My foster father chose a husband for me.
He was a Victorian relict. Of good French peasant stock and attitude but shaped and reduced like a court bouillon by being transplanted to Louisiana at an early age, by living with twenty siblings, by the death of his father when he was eleven, by his mother becoming Baptist after her husband’s death (Baptists were ubiquitous and had been helpful), by his mother’s abuse, by the depression. He romanticized his childhood as well as the age that had begun passing away before his birth and, by the time he was a husband and father, everyone including him had forgotten it: what existed in his mind bore no resemblance to the reality that had been. But he was determined his fantasy would exist in his household. He owned us – such was his firm belief. The children he had fathered, the children he fostered, his wife – all were his possessions to dispose of as he saw fit. He was not only king in his castle but it’s god as well. And not a benign household god like those Rebecca hid from Laban. Rather a cruel, terrifying god – more like Moloch come to life and requiring the souls and personalities of many, many children and one or two wives to maintain his existence.
And I had escaped him. Was, in fact, the only one to leave. I had earned a scholarship to a small women’s college in the east and at sixteen, had fled his house in California. Adjusting to freedom was not as easy as I had imagined and I romanticized about what was behind but after experiencing an horrific Christmas holiday back in California, I realized my fantasy did not exist and that I would be insane to go back. I planned never to return. So, the summer after my freshman year, I visited the families of school friends who lived in and near Colorado and then spent time exploring that part of the United States until lack of money sent me reluctantly back to my foster father’s house for the last three weeks before school began.
At the beginning of that summer, I had not told him that I would not be returning to his house until the last minute, had even tried to exchange the ticket he sent me for airfare to Colorado but was unable to do so without his permission. On the day I was scheduled to fly to California, I called and told him I was not coming back but instead, was going to Colorado. He was extremely displeased, called back and spoke with one of my roommates who gave him the first address I would be visiting. (She was one of those people who delighted in hurting her friends whenever an opportunity arose.) My foster father sent the police to retrieve me but since he had told them I was a college student, they, like so many others, assumed I was at least eighteen and merely asked me to call him. I did and reiterated again that I would not be returning to California. Still, when I ran out of money three months later and did not know what else to do, I knew he would send me a ticket and he did. (I did not even concern myself with getting back to New York. I had three whole weeks to attend to that.)
There were no recriminations beyond him telling me that he could “do nothing with me” but I had long outgrown his various iterations of that particular theme. It seemed to me it was not his place to do anything with me but I was no longer foolish enough to try to silence him by voicing my thoughts. I was simply glad that I needn’t withstand days of his attacks, even dared to hope he would let me be, would allow me to live my own life. But then, I was just seventeen at the time.
On the first Sunday I was back, I realized I would have to attend services at my his church particularly since I needed him to buy me a ticket back to New York. But since I had been accustomed to sneaking out to attend mass from the time I was twelve or so, doing so again was simply a return to the familiar.
I came down on Sunday wearing trousers and he objected until I reminded him that I had a cold. Avoiding a chill (for all Victorians worthy of the name) took precedence over the proper fundamentalist Baptist attire. When we were in the car, he told me how glad he was I had returned in time to meet the young seminary student who had interned for him that summer, that I’d be able to hear him preach that day. I made the sort of noncommittal noise I had discovered years before, the kind that he heard as, Oh, isn’t that lovely and allowed him to continue; my foster father was never interested in what anyone else had to say. No one noticed that I did not pay attention to the sermon. And when my foster father suggested his intern take me to China-town for lunch, suitably chaperoned by the assistant pastor and his wife, it seemed a welcome opportunity to have a good lunch and avoid my foster father’s presence for several hours. Life was unexpectedly good.
It was an excellent lunch. Lots of delicious dim sum. And I seem to recall there was actual conversation and that it was rather interesting as well. But when the assistant pastor and wife left me with the seminarian so we could get ice cream and told me he would see me home, I became a bit suspicious. I did not know this young man. And whereas he had certainly been a perfect gentleman, the set up seemed too much like a date and no one had asked if I was interested. He bought me an ice cream and we ate it as we walked along. (He seemed a bit amazed that I ate the cone backwards but as that has always been my favourite way to eat ice cream, I saw no reason to change for him.) When I saw my bus coming, I told him to run or else we’d have an hour’s wait. I ran and caught the bus. From the window, I saw him standing on the sidewalk with another amazed (or was it dazed?) look on his face.
The next day he returned to seminary. During the following weeks, my foster father sang his praises and repeatedly asked me what I thought of him. I didn’t think much and made more noncommittal noises. When he suggested he would not send me back to New York, that in fact, I should transfer to a nearby women’s college and think about settling down – perhaps with the seminarian who would graduate and return the following summer – I told him that I’d join the army instead and travel around the world. He bought me a ticket and left and never returned.
Reflections on loving God, being Catholic, being a woman, being ill, loving life and anything else that comes to mind.
Monday, July 30, 2007
My foster father chose a husband for me.