This essay is part of our month exploring the theme of Aging. Follow along with us all June for more stories on the theme.
Coming from a broken home, full of drug abuse, alcoholism, and child abuse, I’ve seen the worst of people. But because of this, I grew up and matured knowing exactly who I never want to be.
It was the fall of my freshman year in high school. Not many things in life had gone well up to this point. I was angry at the world, cutting, and bulimic. A despicable man my mother chose to make her third husband was vile before intoxication and after. He was physically and emotionally abusive, dragging me by my hair for a face I made, or calling me a “selfish little bitch” when I tried to tell my mother he wasn’t safe for us to be around. Eventually my little sister told her father about the abuse in the house, including the sexual abuses she endured for years. As anyone would expect, my sister and I were removed from my mother’s home and were not allowed to see her since she chose to stick up for her pedophile husband in court.
While my sister was placed with her father and paternal grandmother, the court said my father was not financially stable enough for me to live with. I scrambled around for a few minutes out in the lobby and made a few calls. Finally, an old family friend agreed to take me in until I graduated from high school. His name was Ray, and he had been my step-grandfather in my mother’s second marriage, and also happened to be my mother’s landlord. This man had baby sat me when I was in kindergarten and would take my sister and I out for Kid’s Night at Fazoli’s almost every week for years. He had continued to stay involved in mine and my sister’s lives even after my mother’s horrible marriage with his son.
I WAS GROWING INTO A WILLFUL YOUNG WOMAN OF THE 21ST CENTURY, AND IT WAS BECOMING CLEARER TO ME THAT HE WAS AND STILL IS A STUCK-IN-HIS-WAYS, RACIST, SEXIST, HOMOPHOBIC OLD MAN.
Though there had been good times when I was a child, I was now 14 and growing into a willful young woman of the 21st century, and it was becoming clearer to me that he was and still is a stuck-in-his-ways, racist, sexist, homophobic old man. So, though he opened his home to me, and he and I played nice for a short while, eventually we both got sick of playing pretend. If it had been another time in my life I don’t believe things would have gone so poorly, but I was in high school. I never really had good friends, which only enhanced my independence. The few friends I did have came from Alliance Club, my high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, this bubble of people who were super inclusive and felt so strongly about everything they believed was right in this world. Many days we would, quite enthusiastically, sound off on whatever was bothering us and give each other input or support, but usually it was a sassy, “do I need to kill a hoe,” in response. The backing of a whole group of people was amazing, though they were only around for that one day after school a week. Their confidence and energy rubbed off on me a lot my freshman year. I was able to speak in front of peers with ease and though I know it was probably very annoying, I didn’t let small things slide; whether it was telling boys to pull up their pants, yelling at people to stop using “gay” in the wrong context, or simply telling someone that their answer was wrong and explaining to them what the correct answer was. All the while, I was growing kinder. I did so much for anyone I knew back then. I would bring in gift bags and home-baked goods for my classmates on a whim and developed a strangely strong sense of loyalty to many of my friends, especially Alliance Club members. I would go out of my way to communicate to my friends that they were beautiful and special, and if ever a friend needed to talk I was always there for hours on the phone with them. I held little anger or true hate in my heart, only warmth and love for my fellow man. When I saw things I felt were wrong, I always said something, never in an angry or harsh way. But in Ray, I saw so much hate and so much anger, and talking to him never worked.
When I would try to talk to him about his anger or jaded views, it just about always turned into a fight. During our talks, I became even more appalled by him. He tried to explain to me once how gays were the cause of AIDS and so same-sex marriage should never be legal. Even better was the time he tried to explain to me why it was okay for him to be racist toward black people and Hispanics. His outdated and prejudicial beliefs, with a nasty temper to match, were truly becoming too much for me to handle. Every other day was a fight that didn’t have to happen. He even openly admitted he liked to fight because he was, “too old to be pushed around.” Things slowly got worse over time. Department of Child Services cut me loose at 16, and thank goodness. He would always be so angry and irritable when they came around because lord knows the social worker was never on time for home visits, and he thought they were a waste of his time in the first place. Not to mention that after, he didn’t have to take me to chaperoned visits with my mother anymore. If he didn’t want to take me to sports practice, clubs, or my music events, why would he want to take me to see my mother, who hadn’t paid rent in years now and was destroying his leasing property? After my mother lost visitation with my sister and I, she became even more of an annoyance to Ray. I can’t tell you how many times I walked in the door to the phrase, “guess what your damn mother did this time,” like I somehow was a reflection of her in his eyes or as if I cared what the woman was doing in life anymore.
I WAS LIVING WITH THE ENEMY BUT WAS TOO SCARED TO TELL THE OUTSIDE WORLD FOR FEAR OF LOSING THE LITTLE BIT OF STABILITY I HAD GAINED FROM STAYING WITH HIM.
There was never a stress or pressure on him that he didn’t put on me as well. This, mixed with constant complaints about how I was a burden to have around, made my stay with this man turmoil. I had the constant fear of what he was going to say or what he would take away, as he was not a poor man and made sure I got to do the things I wanted in school and have a comfortable life as far as wants were concerned. I was so afraid that he would take away his financial backing and I would be stuck with him while also being broke. Of course, I tried to plan for the worst. I got my first paying job at 16, but he didn’t want me to work during the school year, so I was only able to save money from what I did over the summer. The money I did save, I either had to stash away in cash or put into a bank account that he had control of. With all this, I ended up in the same situation I was in before with my mother. I was living with the enemy but was too scared to tell the outside world for fear of losing the little bit of stability I had gained from staying with him.
And so, as a ship out at sea, the ripples turned to typhoons and I was shipwrecked. Our tensions got worse in the spring semester of my junior year. As he put it, he loved kids but didn’t know what to do with teenagers, especially a teenage girl. What he really meant was he loved kids because they were cute and he could control them, as I watched him do to my younger sister and to his own young grandson. I wasn’t a little cherub anymore, nor was I down for being controlled and demeaned when I had no reason to change who I was. I am and was an exceptional student, with my own drive to succeed and work, but he treated me as though I were a juvenile delinquent. He was constantly badgering me about studying more, getting homework done, and how I can’t skip class. None of these things were ever issues I actually had, but they sure were a part of my daily lecture. These lectures chipped away at me until I completely tuned out what he said or simply walked away from his shouting, and he did not like that. The fights got worse and all of the sudden “get the fuck out of my house” was his new favorite phrase. Me,being who I am, always left when he said to. I would pack a bag and disappear for a few days, really to anywhere I could crash. I’d call up friends and ask around if I could stay somewhere close by so I could still get to school. If it was a weekend I was usually able to stay with my boyfriend and his family across town. When all other options fell through, I slept in my car. Eventually he would send me an angry text telling me I had to be home immediately “or else.” This continued for most of the semester and when summer came the only way to avoid verbal assault was to not be there at all. Later, while driving to an out-of-state summer camp, we got into a nasty argument. Upon arrival he was telling me to find my own way home, so I snatched my things out of the car before he could drive away with them. Two days afterward, while still at the summer camp, he informed me that I was going to have to find a new place to stay once I got back.
I did get back home and went with my closest friend to try to talk with my foster about ways to work through this issue so that I wouldn’t have to leave. Though I was trying to be polite and humble in the situation, I was met with fury. He sat there shaking his hand with his nose up to the sky; “If you’re going to try to talk about this with other people around, you can just pack your shit and get out now.” The more I pressed him to be sensible, the more unswayable he became. So, there I was, a month away from my senior year, and I was being kicked out by the very person who said in court that they would be responsible for my well-being. The same man who would take me to half-day school, who would take me to pumpkin patches and orchard, who used to say I was his granddaughter proudly, abused and manipulated me for years just to throw me out in the end.
In the foster care system, you are a foreigner in a place that you should be able to call home, and no person’s generosity can make up for that in the long run. The walls close in on you, you hold your breath because of footsteps in the hall, you tremble when you feel you might have done something to upset others in the home. You are powerless to those you stay with, and power can corrupt even the best friendships and old bonds. When you were once needy in the eyes of friends, you just become greedy and ungrateful. Isn’t that something?
I LOOK AT THE WORLD AND ALL ITS PEOPLE, ALL THE DIFFERENCES, AND APPRECIATE THEM FOR WHAT THEY ARE RATHER THAN FEELING AS THOUGH ANYTHING UNLIKE MYSELF IS WRONG.
And yet, I have never felt as though I was being any of those things. I distinctly remember trying my best to get-along with him in the beginning. I would hold my tongue more, ignore him more. But once I started listening to what he would say and how he acted about things, I saw how angry that man was at his core. Nothing he did could be done in a peaceful fashion; everything he did was him warring with the world to prove that he is right even when no one asked. It took me a long time to see all of these things, and I tried to guide him to become calmer and more understanding now and then, but of course that didn’t work. In fact, that’s how it got so bad. I was trying to show him how being nasty, angry, racist, and sexist was definitely not okay and even exhausting for himself, and he refused to hear a word I said. I could never understand his hate, or the way he saw things. His permanent war with the rest of the world, I think, molded me into the free spirit I am today. I don’t look onto strangers with contempt and see them as enemies or feel as though what they do is always an attack on me. I look at the world and all its people, all the differences, and appreciate them for what they are rather than feeling as though anything unlike myself is wrong. Even while I was there with him, I told him he was hateful and despicable for believing that some people are truly “superior citizens.” I was simply a young, 14-16 year old, girl who knew what she believed was right and got stuck with a man who believed all those same things were wrong. It wasn’t my problem, but it was my issue to deal with. Luckily, I didn’t let those experiences change me, they just made me a stronger me and that’s something miraculous.