This piece was published in the Pasadena Star-News on December 7, 2003.
The baby boy squished banana chunks between his tiny fingers before he shoved them
in his mouth. He pointed to the banana peel and said, “ba-ba.” His foster mother
handed him a few more chunks. He looked at me, smiling at his great accomplishment.
Four little white teeth had emerged from his gums.
As I looked into his innocent eyes I marveled at how far “Raymond” had come in the
eight months since my sister became his foster mother, after his birth mother left him at a bus stop with a stranger and never came back. My sister’s was his sixth foster home. He cried constantly because he was battling a heroin addiction and alsosuffered from an anal fissure, ruptured ear drum and thrush.
His medical problems were treated and his tiny heart – one bereft of love – was filled. He learned how to laugh and play and gained the confidence to flirt with strangers like me.
My sister is a foster parent who specializes in babies from birth to one year. In the five years she has been fostering babies she has sent most of them to loving adoptive homes. The child welfare system mandates that babies go to their blood relatives – if they can find them. If no blood relatives are found, a baby becomes eligible for adoption by a certified adoptive family.
Prior to Raymond, my sister fostered another baby boy, “Travis,” for a year before he was available for adoption. She worked with his new parents to make the transition as comfortable as possible. The adoptive parents came to my sister’s house for dinner. A few days later they babysat while my sister and her husband went out for the evening.
Travis met his new parents for the first time on his own turf. He had a chance to get to know them while he sat in his own high chair. They fell in love with him immediately. Once he was comfortable, his new parents took Travis home to a fully furnished nursery, with tons of toys, a permanent Mom and Dad and a childhood full of love and attention from people with whom he did not share one drop of blood.
Raymond isn’t so lucky. His grandmother wants to raise him. She made this decision in spite of the promise made by Child Protective Services that Raymond’s adoptive parents would welcome his grandmother as part of their life – complete with pictures and visits. Couples that long for a child are willing to do what it takes to adopt a baby.
Raymond’s transition was not smooth. When his grandmother arrived, they went to a fast food restaurant. Amid the chaos of children and burgers and fries, Raymond was put in the arms of his blood relative. She stayed the weekend and then left. Life as Raymond knew it was over and this well-meaning stranger was now his guardian.
None of the myriad of professionals involved in Raymond’s case paid much attention to my sister’s concern about his placement with his grandma. Raymond’s psychiatric evaluation said that his transition should include preparation and association with the new family to transition his bonding, in light of his early trauma. If the transition was abrupt, he might just give up on bonding entirely. Child Protective Services had a “placement” and needed to move on – bonding be damned.
Just like Raymond, my sister was denied a smooth transition. Her voice, the one that knew Raymond best and cared about him the most, wasn’t heard.
As Richard Gelles, Dean of the Pennsylvania’s School of Social Work said, “We drive people out of the foster care system by giving them nothing other than a check and thank you very much, but by the way, if you complain, we’re taking the kid out”.
After she spent months nurturing a damaged child so he could once again trust adults, my sister was forced to betray his trust – in the interest of reunification. I looked at the pictures she took of him the day before he left, sitting in a grocery cart with a sad look. Everyone at the store knew he was a foster child and made a point to say hello and to give him a balloon or a hug.
A few years from now, will Raymond sit on the porch with his grandma and watch the other kids learn how to ride a bike with their Dads running along side, holding on till they get their balance? By the time he is learning to drive a car, will his grandmother be up to the harrowing experience of sitting next to him as he careens down the road, as all new drivers do? Will her blood tie to him replace all the things he will lose because he’ll never have a Mom and a Dad?
Because the child welfare system insists on family reunification, loving adoptive families won’t be able to provide the kind of home babies like Raymond so desperately need. Foster parents who want to care for a child until he can move to a permanent home, instead hand him over to a blood relative whose intentions may be good but whose actions hurt the child they claim as their own.
Until the child welfare system recognizes that the bond of love is more important that the bond of blood, loving foster parents will watch their tiny charges go off to homes that cannot give them what every child deserves – a Mom and a Dad of their own.
This piece was published in the Pasadena Star-News on February 2, 2002.
Each sixth-grader had to give a one-minute speech at the graduation ceremony. Although it terrified them, they had to do it to get out of elementary school. I watched with pride as my son delivered, with a shaky voice, the one-minute speech he had rehearsed for hours.
The teacher told the graduates to talk about their plans for the future, their goals and dreams. She wanted it summed up in one minute. I thought back to the day I had enrolled my son as a first-grader, six years ago. Recently remarried, I uprooted my two young children and moved them from Denver to Los Angeles. He took it hard.
He had left his very best buddy back in Denver and, being a loyal friend from a young age, did not want to make any new friends, much less a new best buddy. He took his time choosing a new friend. Every day I listened as he came home from school and told me what his day had been like and despaired when I heard no mention of a best buddy. Finally, in October he told me about his new friend.
From then on I heard about Danny every day. They were fast friends and I gave a prayer of thanksgiving.
We planned a Halloween party. Danny was first on the list. A few days before the party, his mother called and asked more than the usual mother hen questions. I wondered why but answered them so that my son’s new buddy could attend.
The friendship was sealed. It was always to be, but never played out. “Danny died,” my tearful son said when he arrived home that awful day in November. Who could believe it? Danny died on the playground after school.
He was playing too hard, running too fast and simply ran out of time. Danny had a heart condition, controlled, so his parents thought, with a pacemaker. That explained all the extra questions before the Halloween party.
I wrestled with the idea of taking a young child to a funeral. The decision was made for me when the family closed the attendance to immediate family only. We were left with loose ends but moved on. Six years later, my son was graduating from elementary school.
I suggested he mention Danny in his speech and he agreed. In his first sentence he asked the assembled proud parents and teachers to remember his friend. Before talking about his future, he took a moment to think about his past and his best buddy. We didn’t know that Danny’s aunt was in the audience. She asked for a copy of the speech to give to Danny’s father.
Several weeks later we received a letter from Danny’s dad, thanking my son for bringing his son’s memory to that graduation day. He told us where Danny’s grave site was. We went there together on an early summer day, late in the afternoon as clouds began to gather and the sky was low and gray.
We found the headstone and sat together looking at the sky and talked about Danny. “He wasn’t a nervous kid,” my son said. “He always seemed kind of calm and not worried about anything.”
I remembered Danny in his little tiger costume, with whiskers carefully drawn on his tiny face, running in my living room with several other six-year-olds, never to be seven. On a humid summer evening I looked at my beautiful, healthy twelve-year-old boy, ready to start his life as I sat by the grave of a six-year-old child. Sadness flooded the same part of my heart that was filled with gratitude for my good fortune.
As life bestows its blessings and tragedies, we brace ourselves for the worst and hope for the best. We must always remember to remember. I am grateful for the comfort Danny’s father took when his son’s memory was evoked at a milestone Danny would not mark. He was moved by the compassion of his small son’s friend, who remembered him all those years later.
The letter and the trip to visit Danny gave closure to my son and me. It taught us that compassion is important, especially for those who left too soon for reasons we cannot understand. Danny’s untimely death taught so much. Just as a friend will do, he taught us well.
This piece was published in the Pasadena Star-News on May 7, 2010.
There aren’t many barbershops left anymore. You have to look hard for that red, white and blue barber pole outside a shop that has a couple of chairs inside with old guys sitting in them, stubbornly refusing to enter a co-ed hair salon. The strict segregation of barbershops for men and beauty shops for women is over. A man can walk into a beauty salon with his head held high and get his hair cut by a female. I have
seen a male or two getting a dye job in my salon.
I saw lots of barbershops in my hometown of Findlay, Ohio. I was twelve-years-old the year our town celebrated its sesquicentennial (150 years). Findlay was a great place to grow up and had lots of open space where I was free to roam around on my bicycle with my dog running alongside. The town was short on culture, though, and it wasn’t until the sesquicentennial that I got my first experience with a live musical performance, other than the high school choir. A barbershop quartet sang at the local band shell. Four guys sang in perfect harmony about the girl they love. I was hooked.
This quintessential American music was considered a bit old fashioned even back then. The singers dressed alike in striped shirts and used a lot of hand gestures that were choreographed to accentuate the lyrics. At the end of the songs, they held the last chord in four-part harmony while the crowd held their breath. Finally the chord ended and the audience started to breathe again.
The corny old tunes, like Sweet Adeline,always had a girl at the center of it that the singers were desperately in love with and wanted to walk back home. (In 1945 in Tulsa Oklahoma, a group of women formed their own organization called Sweet Adelines.) Down by the Old Mill Stream was a particular favorite since it was written on the banks of the Blanchard River that ran through Findlay. Written by Tell Taylor, it has been a barbershop standard since 1910.
There is a purity to barbershop quartet singing because they perform with no musical instruments to accompany them. The harmonious, a cappella style, with voices only is very simple concept considering that music today can be created by a computer. A fine barbershop quartet lives and breathes this music and spends many long hours practicing.
I was delighted when I met a woman who was married to a member of a barbeshop quartet (Barbershop Boy meets Sweet Adeline girl) and discovered that the world of barbershop is alive and well in Southern California and throughout the world. I found out that the Barbershop Harmony Society, a mostly volunteer organization, is grooming new talent and that young men are forming barbershop quartets and entering competitions. Soon after I found out where barbershop quartets were performing, I began to attend concerts.
The Masters of Harmony, a men’s chorus in excess of one hundred members in all shapes, sizes and ages, boasts a varied repertoire, ranging from the classics to jazz, patriotic to sacred, with some musical theater pieces adapted for the barbershop chorus style. The numbers are choreographed, with some of the younger guys jumping down from the risers while dancing and singing, moving props around on stage without missing a note. While they maintain their historical roots, many barbershop quartets and choruses use arrangements from pieces ranging from the Beatles to Brahms.
In our electronic age, the innocence and exuberance of a group of men singing about the women they adore in rhyming lyrics is refreshing. Today’s popular music is also about love but has more sexualized lyrics in some songs and downright dirty lyrics in others. Barbershop music describes a time that is lost, but the music is as vital and entertaining as any contemporary musical style.
If you have heard this great American musical art form and want to relive it or perhaps want to introduce it to your children or grandchildren, check online to see if there is a group near you. In Southern California visit https://www.mastersofharmony.org for more information. For the ladies, visit the Sweet Adelines at https://sweetadelines.com.
Kathleen Vallee Stein