This is one of the first pieces I ever published and is why I feel so passionate to give back.
Copyright @ 2010 Dee Streiner
Memoirs of a Homeless Toddler by Dee Streiner
I remember standing in the dirt, silent tears rolling down my cheeks. I didn’t want my mother to see me cry; she was trying so hard. But those days blended from one painful episode into the next. I remember the smell of the desert when it rained. I loved that smell. On that particularly scorching summer day, I felt the coolness on my charred soles and I wondered, even at four years old, would it hurt more now that my feet had known relief? Even then, I knew I would suffer for the temporary reprieve, but I couldn’t stop myself from digging my bare feet deep into the cool, moist desert floor.
Back then, in the 70’s, you couldn’t stay in the shelters during the day and you could only stay at the same shelter for a number of nights before you were required to move on. We had nothing to do during the days but walk, and we’d reached our maximum of nights allowed at the previous shelter. We wandered the streets killing time until the next shelter opened and we’d race for our spots before it became too full.
Standing at a traffic light, I remember seeing a dead cat, its’ eyes staring unseeing into the cloud-filled sky. It was wrapped around a traffic light. Whatever hit it must’ve been moving at quite a clip to propel it that way. I think that now. Back then, I wondered if it was in peace, and I was happy for it. I feel sorry for the little girl who stood -jumping from foot to foot- staring at death like that. My mother was far too distracted to notice, to protect me from such things. She was busy trying to figure out what to do next while she carried my brother, easing the red-hot sting on the bottoms of his little feet. It was his turn.
My brother gave up many turns of being carried, so I could have longer ones. I’ve never forgotten that. I saw the shame in his eyes those few times he accepted and felt bad for my own disappointment. Neither one of us gave a thought to the tiny woman, only four feet, nine inches tall, who carried us for miles each day, trying to find some way out of the hell she’d created. All we thought about was the ache of hunger in our bellies, our painful cracked lips, dry from thirst, and the unforgiving aches in our bodies. Nothing else mattered.
I don’t remember caring about toys. We’d had them stripped away so often, I stopped caring long before that time. I’m especially sad for that fact. A four-year-old girl should have a special doll or stuffed animal to love. Kids should care about toys and not be concerned with the survival and safety of the people they love.
My mother’s new husband had destroyed everything that we loved on a regular basis over the previous two years. Jim was the worst kind of alcoholic. He worked all week and was adored by his friends and coworkers. Then Friday came and like clockwork, Jim drank away most of his weeks’ earnings and went home to beat my mother. He then dragged our belongings into the driveway and drove over them, back and forth, laughing wickedly. It was shocking at first, to lose everything we cherished, but when you’ve listened to your mother plead for her life, while tables crashed against the thin paneling of a trailer home, you stop caring about material possessions.
Eventually, Jim would spend his tirade, feeling justified and puffed up, and he’d go off to drink for the night. The following day, Jim would crawl back, begging for forgiveness with arm loads of thrift store clothes and toys. She was too afraid of Jim by then to say “no.” His psychological abuse far exceeded the physical abuse. I was too young to understand that then. I just wanted him gone.
The last time Jim hurt my mom, he crossed a line with her. He threatened to hurt her children and something in my mother snapped. My brother and I sat outside the sun-faded trailer listening to my mother’s pleas for mercy when we heard Jim yell, “If you would just listen, I wouldn’t have to train you. How about I grab one of your brats and see if I can teach you a lesson through them…” My brother and I gasped and clutched each others’ arms. I stopped breathing, I was sure Jim would come get us. I no longer trusted my mother to keep us safe. He’d already gone way too far and she had yet to stop him. But this time it was different. I heard my mother tell him if he touched either of us, she’d kill him. The guttural tone of her voice, the determination and strength in it, made the hairs stand on the back of my neck. I guess Jim felt it too because he took our belongings and locked them inside his car –without running them over first- and left for the bar. That was it. He had left.
In the strangest voice I’d ever heard from her, my mother called us inside. There she stood, bruised and bloody, and she said, “It’s done. We’re leaving.” Her shoulders were set and her face was steely. She’d had enough. Everything we owned, which wasn’t much, was locked inside Jim’s car, including our shoes. My mom had only a few dollars. We left everything else behind.
So, with our shirts, shorts and bare feet, we were off. We walked for days. We had a few meals at the shelters and stole water from spouts outside of houses and restaurants as we passed. Our feet were scorched and blistered, and our hearts clutched onto what little bit of hope we had left. What else could we do?
In the end, my mom decided to turn to Welfare. We’d walked for miles to get to their door with the hope that we’d find some assistance there. My mother didn’t care about herself; she just wanted someone to help us. She had avoided the option up to that point because she feared they would take us away from her. That is how desperate the situation had become. She knew she had to put herself aside and save us. We couldn’t live on the streets indefinitely. I believe she was nearing the end of what she could handle.
I remember feeling exhausted, hot, and sore. I was covered by a thick layer of grime, and my ratty hair looked like wild tumbleweed wrapping around my head. We entered the building; the cool air conditioning hit us like icy gel to a burn. It was heavenly relief, at first, but quickly we began to shiver. I remember my teeth chattering and feeling ridiculous for it. Every person stopped to stare. We must’ve been a sight. They parted ways and allowed my mother to go straight to the counter. If you have ever had experiences with the Welfare Department, you’ll understand that this is as rare as seeing big foot riding a humpback whale in your backyard swimming pool.
I was distracted watching the children around me. I remember noting that one little girl, who was my size, carried a cute baby doll. I wanted it. But more than the doll, I wanted her shoes, well-worn pink flip-flops, the bottoms a barrier between flesh and pavement, sweet heaven. My feet were freezing on the linoleum - better than the hot pavement but still quite uncomfortable. My thoughts were interrupted by my mother’s raised voice.
“Ten days? What do you mean? We can’t wait ten days,” she pleaded. The woman sternly refused, rules are rules.
The people around us shifted uncomfortably in their seats and averted their eyes. The woman explained that there was a waiting period for assistance; we’d have to wait ten days.
The air left my mother and her shoulders drooped. She filled out the paperwork, took our hands and led us outside. We made it down a few steps before she collapsed into tears. My mother had lost hope, and we quickly followed. She just couldn’t walk us around for ten more days finding shelters and begging for food. She had only a dime left in her pocket. Right there on the steps of the Welfare office, my mom cried with complete abandon.
A woman approached. She looked shocked. Her eyes scanned our faces, our hair and then our feet. Her eyes filled with tears. She squatted before my mother and asked for her story. The stranger searched my mother’s face and held my mother in her arms while she cried her despair, not even flinching at the dirt and sweat on her body. And the woman pulled my mother to her feet and looked down into her anguished face.
“I’m going to help you today,” she said. Just like that.
My mother was stunned by the compassion in the other woman’s eyes.
“Here, get the kids something to eat. Meet me back here in one hour, okay?” She took money out of her wallet and gave it to my mother who was completely speechless. Finally, my mother managed a small nod.
I remember having the best meal of my life. We laughed together for the first time in a long time. We praised God for the meal we were devouring. It was fast-food. And we ate until we felt sick, which didn’t take long, but we didn’t care. We had hope.
When we returned, the kind woman was waiting for us. She drove us to a small efficiency motel. She had paid for two months. She told my mother that during that time, my mother would begin receiving assistance from the state. In exchange, my mother had to promise to get my brother into school, and she had to promise to turn her life around. I remember the woman telling my mother that life was a creation.
Naturally, I don’t remember it word for word, my mom filled it in as best as she could remember, but the essence of what that wonderful lady said was, “We choose every day; each day creates the setting for the next. You deserve more and your kids deserve better.” Then she told my mother, without pulling the punch, that my mother was not a victim. She said for my mother to “cut the crap” and get herself together, if not for herself, then for her children. My mother lifted her head and agreed with determination.
My brother and I knew that the violent times were over. My mother had made a new choice. We were safe.
The motel had a fully furnished kitchen and living area. We had glasses and unlimited water from the tap. And that, my dear friends, was better than Christmas to us. When other little girls were excited over their baby dolls that peed, I was enthralled by the idea of our own glasses and water at the ready.
I never knew the lady’s name. I just remember that she was like an Angel who climbed into the depths of hell and pulled us out. She saved us. My mother did use the time to get back to her feet and found us a new place to live. She got a job and got my brother into school. We never saw the woman again once we left the motel, but my mom later told me that the woman was some kind of supervisor at the Welfare Department and that she had just been strolling in from her lunch break when she’d stumbled upon us crying on the front steps. She’d told my mother that in all of her years there, she’d never seen anything quite like us before.
She’d said that too many times people waste their opportunities. She wanted a promise that this wasn’t a wasted effort, that her gift would make a difference.
It did. Beyond giving us a new start, she gave us awareness. She gave us a gift greater than hope, she gave us self-empowerment. I will never forget that.
Thank you Angel-lady, wherever you are.