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Saturday, January 30, 2016

Hallelujah Flight

Unaware of the crisis just ahead, Mom and I blissfully re-hashed the Thanksgiving holiday weekend with the girls. Of course, the meal showcased my mother’s ability to prepare all of the traditional dishes, providing lots of scrumptious leftovers.

I’d lived most of my life in Eastern Montana, famous for beastly winter blizzards and snowstorms. Double-digit sub-zero temps froze everything too slow to move.

“I’m so glad the worst of the storm passed,” Mom said.  “There’s plenty of daylight to make the way back to your home.”

“Can you see Daddy and the girls up ahead?” Both hands squeezed the steering wheel, as I watched the slippery road.

“Yes. Daddy slowed to keep an eye on us. You’ll see his pick-up as soon as that eighteen-wheeler clears the hill,” Mom said. Susie* shifted in Mom’s arms at the sound of our voices.

The infant car seat had satisfied the baby for about an hour. After that, her screaming made Mom beg just to hold Susie. I’d agreed because her shrieks unnerved me. Susie fell into a deep sleep as soon as Mom set her on her lap.

The giant tires flung clouds of snow as the driver accelerated. Dad’s red taillights flickered through the puffs of the passing semi.

At last, I relaxed at the sight of Daddy’s pick-up. Nothing between us now but a car-length’s distance of light snow and inches of fluffy layers over ice. Looking straight ahead, I began to laugh.

“Do you see Jamie* and Deni*, Mom?” I tightened my grip on the wheel, lifting one arm for a quick wave at the kids.

The youngsters knelt backward on the bench seat next to my father. Their grins stretched across their little faces, while they wildly waved one hand, then the other.

As soon as Mom and I waved, I saw two little heads turn towards Dad. One quick final wave and both girls resumed the forward position on the seat.

“I wondered how long Daddy’d let the kids do that,” I said to Mom with a giggle. “He’d never in a million years have let us do that when we were kids.”

“Of course not. But then, he was your father. He’s the grandfather now,” Mom said in a whisper as Susie began to squirm.

Neither of us wanted to deal with a fussy eleven-month-old, so we stopped talking to one another.

Before long, the brilliant sun broke through the wintery calm. What a beautiful sight on either side of the county highway. Tall evergreens stood near frozen creeks, caps of snow topping every green bough. Even the jet-black Angus herd had a layer of the white stuff on their backs. We had plenty of time to notice because the solid ice kept the traffic at a snail’s pace of stop and go.

Finally, we arrived in the next town of our journey, crossed through using the main street, and picked up a bit of speed. The snowplows had been out ahead of us. Unfortunately, so had the not—so-careful motorists.

“Slow down, Honey!” Mom said, struggling to speak softly.

“I just started to pump the brakes, Mom. I see the Highway Patrol on the left up ahead.”

Susie no longer slept but remained calm in my mother’s arms. As we passed the last of three car accidents, I breathed a sigh of relief. Dad and the girls crept on in front of us. I maintained a car-length between us, continuing the same speed.

That had been Dad’s plan from the beginning. He knew the long stretch of bad roads could be problematic for a single woman with three little children in the car. He insisted on driving his pickup to check the road before us. I felt relieved Dad stayed within my sight, not to mention he had the two older girls with him.

At the exact moment, I noticed Susie’s feet on the wrong side of Mom’s lap, I realized I’d forgotten to warn Mom not to let the baby sit with her legs anywhere near the stick shift.

One strong kick and a grinding screech. I lost control of the vehicle. Before I could get the gear out of neutral, the bright red and white Cordoba shot off the road like a ski jumper off a ramp.

“Hallelujah, Jesus,” I whispered as my eyes took in a forest of dark green pine trees three hundred feet below us. The words left my mouth automatically--definitely, not my usual crisis prayer.

Throughout those air-born seconds, I repeated the two-word prayer, waiting for the crash. I listened for the sounds of breaking tree branches, followed by the shattering of glass. I heard only silence.

Finally, the car jolted, bouncing just a bit before coming to rest. “You okay, Mom?” I asked, reaching for Susie.

Mom’s voice didn’t shake, but her arms trembled as she handed the baby over to me. “Yes, I’m fine, Honey. Are you okay?”

“I seem to be okay, Mom. I’m so sorry I forgot to tell you not to let Susie sit facing me unless you held onto her legs. She just loves to kick.”

I passed my hands over Susie’s frame, checking for any tender areas. Familiar with this game, Susie giggled and kicked.

“Looks like she’s fine, too,” Mom said. “What do we do now?”

“I don’t know. I bet Daddy saw us leave the road and is worried. It’s so cold out there, though. I’m afraid to open the door to try to find help.”

Susie fell asleep in my arms. I should have checked her closer at that point, but I felt relief that she hadn’t cried or screamed. The silence made it easier to think.

“Okay, Mom. Well, at least, we missed all those tall trees. Somehow, we landed in the spot on the side of the forest.”

Suddenly, both of us started at the sound of a knocking on the driver’s side window right behind my head. I whipped back around and stared into the face of a uniformed Highway patrolman. He motioned for me to lower the window.

Pressing on the button, the glass moved down a couple of inches before he spoke. “Is everyone okay in there, Ma’am?”

“Yes, we are. We’re just trying to figure out how we’re gonna get back up there on the highway. My father and two daughters are in a pickup ahead of us. Did you see him? Do you know if he saw us leave the road?”

“Yes, I’ve talked to him. You need to leave the car right now. Turn off your engine and open the door.”

His words surprised me. I had no idea the engine still motored on while we sat there in the snow. “Okay, I’ll stop the engine,” I said, continuing to sit in the driver’s seat with the baby sound asleep.

“Ma’am, please hand me the baby and get out of the car right now. Your exhaust pipe is blocked by the hill.”

Sure enough. Susie’s little face was beet-red from the exhaust backing up into the closed car. Carbon monoxide had already begun to affect Susie. That’s why she fell asleep.

The kind Patrolman secured Susie’s winter jacket, mittens, and hood. Mom and I left the vehicle, fastening the closures on our coats and pulling down the hoods against the bitter cold.

We struggled up the steep, snow-covered hill, relieved to have the baby in the arms of the Patrolman. Cresting the top, I noticed Dad working hard to keep Deni and Jamie from running over to us.

“It’s okay, kids. We’re alright,” I said, reaching to hug the pair at the same time.

“Was it fun, Mama Dar? Did you feel like you were flying? We saw you!” four-year-old Deni said, her voice an octave higher, a wide grin spreading across her freckled face.

Me and Deni seed you, Mama Daw. We wanted to do it, too, but Gwamma-gwamma said we can’t.” The two-year-old had a completely different view of the event than I did.

“I think your Grandpa wanted to keep you dry, Jamie. See how we got all wet climbing the hill?”

Both little heads nodded and let Dad turn them back towards the pickup. “We’re gonna get cold out here, girls. Let’s get back in the pickup.”

The Patrolman handed Susie over to me. Mom and I walked alongside Dad, as I told him what the officer had said. “The wrecker will pull the car out, but it’s hard to tell if there’s any damage to the car. He said it didn’t look like it to him. Do you want to come back to the station to wait with us? Or, do you want to keep going?”

“What do you want me to do, Punkin?”

“I think you can go on ahead. The road is completely flat from this point on. There’s snow on the highway, but the storm stopped so it should be fine. The snowplows are working that highway now. It’ll take about three hours for us to get back on the road, the guy said.”

Just then, the patrolman joined us, reiterating what I’d said and urging my father to continue on ahead of us. He’d asked a mechanic to look at my car, confirming that it’d be fine to drive as soon as the wrecking team got it up the hill. They’d drive it over to the police station to be sure there’d be no trouble.

“I’ll call Carroll from the police station, Dad. Remember where she lives?” I continued after his nod. “I know you can stay there until we get there. She’ll have a warm place, and I’m sure Carroll’ll feed you. It’s her favorite thing to do, you know? Dad laughed along with me, probably as relieved as I was to have a friend like Carroll.

“Go on, Honey,” my mother urged. “We’ll be fine at the station. This nice man’s waiting for us. He’s going to drive us back to town and see that we get something hot to drink. We’ll see you at Carroll’s.”


The Patrolman’s guess proved correct. Three hours later, Mom and I resumed the drive home. The baby slept most of the rest of the way in her car seat.

We had not a single bit of trouble for the remainder of the long, isolated county road.

After enjoying a hot bowl of Carroll’s homemade venison stew, we made the decision that Dad and I would get the coal-burning furnace going at home, and then we’d return for Mom and the kids. No point anyone else had to endure that freezing cold.

Of course, Dad and I hadn’t anticipated the horror awaiting us. We figured we’d get that furnace roaring and bring the family back to slip snuggly into warm beds. It didn’t happen quite that way.


*Name changed.
Story thread begins at this link: With Just One Phone Call

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Preschooler’s Preference

I erroneously assumed that anything Jamie* noticed would be spewed forth from the little girl’s mouth shortly after drawing her attention. My middle foster daughter kept up a fairly constant chatter; when did her brain have time to ruminate on any one subject? But, then it happened.

“Mama Daw, make Jamie’s hair pitty, too.”

I spread out Susie’s* Cheerios on the highchair tray and turned to the almost-three-year-old. “Your hair is very pretty now, Princess.”

“Gwamma make a long curl on Susie’s head,” the youngster said, patting the top of her own head as she spoke. “Jamie want one, too.”

Deni* noticed my narrowed eyebrows, answering my unasked question. “Last time we visited Grandma, she combed Baby’s hair before church. She put a curl like a big sausage on top of Susie’s head, ‘member?”

I smiled at the memory of Mom doing that same thing to my younger sister a couple of decades earlier. “I don’t, but I do know that Grandma loved putting curls on babies.” Looking over at Jamie, I continued, “You remembered that?”

Jamie’s head bobbed, droplets of milk dripping from the corner of her mouth as she continued chewing her cereal.

“Your hair is much thicker than Susie’s. God made your hair have its own curls already. You won’t ever need to spend time trying to make them like Susie and Deni will.”

Just then, out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed Deni touching her bright red hair. “You have lovely loose curls now, Sweetie. Sometimes the hair stays like that, but sometimes it loses a bit of the curl when you grow up. I expect that you’ll keep some of the natural wave, so it’ll be easy to keep your hair looking good. God gave you very pretty red hair.”

Deni giggled and returned to her breakfast. Jamie reached for her orange juice but seemed to be deep in thought. I bent to retrieve fallen little donut-shaped cereal from the floor next to Susie.

“Jamie never need to make curls?”

“Honey, you have so many curls already. I don’t see where you could put any more.”

Jamie sat silently, obviously ruminating over her dilemma. In about three months, this beautiful little African-American girl would have her third birthday. A cap of soft, tight black curls covered her head.

“You cut Shannon’s daddy’s hair. Jamie want you cut her hair, too.” The smile returned with a quick nod. “Jamie want hair to be pitty.”

I reached over and gently stroked the preschooler’s head. “I think your hair is very pretty right now.” I rapidly scrolled through my mental calendar trying to recall how long ago I’d trimmed Keith’s hair. Weeks?

“I’m so amazed you remember these things, Jamie. You’ve never said anything about wanting something done to your hair.”

“Jamie want somethin’ now.”

Carefully pulling a few strands of soft black curls, the length of the fully-stretched hair surprised me. “Well, Jamie, you might be due for a haircut. I had no idea your hair had grown so long. Would you like me to cut your hair later this morning?” The strands of hair bounced right out of my fingertips with Jamie’s vigorous nodding. “Okay, Princess. I have a few things to do first, but I’ll call you when it’s time for your haircut.”

An hour later, Carroll laughed over the phone line as I recounted Jamie’s requests. “I don’t remember when you cut Keith’s hair either, but it’s been long enough that he looks like he could do with another trim.”

“I just can’t believe that a kid not even three can care about her hair, Carroll!”

My good friend and mother of three chuckled. “Oh, you must have forgotten the story of your college roommate’s little girl. Remember? Beth* had wanted an Afro and hounded her mother until she got the perm.”

“Oh, that’s right,” I said, laughing out loud as I re-played the three-year-old’s first look at herself in the mirror. “She pulled a chair up to help her reach the mirror. Patting the sides of her new Afro, the preschooler said, ‘I’ve wanted my hair like this my who-o-ole life!’ So, yeah, I guess Jamie’s not too young to care about her hair.”

“She’s all girl, Dar,” Carroll said, adding a warning. “Be careful not to cut too much off, though. Her curls are like little springs.”

Once the deed had been done, I realized I’d focused too much on being sure the strands all had the same length and not enough on Carroll’s admonition. I put the scissors on the counter next to Jamie’s chair and stepped back.

As I stared at the precious little head, a wave of horrifying regret raced through me. My beautiful princess now looked like a prince. Springs, indeed! The soft jet-black curls covered the kitchen floor around Jamie’s blue chair.

Gingerly tapping her hair, the eager child said, “Am I pitty, Mama Daw? Am I pitty, weally pitty?”

I smiled in response to the young child’s huge grin. “Oh, yes, Jamie! Your hair is sooo pitty. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen hair that pitty before today.”

“Jamie go look!” She said as she jumped down from her booster chair and bolted for the mirror.

A sick feeling flooded my tense stomach. I tried to remind myself that it’d grow back, but I feared what I’d done with the scissors would really hurt my daughter’s feelings. I know I wanted to sit down and cry.

Don’t worry about it, I heard Keith say in my mind, the difference between a bad haircut and a good one is two weeks. In Jamie’s case, it might be more like two months.

Finally, I heard the running footsteps of both girls. Fearing the worst, I braced myself for their tears.

Looking up from the wooden chair by the table, I saw two beaming little faces—one freckled and one a lovely ebony.

“Oh, tank you, Mama Daw. Tank you! You gib Jamie pitty hair!” Jamie threw her slender arms around me, squeezing with all her strength. “I love you, Mama Daw!”

Beauty’s in the eye of the beholder? Doesn’t matter; it’d grow back. Jamie liked it like that. Whew and yippee! Hopefully, it’d be long enough by Thanksgiving that my mother’d never know what I did to her precious little Jamie’s beautiful hair.

*Names changed 

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

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Unscheduled Visit

Responding to the unexpected knock at the screen door, I pushed it open. I smiled as Martha* grabbed the door and crossed the threshold. “Come in. It’s a nice surprise to see you today.” Well, at least, part of that statement is true, I thought. Hopefully, the social worker wouldn’t sense my unease.

Martha returned my smile but said nothing as we moved into the living room. I pulled out a chair for the well-dressed woman at the big, wooden round table.

Taking my seat across from Martha, I watched her lift her briefcase onto the table. My heart began to race as she removed a file. “I’d like to speak with Deni*. Please call her.”

“Should I ask Jamie*, too? Susie’*s in the crib, napping. Would you like to have a peek at her, or would you like me to wake her?” My words came out way too fast. Get a grip! I shouted at myself.

“Maybe later. Not right now. I’d like to see Deni first,” Martha said, finally looking up from the open file.

I knew all of the kids would follow me down if I went to fetch Deni from the upstairs playroom, so I called to her from the bottom of the stairway. Hearing the “Coming!” from the rumbling kiddies’ chatter, I returned to my seat at the table.

Martha said nothing, so I remained silent as we waited for the footfalls to leave the stairway. I tried to slow my respirations, knowing that would slow my heart rate. Would that lighten the growing glow I felt on my neck and face?

“Whatcha want, Mama Dar?” Deni said, pressing up next to me. Her gaze stayed on Martha, as I stretched my arm around her narrow shoulders.

“Mrs. Martha would like to talk to you, Sweetheart. I didn’t tell you this morning because I didn’t know either.”

Deni looked at the social worker and waited for her to speak.

“Please, come over here, Deni,” Martha said, indicating a spot near her. She scooted the chair away from the table and twisted her body to look straight at Deni.

The cute little redhead smiled and held her arms straight out, away from her sides. “Here’s Deni!” I laughed, grateful that her introduction had lightened the mood.

“Can you twirl around for me?” Martha said smiling.

“Like a dancer?” The lady’s nod set my almost-five-year-old to singing and dancing around the room.

“Do you like to dance?”

I burst into laughter at Martha’s question. Deni responded with a dramatic drop to the floor, enjoying our applause.

Come sit here,” Martha said, pulling out the chair next to her. “I want to ask you why you didn’t go with your sisters to visit your mother.”

“Didn’t wanna go,” Deni said, hanging her head. I longed to rush over and hold her on my lap.

“Were you hurt somewhere and didn’t want your mother to see your owie?”

My eyebrows shot to the ceiling, and every muscle in my body stiffened. Why in the world would Martha ask such a question? Would the little girl understand what Martha’s question implied?

Forcing my eyebrows to relax, I took a few slow breaths as silently as possible. The room remained quiet.

“Honey, you’re not in trouble,” I said in a whisper. “Mrs. Martha just wants to know why you didn’t go to visit Mommy last time. That’s all. You’re not in trouble.”

Deni locked eyes with me. Looking back at Martha, Deni said, “Deni not wanna go. Me not have no owies.”

“Do you like living here?” Deni’s head bobbed rapidly, but she looked at the table, not at Martha. “Does Mama Dar ever hit you when she’s mad?”

I’d anticipated this question so didn’t react at all. Deni, on the other hand, flipped her head up and fired an angry flare at the adult. “Her don’t get mad! Her nice to us. Her not hit me. You don’t say that!”

I reached over to stroke Deni’s freckled little forearm. “Honey, it’s okay. Mrs. Martha had to ask you that question. It doesn’t mean that she’s saying she thinks I hit you. Sweetie, it’s her job to ask the questions. She just wants to be sure you and your sisters are okay because she brought you here. Do you understand?”

Deni refused to look at me, keeping her head bowed. When a tear trickled down her cheek, I looked over at Martha. I said nothing but I hoped my imploring stare got my message across.

Martha finished scribbling her notes, slipped the paper back into the folder and closed it. “Deni, look at me, please,” she said. The social worker said nothing more until Deni responded. “I know that  Mama Dar loves you girls—all three of you girls. I know she’s nice to you and takes good care of you.”

“Why’d ya say she hit me then? Her never hits me.”

“It’s a question I had to ask you. Sometimes, kids are afraid to tell the truth. Do you understand?”

Me telled you the truth. Me and Jamie and Susie likes it here. We eats every day here—more ‘n once even.” Deni continued without taking a breath, “We takes a bath and puts on clean stuff. Mama Dar teached us songs and reads to us. Her good to us every day. Nobody hurts us here.”

“Okay, Deni. That’s good to know. I’m glad you like living here. You can go on back to play with the kids now. Mama Dar and I’ll talk a few more minutes.”

Once the child had gone far enough not to overhear our conversation, Martha turned to me. “Should I have told her not to miss another scheduled visit with her mother?”

I smiled my relief before responding. “I’ll tell you something, Martha. Deni’s one sharp little girl. There’s no doubt in my mind that she knows her absence at that visit brought on your presence today. I’m certain she’ll never want to miss another visit again. Did Mary* report me, officially?”

“Yes, she did. I know the kids are in a much better home than they have ever known, but the law demands that I file an unscheduled home visit report to respond to her complaint. You understand, don’t you?”

“I do. I’m sorry. I just didn’t know all of the kids had to go, crying their heads off or not. I had no idea I was doing something wrong when I took her over to Sheila’s house. I’ll never do it again; you can be sure of that, Martha.”

Sometimes, the Lord uses unexpected circumstances to prepare us for what’s ahead. This turned out to be one of those times.

*Name changed.

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

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Mistake

Fastening the inner leg snaps on the warm baby overalls, I smiled at Susie*. “There you go, little lady. Clean diaper; you smell a lot better now.” She giggled as though she understood. “I’ll roll up the cuffs of those long sleeves, and you’ll be good to go.”

I slung Susie around to rest on my hip and headed for the living room. Deni* hadn’t stopped crying.

On the floor near her older sister, Jamie* had pulled her socks on, but the lump of cotton on top of her foot indicated she’d not found the right spot for her heel. Her little tennis shoes sat in tight formation near the two-year-old’s leg. Jamie looked up as I approached.

“Wow! Look what you did, Jamie. You put your socks on for me. I’m so proud of you.” I slowly lowered Susie into the nearby playpen and returned to sit on the floor next to Jamie. “I’ll help you with your shoes.”

The petite African-American smiled and raised her leg towards my waiting hand. Deni’s crying made my heart ache, but first things first; Jamie needed her shoes. I distracted Jamie with chatter as I twisted each sock around, slipped on the shoe, and tied the laces. “Sweetie, would you please use the bathroom before we leave? I’ll talk to Deni a minute, and then we’ll get our coats on.”

Without protest, the youngster stood and ran to the bathroom. I moved to sit next to the sobbing four-year-old and took her in my arms.

“Thank you for getting dressed, Honey. You even have your shoes on,” I said while stroking her beautiful red curls. “I love you. You know that, don’t you?” I felt her head nod under my hand. “I’m sorry that you’re so sad this morning. I wish we didn’t have to go out until you felt better, but we have an appointment. That means that we need to be at the hotel at a certain time. Do you understand?” Again, the nod, this time against my shoulder.

“But, me don’t want to go. Me stay here.”

Deni hadn’t made that particular grammatical error for months now, so I knew she felt stressed. I didn’t see any way to give her what she wanted.

“You’re almost five, but that’s still too young to stay alone, Sweetheart. You need to--”

“You call Sheila,” said Deni with a sniffle. “Me stay there. I not need to go.”

“Okay, I’ll see if you can stay with Sheila this morning. If she’s not going to be home, you’ll need to go with us.”

Deni’s sobbing began again as I moved to the phone.

Fortunately for Deni, Sheila welcomed her. I had no idea I’d made a huge mistake, but I felt a lot better as I drove away from Sheila’s.

Pushing open the door to the hotel lobby, I smiled at Mary*. She looked at her watch and frowned.

I glanced up at the wall clock. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize we were late. I had to--”

“Where’s my daughter?” Mary interrupted with a growl.

“Well, that’s why we’re late, actually. Deni just wouldn’t come. She cried through breakfast, refusing to eat anything. She cried as I urged her to get dressed, but it looked like I’d have to manhandle her to get her dressed. I left Deni in her bed to help Jamie find her clothes, and then Susie woke up and--”

“Shut up! I don’t care about your excuses. What have you done with my daughter? I demand you bring her here.”

“I tried, but she just refused to come this time,” I said, feeling Jamie cling to my leg. “I took her to a friend’s, so I could get the other two over here before I missed the appointment altogether. I’m sorry. I really am. Maybe next time Deni--” Susie squirmed to be let down, so I lowered her to the floor as Mary interrupted me a second time.

“I don’t want to hear your excuses! You’re trying to take my kids away from me, and you’re not going to get them. They’re mine. I’m going to report you,” Mary said, lifting Susie onto her lap.

“Mary, that’s not true. I’m doing my best to take care of your kids. It’s just that Deni wouldn’t stop crying and--”

“So what did you do to make her cry? Huh? Did you hit her?”

Now, I wanted to cry. “Oh, Mary, I would never hit her. No, she just felt sad today or something. I don’t know why she didn’t want to come today. I’m sorry. I didn’t know what to do.”

“Yeah, I bet. Well, you dumb ____, you did the wrong thing, and you’re gonna pay for it.”

The ball of fear dug deeply into my heart. Swallowing hard several times, I regained control of my emotions. Smiling down at Jamie, I said, “It's okay, Jamie. Mary is letting me know that I should have brought Deni instead of taking her to visit Sheila this morning. Everything’s okay, really it is. I just made a mistake.” I gave Jamie’s trembling shoulder a squeeze before continuing. “How about showing your mother the drawings you made for her? I think Mommy would like that, wouldn’t you, Mary?”

I fought to smile at her instead of dissolving into tears. The bitterness in her face lessened only slightly as she reached out her hand.

“There you go, Jamie,” I said, gently removing her arm from my leg and pushing her towards Mary. “Show Mommy the pretty drawings.”

Jamie inched towards her mother, papers held out as far as her outstretched arm could reach. At least, her trembling had stopped.

The tense visit proved to be a brief one. I figured Mary left to phone the authorities as soon as the hotel door closed.

Jamie said nothing as we walked to the car. My thoughts captured my attention so completely that I stopped walking only when Jamie shouted I’d missed our parking spot. Mary’s words choked me over and over. What would she do now?

*Name changed

 Note: Thread of the foster children’s story begins with this link: With Just One Phone Call