I’m 10, have five siblings, an absent mother that yanked us out of our predictable home and away from my father whom I adored. However, she did not. At 28, with six kids, all she could understand was how she was robbed of her youth. She did not want to go to church, hang out with the other mothers, sew clothes, cook dinner, shop or clean. She wanted to march in protest lines, stand up for civil rights, hang out in the “hippy” section of Detroit and blare The Rolling Stones.I was the middle child, the one she confided in. “We are leaving that tyrant to go live like princesses, but don’t tell anyone,” she told me.
And so we did. While my father was at work, her hippy friends, the hippy guitar player from church and a few nuns came over, all jumping into action. She told us: “Kids, throw everything you own into one bag. We are outta here!” All to the blasting sound of The Staple Sisters, “I’ll Take You There.”
She clearly had been planning move for a while because we arrived at a beautiful “Adults Only” apartment complex that sat high on a grassy hill overlooking the river, embroidered in trees, flowers, and a built-in pool that wasn’t quite done. Basically it was a mud pit.
Everything inside was eggshell white, including the walls in the kitchen, which was also equipped with shiny new appliances. We arrived in a non-descript white van driven by the guitar guy, followed by the nuns in a Chevy. They wore cut offs, had long hair and head wraps. Were these the same chalky nuns who carried rulers to scare everyone? “Okay. Now, you can’t be seen. Just casually walk up in a bit, one by one, and if anyone asks, just say you are visiting your Great Aunt Maple.”
So it began. After getting settled, and enrolled in another Catholic school, my mother basically disappeared. She is gone all day and all night. I should clarify the ages: 2 to 13. All girls — except one boy, 9, who left 24 hours after we arrived, hoping his keen honing device would will him back to my father, and it did. That left five girls, unattended and squished into one room. We had no money, no food, and as time went on, birthdays and holidays were no longer acknowledged. I cried myself to sleep every night missing my old life, my father, and my beloved dog that to this day I have no idea what my mother did to.
I took care of the smaller children; my older sisters turned to heroin and loved the freedom.The cloak of shame overtook me quite quickly, going to school every day saying I forgot my lunch, milk money, and tuition check. The nuns at this school were cold, and despite there often being hot lunch, we were ignored. But I persevered because of the younger siblings.Many of the other occupants of this complex lived normal lives. They were single people, or couples, and I envied them. I often would walk down the halls and listen to their conversations. Then watch them leave in pretty clothes off to some fabulous event.We were the only children. After a couple months, we knew how to become invisible. Also after a couple months, we had all lost 10 pounds. I stole rice and soup from the grocery and fed everyone. Sometimes I would steal bread, but that was tricky, and it was all mangled by the time I got home.
Enter, Mrs. Lipsky. She was an African-American maid (the label for housekeepers back then). She worked for a number of other occupants. One afternoon, there was a knock on the door. I answered — an act my mother warned me against many times.
“Hi. I’m Mrs. Lipsky.”
“Hi,” I said.
“I worked for some folks in this place,” she said.
“Yes, I’ve seen you,” I said.
“Who minds you kids?”
I was afraid to answer, but she had a kind face, loving eyes and wore a beautiful blue dress decorated with bright, yellow flowers.
“No one," I said. "My mom works all day. And all night.”
“Would you care if I came by sometimes and cleaned up, made you food?” she asked.
Our apartment was a mess, with chairs tipped over, broken TV’s, broken toys, clothes everywhere, boxes still unopened.
“We don’t have any money,” I offered.
“You don’t worry about that. Can I come in?”