A Childhood Lost to the Wind: a child abuse memoir

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A Childhood Lost to the Wind Excerpt:

Cropsey Avenue

 As a child my parents repeatedly woke me at 3:00am—when they returned from the bars—to watch them paint murals on the walls of our Brooklyn apartment. My mother and stepfather wanted someone to talk to; but primarily needed me to rinse the brushes, change the rinse solutions, open more ink, and most importantly get them another beer. Despite being staggering drunk, they painted the Mayan wonders within the plaster picture-frame moldings, so intricately and exquisitely in India ink.

They began with the grandiose stepped temple, carefully placing the sacrificial bodies at the base, skull racks against the walls, and mysterious entrances. Surrounding the stone walls of the fortress and adjacent village were steep slopes and mountain peaks; everything—tombs, thatched roofs of the tiny homes, statues created out of the stone pillars, graceful eagles in flight—became smaller as they receded into the distance. After the courtyard and marketplace were methodically placed, they added finer touches of reed rafts traversing canals, animal and bird motifs on the buildings; they were even mindful to give the warriors and hunters spears, arrows, and bows. In tying up loose ends, my stepfather painted hieroglyphs on the stone pillars, placed pottery in the marketplace, and ornate adornments atop the ceremonial structures. Other murals were of a Sioux sun dance ceremony and one of the Hopi Indians of the southwest.

What they lacked in sobriety and sanity, they made up for in artistry. After those nights and as morning approached, they’d passed out beneath those beautiful scenes, while I made my way to my second grade classroom at P.S. 200 in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. However, on one night in particular, my siblings and I met our first set of legal foster parents.

“Let’s go to the bar.” Bob Israel said in the late evening. “Angela can watch the kids.”

They got up and gathered their things and left. I felt nervous yet somewhat relieved that they were gone. The less time around Israel, the fewer mistakes I’d made. But there was a serial killer (Son of Sam) outside somewhere killing girls with long brown hair like mine. At age eight, I was frightened. I swaddled Dawn up in a receiving blanket then stood on a chair to set her in her crib; then I bunched up and extra receiving blanket and set the warm bottle on it and she immediately suckled it like when Mom did it. When I set her inside the old, rackety crib the wood spindles splintered a little further apart. If I broke the crib while Israel was gone, I’d definitely be in trouble; so I got some more of the duct tape and went around the outside of the splintered spindles twice. Afterwards, I brought out a pillow and blanket for Bobby and me to sleep on in front of the television. Bobby was pretty rowdy that night and I tried to calm him down by letting him sleep next to me while I watched a late night movie. I didn’t want Bobby tipping over any of the bottle of black ink that Israel had sitting out all over the living room.

Israel and my mother also painted wonderful murals of cartoon characters on the walls in my bedroom. There were woodpeckers and bunny rabbits. My favorite was the flying elephant; he made it look just like it did on television. The land and sky he made for the characters as the background was so pretty and to scale as well. As you moved across the wall, the seasons changed for the cartoon character; it was so neat. When I lay there, it seemed like I was in my own little cartoon.

Out in the living room, where the Mayan temples, European conquistadors, and North American Indians were painted, you almost missed the ratty furniture, pile of dirty laundry, and stacks of naughty girl magazines; because the artwork was so dramatic and captivating.  So, I kept Bobby close as I watched the black and white television where my favorite comedic duo—a short, chubby, dark-haired man and his taller, thinner counterpart were in a haunted house. It was so exciting…but awfully scary. After Bobby calmed down, I made liverwurst sandwich and juice for me, and a bottle full of orange juice for him, during the quick commercials. He’d cry at the sight of orange juice but there was no milk left.  When I got back to the television though, I became quite frightened by what was happening on the screen. There was a large clang as the actors search for the apparition when suddenly another large clang came from outside my living room window, in the area of the garbage cans just below our windows. I was terrified. The noise came from the location directly outside and beneath my sister’s crib. I ran to get her out of the crib and gathered my brother from off the floor. We ran out in front of the apartment building to wait for my mom and Israel to return. But they didn’t return and it grew darker and colder. Stupid me, I didn’t think to dress ourselves better before we darted outdoors; and I also didn’t think ahead about bringing keys with me. The door slammed behind us—an eight year old, a toddler and an infant.  Bobby began to cry for his bottle; and after a few minutes, Dawn chimed in. Passers-by started to stare as the minutes wore on. Then the police car drove up and pulled right in front of us. I looked away and hoped they didn’t notice us standing out in the cold; but they did.

“Hey darling, what’s going on out here,” asked the older of the two male officers. I shrugged my shoulders and the policemen walked past us where I hadn’t notice my neighbors were standing, watching us.

The wiry, gray-haired, old man said, “Their parents left them alone…about two hours ago. It sure didn’t look like they planned on returning in the near future. This usually happens every night; most often the parents go for a walk or go shopping. Tonight their drinking and they had friends over causing a ruckus outside in the hallway. That oldest one there probably knows where they went.” The old man stood next to his young adult daughter—who was shaking her head from side-to-side—as the neighbors next to her whispered to each other.

The adult daughter pet her white sheepdog, and added, “With the Son of Sam and all, we didn’t want them standing outside just watching traffic with strangers walking on past. They could be standing there one minute and gone the next.”

“You did the right thing folks. We’ll take them down to the station and search for the parents. You don’t need to say anything. Just go about your own business. We’ll leave a not posted to the apartment door; so the parents can find the kids when they return. Do you know in which apartment we can find the super? Maybe he can give us some personal information on the parents so we can contact a relative to come down and pick the kids up.” The older, heavyset officer followed them, past the white portico and four white concrete columns into the dark red, brick building, as we were put into the back of the police car.

After waiting several hours on the cold, plastic chairs of the police station, a female officer with a long, blonde ponytail and big blue eyes came over and talked to me.

“Hey kiddo, your brother and sister are being cleaned up by the social worker. She went to your apartment and picked up clothes for you, too. Have you thought of any place, beside those couple of bars that you mentioned, where your parents might be?”

I shook my head no. She ran her long fingers down my hair to release some of the tangles that had formed when I attempted to sleep on the hard chairs of the cold office area. “It’ll be okay. The social worker is going to take you and your brother and sister to a foster home. We were able to get one where all of you go together. There’s one thing though; do you know and black people?” She said, with raised eyebrows and tilted head.

“I did. Charlie was one of my best friends; he got shot in front of the cowboy bar on King’s Highway. He told me that he wouldn’t ever leave me; but I accidentally killed the kitten he gave me when I put a necklace around its neck. It was a present to me. After it died, Charlie died, too.” I raised my knees up to lean my face into them; then wrapped my arms around the outside of my legs so she couldn’t see me cry as I thought about myself at five-years-old.

“How’d you kill the kitten?”

“We were playing dress up and I put a necklace around her neck and the kitten died. The rubber band was still around her neck when I pulled her outs from the closet. I said as I wiped my nose into my knees.

“Then it wasn’t your fault; it was an accident,” she said and chuckled at the same time. She tried to reassure me that those things happen when little kids get pets for the first time and that Charlie didn’t die because my kitten died. She offered me a hug as she inquired about how much I still miss Charlie.

“Why did you want to know if I knew black people?”

“Because the only foster home that we found that would take three kids at once, is a black family,” she said as she looked up behind me where a large black woman in a colorful dress with matching had and dress shoes walked towards me holding my little sister in one hand and my brother in the other.

“Come on child, we need to get you guys to bed. The family is up and waiting for you all,” the black woman said. She smiled a huge smile then kissed my brother on the cheek. “They’re Indian, really? I’d swear this little boy definitely looks a little Asian, maybe even Hispanic. The baby girl definitely looks Hispanic. Hmm…you never can tell. But you darling, you’re definitely white, aren’t you? It makes it difficult to place siblings when all the kids in the family are different races and all…you know?” She shook her head at the female police officer—who returned the large smile that the large black woman was casting about the room. The male cop with wavy blonde hair at a nearby desk chuckled without lifting his eyes from his noisy typewriter; another copy two desks away with his feet propped up on an adjacent desk smiled as well. That was all we could see was his smile; since the brim of his hat shielded most of his face from the light above him.

The woman took us from the weathered red, brick police station and set us in her car. It was a new car and smelled accordingly. She adjusted the spot for my sister to sit in; while I looked at the brick exterior of the police station where some teenagers were spray painting some of the decorative off-white stone quoins on the corner of the building.  Police cars pulled in all around us when we exited the narrow path they left open on the street—for the social worker’s car to clear. “Honey, it’ll be all right. They’re black like me; but they aren’t scary. They’re nice people.” She reached over and patted me on the head like Grandma did at home.

“I’m not scared of black people. Indians are kind of black; but not really. One of my distant cousins has black skin; but they don’t like being called black even if their skin is that dark. A doctor called me black once and my mom got really mad at him. Besides, I’ve seen people of all colors. I’m not frightened.” I said, in an attempt to prove to her that I wasn’t afraid; even though earlier I ran out of the building like a fraidy-cat because of haunted house episode on the television.

“What do you mean a doctor called you black?” She inquired as her face took on a scrunched up look; and at the same time it looked like she’d burst out laughing. I couldn’t read her intent.

“I used to get a rash on my arms and the doctor said it appeared similar to sickle cell anemia or something like that. And my mom said that I wasn’t black…I was Indian. But then the doctor said he needed to run tests. He put rows of needles in my arms. It didn’t hurt that badly; it only looked scary. Anyway, my mom pulled me out of the clinic and told them I wasn’t black. When we got outside the door, my mother swung me around to face her. She warned my never to tell Israel what I’d heard at the clinic.

The social worker began mumbling, first by asking me if my daddy was black then retracting the statement and talking out loud that my skin, hair, and eyes were too light. She put the car back in drive and continued on her path while elaborating on the histories of Native American’s and blacks. She said that a long time ago the slaves and Indian had babies together; and that maybe that’s what happened in my case. I was just further down the chain of people. She concluded that it didn’t really matter. It just made it more difficult for her to place kids of all colors and races in their home of choice—according to said race and color. She asked if I understood what she meant.

I shook my head yes because it was the polite thing to do. After about twenty minutes we entered a housing development. She waved to the black couple standing out in front of their townhouse’s attached beige garage. They looked nice and friendly. Kids were peeking out of the upstairs window.  The social work helped me out of my clothes and into pajamas as the foster mother set up beds for my brother and sister—all the while asking the social worker about the serial killer roaming the streets and his desire for women with long brown hair. The foster mother pulled down some quilts from the top shelf of the bedroom closet. I thought the entire stack would fall down on top of her.

“Where’d you get all those blankets?” I said in awe. Blankets were few and far between at our apartment. Back home in South Dakota, Grandma had star quilts; but nowhere near as many as this family had in the bedroom closet.

“Those are special quilts from my grandmother and great-grandmother and all the extended relatives. They have special stories on them. If you stay here a little bit, maybe I’ll get a chance to tell you some of them. Would you like that peanut?” She smiled and reached for a small, rectangular pillow—that matched one of those quilts—to put underneath my head.

“Do I look like a peanut? Strangers that don’t even know me call me peanut. Why do you think that is?” I asked and both looked at me and laughed.

“That one’s a talker,” The social worker said pointing in my direction. She leaned down to look at me at eye level and continued, “And no you don’t look like a peanut. My daddy was a peanut farmer; so I’d know a peanut if I saw one.” She pinched my cheeks and looked back at the foster mother. “With the exception of this one talking your ear off, I don’t think that you’ll have a problem with these children.”

She laughed heartily and lifted me up into her large chest area and kissed my forehead. “You’ll be okay here. I’m certain of it. I’m going to leave now; but I’ll be back to check on you and your little brother and sister.”  She set me down and covered me up then went to Bobby and Dawn. After she turned out the light and shut the door behind them, I could hear their laughter and voices as they proceeded down the stairs. Suddenly the door reopened and two little African American children a little bit smaller than me came in and asked how long we’d be staying with them.  I explained that I didn’t know and introduced myself. In return, I found out their names. The like boy didn’t talk much.  It probably had something to do with his lack of teeth. The little girl told us that he lost five teeth in two months—which the tooth fairy paid him nicely. The little girl opened her brother’s mouth and pointed to each of the spots missing a tooth as the boy held up five dollars. I was in awe. I’d never seen anyone missing that much teeth at one time—besides babies and grandma’s with dentures.

She stood up and pushed a chair over to the closet and pulled down some more of those neat quilts and they both lay down beside me on the floor. There weren’t any extra pillows, so she tugged a little on the one beneath my head and put her head next to mine. We fell asleep like that and awoke hours later to her parent’s voices.

“There you are. What were you two doing walking around in middle of the night? Were you bothering our guests?” The mother said as the dad lifted the boy underneath one arm and my brother underneath the other arm.

The mom told us to run along downstairs for breakfast while she made formula for my sister. She kissed my sister on the forehead; I’d never seen anyone kiss my sister before that day. I was happy for my sister and myself because I liked that foster home.  Days went by and we had a little routine to follow. Their lady relatives showed up around the same time each day after the dad went to work. The women would cook meals to take to relatives, in a nearby nursing home, while they listened to the radio. In the middle of a conversation, one or another would break into song with the music. It was funny and made me feel warm inside.

These people were neat. I felt warm and happy and my grandma’s, too; but Grandma and my aunts and uncles were a little more subdued than these new people. And my non-legal foster parents, where my mom dropped us off at during some drinking binges,  made me feel warm and comfortable as well; but when he broke into song, it was usually with opera music. And some of that opera music could be frightening; the tension in the music built as it does in a movie…where you could be almost certain somebody was about to die.

About four days after we arrived in the foster home, the social worker came over to talk to the foster parents in the kitchen. All of us kids were told to sit in the living room and watch television so the adults could talk. They turned up the volume so we couldn’t hear them but we scooted over to the wall directly next to the door into the kitchen. We could hear perfectly and smiled at our little feat.

“Their parents came home last night and the neighbors called the police. The cops informed them that the children were in foster care,” said the social worker. She paused a few minutes while the foster parents muttered their reactions. Then the social worker continued, “There was a scene…the father accused the neighbors of removing the kids from the home. The neighbors told them that the oldest girl stood out on the street but he didn’t believe them. The father was very upset.”

“Are you saying they didn’t realize the children were taken into custody until four days later and the dad was upset how it came about? That serial killer or a rapist could have broken into that apartment or something. What about a fire? What was that man thinking? And the mama, what was her reaction?” the foster dad asked.

“The mother doesn’t speak that much. They questioned her separately; but she doesn’t say much without that man. After much questioning, the mother did say that the oldest girl wasn’t the man’s biological child. For some reason or another, the parents didn’t not want anyone to know that Angela wasn’t his natural child. For heaven’s sake, the girl doesn’t look like either of them, and they expected us to believe that she was his kid.”

The foster mom asked, “Are there any other relatives?”

“This retired couple, out in Queens, has had the oldest child on and off during drinking binges.  They were more than happy to care for her since they have none of their own. We learned from the retired couple that once the parents abandoned the oldest two children in a small town in South Dakota. The kids ended up being dropped off into the custody of the grandmother.

After that visit, things went along wonderfully for about two weeks. Then the social work returned and told me that my parents realized their wrongdoings. She showed me a slip from the court stating that I needed to go back and live with my parents. She leaned down and gathered some of Bobby’s things off the floor in the living room while I told her that I didn’t want to return home. I like the foster home and their kids. She walked across the room and picked up the box of tissues and brought me one and wiped my nose and mouth. Holding me in her lap, she pointed out on the paper that my mother went to court and admitted what she did was wrong. In return, the judge thinks that my mother should get another opportunity to be a good mother for us. I disagreed; but it did no good. We wouldn’t be allowed to stay with the foster parents any longer. The social worker hugged me as I sobbed into her heavy chest when she cried as well.

I picked up my sister’s pacifier and bottle as she lifted my sister up and brought her outside to her car where the foster parents were waiting. I gave them each a hug and asked them to tell their kids goodbye for me. The foster mom knelt down and hugged me. Her tears were warm against my skin. She whispered that her daughter will miss me greatly. The dad patted my forehead and grabbed his handkerchief out of his pants pocket to wipe his nose. They released me and directed me towards the car.

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