In 1970, my husband’s employer transferred us and our two children to Venezuela. We enrolled our seven-year-old son in the English-speaking grade school set up years ago by American companies for the children of expatriates. I was looking for a preschool for our four-year-old-daughter who was clearly bored waiting every day for her brother to come home so that she would have someone to play with.
I learned of an American missionary who ran such a school within driving distance of the house that we were renting. I visited the school, met the missionary and his wife, and it seemed exactly what I was looking for. The next day, I drove my daughter to the school so that she could meet the teacher and start her first day at school. I said goodbye to her and told her that I would be back in an hour to pick her up. I walked out the door, got in the car and drove off.
About forty-five minutes later, I returned to the school to wait for her class to be dismissed. As I drove up the hill toward the front door, I saw my little girl playing outside in the street all by herself. Her bright red hair was unmistakable.
“What are you doing?” I said, as I pulled to a stop. “Why aren’t you in class?” She saw that I was upset and didn’t answer. I was more than upset. We were in a strange country. Anybody could have driven past the school and taken her, kidnapped her, and I would never have seen her again. Chrissy was a little girl with red hair in a country where everyone had black hair. I had already seen how store clerks ran to my children, put their hands all over them, wanting to hug them. More than once I’d had to untangle stranger’s arms from around my children.
I stormed into the missionary-director’s office demanding to know why she wasn’t in class which was still in session. He made some lame excuse about the teacher probably not realizing that she was missing. “Well, she’s not coming back,” I said, “and don’t send me a bill for the tuition either. If I can’t trust that she is watched over and safe at this school, I can’t leave her here!” I drove home, shaking.
That night, I had the first of the nightmares that would plague me to this day. I would suddenly wake up in terror, seeing little Chrissy in my dream at the top of the hill playing alone in the street.
Chrissy still was lonely without her brother, and although I tried to play with her, it wasn’t enough. She needed other kids around. I learned of a playschool in our neighborhood, but it was Spanish speaking and run by a Venezuelan woman. I checked it out anyway. There were fewer kids in the little school, and it was completely walled in. No one could get in or out without identifying themselves. The director was a jolly extraverted woman whom the children seemed to love. I asked Chrissy if she would like to stay and play a while. She did, and this was the beginning of her learning Spanish.
I began to learn the idiosyncrasies of the Venezuelan culture. People didn’t have the same concept of truth and accountability that we did. Instead of giving a literally true answer to a question, they would tell you what they thought you wanted to hear so that you would be happy and they would feel satisfied.
Stealing was rife, even from neighbors. A friend of mine put two large pots of beautiful plants by her front door. Later that day, she saw both pots in front of her neighbor’s door instead of her own. (My friend told me that she marched right over to retrieve them, but this time put them on her back patio where they couldn’t be easily stolen.)
Crimes of opportunity happened every day. “Don’t ever turn your back on your purse if you set it on the counter,” I told a visiting friend. “Anyone nearby will snatch it, and you will never see it again! They would just chalk it up to your being an American who doesn’t know any better.” One learned to be wary about everything in this strange country.
I will spare you all the details, but this is what began to happen:
- I saw homeless children on the streets of Caracas everywhere that I looked, especially girls, as boys were gathered up and placed in boarding schools to be trained for the Venezuelan National Guard.
- I learned that Venezuela imported little blonde orphans from Canada to be placed for adoption. These did not always work out as these kids were already traumatized in numerous ways and so the adoptive families eventually abandoned them. I saw such a one once where the adoptive mother was so depressed that she just let her little blonde child wander about alone with no care or supervision. Her neighbor, an American, told me that the father had no interest at all.
- My husband and I thought that we might help, so we went to the Consejo del Ninos attempting to adopt a young child to take it back to the United States for a better life, but we were told that none were available. Later we learned that a few families had accomplished adoptions through purchasing a child from a shady lawyer who managed all the details.
- Too late. My husband’s job ended, and after two plus years in Venezuela, the company transferred us to Chicago.
- When we moved back to the States, the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) had been making a big push for foster homes, so we applied and were accepted into the program.
- First we had a thirteen-year-old boy who stayed with us for six weeks.
- Next was a pretty little girl of twelve who lived with us for a couple of months.
- Lastly, we accepted siblings, a boy and girl who were very near the ages of my own children. They lived with us for more than two years, and when DCFS finally found a permanent home for them, I was so exhausted that it took me more than a year to recover from burn-out. I had learned what the term “damaged children” was all about.
- My own two children had weathered the upheaval of having foster sisters and brothers well. They were now in middle school, and it was time for me to focus completely on them. After all, the teenage years were coming fast.
After my divorce, I married a man with four children, now in their twenties, who had been raised by an increasingly mentally ill mother. I was determined to be their friend despite what I saw as their unstable lifestyles. After my second husband died some years later, my stepchildren continued to call regularly and to visit me occasionally from Texas, Colorado, and California. Sometimes they needed help or advice, but mostly they just wanted to talk. Each one of them is now in a stable marriage and all of them are amazing parents. I love them dearly just as I love my own.
I continue to occasionally wake up with the nightmare, but now another is added to it: an image that I saw on CNN of a little boy in Ukraine with a stricken look on his face. He has been separated from his mother and is alone in the crowd of fleeing people. He is frightened, terrified.
I think I now have realized why I became so susceptible to the nightmares about my daughter even though everything had turned out all right–but that’s a story for another day.