One of the Girls
__ A blizzard struck the night before the Foster Parent Christmas party. White out conditions and strong winds made driving nearly impossible, but the party was set for the following day. Surely the storm would be over by then. A few of us braved the storm and arrived at the hall to decorate, imagining the happy faces of the excited foster children expected in the morning.
As we neared the end of the decorating, it became obvious that the storm had worsened. I realized that I would not be able to return to my home which is about an hour away from the party site under good driving conditions. Art and Robin Hughes, who had been helping with the decorating, invited me to spend the night in their nearby foster home. Thus began an experience that, for me, was both educational and enlightening. The Hughes are veteran foster parents who were fostering three teenage girls at this time. Fortunately for me, one of the girls, Terri had returned to her parents home for the weekend and, although one of the other girls had a friend visiting, there was still room for me.
No sooner had I gotten off the phone than Tina, Tracey and Diane as well as Robin Hughes corralled me into a card game that they were playing. Although the wind howled and the snow continued to fall, I was made to feel at home and was included in the activities of this foster family.
The rules of the card game were like a foreign language to me. "You have to bid for cards and you gotta yell loud how much you are bidding," the girls instructed. They were obviously veteran players and veteran "yellers" too!
Stepping aside from my "mature self," I was a teenager again and old insecurities surfaced. Could I keep up? Would I "get it right?" Would they laugh at me? I experienced a feeling of "peer pressure," but the girls were good teachers and I began to learn the game. Robin allowed the good natured bantering to continue; no need to be thin-skinned here. I sensed that there were boundaries and limits. Soon I was yelling with the rest of them and eventually won a round. The girls smiled approvingly and even encouraged me a little. My initial shyness began to wear off.
As with most families, disagreements between the girls arose. Robin allowed them to settle their differences among themselves. Again, I sensed that there were understood limits. I watched the whole process from my teen perspective in amazement. There was no physical confrontation between the girls, words were the only weapons. I was fascinated. Although I was a participant in the game, I was ignored during this dialogue. Robin smiled knowingly at me and soon the spat was over and we continued bidding and yelling boisterously.
Art Hughes returned from closing up the decorated party hall. He was tired, covered with snow, and had a major headache. Our game continued. Finally, like a typical father whose limit had been reached, he stopped the noisy game and we "girls" retreated to cocoa in the kitchen and bed time preparations.
I had been shown the all-important bathroom earlier and now Robin took me upstairs. I was assigned Terri's room to use for the night, since she was away for the weekend. The unspoken instruction that guests did not touch other people's things was understood. I was given my own space and allowed to either take leave of the group or remain. Exhausted, I chose bedtime. "My" room was private, neatly and simply furnished, with a shade and curtains drawn tight across the window to shut out potential prying eyes. I took it all in, imagining what Terri might be like from the visible contents of the room: make-up mirror, make-up, pictures, posters, all typical, I thought, remembering my own daughter, Cyndy. Terri was much neater. Feeling very safe and protected, I fell into a deep sleep.
In the morning I awoke to typical family noises. The telephone rang and was quickly answered. The girls could be heard chattering. I got up and dressed quickly, wondering if I should change the bed or not. A story about a foster child that I have told in foster parent training many times over the years came to mind. "She got up and started making her bed. As she moved the (imaginary) frowning faces moved too and she could hear their silent voices.
She straightened the bottom sheet, tucked it in and pulled up the top sheet and the blanket. Then she put on the spread. She was glad she had remembered to fold it the night before. When she was finished, she stepped back and looked at the bed. She couldn't see anything wrong with it. But maybe the faces could. Then she remembered a previous placement. There the beds were aired every morning. You threw back the covers and opened the windows and an hour later you made the bed. She wished she knew what to do." (condensed from "Only People Cry" by Alice Winter)
In the kitchen the girls were making the breakfast of their choice. Over coffee, I realized that, looking at the experience as I had through the eyes of a teenager was probably little different from the way a foster teen would experience this foster home. Although I could sense apprehension within my "teen" self, I felt entirely
safe and protected. I also felt valued and respected by the foster parents, although I was aware that there were set rules and established limits. This applied to all foster children placed in this home. I also felt that Art and Robin would "go to bat" for me, as a foster teen, if I needed and accepted their help. They were open, warm and caring.
Although I have trained foster parents for many years, I now had a taste of what it might feel like to be a foster child in this foster home. It was a humbling experience and one I will remember. I thank the girls and the Hughes family for contributing to my education.
To view other "Stories of the Heart" selections go to the Contents Page