Tuesday, September 08, 2009

A Family Saga: From Childhoods in Foster Care, Five Siblings Find Their Way in the World -- and Each Other.

There are five of us. Count them from left to right: Reggie, Marion,George, Victor, and Ruby. I'm George, the oldest. On November 19, 1943, our father, George Francis Pollock died of a cerebral embolism at age 27 in Boston, Mass.

In the summer of 1944, our mother handed us over to the Department of Social Services in Boston. At the time, I had just turned six and Reggie, the youngest, was a baby; he was just three months old.

Then our mother disappeared from our lives. So did whatever family we might have had.

With adoption out because our mother would not give up parental rights and with no family willing to take in five foster kids, the state did the only thing it could do: it split us up like puppies. Marion and Ruby shared some foster homes and so did Reggie, Victor and I. But for the most part, we all grew up in separate, ever-changing foster homes.

We all spent our entire childhoods wondering why other kids had a family and we did not; always asking what we had done to be so utterly abandoned and unloved; fantasizing about how wonderful it must be to have a mother and a father; feeling an awful emotional void trying to pull us even lower into the muck of life; struggling with the daily invisibility and rejection that comes with being a resident alien.

Recently, Marion did something that I had never seen her do. At Ruby's lakeside cottage in Oxford, Mass., she talked openly to Ruby and me about what her life in foster care was like. When I asked her what one particular foster parent was like, she instantly replied, “She was a witch.” And she proceeded to give examples of emotional and physical abuse that brought all three of us to tears.

Listening to Marion and Ruby talk about their lives in foster care, it's clear that they had it even harder than their three brothers. I asked them both, “How in God's name did you survive?” The question stopped Marion. She said she found it impossible to answer now because for so long the real question was "whether I would survive or not."

Ruby, after days of reflection, put her reply on paper. She wrote:

“The first reason is that until I was fifteen, I lived with my sister Marion who was two years older and she was family. She protected me as much as she could. I remember me getting a beating by my foster mother and Marion crying, 'Leave her alone!' The foster mother shouted, 'Shut up or you'll be next'!”

“I remember being in a different home where the foster parents had a 19-year-old biological son who was retarded. He was so big that I was afraid of him and he chased me around the cellar. I told Marion that I did not feel safe. Marion said that we could make a pact that we would never leave each other alone. I remember Marion canceling her first date because I would have been alone in the house. Marion and I have maintained this strong bond throughout our entire lives.

“However, when I had just turned 16, Marion went to nursing school and I went to a new foster home. I felt so totally alone. Again, I was afraid because of the way the foster father looked at me. At one point, he tried to grab me. I began locking myself in the bathroom when the foster mother went out.

“Finally, I ran away. I called the state but refused to give them any reason for my running away other than I was unhappy. At that point, the state told me that no family wanted a 16-year-old and therefore I would have to go to reform school. I called a former foster parent who was ill and begged her to take me in, which she did. This home was a place where I was happy and I stayed there until I graduated. Marion visited me there on weekends or when she had time off from nursing school.”

Ruby also recalled the time when I drove around to each foster home and picked up four younger siblings and took them to Boston to see a movie. I had just turned 17 and had run away myself (or, more accurately, “walked away.” I didn't think anybody would come for me and I was right; one less foster kid for the state to support.) I had a job, an apartment, my own car, and money in my pocket. I happily plunked down cash for the movie, popcorn and candy, and ice cream afterwards.

Of that day, Ruby wrote, “I remember praying that the day would never end. I knew that my brothers and I had a bond and that we were a family. I vowed that day that we would be together again.”

One motivation for Ruby had to do with our mother. “I had often been told that my mother was no good and that I would also be no good. This made me angry enough that I directed myself to be good so this prediction could never come true.”

Another savior was her love of reading. “I read two or three books a week,” she wrote, “often late into the night. Books became an escape from reality.” I relate to that. Left alone for long periods, as we all were, I also became a reader. I was rarely supervised and could always come and go as I pleased.

The same was true of Reggie and Vic. Much of the supervision Reggie got was from his older brother, me, when we were in the same foster home for several years. Just as Marion protected Ruby, I tried to look after Reggie. When I was nine and he was only three, I took him to a nearby public pool and taught him to swim. I was responsible for getting him there safely, making sure he didn't drown, and getting him back safely.

At one time in Stoneham, Mass., the five of us were as close to being together as we ever were. Reggie and I were in one home (with the Foleys). The next street over, Ruby was with one family (the Mullins) and Marion was with another (the McLaughlins). Across town, Vic was with yet another family (the Kenneys). Talk about weird!

Meanwhile, shortly after I walked away from the Foley's, Vic departed from the Kenney's in spectacular fashion – by heaving a brick through the kitchen window. But he didn't have to live in the streets or in the woods. Vic said, “The state told me that there was a vacancy at the Foley's and they were willing to take me in.”

Vic agreed and thus began a brotherly bond between Vic and Reggie, with Vic just a year older than Reggie, that continues to this day. They like nothing better than spending a day together fishing on Walker Pond at Vic's place. They became family and protectors for each other just as Marion and Ruby did.

Of my four younger siblings, whom did I bond with? I like to think that I bonded with them all. But my guess is that all four would probably describe me as a kind of odd man out – which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. Nearly seven years ago when Vic was ripping up his whole life in Oklahoma plus facing a health crisis -- an intestinal failure arising from grenade wounds in Vietnam -- Reggie and I flew out there. The three of us drove Vic's pick-up truck, pulling his mobile home behind it, from Oklahoma to Massachusetts where he would stay with Ruby until he got his own place.

Early on, while I was driving, I hit and severely damaged a small car while pulling out of a shopping center parking lot. Not realizing what I had done, I just kept going. We found out what I had done only because a driver flagged us down and told us. He also said the police were looking for us.

Well, they never caught up to us, but Reggie and Vic made fun of my driving all the way to Massachusetts. And no matter what the issue, from driving to politics, it was always two against one. Vic and Reggie pretty much think the same about most things. I think differently from the two of them on most things. But, and this is what is important, we are brothers and family and that never changes.

However, Vic and Reg, I must ask you both a little question: Have you ever had a street named after you? No? Well, not to rub it in, but I think that this photo of me at the intersection of George Street and Pollock Street speaks for itself.

Marion read the above about how she and Ruby had a special bond and Reggie and Vic had a special bond and how I, the oldest, was the odd man out -- and demurred. She called me and said, "Yes, you are the one who is alone but it is because you are at the top of the pyramid. You are at the pinnacle and by definition there is only room for one there. You have always been the one that we looked up to. You are the father of our family."

"How can I write that?" I asked her.

"If you are a writer, you can write it."

So, there, I wrote it.

Separated in early childhood, unwanted and unloved, emotionally abused, depending entirely on ourselves and each other, the odds against the five of us were impossible. We were marked for failure and misery. Instead, all of us not only survived but thrived.

Marion went to nursing school because, as she is the first to admit, it offered a place to live. To pay for tuition, she got scholarships, took out loans, and worked part-time. After that, she went to Salem State and got a B.A Degree in nursing. She didn't stop there. She went to Boston University and received a Master's Degree in nursing.

Marion eventually became Director of Nursing at a major hospital. Today, turning 70 in January, she still works part time as a nurse seeing elderly patients and helping them with such things as prescriptions.

Ruby left her foster home at 18 and immediately got a job at an insurance company in Boston. Her strategy was "working harder than other employees." Her goal was to "reunite my family." To save on rent, she took an apartment with another young women. She worked, saved, and went to college. She eventually earned a Master's Degree in Social Work from Worcester State College and today is responsible for the care of residents at a large and respected rest home.

Vic, Reggie, and I all ran off into the military. Vic and Reggie joined the U.S. Marine Corp. I went into the U.S. Army. See how different we are? They do the same thing; I do something different. Vic made a career of the U.S. Marines, rising to the highest enlisted rank and serving as a Drill Instructor. He also took college courses over many years, earning a Master's in Public Administration.

Reggie left the U.S. Marine Corps after serving four years. Unlike the rest of us, he has no academic gene. Instead, he started out as a welder and went up from there, eventually earning a good living in New Hampshire as an expert metal craftsman. If it's metal, Reggie can make it do anything. He built a beautiful metal bench for me, for example.

Unlike Vic and Reggie, I was a lousy soldier. At a Nike missile site in California, I scanned a radar screen for Russian aircraft. This was at the height of the cold war, 1956-58. I didn't like how an arrogant, Napoleon-like battalion commander talked to me during a barracks inspection, and told him so.

I immediately got busted from Specialist Third Class to private and barely escaped being court-martialed. The only reason I wasn't was because I was a short-timer, with only a few weeks to go. As soon as I got out of the army, I applied to college having no idea how I was going to pay the tuition or living expenses.

But good fortune smiled upon me. I made the Merrimack College varsity hockey team as a freshman and got an athletic scholarship. That took care of tuition. Thanks to the National Defense Education Act of 1958, I got loans that, along with working part-time in a supermarket, covered living expenses. I paid back every cent over 10 years.

After graduating from Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass, I went to graduate school at the University of Massachusetts where I received a Master's of Arts Degree. I became a teacher for three years in Africa, first in Kenya and then in Nigeria. I spent the rest of my career in publishing as a writer and editor of classroom learning materials.

Today, the five of us have each other, our own homes, families, and full lives surrounded by what we all dreamed of as foster kids – family. Just look at this picture of the Pollock gang at a recent family reunion. How far away is that from where the five of us started?

So long and keep moving.

P.S. Next time: Vic, a fellow with a curious mind, investigates our father's family and makes some remarkable discoveries. He finds that our father was one of 15 children, that we have three living aunts and one living uncle, and that we have 51 first cousins. And, wonder of wonders, we just had a joyous reunion with Aunt Lillian, Uncle William and long-lost cousins. Thus do the Pollocks come full circle, from no family to a large loving one opening our hearts and homes to long-lost family members. It is all that we have ever dreamed of -- and far, far more. Next time, Aunt Lillian and Uncle Willy.

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