I don’t remember all the foster homes I lived in, all the foster families I lived with, but I remember a few of them. One family had horses. One family had a really big basement where we watched Barney after snack time before going out to play in their backyard on the red, rusted swing set and silver metal slide. One family had a lot of cats. In one family, I was the minority because I was white. One family lived on a farm and had chickens, billy goats, and a cow. I lived with this family the longest. While in this home, all my siblings and I were reunited, but, after a short time, my oldest brother had to move into a boy’s group home and my little brother—who was born eleven months after I was—was placed with his real paternal grandparents and moved in with them. Even though both my brothers no longer lived with us, they still visited every now and then.
I never understood why I kept moving into new homes, with new parents, with more siblings, with new pets. I never understood why I went to new schools. Maybe back then, I thought I had to move because I had done something wrong. Later, I was told that my siblings and I were “problem” children, kids with behavioral and emotional problems, kids with adjustment issues, “wild” kids with no real discipline, kids who didn’t understand what love meant. Maybe we moved because it really was because of us. We really did do something wrong. I moved in with the farm family when I was seven. My siblings and I became part of a Pentecostal family. We moved in with the foster mother who told us to call her Grandma Linda because she was around our grandparents’ ages, and we gained another older brother and two older foster sisters.
The faded, salmon-colored house with three white pillars on the front porch had six bedrooms, three bathrooms, two family rooms, and a big, cold basement where I learned to rollerblade. It had a private drive with a gate that stayed pad-locked most of the time, and they had a fenced-in pond on the left side of the drive with a deck—the deck on which I sat when I learned how to fish and bait my own hook for the first time, swinging my legs above the pond water. The property had thirteen acres of grazing land for the goats and the cow, and they had a fenced-in, wooded area where I learned to shoot a metal can by using my brother’s BB gun. Our yard was seven acres with two Persimmon trees in the back and a large Oak tree in the front where I climbed and stayed until I had to go inside. They had a fire pit below that tree where I used to play ‘camp-out’, pretending hotdogs or marshmallows were on my sticks and the invisible flames were heating up my food and keeping me warm against the gusty winds.
When I was eight, my new family and I moved out of the country and back in to the town. We moved into a big green house next to the town’s fire and police station, and next to three churches—Catholic, Methodist, and Baptist.
That winter, my foster mother adopted my sister, two youngest brothers, and me. I found my “permanent” home, although I never knew what the word “permanent” meant because once we were adopted, we continued to move. It seemed like every six months we moved to a new house and sometimes to a new school.
The summer I turned fourteen—the summer before my freshman year in high school—I moved to a new town about two and a half hours away from where I had been living. The day we moved, we used an orange-and-white U-Haul truck. This was the first time we used a U-Haul truck to move. Every other time, we just made multiple trips by packing the back of the minivan and using friends and family member’s pickup trucks.
One time, on a Saturday, we only used our maroon minivan to move. I remember we took about thirteen trips across town to move all the essential things—beds and other furniture, clothes, a few toys, kitchen things, and bathroom supplies—and that’s not counting all the trips my adoptive mother made during the week while we were at school.
On the way to our new town, my sister sat next to me in the backseat in our minivan. She was listening to music on her CD player. I was staring out my window, watching the cornfields pass by, focusing on trying not to get carsick. She took off her headphones and nudged my arm.
“Wanna take a bet?” she whispered. I looked at her and shrugged. “How long do you think we’ll stay in this town? Three months? Six months?”
“I’m not gonna bet. Maybe if we don’t, we won’t be jinxed and we’ll actually stay here longer.”
She shrugged, put her headphones back on, and we both continued staring out our windows watching the cornfields blur by on both sides of the highway.
When I think about all the other times we moved, I think that maybe we moved because Grandma Linda had a fear of comfort. Maybe we moved because she needed to look for something new. Maybe we moved because she needed something better. I’m still wondering what was wrong with all the other homes we lived in. Maybe to Grandma Linda, no place was ever going to be “good enough.”
In Sullivan, Indiana we stopped and moved into a green house with a fenced in yard, across the street from Angel’s, one of the two grocery stores in the town. The other was Save-A-Lot. The green house was a four bedroom house, but at this time, the older brother and sisters I gained were grown and on their own and my oldest brother was already in prison--Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in Carlisle, Indiana, fifteen minutes up the highway from Sullivan—and my brother born after me was still living with his paternal grandparents, though he lived down the street from our biological mother who was now married to his real father, where he visited often. My other brother who was born ten months after the brother born after me had already moved back with our biological mother. He had been living with Mother for four years at this time. Our adoptive mother said she couldn’t handle my little brother’s deviant behavior anymore. Once, when I was in fourth grade and my younger brother was in first grade, he almost killed a little boy by tying the cloth paper towel roll—the type that used to be in the school’s restrooms when I was younger—around his neck, causing the boy to hang.
Back then, my brother said that he was mad because the boy kept stealing his pencils and the teacher never did anything about it, so one day, my brother followed this little boy into the boy’s restroom where he left him to struggle as he hung, and then, went back to class as if nothing had happened. As soon as my brother came back into the classroom, his teacher asked him if he had seen the other boy, and my bother answered by saying that he was dead in the bathroom. His teacher then ran to the bathroom and un-strangled the little boy. The boy was alive and my brother was expelled from school. After he stayed eighteen days in the Children’s Psychiatric Hospital, our adoptive mother dropped him off at Mother’s doorstep with most of his clothes and a few stuffed animals packed inside a black trash bag.
We moved to this new town because “Grandma” Linda needed to be closer to her oldest sister. Our adoptive mother was one of nine children, and she was the youngest after her two younger siblings—twins; a boy and a girl—died during infancy. She had two other siblings who were dead—a brother who drowned in the Ohio River when he was twelve and she were three. When she was growing up, people could swim in the Ohio River. I never understood why people would have wanted to swim in the Ohio. It’s a dirty brown river that smells like dead fish. She had another brother who was murdered by a mob somewhere in Chicago when he was seventeen and she was six. She has two older sisters—one who lived in Sullivan, the other, I’m not sure where. Her father was a coal miner and her mother stayed home. Both her parents died of cancer when she was a teenager. Her father died of lung cancer and her mother died of breast cancer. She was born and raised in the town we lived in before moving to Sullivan.
Her oldest sister, my aunt, was the sweetest lady in Sullivan. Everyone knew her, but in that town, everyone knew everyone and everyone’s business. There are no secrets in a small town. Her sister was a retired bank teller. Back when her sister was a bank teller, she worked at the only bank in the town. Now, there are seven banks in Sullivan.
My aunt hardly ever missed a church service. We went to The Pentecost Church in Sullivan. She always helped out with Bible school and the church dinners after the service every Sunday. She had a lovely singing voice when we sung the church hymns. She could hit all the high notes without losing her breath. I loved to hear her sing. Sometimes Grandma Linda and my aunt sung together in front of the church. Linda knew how to play the guitar and she would play with the red leather guitar strap across her shoulders and they would sing. They looked alike. They both had curly black hair. Linda had dark brown eyes. My aunt had green eyes. They both wore glasses.
In church, I always sat by my aunt during the service. Sometimes, she snuck me a piece of gum or a mint and told me not to pop it, make bubbles, or crunch too loudly. Sometimes she gave me a dollar to put in the church offering. Sometimes, she snuck me a five dollar bill only after I promised not to tell my brother or sister. Sometimes, after prayer, she leaned over and whispered, “I said a prayer for you. I prayed for God to keep a special eye on you because you are a special young lady.”
Sometimes, she took me home with her after church. We rode in her red pickup truck. Before we left church in her truck, Linda warned me to not let her buy me anything, and if she found out, I would be in a lot of trouble. One time, when we first moved to Sullivan, I visited with my aunt and she took me to Wal-Mart. She told me that we wouldn’t leave the store until I told her what my hobbies were. I told her drawing. So, she bought me a sketch pad and oil pastels. She also bought me a journal, so I had something to write my daily Bible verses in, she said. “A private journal between you and God,” she told me. When I came home, Linda was pissed. She thought I had asked for all these gifts my aunt had bought me. I got in a lot of trouble. I stood against Linda’s bedroom wall with my skirt off as she hit me on my legs, bum, and back with a thick, leather strap—a leather strap that she used to use on her guitar before it broke.
Sometimes, my aunt stopped by Dairy Queen on the way to her house after church. She always asked what I wanted, but I always said nothing because I wasn’t supposed to let her buy me anything anymore. My aunt usually got a plain hamburger and an ice cream cone, for her dog, Molly, not for us.
I loved going to my aunt’s house. She made her own art—stain glass; decorative holiday sweaters with tiny colorful beads; little hot-glued birds on brown baskets used for decoration or putting things in; keepsake jars with pebbles in the bottom and full of candy; handmade quilts with hearts, butterflies, or the family’s handprints on it, including Molly’s paw prints. She made wind chimes out of broken pieces of glass from old bottles, old fruit preserve jars, left over stain glass, aluminum cans, or old, rusted, tin coin jars. Sometimes, I sat on her front porch swing looking out at the cornfields listening to the wind chime’s sweet-sounding music play in the air as the wind blew, and I watched the broken pieces of root beer-bottled glass sparkle in the sunset, reflecting the colors of the sky—orange, pink, purple, blue.
Linda said we moved to this town so she could be closer to her sister because her sister’s husband was really sick and she needed help taking care of him—the doctors said he didn’t have that much longer to live.
My uncle had Osteoporosis. Back then, I wasn’t sure what that was exactly, but I could tell by the way my uncle got out of his chair in the living room that it was very painful, something I never wanted.
My uncle never left his house. Sometimes, he never even left his bed. Sometimes, he never changed his clothes, or even showered. On good days, he sat in his tan recliner in his living room. Sometimes, he read the Bible, or the newspaper. Other times, he listened to classic western music on the radio. He watched the evening news nearly every night.
My uncle never went to church with my aunt, but not just because he was sick. My uncle was not allowed in our Pentecostal Church. He was banned from the church because he smoked cigarettes. To the Pentecost, smoking is a sin because it is an addiction and addictions are a sin.
When my uncle talked, he may not have been able to hear my responses because I talked too softly, but he could count on me to listen. He told me stories about working as the only mail carrier at the Post Office in Sullivan before he retired. He told me about his high school years, how he made straight A’s too. He said he played golf in high school. He said he got a full-ride scholarship to Purdue. He told me he wanted to be a Historian. He said he used to take notes and write stories about Historical events. When I asked if he ever went to Purdue, he told me he went to Vietnam to fight in the war instead. That was the first time I ever heard him talk about the War. The other time, he mentioned watching his younger brother die in front of him. He told me they were sitting on a hillside in Vietnam, taking turns drinking water from his canteen and a bullet flew by and lodged into his brother’s stomach. He said he prayed the Lord’s Prayer with his brother as he was dying in front of him. He told me the final words his brother said to him—“I think I see Jesus.” He said that before his brother’s death, he hated God for this War, and after his brother died, he hated God even more for taking his baby brother away. He told me he wished it was him that God took instead of his brother.
My uncle taught me how to play golf. He let me use his daughter’s old golf clubs. We practiced in the back yard. He showed me how I was supposed to stand—feet shoulder width apart and back straight. He showed me how to swing the club—left hand is the top hand and right hand is the bottom hand. “It’s not like a baseball bat, don’t bend your arms.” He taught me when to use the different clubs and he explained to me the differences. He gave me my own putter, a bag of plastic golf balls, and a green plastic golf tee to take home and practice with. Some days we didn’t stay outside long, just for a few minutes. Some days he watched me practice while he sat on the back porch swing. Some days he never watched at all, but always wanted to hear how I did.
One time, he took me to the town’s country club where he was a member. We played golf—real golf. He said he was testing me to see if I had learned anything, if he had taught me well. He drove the golf cart. Most of the time he stayed in the golf cart and watched, reminding me to keep my arms straight and follow through with my swing. He told me I was a quick learner. He asked me to play golf for my high school. I told him I couldn’t because, back then, my high school didn’t have a girl’s golf team, they only had a boys’ team. He said that shouldn’t stop me. I told him I wanted to play softball instead. He joked and said the two sports were close enough.
My aunt told me she loved when I came over because I gave my uncle something to look forward to for that day. She said that he asked her at night if I was coming over the next day, and when she told him yes, she said his eyes lit up and a smile came across his face. She said she couldn’t remember the last time she had seen him smile. She told me that he hadn’t left the house in years until he took me to the country club. She said he had never wanted to do anything except stay inside, but once I started coming over, he actually got out of bed and dressed, and wanted to be outside. She thanked me for giving her husband a reason to continue living.
My uncle and I had many conversations about the Bible and the Pentecostal faith. When I came over after church on Sundays, he usually asked what I had learned in Sunday school. When I told him the lesson and the Bible verses, he asked me what I thought about what my Sunday school teachers had taught me, and then, what I thought the Bible verses meant. I usually shrugged because I didn’t know what to say. He told me his thoughts about what I had been taught. He opened his Bible and showed me the same Bible verses I had read in Church—in the Old Testament—and then, he showed me more verses I had not learned—in the New Testament. Then, he taught me the same lesson I had learned in Church, except he added the verses from the New Testament. He made more sense than my Sunday school teachers. This was when I started noticing that I, like my uncle, interpreted the Bible differently than the Pentecost. We kept these “lessons” a secret because neither of us wanted to be in trouble with my aunt, my adoptive mother, or the church.
My uncle said he didn’t believe in a religion, but he believed in God. He said that that was all that should matter because when we die, God will judge us based on how we chose to live our lives, not by how other people told us we had to live our lives.
The first year in my new high school, my best friend was Hispanic. She moved to Sullivan from Mexico a year before our freshman year. She taught me Spanish. I taught her English. She taught me cuss words in Spanish—pendejo, mierda, jodete. I taught her cuss words in English—asshole, shit, fuck. She was hilarious. I used to tell her that she “cracked me up.” One time, after I told a joke, she said, “you crap me out.” I don’t think I ever laughed as hard as I did then. She didn’t understand how Americans had so much slang in the English language. She said it only confused her because she didn’t know what we were saying. I told her that was what I thought when I heard her speak Spanish really fast.
In high school, in Sullivan, I made straight A’s. I was in all honors classes, but still, the classes seemed too easy for me. Most of the time I stared out the window in class watching the leaves change as the seasons changed and I watched the street maintenance fix the potholes on the street nearby. Other students called me ‘the smart one’ because I knew the answers, though I never talked in class, but I had the answers written down on my page of notes. I was asked to tutor students in math, English, chemistry, Spanish.
One time, at the beginning of my freshman year in English class, we had to take a one-hundred-questioned spelling test. The next class day, my teacher asked me to stay after class. She told me I scored a one hundred percent on the test. She asked me if I would be interested in joining the school’s Spell Bowl team. Back then, I didn’t know what that was, so I shrugged. She told me to talk to the school’s librarian to get more information, talk to my parents, and let either her or the librarian know my answer by the end of the following week.
I was allowed to join the Spell Bowl team. There were only two freshmen on the team. I loved Spell Bowl. We made it to State that year. The competition was at Purdue. We won third place as a team in the whole state. I scored a perfect round by not missing any words. There were only two people on my team who had done so, the other was a senior. I remember a few of the words I had to spell--aardvark, colonel, Anti-Semitism.
My sophomore year, I was still on the Spell Bowl team. My sister joined the team too. I was inducted into Beta Club and the National Honor’s Society. I was a class officer—secretary. I was also the secretary for FCCLA (Family, Career and Community Leaders of America) and Spanish Club. I played center field on the junior varsity softball team.
During that fall, my sophomore year, I “dated” the quarterback of the football team. We were good friends and we were on the Spell Bowl team together, and we were both in Beta Club and National Honor’s Society. He was a junior. His parents were both doctors. He said he was going to be a doctor too.
I was not allowed to date him because we didn’t have the same religious beliefs. He was Catholic; I was Pentecostal. I was also only fifteen and he was almost seventeen. My adoptive mother said I could not date, especially if he didn’t believe what we believed. We snuck around anyway; everyone knew we were boyfriend and girlfriend.
He wanted to take me on a real date. I told him I was not allowed.
One night, I was sitting at my dining room table working on homework while dinner was cooking in the oven. I heard a knock on the door and my sister answered it. It was him. He asked to speak to Linda. When she came to the front door, she told my sister and me to get back to our homework. After he introduced himself to Linda, she invited him in and they stood in the foyer by the staircase. My sister and I were peeking our heads around the doorway that separated the dining room from the living room to hear and see what was going on. His shaggy, dirty blonde hair was combed and gelled back out of his light brown eyes. He wore his blue, faded jeans with a thick, white belt and he wore brown boots. I could see the impression of his abs through his skin-tight, charcoal gray American Eagle t-shirt which he wore under a black jacket. He told Linda a little background information about who his parents were and what they did and he also talked about his plans for the future. He said that he knew I wasn’t old enough to date and was not allowed to date someone who had different religious beliefs, but he wanted to ask permission to take me to the Latino restaurant for lunch that following Saturday, as friends only. She allowed him to take me out to lunch only if my older sister could go too. She reminded him that this lunch was not a date and I had to be back in no later than one hour. He agreed and that Saturday we went to lunch.
He drove his white pickup truck and my older sister and her best friend followed in our family’s minivan. When we got to the restaurant, we sat in one booth and my sister and her friend sat three booths behind us. I ordered in Spanish. He told me he was impressed. I told him my friend had taught me all I knew. He said he knew only a few phrases--Cómo te llamas, Cómo estás, tu eres muy caliente. I laughed. “Gracias,” I told him. He said he didn’t know much Spanish because he studied Latin and French.
We ended up “breaking up”. One day while I was in the library looking for more books to check out during lunch, he came by me pretending to look for books too. I had a feeling that he was getting ready to do the ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ speech, but he didn’t. He said that it wasn’t him, it was his parents. I said that it wasn’t him either, it was my religion. We agreed to still be friends.
At the end of my sophomore year, I had to leave the town and move two hours away to Evansville, Indiana. I had to move in with my biological mother because, just like my little brother, Linda couldn’t handle my deviant behavior. She said I was questioning God by asking her, my Sunday school teachers, and my pastor to explain the Bible verses on which our faith was based. She said that that was going against her, God, and the church. She said that I was sinning. She also told me that I was defiant because I wore my softball uniform pants, which I was not allowed to wear, when getting my team pictures taken, instead of wearing my skirt. She said that this too was not allowed. So, in the middle of a spring afternoon in May, Linda took me out of school and drove me to Mother’s house with my skirt and books in my backpack.
I left the town of Sullivan three weeks before school let out for summer towards the end of my sophomore year. Back then, that town was all I knew. Everyone knew everyone. I couldn’t even walk down the street without out someone driving by and offering me a ride and they knew who I was because they knew who my aunt was. But, I left that town, leaving what I knew, who I knew, and everything in it behind. I left that town to move on to something bigger, although back then, I didn’t know what that “something” was. Even though I left that town and all the people I knew behind, the town continued without me.
When I think of Sullivan, I think of my uncle who passed away towards the end of my sophomore year. At his funeral, my aunt asked me if I would write a speech to say. I wrote a small speech, but I also wrote a poem titled, “The Spirit in Golf ”. My last lines of the poem were, “And as the ball flies in the air, soaring through the sky, / So does his spirit as he enters Heaven, waving at me saying goodbye.” After I read the poem, I folded it up and laid it on his chest by his hands inside his baby blue casket and kissed his forehead. I remember my aunt singing Amazing Grace as Linda played her guitar. I remember wincing as every one of those twenty-one shots fired from the Veterans’ riffles nearby my uncle’s burial site. I remember my aunt handing me a white rose. “Keep this to remember him,” she told me. I remember giving my aunt the green golf tee, which my uncle gave me, so that she could keep it after he died. My uncle may have been banned from the Pentecostal Church, but he was not banned from Heaven.
When I think of that town, I don’t think of Linda beating me with leather straps or wire hangers. I think of all the corn-holing, shucking, and eating during the fall season at the town’s Corn Festival. I think of how Cheetos were called Cheesy Poofs, not Cheese Puffs. I think of how a creek is called a “crick”, according to the Sullivan folk. I think of how my uncle is playing golf in Heaven right now, standing with his feet shoulder width apart and looking down on me and smiling. But mostly, I think of my aunt’s broken, root beer glass bottled wind chimes swaying in the breeze on her front porch.
-- Jessica Greene is a creative writing student at University of Evansville. Homeless until recently, Ms. Greene’s essays detail her difficult past. Her work has appeared in Relief, The New Purlieu Review, Catfish Creek, and University of Miami, Florida’s Mangrove Literary Journal.