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Willett Thomas Headshot

In The Word

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It had been two weeks since the child was delivered to my doorstop. Two months since I stood on my stoop and watched the woman with her little foster child, the two of them walking hand in hand, dressed nattily, beautiful smiles on their faces, coming from St. Mark's foster care orientation on their way back home, or wherever it was mother and child were about that spring day. Months later, once we settled into a rhythm, I would often be seen walking down the same sidewalk with my own charge only headed in the opposite direction. My hair mussed, lips twisted, the lace of one sneaker frayed and undone. And though no one ever spotted us hand in hand, to all eyes we were connected, entangled. Or as St. Mark's 100-year-old sexton Mr. Jamison felt compelled to inform AA late arrivers, "da two ova 'em at sixes and sevens" at being so.

The day I met my foster child, I was the picture of 50s domesticity. My hair usually out and about my head, either a intricate weave of braids and interlocking curls--what Dominic, St. Mark's most senior altar "boy" had been heard to grumble, "tribal priestess needs a comb"--or pulled back, amassed under a bandana, was now in a neat chignon. I had on a crisp Lord & Taylor linen shirt, the collar fashionably popped, the tail tucked neatly into a pair of tan calf length beltless chinos. I appeared sitcom mom chic, old school, on par with Donna Reed, June Cleaver, or Harriett Nelson. As I took one final look in the mirror I smiled, noting that all that was needed to seal the deal was a law degree from Princeton, and there for God and all the world to behold was über- mom, Clair Huxtable. I hadn't paid this much attention to my appearance when I went to St. Mark's Singles Only Mixer.

Before my hand touched the door knob, I checked one last time in the mirror to confirm that I was indeed ready to become a mother. When I opened the door the social worker Mrs. Santiago had a tense grin on her face, one I was quickly becoming familiar with as I navigated the process for becoming a foster parent, that God, I sure hope you haven't changed your mind look. I grasped the woman's hand, shaking it firmly, looking to her left and right to see the child. But other than the young white woman at Mrs. Santiago's side--yet another of those AmeriCorps or Vista interns dispatched to buoy "transitional" neighborhoods--other than this person, my child was nowhere to be seen.

With a questioning look frozen on my face, I was just about to cross and lock my arms over my chest, when Mrs. Santiago finally parted heavily glossed lips to say, "Now Marigold, don't go acting shy on us now, sweetie, you were talking a mile a minute a couple of seconds ago. Introduce yourself to your new foster mother, Miss Jenssen. Jenssen, right? That's how you pronounce it?"

I nodded my head, confirming that was indeed how I pronounced my name, J E N S S E N. I stuck my head out the door, looking from the two women standing before me to the white car with its City of Baltimore emblem parked directly in front of the house. For added emphasis I stepped past them down the stoop to the car, looking from the front seat to the back seat. Inside there was an empty McDonalds' coffee cup and a few loose-leaf binders, but other than these items, it was clean and void of my child.

"Miss Jenssen," the woman grinned nervously, "I've got Marigold's things here," she said, hefting what looked like one of the black trash bags I used to collect clothing for the church's autumn bazaar. And if I hadn't be so distracted by what seemed to be occurring, the micro dynamics of events unfolding and encircling me like a wet blanket in the midst of a blizzard, I might have noticed the girl's expression, the amused smirk that had settled on her pale face at seeing my consternation.

"Marigold," the woman implored, "say something, say hello." The girl, who by my estimation was anywhere from fourteen to nineteen years old, sighed overly long then said, "Hey, -- mom."

I walked back up the stoop into the house, not closing the door as every fiber in my body said to, but left it open, allowing the women to follow me inside.

"Miss Jenssen, you want the door open, or should I close it?"

I walked back past the two and closed the door. I motioned for them to sit on the sofa. I preferred to stand myself, though I felt I really should sit as I felt flush.

"You have a very nice home, very nice," the woman began, scanning the room. "Well, I guess..." but before she could start up, I said, "Perhaps, there's been some mix up?" The girl, Marigold, took out her iPod and placed the ear piece that had been looped around her neck into her ear, then sank back into the sofa as though what was about to be discussed was of little concern to her, which suited me fine.

Mrs. Santiago, perhaps fortified by McDonalds' coffee, looked ready to go toe to toe. She smiled broadly, "Why, what kind of mix up, Miss Jenssen?"

I looked at the woman. I then turned quickly to scan my surroundings as she had. Yes, I was in my living room. The wall color was platinum white, and was solely of my choosing. The oriental carpet that was actually an East Indian design, manufactured in Taiwan, had been placed by me at an angle to the floor's maple wood planks, while the red leather sofa purchased at Hecht's was a clearance sale item, but even so, other than a slight tear near the back, looked perfectly fine. Yes, all was as it should be except for the Hispanic woman sitting on my sofa, with her City of Baltimore "B'more Rocks!" tote at her feet and the teenage girl beside her, lip-syncing to whatever was being pumped into her head.

I took a seat across from the women. "I'm sure Marigold is a wonderful girl, but I was told that I would be getting a child in the age range I specified when I applied to be a foster parent." I tried to keep my tone neutral; it wasn't like they could make me take this girl, so there was no need to come undone. I just had to make them aware of their error. Then they could go back and get me one of those adorable brown toddler to grade school aged kids, what I specified when I checked the corresponding small child, not big teen box.

"Miss Jenssen, when you apply to be a foster care provider there's no guarantee of the age of the child you'll be contracted to provide care to."

My brow furrowed. Sitting in the training and orientation sessions, I was a parent. I was a source of love and guidance. Now, in the space of five minutes, I was no longer the popped collar linen shirt and chinos wearing example of motherhood I had on signed on to be. I was an independent contractor. I got it. I had made a terrible mistake. Instead of L&T Fine Women's Wear, I should have been wearing a hair net and a two button smock, along with a name tag which read "Hazel".

"Okay, then I guess what I should be saying is I'm probably not the right person to take in a teenager. I was prepared for a younger child, a younger African-American child. That's what I was geared up for," I said. "And, quite frankly, Mrs. Santiago, that's what I want."

"Miss Jenssen, may I call you Evelyn?"

"No, you may call me Yvonne."

"Yes, sorry, Yvonne. The list of prospective foster parents wanting younger children is and always will be longer than the one for older children--."

"Mrs. Santiago, I can't say I understand the problem. I know there's a surplus of brown children who need good homes -- young children. Last month's People magazine, its 100 Most Beautiful issue, included an entire spread on--"

"Marigold's just turned fourteen, Miss Jenssen. And, as for race," here, the woman lowered her voice, "She's actually bi-racial." I looked over at the biracial child in question, the blond, blue-eyed one whose jeans were inscribed with the word Juicy studded across her behind, the one tugging at a crop top revealing a pierced navel encircled by wild flowers, the spaces in between dotted with butterflies. Mrs. Santiago stared at me smiling, her eyes, their glint, all but shouting, 'Oh my, yes, you could have spit her out, Miss Jennsen. The two of you could practically pass for twins, you sure could.' It took everything in me not to slap her. Instead I said, "Mrs. Santiago, please."

"Marigold may be advanced for her age, but she's fourteen."

Fourteen going on thirty-seven, I mumbled, my face now turned away from the girl, focus back on the social worker. "Whatever, Mrs. Santiago, would it have hurt to give me some warning? I mean, I asked for a kid, she's practically a woman."

"You're right. Someone messed up. I didn't look at your file when I got the call saying they had a wonderful woman with a great home environment where Marigold could be placed immediately. I just thought great. That's exactly what this child needs. And, I tell you Yvonne, we get a lot of people thinking they can just fill out a couple of packets of papers, go to a couple of training sessions, and bam, they've got a kid and a check in one clean swoop. When the church rep told me you lived right down the street and what a great impression you made on her, I thought perfect, finally someone who's in it for the sake of these children. Thank you, Heavenly Father. This is a good day to be alive and in the Word."

I looked at the woman. My eyes narrowed: Well played, Mrs. Santiago, well played, indeed. I looked over at the girl who though she seemed totally immersed in whatever rata tat tat coming from her music device, still appeared to be plugged into what was being said about her. Whatever. I did not want a white child. Being a black mother to a white child did not match up with the personal brand I had spent the last several months cultivating. Period.
"I can't do long term placement, not with a teen. Emergency placement only, I could do that." I studied Mrs. Santiago, who was now fussing with her tote bag, digging about to bring forth custody forms. I took the forms and attached clipboard. Mrs. Santiago reached into her high hair and pulled out a pen.

I scanned the forms quickly, writing at the bottom of the last form in tight cursive: Emergency placement, not to exceed thirty days from date of receiving custody of "child," where I then drew a line and signed and initialed.

"Good thing is, Miss Jenssen, school's out for summer. So you won't have that to deal with," Mrs. Santiago said, smiling.

I looked over at her, and mumbled, "Good thing."

Later that evening when Pastor Mack came knocking with his pretty pink gift basket of childcare sundries, I stared hard at him through the peephole, watching motionless as he stood waiting, hefting the basket back and forth from one rheumatismal hand to the next. And though I should have been ashamed, at least felt a twinge of guilt as I eyed him and listened to the tap, tap, tap of his white cane as he slowly made his way back down the sidewalk in the direction of St. Mark's, I swear to you and God I did not.