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Saturday, October 31, 2015

Rainy Tuesday

Rainy days didn’t come often, but when they did, I reached for my guitar. Entertaining young children with music never failed to keep them happy, as long as my newly-callused fingertips didn’t give out.

I had three foster daughters--twenty-four/seven—but Monday through Friday daytimers and drop-ins increased their number. The ranks occasionally swelled to a whopping fourteen, the eldest being my four-year-old red-headed cutie, Deni*. Two-year-old Jamie*, my beautiful petite African-American princess sometimes had an age-mate, as did the infant Susie*. Otherwise, my living room bulged with three-year-olds.

Oh, I forgot to mention Nahum. Now, there never lived a dog who sulked as seriously as Nahum on a rainy day. My Griffon-Husky mix loved frolicking with a small herd of preschoolers every morning of the week—the more, the merrier.

As I struggled to satisfy the seating requests of the miserable-to-be-inside little clan on this particular Tuesday, Nahum took his place on his rug. “Well, Boy, I’m glad that you have a spot that’s just right for you,” I said, glancing over just as the slender, long legs dropped the white-haired beast to his rug.

“Kids?,” I spoke softly, and as hoped, their shouts seemed suspended in air. Blessed quiet for just two seconds. “No. Hey, listen,” I whispered in the middle of the overwhelmingly occupied sofa. I ducked in time to miss the clenched tiny fist aiming for Danny*. The blow hit the side of my neck; the deflected punch returned to sender.

“Yeow! Danny hit me!” I grabbed up the screaming youngster and planted a kiss right on the top of his head. “Oh, yuck! Why’d ya go ‘n’ do that?” Jeffy* spat out little wet beads, trying to remove my kiss. Those gathered on the sofa laughed and pointed at him, of course.

“Because Danny didn’t touch you. YOU hit yourself. Now, stop it you two, so I can play my guitar for you, or would you rather go stand in a corner? I think this big house has enough corners if you kids would prefer to just spend this rainy day in a corner.”

I found it amazing—and rewarding— when the chaos suddenly shifted to silence; each child finding a seat—on the floor, in a chair, or on the sofa. Before the last little tush had squirmed into place, I began strumming. How delightful to see the smiles and hear the young voices join in.

The happy atmosphere drew Nahum in—too far in, as a matter of fact. As I sang, I caught sight of the sleek dog, stretched out on his stomach, legs fully extended in both directions. I took notice of his position because I’d never seen Nahum do that.

While Nahum’s eyes continued looking down, his hind legs raised his lower half to his knees. I focused my attention towards the kids as I sang and strummed, but I watched  my dog out of the corner of my eye.

Moments later, two long white legs began to move. Nahum’s head rested on his upper legs, unmoving save for the slight bounce resulting from the motion of his front legs. His left leg retracted, then pushed the dog forward; the right leg retracted and repeated the movement.  The head never left its spot on the legs. 

I barely noticed the minimally-elevated posture of the dog’s rear. Nahum’s otherwise fully-prone body slithered forward--millimeters at a time. Once the lovable mutt reached the middle of the room, he stopped.

Ever-so slowly, Nahum raised his head. I cleared my throat. Silence fell from every singer. Without turning to look at me or the children around the room, Nahum dropped his head back to his legs and retreated to his rug exactly as he’d come—in reverse.

Not a sound escaped until the enormous sigh released from the kitchen-living room doorway where a resigned pet curled on his rug. The humans of all ages exploded in laughter. Can a dog demonstrate confusion with facial expressions? Seemed to me that Nahum did.

“Your dog wants to be with us but he can’t, can he?” said the first preschooler.

Before I could answer, Deni responded. “Him a dog. Dogs stay on his rug. It’s the rule.”

Jamie bobbed her head vigorously, adding, “Num know he ‘pose ta stay dare.”

“Why don’t you punish him, then. He broke the rule. I get a spanking if I break the rules in my house,” Said Jeffy.

“Can anyone think of why I don’t punish Nahum for breaking this rule?”

“’Cuz we’re here. Grownups don’t spank kids when they have company.” Sherry spoke with such authority, I had to assume she reflected her own experience.

“I think it’s ‘cuz he’s a dog. If you spanked him, he’d bite you,” said Danny, who had been afraid of Nahum on his first encounter.

“Those are good answers, kids, but that’s not the reason. Anyone else want to try?” I swept my gaze over each child, amazed to see their facial expressions drawn as in serious thought.

“Well, do you remember a time when you should have been spanked, but your parents didn’t do it? Why didn’t you get a spanking?” More shrugging shoulders and furrowed eyebrows.

Jamie twisted out of her tummy-down position near me and stood. Once she’d reached Nahum, I watched her kneel down and wrap her thin arms around his neck. Jamie gave the dog a kiss on the top of his head and said, “’cause Num wea-ea-eally, whee-ee-ealy sawwy him boke da wules; wight, Boy?” A hug punctuated her last phrase.

“Yes, that’s right, Jamie! We know he’s sorry because he went back to his rug without making a fuss. I’m sorry Nahum can’t come into this room with us, too. Sometimes we have more than one baby on the blanket here on the floor. It’s just safer for the babies if Nahum stays on his rug. He can see everything from there, but he always wants to be closer.” Relief rushed through me as the youngsters agreed with me.

Gathered around the now-upright dog, the children gleefully chattered about the mercy their canine friend had just received. Many little hands stroked his head and back while admonishing him to not feel too badly that he needed to stay on the rug, and reassuring Nahum they loved him.

I felt good that the children understood, though I did wonder how the tale might be recounted to their parents. A question from Nahum’s comforters interrupted my pondering.

“When we gonna eat? Questions make me hungry!”

Danny’s inquiry received unanimous backing from the tiny tribe. The sound of chairs being pulled out from the dining table filled the room. “Never be without a jar full of cookies on a rainy day,” that’s my motto.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Just Another Game? Conclusion

I froze as three-year-old Shannon’s scream filled the doorway. My hands wet with the preparations for lunch, I swiveled my head in search of a towel. Before I located one, the press of six preschool bodies hit me.

I heard one child’s voice rise above the noisy pack, but didn’t know who spoke. “Quick! Get outta our way. We gotta pray!”

“Whoa, kids! Shannon what happened?”

Her cute little face soaked with tears, Shannon held her hand up. No wonder she continued sobbing. The nails and skin from the tip to the first joint of the four fingers of her hand beamed an excruciating bright red. I pictured the nails turning black, but I knew the painful pressure building under the fingernails would need to be released as soon as possible.

“I’ll get some ice to put on your hand, Shannon. Then, I’ll call your mother.”

The children, having already pulled Jamie*’s blue youth chair to the center of the room, waited for their little patient. “C’mon, Mama Dar. Let Shannon come here. We gotta pray for her.” I couldn’t sort out who said what but I understood as soon as I saw their Prayer Chair.

I twisted cubes out of trays into a bowl, listening to several voices lift Shannon’s need up to Jesus. When I picked up the bowl of ice and turned to head for the living room, the sound of laughter stopped me in my tracks.

“Her don’t need no ice now,” my red-headed, four-year-old foster daughter, Deni* told me as I approached the little gathering. Many of the kids still jumped up and down.

“Jesus made all her ouwies go away,” chimed in three-year-old Sherry*, clapping and dancing as she spoke.

Shannon had not added to the joyful chorus. Kneeling in front of the youngster, I lowered my voice to a whisper and said, “Are you okay, Sweetie? If your fingers still hurt, you can tell me. I’ll call your Mommy to come get you.”

Shannon held her hand so I could see the injured fingers.  Just behind a thin trench-like depression near the last knuckle of each finger, stood A dark-red elevated line. I hadn’t seen it earlier. “Do your fingers hurt?” The preschooler shook her head. “That’s good, isn’t it?” Shannon nodded. No smile.

“C’mon, Shannon! Let’s go play! Let’s go play!” The little group of prayer warriors chanted one after the other, while breaking ranks for the kitchen door. The precious little girl just looked at me, waiting.

“It’s okay for you to go play with the kids, if you want to.  If your fingers begin to hurt again, I’ll  call Mommy to come get you, okay?”

“I don’t wanna go home. I go play.” Dropping out from under my loose embrace, the petite, blonde firecracker ran out the door and down the back steps.

As I reached for the phone to be sure Shannon’s mother agreed with her daughter’s choice, Susie* let out her all-too-familiar Come and get me outta here, cry. Nap over.

I changed the baby’s diaper, hoisted her to one hip, and walked out to the kitchen. From the window, I could see Shannon playing and laughing with the kids. I reckoned I could feed Susie and then call Carroll. At least, that had been my plan.

Five hours later…
Keeping an ear focused on the living room where Deni read one of their storybooks to Jamie, I reveled in the quiet of the evening. How I loved these tranquil moments when only three children occupied the house. The animated young voice competed only with my washing up of the supper dishes. Until one word popped into my mind: Shannon.

“Oh, Carroll! I’m so sorry I didn’t phone earlier. Is Shannon okay? I meant to call right away, but then Susie woke up from her nap, and—“

I heard Carroll’s laughter before she spoke. “Goodness, Dar, what’s wrong? Shannon? Shannon’s just fine. What did you forget to call me about?”

“Her fingers. Didn’t she tell you? The poor little girl slammed them in the screen door. One of the kids had to open the door to free her fingers. The nails must be black by now.”

I heard Carroll call Shannon to come to her. “Which hand was it, Dar?”

“Uh, I have no idea. All four fingers of one hand had a dark-red line by the last knuckle. The skin and under the nails was a bright red that deepened into crimson by the time I’d seen the elevated line. Ask her to show you.”

After a long pause, Carroll returned to the phone. “Hmm? Well, Dar, she can’t remember which hand but did remember the kids praying for her. I don’t see anything on either hand. Pressing on the fingers doesn’t hurt her, so I’m sure she’s fine. ”

That answered my question: The kids never took praying for their friends as just another game—all involved took it seriously, including God.

*Name changed

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Just Another Game?

The day began like every other weekday. Later, I’d realize I’d failed to recognize the spark of something big. My mind focused only on lunch prep for my three foster girls, the two regular daytime charges, and the two drop-ins. I had about fifteen minutes before Baby Susie* awoke from her morning nap and wanted to be fed. Kids and spiritual stuff hadn’t entered my thoughts at all.

“I don’t feel good,” said three-year-old Sherry* rubbing her tee-shirt clad tummy.

The rest of the children gathered around my legs; clearly, they expected me to do something.

“When did you get sick, Sherry?” I breathed a sigh of relief that she’d not yet eaten lunch at our house.

“I dunno. My tummy hurts.” Sherry’s bottom lip trembled as tears dropped down her cheeks.

“You gotta call her Mom,” said Danny*. “She could die right here.”

The youngsters gasped in unison at the overly dramatic little tow-head’s assessment of the situation.

“Danny, Sherry isn’t that sick. She doesn’t even have a fever.” I spoke while touching the little girl’s forehead with the back of my hand.

“Sherry, would you like us to pray for you before I phone your mother? Maybe Jesus will make your tummy feel better so your Mom can finish work.”

Nodding her head, Sherry grabbed on to my hand. “Let’s go in the living room, kids. We can all pray for Sherry.”

The children nearly toppled me over in their rush to get into the other room. As Sherry and I approached the sofa, Jamie* pulled her blue youth chair away from the dining table.

“Her sit in Jamie’s chair. As the other children voiced their loud agreement, the small patient climbed into the higher chair.

I stood before Sherry, putting her petite, soft hand in mine. Four-year-old Deni* gently laid her hand on her young friend’s shoulder, giving instructions to the other members of the group “You put your hand on her arm or shoulder like me. That’s how we pray for sick people.”

Now I understood why the two-year-old offered her chair to Sherry. It made it easier for the children to reach her. I smiled as each preschooler took his or her place around the sick child. I had no idea the girls had noticed we followed this practice when praying for people in our Bible Study group at a friend’s house.

When I finished praying, all the kids shouted, “Amen!”

“So, you better, or are ya gonna—“

Sherry’s exclamation and smile interrupted what would most likely have been another ominous prediction by Danny. Sliding off the chair, the pretty blond girl delighted us all. “My tummy got all warm and then it didn’t hurt no more! When’s lunch; I’m hungry.”

“I’m fixing lunch right now. Before you all run off, we need to thank the Lord for touching Sherry’s tummy. Always remember to say thank you.”

Deni and Jamie grabbed on to the hands on each side of them, as did I. What a joy to listen to little ones whispering, “Thanks, Jesus and tank you, God.”

For the next few days, the children put the Prayer Chair, as they now called Jamie’s youth chair, to use—bringing scrapes and owies of all kinds to the Lord. Since the occasions of need often came at a time my hands occupied cookie dough, or changing diapers, their request to “do it ourselves,” relieved me of frequent interruptions.

Wherever I happened to be, I strained to listen to the brief prayers around the child in the blue chair, always followed by a chorus of whispered expressions of gratitude. Some days I wondered if praying for the sick or injured had become a game; they did it so frequently. Then Shannon slammed her hand in the screen door.

*Names changed.

Y’all come back next Saturday for the exciting conclusion… Have a great week!

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Unannounced Visit

Just as the last preschooler pushed back from the big, round wooden table, I heard the crunch of tires on the gravel next to the house. The drip, drip of the bathroom faucet registered behind me. “Turn the water on more, Jeffy*. You won’t get the soap off your hands with so little water.”. A car door slammed to my right.

Glancing out the window, my heart sank. Martha*, the social worker, had come for a surprise visit. Standing at the dining table full of the remnants of lunch, I counted the plates. Good, there're only eight plates today, I thought while grabbing up the gallon jug of milk. Thank you, God, she didn’t come yesterday. Thirteen might have been a bit much. No other babies but Susie* today.

I listened as Martha chatted with the youngsters playing in the backyard. While torn between rushing to clean up the table or going outside to welcome the social worker, my heart pounded out an accelerating rhythm. Martha’s “Hello there!” solved my indecision.

Hi, Martha! Come in. Come in,” I said, drying my hands on a towel as I welcomed her through the screen door. “Have you had lunch? The kids might have left you a crumb or two.”

“I had lunch earlier but thanks. I just wanted to stop by to see how things are going. You’ve got quite a crowd out there today.”

Aware my spontaneous chuckle sounded like nervous laughter, I pressed on, trying to use conversation to calm myself. “The girls just love to have friends over. Some of the working Mom’s need help now and then, so it’s a good fit for all of us.”

The lady in authority took a seat in the direction of my extended arm but never smiled when she spoke. “Does that work for Jamie*? When there are so many children, she doesn’t need to talk. Our real concern for the two-year-old is that she cannot talk. Do you have that many children here every day?”

“No. It varies,” I said not elaborating further on the numbers. “On weekends we’re alone. No extra kids. I want to reassure you about Jamie. She can talk. Too much sometimes. I have to tell her to stop talking and eat, or at night to stop talking and go to sleep.”

“I’ve never heard that child say a single word. None of us have. Please, call the girls in so I can speak with them.”

Four-year-old Deni* stood ramrod straight, her arm around the shoulders of her diminutive sister. Jamie twisted the fingers of her clenched little hands, shifting from one foot to the other.  Martha noticed. Patting the cushion, she asked them to sit down on the sofa next to her.

Deni looked at me, back at the social worker, and responded with a calm voice. “Jamie scared o’ you. We sit on the bench.”

“That’s okay, girls,” I said, watching them scoot up on the piano bench—the farthest point from Martha. “Ms. Martha has just come to visit us. Jamie? Would you like to tell Ms. Martha what you had for lunch today?” Jamie stopped swinging her legs and stared at me. “We had your favorite meal, didn’t we?” Nothing, not even a nod of agreement.

While I shot telegram prayers Heavenward, Deni broke the tense silence. “Her scared o’ you, Lady. I told you. Her not gonna talk to you.”

“Can Jamie talk?” The question had been addressed to Deni. “I haven’t ever heard her talk. I don’t think Jamie can talk.”

My respiration rate sped up, trying to keep up with my galloping heart. The lunch I’d just consumed soured in my stomach. Gritting my teeth behind closed lips, I fought to stay silent. Martha had  warned me on previous visits that she wanted to hear from the children. I must not answer for them.

I smiled and nodded at Deni when she looked at me. “Jamie talks good. Her can, too, talk. Her talks when her wants to talk. She don’t want to talk to you. Jamie don’t like you.”

“Jamie, do you know something? Ms. Martha is the lady who asked the judge to let you girls come live with me. If it wasn’t for Ms. Martha helping us, you couldn’t live here now. She’s our friend.” Jamie stayed silent.

Before anyone could say anything more, Danny* burst into the living room, flanked by Jeffy and Sherry*. The trio just stood without speaking.

The social worker’s attention drawn to the interrupters, she noticed the diaper dangling from the arm of Jamie’s blue youth chair. Since Danny stood nearest the chair, Martha addressed her scolding to him. “You children must not use the baby’s diaper as something to play with. This looks like a good diaper, not a rag.”

Hearing Martha’s comments, my speeding heart came to a dead stop. Oh no! Not the diaper! I screamed inside my head. Before I came to myself enough to utter a word, the trio filled the tense void.

“No, Lady! That’s not baby’s diaper!” Three kids erupted with laughter at the error made by the adult. “That’s what we use to tie Jamie up when we eat!”

Martha’s mouth dropped. Her brows furrowed. “Oh, rea-ea-eally,” she said, stretching out the word for about ten seconds. After a quick look at her watch, Martha stood. “Okay, I’ll be going now.”

Rushing the children back outside, I followed Martha to the kitchen.

As the social worker reached for the handle on the screen door, I lightly pressed my fingers into her forearm. “Please, it’s not what you’re thinking. It’s for Jamie’s own good.”

“So, it’s true then? You do tie Jamie up while the other children are eating?”

“It’s not like that. Jamie asked me to tie her hand. You see, Jamie can’t remember to eat with only one hand at a time. She shoveled her food in with both hands, fearing that someone would eat the food on her plate if she didn’t eat it as fast as she could. She wouldn’t believe me that no one would do that because the adults in her life always did.”

Martha turned to face me, so I continued. “Jamie tried to remember to slow down when she ate, but she couldn’t break the habit of shoving her food into her mouth with both hands. When my parents brought her the youth chair, I asked Jamie what I could do to help her remember.”

“And, you’re telling me that this two-year-old suggested you tie her arm to the chair?”

“Well, not exactly. Deni thought of it, and Jamie jumped up and down at Deni’s suggestion. Jamie loves the attention tying her left arm to the chair gives her each meal. The kids take turns and make a big deal of it. The diaper is soft and loosely secured. The moment Jamie decides that she doesn’t want it anymore, it’s back in the diaper bag. It’s up to Jamie.”

The social worker shook her head, a frown still in place. “I’ll think about it. Doesn’t sound good on a report, you know.”

I never heard another word about Jamie being tied up at mealtimes, so I assume our friend, Martha, just left that part out of the written report of her surprise visit. Whew.

Soon, Jamie’s blue youth chair served an entirely new purpose--one that included all of the children.

*Names changed.

Story began with the following link: With Just One Phone Call

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Daytime Changes

The ringing phone caught me by surprise. Who could be calling at this hour? I’d just set the plates and milk glasses on the breakfast table; the girls had yet to arise. Dad? Did something happen to Dad? I just left their house yesterday. Dad was fine then, were all thoughts rushing through my mind as I reached for the wall phone.

“Hello,” said an unfamiliar voice in answer to my greeting. “I’m sorry to be calling you so early. I’m Danny’s* mother. He played with your kids a couple of weeks ago.”

“Yes, I remember him. No problem that it’s early. I’m just glad it isn’t my mother letting me know my father had had another heart attack. We had visited them over the weekend, so when the phone rang this morning, wellI’m very glad to hear your voice, Danny’s mother.”

I heard the young woman’s laugh before her reply. “My name’s Christine*. I need a favor if it works out for you. I hate to ask because you don’t even know me, but I’m really in a bind. Danny asked me to phone.”

“And, what does your charming three-year-old want you to ask me?” I chuckled as I added, “Does he want to take one of the girls to a movie? Red-headed Deni* is one year older, and Jamie* is one year younger than Danny.”

“Oh, gracious me! Don’t rush those years,” the mother gasped. “No, I need a sitter for him today. My usual babysitter just phoned to say she can’t watch him. I’ll be finished at work just after Noon. I’d be glad to pay you to watch him if it would be okay.”

“We’d be delighted. The girls will be so happy to have a friend to play with. You can plan on Danny eating lunch with us.”

And, that’s how my new income stream began. I’d been toying with the idea but hesitated until the mothers called or came to my back door. Most days, I had four or five daytime kids added to my three resident kids; but, sometimes I had as many as fourteen little munchkins waiting for lunch.

The preschoolers pretty much occupied each other, so only the baby of the house took more time/effort. Susie* now sat in a high chair, feeding herself, kind of. She still wanted to be rocked while she enjoyed her bottle, but she no longer needed/wanted my help. Susie pulled the bottle in and out of her mouth, chatting between slurps. Then, one hand shoved the bottle back through her lips while the free hand played with my hair or pushed against my face.

I found it surprising how smoothly I adjusted to Susie’s changing independence. Truthfully, I hardly noticed… until one of my young daytime charges didn’t measure up to Susie skill with a bottle.

I’d just finished reading a story to the preschool crowd sitting at my feet. Ten-month-old Susie scooted her body away from the corner and stretched out in the middle of the playpen. “Susie tired,” declared two-year-old Jamie, her African-American sister.

I reached for the lightweight blanket to cover Susie when the screech of a much younger infant exploded from the crib in my bedroom. Deni took the blanket out of my hand, gently laying it over her sister.

“Okay, kids, how about you go play outside for a bit. I’ll feed the crying visitor and get a snack ready for you.” Cheers and claps rang out as each youngster suggested a favorite snack on their way through the kitchen to the backyard.

Sitting in the rocker, warm milk ready for the tiny customer, I held it out to him. His eyes focused on mine. I waved the bottle over his face. His lips moved as he noticed the bottle, but his hands never moved from his sides.  “Well, little man, take the bottle,” I said with a smile. “That’s what you’re crying about, isn’t it? Here; take it.”

I lifted one of his hands, positioning it on the curve of the bottle. His teensy lips sucked like the tip of the bottle had already found the target. “C’mon, Davey*, hold your bottle. You aren’t gonna grow up to be one of those men who needs his wife to do everything for him, are you? Here; hold on to it.”

I placed the tip of the nipple near his moving lips. The infant lurched forward just enough to latch on. Boy, did Davey go for it. No way was he going to come up for air. “Whoa, Cowboy, not so fast; you’re gonna choke.” I pulled the bottle back, but Davey clamped down harder.

Slipping the tip of my finger in the side of his clenched lips broke the seal. The baby coughed and took a deep breath before expressing his red-faced frustration. In mid-scream, he burped so loudly it startled me. “Feel better, Davey?” I put the nipple back in his mouth. The loud sucking began before the rubber tip found its spot; milk dripped down his chin.

I held his bottle in one hand while he drank but continued trying to interest him in holding his own bottle. No go. As soon as I let go of his little forearm, he flapped his hand and grabbed my ear.  “What’s wrong with you Baby? Don’t you want to feed yourself?”

Perhaps God wanted to spare Davey; a thought popped out of the reaches of my questioning mind. How old is Davey?

I began to laugh, apologizing between giggles. “Oh, you poor little Davey. I’m so sorry. Of course, you can’t hold your own bottle. You’re only six weeks old!” Because Susie was still a baby, I had automatically reckoned any baby could do what she did, duh.

A few days later, I experienced my own episode of unjust criticism. The authority had completely misinterpreted what she’d seen.

*Name changed