We sat around the heavy wooden dinner table in the middle of the kitchen. On one side of us was the huge porcelain kitchen sink, at the opposite wall was the old wood cook stove that kept the kitchen a very dry warm, and produced the daily supply of corn bread. On the third wall was the electric stove and refrigerator; the door to outside was opposite that.
It was 1962 in Vancouver, Washington. Although we’d lived there a year, this was still a stranger’s house. I was ten, my two sister’s (the twins), sitting to my left were eight years old, my two half brothers to my right were six and five. Across the table from me sat the Foster Mother, who in my memory would always resemble the wicked witch of the west.
This was the third foster home we’d been held in, counting our lock-in at the Juvenile Detention Hall, that brick building with bars on the windows. Mom took us there, cried and said those foreign words, “I love you,” then left. This was all happening while my brother’s dad was divorcing our mom. There was a custody battle, and we were being held in the court’s custody.
I remember the day we arrived at this third stop on our unhappy journey. Mom and Grandma were allowed to transfer us from the last foster home to this one. We rolled up the long gravel driveway in our ’59 Impala, stopping at the farm-house with green aluminum siding. I remember a lot of crying, I cried my eyes out. I didn’t realize it then, but in a way it was good for me, I used up all the tears and wouldn’t have to cry again for a long, long time.
After mom left, the old woman there and another hostage (a thirteen year old girl) offered us gum to stop our crying. I learned that it is in fact very difficult to cry and chew gum at the same time. Then the old woman sought to get our minds on other things, so she asked us the question that was on many third grader’s lips, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”
I don’t know,” I answered. “It was the CHICKEN,” she proclaimed, “And I can PROVE it!”
Proof? “OK”, I said, “Prove it.”
She then pulled out a bible and read in Genesis how God created all the animals and birds, it didn’t mention any eggs. Then she explained that the people in her church go to church on Saturday, and that the rest of the world was wrong for going on Sunday, and that she could prove that too. Without the invitation, she pulled the bible again, cracked it open and read that God rested on the seventh day. She poked her bony finger solidly on the wall calendar and beginning with Sunday she counted out loud, “one, two, three, four, five, six, SEVEN. See? Proof! “Saturday is the seventh day!”
She didn’t like it at all when I suggested counting from Monday, the first day of the week. “We don’t start there.” was her only defense. I thought it was funny that they still called their Saturday morning bible study classes “Sunday School.”
This strict, cold, old woman had a few acres of land with some cattle and chickens, and a very large garden. She had no husband, but from time to time, a grizzly, unshaven old lumberjack named Todd would stay with her. I soon came to realize that in keeping foster kids, she got paid to have farm help. I fed the chickens and cows daily, collected the eggs, worked in the garden, and carried irrigation pipes. I looked forward to going to school.
For that year, we never watched TV. There was one in her living room, but she told us it was broken. I got in trouble when I asked if I could turn it on and see how broken it was. I asked her when she was going to get if fixed. “Not while you’re living here,” she scowled.
This two faced old women was as sweet as sugar when our mom or our case worker came to visit. The case worker asked good questions, but I couldn’t answer truthfully because the old women would be hovering just around the corner, and we would (and did) get in trouble for anything we said.
One day when she had my sisters and I in the basement, helping her feed wet cloths through the “ringer”, I said to her, “Mom’s going to court to get custody of us. Then she’s going to take us away from here.”
She sneered down at me and said in an accusing voice,” Yur mother’s never gonna get you, you’re gonna stay right here. And if by chance she did, don’t worry- you’ll be back.”
Dinner time had its standard menu items, we ate brown beans and corn bread with every evening meal. Then there were the occasional special items from the garden, like fried squash or cooked cabbage. The old women would force us to eat what ever she put on our plate.
Our options for making this food disappear were this: wash down tiny bites, rearrange the food on the dish so it appeared to be disappearing, or, as the others tried unsuccessfully, drop bits of food to the floor. But they were stupid, I knew it was much better to drop it to your chair, then with your finger, flick it to the floor under someone else’s chair.
At least once during each dinner, as was her daily hideous routine, the old woman would rise from the table, step over to the wood stove, put the chrome handle into the slot and lift open the small, round, black cast iron stove lid, then, loudly snorting, gagging, and back-of-the-throat clearing, she would conger up and then expel this long, slimy brown gob of gook. It would stretch from her mouth to the stove before breaking loose.
Today, at this particular meal, we were served cooked cabbage. She slopped it onto our plates and told us we were going to eat it. Each of us were working on it in our own way, except my next younger brother, Loren. He ate the other food, but completely ignored that little soggy green pile. The old women looked at him and promised, “You will eat it!”
To make her word good, she got up and stood behind his chair with the whipping stick, and commanded, “Eat it!” Loren, under duress, slowly put a fork to the limp green slop and poked at it as she shouted again, “EAT IT!” He was fighting back the tears, as were we all, when he asked, “Uh, can I put it on some bread, like a sandwich?”
The old women’s eyes looked down and then up, and still standing guard there she agreed that he could eat it with bread. All eyes were on Loren as he timidly reached for a slice of white bread and plopped a portion of cooked cabbage onto it, and then folded it in half.
“NOW EAT IT!” She demanded in her witch of the west voice, as she raised the whipping stick over her head.
Loren slowly raised the sandwich to his mouth and held it there as he made some muffled moaning noises. “EAT IT!” She screamed again.
“Uhhhhh, uhhhhhhhhh; BLAAAAAAA,” were the noises Loren made up to the point when he vomited hard into and through his cooked cabbage sandwich, and all over the table.
He was screaming and crying as she was yelling and whipping him down the hall and up the stairs to our bedroom.