I was 21, living in the houseboat with new husband, he was 23. This was a dirt cheap funky old turn of the last century houseboat. I’d moved in there with my girlfriend, switched her out for a husband and we had an extra bedroom leftover.
Watched TV late nights, saw a commercial for the need for foster children. I thought I was grown up. Married. Had dropped out of college and had fulltime job and he finally got a job. We were acting grown up. And, we had an extra bedroom. Why not?
He and I got state licensed as foster parents. Unusual, but with a competent case worker we got hooked up. There was an immediate and pressing need – a young woman who wanted to stay in her school district in the north end but no foster homes available for her so she was in juvie. OK, we’ll take her. Voila, two weeks later we met Melinda.
At first you just looked at the floor. Down. You were quiet. Afraid. Went to school, enjoyed your friends. We called ourselves “foster friends” because it was obvious that at 16 she was more like a peer. We were a foster family happily in the houseboat until her father demanded a hearing.
The judge gave you back to him. I had to watch you lower your head and follow him out of the courthouse. I could not believe this could happen. The case worker, Sharon, was shocked. The father had pleaded, “Please judge, let my daughter come home. I love her. And, these two hippies aren’t even married!”.
Richard and I had not come prepared with our marriage certificate and because the judge in real-time could not ascertain the legitimacy of the father’s concern, he erred in returning Melinda to the step-father and her mother. And, one older full sister, and the younger stepsister’s house. Nearby. Right up the hill.
Two weeks later you would call me at work one morning. Breathless. You had to flee in the night, had been kept locked naked in your bedroom with nightly lectures and increasing verbal abuse by the step-father. One night the door left unlocked, and bare naked as all the clothing was removed from the bedroom to prevent her freedom and to humiliate her at all times kept naked – she was able to creep down the stairs she told me and put on some clothes in the front hall closet – and run. She had run to a friends and didn’t know what to do.
We hid her at a friend’s house for a few weeks. The case worker kept in close touch, where was Melinda? We denied knowledge. Case worker persisted in helping us understand that hiding and running wasn’t the best choice, that she needed to go to school and not be at such risk. The case worker said that because of what the step-father had now done, there is no way she would ever be returned to her home. Trust me, said the case worker, its in Melinda’s best interests.
This time the step-father pleaded his sorry and regret hadn’t done anything, she was lying, but he understood she was not coming back to his house. At least, said this hateful angry ex-military abusive prick, to the judge, “Don’t let her go back to their house.” He pointed at the hippie husband and me.
The judge remanded Melinda to a group home in the south part of the city. She felt threatened, didn’t like it. Within a couple of weeks she was gone. Gone. No contact gone.
We had grown to love our Melinda. Her gentle caring nature emerged. Friends said she smiled and laughed in new ways. She was bold in her wit and teasing. The case worker called her a survivor. The case worker said that she had the strength to get away from her abusive dad and run while her older sister did not. The younger sister being biological daughter was not in as much risk, but Melinda we were told was flowering into her own person now that she was free of his reign of terror which we had also heard little about.
The case worker kept in touch over a few years. I divorced the hippie husband a few months later. I quit my job and went back to school and I lived with a social work student who was a lay psychoanalyst. The husband had taken photographs of Melinda. Black and white 8 x 11. He sent them to me last year when cleaning his house.
I saw Melinda one final time. She called me on the phone. I had not seen her or heard from her in five years. I now lived with an artist, a weaver and was writing and studying massage therapy. She said she was at the airport, could take a taxi and see me for five minutes but no more.
Melinda arrived and stood in my sun drenched living room. The taxi was waiting outside. She gave me a small Polaroid of herself in a military uniform in a palm-roofed bar with another female soldier, said it was Phillipines.
One small fact that lay between last seeing Melinda and this final visit at my house, was that her father had taken a gun into her mother’s real estate office in Clearview WA and had murdered her mother. And, shot himself. Just as he had always threatened. And, he’d threatened Melinda as well, but she was scared for her life and so afraid to tell us that. The case worker hd contacted me about this murder-suicide, but I had no clue where you were, Melinda. No clue.
Then your telephone call and appearance in my Queen Anne living room, your words deliberate, slow, rehearsed, careful, “I came to see you one last time. I will not be able to see you ever gain, but I wanted to tell you this. Thank you for saving my life. After I was put in the group home a boyfriend said he would take me to San Francisco. But he took me there and prostituted me. For two years. Then I got away, and managed to get my GED and went into the military. ” She put the Polaroid in my hand, went on, “I’ve found a way to be economically taken care of for the rest of my life. But I will not be able to be in touch with you. I want you to know that I plan to have children, but I will never be with a man.”
The picture was taken at the Phillipine outdoor bar with her and another woman in uniform now made perfect unspoken sense to me, she didn’t have to tell me it was her lover. And, I’ve always wondered what her name was. I still have that instamatic picture of you Melinda. And, the other pictures that Richard took in 1975. Your beautiful liquid brown eyes and the impish full-lipped grin, your freckles, your crooked front teeth, your curved bow smile, your own curly head of red-brown hair.
I have never known to this day what you have ended up doing in life, honey. I haven’t given up looking, but even with prospect research skills I have not found you. But, I have never forgotten that last time I saw you. I was 27 so you were 22. You said you wanted to see me one last time and tell me that I had saved your life. I trust you have been safe since then and everything worked out.
We loved each other and clung together and both survived – the case worker let me know after the step-dad’s death that we could very well have been targets of his violent rageaholism at any time, the court was mistaken to have listened to this murderous psychopath.
Between the day of that last visit with Melinda and now, I have gone on to raise two daughters of my own. I was too stricken with grief to ever be another foster friend because the state wrenching you away not once but twice too great a cost.
But, then again, it’s ultimately perfect. The natural great perfection. Things are perfect in some larger ways we don’t realize at the time. And, human beings are like vitamins for each other, with completely different daily dose requirements.
Sometimes when we love, we only get a summer or a few months of each others one precious life. And, sometimes that is enough nutrient, we exchange what we are meant to exchange. Feed each other some essential soul element not found in any other human being on the planet. And, then we are gone from each other. In one moment, you turned and scampered to the waiting taxi.
Did you become a spy? You were street wise, beautiful, militarily trained and successful apparently, maybe it was spook work. Or some big illegal foreign black market fandango. I hoped for the former. But, I know wherever you went, you were a survivor and I had no right to be fearful for you.
How grateful I remain for that late night TV commercial that brought you, Melinda, into my life. I wouldn’t trade those two years with you, Melinda for anything. In some strange way your love helped one day save my own one precious life – the vitamin of love you gave me and the strength of your warrior strong nature as you severed ties with your past to sail into your uncharted future – I learned over time that I was a survivor, too.
Back at you foster friend wherever you are!