Tuesday, July 21, 2009

World of Darkness, part seven, the end

I rode down the yard and put the stand down and it stood there shiny and mine. I went in the house and found my sister. She was my, always, companion at home. She was several years older and did more in raising me than my mother ever did. I told her my good fortune with great excitement. My own bike and my parents didn’t even have to pay for it! It was about then that I heard the front door slam. We ran into the kitchen and there stood my mother. My shiny bike was gripped in her hand. She looked at me and with deadly quiet in her voice asked, "what is this? I told her it was my bike and that James’ father had given it to me for free. "You will get a bike when we buy it for you. We don’t need his charity!" She turned and dragging the small bike by the grip went toward the basement. You could only get into our basement from outside. I followed and my sister held my hand as we wondered what she was going to do. She snapped the light on. The only thing in there was our wood furnace and the big block my father chopped wood for the stove on. She grabbed the axe and laying the bike on the block. She swung. I stood staring as she chopped the frame in half. Then the new tire and shiny rim. It was a wreck and she slammed it with the blunt end of the axe until it was dented and twisted. She heaved it against the wall and dropped the axe. Tears spilled from my eyes and I ran. I hid in the woods behind the house. That was the day I started hating my mother. Not just a simple dislike or upset, but burning, angry hate. It never went away. I tried, over the years to forgive her for it. I never did. She’s dead these many years and now I can’t. I wonder if I could if she weren’t though? I avoided the ball field, James house, or any place I might see them. School started again and I was about to enter third grade. I remember always feeling sad in those days. The only bright moments I remember were with my sister. She had seen. She knew my pain. She taught me to sing, and let me listen to her records. The Beatles were the rage and she was as caught up in that mess as any teen girl. She took me baby sitting one night and the people had a television. Ed Sullivan was on and the Beatles played. I had to be quiet while my sister screamed as loud as the ones on the television. The summer passed and I missed seeing James. Sis was OK to be around but she wasn’t a guy. She didn’t do guy stuff. I mentioned my bad luck. One day, when I got off the bus, James’ dad was waiting. James sat in the front of the bus and was off before me. I always sat near a brother because as much as I didn’t like them, when trouble started, family stuck together. I followed them off the bus and only saw James’ dad too late. The other kids all ran for their houses and I was trapped. They stood there all three of them. James’ house was only four down from the bus stop. "Want to come down?" James dad seemed sad, hurt. I was afraid he would yell at me and I had avoided James as much as I could. "It will be a couple hours till your folks come home. James hasn’t had someone to play with much lately." I knew what he was saying. I followed them to their house and inside. James set his books down on the table. I didn’t have any. I never had homework. I did it in school at recess. It was safer inside doing homework and reading. I knew if I took something home it would get trashed. We sat at the table and James’ dad set some cookies on the table and glasses of milk. I ate silently. Watching, waiting. Finally James’ dad sat at the table. He nibbled on a cookie. "Did the bike tire go flat?" He was careful in how he spoke. "No, sir." It really hadn’t. "Oh. You haven’t come over to ride I thought you might be afraid to bring it if it went flat. That happens sometimes, it not your fault. If it needs something bring it down, OK?" He was so kind I honestly wanted him to hug me like he often did James. Tears slowly formed in my eyes and dripped into my milk glass. "Are you OK?" He stood and I nearly leapt from the chair. He was between me and the door and I wanted to die. I slid back onto the chair. I remember the sensation of his hand resting on my shoulder, warm, and comforting. "It’s going to be fine. Tell me what happened." James wiggled uncomfortably but did not leave. His sister looked as though she might burst into tears as well. Later I learned little girls are like that. If they see someone cry they do also. It’s still strange to me. I spilled my guts sitting there. A half eaten cookie turned soggy from tears. James and his dad listened as I told them what my mother had done. He had moved around the table and I looked up to see his kind face. It was near tears. I told him all of it. That my mother had said we don’t need his charity. He sat heavily and James just stared. The air was silent. I choked out a thanks for everything. He was staring out the window. I leapt from the chair and was gone. The door banged behind me. We never talked again. Not to James or his dad. The last sight I had of his face was of such sadness. I felt I had betrayed him by being born into such a family. That was the day I learned to hate charity and kindness. Nothing should make you hurt like that. My mother had been raised in a Catholic orphanage. She talked about God and His love. If he was so nice why did He let my mother hurt the nicest man I’d ever met without even touching him. God wasn’t nice! He was cruel and mean and what had I done to Him that He left me where I hated the very people who were my family? That was the year my parents marriage really went to pieces. Dad was thrown in jail because he tried to chop the head off one of my older brothers, with the same axe that had been used to destroy the bike. He was drunk at the time and so considered dangerous. My mother decided she’d had enough and since she couldn’t raise us all she needed to dispose of some of us. It was within weeks of the confrontation with James’ dad. I remember one cool day we walked to town. Five brothers and our mother. She didn’t talk much as we walked and I had no idea why she was taking us to town. The twin whose arm had been injured was still in a cast and since they were only four years old, my mother and the oldest brother took turns carrying them. The bridge across the river was the worst part. The cold air howled through the thin jacket and worn socks. We went to the court house. I didn’t know what it was for until we arrived. The last time I’d been here it was for truancy. I didn’t care except to get inside. My hands were cold from the walk and my feet were marginally frozen. September in the mountains was cool on some days. It was on this one. We sat on wood benches and slowly the tingling left my feet. My mother met with a lady and after some time they both came over. "I can’t take care of all you kids. This lady is going to put you into foster homes." She said it so dispassionately I was surprised she even bothered to explain at all. I had learned about foster kids in school. There were only a couple. If I thought I was treated like dirt by other kids, they were ignored and avoided as though they had some horrible, contagious disease, as well. I was furious and when I was told I would be going to a home with my next two older brothers. I lost it. I screamed I’d run away. I didn’t want to be with any of them. I hated them all!" My mother tried to threaten me to shut up, but not this time. I refused. I had already acquired the habit of hiding out sometimes for days with almost no contact with people and skipping out at school when the need arose. The need being because I didn’t have two shoes that matched because one had fallen apart. I was embarrassed at our poverty. I didn’t see other kids in the kind of clothes were wore. They had money for milk at school and full lunch pails. I had water at the water fountain and a paper sack, which I carefully folded each day and returned to home, for my slice of bread with mayonaisse. I hated my life because it was empty, like my stomach. The lady and my mother talked. The lady came back and took my next two older brothers and the twins. No one said good bye. My mother left and I sat on an old wood bench alone. Another lady came and sat beside me. "I’m taking you to the home a very nice family. They really want you to come. They have a son about your age. Come with me. Do you have anything to take along?" My mother hadn’t even bothered to pack the other pair of pants or the two shirts I had. I hadn’t really cried through any of the days events. I watched my family be split apart like a puzzle. None of our uncles or aunts came and offered to help or take any of us in until our parents got it together. We were discarded, an inconvenient embarrassment. On the trip to what was to be my home and family for the next several years I sobbed. My thin coat sleeves were dirty and covered with tears and runny nose. How did I feel? By the time we arrived I was dead inside! Over the next seven years my mother saw me once. The lady came to the foster home and picked me up. She took me to the courthouse where my other brothers were waiting. The older ones spent most of the time taking with my mother. She was telling how she was getting a place and would soon have them home. She could only take two and so the twins and I were returned to our foster homes. She didn’t talk to me at all. I didn’t want to live with her anyhow. My foster parents had a farm and it was three years since I’d seen this lady called my mother. I was strong now and my ribs didn’t stick out any more. That day was the first time I’d been hungry like before in three years. She didn’t bother to buy us anything to eat. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. The foster counselor returned me unaware of my hunger. I didn’t tell. At home I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a glass of chocolate milk. Real milk from our cows! No one ever told me I couldn’t have something when I was hungry. My foster mom made cookies and cake all the time. We ate real meals with meat and potatoes, corn and beans and milk to drink. We sat together at the table like a family should. I got all the milk I wanted. I still make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and milk. It’s my favorite and I passed my love for them on to my kids and grand kids. My thanks to James’ dad for that. My father brought his new wife to visit once while I was at the foster home. He was drunk and I wanted him to go away forever. That day I died of embarrassment. So did they, to me. I stopped thinking of them as my parents. I even stopped calling them mom and dad. I had new parents. Parents a lot like James dad. I never mentioned James’ mother because I don’t remember her. I’m not sure if she was even alive. She must have been. I seem to have blanked her out of my memories. I don’t know why. Years later I learned about Christians. Matter of fact I became one. So is my wife and both my kids. You see, I never found out for sure, but inside I’m sure James’ dad was one, as well James probably was one too. No one but a Christian would have fed and tolerated the presence of a dirty, half starved kid of alcoholics in those days. Let alone invite one into their house and give him a gift as valuable as friendship with no strings attached. I just wish I could find him and really thank him. I have to admit, I’ve wrestled with the same prejudices that others held against me as a child. I get embarrassed at facing kids in dirty clothes with runny noses at the store. They look into my eyes and unknowingly smile in ignorance of their condition. I’m embarrassed because I know and in this day and age I am as helpless to stop it as they are. No wonder when they grow older and their eyes open they often end in jail. All they’ve ever seen are people taking for themselves from others. It was all right for the adults in their life to do it, why not for them? It is much easier to blame others for their own impoverished condition than it is to blame myself for my inability to see past the dirty faces and ragged clothes. To see how many times adults are at fault for those tear streaked dirty and gaunt faces. The adults who waste money on things like drugs, and drink and cigarettes. Taking pleasure in selfish pampering of themselves and ignoring the child they brought into this world. A child with no power to lift itself out of the devastating environment it was born into. A world of adults with one desire. To get all they can from life for themselves. Yet are those adults really any more to blame than me when I hesitate to offer a slice of toast, or a glass of milk? Might I at least offer a comforting hand on their shoulder or a quiet place where a soul can rest? At the least show them the warm sunlight of friendship from the anger and prejudice of a world of darkness!

Epilogue I’ve written this as accurately as I can, corroborating my information with other brothers. My life turned out different than it should have and better than I could have hoped. Not because I found a way to overcome the obstacle of poverty or embarrassment of it, but because one family decided to help a kid despite what he was. Looking back I realize it just took God a little while to place me in a family much like the one I admired, James and his family. Some families, such as my foster family are well suited to taking in and helping others. Much of my character and values were instilled by them. All without going hungry, or getting beaten. Unfortunately kids in schools have not the same heart. I suffered the ridicule of being a foster kid through eighth grade. My foster parents never knew or at least never let on knowing how the kids and others jibbed and picked. I survived and though I admit to some rocky moments in my teen years, my feet came back solidly on the ground. For my foster parents, they didn’t hassle me for my unfortunate parentage. Nothing has made me feel so much a part of family as when I would visit my foster parents as an adult. There were times my foster mom introduced me to people. She would call me, "one of her boys." We all knew it meant foster kid but it always felt good the way she said it. I belonged. I have never been a foster parent and am sure I don’t have some of the needed gifts to be one. You see, no matter how long you live, you will always be a foster kid yourself. You never really get past seeing the dirty faces and runny noses without hurting. Looking into innocent eyes that reflect the memory of a life you lived. Seeing the suffering because a governmental system propagates it with easy money and a blind eye to the truth. A system that waits to help until it is usually too late. I am glad for those who are willing to take on the task of reaching out as foster parents. I can listen and talk to those kids who are there. I know where they are and that they are young and often innocent in understanding what it all means. I can’t tell them things will be fine. I can’t tell them to grab the opportunity before them. Many don’t have a clue what that would mean. I can push a swing, offer a slice of bread or a drink. I can at least give them an example so when they finally do see and understand, they might remember. Then strive to be like the guy who looked past the dirt, the snot, the mangy hair, and wasn't ashamed of their innocent eyes.

Much of what I have written is also for parents and foster parents. You see, I’m not embarrassed any more for myself and I don’t much care if someone doesn’t like what I say. For foster parents I can say, you might help a kid who could make it. I don’t know if they would ever be able to come back and say thanks, so let me say it for them. Thanks. For parents I can only say, if you think you’ve done everything you can ask your kid. Poverty needn’t be an inheritance. For those who see the dirty faces and turn away, I understand. I understand you’re outraged and embarrassed that a child like that would look at you and make you feel ashamed. Fear not though. Those innocent eyes don’t know your pain, your humiliation that a child like that would stare at you, with your nice clothes and clean skin. They just smile at you and wonder why you don’t smile back. After all their smile is dirt cheap. What is yours really worth? So little that you can't share it?

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My childhood was spent growing up on a farm in the mountains of northern Pennsylvania. In those years I learned the lessons that would mold my character and moral center. In my teens I moved to a small city in southeastern PA. Like many teens I had my rebellion and found the futility of it. During my late teens I moved to central PA and in high school lost my heart to the girl who is now my wife. Presently I'm well into midlife and slowing rapidly. The things I used to do, I can't even remember. Married for 37 years, we have a son, a daughter and five grandchildren. My son has two boys, my daughter three girls, I love irony! I'm self-employed for most of 25 years in construction. Doing a project for a customer and getting their approval is wonderful and inspiring. I started writing when my children were younger. I did some stories for them and over time it became more of an interest. I now have four completed novels and several shorts and am working towards getting one or more published. One short has been published.

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