We watch her on videotape, a small blond waif. She hugs her knees, picks at her shoe and parks her gum on a tabletop.
“I live on a farm. There are two kids there.” Her six-year-old voice makes two syllable words out of “farm” and “there.”
“Starla is my sister and Jamie is my foster sister. Nancy and Fred are my Mom and Dad.” She talks of dogs named Moonbeam and Muddy Muffin, a toad found on the fourth of July. “We take walks. We ride on the tractor.” She adds with a sober expression, “We like to get our exercise.” She cups small hands to show how she makes houses for her beloved “baby cats.”
“I just pack the mud up to a little house and put straw all around it. I let the mud dry and if it doesn’t break, I keep it. I made six already, and I’m going to make a giant one for the mom.” Shy smile to the camera. “If you guys . . . if . . . if . . . my new family lets me bring a baby cat, I’ll bring Sylvester. He’s the littlest one of all.”
Words trail off as her eyes wander over government-issue carpet, brown plastic wastebasket, paneled walls, the backdrop for family visits during the last three years, the room where six O’Neal siblings have gathered to see natural mother Beverly in weekly, one-hour visits. Rose’s dark eyes are alert and bright. She seems happy for a kid in her eighth foster home waiting for a permanent family.
“Do you know why we’re making this tape?” asks the social worker off-camera.
“So my new family can see what I’m like?” She talks about a kindergarten award system called “card in the cup” and her five-year-old sister recently adopted by another family. Suddenly a new thought lights up her face.
“I hope I get my ears pierced for my adoption present.” She hunches her shoulders, crinkles her nose and happily announces, “I’m done!” For a closing act, she picks up the gum, sticks it in her mouth, chews it soft and blows a bubble.
“So that’s Rose,” I turn to Renee, the child’s social worker. “We’re interested.” In three days, we go back to Social Services and meet her foster mother Nancy.
Rose likes strawberry yogurt, Pintos and Cheese from Taco Bell, going barefoot, and plastic shoes called “jellies.” She loves to ride in the air-conditioned cab of the combine with foster father Fred and listen to Paul Harvey’s “Rest of the Story.” She cuts different sized hearts out of newspaper to give to her “new family” and yells cuss words down the toilet.
“She’s worried because she doesn’t know how she’s going to buy clothes when she’s grown. I had to buy her some oversized things for reassurance,” says Nancy. “And she loves the movie ‘Annie.’ When we get to that one part, I always sing, ‘We got Rose!’ ”
Rose wins the best student award in her kindergarten class, and her teacher, plus 22 other families, want to adopt her. Adams County chooses us.
I dress carefully the day we meet her, mulberry lip pencil, soft raisin lipstick, nervous fluffing of my fine wavy hair. George and I travel with Renee and Sheila, the adoption worker assigned to potential parents. We drive east of Denver to Kansas-looking Colorado. From the back seat, I gaze at irrigated fields and acres of yellow sunflower blossoms looking like a row of Rockettes with their heads dipped at a precise angle. I feel a bit guilty that we’ll take Rose away from this.
A pink vinyl photo album has preceded our arrival, the sum total of her new family in a dozen plastic sleeves. A handwritten “Hi Rose!” peeks through the heart-shaped cover. It contains cut-out pictures with handwritten captions (“Irises are my favorite flower, but now roses are too!”), photos of our German Shepherd sleeping by the front door, 84-year-old Grandma Marge with a strawberry pink perm, George wearing a paper birthday hat and “Mr. Clean” sign hung around his neck.
We pull into the driveway. Rose and her sister Starla whisper behind cupped hands. They’ve already called Renee twice this morning. Rose has blond hair cut like the Dutch Boy Paint logo and wears a pink top and shorts. She walks up and hugs me but veers away from George who must seem intimidating at 6’6″.
“Why don’t you show Susan and George your room?” says Nancy.
“Know how I keep it so neat?” she says proudly. “I never sleep under the covers. I just wrap up in Fred’s blanket.” She cherishes his cream-colored afghan that they give her as an adoption present. Rose will insist that I save it first, out of all her other things, if we ever have a fire.
George and I give her the book “Angelina and Alice” from the series about two mice friends.
“Enjoy this book!” we inscribe, “Love, Mom and Dad.”
Gathering for coffee and cake in the dining room, we discuss the half-day visit, overnight and ultimate nine-day stay, a phase-in plan to help her adapt. A part of me resists the end of our search, my fantasy replaced by Rose, who climbs on my lap and appraises me with watchful eyes. What does she make of olive green metallic shoes and flowered socks?
“Now,” I think, “we’re starting this right now.” I feel insecure, a mix-and-pour Mom of recent and flimsy construction. What will I cook? Will George’s size-14 feet clomping down the hallway frighten her? I want this child, but I don’t love her yet. I mentally plan the purchase of her welcome home gifts.
As I wander the toy store, memories rush in rich with jump rope rhymes, dolly layettes and my sister Mary Ann, who is the only person in the world who knows the meaning of “chucky-mucky” and “dopey-ni.”
We played with dolls that “drank” water through tiny rosebud lips, we climbed a jungle gym to reach the notch in the willow tree so we could swing out on a rope. The rhythmic clack-clack of our roller skates up and down the concrete sidewalk was as familiar a spring sound as a mourning dove’s coo. Every shared experience provided a portal into our secret sister world, and our lives still meshed like thick old vines.
It’s painful to think of how Rose will never collapse in laughter with a sister reading cereal boxes in froggy voices or make “banana splits” in a swimming pool with somersaults and underwater gyrations. Rose’s three sisters are promised to other families, so she’ll be an only child.
“Excuse me, what do six-year-old girls like?” I ask a clerk wearing a bright teal apron and perky smile. She suggests Kool Kiddies Oldies audiotapes with silly 50’s favorites like “Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini” and “Flying Purple People Eater.” I pick a tape player in primary colors and two book and tape combos, “Pecos Bill” and “Amelia Bedelia” and the Surprise Shower about a ditzy maid who turns constantly emerging lemons into lemonade. Crabtree & Evelyn is the final stop for five gold and white striped drawer sachets tied with blue ribbon and packed with a scent called Summerhill.
I am a mathematician canceling fractions, trying to reduce everything on each side of the equation back to “one” so we can start over. I learn that I can tuck her into combed cotton sheets and dress her in bright Gap T-shirts, but I cannot make the hurt go away.
Nancy and Fred bring her the following Sunday for our first visit.
“We got lost,” Rose says as she opens the back car door.
Nancy and Fred’s Sunday ritual is town, church, and Garcia’s of Scottsdale for brunch, where the kids eat chicken fingers. Rose finds it grand and fancy.
“I know good manners,” she tells me, “because Nancy and Fred take us to really nice places.”
When Rose sees her bedroom, she frowns at the dresser, a garage sale find with dovetailed drawers re-painted with white enamel. It has brass handles in Early American style, a common décor of my Pennsylvania childhood.
“It’s an antique, Rose!” I say in defense, knowing she has no idea what that means.
“Nancy called,” George says the next day when I walk in from work. He stands in the kitchen in his suit on the way to his office with a handful of peanuts and a vodka and 7-up.
“Rose got upset when she got back. She told Nancy that I looked at her in a funny way.” He looks puzzled. “I can’t figure out what I did.”
“We’ll work it out, I’m sure. I’ll call Renee.”
“Rose is verbal,” Renee says. “You never have to wonder what she’s thinking. She told Nancy that George has a ‘look’ just like her natural father, and it scares her.”
Nancy suggests that we read “A Very Touching Book” together. The next time she comes, we sit on either side of her while Renee watches us.
“The third kind of touching is called secret touching. It happens when an older bigger person touches a child’s special parts and makes it a secret. Secret touching may happen with a person so . . . so . . . so . . . big and important that you feel too . . . too . . . too . . . little to tell.”
“We don’t allow any secret touching in our house,” I say. “George is going to make a bunch of faces . . . to see if you can pick out the one that scared you? Okay?”
He stretches his cheeks out in a wide grin.
“Is that it Rose?” I say.
Then he pulls his lips forward like a chimpanzee.
“How about this one?”
“No, not like that.”
He pops out his eyeballs, raises his eyebrows up high then down low. Finally, Rose just shrugs.
Later George and I talk.
“She wanted to force that topic out right away didn’t she?” I say.
“I know . . . wonder how long it will be before she really trusts us?” George says.
“I read that it takes as long as the time they spent before you got ’em.”
Over the next several years, Rose cycles this book into her bedtime reading every few weeks. I hide it during sleepovers, not wanting schoolyard gossip circulating about a book Rose has that encourages readers to sing-song “penis, penis, penis” and other body parts over and over.
In the only world George and I grew up in, children lived worry-free. Uncles slipped you extra cream sodas at family picnics, took you sledding down the best hill, and did hand tricks that made it look like their thumbs came apart.
Neighbors bought homemade potholders and Girl Scout cookies. They fed you marshmallow/peanut butter crackers and found playground stories more amusing than either of your parents.
Parish priests exuded a smell I thought of as “holy,” which I deduced later was a combination of Aqua Velva after shave and communion wafers. When they expanded their arms wide to bless us before we went into school, the glint of gold watchband seemed divine.
The adults that influenced us as children imprinted us with trust and wonder. The world was a good place, and we hope to make it so for Rose.
I pick her up from foster care for the last time, 16 days after we meet. Small and solemn, her delicate features composed, she stands in the doorway with clothes and stuffed animals packed in a big cardboard appliance box. Multiple foster homes and the burning of her family’s rundown rental leave only a few dresses from “Mommy” and two photograph albums. Her sister, Starla, has left for New Mexico to meet her new family. Rose is the last to leave the only safe home they ever shared.
She doesn’t cry and simply gets in the car and looks out the window, her expression unchanging. After a few miles along the winding country road, she sleeps. I look over and think how tough and resilient she is, uprooted from everything she knows to begin a new life with a family of strangers, all before the start of first grade.
Rose moves in with Fred’s afghan, a treasured stash of Jolly Rancher candy, a bag of water balloons, and six years of trauma. Her collection is puny compared with other first graders whose playrooms overflow with dollhouses, Easy-bake ovens, and stray pieces from matching Barbie outfits. She does have mementos from life on the farm: a baseball cap from Jacques (pronounced Jake’s) Seed Company and two dozen seed guides that list optimal planting times for soybeans and alfalfa. In Rose’s mind, we are her “new family.” Technically, she is a legal risk placement. Her mother is contesting the termination.
“Don’t worry,” Sheila says. “She has no legal case. We did everything right.”
First grade starts the next day. New jeans, a denim shirt, and a patchwork vest are my picks for a well-turned out first grader. Rose prefers soft pullovers, no buttons, but that all comes out later.
She says “I love you” 15 times a day, and I echo back. She tells me that you can suck a stain out of a shirt with your spit if you spill something on it and that bubbles in the pool at our swim club sound like a “fart,” which embarrasses me in front of the other Moms.
“Now, we shouldn’t say ‘fart’ Rose, that’s vulgar.” Rose looks at me like I stuffed a chocolate bar up my nose.
Close friends, all adults, attend a weekend party to meet Rose, since we barely know parents with kids Rose’s age. She plays hopscotch and sings into her recording machine, but without a child to play with, she soon finds other activities to entertain her like ringing the back doorbell and running away.
After the third or fourth time, George grabs a hand-held alarm the previous homeowners had and waits in the back hall. When he sees Rose’s arm come across the screen door, he presses the button and a loud whoop-whoop noise blasts out the door. Rose runs away. George laughs like a teenager who just got away with hitting the principal with a water balloon and goes back to the party. I stir a tablespoon of mayonnaise into the potato salad and put relish, mustard and ketchup on a big tray to take outside.
“Where’s Rose?” I ask George. She’s not with the guys at the grill or the women on the patio.
“I don’t know.” He looks around, concerned.
“I’ll go check,” I say, and round the corner of the house to find her slumped against the brick wall, sobbing out of sight.
“Oh, Rose,” I kneel down and hug her. I wait until her crying subsides. I feel bad. So much is hidden; it’s easy to forget how fragile she is. “Do you want to go back to the party now and eat? I made your favorite — hamburger and chips!”
“Rose, do you remember anything about when you first came to live with us?” I will ask her several years later.
“No.” she says.
It’s still light in September after supper, so we go to a park three blocks away to explore. She rides a 1960’s girls’ one-speed Schwinn in turquoise blue, bumping thick tires across the soccer field, little legs pumping, fanny off the seat. She discovers a pine tree with a split trunk that forms a perfect chair. We sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and eat one piece of her special candy. On the way back home, her anklet catches in the pedals and a piece of lace rips and falls to the bike path. We decide to watch for it every time we go to the park. For months it clings to the asphalt through sleet, joggers, paws — “It’s still there, Mom!”
“Slugbugblue,” she says fast.
“Makeyoueatjeep,” I say.
“That was a Blazer Mom, it doesn’t count.”
It’s our favorite car game. Only Volkswagens and non-SUV models count. The first person to identify 11 wins. When pressed for time we settle for onesies or threesies.
Reflexes at six are quick. Eyes rove constantly down every side street. When we come to a corner, our heads turn quickly right and left like a one-two punch. She takes pity on me, the worst player in the family, often joining me against Dad.
“Mom, did that song in the Sound of Music really say ‘High on the hill was a lonely goat turd?'”
“Mom, you have to say ‘Jump down, spin around, pick a bale of cotton,’ before you lift me out of the bathtub!”
“John, Jacob, Jingleheimer Schmidt tadadadadadada!” she shrieks after the fifth chorus, one of our car songs belted out together.
Since I never had a birth child, Rose is my “baby.” I am attentive and watchful as if she were a newborn. I wonder if other mothers pay as much attention to their six year olds as I do to Rose.
We make up a game called “I See Something You Don’t See,” trying to stump each other with a tiny detail from a complex book illustration like a teddy bear on the middle shelf of a bookcase on the fifth floor of Old Warty’s house from “The Wacky Book of Witches.”
I move my index finger like a slow-moving caterpillar up her leg, over her back and all around her arms in a game with sound effects called “Here Comes Mr. Wormy.”
“Mommy, give me a tummy rub,” she says for light, fingertip massages in the soft belly-button part of her stomach.
I tiptoe into her room at night to watch her sleep, sheets twisted around her neck like a percale python. When I begin to undo the tight coverings to fluff them and tuck her back in, her eyes fly open wide with fear. She relaxes when she recognizes me and gives me a tight hug before rolling over and going to sleep.
I’m curious about Rose’s life before she moved in with us but don’t ask too many questions. It seems intrusive, almost rude, to pry into the dark memories I know are there. Despite the two-inch file we have that includes psychological evaluations on Rose’s biological family and police reports, we know little about her past life. I let intuition guide me, waiting for an optimal moment to probe gently, like when we play “Old Maid” or “Go Fish” before bedtime. Then I shuffle a question into the conversation.
“Rose, what do you remember about your life before coming here?
“We lived in a shack.” She answers in a sweet, show-and-tell way.
“Umm . . . I stole a pack of gum one time.” She searches.
“My sisters . . . we all slept in the same bed.”
I never ask, “What did your father and Uncle Leroy do to you, Rose?”
She looks like other first-graders in our neighborhood. Flaxen hair cut in a pert style, matching shorts and flowered top, slim legs with silky fine hair, intense brown eyes, and a warm sugary smell that reminds me of fresh taffy on the Ocean City boardwalk.
Yet she is different from the children pedaling to the park to play on ergonomically safe red and blue playground equipment, their helmeted heads glistening like oversized Christmas balls.
Rose did not attend Montessori pre-school, getting a leg up on rhythm, counting, and phonics. Did not know the ritual of “Pat the Bunny,” “Goodnight Moon,” “Poky Little Puppy,” “Curious George.” Did not even know what a book was until she went to kindergarten. Rose’s first-grade peers had no intrusions in the night. No lights flicked on to awaken, no coarse male hands thrust under little armpits to carry away for secret touching. No mother ignored their frightened faces pleading for help before Dad and Uncle shut them behind closed doors to poke and hurt.
I turn the lights out in her bedroom and feel the tension. She wants to talk about something.
“I’m frustrated. I have too much to think about.”
“Frustrated” is Rose’s word for a litany of emotions she cannot yet find adjectives to describe. I hold my breath and wait.
“My mind feels like it’s going to burst,” she says, sniffling.
“I miss my Mom.” This is a familiar refrain, words she summons for the grief she feels at the loss — three sisters, a mother and father, a life they might’ve had together, not a good one, but a life with her own people.
It fills my throat with a lump of imperfection when she says she misses her Mom. “This is not about you,” I tell myself.
“I was in about 20 foster homes,” she says. It was eight.
“One little boy was so mean, he didn’t want me to go near his Mom, so he locked me in a room. I was in foster care longer than my sisters, for three years, because nobody wanted me, and nobody loved me.” My eyes fill with tears. I cough.
“Your Mom always loved you Rose,” I say, “but she made some bad choices.” These words sound meager. I keep quiet.
“Why did this happen to me?” she whimpers. “I feel different from the other kids because I’m adopted.” The room becomes still.
“Now I have some space in my head,” she says. “I don’t have arms for the person who walked away, but I have arms for someone who loves me.” She hugs me, then says, “I don’t like to think of my Dad living in a jail cell.”
Several months after we bring her home, I have a 12-day business trip. I buy “Kids cards” for George to give her daily and worry about how the two will do without me. Our social worker Sheila visits and asks how everything is going.
“I’m mad at my Dad,” says Rose.
“Why?” says Sheila.
“Because he doesn’t put enough chocolate syrup in my milk.”
George and Rose pick me up at the airport, where she sits close to him, making room for me.
“Hi, Mom!” she smiles and hands me a folded paper packet.
“It’s your welcome home present.” Inside are thirty-two tiny hand-colored hearts.