerly the shelter workers hustled the orphan into my waiting car and how relieved they all looked when the girl was strapped in.

I like how in the new Anne series Anne manipulates RACHEL LYNDE into forgiving her. Our orphan has many people in the system and at her school convinced that she is the sweetest kid on the planet. At home she writes sexually explicit stories in her notebooks and calls me a lot of names (on papers she leaves around her room) that paint another picture of me.

ORPHANS STARE: They just sit there and stare. The occasional weird grown-up will actually get offended and ask our orphan why she’s staring at them. She often doesn’t know. Sometimes a face or color, the tone of a voice or the feel of a fabric will bring something back to her that she can’t put a finger on. The terror it taps into is so profound it causes all rational thought to cease. And then it’s gone and she wants ice-cream.

ORPHANS DO THE DISHES: And then they break the dishes. Anne, trying to prove her worth, jumps from the table to wash dishes. She drops them in  nervous haste. In that moment we see the terror rise up. Mistakes made by orphans remind them of other mistakes–and punishments: the belt, the switch, the name-calling and the being tied to a chair for days with the help of duct tape.

Our orphan always wants to help out and do dishes. It always ends badly. We say, “You’re still loved, but, really, stay away from washing the dishes.”

ORPHANS HAVE WEIRD DIETS: Anne gets into trouble when she serves her friend wine by mistake. She’s never had wine or fruit drinks and doesn’t know the difference. Our orphan eats goat food right out of the dirty feeders. The feeders that little shitty goat hooves have trampled in. Our orphan ate green beans off of the floor of a public bathroom at the beach last summer.

“Safe” is just another word that makes her stare.

ORPHANS HURT SMALLER CREATURES: Anne is kind to animals. Our orphan girl pretends to be kind to animals. She is not to be left alone with our dogs. She’s broken hard things over the soft belly of our retriever. We didn’t even believe it at first, but it’s true. Her moods and tempers must be harnessed. Her brain retrained, but it’s a hard road (especially when she laughs at an animal’s suffering).

Being an orphan is a life sentence. We all end life alone, but we’re drawn to the redemption stories of orphans. The homecomings, the healing and the forgiveness of great sins.

I believe in destiny, God and his command to take care of the orphans. Loving the unlovable looks so nice in period costume.

As spring comes on strong here at the farm I see some growth in the orphan (and maybe a little in me). The girl didn’t know how to read last year. It was painful to hear her butcher Dr. Seuss. Now she reads chapter books and understands some of the jokes. She sucks at math but her teacher raves about her blossoming storytelling on paper.

Our orphan wants to dress like Anne and is now able to take long walks in the country by herself without fearing death. Sometimes she tells us things that are coherent and interesting. She tries using big words. No one really believes her true IQ is so low. Tests scare her.

Anne’s adoptive parents initially think Anne is a big mistake. They wanted a boy, but Anne was their destiny.

Our orphan is not what we thought we wanted. She’s just as cute as Anne of Green Gables, but she’s real. Broken things in real life don’t often mend with beautiful music in the background.

Yet there is a reason orphans are mentioned so often in the Bible. It’s easy to love a beautiful little girl on the big screen, but we are commanded to love the beaten, the neglected and the people everyone else has kicked to the curb. yes, sometimes it sucks. But I live for the signs of spring, new growth and happy endings.

***Not all orphans come with the same problems, skills or attitudes.

ANNE WITH AN E (the darker Anne)

ANNE OF GREEN GABLES

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Fostering an American Girl

Childe Hassam 1859-1935 - American painter - Avenue of the Allies 1918 - The Impressionist Flags  (1)What are boundaries for? Imagine this: a girl, aged ten, is released to the state after her mother refuses to seek counseling for beating and starving her children. The girl sits in wait for a new home, gets one and wonders alone in her new room. Is this bed mine? Will wolves (the human kind and the furry kind) cross the line into my personal space through doors and opened windows? Will a higher power, a governing force, protect me?

This girl knows (after years of being in the system) that people often have very good excuses for overrunning her boundaries. She even feels some sympathy for the wolf who is her blood mother. This girl also knows (or wants to believe) that not all people who invade her space are bad, but does that matter? When a foreign person insists on brushing her hair it’s still an invasion.

This girl’s personal rights and privileges have been suspended through no fault of her own. Many rights have been taken to “protect” her, and it’s then that she wonders how is it that the invaders, those with good intentions and those with bad, have more rights than she does. She slams the windows shut. She insists on repeating this CD is mine. This sock is MINE. This space is officially mine!

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Is she irrational for insisting upon the notion of sovereignty? Is it okay to let other abused people fleeing poverty, despots and war into her personal space without asking? There’s a book her therapist gave her that she reads again and again. It’s My Body (a book to teach young people how to resist uncomfortable touch). This girl understands yet struggles with boundaries. Just like the millions of other people fleeing wolves, this girl wants to run away and into other people’s space. She ignores boundaries and the laws of nations set up to protect the rights of citizens. She’s never been protected, has never read the Bill of Rights, has not pondered its meaning or its history.

As foster parents we invited this child into our home, come what may. We considered long and hard and were never forced. There’s something about being forced to do something that makes it unappealing (God gave us each our sovereignty and when it’s tread upon we feel a boundary has been crossed).

Childe Hassam 1859-1935 - American painter - Avenue of the Allies 1918 - The Impressionist Flags  (5)

Make no mistake, personal property is a sure sign of freedom. Forced sharing is a sign of tyranny and personal abuse. If our house were overrun with children each as needy as this one little girl then we’d have to fly the white flag of surrender. I’d rather fly the flag of freedom for one individual than all the flags of wolves.

flag_hassam_57th_18_lgOne company is synonymous with the beleaguered flag that once stood for freedom: The Annin Flag Company. Around since the mid-19th century Annin vowed at the beginning of the Civil War to  “Without going through forms of contract[to supply] the government direct . . . as the war progressed, orders came pouring in from every state and city that was loyal to the Union, so that by the beginning of 1864, there was not a single battlefield, a brigade or a division that did not use Annin flags.” Wikipedia

 

Some will argue that the Civil War was not about individual rights. I disagree. It certainly was a messy debate and butchery over the meaning of freedom and boundaries (personal and communal). People in the North hung Annin flags from their homes. Some (a great many as the war progressed) understood that it wasn’t enough to allow a percentage of runaway slaves escaping a rotten system to cross the border into freedom. If a group of states could go against the law of the land any time they didn’t like the outcome of an election (even if the election brought in the Republican Lincoln) there would be no such thing as a free election left on earth (The US was a very young experiment at the time–one which the world watched with a mix of disgust and awe).

The powers that be in the state of New York watch over a foster girl. All the papers are signed and procedures are followed presumably to protect the children and the adults involved in foster care. Rules will help protect this child’s boundaries. In time it is hoped that the chaos of a life spent without boundaries will be a distant memory for this girl. She will need time to first close her boundaries, to see what her baseline status is, before she can open up with freedom and allow others to politely cross the borders to her heart.

De jure, or legal, sovereignty concerns the expressed and institutionally recognized right to exercise control over a territory. De facto, or actual, sovereignty is concerned with whether control in fact exists. Cooperation and respect of the populace; control of resources in, or moved into, an area; means of enforcement and security; and ability to carry out various functions of state all represent measures of de facto sovereignty. When control is practiced predominately by military or police force it is considered coercive sovereignty. Wikipedia

ANNIN FLAG MAKING VIDEO

FLAGS AFTER 9/11

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DO YOU LIVE IN A CONSTITUTION-FREE ZONE?

 

**Paintings by Childe Hassam

 

 

 

Inducement: A Bedtime Story

“I was thinking about killing you. With a knife,” the little girl says.

“Really. Hmm,” I reply.

“NO, I mean I’m not really going to kill you. You’re a sweet person, but if I did kill you (with a knife) would you be in the hospital or dead?” she asks, flipping the pages of the story book we were reading.

“Well, first off, I’d never let you kill me, but let’s just say you did. I don’t know where I’d be, but you’d be in jail.”

Her eyes widen. “But kids don’t go to jail.”

“Yeah, they do. Juvenile detention is one place they go. So it’s really your choice. You could live with us where everyone loves each other or you could become a killer every time someone doesn’t give you a 5th brownie and land in jail with other kid killers.”

“Oh,” she says. “Well, I would never kill you anyway.”

“Yeah, I didn’t think so because then we couldn’t be friends–obviously. And you’d have no chance with Grant from Kid’s Bop because he seriously wouldn’t date a killer,” I point out.

The little girl mulls it over. “Adrienne, I think I see what your saying. Can we go to the library tomorrow and  maybe to Starbucks and I can get one of those cupcakes–you know the red ones . . .”

“Red velvet?”

“Yeah, because I really love them. Didn’t we have fun the last time?”

“Yes.”

The little girl flips the pages again (we’d need to work on her handling of library books). “My mom tried to kill my sisters and I had to protect them. Did you know that?”

“Yeah, I heard something about it.”

“She kept our heads underwater in the bath tub and once she taped me to a chair and covered my mouth with silver tape and left me for days. I had to break free to go to the bathroom in the closet.”

I have nothing to say.

“So Adrienne, you know I love you and I would never hurt you. Did I upset you?”

“No, not really. I think I get where you’re coming from. But it’s safe here. See, we covered the windows so the wolves won’t get you, and there’s the dog lying there to protect you. Now what do you do if you’re scared during the night?”

The little girl sighs, plugs in her mp3 player and says, “I’ll knock on your door.”

 

**INDUCEMENT: With no words required, one person sets up a situation to make another person feel just what that first person feels.

James E. West: Orphan and Hero

Ogdensburg. City Hospital and Orphanage

Ogdensburg City Hospital and Orphanage [courtesy harvardartmuseums.org]

When my son was six he begged me each day not to leave him on the steps of the large Brooklyn school house. He hated his teacher. Fair enough. When the bell rang and the kindly police officer took my son’s hand and led him inside, my son looked back in panic and I’d have to turn away. I ended up homeschooling him that year but that’s another story.

When our foster kid was taken to a mental health facility after finding out her mother had given her up to the system she cried for days. We’d visit and she’d beg us to take her home. When she said “home” it was expressed with such  profound yearning and pain it was hard for us to bear. Home meant with us or with her mother or with the last foster family who decided they could keep only her siblings.

A long time ago a six-year-old boy named James E. West took his last walk with his mother. I imagine it a quiet, tense one. Maybe James sensing his mother’s anguish held her hand a little tighter. Maybe Mother didn’t say where they were going for fear that young James would make it more difficult than it already was going to be.

Coughing blood into her soiled handkerchief Mother knocked on the orphanage door in Washington and left her boy with his large, panicked eyes on the steps as she raced away, unable to look back. She died three months later of tuberculosis.

When James complained of hip pain it took a while before he was treated for a tubercular infection in the hip. It took two years (one of those years strapped to a painful leg brace intended to straighten his bones) for him to be strong enough to get around on crutches.

Most boys were loaned out to work, but poor James with his weak leg was sent to sew with the girls in the sewing room. Across the street was a real school for normal kids and James spent many a sewing afternoon gazing out in envy at the kids with books and nice coats. A friend of his mother’s made the effort to lobby for James to attend school. And so he went and excelled.

James was one of those exemplary people who when fortune smiled his way he shared it. He begged the orphanage to open its library to the children and when they said the books would get too worn out James organized the children to cover every single book. Using the money he earned sewing he offered his fellow inmates a penny for every book they read. He taught himself how to ride a bicycle, graduated high school and left the orphanage as a staff member at age 19.

James studied law and passed the bar, never forgetting the children. When Theodore Dreiser hired him to oversee The Delineator Magazine “Child Rescue Campaign”  for orphaned children James found his calling. Each issue  featured an orphan and their needs. The response was tremendous. Requests to adopt poured in. People all over the country wanted to help.

I wonder what James thought. He was no longer a child and no one had begged to adopt him yet he worked tirelessly for others. Eventually he met the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Jacob Riis, Jane Addams, and Booker T. Washington at The White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children. He asked this question which revolutionized the way Americans looked at child welfare: “Should children of parents of worthy character, but suffering from temporary misfortune…be kept with their parents–aid being given to the parents to enable them to maintain suitable homes for the rearing of the children?”

The question is loaded, isn’t it? Worthy character, temporary misfortune, suitable homes . . . we still struggle with the messy, horrifying realities of child abuse, neglect and poverty, yet there are little known boys and girls who rise up despite their misfortune. There are men and women who nudge the system to send a child to that school across the way.

James West gives me hope.

Essay inspired by The Rise and Demise of the American Orphanage by Dale Keiger

 

 

 

 

Bringing Sexy Back To Sobriety

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Frances Willard, the second president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement, led the more progressive wing of the organization that sought to purify society by using women’s special gift of moral superiority to enact laws, protest against unfair working conditions and uplift the Irish and German immigrants who we all know are big drinkers.

I’m a libertarian at heart (at the moment, I think I am). I chafe at the idea of a government compelling me to do things. The 20th century is filled with progressive people’s movements that seem to ignore human nature and in the end morality for an easier killing the masses you disagree with. Banning liquor didn’t work. Women didn’t soften politics. Stalin . . .enough said.

On the bright side, children don’t work in sweatshops . . . oh, wait they do just in different countries. Well, at least there’s no kids on the streets, just in foster care waiting to be set free at 18 with no family. (note to self: maybe I should think more seriously about adopting)

Hey! This post was supposed to be about moral uplift, progress and women reformers. Why must my brain hijack good feeling? The problem with human laws replacing godly laws is the strong tendency of humans to compel first through lecturing, then through politicizing and finally through violence. Then we start all over again. Hmm. Sometimes God looks human–you know that Book Of Revelations is a scary thing. But if it’s all true (and if it’s not, life is a pretty unsexy thing) then there’s hope beyond the grim-faced reformer and the drunken loser. Some may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.