November 02, 2005

Remembering My Foster Parents

Yesterday as I was talking to my mom on the phone, she said “Guess who called me.” Since it could have been one of any of the world’s 6 billion people, I said “You have to give me a better clue than that.” After a couple of minutes of whittling down, I said “Pam?”

“Isn’t that interesting?” my mom asked.

It was. Pam is the daughter of my foster parents, Laurence and Thelma Wills. Or Tia and Pop, as I knew them. I had once had Pam’s phone number and address, but the information got lost with the data from my old computer.

Many of you may know that I was adopted. I was lucky. At the time I was adopted I was 2½ years old, well past the usual window of opportunity. From my birth, when I was taken by Children’s Home Society of Oakland, California from my birth mother, until I was adopted I was placed in foster homes. I know of only two of them though I only very dimly remember one. I know that I lived with a woman I called “Mama Joyce” for a time. She was eager to adopt me, but she and her husband struggled with the question of adoption versus having children of their own. Eventually, having their own children won out, and I was placed with Tia and Pop, who lived in San Leandro, California.

I am troubled by how little I really know of Tia and Pop. They were really a part of my life when I was growing up, so I didn’t really pay attention to pertinent information. I believe that Tia was Hawaiian. I’m not sure where Pop was from. Pop worked in construction. He was a small man, probably about 5’5” or so, but he was strong. I believe he used to haul bags of cement and other building materials up ladders on high rise construction projects. He had a high pitched voice, but he was well liked and respected by his friends and peers. He was a member of the union, and I believe he was even part of their leadership for a long time. I do know that he was an avid golf aficionado. Tia mostly stayed at home, but she kept a good household, and she was involved in many women’s groups. She was also a golfer. They lived in a small house on a small street in San Leandro about 1½ blocks from I-550.

I remember the exact address because they made me as a two year old memorize it in case I got lost. Pop never tired of telling the story about how they would ask me what I was supposed to do if I could not find them. I was to find a policeman and as Pop related it, I would say “I yost. 1536 151st Street, San Yeandro, California.” He got a great kick out of that.

I wasn’t the only one in their household. After Pam left the home, the Wills took in over 80 children. At times they would have a couple of infants and a toddler to care for at the same time. Usually these were children who were in transition from institutional care to adoptive homes. My understanding is that some of these other children overlapped with me. They eventually stopped when it became too difficult to part with the children. The agency discouraged attachments to the children, especially for kids that were being moved into permanent adoptive homes. But it was hard. I remember Tia telling me that it was easier with the children that were with them for a few days, or even a week or two. But the longer term children, such as myself, they would grow attached to even though they knew they shouldn’t.

Out of those 80-some kids, I was one of only three that they continued to keep contact with. Usually the agency frowned on continued contact, but my adoptive parents felt that since I was old enough to remember them, I should continue to know them. Over the time of the adoptive process, my parents and the Wills’ became friends, and no trip down to the Bay Area was complete without visiting Tia and Pop. Tia and Pop also came up to my home in Fort Bragg on occasion to visit us, though as they got older their trips became less frequent. They would visit with me, marvel on my progress, and play golf with my parents.

To them, I really was a marvel. I remember when I was 13 or 14, I was playing football outside with some friends when they were visiting. I came back inside after our game, and Pop said that he was amazed. I asked why and he said that he never thought I would ever be able to do such kinds of activities.

When Tia and Pop first started caring for me, I was a real mess. You can imagine. I had been taken from my mother and birth and had been raised by an institution. I later had been placed in a foster home, Mama Joyce’s. She cared for me, but because of my supposedly fragile state she had insisted on doing things for me that I probably should have been learning to do myself. I was coddled. By the time I came to Tia and Pop, I didn’t talk and I didn’t eat for myself. I would point at food and say “uh, uh” so that someone would feed me.

But Tia wouldn’t let me take the easy way out. She simply said “When he’s hungry he’ll eat.” And eventually, when my entreaties went unmet, I ate though I wasn’t happy about it. Tia also encouraged me to talk. She talked to me all the time, asked me questions and made me think. She told me once that the first word she heard me say came when I was watching a kid’s game show on television. From the other room, she heard me say “Bingo!”

Tia wouldn’t let the “experts” take the easy way out with me either. The going opinion was that I was retarded because I wasn’t talking and didn’t seem too interested in the world. Tia was convinced through her daily contact with me that I was actually a pretty smart little kid who was adept at manipulation, despite what the experts thought. She worked with me to rid me of my bad habits and to teach me useful knowledge like letters and numbers, not really sure if she was getting through to me. One day when she took me shopping, I was sitting in the cart as she moved down the cereal aisle. I pointed at a box of cereal and stated “K-E-L-L-O-G-G-S.” The next time we visited a doctor, Tia demonstrated my talent to a doctor who had seen me before and was not too hopeful about my prospects. His jaw nearly dropped to the floor, according to her story.

There are many firsts that Tia and Pop were a part of, some pleasant and some unpleasant. Tia gave me my first spanking. In fact, I believe it is the earliest memory I have. I can still remember being taken into the bathroom, my pants being pulled down and getting a couple of sharp swats with a paddle (all perfectly accepted treatment of unruly children back then). Tia and Pop were present when I first became a member of an actual family. Knowing my fascination for airplanes, Tia and Pop took me on a helicopter, although I don't remember it now. And Tia and Pop remained present through my life. It was Pop who took me to my first ever baseball game, at Oakland-Alameda County Stadium to see the A’s.

Tia and Pop were products of their time, which is to say that they had their weaknesses, as all great people do. They were conservative Democrats, in the sense that they were socially conservative but supported unions and various other Democratic policies. They supported what we today would call “family values.” When my adoptive mother and father got divorced, they shook their head and called it a shame, despite their knowledge of my father’s alcoholism. Like many Americans of their generation, the huge social and cultural changes that started in the 60s did not come easily for them. Tia once chastised my sister, one year when my family visited them, when she wandered over to a “hippie” in a park who gave her peanuts to feed the squirrels. Issues of race were especially difficult. They referred to African-Americans as “colored” and resisted the newer, more “politically correct” labels. Like many whites, they harbored a distrust of the greater black community in the Bay Area, which they viewed as violent and hostile to whites like them. I learned this in college in the 80s when I stopped in to see them on my way down to college after driving through downtown Oakland to see what it looked like. They were quick to tell me how stupid they thought that was, and that I could have been shot and killed just by being white. In high school and college, I got into some political debates and arguments with them over racial issues. However, they did commingle with individual African-Americans and were close to those they knew. When Tia had appointments where she could not take me with her, she would leave me (and other children if she had them) with black woman who she employed for domestic help. Years later, when I was a teenager and visiting Tia and Pop, Tia took me to see this woman, who by this time was elderly and retired. She remembered me as if it were yesterday and relived stories with Tia about me. My point is, Tia and Pop were probably like a lot of their friends and peers, and had the same attitudes. These attitudes were relatively widespread and normal at the time. Regardless of what we might think of those attitudes today, Tia and Pop did great things for children in need.

I would like to say that Tia and Pop lived and passed on in the dignity that befitted the effort that they put into easing the lives of the children that they harbored. However, in their later years they ran into a series of setbacks. Pop developed Parkinson’s disease. I think there was some exploration into whether it might have been brought on by his work in construction. As he declined Tia, whose health was always marred by diabetes, was also beset by high blood pressure. I believe she had a mild stroke at one point, and her continued health problems and the difficulties of caring for Pop began to affect her. She developed depression. She ended up leaving this world before Pop, who entered an institutional setting where he could be better cared for. The last time I saw Pop he was in this institution, unable to hold his head up and barely understandable. He had trouble maintaining focus, but when he saw me his eyes lit up. Though he didn’t say much, he chimed in from time to time with a snippet or anecdote from my past. He died a few months later.

Though we are products of our choices, sometimes we are also products of those things beyond our control where someone or something exerts a profound effect on our future. I was lucky. Tia and Pop were instrumental in setting the path of my life. They believed that there was something in me that needed to be nurtured, and advocated for me against doctors and agency officials who didn’t believe I would amount to anything. They also battled the habits that I developed which could have made me unadoptable. Without them, I may have remained in an institution until I was released as an adult, and who knows what might have happened to me? For their belief and support, they have become heroes in my life, and despite the difficult circumstances of their later years, they shine in my memory untouched and unsullied by age or life’s infirmities.

It happens that if and when my wife and I do have children, we will most surely adopt. I can only hope that if a child we adopt has been in foster care, it will have received the same kind of care and love that Tia and Pop gave to so many children.

Michael L. Hess


Blogger Noni said...

This is a moving and beautiful post.

I'm bookmarking your blog and look forward to reading more.

11:32 AM  
Blogger QueenBee said...

It always fascinates me to read about an adult who was once in the foster care system. We are in the process of adopting through the foster care system. I'd love to read more of your thoughts on this.

11:14 PM  
Blogger QueenBee said...

Ok, you said I could ask you questions so I'll start now. If you'd rather not respond here, you're welcome to email me through my site.

You were 2 1/2 when you went to live with your parents. I'm wondering if they kept the name you were given at birth or if they changed it? I wonder if it would be important to you to have the name that was given to you by your birthmother? Obviously, we're struggling with this - the child we adopt could be anywhere from birth age 3 or 4. We would certainly evaluate each child based on his/her age before making any changes. Your thoughts?

1:16 PM  

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