Dr. Ellen K. Rudolph Blog My First Christmas – Dr. Ellen's Blog

My First Christmas

Posted on February 5, 2012 By

It was Christmas and three weeks shy of my sixth birthday and there I was, decked out in brand new blue jeans that Santa had left under the tree for me. I was awash with shyness, and it had taken a bit of doing just to get me to try them on for everybody.

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The year was 1951 and it had been a tumultuous year.

Earlier that summer I was separated from my five older brothers by the local Welfare Department and placed in a childless foster home in a distant town. We six had actually been in foster homes as a group since I was three years of age, but the department had finally run out of foster care options for us; and I was deemed too vulnerable as a girl to be left in that situation.

Our story was a typical one: by the time I was three our family of origin had been fractured beyond repair by marital discord and poverty, our young mother had run off with another man, and our father —an older alcoholic man with an abusive, heavy-hand towards his five young sons– voluntarily gave the six of us up and went on to marry someone else.

Talk about bad models for marriage, this was one of them. While we were still together as a family we all lived in a one-bedroom house with a small kitchen off an even tinier living room. In the living room there was a double bed and a raggedy old arm chair, which is where we kids played, slept, and comforted each other as we listened to raucous marital quarrels behind that closed bedroom door.

I can remember many a cold winter day when the boys were not able to go to school for the lack of shoes. Instead, we’d wrap our feet in layers of socks and pile outside to slide down a big hill on pieces of cardboard found behind the local grocery store.

Meals in those days came sparingly and mainly were provided us by a neighbor, Mrs. Vaca, who had taken our young troubled mother under her wing. That’s about all I can remember of Mrs. Vaca, except that I saw her again some years later when an older brother married, and she almost fainted when she was introduced to me. I apparently looked the splitting image of my natural mother although I wouldn’t have known that, having been so young when I last saw her.

NOTE: I do have a single family photo from those days that I treasure. It is a picture of our mother, Mary, and the six of us kids. I was sitting on a brother’s lap in baby clothes and the name of each child was scrawled on their chest for posterity. But not only did Mary confuse the names of two of my brothers pictured, the photo itself is blurry. Mary’s features in particular were entirely blurred but at least we know that she was there (for awhile).

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How that photo survived through the years I will never know, but I am certain I have my oldest brother, Philip, to thank for it. He was our tireless guardian who kept us going and kept us all together as best he could in the face of adversity.

We were each one year apart, so when I was three Philip the guardian was pushing all of nine.

And Then There Were None

My memories from those days are also largely a gift from Philip. Despite being young and vulnerable himself he was our rock, and he stayed close in touch with all of us even when the Welfare Department separated us into different foster homes. He was particularly attentive to me and we remained the best of friends until his death at the age of sixty from a serious and life-long heart condition. (The doctors told him he probably wouldn’t live beyond his mid-twenties.)

He and I used to talk on the telephone with each other weekend, coast to coast. We did that for more than twenty-five, beginning with my emancipation as an adult.

In the course of almost every phone call we recalled our early years growing up in northern Minnesota’s iron ore country, and Philip was forever uncovering tidbits that helped us piece together a collage of days gone by.

I still retain a great many visual memories from those days but it was Philip who provided the names and dates and detailed descriptions of the noteworthy events that shaped our lives.

After I was placed with the Keans as a foster child, the two youngest boys were placed in a orphanage. One was adopted by a Wisconsin family a few years later, and the other one eventually ran away in despair, eventually taking on a whole new identity and loosing himself to the family entirely. The next two brothers went to live with Mrs. Vaca and Philip, the eldest, went to live for a while with our natural mother, Mary, who had resurfaced and wanted him around to help her. He went to help her, but she ended up dying in childbirth and her nameless partner took that child with him from the hospital to disappear forever into the night. Philip eventually talked his best friend’s parents into letting him live with them while he finished high school, after which he left Minnesota for what he hoped were greener pastures.

That ended our group foster home saga which was a bitter sweet experience by all accounts. We at least had each other and I had all of them, which was good. Nothing else much mattered to us.

Other Recollections

I do think the Welfare system tried its best with us. I can remember many trips in the caseworker’s car that took us to yet another indistinct farmhouse somewhere in the middle of nowhere. On one occasion the caseworker was unduly distraught and, as we were motoring down a long dirt driveway back to the county road, she hit and killed the foster farmer’s dog. That left quite an impression on the six of us as we contemplated the days ahead from the backseat of that big old black Buick.

At one particularly awful place where the foster farmer shot the cattle (and sometimes the boys) in the butt with a BB Gun, a matronly woman with zero personality came to visit. Well, she didn’t come to visit us, but we had to endure her. I crawled under her straight-backed chair and drew a picture of her with pencil and paper. It was a masterpiece if I do say so; my childlike figure was of a lady with long grey hair tied up in a bun, big drooping boobs, protruding teeth under flaring lips, and a nose to nowhere. The foster mother, of course, confiscated the masterpiece and sent us all to bed giggling wildly. That was the last of my drawing tools if I recall.

We endured more than a dozen foster homes in those years, so that by the time I stepped out of the car at the Kean’s home as their soon to be only child, I was a bit battle weary.

When I think about what happened to the boys after the group saga ended it was, in retrospect, a good thing for all of us that the Welfare Department worked so hard to keep us all together for so long. Today I know enough to thank them for that but at that time fostering in general was mainly a budgetary decision, with few quality controls and not much money. It was just something to be endured by all.

Once when I was in high school working at a student job in the local courthouse, I happened upon a big fat manila folder of caseworker notes about THE JOHNSON KIDS and I read it in stunned silence. I was, after all, the youngest of those Johnson kids. It painted a pretty bleak picture of our family of origin years and the folder was filled with newspaper articles about the multi-year effort to keep us kids together against all odds.

If they just could have pinned our dysfunctional parents back together again.

Kids are resilient and they can make lemonade out of lemons with a little nurturance. Some of us kids more than others got the requisite doses of nurturance and we clearly thrived better because of it. Those who didn’t —like the brother who was indiscriminatly abused by a Catholic priest— faired much less well, including the one who ran away from the orphanage and eventually ended up in the California prison system. That’s a story for another time.

The emotional toll in every case was huge but it was much less so for me because of the buffering presence of my five older brothers. I can recall many situations during those early days where the boys stood with their backs to me, protecting me from some crazy kook hell bent on hurting me. The boys saved me from the worst of the worst and I will forever be grateful to them. They protected me, consoled me, babysat me and laughed with me. Mostly, though, I remember them as knights in shining armor who came dashing in on big white horses when needed to carry me to safety.

The Judge

My final foster care situation transitioned into a permanent adoption on my sixth birthday. At that point I went from being the youngest sister of five older brothers to being an only child in a family of means and education and fifty first cousins.

The brightly decorated Christmas tree three weeks earlier that blew me away was the very first time in my life that someone had put up a tree with packages under it just for me.

I couldn’t believe it, as I really felt no ownership of the toys given me. After all, my brothers didn’t have their names on any of the packages and that didn’t seem fair to me. I freely gave those toys away, prompting my adoptive mother on more than one occasion to call out to me from the backdoor to come home with all of my toys, please.

A kind Judge would later sit me on his knee to ask me questions about my pending adoption by the Keans, and one question of his still sticks with me. He wondered if I had had a wonderful Christmas and, while answering yes, I lowered my eyes, wondering out loud why my brothers didn’t. He said with great wisdom that it all would work out one day for the best, and to give the Keans a chance; after all, they chose me.

That was the gift under the tree in the long run that meant the most to me and it still means the world to me to this day.

Many Christmases have come and gone by now and I am celebrating yet another birthday. But instead of flannel-lined blue jeans I am happily decked out in iMacs and Nikons and MINI Coopers and lots of precious critters and friends galore, including Philip who I know still keeps an eye on me.

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