When Leslie was born, a product of a brief and star crossed liaison affair of her mother’s, her father was deported back to The Philippines. Leslie always suspected one of her mother’s jealous suitors was to blame, for her mother was beautiful. She suspected one of them called immigration, disclosing his whereabouts. Raised alone by her mother, Leslie always felt like a withering stalk in her presence, what with her bi-racial skin and slanty eyes that made everyone question “So what ARE you exactly?” Leslie never spoke to her father, as he was killed when she was three in an apparent robbery-gone-bad for refusing to give up his wallet. Or that’s what the official story was, and still is, anyway. Leslie, however, suspects there is more to this story and one day hopes to travel to The Philippines to learn more about him and her connection to the islands.
Leslie’s mother’s beauty could not keep her out of the poor house, however. Bouncing from one bad relationship to the next, one her first vivid memories was waking up being scared, so scared, in a homeless shelter while her mother shook and couldn’t stand to be touched after the beating that her last boyfriend had given her. In this shelter, her mother met a priest, Father DiNoza, who helped her turn her life around. Off the drugs, off the alcohol. She got a job working in an office, and with her strong sense of order she quickly rose to the top of the Administrative pool. Eventually she saved enough money and bought a small house on the outskirts of Youngstown, Ohio.
Leslie flourished in her newly stable environment, and although the pain of never having a father around gnawed at her night and day, she was a happy girl and did very well in school.
Flying home after classes one day in her 7th grade year, she burst into the kitchen, excited to tell her mom about her day when she pulled up short, speechless. Sitting at the table was her mother, another man in a suit, and a young boy who looked like he was ready to pee in his pants.
“His name was Jeremy. He was the saddest little boy I’d ever seen. He didn’t even look up at me when I came in. He just stared down into his lap.”
Jeremy came to live with them a couple of weeks later. Leslie’s mother explained that Jeremy was a “F.O.S.T.E.R. Child” and was to be treated very specially. He had a rough time, and when her mother was retelling some of the woes he had been through, she looked at her daughter with a pained ‘we’ve been there, so try to remember what it was like’ expression and squeezed her arm reassuredly.
Jeremy stayed only four months. His mother got out of rehab and petitioned the courts for custody, winning. Leslie and her mother cried as Jeremy was led away by the social workers. There were many boys after that, broken and beaten. Many of them were angry and some even violent. Leslie’s mother, being a working single mother, got the worst of the lot, the kids who nobody else wanted; the kids who were too old or difficult or problematic for anyone else to take in.
During this time, Leslie tried to welcome each new kid into the house as best she could, but a growing girl needs her mother and sometimes they’d have to sit down and have a heart to heart “girl time” talk about her mother’s desire to help these poor children and her duties as a mother to her own daughter as well. Biting her lip and nodding that she understood, Leslie would leave these talks feeling worse, going to her room, often shared with at least one and sometimes up to three other girls, and cry into her pillow. Sometimes it seemed her mom cared more about these messed-up kids than she did about her own flesh and blood! Leslie’s self-pitying tears lasted through her sophomore year in high school.
“When Leslie was born, a product of a brief and star crossed liaison affair of her mother’s, her father was deported back to The Philippines. Leslie always suspected one of her mother’s jealous suitors was to blame, for her mother was beautiful.”
Leslie often dreaded coming home from school. There were always kids and often social workers or truant officers, sometimes even police, in the house. It was always loud and chaotic, and for a girl learning to know herself, there wasn’t a spot in the house where Leslie could just THINK and be alone. She began spending more time away at her girlfriends’ houses or at the library where liked to hide among the books.
Her mother noticed her distancing herself and became worried that she was alienating her daughter. Not about to give up on these last chance kids, she searched for a compromise.
Leslie’s mother hired some contractors, who were given very strict orders that they could only work during hours Leslie was at school. This was to be a surprise for her daughter, who had been through so much growing up.
The workers toiled and in a month and a half they had managed to convert half the attic in the old house into a little hideaway room.
Leslie came home from school late, almost dark out, dragging her backpack behind her. There was a boy named Romeo living with them, and he was learning disabled and was sucking up all of her mother’s free time after work. Leslie and her mother hadn’t even had one of the scolding talks in a while. Leslie missed her mom, and coming home to the endless rabble seemed like a daunting task.
Throwing her books on the stairs, she went up to her room, one she now shared with a 17 year old named Candace who mercifully was out. Staring at the wall, she mourned this life path her mother and chosen and her exercises for being grateful for what she did have weren’t working. There was a soft knock on the door. “Honey, can I come in?”
Leslie grunted and turned further towards the wall so her mother would see her back when she came in.
“Hi,” her mom sat on the side of the bed and stroked her hair, just like she had done when Leslie was a little girl. “I need your help with something. Would you mind terribly helping me? It’ll only take a second.”
Instantly Leslie was on guard. Usually her mother just barked orders at everyone - it was only the way to keep chaos from overrunning the house.
“I need your help with something in the attic.”
Leslie dragged her feet up the wooden stairs, deliberately letting her shoes scuff the wood and daring her mother to chastise her, but her mother climbed the steep staircase determinedly.
Following her, she braced for the inevitable sneezes that would start up there among the murky light, but none came. There was a light shining from under the door - she assumed her mother had been up there and left the flashlight on.
Her mother opened the door and Leslie climbed up after her. When she looked up, she gasped. The room! It was a small bedroom with bright yellow walls and a small iron bed with a white chintz throw over it. It was EXACXTLY like an old picture that she had cut out a long time ago when they had been moving from place to place.
Her mother was looking at her oddly. Leslie put her hands to her face and found it was wet. She was crying; she looked at her mother quizzingly - is this mine? Yes, dear, it’s all yours.
Leslie screamed and ducking the low ceiling, she ran across the short distance and flung herself onto the bed. She was kicking and squealing in delight, and her mother stood watching with a small smile on her face. Quietly leaving, she pulled the door behind her so that Leslie could have her privacy. Leslie took a look around the room - HER ROOM - and noticed that her mother had framed a picture of her as a smiling baby, held by her mom and dad, proud and loving parents to the little girl.
Thank you Karen for sharing your Story with us.
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© 2009 by Adara Bernstein and Story of My Life ®