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Saturday, November 21, 2015

My Last Nerve

While delighted that the formerly silent two-year-old Jamie* felt secure enough to speak, sometimes her chatter grated on my last nerve. “Mama Da, when will Gamma get here?”

“They’re coming to have lunch with us today, Sweetie, so I reckon around Noon.” I didn’t stop clearing the breakfast table as I responded to the excited little girl.

“Will Gamma-Gamma dwive duh twuck?” How the kids loved to ride in the back of Dad’s pickup. “Jamie wuv da twuck!”

“Yes, Grandpa will drive the truck,” I said, wondering if Jamie would ever get the distinction between the grandparents’ names. It didn’t really matter since Dad knew she meant him. “Honey, I’m trying to get the breakfast dishes cleaned up so we’ll be ready when Grandma and Grandpa get here. Can you go play with Deni*, please?”

I glanced down in time to see the black curls nod up and down. “Will Gamma-Gamma let Jamie wide in da twuck?” The youngster clung to my side, as she talked and I moved.

“Jamie. I asked you to, please, go play with Deni. I’m trying to finish up here in the kitchen, and I’m afraid I’m going to trip over you. Please.” I fought to keep calm when uttering the last word.

Noticing Jamie turn for the kitchen doorway, I breathed a sigh of relief. I relaxed my jaw, not realizing I’d been clenching my teeth. Not getting enough sleep at night, definitely, influenced my daytime tolerance for the flow of questions streaming from the pint-size chatterbox.

Fortunately, baby Susie* hadn’t awakened yet. I prayed God would help the teething infant have a better day than she had night. Mom and Dad drove 192 miles--one-way--for these monthly Wednesday lunches. I so wanted the time with the kids to be pleasurable.

Before I’d finished drying the dishes, the tiny ebony beauty tugged at my shirttails. “What will Gamma bwing for lunch?

“She didn’t tell me, Jamie. It’s a surprise for all of us. Where’s Deni? I asked you to play with her, didn’t I?” I lifted the stack of plates and slid them onto the shelf.

“Yeah and I did. Now, I’m here wiff you.” Jamie’s smile dropped as soon as she noticed my face.

Kneeling down, I said, “Sweetie, I have a lot to do before Grandma and Grandpa get here. I’m trying to do as much as I can before Susie wakes up. I asked you to go play. If you don’t want to play with Deni, then ple-e-ease just take one of your books and look at the pictures. Please go in the living room.” I smiled and gave her a hug. I relaxed a bit as Jamie returned the smile and squeeze.

I felt like the ever-ready bunny racing around the kitchen. Finally, I’d completed the mopping of the floor. Just in time, too. Placing the mop and bucket in the closet, I heard Susie’s come-and-get-me scream.

After grabbing a quick swallow of water from a glass by the kitchen sink, I hurried into the bedroom. “Mornin’ Sunshine! How ya doin’? Feelin’ better, you little robber of sleep?” The infant giggled along with me as I tickled her.

Mornin’ Baby!” said the little voice at the foot of the crib. “Gamma and Gamma-Gamma’s comin’ today.  We’s all so happy, wight Mama Da?”

“That’s right, Jamie,” I said as I lifted Susie out and headed for the changing table. “Now, it’s time to get Susie ready for the day. The little girl moved in front of me, but I hadn’t noticed the change in her position. I stumbled with Susie in my arms. Fortunately, I righted myself before dropping Susie.“Jamie!” Get control of yourself, I thought. She’s just excited; she doesn’t mean to disobey you.

“Jamie, do you remember what I asked you to do?” I said forcing my voice to a whisper as I changed Susie’s diaper. Seeing the little head bobbing up and down, I continued, “What did I ask you to do?”

Go play wiff Deni. Den, Jamie read her books.” The child looked straight into my eyes before lowering her gaze.

“Would you, please ask Deni to come here?” Before I made it to the end of the sentence, the little whirlwind whipped around and left the room.

As soon as Deni appeared, I explained my need for her to occupy Jamie so I could feed the baby and finish the other things I needed to do before Mom and Dad arrived.

Following a frustrated “humph!” Deni let out a deep sigh. “Dontcha know I tried to ‘xplain to her to leave ya alone. She just won’t!” The four-year-old’s shoulders lifted and dropped; the little red-haired cutie stared at the floor. How dramatic!

Struggling not to burst out laughing at Deni’s theatrics, I offered a suggestion. “Okay, Jamie, how about you color a picture for your grandparents. That’ll give you something to do while you wait.”

At first, the energetic little maiden complied. However, when not one-quarter of the page had been done before Jamie’s little questions interrupted me again, I took the most drastic measure. “In the corner, Jamie. I’ve asked you over and over. Deni has tried to help you understand—even helping you find your crayons, didn’t she?”

The two-year-old nodded and headed for the corner of the bedroom. “I stay here ‘til Mama Da come get me?”

“Yes,” I said to her little back.

Experiencing only fatigue and irritation, I didn’t even hug the tiny shoulders as had always been my practice. I just wanted to be done with the work before I heard the pick-up on the gravel next to the house. That’s all I could think of at that point.

Finally, all had been made ready and just in time. The sound of the pick-up’s engine reached my ears at the exact moment I realized I’d not seen Jamie for a while.

Sure enough; Jamie stood in the corner, shifting from one tired, little leg to the other as she traced the bumps and dips in the painted bedroom wall. She’d not even sat down for nearly two hours.

I rushed to the corner, swooped Jamie up in my arms and sat on her bunk. “Oh, my dear Princess. Mama Dar’s sooo sorry that you had to stand here so long. Please, Sweetheart, forgive me. I got so busy that I forgot to set the timer. I’m so very sorry.” I squeezed the small child, forcing myself to hold back the tears. The sound outside the window signaled that my parents had just stepped onto the back porch.

The precious little girl took my face in her hands, patting my right cheek. “Jamie forgib Mama Da.” Then she pulled my head down and planted a kiss on the cheek she’d been patting. “It okay. It okay, Mama Da.”

I held her and rocked back and forth…until Jamie pulled free of my grasp. “Gotta go. Gamma and Gamma-gamma here! K?”

“You bet, Honey. I’m right behind you.”

Jamie’s love and ready forgiveness eased my guilt some, but I still swallowed hard over what I’d done—or neglected to do. In my anxiety over proving to my mother that I, too, could keep a clean house as the mother of three, I’d completely overlooked the most important aspect of parenting.

What did it matter if not a speck of dirt could be found if the spirit of a tender, young heart had
been crushed? Gratitude filled my soul as I realized that the experience had hurt me more than Jamie.

It also served as a real wake-up call for me; things needed to change. Next time, my pride may hurt one of the kids. Mom and Dad came to love on the children, not to criticize my housekeeping abilities. Setting proper priorities moved to the top of my daily prayer list.

*Name changed.

The thread of the foster children story began with With Just One Phone Call

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Hotel Lobby

Uncertain how the news would affect four-year-old Deni* and two-year-old Jamie*, I waited until they’d eaten breakfast before giving them the morning plan. I felt my own emotions tearing at my inward parts. How would I feel if the girls clapped and jumped for joy? How would I feel if they didn’t? How would I react in the face of the hour-long stress?

“Guess what you get to do today, kids?” Bending nearly in half, I held onto Baby Susie’*s tiny hands as she tried to walk.

With arms demonstrating what her sisters coined the Hallelujah Position, the wobbly baby legs began to advance. The diaper-clad infant focused on the table where her older siblings had just finished breakfast.

Deni and Jamie laughed as their baby sister lifted her left leg, performed an exaggerated body-tilt to the right, and then slammed the foot down on the wooden floor with a thump and a giggle. She repeated the maneuver until her swaying baby stomp brought her to Deni.

Susie yanked her hands out of mine, slapping the palms on the right thigh of her big sister. Deni backed away just enough to pull Susie onto her lap.

“Okay, kids,” I said as I took my seat at the table. “Mrs. Martha* called to ask me to bring you all to the hotel this morning.” The lump in my throat grew so fast I found it hard to push past it. I cleared my throat and reached for my water glass.

“Why?” Deni wrapped her arms around Susie in a show of protection. Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed Jamie tightening her fists around the arms of her youth chair.

The fear in their response unsettled me.

“Wait a minute, girls. I’ll be with you. Mrs. Martha told me that your mother would like to visit you. She’s not allowed to come here, so Mrs. Martha said you could visit your mom in the lobby of the hotel. That’s kind of like our living room. It’s a place with a sofa and chairs.”

“You gonna leave us there?” The beautiful green eyes of the young redhead glared, piercing my heart not just my eyes.

“Oh no. We will all come back here right after the visit.”

“You promise, Mama Da?”

I slipped over and lifted Jamie out of her youth chair. With a squeeze, I promised.

“Kids, your mother wants to see you. It’s been such a long time; she’s worried that you are being taken care of, you know? She doesn’t know that Susie is learning to walk. You can show her how to help Susie walk.” I struggled to smile and sound cheerful. Inside, my emotions fought to shield the children from more pain.

I set Jamie down as I said, “Let’s find your best outfit to wear for the visit, shall we?” I reached for Susie. “Deni, please help Jamie while I dress Susie.”

Half an hour later, gathered on the sofa in their Sunday best, I took hold of the small hands. “Let’s pray. God will help us with the visit. It’s important that your mother sees you.”

“I don’t want to see Mary*, I—“

Gently, I took my hand from Deni’s and pressed two fingers to her lips. “Sweetheart, you mustn’t call her Mary. She’s your mother and you girls need to call her Mother or Mama or Mommy.”

“But, you—“ I interrupted young Jamie.

“I’m your Mama Dar. Mary is your mother who gave you life from the beginning. I’m so sorry that she’s had a hard time knowing how to take care of you, but. It’s important for the visit that you don’t call her Mary.” I looked into each pair of eyes. “Please, will you do that for me?”

The narrow shoulders shrugged, but each child nodded her agreement. “Okay, thank you! Now, let’s pray and show your Mommy how Susie’s learning to walk.”

Entering the hotel proved as stressful for me as for the children. What do I say to the woman who’s children had been taken away and given to me, even temporarily? Martha said I must supervise the visit; but where should I sit, or should I stand?

Once the heavy door had closed on the straggling Deni, I ushered the little troop into the lobby. Mary stayed seated.

“Hello, Mary! The girls have brought their coloring books to show you. Jamie is doing well sometimes even staying inside the lines.” I felt like a nervous chipmunk, chattering full-speed ahead, without taking a breath. “Susie’s trying to hold a spoon but not really enjoying it. She’d much rather just use her fingers, even for oatmeal,” I giggled and then choked.

I held the infant out, but Mary didn’t reach for her. I sat Susie on the floor near my feet, hoping she’d topple over and crawl to Mary. She didn’t move.

“Girls? Show your mommy your coloring books.”

I pushed Jamie slightly in Mary’s direction. “Deni, Jamie’ll need help finding the pages she wanted to show Mommy. Can you help her, please? It looks like there’s plenty of room on the floor next to your mother.”

I felt such relief as the youngsters dropped on each side of their mother’s legs and began opening the books. I breathed a huge sigh when they started laughing and sharing about their days with the babysitting kids.

“Baby’s learning to walk, Mar—Mama,” said Deni. “I’ll show you.”

I moved away to let Deni help Susie to her feet. “You just hold onto her hands like this,” the pre-schooler demonstrated.

Mary approached the baby, reaching to take hold of the standing child. Deni had no sooner placed the teensy fist into Mary’s than Susie plopped down. The grimace on Susie’s face signaled the vocal objection would soon follow. Mary let go of her baby’s hand and stared at me.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, and I meant it. My heart went out to the mother, whose life had not been an easy one. Then, she snarled at me. Fear took root in my heart as the angry woman turned back to the sofa.

I returned to my place on the bottom steps leading upstairs. I bit my lip so as not to cry from the tension. While a State requirement that had merit, this visit-thing brought pain to everyone involved. The hour challenged all of us.

Back in the car, the girls chattered about all that they wanted to do for the rest of the day. I couldn’t tell if the rapid-fire dialogue had to do with nervousness, or if I’d projected my own feelings onto the children. To them, the visit had happened; let’s get on with the day. To me, I needed some regrouping time. I knew exactly what to do to meet all of our needs.

“Hey, girls, let’s go see what Stacie, Shannon, and Baby Chip are doing, shall we?” Delighting over their clapping and cheering, I pictured Carroll’s sun tea pouring out of a gallon jar and into a tall glass of ice. The condensation wet the glass even as the delicious brown liquid forced its way around and through the clanking cubes.

*Names changed

Saturday, November 7, 2015


Assuming the persistent knocking came from the children in the playroom upstairs, I ignored it. I walked past the staircase on my way to the bedroom, alert for any sounds of distress. Hearing none, I finished my journey and dumped the extra-large load of clean laundry onto my bed. Susie never stirred from her nap in the crib next to my bed. When the knocking turned into pounding, I decided to act.

Just as my right foot hit the first step, a loud knock sounded behind me. I turned, staring at the locked wooden door. Why would anyone be knocking on that door? I knew that no steps joined the door with the ground six feet below. A sharp knock interrupted my musings.

I reached over and unlocked the useless, exterior door. Standing back, I swung the door open and peered down. 

“Hello!” I said to the open passenger window. “Uh, this door isn’t used. The owner never built the steps, as you can see.” I chuckled, restraining the explosion of laughter I felt growing at the ridiculous scene playing out.

“We heard that you babysit kids here?”

“Yes, I do. Would you like to drive around to the back steps and come on in?”

“Uh, no. We’re in kind of a hurry. Can we pay you when we get back this afternoon?“

“Sure,” I said, noticing a large paper grocery sack thrust out the open window.

“This is a sack of Cody’s clothes. He’s not potty-trained yet. I don’t want you to have to wash his clothes. Just put them in the plastic sack and take another outfit when he wets one. This should be enough for the day.”

I bent down and grabbed the bag full of clean clothing, discovering it contained only pants, shirts, and underwear—no diapers. I hadn’t noticed the father bringing the little boy to the opening in the side of the house until he held him up to me.

I dropped the sack inside the doorway and reached for the child. “Welcome to our house, Cody! How old are you?”

The father and Cody responded simultaneously, “Three,” said Dad while Cody presented his hand with thumb and little finger bent into his palm—the three-finger salute. “He’s a big boy, so he’s gonna wear big boy clothes, aren’t ya son?”

The little pre-schooler lowered his head. I wrapped my arms around him and gently squeezed. “Cody, we have another boy here today who is also three! He’s a little taller than you but Danny’s lots of fun.”

“Okay, well, we gotta get going,” said the tall cowboy. “We should be back by six. That's all right, isn’t it?”

I agreed, resolving that Cody would have a fun and memorable day with the kids. I must admit I also had a twinge of anxiety that his parents might not come back for the little tyke.

Fortunately, I had only my three foster girls and two regulars that day. For Cody that might seem like a crowd, but I felt confident the other children would make the shy little buckaroo feel welcome.

Calling the kids down from the playroom, I introduced each one, adding their age so Cody would see he fit right into the little band. “Cody, Deni will show you around and tell you the rules here. Danny, when you need to go to the bathroom, would you please take Cody with you? He’s just learning, and I think you can show him how things are done.”

Danny agreed. I smiled as I watched the little gang begin the tour of the place, punctuated with do’s and don’t’s from the lovely red-headed four-year-old girl. I heard Baby Susie’s chatter and moved to free her from the crib.

Half an hour later, while folding clothing in my bedroom, I heard the voices of Danny and Cody accompanied by the clopping of boots across the wooden hallway. “Now, watch me, Cody. I been doin’ this for a long time.”

I recognized the slap of the seat and lid against the toilet tank. “The first thing ya gotta do is lift both of these. Women don’t like it if ya miss and get the place they sit all wet.”

“Okay,” said the barely-audible trainee.

“Do like me,” said Danny. I heard two little zippers and figured Cody would get to try Danny’s technique right away.

“Cody. You can do it. Make a splash in the water.”

I listened, but I also prayed for Cody. How I wanted him to succeed.

A few seconds later, the splash generated by the little stream provoked cheers from the two three-year-olds. Inwardly, I clapped and did a happy dance for Cody. Danny’s next instruction interrupted my thank you’s to God.

“Now, Cody, this part’s important. In Mama Dar’s house, there’s all girls. That means that ya gotta remember to put these back down before you leave the room.” The unmistakable sound of the seat and lid dropping accented his instruction. Good boy, I thought.

I needn’t have worried that Danny would be saddled with taking Cody to the bathroom all day. After only one demonstration, Cody not only got it, he loved it. His little boots clopped across the hallway more frequently than I’d expected for a pre-schooler.

On one occasion, I worried about the little guy because he had been in the restroom longer than usual. My concern that Cody may be ill evaporated the moment I caught sight of his little head twisted to drink from the bathroom sink. The pre-schooler loved standing up to pee so much that he drank from the faucet until his tank needed emptying again.

Just after six o’clock, a knock sounded from the side door of the house. I knew it had to be Cody’s parents, so I opened it. I lowered the full sack of clean clothes to his mother. She took the bag and frowned.

“I told you not to wash his clothes. Why did you do that? Do I need to pay you more?”

I stretched out my arm to rest on the three-year-olds shoulders. “I didn’t wash any of them. Cody didn’t need any, did you?”

The little boy smiled and shook his head, adding, “I know how to do it. Danny taught me.”

Here’s where we want to hear the Daddy cheer and slap his son on the back, right? Sadly, his father lifted Cody out of the door frame and said, “We’ll see how long that lasts.”

“We’re proud of you, Cody! Come back anytime—even just to play with the kids.” I waved both hands, smiling and silently praying for God to be with our new little friend.

The victorious little champ continued smiling and waving at me as the car turned onto the road for home.

I never again saw Cody. God allowed us into his life for such a brief, but important, time.

Note: All Kids’ names have been changed.

Story thread begins with With Just One Phone Call