The Sweet Potato Incident

This is the first in a series of blogs I intend to write about my experience being homeless as a young child and the events leading up to it as I have come to understand them.

My mother joined the Army in late 1981/early 1982. My sister Sara and I were 1 and 2, respectively. Barely; our birthdays are both in August. We were babies. Not even potty trained.

I’ve always known this about my mother. Even the approximate time when she joined. When I was in elementary school I had to interview a family member on tape and I interviewed her about joining the Army. It never occurred to me what what a strange choice that was for a young mother at that time. She was 24 or almost 24. It was a time when 9% of enlisted Army members were women.1 Approximately 17% were women in 2020.2 Just over half of women even worked in 1982 and about 45% of women with children under 3 compared to 56% and 63% now, respectively.3 It wasn’t rare for women with children that age to work or join the military, it just wasn’t common.

What makes it more strange for my mother is that her husband, our father, was an addict and unable to hold down a job. That’s the reason I was told she joined the Army in the first place. It never occurred to me to ask where Sara and I lived. I assumed it was with him. It wasn’t. We lived with my mom’s parents; my grandmother and grandfather. I found that out just a few years ago.

At my dad’s memorial service (June 2018) I reconnected with some of his family, including his younger cousin, T. They were best friends growing up and lived together on and off both as children and as adults. Their mother’s were sisters, single and raising children alone. One was a widow and one was divorced (my dad’s mom). The boys had lots of adventures running around the Annapolis areas of Eastport and Parole, downtown.

He told me so many great stories about him and gave me a lot of information about that time that I didn’t know. One that has stuck with me was about my mom’s choice to leave her babies with her parents to join the Army. When T talked about this he said in a sort of solemn tone, “your mom decided to join the Army and we all thought it was a good idea”. A good idea? Does anyone ever describe someone’s choice to enlist as a “good idea”? Yes, when they are a screw up.

She was a screw up, too. Not just my dad. That means even before the homelessness things weren’t good. In fact things were so bad that she felt her only option was to leave us, even if temporarily, at 1 and 2 years old. In 1982. Were there no factory jobs where she could pull mid or swing shifts? That would have made more sense that the Army. Was her intention to run away from us? Did she ever intend on coming back?

My dad didn’t have a stable place to live or work so we lived with my grandparents two hours away. Two babies without either of their parents. But it didn’t last long.

One night my dad came to my grandparent’s house to have dinner with us all. Sweet potatoes were on the menu. I have a very vivid memory of sitting at a table in my grandmother’s kitchen with sweet potatoes and being told I couldn’t get up until I ate them. It’s a story I recounted to my mother many times over the years as the reason I didn’t like sweet potatoes. It’s a story I told my own kids about a different time when sitting at the table with a cold dinner was how people dealt with picky eaters. That incident is why my dad took us from my grandparents’ and was the start of what would be almost 3 years of homelessness. My mother kept that from me for over 35 years.

My grandmother wanted me to finish the sweet potatoes. My dad did not. My grandmother said something to the affect of “well it’s my house” and that was all it took. He packed us up and took us. It’s seems like it’s really not that big of a deal, I guess. He and his mother-in-law had differing ideas of how to parent, of course they did. But he didn’t have a stable living situation and our mother was gone. It was a big deal.

I’m sure there was arguing. My grandmother took us in because she knew it wouldn’t be good for us to be with him. She wasn’t going to give us up easily. Voices were probably raised and then hushed so we wouldn’t get upset. I have no memory of any of that but I remember everything about that kitchen. The table I sat at. The refrigerator to the left. How small it seemed. How long it seemed that I sat there. The rest of what happened must have been so traumatic that my little brain blocked it out.

Did I feel like it was my fault? All this fighting because I wouldn’t eat mushed up sweet potato goo. If I had just done what I was told everyone would be happy and safe. It’s no wonder the memory of the sweet potatoes is so vivid for me.

My mother didn’t think it was a big deal to have not said anything to me. She’d brainwashed us to think that even the homelessness wasn’t a big deal. I asked her what she thought of him taking us like he did. She said that she was worried but she would have done the same thing.

What?

Even with hindsight it was the right call? How different would our lives have been if we’d stayed there with them? Does she really think it was an okay thing to have done or is she just too stubborn to admit it was a mistake?

During the time we were with my dad in Maryland, before the big road trip (see On the Road), we stayed with cousin T. According to my grandmother, my dad spent most of the money he had on educational toys for me. She would talk to his mother and aunts on the phone and suggest that if they were going to help us out, to buy us food and milk and not to give him money. When she talked to him she told him things like kids need to drink milk not Coke. I have no idea if he worked during that time and if he did, who kept an eye on Sara and I. He was a 30 year old man but he had no idea what he was doing. We were babies. Our mother was gone and our dad was not capable of creating a safe and stable home for us. But he was all we had.

We had a roof over our head but it wasn’t stable. It wasn’t ours. It wasn’t a home. And it wouldn’t be long before we didn’t even have that.

1https://prhome.defense.gov/Portals/52/Documents/POPREP/poprep99/assets/pdf/chapters99.pdf

2https://www.militarytimes.com/news/your-military/2020/05/20/the-military-needs-a-real-plan-to-recruit-and-retain-women-report-finds/

3https://www.dol.gov/agencies/wb/data/facts-over-time/women-in-the-labor-force#civilian-labor-force-by-sex

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