When I first came onto the scene with Mike and his family in 1994, he told me they were a little unconventional. I don't remember exactly when the first time was that I went with the family up to Pat and Charlie's house in South Sacramento, I'm guessing it was Thanksgiving or Christmas. What I am sure about is I was pretty self-conscious and had no idea what to expect. There were what felt like 60+ people crammed into a small house, lots of folding chairs, people sitting in the freezing garage, and a velvet painting of an 18 wheeler semi truck that LIT UP. Not just the lights on the truck itself, but the streetlights in the painting also lit up. Where the fuck was I?? There was food everywhere, and as the years progressed, I knew to look for the standards. Banana pudding with Nilla wafers, deviled eggs in the special Tupperware deviled egg container, and what I believe is officially called Ambrosia but our family refers to as Pink Stuff. In the front yard, there was a boat that they would fill with water for people to sit in on the 4th of July, which we called the redneck swimming pool. Even though this wasn't a scene I was used to, these people could not have been warmer or friendlier. I became more comfortable with it over time and I remember when I felt like I was 100% accepted and liked because Pat started making fun of me. I don't remember what she said, but I do remember thinking, "Man, she's a smart ass. And I like it." Here's the thing that I know for sure...if I had stumbled upon this scene with no connection, I probably would have determined that these were not my people. It hurts to even admit that, but it's true. I would have walked into that house and instantly thought I had nothing in common with them. What a gift I would have been deprived of! What a jackass I was when I was younger...
The years went on and stuff happened, as it does in a family that big. When my niece became pregnant as a teen, she said that her Poppa Charlie said, "Shit happens, how can we help?" We had our kids, and at some point Pat decided to refer to my son Stephen as "Maynard". No one has an explanation for this, no one knows why or where the hell that came from. I can still hear her voice, loud and shrill, yelling, "Hey, Maynard!!" and my son mostly just looking confused. Pat and Charlie loved our kids, they loved ALL kids. But they had a way of showing love and interest in a very sincere, selfless way, no matter who you were. So to Maddie and Stephen, they seemed like another set of grandparents. It did not at all seem to them that these older folks were their dad's sister's husband's foster parents. They were just Pat and Charlie. One year, my dad visited for Christmas and we took him along to their house. I wondered what he would think of the whole scene with crowded rooms, lots of noise, and a varied assortment of people. Oh my God, my dad was in HOG HEAVEN. There were kids everywhere, and he played with them. There were people there who were passionate about drama, as he was. He ate it up, every second. How many situations can you think of where the warmth is overflowing, but so is the entertainment? Just the pieces of conversation overheard could easily have been turned into a screenplay.
In my career, I encounter the foster system frequently. Most of them suck. I have had foster parents say the most horrible, heartless things about the children they are being paid to raise. I've dealt with foster agencies who are no shows to meetings, have lied to my face about things they've done to support these children, and who never return phone calls. Pat and Charlie were ANGELS. They raised 42 kids over 25 years. FORTY TWO CHILDREN. Let that sink in for a second. These were not wealthy people,and they didn't do this for the money, as so many do. They didn't send their foster kids to school, dirty and unkempt and then wrap their spiky, manicured nails around the steering wheel of their Escalade and drive away, like some others I've known. They didn't have fancy stuff, they actually poured themselves into parenting, and they did it well. They were tough, they devoted the time and effort that it takes to discipline kids, which is not easy for anyone. Once all those kids aged out, they kept coming back. This is why the holiday scene over there was so nuts, so many of these foster kids would come back, then start families of their own and come back with them, and then with their grandchildren. Seriously, how often does that happen?
The stories that some of the foster kids (now adults) shared today were unbelievable. Pat and Charlie saved these kids. They saved them from neglect and abuse, from crime and addiction. Did every single kid turn out okay? Probably not, but the magnitude of their positive influence can't be measured. They knew the secrets to parenthood, money isn't ultimately that important. Designer clothes and exotic family vacations are nice, but they don't matter very much. What makes the difference is consistency, availability, and attention. Kids know when you give a shit and when you're faking it. Kids aren't able to progress and grow until they know that they can trust and rely on their caregivers. Trust had already been jacked up in the kids who came to their home, but they managed to repair it. So many of those kids had experienced significant trauma, and yet grew up to be awesome parents, and contributing members of society. As a psychologist, that blows my MIND.
Pat passed away several years ago, and that loss was tremendous. Charlie immediately picked up referring to my son as Maynard. Now with him gone, it feels like the end of an era. I pray the extended family will continue with tradition as much as they are able to, although the hole will always be there.
I remember my sister in law Michelle teasing me that it would take years to remember who was who and what the family connection was. But the thing is, it didn't matter. Everyone turned into an auntie or a cousin at their house, and it didn't matter if there was an actual family connection or not. There were blood relatives, foster connections, neighbors, in-laws, friends, and the offspring of all these people. Everyone was family, and not in the diluted, shallow way that some people express the same thing. This was true welcoming, this was loving acceptance of every person who entered that kitchen through the garage. I consider myself so incredibly lucky to have been in the presence of this type of love, truly unconditional. They considered me family too, not just one of their foster kid's wife's brother's wife. Just from fostering Chris, all these people were blessed with their love: Michelle, Heather, Eric, Christian, Mateo, Dominic, Nikki, Sypheria, Killian, Jamie, Olivia, Elias, Brenden, Jane, Mike, Stephen, and Maddie. That is precious, and something I will never forget.
Godspeed, Charlie. I'm so glad we got to see you this last birthday, and I will forever picture you in your chair in the garage with a game on, drinking your Corona. Thank you for accepting that somewhat pampered 25 year old white chick, and showing me that initial impressions can be misleading. Thank you for gifting that light up velvet painting to Michelle, so we can still see it. Thanks for sending your family that unbelievable rainbow and sunset today, we all know you're up there. Please tell Pat that Maynard sends his best, we love you both.