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the day they stole my mother from me
Two days compete for the worst day in my life: The first is the day I was taken
from my mother; the second is the day I arrived at the Mosses' foster home four
years later. Three weeks before I lost my mother, I had left South Carolina
bound for Florida with her, her husband, and my brother. I was three and a half
years old and remember lying on the backseat watching slippery raindrops making
patterns as they plopped down the car's windows.
My infant brother, Luke, was in a car seat, which nobody had bothered to belt
in, so it squished me into the door when his father took a sharp turn. Luke had
a heart monitor, but it must not have been on him all the time because I
remember using it on my favorite toy: a Teddy Ruxpin bear.
Until Dustin Grover came along, we shared a trailer with my mother's twin
sister, Leanne, who had dropped out of school to help support me. Even though
the twins looked completely different, they were interchangeable to me since
Aunt Leanne spent almost as much time with me as my mother, and I never minded
when one left and the other took over. I loved to nestle by Aunt Leanne's side.
She would rake my curls with her fingers while talking on the phone to her
My mother was only seventeen when she gave birth to me. If she and my aunt were
anything like most teenagers, they probably were more interested in hanging out
with friends than changing diapers. Nevertheless, they worked different shifts
and took turns caring for me. Their trailer became the local hangout because
there was no adult supervision.
"Turn that down," my mother yelled one afternoon. I was watching cartoons,
trying to drown out the teen voices by raising the volume higher and higher. "I
said, turn that down!"
"Well, if you would shut the hell up, I could hear the damn TV," I said. My
mother and her friends burst out laughing.
I was an intuitive two-year-old soaking up language and behaviors from a crew
of rowdy adolescents who were trying on adult attitudes and habits. I got
attention by acting grown up, and my mother bragged about how early I was
toilet trained and how clearly I spoke.
My mother had a carefree attitude. She was too self-absorbed to fuss about my
safety. Although she always strapped me in my car seat, her battered truck did
not have seat belts. Driving down a bumpy South Carolina road, the unlocked
door popped open. I tumbled out, rolling a few times before landing on the
shoulder. My mother turned the truck around and found me waving at her. I was
still buckled into the seat.
When my mother began living with Dustin -- whom everyone called "Dusty" -- the
whole mood in the house shifted and Aunt Leanne wasn't around as much. Dusty
was like an ocean that changed unexpectedly with the weather. One moment he
could be placid, the next he turned into choppy waves that broke hard and stung.
I cowered when he yelled. Since my mother was busy with me, she did not always
have the perfect hot meal her boyfriend expected ready the moment he walked in
"Can't you even bake a damn biscuit right?" he yelled after he saw the burnt
bottom on one, sending the pie tin flying like a Frisbee.
I hid under my blanket as I always did when the fighting started, hoping it
would protect me from their nasty words or physical brawls. I peered through a
hole at a single object -- like a shoe -- and tried to make everything else
I remember when my pregnant mother awoke from a nap and found my aunt and Dusty
sitting close together watching television. She caught them tickling and
laughing. My mother screamed at my aunt, "How could you? He's the father of my
"You sure of that?" my aunt screeched back before she slammed the screen door
After that, she was gone for weeks, and I missed her so much that I would curl
my hair around my own fingers and pretend it was her doing it.
Not long after that, there was a new baby: Tommy. My mother brought him home in
a yellow blanket and let me kiss his tiny fingers. I don't remember much else
because he came and went in less than two months. Sometimes I thought that I
had dreamed him or that he was merely a doll I was not supposed to touch. The
last time I saw him, he had suddenly stopped moving and turned from pink to
gray. We all sat in a room and everyone passed him around. He was lying in a
box that was padded with a pillow.
My mother got pregnant again shortly after Tommy disappeared. A few months later
she married Dusty, and for a short time we seemed like a happy little family.
But only nine months after Tommy was born, Luke arrived premature. Before my
mother was even twenty, she had managed to have three children in less than
At least Luke -- unlike me -- came into the world with a father. At birth my
new brother weighed only two pounds. My mother had to come home from the
hospital without him.
"Did you really have a baby?" I asked my mother.
"He has to stay with the nurses until he gets bigger," she explained.
A few days later I awoke to her sobbing. Dusty was trying to comfort her, but
she pushed him away. "It's all your fault because you hit me!" she yelled.
I tried to understand how Dusty's hitting her could harm the unborn baby. I
rested my head on her belly. It felt like a balloon that had some of the air
let out. "When can I see my brother?" I asked.
"They had to take him from the hospital in Spartanburg to the one in Greenville
where they can care for him better," my mother explained. "We'll drive up there
as soon as we can."
In the meantime, my mother went back to work. Dusty was supposed to watch me
while my mother worked the late shift. One night neighbors found me wandering
through the trailer park alone and kept me until my mother returned home.
The next day she packed a bag and we moved into a Ronald McDonald House near
We went to see Luke every day. Most of the time I had to wait outside in a room
where there were little tables, coloring books, and crayons. Sometimes they
would let me put on a mask and come into the room where the babies were kept in
boxes -- not like the wooden one that had held Tommy, but a plastic one that I
could peek through when my mother lifted me up.
"Is he ever getting out of there?" I asked.
"Oh, yes," my mother promised. "He's strong like his daddy."
When Luke came home seven months later, he was not much bigger than one of my
dolls. He sometimes wore a doctor's face mask instead of a diaper.
Aunt Leanne came by to help and called often. "Where's your mama?" she asked
when I answered the phone.
"In the kitchen cookin' dope," I replied.
"I'm coming right over," she said, but when she did, Dusty refused to let her
Dusty worked as a framing subcontractor. After an argument over money, his
partner stormed over to our trailer. Dusty locked him out, but he busted down
the door and then started tearing up the house. A chair hit the wall and a
table flew in my direction. I ducked, but my mother started screaming, "You
almost hurt Ashley!"
"I'm okay, Mama," I said as I crouched in a corner.
"We need to move," my mother announced to Dusty while they cleaned up the mess.
"There are too many bad influences on you around here."
"And you're an angel?" he shot back. "Besides, all my work is here."
"There's plenty of work in Florida." She kicked the broken chair into a corner.
"I wish I had never left there after Mama died."
Her mother -- my maternal grandmother, Jenny -- had her first child when she
was fourteen, but she put that baby up for adoption. Over the next six years
she had Perry; followed by the twins, Leanne and Lorraine; and finally, Sammie.
Then, at twenty-one, Grandma Jenny was diagnosed with cervical cancer and had a
hysterectomy. Sick, poor, and battered by her alcoholic husband, she decided
she could not raise her kids any longer and turned them over to a Baptist
children's home. My mother did not have much to do with either parent for many
years, but when Jenny was about to die in Florida, my mother went to see her
for the last time. Jenny was thirty-three.
Using her small inheritance, my mother enrolled in cosmetology school. Before
they would allow her to train with the hair treatment chemicals, she had to have
a physical checkup. This is how she found out she was pregnant with me. My
mother thinks she conceived me when she partied the night of her mother's
funeral. In any case, I was born thirty-nine weeks later. While she was in
labor, she was watching The Young and the Restless, and so she named me
Ashley after one of the soap opera characters.
When Dusty agreed to move to Tampa, my mother cheered up. As she packed, she
hummed "You Are My Sunshine" and explained to me, "We're moving to the Sunshine
State to live happily ever after."
I do not remember much about the long car trip except singing along with Joan
Jett on the radio. When we first arrived in Florida, we stayed at a motel, then
a trailer that smelled like low tide. I have memories of walking around that
trailer park carrying Luke's bottle and begging for milk.
Our car always smelled of pickles and mustard from all the fast food we ate in
it. I was enjoying my usual kids' meal in the backseat when my mother shouted,
"Shit, shit!" A flashing red light made the car's windows glow rosy, and I
liked the way my hands looked, as though they were on fire.
A siren blared. Dusty banged the steering wheel. "Ashley, you keep saying you
gotta go potty, okay?" my mother ordered.
A police officer asked where our license plate was.
"Mommy, gotta go potty!" I called loudly.
"Where're you headed?" the officer asked.
"To my stepfather's house," my mother said in her most genial voice.
"We're just in from South Carolina. We're moving here," Dusty continued rapidly,
"so I'll get a new Florida plate tomorrow."
"Welcome to Florida," he said, glancing at me and Luke before arresting Dusty
for not having a license plate on the car or a valid driver's license.
My mother alternately cussed and cried while we waited for Dusty to be released.
It was several hours before we could go home to our apartment. The shoebox-style
building was on tree-lined Sewaha Street. "We're living in a duplex now," my
mother explained, and I sensed that we had come up in the world. Three days
later I encountered more police officers -- the ones who broke up our family
I was sitting on the stoop dressed only in shorts when the police cars pulled
up. "He's not here," my mother said when they asked for Dusty. One of the men
kept coming toward her. My mother, who was holding Luke, screamed, "I didn't do
"Mama," I cried, reaching both hands up for her to lift me as well. A uniformed
man pushed me away and snatched Luke out of her arms. I tried to rush toward my
mother, who was already being put in the backseat of a police car. The door
slammed so hard, it shook my legs. Through the closed window, I could hear my
mother shouting, "Ashley!" Someone held me back as the car pulled away. I
struggled and kicked trying to chase after her.
"It's okay! Settle down!" the man with the shiny buttons said.
I sobbed for my Teddy Ruxpin. "Winky!"
"Who's that?" The officer let me run inside. I pulled Winky out from under a
blanket on my bed. "Oh, it's your teddy. He can come too." He grabbed two of my
T-shirts and told me to put one on and to wear my flip-flops. My Strawberry
Shortcake T-shirt ended up on Luke, although it was way too big for him.
At the police station a man in uniform handed Luke to a woman in uniform. Luke
tugged on Winky's ears as I sat beside him and the female officer. In the
background I could hear my mother yelling for us, but I could not see her. Two
women wearing regular clothes arrived. One lifted Luke; the other's rough hand
pulled me in her direction. The woman who held Luke also took Winky.
"No!" I cried, reaching for Winky.
"It's just for a little while," the first woman told me.
My mother came into view for a few seconds. "Ashley! I'll get you soon!" Then a
door slammed and she was gone. I turned and Luke was no longer there. I was
pushed outside and loaded into a car.
"Mommy! Luke!" I cried. "Winky!"
"You'll see them later," the woman said as our car drove off.
Thinking about that moment is like peeling a scab off an almost-healed wound. I
still believed everything would return to normal. Little did I know, I would
never live with my mother -- or see Winky -- again.
Copyright © 2008 by Ashley Rhodes-Courter