My Obsession with Finding Home Was Tied to My Foster Mother’s

February 6, 2022   •   By Nicole Johnson

WE CASH MY foster mother’s check in the bank drive-through, as the teller, a pimpled, ginger-haired girl, asks what color lollipop I would like. She pushes the envelope through the metal drawer. But the money will run out before the end of the month. Esther never has enough to carry her from one paycheck to the next. She drives into a spot, parks, and attempts to dig the cash out of the envelope, her cut-to-the-quick fingernails don’t help. Tearing it, she counts by fives, tens, and twenties, licking the tip of her pointer finger before flipping each bill to keep them from sticking. The final dollar will be spent on Silly Putty and a Hershey’s bar from the grocery store because my childhood needs outweigh her own.

Esther hands the money to Johnny, her real son, so he can double-check. He sits in the passenger seat counting. “It’s all there, Ma.” Without thought, he passes it back to me. This is the game we play. I give one bill back for each promise he makes. “I’ll take you skating,” he says, and I hand him a bill. Imagining my feet in skates with blades thick enough to carve into ice, yet still allow my body to glide across the glass surface, both terrifies and frees me. Johnny leans over the seat and gives me a gentle noogie. He’s a teenager so while he loves me, he can’t show it. His knuckles against my skull only hurt a little. 

I’ve been with Esther since I was 10 months old. I’m seven now. She wanted to foster a boy. Someone easy, someone potty-trained, someone less complicated. “But,” she often tells me as she recounts our first meeting, one I can’t remember, “when I saw you staring up at me from your crib, I knew you were mine.”

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“What about that house?” Esther asks as we cross from the city to the tree-lined neighborhood just beyond.

I imagine the people inside. There are two children, because two children, a mother, and a father are the norm. In my imagination, the mother, a schoolteacher, knits her children’s clothes while completing crossword puzzles. Her husband plays ball with the kids in the backyard while she cooks dinner. They are a nuclear family. We are a mother and daughter, unrelated by blood, bound by the state and a shared affinity for one another, driving around searching for something this imaginary family has already found.

I scratch at the patch covering one of my eyes. My view is uneven, split. I’m waiting for my third eye surgery, for the doctor to attempt to make me like everyone else. I hope it will be my last.

“You made that boy bleed,” my foster mother says as she edges her massive Chevy Impala onto another street.

“He called me a pirate.” A few days earlier, my hand curled into a fist as it made contact with the neighborhood boy’s nose. At first, he was shocked — that a girl hit him and that it hurt. Only moments later, when Tommy noticed the blood, did he cry.

“I’m glad you stuck up for yourself,” she says before pointing to a colonial with a brick front and two chimneys. That means two fireplaces to warm my body after coming in from making angels in the snow. Esther wipes her glistening forehead. I’m sold, I think as I scratch the realtor’s number from the “For Sale” sign into my pink notebook.

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I hear Esther fighting on the phone. The rent is late again. Maybe it is because of the Silly Putty or the candy. I want to return them, but the putty is stuck in the coarse gray fabric of her car and the candy has been eaten and digested. Guilt will be a constant theme in my life, and I will wonder if this is its origin. Bargaining with the Housing Authority for time, Esther is granted nothing but a warning. “We have just enough gas to go out for a bit,” she says, gathering her cigarettes and her wallet, empty and useless, and throwing them in her purse. Without knowing where we are going, I know what we are looking for. The roads narrow as we drive.

We ride into the wealthy part of town. Children ride bikes and play on wide front lawns with swing sets and small plastic swimming pools. Sprinklers, set on timers, erupt and spray the grass, burnt out by a strong sun and a dry summer. Sirens and horns are replaced by singing birds and laughter from nowhere. Kids run into houses as screen doors slam behind them. I see the outlines of their lives: billowing curtains, a green-fabric couch, and built-in bookshelves.

“Someday,” she whispers. I’m not sure if it’s for her or for me. But it helps to keep us pushing on, believing in better. We pick a favorite, a place that feels the most comfortable or grand, often altering the details — the house color, or the pitch of the roof. I prefer contemporary with sharp lines and open spaces. She, a rambling and vast traditional, like the one she remembers from her childhood, which was as messy and undefined as my own. Esther lived in the suburbs once until she became a ward of the state. Her mother was ill, so Esther was orphaned or fostered. The details grow hazy and disappear.

“Or a single-level, midcentury modern ranch, because one day I’ll be old and won’t want to climb steps.” Old age won’t happen and neither will the midcentury.

But when I go off to college, she manages to purchase her first home. She and Johnny saved money in the many decades they lived in subsidized housing. He worked throughout high school, and Esther stashed away what she could from her telephone operator job. Though it is in a trailer park, it is clean, comfortable, and surrounded by trees.

While their new home is movable, it remains fixed on a lot, in a neighboring state to the one I grew up in. Homes on foundations cost too much.

Esther is barely working class, but at least the two-bedroom, one-bath trailer she shares with Johnny is hers. The porch on the front, unfinished wooden planks nailed together, is big enough for her rocker.

I come home from college each summer. During dinner, we read real estate books, as she pretends her dream hasn’t been swallowed up by life but is a scratch ticket away. We talk about what we would do with our home by the lake, like the one we visited during my youth when my body curled into hers at night.

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On one of my visits home, she asks, “You smoke?” though I feel sure she knew. I wait for the disappointment, the talk about cancer and stunted growth and yellow teeth. “You should have told me sooner. We could have enjoyed smoking together.”

I turn to look at her, wondering if she knows of the broken heart that still beats under my shirt. The one that followed me home from college. I am surprised at its resilience.

“You loved him?” Esther asks.

I nod. When she picks up her keys, I follow her past the wooden porch and into her massive yellow Impala, allowing my body to return to its natural spot in the passenger side as navigator. We bypass busy roads for quieter ones.

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Two years later, I flip through the real estate guide I picked up in the lobby, finding it strange to leave something so hopeful in hospice. Watching Esther’s chest rise and fall under the soothing blanket of morphine dripping through a plastic tube into her veins, I pick up a pen and begin circling homes I think she’d like. Perhaps there’s hope. I’m sure someone has survived hospice. My foster brother, Johnny, watches a demonic dog chase some television family.

Taking a break, I go outside, light a cigarette, and watch the tendrils of smoke rise against the frigid January air. When I return, she is still there, alive. Her body has diminished to a few barely visible lumps hidden under a blue sheet. Before I leave to go home, I lean over and kiss her sandpaper skin. On the way out the door, I throw the real estate book into the trash.

The fuzzy glow of death comes for Esther in the middle of the night a few weeks after I’ve returned to college. My mother dies alone, surrounded by the soft hum and beeps of machines, while nurses drink coffee and discuss plans for the weekend.

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In the small trailer she was a few payments away from owning, Esther’s ashes grace the top of the television set. I sit in the rocker where she watched Jeopardy. It will be years until I can listen to the theme song without crying.

In the next decade, I find my dream home, not the contemporary but a mustard-colored, traditional Cape. I find the life we imagined and fill it with a father, mother, and four children. I go nuclear; lights blaze from my porch and windows. My children hear the predawn call of birds and see star-filled skies. They bask in sun-drenched afternoons. Their feet fall against the tree-lined sidewalks of suburbia. I no longer have to imagine.

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Nicole Johnson is a writer living in Maine. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Al Jazeera, National Geographic, and many other publications. She is currently working on a memoir about addiction and abandonment.

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Featured image: “house for sale by owner” by Images Money is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Image has been cropped and desaturated.