I cradle a faded accordion folder on my lap; this is pandemic sorting when there is nowhere to go but into the boxes I do not go into. The folder is full of letters I wrote in my teens, twin to one I combed through a few years ago. There’s little place for this kind of reminiscing in my life today, except when I’m writing. Then they are everything. I remove each letter, recalling the places I lived by the return addresses. The early letters from juvenile detention are written in pencil. I take a sip of wine, remembering the detention center’s huge cotton underpants. I was thirteen, still growing. Later correspondence from group homes allowed pens, which can be used as a weapon in detention; kids in the system seem less dangerous when you remove the bars.
I sort the letters into chronological order. I take another sip. I try not to drink too often, but I’ve marked this ritual is an occasion. I’ve done it before; the wine, the sorting, and the tight feeling in my chest that may cause me to finish the bottle. I don’t need to read the letters to remember what they say, but I will because I’m a writer. There’s much fodder here for essays and fiction.
One of the piles I’ve made contains letters the county sent my mother about me. I don’t need to read these either, but I will. When I did this before, I wept over the letters I wrote, then called out to my husband in a fury about the county letters. I quoted my mother’s comments to the social workers, absolving herself of all responsibility. I narrow my eyes, imagining her with permed hair and gold hoop earrings, talking to a social worker in a county office, “Tiffany is out of control. I don’t know why.” The image of her with wide, doe eyes makes my throat constrict a little.
I pick up a letter from the pile I wrote and remove it from the envelope. It begins, Dear Mama, can I please come home? I read When are we moving to Kentucky? I wish I’d opened a different letter. Today, the phrase moving to Kentucky has little to do with packing boxes and driving west into the mountains, although I took it literally all those years. I know now that Kentucky was a golden carrot on a stick far too long for my teenaged arms to reach.
My mother shacked up with an old high school boyfriend when I was five, and my sister was one. We moved in with him on Halloween night, and I turned six a week later. After an inappropriately early dinner, my grandmother took a photo of us on her porch just before we went trick or treating. I was dressed as Raggedy Ann in a dyed-red string mop wig. My mother circled a cheap, crimson tube of lipstick onto the apples of my cheeks, and I wore one of my dresses, an orange thrift shop pinafore, over my long johns. My sister was a devil, balanced on my mother’s hip in a red onesie and a matching hood my mother sewed little white stuffed horns onto. My mother was a gypsy, same as every year; the crimson lipstick on her lips, a batik scarf around her head, and the southern California uniform she wore until we moved back east; long, flowing hippie skirts and large gold hoops. Aside from the scarf and lipstick, she looked no different than she did in the photos of her and my father on the west coast before I was born. I haven’t seen that Halloween photo in decades, but time hasn’t blurred the faces or the outfits. Thinking of myself in the picture, I don’t know how to name a thing of this much significance; Here is the little girl you will never be again after this night.
The boyfriend paid the rent. Maybe he told my mother she was pretty, or perhaps he said he was the best she could do. My mother, newly divorced with a menial job, no education, and a taste for fancy jewelry, wouldn’t have fared well trying to support two children in a Washington, DC suburb.
At first, I was precocious. I was a reader and loved big words. There hadn’t been conflicts with my mother before that Halloween; she prized my expansive vocabulary and bragged that I learned to read early. I was a smart little girl, she said. However, I soon grew into what her boyfriend said was sassy. He drank, called names, and I could not resist responding. An early puberty arrived with backtalk, a messy room, and get the hell off the phone. Surely a grown man who is sober wouldn’t go to such great lengths to prove a child was asking for a fist or the belt. My baby sister wasn’t asking for it, blending quietly into the background. I took the brunt for both of us. Children aren’t supposed to fight back, but even that young, I couldn’t fathom allowing someone to strike me without striking back.
My mother signed me over to the state at thirteen. I imagine it was easier for her to remove me and placate her boyfriend than allowing me to stay and asking him not to hit me anymore. In detention, I met kids with families like mine. Some were worse. I learned that you could make crack in a coffee pot, and sometimes parents went to jail.
Once I was a ward of the court, the county said I couldn’t go home until my mother moved away from her boyfriend. I pick up some folded, ink-spotted sheets from the Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Social Services. It is a foster care service plan review form, and the blanks are filled in with typewritten words in black Courier font. The last two sentences in the first section catch my eye: “The exact relationship between Mrs. B. and this man is unclear. He does seem to make the decisions regarding any efforts to return Tiffany to her mother’s current home.”
My social worker offered my mother transitional housing. First, she and my sister would move to a weekly-rate motel, and then an apartment program that might have been Section 8. She refused the motel; she didn’t trust the maids not to steal her belongings. A motel was beneath her, and the arrangement was too large a sacrifice to make.
It was not too large a sacrifice for my sister, who decades later found herself with a young son, unemployed, and trying to leave an abusive, alcoholic husband. She moved into the same county-run motel my mother refused. I visited her there once. We sat on the stairs leading to her room on the second floor, so rusted that the railing was little more than a lace filigree of crumbling metal in places. She wore an oversized army jacket I’d never seen before, and blew the smoke from her menthols over our heads. I left before the dinner van arrived, although she offered that the food wasn’t bad if I wanted to stay. I wept in the car on the drive home, wiping my eyes with a Starbucks napkin from my glove box.
When my mother turned down the motel, moving to Kentucky became a hopeful lie she told me. She said she’d move to her parent’s town and take me with her. Moving day never came. I didn’t stop asking until I’d aged out of the system, and it never occurred to me that she wouldn’t do it.
I pour another glass of wine. I open another letter. I sip. I read. Dear Mama, can I please come home? When are we moving to Kentucky? In that letter, I bargained. She could try me out and give me back if she changed her mind.
There is a grocery list written in pencil on the back of an envelope I sent home in ninth grade: elbo macaroni, lettuce, onion, potatoes. In this letter, I plead for her to move: “… the longer you wait, the longer you stay with him, the more I think it’s permanent. Please tell me now if I’m never going to live with you again…”
I spill wine on my lap, wiping my cheek with the back of my hand. I set my empty glass next to the piles of letters and think of my husband on a new Macbook Pro, building our business ten paces away from me in his office. I tuck the letter away and consider the girl I was when I wrote it, a shattered thing waiting for Mama to move and mend the pieces. Today, I’ve bonded the fragments of myself into glorious stained glass. I have a home and a chosen family of my own making, and it’s all far, far from Kentucky.