Wild-eyed Sally waved the serrated bread knife in front of Ed’s face. I could see her through the crack in the kitchen door. Her untamed hair flew around and she spat venom. “If she comes in here, I’ll kill her. I hate her guts, and she better watch out!”
Ed knew how to handle Sally. He remained calm. “Sally, give me the knife. . .”
She made small jabbing motions toward his throat. “I hate her! She’s a pig! How can you stand her?”
“Sally, you don’t mean that.” His voice softened. “Do you really want to hurt Ellie?”
Sally was secretly in love with Ed, so she backed off, heaving the knife to the floor. It clatter-bounced on the tile and skittered under the stove.
Sally was part Cree, part French Canadian, part Scottish, and part unknown. I’m not sure which part of her wanted to kill me – probably all of it. She was thirteen, tall, skinny, abandoned by her family, and mad. She was mad at me because I wouldn’t let her go out. It was a weekday – a school night. The girls weren’t allowed out after supper on school nights. Not Cindy, not Carol, not Ellen, not Leez, not Tony, not Lauren, and not Sally - especially not Sally, who didn’t understand her emotions and couldn’t control an ounce of them.
A few weeks earlier, when Sally and I had been on better terms, we all sat in the living room wondering what our collective lives would be like after Ed finished theological school and we left the group home. Ed casually declared, “Sally, if you want me to, I’ll marry you.”
Sally’s cheeks turned apple red and her face slowly transformed from horror-struck to befuddlement to glee to utter and complete triumph. Without moving her head, she ping-ponged glances from Ed to me. Then under a cupped hand, asked Ed in a throaty whisper, “But what about Ellie?” Sally was devastated to learn that Ed would only officiate at a ceremony where she would marry someone probably most unwelcome at this time in her unfortunate teenage life.
My assistant, Carly, charged up from the basement. “What’s going on? Who’s screaming?”
“It’s Sally. I won’t let her go out, so she’s going to kill me - again.”
“Oh, ok, with a knife?”
“Yeah - would you check on Leez? I think she’s chanting. Make sure her door’s closed.”
Carol stuck her head out of her room “Sally! Leez! Shut – the – hell – up!”
Our daughter, Katie, stood at the top of the stairs clutching her blanket and stuffed baby weasel. “Mommy, I can’t sleep. Is Sally going to kill you? Leez is making a funny sound in her room. And Carol just said a bad word.”
“Let’s get you back to bed. We’ll read a story.”
Life in the group home was chaotic, to say the least. At any given time, there were twelve people living, eating, sleeping, cooking, cleaning, studying, or screaming in the house - seven female teenage wards of the state, two house parents with a four-year-old daughter, one live-in college student assistant, and a Caribbean housekeeper, Inez, who was a better cook than a cleaner.
By the time Sally wanted to kill me, Ed and I had been house parents for the United Red Feather Services of Greater Montreal for almost two years. Our house was a duplex in Montreal West converted into a one-family dwelling. The main floor had a living room, a dining room, two bedrooms, a full bathroom, and a long kitchen in the back that stretched the width of the house. The upstairs had the same configuration, with all five main rooms turned into bedrooms, including the kitchen. The basement had a finished family room and laundry.
Our room was on the main floor, so we could monitor daily activity, and Katie’s room was the kitchen-turned- bedroom upstairs. Hers was a nice space - cupboards for books, toys, and games, a sink for privacy, and a quiet balcony for us to sit in the sun and color and read stories away from the turbulence of broken teenage girls, who would still be on the road to emotional and physical bankruptcy had the Quebec juvenile justice system not stepped in and placed them in a strange home where they were expected to coexist in peace, friendship, and harmony, regardless of the heartbreaking reasons they had been removed from their dangerous homes.
How did two years in this house of turmoil affect Katie’s psyche? She has never complained, but I’m sure there is a part of her that recalls the heartache and desperation that spread around her like air-dust floating in the sun, seeping into her being as she breathed. What lingers in Katie’s now married, mother-heart that unconsciously resonates to the haunting memory of late night, hollow sobbing? Is there a residual empathy that serves her son or husband more compassionately because at such a tender age she witnessed the disenfranchisement of young women tossed from household to household? Does she watch her son more closely - or hug him more often? Does she over-smooth his path so he won’t stumble?
These were not areas of concern when we agreed to feed, supervise, and nurture seven troubled teenage girls for pay. We were a young family who needed a home and occupation while Ed finished theological school at McGill University. I received a full-time salary for serving as house mother and Ed received a part-time salary as house father. We paid no rent, and except for our car, all of our expenses, including food, were handled by the agency. It seemed perfect when we accepted the job. No one mentioned the havoc that would gradually erode our spirits.
Leez opened the door to her room. “Shiiiiitttttttt on you all! Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit!” Leez had stopped chanting, and decided instead to regale the entire house with obscenities. Her profanity was usually more creative than a one-word shit repetition. I figured her level of frustration was so high she couldn’t dredge up the usual vulgar repertoire. “Shit and shit on you all.”
I knew Leez would continue swearing in the hallway until someone met her face-to-face and told her to stop, at which time she’d snigger and say something ridiculous, like, “I need a hairbrush.” Leez got attention by screeching, and all my effective methods as an experienced teacher couldn’t make a dent in her shriek-proof armor. Even the director of Red Feather agency had to admit she was truly impossible after he took her for a weekend to prove he could handle her better than we did – but she was unmanageable even with him, and short of electric shock treatments, Leez would remain an unpredictable pain in the neck. I felt vindicated, but that didn’t stop Leez from turning our already crazy household upside down whenever she wanted attention.
The house continued to reverberate with screams and threats as Katie and I settled in to read her favorite Maurice Sendak book - Where the Wild Things Are - 'The night Max wore his wolf suit, and made mischief of one kind and another, his mother called him Wild Thing.'
“Max was like Sally and Leez,” Katie whispered as she turned the page.
I tried to explain to Katie why the girls behaved as they did even though she had no reference points. I wanted Katie to understand, at least a little bit, that Ellen hid food and dirty underpants in a trunk at the foot of her bed because throughout her abused, miserable fourteen years, she never had anything to call her own, or that Cindy was disrespectful and sarcastic because she didn’t trust I’d care about her for more than two seconds, or that Tony was afraid we’d beat her senseless for nothing more than forgetting to hang up her coat, like her dad did when he broke her arm before the authorities placed her in foster care, or that Lauren cried herself to sleep every night because her twin sister was placed in a different group home across town and hardly ever saw her, or that Carol, the oldest, most mature, most reliable of the bunch, might not ever get over the debilitating grief she carried since her boyfriend, Jack, drowned the summer before after shooting himself up with heroin and diving off a cliff into the St. Lawrence River.
But Katie never judged the girls. She just wanted to imitate them or play games with them or watch them gossip and bicker. Katie smoked her crayons to be like Ellen. She wanted her long, curly blonde hair to look like Carol’s - twisted into a floppy knot and decorated with paper Christmas ribbons and plastic barrettes. She sat next to Cindy during study time, writing repetitive loops page after page on her steno pad, and she read Lauren’s big books upside down in the dark.
Sally stormed up the stairs and pounded on Katie’s door. “Get out here, you bitch!”
I told Katie not to worry; Sally loved her and Daddy and me and nothing bad would happen. What made me so sure, I have no idea. There was little evidence that anyone would be ok in that house, with its exposed, sparking wires of rage, disappointment, resentment, and revenge hanging over us ready to collapse at any moment. Today, under the same circumstances, I’d have my cell phone and pager with me and maybe even wear a medical alert necklace. “Help! I’m pinned down by a crazed teenager and I can’t get up!” But at the time, I had confidence in my ability to maneuver around the hazards.
I stepped outside Katie’s room and shut the door. Sally’s squinted at me. Her arms were crossed, and she tapped her foot as if she were about to scold me for stealing cookies. She had no knife.
I merely said, “Sally, I know you’re angry, and that’s ok.” I walked past her, checking in my imaginary rear view mirror that she didn’t open Katie’s door. Sally stormed into the room she shared with Leez to continue their rants in private. That was the last I heard from either of them that night.
Ed and I did the best we could to help the girls navigate carefully through this tumultuous phase of their lives. Even Katie held their hands on bumpy sidewalks. But we couldn’t help them traverse the years back to their little-girl days to celebrate those long-past milestones - losing a first tooth, entering Kindergarten, finding a firefly, sitting on Santa’s lap, or graduating from eighth grade . These childhood highlights could have fostered trust, poise, security, and a sense of self-worth had they been noticed and commemorated.
All children deserve safe travel into adulthood. Unconditional love, absolute support, steadfast encouragement, and good will are their rights along the way. Rough roads and potholes are expected, but many children, instead, encounter more severe roadblocks: black ice, falling rocks, and dead ends – making the chances of safe passage negligible. If only these children could look over the map ahead of time and use their innocent, unsullied love and wisdom to mark their own routes into the future.
Drawing by Katie Searl Bodnar – age five