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A Family Portrait

By K.V.





A baby was perched in a highchair, smashing peas and sweet potatoes into her mouth. Most of it was landing in her curls, smearing across her smooth cheeks. A little boy ran up, yanked her leg, then ran the other way.

“Do you want to hold her?” the group home’s worker asked my mother.

My mother smiled politely. “I’ll let her finish eating first.”

My parents had agreed to foster one baby at a time, no one older than their four-year-old. But here in this group home was a thirteen-month girl—would they consider taking her two siblings, aged two and seven also?

Later, driving home in our red Geo Prism, I listened. And hoped. Mom wanted to stick to the original plan, but Dad pushed, garnering our support—my brother’s, sister’s and mine. We chanted, “Six kids, six kids, six kids!”

At eleven-years-old, I dreamed of what our big family would look like the way children romanticize a trip to Disneyland or the State Fair. Fort building tournaments. Little sisters to dress up and brothers to kick the ball with. Everyone smiling and laughing over homemade meals at the dinner table.


 

They came to us during a hundred-degree summer. A general excitement hung in the air. I liked to walk past my little sisters’ room where the three toddler beds stood in a row, or pass my brothers’ shared room and peer in at the baseball whizzing between them—getting to know each other in that way young boys do. 

That was the beginning though. I’d soon learn a phrase called “honeymoon stage.” How children start out on their best behavior while they are feeling out a situation. This harmonial bliss wouldn’t last. It couldn’t. They were children who had endured unspeakable traumas.

And we were ill-equipped, imperfect. 

Dad signed up the oldest three, including me, for tennis lessons. They were supposed to give Mom a break—as if being stuck at home in the sweltering heat with a four, two, and one-year-old was much of a break.

We bought a ‘94 minivan, blue and falling apart. I didn’t know it at the time, but Mom, thirty-three, was blue and falling apart too.

She did her best. Dressed them in GAP clothes that exceeded the state payments they received monthly. Learned how to care for Black hair. Snuggled them. Made them homemade quilts. Told them Bible stories, especially the story of “Matthew,” because it was my new brother’s name. She took them to Ollen Mill’s photography studio every holiday to have their pictures professionally done because she read somewhere that most foster kids don’t have any childhood photos of themselves.

I was put in charge of bathing the little girls at bedtime, respecting their privacy. Wrapping their sweet little chubby bodies in large, unmatched towels. I wanted to protect them from the cruel, disgusting world.

Because Mom was too tired to cook many of those homemade meals gathered around the dinner table I’d imagined, we ate at Taco Cabana a lot. It was the sort of cheap taco place big families could finagle to work to their advantage. Splitting a queso and fajita dish, ordering extra taco shells to divide the bounty. We all swooped in like vultures. 

To this day, when I watch nature videos, I have sympathy for the carnal desire of scavengers to get their share. Once, my grandparents brought us jellybeans. “Hang on a minute,” Grandma scolded. “Take your time. There’s enough for everyone.” How could she say that? If I didn’t act fast, all the good flavors would be gone.

When I got out of the car for school, fast food wrappers often fell out onto the street. Red-faced, I’d toss them back in again, hoping no one at my middle school saw.

Everywhere we went, people either stared at or complimented us. They even liked to lean into us when we were eating out, enthusiastically commenting on our “beautiful family.”

“Thank you,” Mom would say, lips pressed tightly.

When it was just us three kids, they never used to do that. When I asked why, Mom informed me that people were nosy, wondering why her kids were white, white, Black, white, Black, Black. They assumed she couldn’t make up her mind about which sort of man she preferred.

I liked that Mom never explained.

I never liked the stares, though. Strangers’ eyes prying into our world without permission or reason. As if a family buying a couple gallons of milk was worth a rude gawk.

Of course, there were other challenges too, like the time the church nursery worker, looking either concerned or judgmental, pulled my mom aside to talk about the bluish-green bruises on my little sisters’ butts, “bruises” that were Mongolian spots, common birthmarks on those of African descent. Or the time my littlest sister cried so hard in the van while we waited for antibiotics in the Walgreens drive-thru that her nose started bleeding everywhere.

“She blew a blood vessel,” Mom said, relaying the story to my dad later through gritted teeth, “because she cried that hard.”

My favorite are the sweet memories though, like how my brothers knew all the lyrics to the Backstreet Boys album we blared while driving around, earning them the nickname “Backseat Boys.” Or how we older kids got obsessed with collecting baseball cards together.

My parents made me babysit sometimes because I was the oldest. I remember my two-year-old sister screamed uncontrollably while they attended a seminar. Panicking, I dragged a stool to the wall. Losing my grip on her sweaty, flailing body, I forced her to sit and face away. Forced, because it’s hard to get spaghetti noodle legs to bend to your will.

That didn’t stop her. Her scream, I thought, was primal.

Dare I say, possessed?

Naive people think that love and stability can fix anything. As if trauma wasn’t a spool of translucent thread that unravelled and trailed, wrapped itself around everything. Where did it come from? How were we to cut loose its hold?

 

 

Mom tells me now that those years wore on her so much that she sometimes fantasized running away. Instead, she prayed for a grace and mercy that exceeded her human limits, sensing this thankless work would define her life.

Then one day, a caseworker learned that my biological four-year-old sister had taken to sleeping in my parent’s walk-in closet. My parents said it was so she could have her own space, instead of sharing with her little sisters. But the caseworker seemed to think there was more in that closet than a trundle bed and porcelain dolls, so she scheduled a therapy appointment for us older kids, calling it a “routine check-in.”

The therapist sat in a tiny room with some crayons and a blank sheet of paper. Could I draw a picture of my family for her?

I gripped the crayon. The bare walls closed in on me. I couldn’t remember how to draw good people. The kind that didn’t look like crude and elementary stick drawings.

Feeling like a failure, I crumpled the paper.

“That’s okay if it’s a stick drawing,” she explained.

But no. I wanted it to be nice. Faces with proper dimensions. All of us, holding hands in a circle, smiling.

Hands are hard to draw though. Above my ability.

I crumpled that one, too.

“Don’t worry about what it looks like,” the therapist reassured me. “I’m the only one who will see it.”

I finally gave up and scribbled a crappy picture. Embarrassed, I pushed it to her, relieved to be done.

The therapist had lied. My parents saw that picture. So did the caseworker.

From our drawings, the therapist concluded our family wasn’t functioning well—that we biological children were on the outside, like foreigners looking in. I still wonder if she was right, or just overanalyzing a crummy picture any kid would have drawn.


 

We drove them to their new foster mom’s house the following Tuesday. She lived in an old rundown neighborhood on 89th Avenue. A house of slick tile floors and chipped, flimsy furniture. None of that would have mattered if she’d been loving or kind. But she opened the door, and she did not open her arms. She spoke few words, smiled tightly. My heart sinking, I tried to catch Mom’s eyes. I was old enough to suspect that this was the kind of woman who had found a way to make money by housing foster kids.

Mom and I unpacked their things, folding clothes neatly into dressers, trying not to leave, trying to make it feel like home. Before we said good-bye, I snuggled with them on the foot of their bed to preview the scrapbook I’d made with those professional photographs from Ollen Mills. The candids, too: all of us snuggled on our floral couch, the middle sister blowing out the candles on her Barbie ice cream cake, the littlest wearing Dad’s shoes down the hallway when she was barely old enough to walk, the oldest grinning proudly in his soccer uniform.

My parents sold the minivan.

It was never the same, but we visited my foster siblings often and they came to stay for weekends. Their new foster mother never minded sharing them. They wore Garanimals now instead of GAP, their hair in tighter weaves, no longer smelling like our laundry detergent.

About two years later, my foster siblings moved to Watts, Los Angeles, to live with their aunt. We visited every year, lining up in the traditional stair-step photo to acknowledge the increasing distance between us.


 

They are grown now and so are we. We are Facebook friends. Matthew graduated college and works a stable job. I think he’s still single. The girls are mothers. We visit them every time we are in California. They come down to see us, too, sometimes.

Last year, my parents asked me to make a new photo album since the original was lost along the way. These pictures are the only ones that survived their childhood, like Mom predicted. I scanned them one by one. Blue cotton dresses and curly hair. The weight of a little sister in my arms. Trading baseball cards with my brothers. Black and white skin mixing like blood.

I made a video message and sent it to Matthew.

“Hey,” I said, “I just want you to know that you really were loved.”

How do you fix the unfixable?

Would they have stayed if I had drawn that picture better?

 

 

After they left, my parents took only babies one at a time, as they’d originally planned. They came and went. Mom vomited and refused to eat for days each time they were reunited with birth parents or given to distant family members, once even to a step-grandparent. Even after her physical symptoms subsided, grief pierced in her heart like a thorn.

Then the caseworker brought Raul—one month old. Family friends teased that he was bald like Danny Devito. I didn’t know who that was at fifteen, but Mom took it as an insult.

Sometimes, I babysat him. Mom left instructions to heat his bottle in the microwave. He liked his milk hot. The first time I made the water hotter than I should and burned his mouth, feeling awful when he spewed it out. I confessed to my mom when she got home. She was upset with me, but I was more upset. That I didn’t use common sense. That I hurt someone. Again.

Raul was a funny kid. At two-years-old, he liked to pretend he was a cowboy, drawing his little hand pistols, and pretending to die if you shot back. He came to the football and basketball games where I cheered. My friends thought I was lucky to have a little baby brother. I thought so, too. His little cherub curls and those big brown eyes—we ogled him.

Then we got a new caseworker. That happens a lot in foster care. She decided his mom was doing well enough for a month that she wanted to try reunification, like it’s some science experiment, not people’s lives. She sped up the case.

A week later, Mom was on the floor of our laundry room. I entered to see her pulling out Raul’s entire wardrobe from the dryer—jeans and tees and his cowboy quilt she made him—and packing it in a suitcase. My stomach roiled at the sight, remembering the other times we did this. I knew this was the last time Raul would smell like us, of our family’s detergent.

We drove to the Mesa apartment where his birth mom lived, listening to a song that says, “God gives, and he takes away.”

It seemed holy, this thought of surrendering to the broken and unfair. Drawing on the car window, I etched senseless patterns, smudges that were ugly and basically permanent because we almost never washed our car.

I hate what came next.

How can a two-year-old comprehend why he’s being taken from the only mother he knows, to be given to another?

Mom had to pry his little fingers off her arm and leave him in a dark, sunless room with rented furniture on the second floor of an apartment building that smelled like marijuana.

And it would have been okay—to be there—if we were staying together. But we weren’t.

How did Mom do it? Gently force those little fingers from her warmth—fingers she had held at three a.m. for bottle feedings and first wobbly steps? How did she not drown in the sound of his terrified screams as the door shut behind us with a thud of permanency?

She vomited for days. Again blue. Falling apart.

God—who gives and takes away—did he hear her grief? Mine? It is a primal sound.

Dare I say, possessed?

As often as allowed, Mom drove the forty-five minutes to pick him up on Saturday mornings and bring him home for the weekend. Often when she arrived, she found him still in his crib at ten or eleven a.m., diaper heavy and soiled, while his birth mother was sleeping.

His ears were the final straw. After surgery for tubes, his mother didn’t care for them properly and they started to stink. She forgot follow-up appointments. The caseworker called it neglect.

He came back to us.


 

Now he is nineteen. Got his first job last month. Doesn’t like change. Hardly ever leaves the house. Deep down, he remembers.

Sometimes, when I’m visiting, I look across the table at this bearded man with thick-rimmed glasses and my heart swells because I love him so much it hurts. Because I still feel guilty for burning his mouth as a baby. Because the image of pulling all his clothes from the dryer is forever burned into my memory.

His biological mother is part of our family, too. My mom held her hand through her subsequent c-sections. Brought her outside food in prison on allotted days. Pressed us all to visit her too, and to write letters. Invited her to every holiday after her release so she knew she was part of us. Threw her a shower for her last baby, the one she kept custody of. My parents receive Father’s and Mother’s Day cards from her because they are the closest thing she’s ever had to parents.

There were three more children after Raul. Two came to us within a year of each other. Came and stayed. First, Juan from Mexico. Delayed—not yet walking at fourteen months. Quiet, small, shaved head. Then JJ, a day old—a curly headed angelic baby with the strength of a hundred oxen. Juan was a fussy toddler. That’s how babies grieve when everything is upside down. JJ grew into a force of reckoning. Juan became an artist of extraordinary talent.

Always, it was Juan and JJ… and then my son was born, thrown into the mix. For weeks after his birth, I had to remind myself that I was his birth mother. As long as I didn’t mess up, I wouldn’t have to give him to anyone. The relief was electrifying.

One day, when my son was two, my mother called.

“You can say no,” she said, sounding sheepish, “but Dad and I were thinking after all these boys in a row that it would be nice to have a little girl again. But we know it would be weird that our child would be younger than our grandchild, so you can say no, and we’ll respect that.”

I laughed. “Of course, it’s weird and unconventional, but when have we ever been normal? Who am I to tell you not to save a little girl from the system? Do it!”

My parents received a few calls asking if they’d like a little boy placement, but they held out, waiting for their little girl.

A red-headed, four-pound Dahlia came to them a few months later. That button-nosed baby was the first child Dad let co-sleep with them past the infant stage, falling asleep to her running her little fingers through his hair. First baby he warmed bottles for in the middle of the night and the first who favored him over Mom.

My parents didn’t just get one little girl though. They got two. Dahlia’s fifteen-year-old sister Hannah came to live with them shortly after, making us a siblinghood of eight. Two more girls to even out all that testosterone.

 

 

A few years later, the first original three siblings drove down from L.A. to attend one of my sister’s weddings. The eight of us are together, five adopted and three biological, and I know the original three wonder why they weren’t the ones who stayed. I don’t have answers, only the memory of a crumpled paper in a therapist’s hands.

My children are growing up with their aunts and uncles a few years older than them. And one younger. I babysit my siblings and we joke that my parents are more like aunts and uncles than grandparents.

Juan is my son’s hero.

Sometimes people stare when we go out, trying to make sense of us. I hold my head high and say nothing because family is not about color. Or who stays and who goes. It’s simpler than that. I remember every face, every name, every season. Remember them long after situations change. Long after they change. I always will remember. My siblings, forever.

 



 
K.V. is a mother + wife living in the Sonoran desert. Her creative nonfiction and poetry has appeared in several anthologies, including Calla Press, Ekstasis Magazine, and Driplit. 



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