It was actually a sunny and pleasant morning the day after my grandmother removed me from my mother’s apartment. She took me and my suitcase, my hand in one hand and the suitcase in the other, having I’m sure explained to me where we were going and what was happening. But I was four years old and must not have either understood or heard what she was saying (perhaps a four-year-old’s version of selective hearing). We walked up near Chatham Square and met a very pretty young African-American woman. It became clear to me then that I was going to go somewhere with this young woman, and that I was to leave Grandma. I started crying and screaming right away. I grabbed hold of my grandmother and had to be pried off of her. I vaguely remember her saying something about this only being for a little while but my crying pretty much drowned out whatever either of them was saying. Eventually, the pretty woman and I were in the taxi, and I was crying and staring out the back window to see my grandmother waving to me and looking tired and sad.
The taxi had to go all the way from lower Manhattan to the Bronx. This was 1963. It was a long trip. I cried the entire ride; sometimes loudly, sometimes softly, but constantly for however long that trip took. Some ideas formed in my head that would stay with me long after that cab ride; well past the point I forgot the specifics of the pretty lady’s face.
I was bad; I was deficient. It was because I was angry at my mother; it was because of all I’d been through and seen living with my mother. I was not a normal child; I was a horrible person. This was why I was being sent away. If I ever was back with Grandma again, I would do everything possible to act like a regular child and not like the evil creature I was. The only hope I had of redemption was if Grandma came and took me back. Mostly, though, through and through I became convinced that I was defective and very bad, and that was just the way I was and would always be.
When we arrived at the foster home where I would be staying until … when? … I was brought into a room where there was this woman and a bunch of big kids and one kid littler than me. I was told to introduce myself. I said my name and that I was four and a half years old. The woman told me not to lie; I was only four years old. Just because she was right didn’t mean I was going to stop; I needed somehow to make myself older, bigger, something; so I adamantly insisted that I was four and a half! After a lot of back and forth, and I’m sure at some point me caving on the four years old thing, the pretty lady left; my last link with Grandma; and I was all alone among complete strangers.
The foster mother and I never got along. I was Sent to Bed without Dinner nearly every night. If I cried, she would smack me for crying, which of course just made me cry more, which got me Sent to Bed without Dinner. It was okay, though, because the big kids had my back: They would collect pieces of bread and then, at some point while I was lying in a crib (at four; total indignity, something like a jail cell) in a dark room, Pedro, my three-year-old roommate, would deliver the goods through the slats. I guess the big kids could see that I was already pretty scrawny, having not kept a meal down for more than a day in at least a year, and bless their hearts forever … they made sure I didn’t go to bed hungry whenever they could manage it.
Every Sunday we would get into the foster mother’s car (I think it must have been a station wagon but don’t really remember) and go to some sort of large building where kids would visit with their family members. Pedro’s father was always there. They both had the same big dark brown eyes. I liked his father. Every Sunday I would confidently tell all the other kids that my Grandma was going to take me home that day. When that didn’t happen, and I had to get into the foster mother’s car again, I would start wailing. She would slap me. I would wail louder. My fate was sealed: to bed with no dinner, but the bread of mercy delivered by Pedro once again.
One day the foster mother appointed two bigger kids to take me and buy me a pair of shoes. We went to a shoe store somewhere in the Bronx; we walked there. And I saw these really impressive shoes: they were red and kind of glittery, and I decided I wanted them. Once I had them they were the only shoes I ever wanted to wear.
Finally, one Sunday, my suitcase was packed and placed in the foster mother’s car, but this didn’t actually excite me. I think I’d become so used to having to return to the foster mother’s place that even my suitcase didn’t convince me of anything. But this Sunday, not only Grandma was there; Uncle Bobby was too! He had just gotten out of the Marines. I was so incredibly happy that I ran around telling anyone who would listen that I WAS GOING HOME! I especially remember telling Pedro and his father, because Pedro had been my roommate and fellow crib prisoner as well as the deliverer of the bread of mercy. Grandma told me later that Pedro was there because his mother was very sick, and Pedro’s father wasn’t able to take care of him because he had to work. I hope Pedro and his father were able to be a family again. Grandma made me say goodbye to the foster mother. I think I shook her hand or something. I didn’t like her. Grandma said she was one of the best foster mothers in the system. I felt really bad for any other kids with other foster mothers, because this “one of the best” was horrible.
A funny thing is that I don’t remember how we got home. I remember that when we did get there I went looking for Uncle Bobby’s dogs, Chrissy and Mousy, but they told me that I had forgotten that Chrissy and Mousy had been gone for a while. I guess my memories were muddled.
I was very quiet then, and for quite a while. I went to see therapists. I remember playing with toys and a dollhouse in what felt like a fish bowl while people, mostly men, in white coats looked in. I remember playing with toys in an office and going in to sit with a rather serious woman who spoke to me as if I understood her, which I didn’t. Grandma told me much later on that there was some concern that I might be autistic, but I don’t know if autism was known in 1963 or 1964.
I was quiet because I needed to figure out how normal kids behaved. I was quiet because there was all this blackness inside me that I knew they didn’t want to see or hear or know about. My grandmother and uncle would joke that I wanted to be an FBI agent when I grew up, and that was why I was so quiet and never said anything. I didn’t get the joke. I just sat with them, in Grandma’s living room, trying to figure out how to fool them into thinking I was a normal okay kid so they would never send me away again.
Those red glittery shoes, though: I wore those nearly every day, insisted on wearing them. Even when they were too small. My grandmother couldn’t for the life of her see why I would want to wear them; besides being too small, she thought they were ugly. I didn’t care. Those shoes meant the world to me; I adored them, and I wore them as much as I possibly could.