Acton, Maine, 2000.
I know, almost for a fact, that the DHS caseworker had picked me and Tanya up in the evening, because by the time we made it onto the road it was starting to get dark. I usually pride myself on having a sixth sense about things, but I really fell for this one – at least for a while. The caseworker, when she had shown up at the door, had said something along the lines of “we’re taking you to stay somewhere else for a while.”
In my little head, that didn’t register as forever. I more interpreted it as perhaps a sleepover or something. Then again, I was used to being away from home. Once, I had opted to stay with an elderly couple who had lived in Freeport. They first met my mother at Freeport Baptist Church and soon took an interest in me. I remember they bought me a firetruck for Christmas. Eventually gifts turned into a hard invitation to stay with them for a while. I don’t remember how long I stayed with them, but I remember the Christian school they sent me to very well. There was a mean teacher there who would pinch me when I would get something wrong. That said, I woke up one night and started crying because I missed my mother. I ended up back home shortly.
But I digress, somewhat. All I was trying to say was that I was used to this whole bouncing around from one home to the next. For most of the trip to this “better place,” as the caseworker had called it, it didn’t really phase me or dawn on me what was in fact happening. But there was a point along the way that I began to feel and get a sense of what was going on. I may have been an 8 going on 9 year old kid at the time, but I was pretty darn smart. Many of my teachers saw this in me, despite their constant chiding to do better and apply myself.
You see, I began to connect the dots. We were being taken “to a better place” for a while. That place, measured by the immense amount of time I spent on my butt to get there, must be pretty far from Riverton Park. The environment couldn’t have been more fitting. It was getting darker and darker. The sun had set and the trees once green and friendly now turned into dark shadows with wailing arms. They were like a funeral procession mourning the end of the life I had lived up until that point in time.
Eventually, we slowed and turned into a driveway. A light appeared at the end of the open-aired tunnel of night. Was it the spark of something new or was it more a burning reminder of what was lost? I don’t quite remember the answer.
Out on the porch stepped a couple, Mark and Debi, and the caseworker walked my sister and I up the stairs, doing her solemn duty to deliver these two children into the loving care of a foster home. But despite all the reassuring words and love that was being showered on the both of us that night, heartbreak set in as we met our foster sisters, Heidi, Erika, and Alexis, the two dogs, and the cats. The floodgates opened even more as we shuffled into our new bedroom.
I lay there sobbing, staring at the nightlight. I was crying “mommy, mommy,” until my voice grew hoarse and lost itself, at which point it seemed like my very soul and body sobbed the words with every heave of my heavy heart. While it would seem that life thus far should have prepared me for the inevitable separation, given the many times I was separated or distant from my mother, it is as if my whole being knew that this was, in fact, the separation to end all separations. That there would be no more back and forth. And while the custody battle continued far from our view and behind the scenes, and while there were many more transitions ahead, we would never live with my mother again.
But what resentment and anger I woke up with the next day, was slowly softened over the coming weeks and months by the love my new family gave in abundance. Mark, the father, was kind and nurturing. Seldom was he stern. Even if I had committed some childish act of disobedience or disrespect, even if I was met with sternness, it soon faded. My fondest memory with him, one that makes me chuckle to this day, was of one afternoon on the lake (or pond).
Mark and I had taken to the water on a kayak. I remember it was a pleasant summer day. The sort of pleasant where you feel like every breath was easy, as if you were breathing the very breath of life for the first time. The sun, golden and warm, setting the ripples and waves ablaze with dancing light. The trees on the shore, serene and waving, as if begging us to come back to land to wave with them; they too seemed to glow with summer.
I was at the front of the kayak. So pleasant was it that I stopped paddling and closed my eyes. Listening to the sounds of the parting water. The sound of seagulls far from the sea. All I could see was the warm glow of sunlight through my eyelids. And there it was, a sigh. Un sospiro (the title of one of my favorite classical pieces, composed by Franz Liszt). It felt like I was slipping into a trance. As if I was falling.
SPLASH. Indeed I was falling… sideways into the water. After who knows how long, it felt like infinity, I had fallen asleep and had tipped the kayak over. Everything went overboard. Including Mark.
But what I heard was the oddest thing. Laughter. He was laughing! Of all the things you would have expected from such an incident, he was laughing. Despite him losing his wallet, and everything being soaked, he was laughing. Next thing I know, I was laughing too. We both laughed all the way home in the truck. The whole family laughed when we endured fits of laughter trying to relay the story of how we ended up getting soaked. We would continue to remind each other of that incident, and laugh some more.
Life was different like that for us there. Both my sister and I were truly allowed to be kids, without having to worry about being cold or hungry or neglected. The home was always filled with warmth and the comfort of the woodstove (thanks in small part to my newly acquired skill of wood stacking). We were introduced to a whole new array of food, American food, which I admit was a little bland compared to my grandmothers cooking (many Asian dishes are spicy). But as long as I had the black pepper shaker within reach, the blandness was somewhat tolerable. And boy did I learn to love pepper. All joking aside, Debi’s cooking was phenomenal! Homemade mac and cheese. None of that fake, boxed stuff. Meatloaf. Pies. You name it, she made it. And I ate it.
Debi was the mother of all mothers. Granted, she had to compensate for Mark’s lack of sternness. But she also had the biggest brat to deal with, yours truly. I was strong-willed and stubborn as an ox. I still am. But, you know, all the “your grounded” verdicts or timeouts they would give were also given with more than the requisite share of love. And I think that is how discipline should work. It should teach a lesson, but one where a child later reflects more on the love with which judgment was rendered, rather than it being a clash of wills or a war for dominance.
I also had to adjust to a new school, Acton Elementary School. And what an adjustment. Just months before arriving at my first foster home, I was a second grader in the Portland Public School system, which served the most populous and most diverse region in the entire state of Maine. At Riverton Elementary, there were Somalians, Kenyans, Vietnamese, Thai, Khmer, Lebanese, etc. It was a melting pot. And I didn’t feel out of place at all.
But at Acton Elementary, my sister and I were like grains of sand in a sea of white. I mean, it was a school that served one of Maine’s quintessential small towns. I felt out of place. I felt shy, it seemed, for the first time. There were no others like me, other than my sister. It was hard enough being the new kids in a new school in a new town. On top of that, we were “the Other”. We weren’t like everyone else. We had different skin. Different eyes. Different hair.
But what is a kid to do other than to drift along with the current of change, having not yet acquired the sense of self and strength of will to be master of one’s own fate. And thus I drifted into the sea of white, a grain of sand drifting about. Perhaps dissolving. Perhaps changing. Perhaps morphing. Perhaps growing stronger.
My assimilation into whiteness didn’t come without bumps in the road, however. In my mind, I may have begun to talk white and act white and dress white, but I still possessed the immutable characteristic of being brown. And I remember quite clearly during my third grade year at Acton Elementary, in the middle of a white, wintry recess, those feelings of being different than everyone else, having different skin, different eyes, when I landed a fist in a white kids face, giving him a bloody nose. I don’t remember what he said. But I remember that moment of being the only brown kid; that moment of being the only kid from the “projects”.
But I had help adjusting. My foster parents encouraged me to try baseball and basketball. I was OK at baseball (I was much better in 5th and 6th grade playing for Gorham Savings Bank in the Babe Ruth league). I didn’t like basketball much. I got too many finger jams. One thing I did like was music class. I had always loved singing. I was shy, but I loved it. I remember quite clearly the Christmas concert we put on for our parents and how I discovered one of my favorite songs, My Favorite Things.
Since we’re on the topic of Christmas, this was my first American Christmas. It was our introduction to new family traditions and was indeed a magical time for us. From venturing out and finding our Christmas tree, making strings of popcorn, decorating our own ornaments, and arranging all of the lights, my sister and I were truly enamored by everything. We had an upright piano in the living room and learned Christmas carols, sat by the fireplace, and had Christmas Eve dinner. I remember not being able to sleep that night, having heard the stories of Santa Claus and the gifts he would bring.
The next morning, I remember shaking with excitement and wanting everyone to wake up. At long last, everyone did wake up and we all rushed to the Christmas tree. And there they all were. More presents than we could behold and stocking stuffed to overflowing! What a sight it was! We had never seen anything like it before. It was truly a time of joy and giving. Everyone was in good spirits. And everyone understood that it was our first Christmas.
With this new world came a lot of anger and resentment. In a recent visit to my first foster family, we talked about the winter of my first Christmas as one of breakthrough; a time when my bottled up emotions and anger reached a breaking point.
It was some time in March and it seemed that the youngest of the foster sisters and I were having an ordinary snowball fight. But one snowball landed on my ear and slid down into my neck. From what she recalled, I got very angry. So much so that she ran into the house and locked me out. This made me angrier. As bad as it sounds, this was a point where I expressed all the feelings that I had bottled up since being separated from my birth mother and moving to my first foster family. This “breaking point” was also a turning point in many ways. In letting my bottled up anger out, I also began to let go.
But as spring came into bloom, our situation looked like it was about to change as well. I am told that we originally were only to stay at Mark and Debi’s for a few days, but it turned into a whole year. It was then that DHS decided to transfer my sister and I to a group home in Windham, Maine.
We packed up into Mark’s truck and we all rode up to the group home. As we drove into the driveway, the feelings hit us all like a mack truck. Saying goodbye to a family I loved and a family that had loved me was so much harder than being separated from my birth mother.
Next Up: Part Three
Candidate for Portland City Council District 5.
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