I am the eldest of six. Same mother, but none of us have the same father. My two older brothers ran away from home, and I was here raising my three younger siblings, twin brothers and a little sister. At the time, I was 11. Mom was home at times, but never really home. Jonny, her boyfriend would give her drugs, and alcohol, and that brought her all the joy in the world. Meanwhile, we were simply a distraction. Jonny lived down the block from us and was brothers with our ‘landlord’. Each morning before getting mom, Jonny would drop off a loaf of bread, slices of American cheese, and on special occasions, a bucket of Friendly’s Mint chocolate chip ice cream. I remember vividly because it was the same thing every single time.
It was a very hot summer day when smoke filled the basement we were living in. I quickly woke my siblings, and we climbed through the rear window as firefighters were extinguishing the blaze. All I could think of: mom. Where was mom? Was she okay? The police officers took me and my siblings in for questioning. At the interview, I knew what to say. You know, the cover-up story. What my mom would want us to say. No mention of drugs, alcohol, sex, and mom was the best mom we could ever ask for. Unfortunately, things took a sour turn when my little sister decide to be the tell-all of town. We waited in a ‘play-room’ filled with linear fluorescent lights, a glade plug-in, and a large chalk board where someone unsuccessfully tried to erase a penis sketch. I knew the situation was dark. I just did.
A social worker enters the room to inform us that we will be taken care of, but mom will be taken care of elsewhere. Man, I thought. Where is mom? Foster care was the next destination. For a few years, we were together—the four of us; but that never happened again. We would contact the case worker, Imani, who sometimes helped me find contact with my siblings, but life was never the same. My life in foster care was varying, to say the least. Some experiences were amazing, others were horrible. On my 18th birthday I moved from SoCal to Chicago. Did I have a plan? No. But I was on a mission: I needed to marry rich and run away from everything I had known. After several dive bartending gigs, I landed a job at a snazzy restaurant in Hyde Park. Everyone here had the life I wanted. They could afford $15 cocktails, appetizers, entrees, AND dessert. And rounds and rounds of wine.
I never married rich—but I did meet a professor who took me in as a mentee. She gave me a job as her personal assistant, where I honestly made more mistakes than successes. Life was so different on this side. This was where I wanted to be.
I am currently married to the love of my life—we met while he was a janitor at the University of Chicago. We adopted 6-year-old twin boys from the foster care system, and never even tried having kids of our own. For some reason, it just didn’t feel right. The only siblings I have access to are my twin brothers, who we invite over for Thanksgiving and Christmas every year. To my knowledge, the rest are in and out of the U.S prison system. Life has a way of repeating itself. My life was far from easy, but I surely know I wouldn’t have been here if it wasn’t for my very different, and very early, days.
Valerie, Chicago, Illinois