“What’s in the bag, kiddo?” A sentence that many would register as a back pack or something else. A sentence that can either come across as an accusation or curiosity. For me it was both. It was a trash bag and I was asked this question the first time when I was three years old.
Foster kids travel with trash bags and everything they own inside them. I guess my mom packed my first trash bag or maybe I had a back pack or luggage or something when I left my parent’s house at three years old, but I don’t remember it. I don’t think it was given to me. Instead I was handed a trash bag as I was shown the bottom bunk at the children’s home where my sister and I would be staying “for the time being.” A phrase that was used a lot over the next 5 years. Everything that was mine was in the trash bag. Symbolic of the way I felt at the moment, unable to fully comprehend why I was being “thrown out”. Had I gone bad like the leftovers from 2 nights ago, or the vegetables left too long in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator? My sister and I walked next to each other, close but not touching, talking, or looking at each other. She was 5 at the time and not able to help me any.
The shelter we were to stay at off and on for the next 5 years was made up of smaller houses. Each house was exactly the same. A kitchen, living room, master bedroom for the house mom, and a big bedroom with 4 sets of bunk beds. At the time they were over crowded so my sister and I would share the bottom bunk closest to the door. I was very happy with this. I didn’t want to leave her side. She however felt the need to run and be alone. I don’t remember exactly how many houses there were but I do remember there was a park in the middle of them. They boys’ houses were on the left and the girls’ were on the right. My brother was in one of the boys’ houses. Even though we were just across the park from him, we wouldn’t see him much.
As soon as the house mom left to the kitchen to whisper adult matters with our caseworker, my sister and sat on the bed and opened the trash bags. A few pieces of clothing, hair brush, toothbrush, and one toy each. I would later learn that if anyone brought in more than that, it became house property. We all had the same amount of personal property, no one could be made to feel special. The trash bags helped with that.
For each foster home we were put in, all that was ever ours was the items in the trash bag. Even if the foster family we lived with bought us new toys and clothes, we would have to leave it all behind. If we received presents for our birthday or Christmas, we had to decide what one toy we wanted as personal property and the rest went to the house. A few pieces of clothes, a hair brush, tooth brush, and one toy. All in the trash bag. I kept my items in the trash bag. I didn’t unpack this bag even when we were placed in foster homes. If they bought us new things, I wore those and left my other clothes in the trash bag, always prepared to leave. Making sure that they still fit every few weeks and switching them out if they didn’t. I had to be ready because some times when it was time to leave, it was time to leave. Grab your trash bag and go, as if the garbage man is down the street and you need to get it to the curb before he gets there. Also the clothes couldn’t be too nice. Designer labels were not allowed. I remember a girl whose birthday gift was returned to her parents because it was a name brand dress. She cried for a week and took a pair of scissors to her “acceptable” dress. The girls all had one dress for church services, visitation days, and shopping days. Shopping days was when potential foster parents came to see if you were an acceptable child or not. Little girls in dresses with bows who say “thank you” and “yes ma’am” were what they wanted. My sister and I were exactly that and so it never took long before we were fostered out.
But it was always “for the time being.” Five years, countless trash bags, and 6 “homes” later, my parents would get us back. It seems like a happy ending. It should have been, but I continued to carry items in a trash bag until I was 17 years old.
I have moved almost every year my entire life. I still am in a constant commute. I don’t own any land or property. I rent an apartment. I consider buying and settling. But where does one settle when they have no roots? I know I should build a solid foundation for my daughter, but it scares me. I have spent my life preparing for the next move. How do I stand still. I have lived here for 9 months and there are still boxes and trash bags in closets.
I am reminded of Carrie Underwoods “Temporary Home”
Little boy, six years old
A little too used to bein’ alone
Another new mom and dad, another school
Another house that’ll never be home
When people ask him how he likes this place
He looks up and says with a smile upon his face
“This is my temporary home
It’s not where I belong
Windows in rooms that I’m passin’ through
This is just a stop, on the way to where I’m going
I’m not afraid because I know this is my
Young mom on her own
She needs a little help got nowhere to go
She’s lookin’ for a job, lookin’ for a way out
‘Cause a half-way house will never be a home
At night she whispers to her baby girl
Someday we’ll find a place here in this world
“This is our temporary home
It’s not where we belong
Windows in rooms that we’re passin’ through
This is just a stop, on the way to where we’re going
I’m not afraid because I know this is our
Perhaps one day I will have a home. Perhaps one day I will completely unpack my trash bags. Perhaps…one day…