Indelebilis, Chapter Three
(Atlanta, Georgia, 1971)
As William looked at his wife, walking next to him, umbrella in hand, he smiled to himself. He admired this woman and there was certainly no denying that she was her father’s daughter. She wasn’t yet forty and she was already a creature of habit, they both were he supposed. They hadn’t missed a Sunday worship service for as long as he could remember. Monday through Friday, William could always be found at the Fulton County courthouse where he spent the majority of his days as a family law attorney.
Mabel had an English degree, but she couldn’t see herself tied to a classroom. There was a world full of people who needed help and there was nothing she loved more than serving others. They didn’t need the money so she was free to live life as she thought best and William had always been tremendously proud of her efforts to assist the less fortunate in their city. There was one place she loved to serve more than any other, and that was at The Methodist Children’s Home, a six-minute ride to Decatur.
It was not an orphanage, per se, it was more a fostering type of residence. It had been established as a home for children who were orphaned after the civil war and had undergone many changes over the years. Volunteers like Mabel brought life and light into the multi-faceted complex. Volunteers helped farm the land, read to the children and cooked for them. The establishment was really quite remarkable, there was even a school on the property.
William knew how much his wife loved all the children there, but he worried about her at times. She had a habit of spreading herself too thin. She knew more than anyone, that these children needed the love of a mother, but she was only one woman, how could she help them all? One very warm day in the summer of ‘72, she would meet someone who would change her life; a baby named Jack came on the scene, and for Mabel, the rest of the world almost completely disappeared.
The fair-skinned, red-headed, newborn first appeared in a 1955 Chevy Nomad, umbilical cord still attached, riding in his mother’s arms. His parents, Rebecca and Tom were not married, in fact, they had only been going out for a little over a year. She only saw Tom when the circus came to town, he was a carnie and in less than three months Rebecca would be out of high school and old enough to date him legally.
When the couple arrived at the Children’s Home, they met with Mrs. Lamb the headmaster and purported that they didn’t have the means to take care of the baby. They asked if there was there anything the home could do in the way of diapers, clothes or money. Sadly, Mrs. Lamb had seen dozens of cases like this, many times in her career. Before they went any further, Mrs. Lamb handed the baby over to the home’s doctor while she conducted an interview with the parents.
The headmaster suspected that Tom and Becky were not only drug addicts, but that they had been high from the moment they drove up. She knew that any lectures she might present about purchasing costly drugs when you can’t afford a diaper would be lost on these two. The longer the couple spoke, the more obvious it became that they were not only not capable of caring for an infant, but that they were so high, it was questionable if they could actually make it home without killing another motorist.
Though she didn’t relish the idea, Mrs. Lamb had to involve the police who, upon arrival, spotted empty beer bottles as well as quite a bit of drug paraphernalia littering the floor of Tom’s car. Apparently, Rebecca had given birth to her baby in the backseat of the Chevy only a few hours earlier. Tom had convinced his girlfriend that giving birth might not hurt as bad if she did a line or two beforehand.
Tom and Rebecca were questioned, handcuffed and placed in the back of a squad car. Though it was not illegal to give your child up to the state, it was illegal to snort cocaine and there was plenty of evidence to convict them both. Before the cops could even drive off the property, Tom had fallen asleep in the back of the police car. Rebecca, on the other hand, was trying very hard to see through her drug-induced fog. She looked back at the building feeling certain that she had forgotten something, but she couldn’t remember what.
The baby’s physical concluded that, like his Mom and Dad, he was also an addict and was certainly going to have a difficult row to hoe. Before Mabel met Jonathan, she served at the children’s home two or three times a week at most, but since the baby came, she was there nearly every day. William was relatively certain where this was headed, he and Mabel were finally going to be parents.
William knew that if all went well, most any judge would grant them custody, after all, they were model citizens. He imagined that their little family would soon be complete. He couldn’t have been happier, but Mabel… well, she was over the moon. She had no doubt that this child was meant to be her son and she would love him cradle to grave.
The Adkins did everything required of them to become certified foster parents. Mable cared for little Jonathan every day for two months at The Methodist Children’s Home and she already loved him with the power of a hundred ocean tides! She promised herself that nothing on earth would ever come between them.
As they waited for the paperwork to be processed, they decorated a small room in their home, all in blue, just for their little red-haired boy. William put a crib together, first in the family room, then upon realizing it wouldn’t fit through the door, he disassembled it and reassembled it in the nursery. Mabel laughed at her husband almost buzzing with excitement like he’d never seen in her before.
Both Rebecca and Tom were sentenced to time for possession and use of marijuana and cocaine. This was not Tom’s first offense with drugs, however, it was the first time he had ever been caught with someone under the age of consent so the judge threw the book at him with no chance of parole. However, because it was Rebecca’s first offense and because she had family ties to someone high up in state government, the judge gave her only two years with a chance of parole for good behavior.
The judge was a staunch supporter of President Johnson who was doing everything in his power to bring about the demise of illegal drugs. He wanted Rebecca to know that though he had gone easy on her, he did not take her offense lightly and after he sentenced her, he called her up to his bench. He leaned over and quietly told her that he didn’t care who she was related to, if she was ever brought into his courtroom on a drug charge again, he would not go easy on her. Rebecca didn’t understand why everyone looked so serious. She just wanted to go home, smoke some pot and take a nap.
After she’d been incarcerated for about a month, Rebecca’s lawyer explained to her that a foster couple had been caring for her son, Jonathan, and they wanted to adopt him. She shrugged her shoulders, what was she supposed to say with her face in the garbage can? She was busy vomiting, going through withdrawal. Other than a few flashbacks of the birth, she had pretty much already forgotten about the baby, nothing seemed more prevalent than the misery she was experiencing.
Mabel was so relieved to learn that they would not have a fight on their hands, but William’s mind wasn’t at ease quite yet. He’d seen enough drug addicts in his time, he knew better than to trust them at their word. Foster children were only allowed to stay in each foster home for up to eighteen months, there were no exceptions to the rule so William was doing everything possible to bring the adoption to completion.
William and Mabel had been the sole caretakers for Jonathan, or Jack, as they called him, for nearly two years, his whole life really. Mabel could not be found without the boy in her arms or by her side the entirety of that time. Watching Mabel with Jack, William began to notice how hollow and meaningless his job made him feel. He hated missing so many of the baby’s firsts. His first smile, first laugh, first word, and eventually his first steps. He’d hear about it all when he got home at night, but it wasn’t as good as seeing them with his own eyes. He looked forward to the day Jack was older and it was his turn to mentor and connect with his son.
Mabel kept a scrapbook for Jack. It was still on the sparse side, but there would be plenty of time to fill the pages. She had plenty of pictures of him when he first came home though he was still drug-addicted at the time. One page of the book had a picture of his first haircut with a lock of his hair fastened to it. She had documented his first word, “mama,” with glitter, a moment she couldn’t forget if she tried. His immunizations and his birth record were included and at least twenty pictures of Mabel’s favorite day ever. It was a day she would relive in her memories for years to come.
The whole thing was William’s idea. Six Flags amusement park had been so popular in Arlington, Texas, that the owner decided to open a second park in Austell, Georgia, just west of Atlanta. It had only been open a few years and Jack’s first birthday gave them the perfect excuse to see what all the fuss was about. William was like a kid, waiting in line for the roller coaster while Mabel and Jack, happy to stand on the sidelines, waited to wave at Daddy when he whizzed past. William thought it would be fun to come every year for Jack’s birthday and he couldn’t wait till Jack was old enough to ride the coaster with his old dad.
William didn’t mind waiting a few years, soon enough, he would have a lifetime of memories with his son. Besides, there were plenty of family features the three of them could do together. They rode the train and the sky buckets around the park, which gave them the most beautiful views of the Chattahoochee. William enjoyed the antique cars, and Jack loved the little sips of lemonade that Mabel let him draw off her straw. His favorite thing that day though was watching the dolphins leap in and out of their pool. Mabel bought him a little hat with a dorsal fin on top. She hated covering his red hair, but he was just so fair-skinned. Mabel was quite sure it was the most perfect day that any family had ever had and she couldn’t remember ever being happier.
Unfortunately, their happy home was not destined to last long. William had been right to be ill at ease because at the Arrendale State Prison Jack’s birth mom had gotten clean. Sobriety, usually considered a positive development, would come to no good thing in this instance. Some might have pitied Rebecca her childhood. After all, her mother had died during childbirth and her father, a senator, resided mostly in D.C., leaving her alone to be raised by a nanny. She was a poor, little, rich girl and she had everything a girl could want, except, of course, love.
Her father’s advisors traveled to the prison and met with Rebecca in order to convince her that she needed to turn her life around, she was not to misconstrue this instruction as a suggestion. Between the adult, drug-pushing, carnie boyfriend, having a child out of wedlock, topped off by a prison sentence, the senator’s patience had, to put it mildly, run out. His assistants were there to see that she understood the emphasis the senator was putting on his mandates, requirements, and expectations going forward.
After the very large men in dark suits and sunglasses convinced Rebecca how serious the nature of their visit was, they then informed her that she was to do three things or her father would cut her off for good. 1) Warden Caldwell had a directive that all inmates must take the G.E.D. She was to pass the first time. 2) She must enroll in vocational school while in prison, he didn’t care if it was auto-mechanics, as long as she was capable of securing a job when she was released. And 3) she was to go and get his grandchild out of state custody before the papers got wind of it.
Rebecca put up a fuss and did a lot of eye rolling and cussing, but secretly she was just thrilled to have finally appeared on her father’s radar. She agreed to the terms, attended vocational school and earned her cosmetology license. She had dreamed of working in a fancy salon since she was a little girl. She knew she had a gift when, for community service week, she volunteered to work her magic on Tamara Burton and turned one of the least attractive girls in school into someone that a boy with thick glasses might ask out.
She even showed up in court to fight for custody of her son, not that her father had given her a choice. As Rebecca entered the courtroom, she laid eyes on a child who had red hair, just like her mother’s. He was being held by, she assumed, the foster parents. ‘They looked like a happy little family,’ she thought to herself, more jealous of Jack than of Mabel.
Her lawyer presented Rebecca as a good girl, manipulated by the immoral carnie, Tom, and while incarcerated, she had been the model convict. He submitted a file to the judge, containing what was essentially a prison report card. Her G.E.D scores were good, (they should have been after twelve years of private school and tutoring) she had a vocational school certificate, and she hadn’t been involved in a brawl for over six months.
She was the poster-child for prison rehabilitation. She had put her life back together and she was now ready to become a responsible parent, it was all there in the file. Her boyfriend, Tom, on the other hand, had given up his rights to Jack upon entering prison. The sooner he could free himself from any costly entanglements, the better. He said on more than one occasion that he’d dodged a bullet the day he got arrested.
When the Wrights entered court that day, they believed it was only a formality, a sort of ceremonial moment for them and an official requirement of the state. Mabel had made cupcakes to celebrate afterward. They had not been alerted to the fact that Jack’s birth mom would be in court or that she would be fighting for custody of her child. Mabel couldn’t even process what was happening. She looked at William for reassurance, but he was looking at the judge dumbfounded. Jack was their son in every sense, but one. William couldn’t imagine what it would do to Jack if they took him from Mabel, or what it would do to his wife.
She had been the one who held him night and day while he seized and vomited, fighting his opiate addiction. She was the one who had prayed over him as he sweated and screamed night after sleepless night. And at four months, when the baby was finally free of all withdrawal symptoms, she was the one who gave him a secure and loving home to recover in. More than anything else, she was the one who loved him with a fierceness that only a mother could.
Mabel was sure that once William explained to the judge what Rebecca had done to the child, they would gain custody of their boy, but every attempt William made was immediately shut down with little or no consideration. The judge had become adamant, Jack would be raised by his natural mother. This woman who had not only almost killed him, but who had abandoned him without concern for what might become of him, had all the rights. Mabel, the only mother Jack had ever known, felt that she was being viewed as nothing more than a temporary babysitter.
The judge gave his pronouncement ruling in favor of Rebecca. Mabel sat down for fear that she might drop the baby, she had begun to lose feeling in her arms. William laid back in his chair and took a deep breath preparing to encourage his wife that they would appeal. Mabel’s eyes were spilling over with tears as she kissed the top of Jack’s head, wondering what miracle of God would bring him back to her.
The judge said that he would allow Jack to stay with the Wrights if they chose to keep him, then, contingent on Rebecca’s upcoming release, they would surrender him to the custody of Child Welfare Services. William couldn’t fathom why any favor was being shown towards a convicted, still imprisoned, drug addict until the judge hit the block with his gavel and said the final words of the proceedings, “The court rules in favor of Rebecca Brunswick.”
For the first time, William considered the girl’s last name. It fell on him like a ton of bricks, why hadn’t he put it together before? He sat forward in his chair, elbows on his knees, hands covering his gaping mouth, completely devastated. He didn’t tell Mabel that they would appeal because there was nothing left to say. It didn’t matter how many times they entered the courtroom, the decision would never come out differently. They would go home, wait for the senator’s daughter to be released and then they would say goodbye to their son and surrender him to the state.
When Child Welfare arrived at the Wright’s door, little Jack waved ‘hello’ through the window. He was almost two and like Will Rogers, he had yet to meet a stranger he didn’t like. William let the unwelcome guests in with a wave of his arm. He was solemn and was doing everything in his power to push down the anger he felt. Mabel snatched up the baby and headed to the kitchen as if she wasn’t completely powerless in every room of her own home.
The social workers presented William with the legal paperwork, brushed past him as quickly as possible and walked into the kitchen where Mabel held the little boy for the last time. The social worker was very stern and not because it pleased her, but because it was a necessity for her job. She nodded at Mabel to let her know it was time, but when Mabel didn’t respond accordingly, the woman reached in, using a certain amount of physicality and extracted Mabel’s child from her hands, though it might as well have been her heart.
The stern woman turned quickly on her heel and walked towards her car with haste, her job was to rip off the bandaid, not to tend to the wounds. Jack began to cry and Mabel, filled with desperation, chased them into the yard and begged the deputy, standing by, to allow her one more word with the child. He nodded and William came out and stood by her side though at this point he was more afraid of his actions than hers.
“Jack, my love,” the child quieted as she whispered in his ear. “I will always be right here for you, son. I have always loved you and I always will. Please, find your way back to me. I will always be right here waiting for you no matter what. I will never go anywhere else.” She looked at William and he nodded his support. He tried to say, ‘I love you,’ but he choked on his words and just put his forehead on Jack’s.
The social worker patted Mabel on the arm to signal her that it was time to leave. They were on a schedule so she turned toward the car and put Jack inside. The boy looked frightened, which made Mabel weak in the knees. As the car pulled out, the Wrights could see their son crying in the window, his face turning red. William noticed Mabel falter, her knees finally buckled. He caught her before she collapsed.
They sunk down in the dirt together, unaware of the neighbors watching from their own yards. As William and Mabel watched Jack being driven away, they caught one last look at his little face. He was screaming and searching out the car window for his mom and dad. In her heart of hearts, Mabel could not imagine surviving this moment, though she knew tomorrow would come. Over and over, she just kept repeating, “Come back, son. Please come back.”
© 2019 Elisabeth Ellis