Robert Frost was my mother’s favorite poet; she quoted him frequently and kept a book of his poems on her bedside stand for nights when sleep wouldn’t come. In “The Death of a Hired Man,” Frost said, “Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
I am blessed with a large family, although it wasn’t originally designed that way. Technically speaking, my mother gave birth to three children—myself and two older brothers. But she and my dad , much like the couple in Frost’s poem, tended to collect outsiders when the need arose. Better than stamps, I suppose. You can’t watch movies and eat popcorn with stamps.
Mom and Dad started out by taking in relatives of all ages. Several cousins stayed with us, sometimes just for a summer, sometimes for years. My Aunt Nellie, aside from a couple of brief, apparently unsatisfying forays into marital bliss, lived with us for most of her life. And we never thought it was weird, either. She never paid rent, but she footed the bill for a huge, in-ground pool, she cleaned the windows when they got dirty, and for some reason, she assigned herself the task of purchasing my shoes every September before school started. Each fall, Nellie and I would set off for Sears or Penneys, and then she’d treat me to McDonalds. The yearly jaunt became a strange, autumnal rite of passage.
When they ran out of relatives to harbor, my folks branched out into a new program being instituted by the county social services. A pilot program for long-term, treatment foster care, it was designed to provide care for children and adolescents who had “failed” out of regular foster care and who, for various reasons, were unlikely to return home to their bio-families.
I was nine years old when my folks started taking in kids. It was an exciting time. At one point, we had thirteen people living in. Looking back now, the thought of the mountains of laundry my mom must have had to do gives me the willies. Before assigning a child, a case worker would come out to our house and give us what little background might be available on the child. (Considering the red-tape, heaps of paperwork, and length of time in the system, info on most of the kids’ histories was astonishingly sparse.)
Bit by bit, as they settled in, we learned about their pasts. For me, hearing their stories was a glimpse into a world I’d never, ever imagined. A world where “home” didn’t look like any Hallmark card I’d ever seen. I learned, then, that for every “warm,” “caring,” and “nurturing,” there was a “cold,” “uncaring,” and “abusive.”
I started to understand how lucky I was.
My mom was often asked how she reconciled her “own” children to the idea of bringing others into our home. In fact, several foster parent meetings (held monthly as training and support) dealt with the problem of the “natural” kids—don’t get me started on the labels; I didn’t pick ‘em—resenting and even sabotaging the placement of the foster kids. I don’t know why that was never an issue for me, but it wasn’t. I’m no saint, but I never once felt like my home was being intruded upon or that I was getting cheated of “my” home in some way.
Recognizing how lucky I was certainly helped, but I think part of it was just genetics. I must have inherited my parents’ insatiable curiosity for people, for the desire to learn about others—their motives and lives and thoughts and history. The corollary to those tendencies is the need in me to do something to help. That’s obviously why I’m a psychotherapist. But it also explains my passion for reading (learning about people and their worlds) and writing (reaching out to connect with others).
Whatever the reason, my parents’ decision to open their home was the greatest blessing of my childhood. My parents taught that home isn’t the place where we withdraw from the world, but should instead be used as a base to reach out, welcome, and draw in.
I am a lucky girl.