When Rachel passes a young mother with a baby in the aisle of the grocery store, she always makes it a point to tell that mother how very fortunate she is.

“‘Do you know what a blessing you have here?'” she said she will say. “‘You are blessed.’ It is a blessing because they have so much power over the child and all they have to do is love it, gently.”

Rachel — not her real name — believes children are precious, should be placed on a pedestal and ought to be treated as gifts.

She, of all people, has good reason. We sit in Rachel’s cool dining room on a hot day as she tells me her story. She is a beautiful woman, intelligent, articulate, well-spoken.

And wounded.

Now 73, she grew up out-of-state after she was taken out of her home at around age 3. She and her eight siblings were placed in foster homes.

The memory of that day is keen in her mind. She was hungry and wandered out of the house, barefoot, wearing only a dirty diaper and T-shirt. There was frost on the ground and it was cold and she went into the neighbor’s yard, where the garbage can was overflowing and orange peels were spilling out. She plucked part of an orange out of the trash and began to eat. The neighbors called police.

Later, she was able to piece together the shards of her childhood by talking with her older siblings and others. Her father was a raging alcoholic. Her mother was overwhelmed, trying to care for her brood, and she drank also. Both had come from tough backgrounds.

“I don’t blame my mother. I have only compassion for my mother because she was taking the full load of hate and vitriol all those years.”

Rachel, the third youngest child, and her two little brothers, were taken to a foster home where one of the first things she remembers is the grandfather of the family taking her into his room and opening the bottom drawer of a dresser where he kept a buggy whip. He told her she’d better behave herself or he’d use it on her.

“This family was OK, but there were no frills. I have a memory of the woman cleaning the attic. It was a rainy day and she was throwing stuff out of the attic window. There was a fairy tale clock. I think she said I could play with it. I’d go to the mailbox and walk in puddles. I remember being clean and having a sunburn and having Noxema being put on my skin.”

While she had a fairly comfortable existence, she was never touched or nurtured.

“I was never held, never treasured, never sung to.”

After that, she was taken to several other foster homes, some worse than others.

“This was the traumatic thing — you never knew why you were leaving a home and they never tell you until the last minute so you don’t cry and carry on. So kids figured they’ve been bad.

“I remember all the homes. There was a nurse. She adored me, but she had very little time to spend with me. She worked nights in a mental institution. Her husband was a pedophile.”

He never touched Rachel, but he molested her older sister, who also lived in the house.

She and her sister then went to live with an older woman whose home was very basic and she had an outhouse.

“She was very nice. Every week she went to the grocery store and bought us coloring books and put them in a big drawer in the kitchen. I remember the smell of crayons and paper. She washed my hair. That was the late ’40s. People bathed once a week. I was bathed in the sink. My hair was washed outside with rain water.”

She remembers other nice things about living there, like being able to play with a teddy bear kept in a closet. She was allowed to play with it only on Sundays.

“Still, no one held me, no one hugged me — and everyone needs to be touched. This ‘not touching’ has a big effect on people later on. As a teenager, the first boy that puts his arm around you — it’s like heaven.”

ABUSE BREEDS ABUSE

Rachel remembers her older sister acting out and being mean to her.

“She acted out because of her sexual abuse. She did bad things. Your whole history goes with you, and your parents’ history, and people make a judgment. They judge the children on that and it shouldn’t be.”

Rachel remembers always being thirsty while living at the home of the pedophile.

“They’d say, ‘Don’t give her anything to drink, she’ll wet the bed,'” she recalled. “Consequently, I drank out of anything — the river in back of the house and water by the mill across the street. I drank any standing water. To a little kid, if it looked clean, I’d drink it.”

One day as Rachel lay in her favorite place under a bed, she heard a lot of yelling. She emerged to find her sister sitting on a stool, sobbing.

“She had cuts all over her and the lady of the house had a big knife in her hand. She was mad. Her wretched husband was standing there. Evidently, the wife caught them having sex.”

Rachel was moved to a different foster home, and then another.

The worst was with a woman whose husband worked at a mill. The woman was very involved in the church.

“I’d never heard of church. The first thing she did was get me in church. That was my salvation. That’s what saw me through the rest of my days. She put me in Sunday school, junior choir and youth fellowship and I loved it.”

But something dark was to occur in that foster home.

“I had a big, beautiful room. She used to braid my hair. I was in the second grade. Very shortly, everything changed and I could do no right. I don’t know what happened. She didn’t call me by my name. If I sneezed or complained, I had to do it in the corner. I wore the same dress all week. I stunk. I had a bath once a week and she scrubbed me. The water was always too hot. I’d tell her it was too hot and she’d say, ‘Get in there, it’s not!’ I had welts on my skin. It was very rough scrubbing. There was no kindness at all.”

Rachel remembers the terror, intermixed with the soothing feeling of being in clean pajamas.

“I loved being clean. Oh, God, it was such a good feeling. I’d say prayers. Always, I said, ‘Please, God, let my Mommy and Daddy come and find me and take me home.’ They never did.”

At some point during the four years Rachel was in the house, the beatings by the woman started.

“She beat me with pleasure. She moved me to a spare room with a single cot. I was sent to bed at 6 p.m. I lay there and read. She would tell me, ‘Go up in the spare room and take your clothes off.’ I’d hear her step on the stairs. I was terrified and I begged her not to hit me. The neighbors heard all this. They never did anything. Sometimes she’d use a belt; other times, her hands. I cried. I would scream in pain and sob. After she left the room, I could not stop sobbing. It would end, and in her calmness, she’d say, ‘Clean up this mess and clean the room!'”

As Rachel tells me this story, tears well in her eyes for the first time during our three-hour interview. She explains that after the beating stopped, there would be feces, urine and blood on the floor. She remembers her head was sore and bruises covered her body.

“I never complain, and I don’t tell. The woman said, ‘If you tell anybody, I’ll take care of you later.’ I’d pray to God to be a better girl so I don’t get beaten.”

At one point, Rachel ran away from that house with the family dog. She remembers lying down in the tall grass near the railroad tracks and then getting up and walking out of town toward a farm.

“I could hear cows and there was a fine rain. I walked through the fields and into a dry swamp. There were big clumps of grass. The ground was all dry. I climbed a tree. I lay down with the dog. I have no memory of waking up until morning.”

It was the longest, deepest slumber she had had in a long time with no fear, no terror.

Eventually, she went back home because the dog had drunk some dirty water and she was afraid he would die. The police were there.

PLEA TO BE KIND

She was sent away from that house to yet another until she finally was placed with a family that would eventually adopt her. She was in high school and her new mother was kind, friendly and generous.

“It was heaven.”

While life was better, Rachel carried her lifetime scars with her. She was terrified of people, but never told anyone. She and a friend discovered alcohol.

“I tried vodka and I realized I wasn’t afraid of anybody when I drank it. That was my go-to fix for not being scared.”

When she was 15, Rachel was raped one night after attending a party. She had passed out from drinking too much and a boy she had danced with carried her to a car. When she came to, she was covered in blood from the waist down. She told no one.

Rachel eventually would marry and become a nurse. Her husband was an alcoholic who was told as a child that he would never amount to anything, so things were complicated. It was not a good marriage. They had “two really good children” now grown. Rachel’s husband died at 42 of a heart attack. She later moved to Maine.

In her 50s, Rachel was diagnosed as having post traumatic stress disorder.

She now lives alone in a comfortable home in central Maine, where she is relatively content but lonely. She is anxious and still afraid of some things and does not wander far. She does not feel sorry for herself, nor does she seek pity, and that is one reason she asked I not use her real name.

She wanted me to tell her story, so that others may see it — particularly parents and foster parents. She urges them to treasure their children because everything that happens to them follows them throughout their lives.

As one who sees good in everyone, she also urges people not to judge others, as you never know by their demeanor or behavior where they have come from or what they have experienced.

“All my behavior was predetermined by the treatment I got. I went through this, and everyone is different, so everyone’s level of terror is different. Kids now are being terrified by something and they have no way out. They have no one to go to.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter for 28 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.


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