Saturday, January 15, 2011

Saturday Musings, 15 January 2011

Good morning,

I have broken my fast with a plate of crumpets, yogurt and banana. My sorry little behind is dragging around the house, my body tainted by a smear of shingles rash, my face tingling with the nasty little sting of the bug. I have not taken the dose of anti-viral medication properly, and the episode lingers, even rallies, reminding me that better living through chemistry requires careful attention to directions.

My housemate tip-toes through the morning, then ventures out into his day with something suspiciously close to relief. I have not snarled, but neither have I spoken; and he must be forgiven his trepidation. I lift a cup of cold comfort, and gaze about my bedroom. I see the assortment of pens and other flotsam stuck into my brother's coffee mug, including a small luster-lace key fob that my son made for me a decade or so ago. This mug sits on the back shelf of my writing table with a few framed pictures of my siblings, a Haviland fruit cup filled with pretty rocks, and a framed studio shot of my son at aged 2.

Today is Martin Luther King's birthday -- the actual birthday, not the day chosen to give people a paid holiday from government work in ostensible honor of Dr. King. Several articles in our newspaper mention Dr. King; more on the Internet remind us of his life, his work and his message. As for myself, I have a curious view of relations between people who are dark-skinned and people who are light-skinned. I vacillate between my recognition of our country's history of bigotry, and my own unwavering conviction that we cannot accept each other until we stop dwelling on our differences.

I am reminded of one of the foster children whom my son and I sheltered, back in the mid-to-late 1990s when we served as a foster household. I can see this chubby little baby, Bianca; feel the warmth of her fat body against my thin frame. Her eyes glistened as they fixed on mine, as she reached and claimed a great gob of my thick, coarse hair. I see her in my son's cradle, at the foot of my parents' old bedstead, in the back bedroom of my Brookside bungalow. She fascinated my son, who was five at the time. He stood for hours over the cradle, or the bouncy seat staged the dining room table, or the Grayco swing-o-matic in the living room. She clutched his small fingers with one hand while she waived her rattle with her other hand, and Patrick, in love, in love, in love, exclaimed to me, time after time: Can we keep her, Mom? Can we?

I could have. I wanted to keep her. I had wanted to keep little Kimmy before her, of whom I only recently discovered an endearing picture, at the bottom of a basket on a high shelf, saved but hidden, for fear my broken heart would not mend. Kinky corn rows sticking out from her delicate skull, inexpertly braided by her foster mother while her foster brother stood nearby; bright eyes; crooked smile. She spent several weeks with us before being placed with a "real" family, defined by her worker as one that looked more like her and had two parents.

Bianca came to us some months after Kimmy, but before the pair of brutally abused boys that would undo our resolve to continue fostering. Bianca had been born crack-positive but thrived, and by ten months, weighed more than Patrick had at twice the age. She demanded that I carry her everywhere, around the house, through stores, in the park. I did not mind. With Patrick at my heels, I sailed around the house doing chores, Bianca on a skinny hip, chortling by my ear, grabbing at my glasses, happy.

Until the week that Patrick got strep throat, the situation could not have been more perfect. But the pediatrician admonished me to find another home for the foster baby until Patrick healed. I can't place her anywhere else, whined her case worker. So I did the next best thing: I asked a friend to keep her for a day or two. I called the case worker back, but she had left the office. I tapped my pencil against the table, thinking, before dialing the extension for the worker's supervisor. It's out-of-county, I explained. So I wanted to get permission. It is just for 72 hours. She approved it, and off went my little Bianca, until Patrick's condition allowed for her return.

The following Saturday, the friend who had given her safe harbor returned her to my house, with a few assorted children of her own. Patrick and I had struggled through the week, and my friend stayed for a few hours, cleaning my house for me, while I played with the baby.

I had expected a visit from Bianca's CASA worker, and she arrived before my friend and her children left. I didn't hear the knock at first, but Patrick did, and he opened the door before I could caution him to wait. I came up from behind him, holding our little Bianca.

The worker gazed first at Patrick, and then at me, with the baby in my arms. No one spoke for a minute or two, and then the worker said, in tones that still cause my blood to freeze, You're white.

I don't know what prompted her honest reaction to bubble out of her wicked little mouth. She herself sported fairly dark skin; I am 1/4 Lebanese but in complexion resemble my Irish father. Patrick looks like his father, who claims to be half-Scottish and half-Native American. But whatever little nugget of bigotry prompted her outburst, out it did burst, and if the room had been chilly before her arrival, its temperature dropped another several degrees upon her announcement.

Patrick tilted his head back, looking up the length of her, and corrected her assessment. Actually, we're beige, he said. She tore her eyes away from my face and fixed them on my son, pulling her brow into a dark, angry frown. What did you say, she demanded of him. He did not shy back. I said we're beige, we are not white. She jerked her head back, and spoke again. And the baby's black, she snapped. Patrick gently corrected her. Actually, she's kind of Hershey-bar color, he observed.

I pulled the door open wider, and motioned Patrick to stand back. I asked the woman if she wanted to come into the house, and come she did. Who are all these other kids, she asked. I explained. I told her about the strep throat, and the case worker with no solution to offer, and the help given by my out-of-county friend. I gave her the name of the supervisor who had approved the child's stay away from my home. I showed her the cradle at the end of my bed, and the toys in the basket, toys that my son had chosen for Bianca, from his own collection of beloved baby playthings. She barely spoke, showed little civility, and glanced, with disapproving skepticism, at the cobwebs in my corners, the small smear of jelly on my son's door frame, and the scuffed black cowboy boots that my son had taken to wearing everywhere, including to bed.

Bianca was removed from my home by order of a Family Court Commissioner on the following Monday. I protested. The ostensible reason was, of course, the child's brief sojourn in another county, of which CASA claimed they did not approve. My son and I cried; my friend offered to write a letter, which could jeopardize her own foster license in the county where she lived. The supervisor who had approved the respite arrangements apologized. The commissioner noted my protest, and assured me that he did not consider that I had done anything wrong.

The man who came for Bianca simpered his own regret in hollow tones, as he waited impatiently on our screened porch. I gently tendered her into his rough, rigid arms, and gave him the new diaper bag I had purchased for her, fully stocked; and a second bag, filled with small toys, books, and stuffed animals that Patrick had chosen. My son and I stood on the porch watching the fellow sashay down our walk, taking the child from us, a child whom we had planned to keep. Bye, Bianca, my son whispered, and a thousand angels cried.

I took Patrick down to the Plaza that afternoon. We had lunch at Winsteads, and then went to a store the name of which I can no longer recall, but which sold semi-precious gemstones in a hexagonal plexi-glass bin taller than my son. Patrick studied the rocks, selecting each one with determination, measuring by a standard that I could not fully grasp. When he had found the ones that pleased him, he carried them to the counter, and paid "with his own money". The man counted change into my boy's tight little fist, and solemnly presented him with a velveteen bag of the stones that Patrick had chosen. Later, at home, Patrick carefully divided his booty in half, and trickled one pile into my outstretched hand. Those are for you, Mom, he said. To remember me by.

My feet are cold, tucked behind my lily-white spastic legs, under the old kitchen chair at my desk. The house around me has grown very quiet. I am alone. Laundry waits to be sorted, and floors to be mopped. After a while, when my housemate tip-toes back from his tennis game, peering around the front door frame to gauge whether it is safe to enter, there will be lunch to fix. I will dutifully take my new course of anti-virals, and perhaps by Monday, I will feel human again.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

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The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.