MY FIRST CHRISTMAS [ESSAY]
By Dr. Ellen Kean Rudolph
It was Christmas and three weeks shy of my sixth birthday and there I was, decked out in brand new blue jeans that Santa had left under the tree for me. I was awash with shyness, and it had taken a bit of doing just to get me to try them on for everyone.
Santa had come to other kids' houses but never to mine before, and I didn't quite know what to do with it all.
The year was 1951 and it had been a tumultuous year. Earlier that summer I had been separated from my five older brothers and placed in a foster home in a distant town. We six had actually been in foster homes as a group since I was three years of age, but the welfare department had finally run out of foster care options for us and I was considered too vulnerable as a female child to be left in that situation.
The story was a typical one in the annuals of the welfare system:
Our family of origin had been fractured beyond repair by marital discord and poverty. Our young mother had run off with another man and our father -- an older alcoholic man with an abusive, heavy-hand towards his five sons -- summarily gave the six of us over to foster care. He later married another woman and produced another child, and our mother a few years later died in childbirth with her seventh child.
Talk about bad models for marriage, this was certainly one of them. While we were all still together as a family we lived in a one-bedroom house with a small kitchen off an even smaller living room. In that living room there was a double bed and a raggedy old arm chair -- which was where we kids played, slept, and comforted each other as we listened to raucous marital quarrels behind the closed bedroom door.
I can remember many a cold winter day on the Iron Range when the boys were not able to go to school for the lack of shoes. Instead, we’d wrap our feet in layers of socks and pile outside to slide down a big hill on pieces of cardboard retrieved from the local grocery store.
Meals in those days came sparingly and mainly were provided us by a neighbor, Mrs. Vaca, who had taken our young mother under her wing. That’s about all I can remember of Mrs. Vaca, except that I saw her again some years later when an older brother married, and she fainted when she was introduced to me at the wedding reception. Apparently I was the spitting image of my natural mother although I wouldn’t have known that, having been so young when I last saw her.
|I do have a single family photo from those days that I treasure: it is a picture of our mother, Mary, and the six of us kids. I was sitting on a brother’s lap in baby clothes and the name of each child was scrawled on their chest for posterity. But not only did Mary confuse the names of two of my brothers pictured, the photo itself is blurry even though it was obviously taken with a studio backdrop of some kind. Mary’s features in particular were entirely blurred but at least we know that she was there [for awhile].|
How that photo survived the intervening years I will never know but I am certain I have my oldest brother, Philip, to thank for it. He was our tireless guardian who kept us all together as best he could in the face of adversity. The six of us were each a year apart in age, so when I was three Philip the guardian was pushing all of nine.
AND THEN THERE WERE NONE
My memories of those days are also a gift from Philip. Despite being young and vulnerable himself he was our rock, and he stayed in close touch with all of us even when the Welfare Department separated us into several different foster environments. He was particularly attentive to me, and he and I remained the best of friends until his untimely death at the age of sixty from heart problems. Through foster separations and my eventual adoption at the age of six, and despite his own conflicted life journey that deposited him thousands of miles from me in Seattle, Washington -- he never stopped being there for me.
He and I used to talk on the telephone with each other every Friday night, coast to coast. This is something we did for more than thirty years, beginning with my emancipation as an adult.
In the course of almost every phone call we recalled our early years growing up in northern Minnesota’s Iron Range, and Philip was forever dredging up tidbits that helped piece together for me a collage of days gone by.
I retain many of my own visual memories from those days but it was Philip who added in the names and dates and detailed descriptions of the noteworthy events that shaped our lives.
Soon after I was placed with the Keans as a foster child, the two youngest brothers were put in a Catholic orphanage: one of them was adopted by a Wisconsin family a few years later and the other one promptly ran away from the orphanage in despair — eventually loosing himself to the family entirely. The two middle brothers went to live with Mrs. Vaca, the elderly friend of our mother's. And Philip, the eldest, lived for a while with our natural mother, Mary, who quietly resurfaced at that point and asked Philip to go with her. He agreed to that but she ended up dying in childbirth soon thereafter and her nameless partner took that newborn with him, who knows where. Philip eventually talked his best friend’s parents into letting him live with them while he finished high school, and then he left the northwoods for what he hoped were greener pastures.
That ended our foster home saga. It was definitely a bitter sweet experience by all accounts but at least we had each other and I had all of them, which was good.
Nothing else much mattered to us.
I do think the local welfare system tried its best with us. I can remember many trips in the caseworker’s car that took us to yet another indistinct farmhouse somewhere in the middle of nowhere. On one occasion the caseworker was unduly distraught and, as we were driving down the long dirt driveway to the county road, she ran over the farmer’s dog, killing it. That left quite an impression on the six of us as we silently contemplated the days ahead in the backseat of that big old black Buick.
At one particularly awful place — where the foster farmer shot the cattle (and sometimes the boys) in the butt with a BB Gun — some unknown matronly woman with a displeasing personality came to visit. Well, she didn’t come to visit us kids but we had to endure her. I crawled under the straight-backed chair that she was sitting in and drew a picture of her with pencil and paper. It was a masterpiece if I do say so; my childlike figure was of a lady with long hair tied up in a bun, big drooping boobs, protruding teeth under flaring ruby lips and a nose like Pinocchio. The foster mother, of course, confiscated the masterpiece and sent us all to bed giggling wildly.
That was the last of my drawing tools if I recall.
We collectively endured more than a dozen foster homes in those years so I was a bit battle weary by the time I stepped out of the social worker's big Buick at the Kean’s home as their soon-to-be only child.
When I think about what happened to the boys after the group saga ended it was, in retrospect, a good thing that the Welfare Department worked so hard to keep us all together for so long. Today I know enough to thank them for that but at the time fostering in general was mainly a financial decision for foster care providers. They needed the money and six kids in one foster package was an alluring prospect. But quality control was sorely lacking in most cases and it mainly was something to be endured -- a time-filler for kids like us who needed it.
When I was in high school working at a student job in the local courthouse, happily adopted by then, I happened upon a big fat manila folder of caseworker notes about THE JOHNSON KIDS and I read through it with great interest. I was, after all, the youngest of those Johnson kids. It painted a pretty bleak picture of our early years and it was filled with newspaper articles about the multi-year effort to keep us kids together against all odds.
|If only they could have pinned our dysfunctional parents back together again…|
Kids are resilient and, if given half a chance, they can make lemonade out of lemons with a little bit of nurturance.
Some of us kids more than others got the requisite doses of nurturance and we clearly thrived better because of it. Those who didn’t — like the brother who was indiscriminantly abused sexually by a local Catholic priest — faired much less well, including the one who ran away from the orphanage and eventually ended up in the California prison system. Those are stories for another time.
The emotional toll in any case was huge but it was less so for me because of the buffering presence of my five older brothers. I can recall many situations during those early years when the boys stood with their backs to me, protecting me from some crazy kook or other bent on hurting me.
They saved me from the worst of the worst and for that I will be forever grateful.
My final foster care situation transitioned into a permanent adoption in January of my sixth birthday. At that point I went from being the youngest sister of five older brothers to an only child in a family of means and education and fifty first cousins.
That first brightly decorated Christmas tree blew me away, as it was the very first time in my life that someone had put up a tree with packages under it just for me.
I couldn’t believe it, and I assumed no ownership of the toys given me. After all, my brothers didn’t have their names on any of the packages under the tree. I freely gave those toys away, prompting my adoptive mother on more than one occasion to call out to me from the back door to come home with all of my toys, please.
A Judge would later sit me on his knee to ask questions about my pending adoption by the Keans, and one question of his still sticks with me. He asked me if I had had a wonderful Christmas.
I answered yes, but I lowered my eyes as I also wondered out loud why my brothers didn’t. He said with great wisdom that it all would work out one day for the best and to give the Keans a chance — after all, he said, they chose me to come live with them.
That was the gift under the tree in the long run that meant the most to me, and it still means the most to me to this day.
Well, that Christmas has come and gone and I turned 67 in 2013. But instead of flannel-lined blue jeans I am happily decked out in iMacs and Nikons and MINI Coopers and lots of precious critters and friends galore, including Philip who watches over me still.
|Family of Origin|
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