River muse

‘Take care of the children’

By CASS COLLINS
Posted 8/4/21

Of the many various outcomes of child neglect and abuse, my niece is one. S is 46 and lives in a group home in Seattle. She survives through SSI disability payments. She has never been married, never …

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River muse

‘Take care of the children’

Posted

Of the many various outcomes of child neglect and abuse, my niece is one. S is 46 and lives in a group home in Seattle. She survives through SSI disability payments. She has never been married, never lived independently. She has multiple diagnoses, including anxiety, major depressive disorder, anorexia, ADHD and PTSD. She is also one of the most loving people I know.

As an infant, S was hurled in rage across the snowy yard of her Cambridge, MA home, from one parent’s arms to the other. Her mother fled to Vermont and her father, my brother, then cobbled together care for her in order to work. I was one of those caregivers.

After a nasty custody battle (is there any other kind?) in which the judge declared that if he heard more testimony about either parent, he would remove the child to the custody of the state, S’s life became divided between her parents. (Her mother later fraudulently secured full custody, moving far enough away to make visitation difficult.)

I am convinced that if it were not for her stepfather, S might have survived this early trauma without debilitating effects. He was a cause of the breakup of her parents’ marriage. From infancy, she suffered daily denigrations, put-downs that shaped her self-image and, later, sexual intrusions that traumatized her.

As a young girl, S spent time with me and her grandmother on mini-vacations in New York. My mother adored her first grandchild and lavished attention on her. She took S to the ballet, read to her at night and encouraged her every budding talent. She was treated like any loved child.

Her father was a part of her life, but he married again and had two more children. When he moved to California, his contact with S diminished to a few visits a year.

S was always included in our family events. She was in my wedding when she was 11 and a junior bridesmaid at my cousin’s gala wedding when she was 13. She spent part of a summer with us in the Catskills as my mother’s helper at 16. At that time, she was a stunning young woman, with her father’s thickly-lashed eyes and long legs. I remember her being frightened by the attention boys paid her. When another local girl invited her to the movies with friends, S backed out, too anxious to be in a social group.

In 2004, her mother took her to Brazil to be a missionary for their church. Although my husband and I had once hoped that S would run away from home in her teen years and come to live with us, we now lost touch with her. We saw her once, at her father’s funeral in 1994, then not again until two years ago when we visited her. This year, we invited her to visit us for two weeks. S counted the days to her arrival, with daily phone calls when we planned our days together, which always included afternoon lattes.

She hadn’t seen our children since they were 6 and 3. Now in their ’30s, their life experiences had far eclipsed hers in education, love and work. She didn’t seem to begrudge them any of it. Instead, she blossomed in their presence and in the presence of our friends.

I could spend time feeling bad for all those lost years between us. Instead, I choose to enjoy the time we have left. When my brother was dying, he asked me to take care of his children. At the time, I didn’t know how I would. I guess this is what he meant.

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