My First Christmas

© Dr. Ellen K. Rudolph

It was Christmas and three weeks shy of my sixth birthday and there I was, decked out in brand new blue jeans that Santa had left under the tree for me. I was awash with shyness, and it had taken a bit of doing just to get me to try them on for everybody.


Santa had come to other kids’ houses but never to mine before, and I didn’t quite know what to do with it all.

The year was 1951 and it had been a tumultuous year. Earlier that summer I was separated from my five older brothers by the local Welfare Department and placed in a childless foster home in a distant town. We six had actually been in foster homes as a group since I was three years of age, but the department had finally run out of foster care options for us; and I was deemed too vulnerable as a girl to be left in that situation.

The story was a typical one: by the time I was three our family of origin had been fractured beyond repair by marital discord and poverty, our young mother had run off with another man, and our father — an older alcoholic with an abusive, heavy-hand towards his five young sons –voluntarily gave us all up for adoption and went on to marry someone else to produce yet another child.

Talk about bad models for marriage, this was one of them. While we were still together as a family we kids and our parents lived in a one-bedroom house with a small kitchen off an even tinier living room. In the living room there was a double bed and a raggedy old arm chair, which is where we kids played, slept, and comforted each other as we listened to raucous marital quarrels behind that closed bedroom door.

I can remember many a cold winter day when the boys were not able to go to school for the lack of shoes. Instead, we’d wrap our feet in layers of socks and pile outside to slide down a big hill on large pieces of cardboard retrieved from behind the local grocery store.

Meals in those days came sparingly and mainly were provided us by a neighbor, Mrs. Vaca, who had taken our young mother under her wing. That’s about all I can remember of Mrs. Vaca, except that I saw her again some years later when an older brother married, and she almost fainted when she was introduced to me at the wedding reception. It seems that I looked the splitting image of my natural mother although I wouldn’t have known that, having been so young when I last saw her.

I do have a single family photo from those days that I treasure: it is a picture of our mother, Mary, and the six of us kids. I was sitting on a brother’s lap in baby clothes and the name of each child was scrawled on their chest for posterity. But not only did Mary confuse the names of two of my brothers pictured, the photo itself is blurry. Mary’s features in particular were entirely blurred but at least we know that she was there (for awhile).

How that photo survived the years I will never know but I am certain I have my oldest brother, Philip, to thank for it. He was our tireless guardian who kept us going and kept us all together as best he could in the face of adversity. We were each one year apart, so when I was three Philip the guardian was pushing all of nine.

And then there were none

My rememberances from those days are also a gift from Philip. Despite being young and vulnerable himself he was our rock, and he stayed close in touch with all of us even when the Welfare Department separated us into different foster environments. He was particularly attentive to me and he and I remained the best of friends until his death at the age of sixty from heart problems — through foster separations, through my eventual adoption at the age of six, and despite his own conflicted life journey that ended in his living thousands of miles from me in Seattle, Washington.

He and I used to talk on the telephone with each other every Friday night, coast to coast. We did that for more than thirty years, beginning with my emancipation as an adult.

In the course of almost every phone call we recalled our early years growing up in northern Minnesota’s iron ore country, and Philip was forever uncovering tidbits that helped piece together for me a collage of days gone by.

I still retain many visual memories from those days but it was Philip who added in the names and dates and detailed descriptions of the noteworthy events that shaped our lives.

After I was placed with the Keans as a foster child, the two youngest brothers were put in a Catholic orphanage. One was adopted by a Wisconsin family a few years later, and the other one promptly ran away from the orphanage in despair — eventually taking on a whole new identity and loosing himself to the family entirely. The next two brothers went to live with Mrs. Vaca while Philip, the eldest, went to live for a while with our natural mother, Mary, who quietly resurfaced and wanted him around to help her. He went with her, but she ended up dying in childbirth and her nameless partner took that child with him from the hospital, who knows where. Philip eventually talked his best friend’s parents into letting him live with them while he finished high school, and then he left Minnesota for what he hoped were greener pastures.

That ended our group foster home saga which was a bitter sweet experience by all accounts. We at least had each other and I had all of them, which was good. Nothing else much mattered to us.

Other recollections

I do think the Welfare system tried its best with us. I can remember many trips in the caseworker’s car that took us to yet another indistinct farmhouse somewhere in the middle of nowhere. On one occasion the caseworker was unduly distraught and, as we were motoring down the long dirt driveway to the county road, she accidently ran over and killed the foster farmer’s dog. That left quite an impression on the six of us as we contemplated the days ahead in the backseat of that big old black buick.

At one particularly awful place — where the foster farmer shot the cattle (and sometimes the boys) in the butt with a BB Gun — some unknown matronly woman with a displeasing personality came to visit. Well, she didn’t come to visit us, but we had to endure her. I crawled under her straight-backed chair and drew a picture of her with pencil and paper. It was a masterpiece if I do say so; my childlike figure was of a lady with long grey hair tied up in a bun, big drooping boobs, protruding teeth under flaring lips, and a nose to nowhere. The foster mother, of course, confiscated the masterpiece and sent us all to bed giggling wildly. That was the last of my drawing tools if I recall.

We endured more than a dozen foster homes in those years, so that by the time I stepped out of the car at the Kean’s home as their soon to be only child, I was battle weary to say the least.

When I think about what happened to the boys after the group saga ended it was, in retrospect, a good thing for all of us that the Welfare Department worked so hard to keep us all together for so long. Today I know enough to thank them for that but at that time fostering in general was mainly a budgetary decision, with quality control sorely lacking in most cases — for lack of money and also for lack of dedicated employees. It was just something to be endured.

Once, when I was in high school working at a student job in the local courthouse, happily adopted by then, I happened upon a big fat file of caseworker notes about THE JOHNSON KIDS and I read it with relish. I was, after all, the youngest of those Johnson kids. It painted a pretty bleak picture of our family of origin years and the folder was filled with newspaper articles about the multi-year effort to keep us kids together against all odds.

If they just could have pinned our dysfunctional parents back together again…

Kids are resilient and, if given half a chance, they can make lemonade out of lemons in the midst of some semblance of nurturance. Some of us kids more than others got the requisite doses of nurturance and we clearly thrived better because of it. Those who didn’t — like the brother who was indiscriminantly abused sexually by a local Catholic priest — faired much less well, including the one who ran away from the orphanage and eventually ended up in the California prison system. That’s a story for another time.

The emotional toll in every case was huge but it was less so for me because of the buffering presence of my five older brothers who treated me like a little princess. I can recall many situations during those early days where the boys stood with their backs to me, protecting me from some crazy kook or other bent on hurting me. Those boys saved me from the worst of the worst and I am forever grateful to them. They protected me, consoled me, laughed with me, and sometimes they laughed at me; but mostly they served as knights on white horses that carried me into adulthood intact.

The Judge

My final foster care situation transitioned into a permanent adoption in January of my sixth birthday. At that point I went from being the youngest sister of five older brothers to an only child of six in a family of means and education and fifty first cousins.

The brightly decorated Christmas tree three weeks earlier that blew me away was the very first time in my life that someone had put up a tree with packages under it just for me. I couldn’t believe it, as I really felt no ownership of the toys given me. After all, my brothers didn’t have their names on any of the packages and that didn’t seem fair to me. I freely gave those toys away, prompting my adoptive mother on more than one occasion to call out to me from the backdoor to come home with all of my toys, please.

A Judge would later sit me on his knee to ask me questions about my pending adoption by the Keans, and one question of his still sticks with me.
He wondered if I had had a wonderful Christmas and, while answering yes, I lowered my eyes, wondering out loud why my brothers didn’t. He said with great wisdom that it all would work out one day for the best, and to give the Keans a chance — after all, they chose me.

That was the gift under the tree in the long run that meant the most to me and it still means the most to me to this day. Indeed, dutiful packages mean little to me and I am repelled by tinsel-city shopping spree approaches to Christmas.

By now Christmas 2010 has come and gone and I am a few weeks shy of my 65th birthday. But instead of flannel-lined blue jeans I am happily decked out in Mac Pros and Miatas and lots of precious critters and friends galore, including Philip who watches over me still.

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