By Graham Danzer
Tarra waits somewhat less then patiently in a line stretched seemingly around the block at the grocery check out line down the street from her housing project—one of the only stores in the neighborhood that accepts government food cards, formerly food stamps. This local store is in high demand. A few feet behind her, Tarra hears a baby beginning to cry. Remembering her late daughter, Tayshaunna, she almost wants to cry too. Her daughter isn’t dead yet, but it almost feels like she is given a foster home and Child Protective Services. Tarra hasn’t seen her daughter in 2 months, barely able to remember her face. The cry of the baby nearly in her shadow brings so much more back then Tarra is ready for.
When Tarra herself was a baby, she had cried like the child behind her. Tarra herself had grown up hungry and frightened. Raised in a house where crack cocaine was manufactured and sold, it wasn’t long before police raids and court hearings had her in a foster home. Growing up a ward of the state was thus fast becoming hereditary. In her early years, she would cry and cry until stunning blows to her face and arms would leave her lifeless. Too exhausted even to cry, never knowing what it meant to be comforted. Bounced from foster home to foster home given unruly and wild behavior, Tarra fought tooth and nail everywhere she went. But who was the enemy? She never really knew who she was fighting or what it felt like to win. Only that someday she would be a mother and be the mother for her baby that she herself never had.
In her mind it seemed so easy, in her heart it felt so right. When she missed her period at age 16, she could barely contain herself. When Tayshaunna was born and her father disappeared, Tarra couldn’t understand where she went wrong. As the harsh reality of being a single teenage mother began to set in, she realized that she had never been right. In the beginning, social service programs had helped Tarra steer through the pregnancy, helping her to find a place to stay, childcare and formula for the baby, counseling for Tarra herself. Life was hard, but better then she could ever remember. She was poor and stressed out, but she had a family, her family. Then reality hit again.
Budget cuts due to the ever-struggling economy ravaged the public system—no more childcare, no more counseling. One day Tayshaunna wouldn’t stop crying, in high pitched, agonizing wails. Tarra rocked and cooed her young daughter, but to no avail. Tayshaunna was hungry and there was no money to buy food. Overcome with helplessness, Tarra began to cry in long heavy sobs, being traumatized by her baby crying louder in the face of her mother’s inability to sooth her. With her senses under assault, Tarra’s sadness suddenly blasted into anger. Blind and powerful. Engulfing her whole body, she barely remembered blacking out, a flash of herself crying as a child in the arms of her own crying mother. Tarra was now back to reality, and Tayshaunna was on the floor with a large bruise on her head, her cries ceasing into pitiful whimpers, her eyes fixated on an inconsolable spot on the floor. Tarra would never forget that face her daughter made. Tarra stared down at her daughter’s constricted form in the corner on the floor. Where had she seen that face? Tayshaunna looked as Tarra remembered herself, confirming her worst fears. Tarra had grown into her mother, her own daughter beaten and starving, as she had once been herself.
Coming to grips with what she had done, Tarra felt as hollow and terrorized as Tayshaunna looked in that dark corner in the floor. She was overcome with grief, overpoweringly sorry for what she had done. But the police would hear none of it. They had been telephoned by the neighbors given the thudding of flesh against the wall and the tainted screams of mother and daughter. Bursting into the living room, with badges and guns drawn, Tayshaunna whisked away by a woman in a business suit, an interview and the passing of court and legal documents all happening so fast. Tarra ended up alone and frightened, hiding in that same corner that her daughter had been lodged in. What just happened? She asked herself over and over again.
That was 8 months ago. Struggling to maintain her sanity, thoughts of her daughter were often all that kept her from cutting her wrists as she used to. It was tempting as cutting had worked so well at getting her mind off the pain in her heart—pain in her arm being so much easier to deal with. But she wanted her child back. Feeling better wouldn’t make that happen. She would only be granted custody if she did as the court told her to. Parenting classes, therapy, job training, assuming some responsibility for what she had done, convincing the courts to let her be the mother she knew she was supposed to be. After completing parenting, anger management, and conflict resolution classes, she felt like she was the mother she was supposed to be.
But for one last request of the court, stability, a job and housing means of providing for the welfare of herself and her child. When she began her case plan with Child Protective Services, she had figured these would be the easiest parts of what she had to do. She was always talking to friends who had a boss at the nearest fast food joint needing some extra help, women in her neighborhood needing a baby sitter, a social worker offering job training and placement resources. Classes? She hated school! But that was 8 months ago. Things were different now. She went from office to office, the welfare department, McDonalds, a janitorial service up from her block. Sorry, we have a 6 month wait list, sorry we’re not hiring, sorry you need more experience. As Tarra remembered Tayshaunna, her slightly uneven eyebrows, her big dimples, the way her little fingers curled around her mother’s thumb playfully poking her in the stomach, Tarra was sorry too. Sorry for what she had done. How she had done to the love of her life what her mother had done to her. And now her daughter was where she was—in a foster home. Might as well be prison. But not a prison without walls. Tarra knew she was so close to getting a second chance. She could almost feel it. But the no’s kept coming. Sorry, no openings, sorry times are tight. The cashier’s intrusive words broke through Tarra’s memories as she was all of a sudden at the front of the line.
“Sorry, you don’t have enough,” the cashier proclaimed, Tarra’s face turned red in embarrassment. Fumbling through her purse, she looked for more money or food stamps she knew wasn’t there. As she opened the contents of her wallet, a picture of Tayshaunna jumped out at her. Smiling, chubby cheeked, larger then life itself. Tarra paused at the picture, lost in Tayshaunna’s every curve. “I’m sorry you don’t have enough,” repeated the store clerk impatiently. But she was speaking almost to thin air. The world outside of Tarra and Tayshaunna had disappeared. But the words remained. Im sorry, you don’t have enough. As Tarra held Tayshaunna’s face fast in her mind, she couldn’t help but to relate with the clerk.
“I’m sorry too,” she said.
Note: Graham Danzer is a writer who lives in San Francisco. Mr. Danzer also holds a master’s degree in Social Work. He is our new staff writer.
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