“You have been treated very badly. That stops today.”
Mary St. George
Tuesday night, 13 June 2000
Victoria: Sylvie is a beaten dog. She cries in that solitary box until the tears run dry, then she heaves hollow sounds. She hugs her knees, rocking back and forth on the floor.
Sylvie is a bad girl.
A bad, bad girl.
The dreams remind her of that. She sees her parents, burning in the willow tree, needled and jabbed by faeries and dragons and goblins. They don’t mind if Sylvie sees them as long as they have her parents.
GM: Sylvia languishes in solitary for hours, eventually crying herself to sleep. She’s hungry when she wakes up.
She’s just as bald, when she wakes up.
She can feel her bare skin under her fingers. The cuts and nicks from the cruel scissors still sting.
She waits for what feels like hours before a staff member finally unlocks the door. He’s got all of her things in a cardboard box that he shoves into her hands. “You screwed up,” he tells her. She’s now at negative points.
He leads her through the group home’s hallways. Every kid stares at her and her bald head.
All of them laugh or sneer.
Victoria: Her feet are too heavy to move. She can’t help them. She can’t help anyone.
She doesn’t even respond to the staffer, her eyes counting the myriad speckles in the floor. One trillion and one, one trillion and two…
She loses count once they start walking.
GM: The staffer leads her out to the home’s reception area. Sylvia’s latest case worker is there, along with a short, gray-haired, and middle-aged woman with clear blue eyes and lines along her face, although they aren’t harsh lines. A silver crucifix hangs from her neck. She’s dressed in a dark button-up and clogs.
She gives her name as Mary St. George and says she’s Sylvie’s new foster mother. Sylvie is leaving the group home to come live with her.
That’s good news, at least, though the rest of the woman’s words likely don’t leave much impression.
How long will this foster parent last?
Victoria: ‘Foster parent’ doesn’t mean much positive to her anymore. Foster parents just rent kids and do what they want with them, then toss them back.
“Hello…” she answers when Mary gives her name.
GM: Mary offers to carry Sylvie’s box of things to her car, if she wants.
Victoria: She doesn’t accept the help. No, Sylvie can carry her own things. People take them when others touch them.
She does make sure her Gameboy is inside.
GM: Sylvie has her Gameboy.
There’s not much else in the cardboard box. Just a few changes of clothes and toiletries, really. It’s not a heavy box.
Victoria: It’s the only possession in the world that has value to her. One of a kind, despite millions of others.
This one has her name on it.
GM: Mary’s car is a white minivan. After they load in Sylvie’s things and she fastens her seat belt, Mary turns to her and says,
“You have been treated very badly. That stops today. From this day forward you will be loved, cherished, and cared for. No one will be allowed to hurt you. I know you don’t believe me, you have every reason not to. That’s okay, you will when you are ready.”
Victoria: “Anything is better than here,” is the only answer Mary gets on her promise.
GM: Mary just nods at her answer and drives.
“Would you like to get a hat?”
Victoria: She nods.
GM: “Do you want to come with me into the store, or would you like me to find you something?”
Victoria: “I don’t have any money… I don’t like when they steal.”
“They stole from Jacob, and he didn’t care. I still didn’t like it.”
GM: “I don’t like that either,” says Mary. “And that’s fine, I don’t expect you to have any. I’ll pay for your clothes.”
Victoria: She begins to cry again.
GM: They’re driving, so Mary can’t take both hands off the wheel. But she reaches over and rubs a hand along Sylvie’s shoulder, lightly at first, as if testing whether she’s okay with the physical contact.
“I’m so sorry, Sylvie… they’ve all been so cruel to you… so cruel…”
Victoria: She can’t stop crying. She wants to be brave, and obedient, and quiet, and go to school, but she can’t stop the tears.
She can’t stop crying because she doesn’t believe a word this woman says.
GM: Mary pulls over the car and asks if Sylvie would like to hug her.
Victoria: She isn’t sure. Is it a trick?
She does want a hug, and she’s so desperate for any shadow of the affection she got in the year she spent with a loving family that she doesn’t care if she’ll be hit for it.
GM: Mary leans over and puts her arms around Sylvie. The stoutly built woman is a lot for the thin and gangly preteen to hug. She’s warm and soft. Sylvie has few memories of being hugged like this, as though by a mother. The closest was the family who wouldn’t take pictures of her, then got rid of her without saying goodbye. So many of her foster parents haven’t wanted to touch her. Rules at the group home strictly prohibited all physical contact between residents and staff, other than, apparently for the latter to hit the former. The full weight of all those years without physical affection seems to fall in on her as Mary holds her close.
Victoria: The closest she’s come to this was when she hugged her dog; the only creature who loved her, unconditionally and unmitigated.
It doesn’t help the tears stop.
She clutches into Mary’s shirt, soaking it through to the skin with her crying. She doesn’t care if this woman will bring her back tomorrow. She doesn’t care if she tosses her out, or calls the police. She just wants this contact.
GM: It’s anyone’s guess what tomorrow will bring. Sylvie’s least of all.
Mary holds the 11-year-old against her, sometimes running a hand along her back. She says things, every so often, that Sylvie doesn’t really hear. All she makes out is that Mary’s voice is soft.
Sylvie isn’t sure how long passes. The woman doesn’t let her go.
Victoria: Nothing could break that hug. It’s tried.
She hugs the woman, and hugs her, and hugs her, not because she’s fond of the woman, or because she took her from that horrid prison, but because it’s human contact. How long has it been since Sylvie had a real, unconditional hug?
Eventually, her heaving sobs lessen to hiccups, and she sits back.
GM: Sylvie is hard-pressed to say when, if she leaves out the dog.
Does the foster sister she had for a day count?
Mary resumes driving and asks again whether Sylvie would like to come into the store with her. If not, she can just say what kind of hat she’s looking for and let Mary get something.
Victoria: She just shakes her head.
“I don’t want people to see me…”
She gets a choice in the type of hat? She can’t remember the last time she’s been given a choice by an adult, either.
“…my favorite color is purple.”
GM: “I didn’t think you would,” says Mary. “What about a purple bucket hat, or beanie?”
Victoria: “What’s a beanie?”
“I don’t like beans.”
GM: Mary smiles. “They’re made from wool or cloth, usually. They fit your head closely and don’t have a brim like a baseball cap.”
She thinks about it.
“I think I like that.”
Then she thinks about it some more.
“Won’t it be hot?”
Then again, she doesn’t have hair. She’ll get a sunburn without something.
GM: “People wear them when it’s cold out, though also when it’s not,” says Mary. “Since they’re tighter on your head than a bucket hat or baseball cap, they’re usually warmer.”
“But your head will feel colder anyways, without hair.”
It’s the strangest sensation, how cool she feels up there. Sylvie always took her hair’s insulation for granted. Her head feels naked without it.
There are worse things to feel than naked in a stiflingly hot and humid New Orleans summer.
Victoria: The simple nature of Mary’s explanation vexes her. Why is she answering her questions so straightforwardly?
GM: “Okay, a purple beanie. Do you have any other colors you’d like if I can’t find purple?”
Victoria: “Pink. Or blue. I guess green is okay. Or white?”
GM: “I’ll see what I can find,” says Mary.
She drives a little while longer before stopping outside a hat store. She shows Sylvie how to change the channels on her car radio, if she wants to listen to music. She says that her two favorite channels are ones that play Christian and classical music. There are others that play jazz and classic rock, if Sylvie would prefer those.
Victoria: Sylvie doesn’t touch the radio station, despite being allowed to.
She doesn’t trust it.
The radio remains untouched, exactly on the current station—religious music—and at volume 13.
GM: After Mary’s gone, Sylvie sees another family with a kid, a girl, walking into a nearby store. The girl points at Sylvie and laughs. The parents smile, say something, and head into another store with her.
The radio music continues to play.
“All I know is I’m not home yet.
This is not where I belong.
Take this world and give me Jesus.
This is not where I belong.”
Victoria: This is not where she belongs.
But anywhere else makes her feel worse.
She sinks down low in the seat, waiting for the air conditioning to short circuit and leave her to bake.
One serving Sylvie: Leave in car fifteen minutes on 140F.
GM: For better or worse, the AC doesn’t give out before Mary returns with a beanie hat.
“I couldn’t find purple, sorry, but you can see they had blue.”
Victoria: She really did buy her a hat.
How will Sylvie be paying her back?
Such a cute shade of blue, too!
Sylvie appears confused.
GM: “You should put it on,” smiles Mary, handing it to her.
Victoria: She takes the beanie, staring.
It’s a long moment before she puts it on.
GM: The wool is soft and fits snugly around her head.
“It looks good on you,” says Mary. “While we’re out, do you have any other things you’d like to get?”
Victoria: “I… I don’t know.”
It’s less a sadness and more a statement of fact. She doesn’t know what ‘having much’ feels like.
GM: “Our house has a lot of toiletries, so things like toothbrushes won’t be an issue. What about things like clothes or books or food?”
Victoria: “I have three shirts, and two pairs of underwear. Two pairs of pants. Some socks…”
She paints it as if it’s enough.
GM: “That’s not enough, even if we want to do laundry every two days,” says Mary. “Let’s get you some clothes, then. Come on.”
Victoria: “They made me do laundry at another house!”
House, not home.
“I don’t mind. I can do it.”
Perhaps she sees a little bit of a good thing here. She expects the tricks to come. She knows the pain will start, but if she can prove that she’s a useful girl—a good girl—then maybe they’ll treat her just a little better.
GM: “That’s good you know how to, though you shouldn’t have had to do all of it yourself,” says Mary. “We have laundry nights where we sort and fold everything together.”
She takes Sylvie to a nearby thrift store. The woman doesn’t seem like she’s operating on as large a budget as her last family, but she browses the racks in the children’s section with Sylvie and asks her to pick out things she likes.
Victoria: She doesn’t complain when Mary actually does take her to a store.
Sylvie picks out a single shirt and a single pair of shorts. That’s enough, right?
GM: Mary nods at her two choices and asks what else Sylvie wants to get.
She doesn’t fully get it.
“This is fine.”
She doesn’t need anything else.
Or does she?
GM: Mary shakes her head.
“You should have something different to wear each day of the week. So, we need three more shirts, and four more pants or dresses. Plus socks and underwear.”
“You should also have a nicer dress to wear for church and special occasions.”
Victoria: “What’s church like?” she asks, thumbing through a rack of dresses.
As they talk, she picks what seems nice—her taste, without looking too expensive.
GM: Expensive, at least, seems less of an issue in the thrift store. Her last family took her to a department store.
Those clothes are long gone, pilfered by roommates and staff in the group home.
“Church is wonderful,” says Mary with a serene expression. “The priest will give mass in Latin. You won’t understand the words, but it’s very beautiful. Then he’ll talk about God, and how much He loves us all. The choir will sing, and that will also be very beautiful. We’ll talk with people about stories and lessons from the Bible. All sorts of things, like the life of Jesus or Noah’s ark, or Daniel in the lion’s den. Everyone will be very nice to you. We’re all there to rejoice in how much God loves us.”
“And He does love you, Sylvie,” smiles the woman, resting a hand on her shoulder. “He loves you very, very much.”
Victoria: She’s heard of God before—in people passing on the street, in school, in stores. She’s heard His name a million times, but no one ever really stopped to explain God to her.
Sylvia winces at the declaration of love, and it’s immediately apparent she’s trying not to cry.
“I don’t like when a man loves me, or my foster family…”
GM: Mary pulls Sylvie into a fuller half-hug with her free arm.
“God isn’t just a man, Sylvie. He’s so much more than a man. He is greater and bigger than the whole wide world. And His love is deeper and bigger than any kind of love you can receive. His love will never hurt you, make you feel bad, or touch you in places where you shouldn’t be touched. His love will fill you like a big meal after you’re hungry, a long drink of water after you’re thirsty, and so much more. You won’t even realize how hungry and thirsty you are, until you realize how much He loves you. It’ll fill your heart and shine through your eyes, and everything in your life will be better. You will feel warm and safe and never, ever alone, because God is always with you, and will always love you. No matter what happens, no matter what you do.”
Victoria: She doesn’t entirely understand, nor does she entirely believe Mary, but maybe if she attends Church she’ll have a better idea what it means.
“I don’t get how someone can always be loved, but okay…”
She continues rifling through clothing. All in all, she picks out four more pairs of pants, two shorts, three dresses, five shirts, and enough underwear and socks to last.
GM: “That’s okay,” nods Mary. “That’s what church is for, to help you understand God’s love.”
She shows Sylvie her crucifix up close. It’s silver and shows a man with his arms spread and a crown of thorns.
“My father gave this to me, when I was around your age. He’s in Heaven now, and with God all the time. So when I look at it, I’m reminded of how much they love me, and how I’m never alone. Just like you aren’t ever alone, Sylvie. God thinks about you all the time, and how special you are to Him, and how much He loves you.”
Victoria: She shudders again.
“Am I gonna go to Heaven too? How do you get there? Why do we go to meet God?”
GM: “If you try your best to be a good person, you go to Heaven,” says Mary. “You go there when you die. But death isn’t really the end, Sylvie. Death just means you get to be even closer to God.”
Victoria: This is all very confusing to Sylvia. She prefers looking at pretty dresses.
Death isn’t the end, but that is the end of the conversation.
“I think this is enough?”
GM: “I think that’s enough clothes,” nods Mary, once they have enough for seven basic outfits and a nicer dress.
She casts a glance at Sylvie’s well-worn pair of converse. They were new when her last family got them, but months in the group home have left them in pretty sorry condition.
“Do those have any holes in them? Or your socks?”
Victoria: She nods sheepishly.
GM: “Let’s get you some new shoes, then. We don’t want your feet to get wet when it rains.”
She lets Sylvie pick out another pair for everyday wear, and a second nicer pair for church. Along with extra socks.
Victoria: She’s much too old for light-up sneakers, and so she skips those. She finds a simple pair of converse, much like those she has on but with different coloration and patterning.
Her shoes for church are black; formal and to the point.
GM: Mary compliments her fashion sense and pays for the purchases. She asks what Sylvie’s favorite foods are on the way out.
Victoria: “Uhm. Pizza.”
It doesn’t take her long to answer that one. It’s a simple answer, though, as everyone likes pizza. Even Sylvia is aware enough to know that she may learn to like many more foods, if she had the family to experience them with.
GM: “That’s a classic,” says Mary as she opens the car trunk and loads in bags. Sylvie’s expected to do so too. “Any others?”
Victoria: She shrugs her shoulders.
“Pasta. Fried chicken. Candy.”
She expects to receive none of that.
“Mac and cheese.”
GM: “Let’s see, I think we have everything on hand for pasta,” says Mary as she sits down in the driver’s seat. “You don’t need too many ingredients. How does that sound for dinner tonight?”
Victoria: She nods.
“Thank you, ma’am,” she answers.
“Are there… others in your house?”
GM: “You can call me Mary, Sylvie. Or Mom, whenever you feel ready,” she says as she starts the car.
Victoria: “Okay. Mary.”
Sylvia has a mom. She doesn’t like when she visits.
“Is it far?”
GM: “Not too far,” she says as she drives. “We live in the Irish Channel. My mother and I are Irish and very proud of it.”
“And yes, I’m taking care of five other children besides you. Julius, Leslie, George, Brian, and Hannah. My mother, Beth, also lives with us and helps take care of everyone.”
Another group home. Great. She’ll have to find a place to hide her things.
“Are they nice?”
It’s a test.
GM: “They are nice. Like you, they’ve all been hurt. They won’t hurt you or steal from you.”
“It’s okay if you don’t believe me. We’ll all have to earn your trust.”
Victoria: She isn’t sure whether Mary means it or not.
It’s become a common answer; a lie.
Wednesday afternoon, 14 June 2000
GM: Mary’s house looks old. It’s big enough to comfortably house a normal-sized family, which means that Sylvie shares a room with Leslie and Hannah. Leslie’s a redhead who’s a little younger than her. Hannah is black and looks several or more years younger. She seems nervous around Sylvie, but Mary assures her that Sylvie isn’t going to hurt her.
There’s not much privacy, but the rooms are clean and there’s no locks on the doors or bars on the windows. Laundry is done weekly. They’re doing laundry today, in fact. Sylvia’s new and old clothes can get a washing.
Victoria: She shares a room with other kids, none of whom push her, shove her, or call her names. Not that she takes off her hat—she isn’t going to give them a reason to change.
Sylvie reassures Hannah that she isn’t going to hurt her, too.
Laundry is done weekly. Together. As a family. Talking, and laughing, and making chores fun. Or so she comes to believe, from how the rest of her first day goes.
GM: Dinner on the first night is spaghetti and meatballs. Mary and Beth oversee the cooking and have Sylvie participate, so she can also learn how to cook. Everyone bows their heads, prays, and thanks God for providing their meal before they eat. Sylvie gets a few glances when she doesn’t remove her hat with dinner, but no one remarks.
Victoria: She isn’t the best cook in the world, but she’s also 11; but, she participates, and she gets to know her new mother and elder sister.
She even uses the bathroom on her own without asking, after being told she didn’t have to ask the first time.
GM: Mary teaches Sylvie to say the Lord’s prayer alongside Leslie and Hannah before they go to sleep. She also gives her pajamas. They used to belong to another girl who stayed with Mary, but they’re clean and only a little big. Mary says she’ll grow into them.
Victoria: She moves her lips during prayers, but doesn’t speak the words she doesn’t know, and doesn’t pray in her head. Who would she pray to?
Sylvie asks what happened to the girl who owned the pajamas.
She already knows the answer.
GM: Mary says that the girl’s grandmother assumed care of her. That’s what foster care is supposed to be, Mary explains: temporary, pending either adoption into a new family, or reunification with an old family. The girl had no pajamas when she came to live with Mary. Her grandmother got her new ones, and said Mary should keep at least some the old clothes she’d bought her granddaughter; Mary looks after a lot of kids, after all, and clothes are expensive. Not to mention kids go through them fast.
That approach seems characteristic of the St. George household: Mary doesn’t seem to have a lot of money, but she provides. Leslie and Hannah are likely going to wear her hand-me-downs after she outgrows them, if they stay with Mary.
Victoria: Temporary. Exactly as it always has been. Forever and always temporary. How long will this one last?
GM: Mary says that Sylvie can stay with her forever, if she wants to. She knows Sylvie doesn’t have any biological relatives in the picture. George and Julius don’t either, so Mary’s adopted them.
Sylvie also doesn’t need to decide right away. She can take some time to see if she likes living here.
Victoria: Sylvie doesn’t believe her. The only forevers are being temporary and being unwanted.
GM: Those thoughts may long occupy Sylvie’s mind as she drifts off to sleep. Her beanie falls off during the night. Leslie sees in the morning.
“What happened to your hair?” she asks.
The question sounds curious rather than mean.
Victoria: When her beanie falls off, she freezes. The abuse never comes, just curious questions.
“I—I… some mean girls swapped my shampoo with hair remover…”
GM: “Oh,” says the younger girl at her answer.
“What’s hair remover?”
Victoria: “Uhm. It removes hair. Like mine. I hope it grows back. No one said that it would…”
GM: Leslie asks why it wouldn’t. Hair grows, right?
Victoria: The next day, Sylvie decides on a test. She finds Mary.
“Can we take a picture? Like, all of us.”
GM: “Of course,” says Mary. “Here, or somewhere else?”
“We could go on a picnic for it. The weather is just right.”
Victoria: “A picnic?”
She’s seen those before.
“I’ve never been on a picnic. I’d love that. Do you have a camera?”
GM: Sylvie’s last family went on some picnics. She stayed behind in their house, though they left her with food.
Mary says they’ll go on a picnic, then, and shows her a handheld Kodak.
Victoria: She holds the camera up to her eye, looking at her foster mother.
“What will we bring on the picnic?”
GM: “We want things we can carry in a basket,” says Mary. “So solid foods, rather than liquid ones. We don’t want anything that’s too messy, because we’ll only have what napkins we bring with us. We also want things that can stay fresh and not spoil after a while in the sun, in case there’s leftovers.”
Victoria: “Like sandwiches? And rice?”
She can’t think of much else that fits.
GM: “Those are good ideas,” says Mary. “Fruit and potato salads are also popular.”
Victoria: “But fruit has juice!”
GM: “That’s okay. It comes in whole pieces, and we keep it in a container.”
Containers are allowed.
“What about vegetables?”
The other kids made fun of her for liking vegetables.
GM: “Vegetables are good to eat at picnics, and good to eat any time,” Mary says approvingly.
“Oh, you also want them to be things that taste good cold, since we’ll walk for a little while to get to the park.”
Victoria: “But won’t the cold things get warm? So they have to taste good in the middle.”
GM: Mary nods. “That’s right, Sylvie. That’s what I should have said. You’re very smart.”
Victoria: She is? She can’t help but smile.
“Can I help pack…? Are we going now?”
GM: “We need to make the food first,” laughs Mary. “So, we can go for dinner. Or we can go tomorrow for lunch.”
Victoria: “Lunch tomorrow!”
She’s almost forgotten about the whole trick of a picture. For the first time in a long time, Sylvia feels a spark of excitement.
GM: “Lunch is the most popular time,” says Mary. “Dinner second. I’ve never heard of a breakfast picnic.”
They make things for the picnic, later in the day. Sandwiches. Potato salad. Fruit salad. Veggie salad. Chocolate chip cookies. Juice boxes and water bottles. The next day, they load everything into the family’s two cars, along with blankets, and drive up to City Park. It’s the biggest park in the city, and one of the biggest in the country.
Lots of other people are there that day, having picnics of their own, walking dogs, or just strolling through the park. Mary and Beth also bring Frisbees for the kids to play with.
There’s also ducks to feed. Mary and Beth bring a bag of old bread and show the kids how to tear it into clumps and toss to the ducks. They noisily squawk and descend en masse wherever the scattered bread bits land.
Victoria: Sylvie doesn’t ask for a cookie, but it’s plain on her face that she wants nothing more than just a nibble. Or the entire plate.
Sylvie is good while they pack, helping pick out food, pack it into boxes, bring it to the car, and participating in conversation while they drive there. It’s only been a day, but she feels as if she belongs. It’s almost akin to how she felt in the family with her dog, but there’s no subtle exclusion. No exclusion at all. She’s there. She’s welcome. She’s wanted.
Sylvie is wanted.
She’s never had more grins than feeding ducks with her new family.
GM: Sylvie can’t have the entire plate of cookies, because her foster brothers and sisters want cookies too. But she can have multiple ones, not just nibbles. They’re there to be eaten.
Mary brings the camera, too, and asks where she’d like to take pictures.
Victoria: If God comes and takes her to Heaven tonight, she won’t complain. Not after cookies. And kindness. And smiles. And family.
“Right here!” she says, pointing to the blanket. “All of us.”
GM: Mary asks a passerby if he can take some pictures of them, so they get in everyone. He snaps several of the family gathered on the blanket. Mary and Beth take some individual photos of everyone, after that. Mary drops the camera off at a drug store on the way back, to get the pictures developed. That’ll take three to five business days.
Victoria: Sylvie feels something bubbling up inside her that she can’t identify. It’s a positive feeling, but bitter. Unknown. Uncertain. She can’t place her finger on what it is, because—at least in part—she’s never felt it before.
GM: Four pass before Mary picks them up. She finds the one she likes most, of everyone on the blanket, and frames it and hangs it on a wall.
There are other pictures on the house’s walls too, Sylvie notices. Some feature her foster siblings. Some feature kids she doesn’t recognize. Some are mixes of both. Some kids appear in lots of pictures, others in only one. Mary points out each of their names to Sylvie. There are even more pictures in a photo book, where she puts the others.
“Some of them stay with me for a long time,” says Mary. “Some only stay for a little while. God doesn’t give forever to anyone. That’s how He teaches us to treasure the moments we have, and the people we share them with. Whether it’s for a long time or just a little while.”
Victoria: Days later, she sits in front of the portrait, marveling.
There are no tricks. There is no deception. There is no cruelty, or mean words, or thrown punches. There is no theft, nor leaving anyone out. No willow trees. No burning parents. No faeries. No goblins. No dragons. No locks. No doors that can’t be opened. No barred windows. No broken air conditioners.
And there are pictures; pictures of her, and her family.
Tuesday morning, 20 June 2000
GM: “For now” stretches into one week, then two, then three, then four.
Then one month becomes two, then three, then four.
Some of the kids come and go. Hannah and Brian are replaced with a Kelly and Robert. Kelly’s replaced with a Maria. Robert’s replaced with a Shawn.
Victoria: Every time a kid leaves, Sylvia asks where they went. Whether they were there for a day, a week, or a year, she cares; if not for them, the poor soul cast back into the system, then for the principle. She doesn’t forget them. Not like she was forgotten for so much of her life.
GM: It’s almost always because they’re reunited with their biological relatives, Sylvie picks up from Mary’s answers. Sometimes the children go to live with relatives other than their parents. No child leaves their parents’ custody unless there’s a serious problem. Some of these parents get their lives back together, and eventually regain custody of their children. Others don’t. There’s not always a happy ending. Some parents only get their lives together enough to satisfy minimum court requirements, and will probably lose their kids again. But the kids who leave aren’t just shuffled off to new foster homes where they’re abused. Mary often thinks it’s for the best, when a child leaves.
“Goodbyes can be happy, too.”
Victoria: It’s a world that Sylvie’s never encountered. Foster children being returned to their real families? Why were they taken in the first place? Why are they returned? Why does it take so long? What if their parents are bad again? Sylvie asks, and Mary answers. Over, and over, and over, and over again.
GM: Sylvie goes to St. Rita’s School. It’s a Catholic school, where the kids wear uniforms. The suburban school with her old family was nice, but there are no metal detectors at the doors or fights in the halls. Her foster siblings go to the school with her. The ones in her grade share her classes, so she has an in to make friends.
Victoria: She’s thankful for having foster brothers in the same year. She isn’t sure she’d be able to make friends without them—though, maybe so. The Sylvie of today isn’t the Sylvia of yesterday, thanks to Mary St. George. She’s more outgoing. She’s happier. She talks more. She smiles. She engages with others. She’s even learned to trust; to expose her vulnerable insides to others, and hope that they don’t rake them raw.
GM: Church is every week at Saint Alphonsus. It’s much as Mary described. Lots of singing and talk about God, along with Sunday school. Mary asks if she wants to be baptized, so she can receive the eucharist—the body and blood of Christ. Some of her foster siblings do, others don’t.
They volunteer afterwards, cooking meals for the homeless and other families, who Mary calls “the less fortunate.” The people are poor and need their money for other things, or don’t have any money at all. Some of them smile gratefully and say thank you. Others look embarrassed to be there. Mary tells Sylvie that helping others helps herself, and brings her closer to God. She’s fond of the Feeding of the 5,000, the story where Jesus feeds everyone with five loaves and two fish. She’s also fond of the story where He washes the feet of His disciples—even Judas, the one He knew would betray Him.
Mary’s faith is everything to her. She’s something called a consecrated virgin. She is married to Christ, having vowed to take no other husband, she loves Him that much. She thought about becoming a nun, when she was younger, but she also wanted to raise a family. She thinks fostering and adopting children is the best way to do both—to raise them and commit herself to God.
Victoria: She isn’t really sure what happens when someone is baptized, but it seems to be what her mother wants. She listens to the priest talk for a while, and then she agrees—and over time, she becomes a dutiful, Christian daughter.
She isn’t sure she wants to marry Jesus, though. She doesn’t want to think about virginity and how it disappears. Other kids have talked about sex. It doesn’t really interest her.
The story of 5,000 intrigues her in the same way as fairy tales do: they’re fun, and they’re interesting, but she knows that they aren’t real. Much as she has become invested in her own expression and self with respect to God, the story—and many others—delegitimizes that relationship to her. Why does God need to share fairy tales? It seems that his other teachings are good enough. Now he’s just embellishing.
GM: Baptism is a way you declare your faith in Christ. It shows how much you love Him and want to go to Heaven.
Mary says that most girls don’t marry Jesus like she does. They marry normal husbands. Pledging yourself to Jesus without becoming a nun is a very rare choice.
Mary says that the Feeding of the 5,000 isn’t a fairy tale, though. It’s real and actually happened. That’s what’s so miraculous about God—things that would be fairy tales to Sylvia are real to Him.
Victoria: “I hope I have a nice husband one day,” she muses one day. She pictures marrying an astronaut.
She asks Mary to make Jesus do a real fairy tale again, like feeding all the foster children in the whole world. She promises baptism if he does.
GM: Mary says that she will have a wonderful husband. “If you have love in your heart, you will find someone with love in his. Love begets love.”
Mary says that Jesus will feed all of the foster children in the world when he comes back. He will feed them and clothe them, and do more than Mary has ever done (or is capable of doing) for any of the children in her care. They will want for nothing, their suffering will end forever, and they will know His boundless love in all of its richness and fullness when God establishes His kingdom on earth.
When asked why God doesn’t do this yet, Mary reads Sylvie a quote by C.S. Lewis, which she says explains why God doesn’t just wave His hand and make everything better.
Why is God landing in this enemy-occupied world in disguise and starting a sort of secret society to undermine the devil? Why is He not landing in force, invading it? Is it that He is not strong enough? Well, Christians think He is going to land in force; we do not know when. But we can guess why He is delaying. He wants to give us the chance of joining His side freely. I do not suppose you and I would have thought much of a French-man who waited till the Allies were marching into Germany and then announced he was on our side. God will invade. But I wonder whether people who ask God to interfere openly and directly in our world quite realize what it will be like when He does. When that happens, it is the end of the world. When the author walks on to the stage the play is over.
God is going to invade, all right: but what is the good of saying you are on His side then, when you see the whole natural universe melting away like a dream and something else—something it never entered your head to conceive—comes crashing in; something so beautiful to some of us and so terrible to others that none of us will have any choice left? For this time it will be God without disguise; something so overwhelming that it will strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature. It will be too late then to choose your side. There is no use saying you choose to lie down when it has become impossible to stand up. That will not be the time for choosing; it will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen, whether we realized it before or not. Now, today, this moment, is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give us that chance. It will not last forever. We must take it or leave it.
Victoria: Sylvie wants to see it happen now. She wants to see every foster child happy today, and fed today, and clothed today. Not tomorrow.
But the quote helps her understand. A little.
She gets baptized anyway. It makes Mary happy.
GM: Mary is glad when Sylvie gets baptized and takes communion. She says it’s good for her, even if she doesn’t understand everything yet or believe everything yet. It can take people a very long time to come to an understanding with God. The author of that quote only did when he was 30.
Victoria: She doesn’t know that baptism involves dunking your head. She’s old enough to appreciate symbolism, but it’s hard for her to understand the connection between bobbing for apples and God. Still, she does it. It makes Mary happy.
GM: Life is stable and predictable. School, after-school activities, chores, homework. Everyone is busy. There’s always chores to do at a house with six kids. The kids are expected to contribute to the house’s upkeep, and taught the value of hard work, though Mary and Beth do more work than they do. Mary most of all. Beth is retired, and spends her time at home. Mary also has a job as a social worker. She still finds time for things like picnics and trips to Audubon Zoo, or Lake Pontchartrain, or the museum.
Sylvie is fed and clothed. She gets cake and a modest amount of presents on her birthday. There are movies to watch on TV, since Mary doesn’t have cable (or want it). Mary takes everyone to an animal shelter, at one point, to get dogs—her last one “crossed the rainbow bridge” a little while before she fostered Sylvie. The kids are expected to help walk them, clean up their poop, and take care of them.
No one hits or molests or insults or steals from Sylvie.
Her hair grows from bald to a peach-like fuzz to full enough that she no longer needs the beanie.
At first, Mary says things like how much she appreciates Sylvie. How much she enjoys having her in the family. How much she likes her laugh. She talks about saying “I love you” and what it means, outside of God’s love. She says there is no pressure for Sylvie to say those words herself.
Eventually, she asks if Sylvie is okay with Mary saying them to her.
Victoria: The concept of love is foreign to Sylvie. She’s never had a mother say it. She’s never had a father say it. She can imagine what love is from movies and stories of princesses and books—she loves reading—but she doesn’t know what love feels like.
Maybe that’s the strange feeling burrowing up lately?
She flushes a light tinge of crimson at Mary’s question, and nods silently.
“If you want.”
GM: Her foster mother hugs her close, after she answers yes, and then says,
“I love you, Sylvie.”
Victoria: Her pause is long, and she’s not immediately sure her heart can speak the words; words, she realizes, that she’s never actually spoken. When they come, they project that uncertainty.
“…I love you, too.”
GM: Even getting baptized doesn’t seem to make Mary so happy as Sylvie’s answer does. For all its uncertainty, her foster mother’s face is radiant as she hugs Sylvie again and asks,
“Would you like me to adopt you, Sylvie? You can stay until you’re grown up. And past when you’re grown up, if you ever need to.”
“It will mean that you’ll always have a home here, that no one can take away. Your social worker will close your case.”
Victoria: Sylvie has been in the foster system her entire life. She’s seen the rare child get adopted. They disappear, as all the others do. Where they go, and what happens to them, is beyond her knowledge and sight; however, it’s always spoken of in the positive.
She isn’t really sure what being adopted fully means, either, but Mary’s promise of staying until she’s an adult—and then beyond—lights up as if all the Christmas tree lights and all the birthday candles in the world ignited before her. She’ll have not just a house, but a home, and a mother, and a future!
She’s never had a future before.
Sylvie begins to sob, and nods emphatically.
GM: So it happens.
Mary’s already a foster parent, so she doesn’t need to go through the process of being certified there. All that’s left to do is submit the petition, involving some paperwork, and then attend a finalization hearing with a judge. Sylvie’s birth certificate will be amended to list Mary as her mother. Sylvie can also have her last name changed to St. George, if she wants to. Her original surname of Banks, she knows, was given to her by social workers. She’s not sure why they decided on Banks.
The day of the hearing, Mary and Beth attend with Sylvie and the family’s other children. Sylvie and the others dress up in their church clothes: Mary says it’s important to present yourself well when you see a judge. Going to court is a special occasion.
The whole process takes maybe an hour. Once the judge signs the adoption decree, and smiles, “Congratulations, young lady,” it’s official: Sylvie is a legal and permanent member of the St. George family. There’s much crying and embracing.
It’s to no one’s surprise when they take pictures.
Sylvie is in the front and center.