You thought I didn’t know.
You thought I was asleep. You thought I didn’t know. But I did.
The coffee is cold. I stick it in the microwave and open the cookies, trying to gather my thoughts. Ellie never talks about anything from the past. She has closed it out, like it never happened. She’s the pretty one, the popular one, the successful one. The one who married well and moved up the corporate ladder, retiring early and traveling the world. She’s the one who has it all together.
And now, today, she wants to talk about it. She wants to talk about what happened.
I’m back there again. I’m eleven. Lying very still every night, waiting for her regular breathing, and for the people’s regular breathing. Waiting until I’m sure they’re all asleep. Then the tears come, and they don’t stop for so long. I’m so tired. I want to make it all go away, to go back to the day before it happened and make it not happen. I want to go home. But instead, I fall asleep and dream of the day before it happened. I dream of not being to blame for it all.
You knew? All these years, and you’ve never said a word. Why?
I was scared and confused. And angry. I was only seven – I didn’t know how to ask.
Why ask now? It’s been fifty years.
I know. Fifty years today. Did you know that?
I know. My mind has been wandering in and out of reality all day, clinging to old memories and then tossing them aside like filthy rags. I can’t stay on task. I can’t stay in the present.
Sis, why didn’t you ever tell me why you cried yourself to sleep every night for so long? Were you like me? Mad at Mom and Dad for abandoning us? Or was there something else you never told me? I’ve been afraid to ask you all these years.
Abandoning us! Abandoning us?? Why do you think they abandoned us? We were forcefully taken! Mom didn’t know they were coming. She fought The System for years, trying to get us back. And Dad? He was gone way before this happened.
Had my sister struggled with feelings of rejection all this time? How had I never seen this? She’d been the life of the party ever since we were taken away. She was the most popular in high school, the most successful in business, the richest of all us kids. She never cried.
I’ve kept my secret inside long enough. It’s time.
I’ll tell you why I cried all those years, Ellie. It was all my fault.
I talk about that day, February 12th, 1963. Cold and overcast, dark seemed to come early that day. The snow was gone but the ground was still hard, just right for bouncing a ball. The fire had gone out before 10:30, the house was cold – but hey, who had time to build a fire? There was playing to be done! Besides, there was no wood for the fire anyway. Those lazy big brothers had ignored Mom’s orders to fill the woodbox, choosing instead to spend the day running in the woods. I certainly wasn’t going to do their job – I had other things to do. So what if I was supposed to be doing the dishes? I wanted to play! And Mom would be gone all day looking for work. JJ was fifteen and in charge, but he was too busy with his own games to worry about whether I did my chores.
A knock. A stranger at the door.
I’m a friend of your mother’s. Is she home?
No. What’s your name?
Sonya. Can I come in and wait for her?
She won’t be home for a long time.
That’s OK. Maybe you can show me your house while I wait.
Uhm . . . I don’t know if I’m supposed to let anybody in while she’s gone.
Oh, what a pretty little doll dress. Can I see it? Do you have any other pretty things like this?
Oh yes! Look at this dress – I made it out of a sleeve off that old shirt over there. I can make stuff!
You must be very smart. Could you show me what else you’ve done? Oh – what’s in your kitchen? Anything good to eat?
So I led her through the house, showing her my treasures, proudly pointing out the clever ways we’d used whatever came in the boxes we got from churches and other charity places.
That’s the day we were introduced to The System.
When Sonya left, I blithely went back to playing, forgetting all about her. We were playing House, and I was the mommy because I was the oldest. They had to obey me. Ellie and Mikey didn’t play nice. They didn’t want to let me be the boss, so they went outside and played ball with Terry. I played with the two youngest ones. I was eleven, and they were four and five. They thought I was pretty smart, most of the time. That day I wasn’t very smart, though.
What was that noise? More company?? Outside were three long, black cars parked in front of our house. One long, black, expensive car would have raised all our eyebrows – but THREE? Panic rose inside, so strong it was an acid taste in the back of my throat. My heart raced, then stopped, then raced again. The blood was struggling to flow; I felt faint. Who were these people? What did they want?
Jerry and JJ ran in from the barn. JJ was first to the window.
I don’t know . . . . Hey! That’s Sonya. She was here this morning. She said she was Mom’s friend.
Did you let her in?
What did she want?
She wanted to see the house and all the stuff I made. She said it was pretty.
Oh no. Why’d you let her in? You done it now, girl.
What? What did I do?
She ain’t no friend. They’re from the orphanage, and they ain’t plannin’ nuthin’ good. Y’all run and hide. I’ll try to get ’em away from the house.
We ran. Jerry ran to the woods. Terry ran to the barn. The little ones were scared and crying. They clung to me as we ran to the blackberry patch behind the house. Mikey and Ellie made for the hill on the other side of the house.
Kids, wait – don’t run away! We don’t want to hurt you. We want to help you.
Frank, you go that way. Sonya, you stay here in case any of them come back through here. Carl, you go with me. I think I saw a couple of them go towards the barn.
They caught us all, one by one. Jerry was the last one. He could have gotten away, but he came back. He said if we went, we all went together. He never blamed me for not telling them about Sonya’s first visit. But I knew. I knew I could have stopped it if I would’ve just not let her in. If only I wouldn’t have believed she really wanted to see all the things I made. If only I would’ve told JJ that she’d been here. JJ could have gotten us out, if he’d known in time. He would’ve known what to do.
Please, Mister. Why are you taking us away? What did we do? Mom is going to be so scared when she comes home and we’re not here. Why couldn’t you let us stay at home? What’s going to happen to us?
They put us in those long black cars and took us away. I was in the middle car with Mikey. The one called Carl – he sat in the back with us and tried to calm us. He kept saying that this was all for our good, and that it would all be better tomorrow. We’d be happier tomorrow. I didn’t believe him, but the soft voice and calm words began their work. Mikey stopped crying and just sat silently, clinging to my hand.
They put JJ in the front car, and then Terry. Terry wouldn’t get in without Jerry. That’s why Jerry came back – he had to protect Terry. What did the people in that car tell them, I wondered.
Ellie and the little ones were in the last car. What did they tell Ellie and the little ones? How did they explain what was happening? Did they use the same words – that it was all for our good, that we’d be happier tomorrow? What were they feeling? The little ones had not stopped crying. Ellie never cried. I saw her pull the little ones close, one on each side, and stare straight ahead.
The night felt so long. We sat there in that big room, hearing people come and go, wondering what they were planning for us. We talked together in low, hushed whispers, afraid they’d hear us. We discussed how we’d get away, as soon as we saw a chance. Jerry, the wild-eyed, adventurous one, wanted to overpower the guards and make a break right then. JJ, the practical one, scoffed at the idea. Those two were still arguing, even at this point. Would they never get along??
I was bone tired. I felt like I’d aged a hundred years in that short period. Had it only been five hours since I’d been happily playing House with my little sister and brother? For years, those evening hours – especially on ‘that’ day every February – brought pain and deep longing. I longed to go back and stop the clock, right at 10:59 a.m., just one minute before Sonya knocked on the door. I longed to fix my mistake. To lock the door and pretend nobody was home. To run and tell the others when she left, so we could all get away before she returned. It was my fault. It was all my fault that our family had been separated.
We’d never heard of foster homes – we all thought kids without moms and dads went to an orphanage. We didn’t know we had to be split up; we thought we’d at least be together in a big orphanage. I had always thought kids stayed together until they were all grown up. We didn’t know that nobody else wanted eight kids.
JJ went to a foster home by himself. He said it wasn’t my fault, but I knew it was. He told me he forgave me for opening the door and letting Sonya come in, but he never forgave himself. He was in charge, he said, and they took us away, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. If he would only have stayed at the house and filled the woodbox, instead of running the woods with Jerry. If only he’d seen Sonya talking to the nosy neighbor that morning, the one that didn’t like us because we were poor. The one that called Sonya and told her to come and take us. JJ remained bitter to the end. It hurt to see him that way.
Jerry and Terry went together. After all, they were twins and inseparable. Jerry protected Terry his whole life. Jerry never forgave himself. It was all his fault, he said. He should have fought those men when they tried to put us in the cars. He was a fighter, not a runner. And there in that room that night, when that one was teasing him and told him they’d burned our clothes because they were so filthy, he wanted to strike back. He tried. They overpowered him. He was small for thirteen, but he was wiry; it took three of them to subdue him. He never forgave himself for causing such terror to the rest of us. We thought they were going to kill him. JJ was mad at him for stirring up more trouble. Jerry was mad at JJ for not helping him.
Mikey and Ellie ended up with me. Not at first. At first it was just Ellie and me. The people were nice, but temporary. I can’t even remember their names; I think of them as Mr. and Mrs. Shortstop. They told us we wouldn’t be there long – we didn’t even have a bedroom, just a cot in a corner of their room. Ellie and I shared that cot for those two weeks before they moved us. I cried every night, after the people went to sleep. Ellie never cried. Not once.
Mikey was with Jerry and Terry for those two weeks. The people were mean to them there; they wouldn’t let them come inside the house until bedtime, and then only to use the bathroom and sleep. They ate on the back porch. Mikey said the people didn’t want them around their own children. They didn’t want them to touch those other kids. Mikey didn’t understand why that would be a bad thing. Did he have something on his skin that he couldn’t see? He came to live with Ellie and me, and Jerry and Terry went to another place, where the people were nicer to them.
The youngest two – where were they? I missed them so much. They went away and we were not allowed to see them any more. The social worker (not Sonya) said they’d been adopted and were happy without us. I wasn’t happy. I wanted our family back together. It was my fault we’d been split up, all because I disobeyed. I let Sonya come in and didn’t tell my big brother. I didn’t warn the others so we could run away.
Ellie sits there very quietly as I recite the story. She’s crying. When I finish, she speaks softly, as if to herself.
It was my fault. They told us in the car that Mom had asked them to take us. They said she was tired and couldn’t take care of us any more, and that she wanted them to give us a place to live. They said she was sorry she had so many kids, and that she just didn’t want to try to make us mind any more. I knew then that it was all my fault, because I’d sassed her that morning before she left. I’d stomped my foot and cried when she told me to help you do the dishes. She was mad, and said she was just sick of kids not minding. It was my fault for crying and throwing a fit. She told us she was going to look for a job, but she was going away, and it was my fault.
Is The System ever right in taking children away from their parents? Is The System ever right to lie to kids about the reason? They said all this was for our good. They said we were abused. They said we were starved and filthy and ignorant. Lies. We were not abused. We were not starved – we were often hungry, but never starved. We had food, as much as my mother could bring in, any way she could get it. We were dirty but not filthy. Kids get dirty when they play in the dirt! We went to school, and had the same education all the other kids had. We were not ignorant.
We had no running water, no electricity, no indoor bathroom, but we had each other. We were happy together, and it never occurred to us that being poor was shameful. Why was the neighbor who called Social Services so offended by our family?
Now that we have each other back again, I’m not letting that go – not for nasty neighbors, not for nosy, lying social workers. I wasn’t to blame, my sister Ellie wasn’t to blame. None of us kids were to blame. Mom wasn’t totally at fault either. I don’t really think The System was to blame. It just happened.
(Note: this was written in response to the WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge: Dialogue. I was intrigued by this challenge and wanted to give it a try. This is a fictional story, very loosely based on a true one – the names, of course, being changed to protect the characters in this story.)