(Read the previous chapters here.)
It had been two weeks, two full weeks since the child was delivered to my doorstop. Two weeks since I first stood in front of my stoop and watched the woman with her little foster child, the two of them walking hand in hand, beautiful smiles on their faces, dressed nattily, coming from the church, on their way back home, or wherever it was the mother and child were about that beautiful autumn day. Two weeks later, I was walking down the same sidewalk only in the opposite direction with my charge. My hair mussed, lips twisted, the lace of one sneaker undone–a sight. And though we weren’t walking hand in hand, it was clear to anyone we passed that we were connected, whether by force or choice, for better or worse, we were entangled, and appeared as Glory surely would have said if she’d seen us that day “at sixes and sevens” at having to be so.
The day I met my foster child, I was the picture of 50s domesticity. My hair usually out and about my head, either a sea of waves and curls –what Benny called Zulu priestess needs a comb — or amassed under a baseball cap, was now in a neat chignon. I had on a crisp linen Lord & Taylor shirt, the collar fashionably popped, the tail tucked neatly into a pair of tan calf length beltless chinos. I appeared sitcom mom chic, old school, on par with Donna Reed, June Cleaver, or Harriett Nelson. As I took one final look in the mirror before opening the door all that was needed to seal the deal was a law degree from Princeton, and there for God and all the world to behold was Clair Huxtable. I hadn’t paid this much attention to my appearance when I went to dinner with Kehinde.
Just before my hand touched the door knob, I checked one last time in the mirror to confirm that I was indeed ready to become a mother. When I opened the door the social worker, Mrs. Gomez had a tense grin on her face; one I was quickly becoming familiar with as I navigated the process for becoming a foster parent, that God, I sure hope you haven’t changed your mind look. I grasped the woman’s hand, shaking it firmly, looking to her left and right to see the child. But other than the young white woman at Mrs. Gomez’ side–yet another AmeriCorps or Vista interns dispatched to buoy “transitional” neighborhoods–other than this person, my child was nowhere to be seen.
I had a questioning look on my face, comprised of one raised eyebrow and, in truth, didn’t feel I had to do much more, when Mrs. Gomez finally parted her heavily glossed lips and said, “Now Penelope, don’t start acting shy, you were talking a mile a minute not more than a couple of seconds ago. Introduce yourself to your new foster mother, Miss Tinsdale, Tinsdale, right? That’s how you pronounce it?”
I nodded my head, confirming that was indeed how I pronounced my name, T I N S D A L E. I stuck my head out the door, looking from the two women standing before me to the white car with its City of Baltimore emblem parked directly in front of the house. For added emphasis I stepped past them down the stoop to the car, looking from the front seat to the back seat. Inside there was an empty McDonalds’ coffee cup and a few loose-leaf binders, but other than these items, it was clean and void of my child.
“Miss Tinsdale,” the woman grinned nervously, “I’ve got all of Penelope’s things here,” she said, hefting what looked like one of the black trash bags I used to gather pumpkin remnants. And if I hadn’t be so distracted by what seemed to be occurring, those micro dynamics of events unfolding and encircling me like a wet blanket in the midst of a blizzard, I might have noticed the girl’s expression, the amused smirk that had settled on her face at seeing my consternation.
“Penelope,” the woman implored, “say something, say hello.”
The girl, who by I estimation was anywhere from fourteen to nineteen years old, or if talking strictly Yoruba terms, fertile and more than ready to mother a nation, looked me up and then down, and said, “Hey, — mom.”
I walked back up the stoop stairs into the house, not closing the door as every fiber in my body said to, but left it open, allowing the women to follow me inside.
“Miss Tinsdale, you want the door open, or should I close it?” I walked back past the two and closed the door. I motioned for them to sit on the sofa. I preferred to stand myself, though I felt I should sit as I felt flush.
“You have a very nice home, very nice,” the woman began, scanning the room. “Well, I guess…” but before she could start up, I said, “Perhaps, there’s been some mix up?” The girl, Penelope, took out her iPod and placed the ear piece that had been looped around her neck into her ear, then sank back into the sofa as though what was about to be discussed was of little concern to her, which suited me fine.
Mrs. Gomez, perhaps fortified by McDonalds’ coffee, looked ready to go toe to toe. She smiled broadly, “Why, what kind of mix up, Miss Tinsdale?”
I looked at the woman, my own eyes scanning my surroundings. Yes, I was in my living room. The wall color was platinum white, and was solely of my choosing. The oriental carpet that was actually an East Indian design, manufactured in Taiwan, had been placed by me at an angle to the planks in the maple wood floor, while the leather sofa purchased at Hecht’s was a clearance sale item, but even so, other than a slight tear near the back, looked perfectly fine. Yes, all was as it should be except for the Hispanic woman sitting on my sofa, with her City of Baltimore “B’more Rocks!” tote at her feet and the teenage girl beside her, lip-syncing to what was being pumped into her head.
I took a seat across from the women. “I’m sure Penelope is a wonderful girl, but I was told that I would be getting a child in the age range I specified when I applied to be a foster parent.” I tried to keep my tone neutral; it wasn’t like they could make me take this girl, so there was no need to come undone. I just had to make them aware of their error. Then they could go back and get me one of those adorable brown toddler to grade school aged kids, what I specified when I checked the corresponding small child, not big teen box.
“Miss Tinsdale, when you apply to be a foster care provider there’s no guarantee of the age of the child you’ll be contracted to provide care to.” My brow furrowed. Sitting in the training and orientation sessions, I was a parent. I was a source of love and guidance. Now, in the space of five minutes, I was no longer the popped collar linen shirt and chinos wearing example of motherhood I had on signed on to be. I was an independent contractor. And so, should have been wearing a hair net and a two button smock, and a name tag which read “Hazel”.
“Okay, then I guess what I should be saying is I’m probably not the right person to take in a teenager. I was prepared for a younger child, a younger African-American child. That’s what I was geared up for,” I said. “And, quite frankly, Mrs. Gomez, that’s what I want.”
“Miss Tinsdale, may I call you Ester?”
“No, you may call me Estella.”
“Sorry, Estella. The list of prospective foster parents wanting younger children is and always will be longer than for the older children, she’s only just fourteen. And, as for race,” here, the woman lowered her voice, leaning in, “Penelope’s actually bi-racial.”
I looked over at the biracial child in question, the blond, blue-eyed one whose jeans were inscribed with the word Juicy studded across her behind, the one tugging at a crop top revealing a pierced navel encircled by wild flowers, the spaces in between dotted with butterflies, and said, “Miss Gomez, please.
“Penelope may be a little advanced for her age, but she’s fourteen.”
Fourteen going on thirty-seven, I thought, my face turned away from the girl, focused again on the social worker. “Whatever, Mrs. Gomez, what about some advance warning? I mean, I asked for a kid, she’s practically a woman.”
“You’re right. Someone messed up. I didn’t look at your file when I got the call saying they had a wonderful woman with a great home environment where Penelope could be placed immediately. I just thought great. That’s exactly what this child needs. And, I tell you Estella, we get a lot of people thinking they can just fill out a couple of packets of papers, go to a couple of training sessions, and bam, they’ve got a kid and a check in one clean swoop. When the church rep told me you lived right down the street and what a great impression you made on her, I thought perfect, finally someone who’s in it for the sake of these children. Thank you, God. This is a good day indeed.”
I looked at the woman. My eyes narrowed, well played, Mrs. Gomez, well played. I looked over at the girl who though she appeared totally immersed in whatever rata tat tat coming from her music device, still appeared to be plugged in to what was being said about her.
“I can’t do long term placement, not with a teen. It needs to be an emergency placement. I could do that.” I studied Mrs. Gomez, who was now fussing with her tote bag, digging about to bring forth custody forms. I took the forms and attached clipboard. Mrs. Gomez reached into her high hair, and pulled out a pen.
I scanned the forms quickly wanted to be done, writing at the bottom of the last form in tight cursive: Emergency placement, not to exceed thirty days from date of receiving custody of “child,” where I then drew a line and signed and initialed.
“Good thing is, Miss Tinsdale, school’s out for summer vacation. So you won’t have that to deal with,” Mrs. Gomez said, now smiling.
I stood, looking over at her, and mumbled, “Good thing.”
to be continued…
Willett Thomas is the president of Write of Passage, Inc. She earned her MA in writing from Johns Hopkins. She has received artist fellowships from Blue Mountain Center and the Millay Colony. She was selected as a Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation fellow for the District of Columbia, and is the recipient of the 2008 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange award for fiction.