Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Power of Memories Fifty Years Later

I stepped into a print shop yesterday and back in time. The smell of fresh ink was intoxicating, at least for me. I love paper and words and letters and everything that brings them to life. The counter was lined with stacks of orders, handwritten notes and invoices attached haphazardly to boxes of all shapes and sizes.

I waited patiently for the man behind the counter to approach. Usually I wait impatiently. It's a terrible habit, one I am trying to overcome.

The man behind the counter was large in stature with black and gray hair and a long, gray beard. His black-framed glasses sat on the bridge of his nose, his brown eyes peering out from behind them. Our small talk started as he fished for my order in the sea of boxes. Triumphantly he pulled out a green and white box and lifted the lid to reveal 600 copies of a conference brochure.

"Protecting Babies, Projecting Hope," he read as he eyed the title of the conference. "What's this about?"

"It's a conference about taking good care of babies and young children so they can thrive as they grow," I answered as I dug for a credit card.

"You a therapist or something?" he asked.

"No, I worked in foster care for a long time, representing the best interests of abused and neglected children in court," I said simply as I slid my card across the counter.

"You mean kids like I was? I was a foster kid and I was abused and all that stuff," he looked down shyly, as if he had something to hide. A split second later he looked back up and our eyes met.

"You were in foster care?" I asked this man who looked old enough to be a grandfather. 

"I was. Me and my two brothers and sister. I was five when they took us away from our mom. My sister was six and my brother was three. My baby brother wasn't quite two yet. It was 1964."

I was intrigued, as if the printer itself had started telling its own story, one locked away for decades. He seemed willing to talk and I was dying to know.

"What was it like being in foster care?" I asked him. 

"I lived in four different foster homes in about five years. Some was OK, one was horrible. That lady beat the crap out of me. Once I went to school when I was 8 and I was bruised so bad I couldn't sit down. The teacher took me to the nurse and they pulled my pants down and saw all these bruises. They just put some stuff on it, called the caseworker and the caseworker just took me right back to that home and I got beat some more. I think I got it the worst because I refused to cry."

I could have sworn his eyes were misty. Still, he smiled.

"I wasn't gonna let her break me. I was determined, I guess. Sometimes being determined is my downfall."

"There's a downside to every strength," I told him. "The trick is to balance it." He took that in for a moment and then nodded.

"But eventually that lady gave me away because I got these new toy cars and was playing with them on her new carpet and she said I was ruining it so she put me out. I got lucky." His eyes twinkled.

"What happened to your siblings?"

"My baby brother committed suicide a few years back." This time the misty eyes could not be mistaken. I told him how sorry I was and he just looked at me sadly. "The other two are in and out of jail."

"So how is it that you made it?" So few kids who grow up in similar situations do.

"I don't know. Luck maybe. And determination. I left the system when I turned 18 and went to military school. I'm married with two daughters. One is a mechanical engineer. One just graduated from medical massage school. My wife and I, we help look after the woman who I call my adopted mom. She worked at a group home where I lived when I was 15. She's getting up in years now."

Our transaction long complete, we said our good-byes and I thanked him for sharing his story. I had just one more question.

"Do you mind if I ask how old you are?"

"Not at all. I'm 54."

Nearly five decades had passed and he had recounted with clarity his removal from his mother. Nearly four decades had passed and tears had formed when he talked about the beatings he received in his foster home. The colors of the toy cars he had played with on new carpet were likely as fresh in his mind as the ink in that print shop. Decades later, the brother who had committed suicide was still considered his 'baby brother'.

I walked away from him humbled by the resiliency of the human spirit, the power of memories that linger, and the incredible gifts inherent in connection and the willingness to listen to other people's stories. Good or bad, what we do matters.

There is nothing more important than creating hope, anchors of safety, and an all-embracing love for hurting children. Those gifts live on forever.

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