I actually wrote this for one of my magazine classes last year, but given that last month I missed her birthday while I was in Mexico I decided to share it again:
With the way children came in and out of my house, it’s no wonder I believed for the greater portion of my childhood that babies really did get dropped on doorsteps by storks.
She came just like all the other kids.
Instead of a long beaked bird, though, storks came in the form of frumpily dressed social workers who knocked loudly on the door, stood on the crimson oriental rug in the foyer of my suburban childhood home, and exchanged children like a criminal making a drug deal in a shady Atlanta alleyway.
Many times the only words spoken were name, age, and some general information if we were lucky. Then they would run over the checklist. Carseat? Check. Diaper bag? Check. Kid? Check.
“Alright, talk to you soon,” they would say to my mom. The majority of these exchanges would happen without them even noticing the wide-eyed elementary school girl cowering in the shadows of the piano room.
By the time the door slammed behind the social worker, I was usually on my knees next to the car seat, unwrapping the Christmas paper of the receiving blanket to see the exciting present underneath. Would it be black? Would it be white? Would it cry a lot? And, most importantly, would I have to share my room?
I liked black babies better. That sounds silly coming from the mind of an East Cobb first-grader, but it’s true. White babies looked to me more like a foreign alien race—eyes barely open, skin faintly transparent, oftentimes a stringy excuse for hair oozing from their head. Seeing this, I had no idea why my mother, after giving birth to one alien creation, had gone on to have three more. Black babies were more lifelike. More tangible.
Considering 51 percent of children in foster care in Georgia are African American, my odds were pretty much heads or tails.
Her name was Melina, and she was somewhere between our 45th and 51st foster child that my family had taken in since we started fostering when I was in the first grade, and one of the 15, 265 children in foster care in the state of Georgia in 2005.
She was an odd-looking baby, truth be told—her head disproportionate to her body, and her gangly, weak limbs flopped at her sides.
The specialists at the Department of Family and Children Services had labeled her “failure to thrive,” but when she first came, I just thought she was boring.
I would try to play with her, try to get her to respond to me, and she would lay limp in her car seat. I overheard bits and pieces of her story: “Her mom couldn’t take care of her;” “She was just held, all day long;” “she never had the chance to develop.” Then my mom would warn me, “You can’t tell anybody about that, Elissa. It’s a breach in confidentiality.”
But she grew quickly. I soon forgot about that day she arrived when she didn’t have the strength to lift her own head or swat at her mobile.
Sometimes life in my house was a little unstable.
Almost like a home broken by divorce, there were days when we were fractured. One of the kids would have to go for “a visit,” so my mom would load up the Chevy Venture and cart the kids downtown where they would meet for their scheduled time with a parent or relative.
And then one day they would be gone.
Sometimes they would go back to their parents who just got out of jail or rehab. Sometimes they would move to another state to live with a relative.
Sometimes they would get adopted.
Half the time I didn’t even know where they went, I just knew that it was time to move on.
It was like a member of my family passed away unexpectedly. I would cry. I didn’t understand why they had to be taken from me. I didn’t understand why these kids were forced into my life and then ripped away just as I was beginning to enjoy stability for a while. Just as I was starting to feel normal.
So one day, Melina was gone.
She was going to go to a relative’s in Texas, but when that fell through an aunt in Atlanta stepped up to take her in.
As we rode in the van one day before she left my mom explained to Melina, only 3 years old, that she was going to go live with Auntie Vanessa. Auntie Vanessa was going to be her new mommy. Auntie Vanessa was going to make her lunches. Auntie Vanessa was going to tuck her in, and read her stories before bed. Auntie Vanessa was going to love her.
My mom lied, to herself and to Melina.
Because we started taking kids when I was in first grade, it is what I’ve always known. I began to measure the years of my life not by the grade I was in or how old I was, but by the kids we had in our home at the time. We would tell stories around the kitchen table saying “Oh, that was the year with Andy and Tay” or “That was when we had Kim, Venice, and Jackie. Man was Venice a handful.”
Two-thousand and eight became “the year Melina came back.”
My mom called me while I was away at school starting our conversation with, “You’ll never guess what happened today.”
She had come back. My peach had come back.
She was still the same Melina. She still had the same disproportional head, a smile that could melt your heart, and a presence like a tranquilizer. My dad had especially appreciated this quality two years earlier when his sister passed away suddenly. Melina spent the entire funeral and visitation sitting serenely on my dad’s lap. He later said that he didn’t think he could have gotten through those days without her.
“It’s just her sweet spirit. She has a personality that can calm you instantly,” he said.
When she came back that year at five years old, it was like she had been away at war and returned home safely to her grateful family two years later.
But she still had the scars from battle.
Not external ones, like Andy who had come to our home covered in burns where his father extinguished cigarettes on his bare skin, but Melina’s scars were hidden, mental, and emotional scars—bursting out of the depths of her mind like a Pavlovian puppy when triggered with a memory treat.
One evening my mom and Melina were sitting in the living room watching the news when the trailer for a new movie Precious, about an abused teen, came on the screen.
The main character stood at the top of the stairs as her mother yelled at her, “You’re a dummy. Don’t nobody want you. Don’t nobody need you.”
Melina said matter-of-factly, “That sounds like Auntie Vanessa.”
My mom carefully questioned, “Did Auntie Vanessa chase you up the stairs like that?”
“And what happened when she got to the top of the stairs?”
“She hit me,” Melina said. Once again, matter-of-factly.
Scars—slowly revealing themselves.
In her kindergarten class, they asked each child to write about a hero for an essay contest. Melina won first place for kindergarten and first grade:
“My hero is my mom and dad because they sort of adopted me. They took care of all the other children too. My mom gives clothes to children. My mom works for foster children and when I was a baby, they took me in. They took good care of me. I was three, I had to go to my aunties’ for 2 years because the caseworker made me. My auntie was a bad person. She has no love in her heart and she used to hit me with a belt. I was only 3 and a half. Then God took me back to my foster home. It felt good and I am happy because they love me and I love them too. This is a good home for me to live in. I feel good.”
You can tell that she feels good now, too.
Only a few days after she was delivered back to my house, her caseworker came for a visit. My mom remembers the shock and awe on her face when the caseworker said, “Melina has smiled and laughed more in the last five minutes than I have seen her in the last two years.”
Boy, can she laugh. She has a laugh that expands to fill the air in the room so much so that it takes your breath away. Sharon Franklin, a close family friend and fellow foster parent, said that her favorite thing about Melina was her smile.
“It comes from the inside out.”
One day while sitting next to me on the couch in the living room, watching FernGully, Melina crinkled her brow quizzically.
“Elissa, can I ask you a question?” she said very seriously.
“Yeah, what’s up?”
“Well, mom always says I’m full of bologna,” she said, “…and I don’t understand…‘cause I don’t even eat that much bologna!”
I laughed aloud. She joined in, not really understanding what she had said that was so funny, and we both rolled off the couch onto the floor and laughed until our sides ached.
“I love you peach,” I would tell her.
And she would always respond: “I’m not a peach! I’m a girl!”
She would always be my peach, even with her memory bruises. I have learned more from this little girl, now a curious 7-year-old, than any child we’ve ever had in my house.
The first day after she returned, we took a trip to Wal-Mart, and I reached for her hand as we crossed the bustling parking lot.
She gazed at our tightly clasped hands, greatly contrasting in color, and then up at me and exclaimed, “This is like friendship!”
“Yeah, peach, this is exactly like friendship.”