I went by my old place in east Texas – the first one that I had bought for $550 a few years back.
Going in the old lot.
A look around.
I guess it had been seized for back taxes before it was sold to me from someone who bought it at a public auction. When I had bought it, I had spent some time putting in the really heavy posts, and setting the frame for shelves on the place, fencing it in so that it was secure for animals. It was an old hog lot, and being not far from the river, the water table was something like 50 feet down. When it rained, the lot was pretty much covered with standing water, so I had built the shelf to put stuff on, and even to sleep on if one didn’t want to use a hammock. I had salvaged most of the wood I had used from homes destroyed during Katrina and Rita when I had worked construction in Louisiana after the hurricane. For the most part, though, during a regular season, the insects were so bad and it was so hot and humid, that it was pretty uncomfortable to sleep there at night. This year, there had been a drought, and everything was pretty dry. All of the tin roofing that had been on there had been scavenged for use by someone else. Where it had leaked pretty badly before into an animal trough, now both trough and roof were gone.
Anyway, I had grown some really good tomatos back there – I guess picked by my neighbor. Although separated by a junk yard, the neighbor had had his moments. Every now and then, as I worked to haul the 6×6’s back there and dig holes for them, the silence would be punctured by loud irate threatening cursing which would last for minutes. He lived alone. There would be the occasional conversation with him about whether I had been there when the aliens had landed from outer space and had seen them come off the ship. The small secluded town in the woods had a population of less than 25 with only one long road in, and no store for supplies,. His family used to live about 6 blocks around the corner, and a polite little chat with them had confirmed that he, although loud and armed with a gun, would not be a threat to anyone unless it ever got to the point where he didn’t know who you were. The custodial adults had since apparently had a gunfight with their grandson – the one who had threatened to shoot my dog when she nipped him after he threw a brick at her. I had spent a couple of days in jail there for refusing to quarantine the dog who had her shots. Although the law had apparently been called on the family feud, the situation had eventually resolved with the grandparents going into a retirement home. My former neighbor was now apparently on monthly injections of some antipsychotic. But by now, it is not clear to me that I still had any claim to my property, if I ever did. My original claim had never really been recognized by the family.
I stopped for some groceries on the way there. Although expensive, there were 7 kids, with no mom, and 5 dogs. Their pop had only recently been released from jail. I knew they were almost always wanting for food. It was better to have some with me than to see them hungry. Of course, it was the school year, I knew they were getting at least 2 meals a day. Still, there were the weekends. Although they had grown up considerably since the last time I had been out there, the kids were a delight to see. Unfortunately, the grandma who was raising them had been struck by a drunk driver 4 months back, broken both legs, and hurt her neck/head. She had just started to walk again. So, the kids had been separated, and only the 2 youngest were there. These 2 youngest brothers had always been superbonded.
I remember playing “Mother may I?” with the 7 kids, then aged 3-11. Teaching the 5 year old at the time how to brush his teeth by climbing on a stool and turning on the water. He had started to turn on the hot water, and I had very gently said, “No, use the cold water.” At this point, at 5, he had reached under the sink and turned off the valve to the hot water, saying “This way I won’t make that mistake again.” It had floored me that he was so bright. He was always full of energy, running around with a mischevious sparkle in his eye, playing pranks, and then declaring proudly “Ju_ust foolin'”. I would take the kids to the library, or fairs, or out for hikes and campouts in the woods. I would read to them on my lap and try to invent little games with rewards to try to get them to pick up their toys or do homework. Very early, while their pop was still in jail, the 2 little ones had climbed onto my lap one evening, and anounced that “they wanted to run away with me.” I had asked them how they thought their grandmother would feel if she didn’t know where they were. Later, my car would break down with a flat, and since they kind of have salvage out there, dealing in spare parts from discarded cars, I would drive up, and the by now 7 year old would come towards me rolling a used tire, and asking me if it was the right size. The tire was almost bigger than he was! The youngest sibling was well known for being willing to try any kind of food in contrast to his picky brother. At 6, I remember watching him open the vitamin bottle and take a vitamin a day to stay healthy and grow. As it turns out, he did grow to be taller than his sibling.
It broke my heart this time that the sparkle was somehow gone from their eyes. Where they had had 1st grade aspirations of becoming a vet in the past, they no longer liked school, or teachers, or the library. The littlest one’s glasses were broken. I was in dire need of a shower at this point. Although the boys who used to fight each other for the right to walk my dogs, had taken me back into their salvage area that was peppered with discarded dilapidated trailers, and camped out there with me in the past, this time I felt too unclean to camp out with them, much less give them a hug. Mentally though, I sent my love: quietly, firmly, and with some humor – not just to the boys who were there, but also to the missing children. I hope they felt it. With the deep capacity for love that these children have, it was best to be cautious, and not put them in a situation where they might be hurt.
Still, as I surveyed the situation, although it had been a wild and wonderful, if tragic, place for the children to grow up when they were together, I felt the sadness of the family that had been separated. The situation was silently desperate, with almost no hope of resolution or improvement. Like catestrophic heart failure, every additional effort at improvement, would seemingly exhaust more than it would alleviate. The kids had done the best they could – one of the older boys, dyslexic, was so smart that he could mentally and physically put just about anything together mechanically, fixing a main broken water valve by himself at age 10. At 11, he was the super-coper, and yet, my heart would go out to him in his moments of rage at a system that was too hard for him. I wanted to hold him, and let him let me handle the problems when they were too big. In the end, the problems would be too big for all of us. He, although apparently present, did not come out to see me. Too angry perhaps at my absence. Or not willing to see me in the state I was in. Now in the 8th grade, he had been driving for some time. It was a good thing. At 15, he was almost too big for a mom. But not quite.
The girls were all gone. The relationship with them, although loving, had always been more difficult, tainted by some jealousy over the fact that when I was around, I would take over a role that they were generally responsible for. They were unused to my authority. While they wanted to be kids, they were often, by default, mom to the boys. I would often ask the youngest girl, the mentally strongest, the bravest but wildest of the family, the decision-maker, whether she wanted to be a little kid or a big kid when I would divide the kids up for events or chores or tutoring. She almost always chose to be a little kid when I was around. The middle one, always in need of attention, by now was tall enough to play basketball – she had been a superb softball player. The oldest girl, extremely bright, had moved out when the father had come home. We used play a game, where I would write down something unique that I thought that each of them might have said, and they would take turns drawing the sentences, and guessing who it was. “I have to go take care of the dogs” would get a unanimous chorus of a name from all of them. “I have to go hang the laundry out on the fence” was another one that was pretty unambiguous.
For want of a chair, the kids push the wheelchair toward me to sit in to talk to the grandmother. We caught up, each sharing what had happened in the past couple of years. Some of the stories were new; some were old stories that would probably never resolve. By now, the system and society were working against her. She was chain-smoking, rolling her own cigarettes in a roller. A $15 a month habit, I knew that she would never stop. The proud independent matriarch of the family, she’s part Cherokee, and I guess maybe has indian genes that select for protection against smoking. Somehow, she was beating the odds. Maybe God knew that she was needed here. As I listened to her, one of the dogs came up to me pushing his nose into my hand. I spoke gently to him, and he vocalized gently back at me as if talking. For the next minute, as I assessed his weight, the dog and I talked back and forth. His ribs showed, but I was pretty sure he wasn’t starving. Just a tad on the skinny side. His coat seemed to be in good condition. The kids had always been wonderful with dogs. Two of the absent ones were more bonded to dogs and other animals than they were to people.
This morning at 6:45, the kids came running out to greet me as dawn broke and I awoke in the truck. I had arrived after dark the night before, so they had not been able to see the truck. In the 3rd and 4th grade by now, the youngest one comments: “Awesome!” as he ran his hand over the front of the truck. A kid after my own heart, the truck had made the almost 2000 mile trek south for the winter with virtual nonchalence. With the coming of the first freeze, it had been the right time to leave. In another couple of weeks, there very well might be heavy downpours, sleet, or snow.