By Tammy Perlmutter.
Doll Houses. Ghetto houses. Foster homes. Group homes. Children’s homes. So many houses. So few homes.
I stand in front of a dilapidated building in an urban neighborhood. Its porch is sagging to the right, the railing on the stoop has long been broken off, leaving a jagged, rusted stump jutting up from the crumbling concrete step. The lattice work covering the basement window is leaning forward as if trying to get away while everything is quiet. The paint on the siding is slowly bubbling up and stripping off, it had long since given up trying to conceal the imperfections.
This is where my mother lives. Or rather, lived. She died a year ago, lasting longer than anyone ever thought, and longer than most of us wanted her to. The bar fights, drunken falls, car accidents, decades of liver damage, none of it had been fatal. It was pneumonia that got her in the end. It was not the dramatic demise we were all expecting.
The narrow row home was barely habitable when my mother lived there, and now it’s been condemned. I don’t know exactly why I am here, standing in front of the porch. I never lived in this house with her, just visited here a handful of times as a teen and young adult.
My mother left us with sitters to go looking for an apartment and didn’t return for days. When she finally returned, after what most people thought was a “lost weekend,” my brother and I were placed in foster care. I was not quite 5. It was a lost weekend, because I lost everything. My home, my family, what little sense of stability an alcoholic parent could provide.
There were stories I was told later. My oldest brother Rob leaving Danny and I alone and walking to my aunt’s house to ask for food. When questioned about his siblings, they were told we were at home. They fed Rob, brought some food and him home to check on Danny and I. My aunt says I was filthy. Wearing my brother’s handed-down clothes. I was scrawny and dirty. They couldn’t even tell I was a girl. My uncle Ed cried when he saw me. They cleaned me up. Found me clothes. Wished they could do more.
I arrived at the Randalls at 4 and a half. All I brought with me was a paper bag of clothes and about 15 cavities, which resulted in multiple, (repeated) ear infections. I shared a bed with my teenaged foster sister. She was sixteen and had just found Jesus. One night I woke up in pain with liquid pouring out of my ear and when I looked at my pillow I was terrified to see a black splotch of blood on it. In a panic I woke Mindy up to tell her my ear was bleeding. When she turned on the light to check, the spot turned out to be Charlie Brown’s football. It also turned out to be a ruptured eardrum.
My mother was an alcoholic. The ugly, painful truth is that she was given a choice between her addiction and her children. She chose her addiction. Year after year. The uglier truth is that she was given a choice between monthly visits with her children and her addiction. Again, she chose her addiction.
Of course, as a child, I didn’t see it like that. My mother was the victim, but she was going to be the hero one day. She was going to come back for me. We were going to live together again. And Elvis was going to be my dad.
It’s funny now. And sad. The only thing I knew about my mother was that she loved Elvis. I didn’t know her favorite color. Favorite flower. Her birth date. In my fantasy, we all got what we wanted. My mom got Elvis and I got her. And we lived happily ever after.
After the third or fourth or ninth time my mother failed to show up for her visitation, I figured it out. There was no truth to my fantasy. It was never going to happen. Nine missed visits equals three-quarters of a year. You know what my mom was doing those nine months? Being pregnant with my brother, who would be born and kept. By now it would seem social services had all but deemed my mother a lost cause.
After that I was old enough to visit them at her house, taking the el or being driven by my foster dad. Each visit was a gnawing reminder that not even the space my mother and bother inhabited was home for me. Every one of my other four siblings has lived with my mother at one time or another since I was removed from her care. But not me. I only got to visit, like an awkward house guest.
One day I talked my mom into sitting outside when the humidity starting bringing out the miasmic history of the squalid house, the pungent reek of cats, the sharp, oily, headache-inducing scent of kerosene smoke, the fetid stench of cigarettes and spilled beer. I was getting jumpy trying to keep every scuttling cockroach around me in my field of vision, some of them falling from the ceiling when gravity failed them.
My mother began talking about local politics, which I knew next to nothing about. She was getting agitated when I couldn’t contribute to the conversation. At one point she asked if I was registered to vote, since I had turned 18 in the spring. When I replied with a no, expressing indifference and some cynicism regarding what effect my vote would have, my mother got suddenly angry, standing up and knocking her beer over. She righted it before approaching me with a threatening tone. I don’t remember what was said, I just remember looking around for an escape, for rescue, realizing I could outrun her if I needed to, as she backed me into the street.
In that moment I decided that was the last time I wanted to see her. The embarrassment, the shame, the unjustified drunken moodiness, it was enough. I had been afraid to ever tell her I didn’t want to see her anymore, so I never did. I just didn’t go back for years.
The house tells the story even in silence and emptiness. Unkempt, neglected, forgotten. I wish it was already demolished. A crater carved out between the houses like a missing tooth might bring the finality I wanted. I look down the street towards the K & A intersection, a treacherous criss-crossing of streets, sidewalks, islands, and el tracks. I can almost see the bar my mom took me when she needed to “pick up a check.” I thought I owed my mother something, a second chance, a small place in my life. This turned out to be a ride to the grocery store, lunch in a bar, and cash for Christmas.
Now I have a daughter. It was painful to have a baby and not have a mother there with me, supporting me during labor, coming to stay for a week to help get us settled. It saddened me to have no mother to call when Phoenix spiked a fever and went catatonic one night. There were no toys or vintage dresses of my own that had been sentimentally stored just waiting to be handed down.
It was ironic, my mother buying a house for my daughter to play with. For her to create a pretend family in miniature, a developmental lesson on family structure and interactive role-playing. Good skills to learn, useful even, but all so lost on her it was almost comical. My mom thought her granddaughter would like the doll house, as if she were a typical four-year-old girl. She wasn’t. The structure was soon filled with plastic spiders, miniature meerkats on their hind legs, and Daleks playing house. When we moved from Philadelphia the doll house was donated to a thrift store.
Those early years hold few memories, the ones I wish I had are gone, and the ones that stay are the ones I wish were gone. There was a lot of leaving and being left, so much wishing and wanting and waiting. My social worker friends look at me in wonder. I am a rare creature, apparently. A foster care survivor. All told, there were five foster homes, one group home, one children’s home.
Doll Houses. Ghetto houses. Foster homes. Group homes. Children’s homes. So many houses. So many doors I walked through for the last time. This is just another house that never felt like home.
Tammy Perlmutter writes about unabridged life, fragmented faith, and investing in the mess at her blog Raggle-Taggle. She lives in Chicago with her husband and daughter, Phoenix, who is equal parts exasperating and endearing. You will find Tammy on most forms of social media telling stories about Phoenix with subtitles like: “Things you only hear in our house.” She loves collecting bugs with Phoenix, playing Settlers of Catan with her husband, and taking stealthy candid photographs of strangers. She will have an essay included in the forthcoming book Soul Bare: Reflections on Becoming Human, being published in 2015 by Civitas Press. Tammy can be followed on Twitter at @tammygrrrl.