I met Alice Smith and her family years ago when I was teaching challenged children at a local private school. She was in junior high school at the time and she and her large family lived in a particularly rural part of a small town where I had recently moved. If you have ever moved, you know that it is a difficult and time consuming job. Alice and her family came to my rescue, helping with moving and settling into my new home. In spite of our different backgrounds, we became good friends. Shortly thereafter, I injured my back necessitating a lengthy hospitalization. My injury had ended my career teaching challenged children. I was without work, something I had never experienced before. As a single parent, I worried about how I would manage. Alice's dad, whom I called, "Paw", had much practical wisdom. Paw introduced me to the world of "Scrounge." He taught me to look for the hidden value in whatever I saw. Could it be made useful and advance the quality of life? He tended to apply his philosophy to material things. It was his version of "recycling" long before it became popular. Survival, for Paw, was a daily challenge. I took it a step further and began to look for the hidden value in individuals.
I hadn't seen Alice in years. I remembered her as a cheerful "make the best of it" kind of person. She was petite and feminine with wonderful clear skin, shining blue eyes and soft brown hair. She loved to "dress up" and she loved to cook.
Paw had suffered for years with a chronic illness and finally died. Alice and her siblings had grown up, dispersed and had lives of their own. I see Alice's mother, Eunice, occasionally and we talk about the old days but we have also lost touch.
Of all the children, Alice has had the hardest life. She is in her thirties, now. When Alice was growing up, education about child abuse and the necessity for maintaining proper boundaries between adults and children was not yet publicized. Alice's situation came to my attention in the course of my work at New Hampshire Division for Children, Youth & Families. As I began work on this collection of stories, I thought of Alice, and the problems she has had, particularly in view of the Agency's desire to help troubled families improve their situation by providing them with intensive services which can stimulate learning in the hopes that unhealthy situations may normalize. However, when services are not enough or come too late and families "fail to correct," the children may very well be placed in foster care. Reunification, then, is a lengthy, difficult process. It is my belief that an understanding of the backgrounds of the families with whom we work is essential if any progress is to be made.
As I thought about Alice, I wondered whether we might have attained more positive results had we dealt differently with her situation. I concluded that the only way to answer this question would be to ask her. I was aware that Alice's story would undoubtedly be far different from the Agency's version. Still, that would not make it less valid. It would simply be her point of view.
I agonized over asking Alice to meet with me. Our friendship had lapsed over the years as we made our life choices and we had drifted apart. Finally the invitation was sent and I waited. I had asked her to call me but her call was a long time coming and I abandoned the idea. Then one morning I was taken by surprise when I received a call from Alice. She agreed to tell her story.
Alice is next to the youngest in a family of five children. Her parents remained together until Paw died and, from my observations, they were devoted to each other and they loved their children. Their family values included "until death do us part." Paw, who was much older than his wife, once told me that he waited for Eunice to grow up so that he could ask her to marry him. He loved her dearly and they were married for many years.
Recalling Alice's childhood brings to mind some humorous aspects. Alice was a petite girl who was interested in feminine things, in contrast to her sisters' "tom-boy" behavior. This difference seemed to confound Paw and he never could quite understand Alice and her drive toward femininity. Mini-skirts had just come into style and, although many parents, myself included, did not really approve of them, Alice and her friends rolled their "long" skirts up imitating the new style.
Paw was "very proper" according to Alice. He didn't approve of young girls going around "like painted Gypsies!" He was constantly insisting that she wipe off the lipstick and she learned to sneak her "make-up" into school and wash it off before she went home. He never could understand why Alice didn't act like her sisters, who wouldn't have considered using make up in junior high school!
Alice had a creative sense of humor. She told me about a time when she and a girlfriend were taking a short cut through the town cemetery. Alice had been named for her grandmother who was buried there. Impishness overtook her and she told her gullible friend that she had an incurable illness and that she had her grave all picked out and ready. Her friend was alarmed, until Alice pointed out the dates on the stone. "That's not funny!" her friend had said.
"It was hard growing up in my family. My Dad was sickly and the fear that he might die suddenly was always there," Alice began. "I wanted to get out of the house as soon as possible. We had no running water and no toilet. I wanted running water and a bathtub, but I was afraid to leave home because I was afraid Dad would die," Alice said continuing her story, "I was sexually abused when I was seven years old by a neighbor boy who was older than I was." I remembered this boy's family. Paw and Eunice deferred to them, as they were better off than the Smith family, yet the boy's family considered the Smiths their friends. That family had several sons of the rough and tumble variety. They were in and out of the Smith home off and on throughout Alice's childhood. Another boy in this family also sexually abused Alice, more than once, she said, until she realized it would cease if she stopped going down by the river to play. No one knew. Alice felt she would be laughed at if she told her family. Uncle Jerry, Eunice's slow-witted brother, sexually fondled Alice every time he got drunk. She learned to stay out of his way, also.
School had never been easy for Alice. She attended a one room school in her small town and, although she held perfect attendance records throughout most of her elementary school years, her academic progress was slow. "Even today, I can only read at about a third or fourth grade level. I was just not able to learn," she says.
When Alice was about thirteen a "knight in shining armor" arrived in the person of Arthur Morgan. "Artie read my lessons to me and I was able to complete high school with his help." Artie was ten years older than Alice. He became interested in the Smith family and took an immediate liking to Alice and her childlike innocence. Artie was readily accepted by the Smith family. He helped Paw with the "man's work" and could handle Alice's older, retarded brother, who tended to act out violently when frustrated. He introduced Alice to his parents and treated her like a lady.
Artie claimed to have some physical and emotional disabilities as a result of serving in the Vietnam war. He had appeared to me as someone who might have been suffering from the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that effected so many Vietnam veterans. I had met him years ago and remembered questioning him about his motivations early in his relationship with Alice. He was good to her and that impressed me at the time. "We got married and were together for five years," Alice reminisced. "I was happy for the first time in my life." She and Artie had a son, Junior, and life was happy for those few years. In November of 1980, Artie was killed. He had gone to a neighboring state to help a friend and, on the way home, his car went off the road along a deserted stretch and hit the ominous high ledges there. Oddly, Artie had told Eunice that he probably "wouldn't be around for the holidays." The family was unconcerned, thinking that he had other plans and wouldn't be joining them. They rejected the idea that he might have been speaking about his own death at the time. Alice has remained connected with Artie's widowed mother and she and her children are considered family by her even now.
Artie's death was a heavy blow for Alice. He had been her life and he was gone, leaving her with a veteran's pension and an infant son to raise. Alice had completed a Certified Nurses Aide course and obtained a job at a local nursing home. To ease the pain of her loss, she began to drink. "I was a closet drinker," Alice said "nobody knew about it. When I visited my mother, I always had a drink in my hand. She thought I just had a soda or a glass of juice. I would go into the pantry and add rum to the soda or vodka to the juice. Later I told my mother about it but she still doesn't believe me."
"Some friends of Artie's moved in next door to me. They were recovering alcoholics. They told me I had a drinking problem and got me into Alcoholics Anonymous. It was very hard to stop, but I looked at little Junior and I knew that I had to be both mother and father to him. I quit mainly for him. The stories I heard in AA scared me. People there told about losing their children because of their drinking."
Later Alice moved into less than adequate housing in a neighboring city. There she met Calvin, a former foster child with an unpleasant history of his own. As in many cases, these two people with similar backgrounds were drawn to each other like magnets, to the benefit of neither. Calvin was down on his luck and living in his car. He was desperate for a place to stay. Alice was lonely. She missed Artie's caring assistance and the stability of their relationship. She desperately wanted to recapture it again. She had not yet overcome the drinking habit that had plagued her and, perhaps that fact influenced her choices at the time. She seemed oblivious to the problems of her developing relationship with Calvin.
Alice was twenty-three and Junior was two and a half when she became pregnant with Calvin's child. He insisted that she have an abortion, telling her that he was actually only eighteen and too young to be a father. Alice told him that she was not aborting the child and that she could manage very nicely without him! She still had her widow's pension. Calvin left.
Relatives talked him into reuniting with Alice after a few months and life moved on. With the addition of a new baby girl and Calvin's return, the apartment was now too small for Alice's growing family. She and Calvin and the two children moved to a neighboring town and a similar apartment. Alice was no longer working and Calvin had never worked. "Calvin wasn't bright, more like an overgrown child," Alice remembered. "He never completed high school. He told me that his dad died in his arms from a heart attack when he was twelve years old. He had medicine to put under his tongue like my father did, but Calvin didn't know how to use it. He was in foster care a lot because his mother was a patient in the State Hospital. I was told, when I worked at the nursing home, that before she was sent to that hospital she used to chase Calvin around with a butcher knife. He told me that he was sexually abused by a worker in the group home where he was placed. We were getting along good at this time. He got along real well with Junior and he loved his little girl. He picked her up a lot, maybe too much."
Alice and Calvin stayed together and Alice became pregnant again. They hadn't married as her veteran's pension would have stopped. Neither of them worked. They moved back to the city and into a crowded three room apartment in slum housing. Calvin began hanging around with friends who drank and used drugs. He began to drink and use drugs, too.
"We fought all the time. Calvin was not physically abusive but he was verbally abusive, swearing at me and calling me names. It was awful," Alice remembered. "A friend who lived in the same apartment house offered to pay for us to get married. I had just had another baby, a boy this time. I felt we should be married even if we did fight, to at least give the children a legal name. It was a nice wedding party and the neighbor paid for the whole thing. Things went down hill from there on. I was working again as a nurse's aide at the nursing home. Calvin took all my money and drank it up. I tried to save enough to pay the bills. I didn't have the veteran's pension any more. I was scared. We got evicted and moved to a campground for the summer. It was late October before I found an apartment I could afford. It was in awful shape. We couldn't flush the toilet. I went back to living like it was back home. We didn't have a car either and I had to get to work in the city."
By this time the Agency had become involved with the family, having learned that they were living at the campground longer than practical with cold weather setting in. "They called it neglect," Alice said. "The kids were hungry, although we had food, because Calvin wouldn't feed them while I was at work. He was too drunk. I couldn't afford a sitter. When we moved to the apartment I had lost the car and had to walk to the city, which is about twenty miles away. I didn't dare hitch hike. I'd leave home at about 11 a.m. to get to work by 3 p.m. I'd walk home when I got off work at 11 p.m. I had a flashlight but it was scary. I told myself, 'you have to do this so the kids will have a place to live.' Sometimes I worked a double shift and just hung around the streets until time to go to work again." Alice was becoming a victim of circumstance.
"I couldn't save enough and we got evicted again the next spring and moved to another campground for the summer. I was still working at the nursing home," Alice added.
During this time, the Agency had set up a case plan to assist the family in correcting the situation. Part of the requirements were for both Calvin and Alice to attend counseling and parenting classes on a regular basis. Calvin never attended any classes or counseling sessions. Alice didn't either. "I had to work and I couldn't change my hours. I worked from 3 to 11 p.m. and the parenting classes were in the evenings. There were no morning counseling appointments available for me then, either," she remembered. Later, the nursing home did allow Alice to work days and she did attend counseling and parenting classes for about two years, she said.
"I hadn't totally stopped drinking. One night I went out drinking with some of the other girls after work and got drunk. On the way home someone picked me up and I was so drunk that I slept with him," Alice said.
Things went from bad to worse. Alice never mentioned that she was raped on her way home. She became pregnant. "Calvin never knew that Julie wasn't his," Alice said. His drinking became more severe. The Agency told him he needed to find a job and he made a half-hearted attempt, hanging around a nearby garage, but, in actuality, he was never able to be effective there. "I went into labor and Calvin took the car keys and refused to take the children to my mother so that she could take care of them for me. He wouldn't even take me to the hospital!" In desperation, Alice called the social worker who took the children to Eunice and Alice to the hospital.
When Alice returned from the hospital, she found the apartment was a wreck. Calvin had partied since she left and it took eight garbage bags to hold all the beer cans. Alice, still oblivious to the severity of her problems, was determined to try to make the marriage work. Unfortunately, they were again evicted and spent another summer at a campground which had neither running water nor flush toilets. Somehow Alice and Calvin had managed to obtain two old cars. Calvin, who had no drivers license, took the station wagon and quickly got into a hit and run accident. He had been drinking and was soon picked up and sent to jail. Alice continued to live at the campground. By this time, the Agency made the decision to place all the children except the baby, Julie, in foster care. They hoped to relieve some of the stress until the situation could stabilize. Child care was provided for Julie and Alice continued to work at her nurse's aide job until, while catching a patient who was about to fall out of bed, she seriously injured her back, ending that career. Alice continues to have problems with her back and currently suffers with the constant pain of a pinched nerve. She has tried physical therapy but it seems to aggravate her condition. A side effect of the injury was the onset of migraine headaches, from which she still suffers.
When the older children had all been in foster care for about a year, Alice was notified that there had been allegations of sexual abuse against both she and Calvin. An assessment was made and Calvin was found to have sexually abused all of the older children. His sentence was extended and he remained in jail. The allegations against Alice were more vague. "They told me it was 'improper touching'," Alice said, "I don't know what they mean. I did bathe the children roughly sometimes, I know that now, but they had 'poop' dried on their skin because Calvin didn't change them and I had to scrub to get it off."
Life became still more difficult for Alice. She and Julie moved to a rooming house for a while but, because the landlady took in people who had just been released from the mental hospital, the social worker said this was not a good environment for Julie, who was, now, the only one of the children who was not in foster care. Alice moved again and local welfare helped her find a decent apartment.
Then Alice met Eli Cook. Eli's brother had been married to Alice's aunt years ago and the families had known each other. Alice, remembering Artie, her first husband and, desperately trying to find someone like him, began to date Eli. Eventually, they moved in together. "He's everything that Artie was," she said to me, and her eyes became soft and misty, "He was a coach for the little league and he worked regularly until the plant shut down. Most of his children by his first marriage lived with their mother. Two of them lived with us. Sometimes we would all go to visit his other kids."
Now Eli is in jail, having admitted to sexually abusing Julie. "He says there is no excuse for what he did. He touched Julie three times," Alice told me. "He admitted it so that she wouldn't have to go on the witness stand. He is in counseling in prison and it will take him a year to go through it. He told me that he had the urge to sexually abuse even when he was a child. He knows that it isn't uncommon for it to happen again. I go to visit him at the prison regularly." I asked Alice why she continued to be involved with Eli after all the trouble he has caused her and Julie. "I just love him," was her reply, her childlike innocence becoming obvious again.
Julie, who is eight years old now, has been in counseling for about a year. She was also abused by one of Eli's older boys who, according to Alice, handcuffed and gagged her. "I left Julie with him for only about an hour. I had to take Eli to work in the city. It happened four to five times. I never knew anything about it until one day, when I was baby-sitting for Eli's niece, I caught Julie on top of her. When I asked her what she was doing, she told me this was what Eli's son did to her. He was living with us at the time and I knew I had to move out of Eli's house. The Pastor helped me find a place to live and I called the Agency and told the social worker what had happened. It was very sad. I was confused, hurt and angry. Eli went to jail last winter. His son is in jail, too," Alice told me.
"I had three happy years with Eli," Alice remembers sadly. "He did drink but he was trying to quit and he went to AA. I went with him and he finally did quit drinking. I told him I wouldn't stay around him if he kept drinking. He wanted to drink when something went wrong. He had been sober for two years when he went to jail. He had really changed. He was more fun. We had very little money but we did a lot of things together. We liked to go hiking. We'd build a campfire and cook out. We'd go to yard sales and just look. We'd go for rides and sometimes, if we had been able to save a little money, we'd go to an amusement park and we were able to take Julie to Six Gun City, Santa's Village and Story Land. That was when Eli was working. He worked for a plant that went out of business. He had a security clearance to work there. Now he's going to college while he's in prison. He'd like to become a minister or a drug and alcohol counselor. He's very smart and he's learning about computers."
Alice's eyes light up as she tells me about Eli. He seems to be her new "knight in shining armor." She talks about Eli as she once talked about Artie.
"What is it like to have your children in foster care?" I asked Alice. "It's very hard," she told me, the light leaving her eyes, "There's not a day goes by that I don't wish things were different and want my kids back. God helps, but it's sad. Julie doesn't even know which kid is which."
Alice's children are managing in their various foster homes. They have been there for several years. According to Alice all have learning disabilities except Julie. Alice finally told her mother about her sexual abuse as a child and Eunice believed her.
The social worker knows that Alice wants to continue her relationship with Eli when he is released from prison, possibly jeopardizing her ability to keep Julie in her home. "We'll see how he does when he gets out," the social worker told her.
When our interview concluded, Alice asked me to come out to her car. She wanted to show me some things she had crocheted. She brought out a beautiful white bed spread crocheted with dainty colored flowers. The piece was well done and could have been shown and sold at any craft show without apology. "I made these dresses for Julie," she said showing me two intricate colorful party dresses. "She looks so pretty in them. She loves to dress up!" I remembered Alice as a child and was not surprised.
I looked at her old green car with obviously patched sections here and there "I learned to fix cars by watching my dad," she said. "He taught my sister how to fix them, but she never does now. I just stood on the sidelines and watched. I can do some fixing now. I'm not done with these patches yet. I'd need a lot of tools to do a really good job." She gave me a big hug, got into her car and drove off. I don't know when I will see her again. I enjoyed our visit.
I heard on Public Radio that an Iraqi prisoner of war (POW) was taken pity on by a New Hampshire soldier as he languished in a concentration camp after the Gulf War. The POW wrote, begging the soldier to help him get released from the camp in which he was imprisoned. The soldier was able to obtain his release and that of his two brothers as well. I gathered that these three brothers were quite young, barely out of their teens. They all came to New Hampshire to make their home with the soldier and his wife. The Iraqi knows that the townspeople consider he and his brothers "the enemy." He wants to prove himself to them and show them that he will not be a burden, that he can be a contributing member of the community. Still prejudice persists. "I am not the enemy," the Iraqi says, "I am a human, like everyone else." In our Stories of the Heart, Alice and her family are not the enemy. They are human, like everyone else.