by Michele Fried

Eleanor’s story begins and ends in Niagara Falls, New York. When Eleanor was born she went home with her birth parents, their first child. The newborn made her father very happy. He loved to hold her and smell her and talk to her. But taking care of Eleanor became too difficult for him because his wife needed more attention then the young baby. Liz was diagnosed with Schizophrenia and she was not good at taking her medication – it became too much for a young man like Philip to handle. When Philip, Jr. was born, however it made things all the more challenging. Somehow Liz never smiled after he was born and her tears made Philip Sr. so sad.

One day Philip packed up his two children and drove them to Rochester and left them in the care of a friend named Sandra. When Philip arrived home he then packed up his wife and drove her to the hospital where she spent the following ten years in an institutionalized setting. Every day Philip visited her. He used to visit the children weekly but then it become monthly, then yearly, and then one day the visits stopped.

I don’t know if Sandra tried her best or if she was qualified or even capable to take care of Eleanor and her brother. Somehow Philip, Jr. went into foster care and went back and forth from Sandra’s house to strangers’ homes. Eleanor couldn’t remember her first mother though she did remember her father and somehow she got her memories or stories confused and did not realize that a woman named Liz was her biological mother. By the time she was a young teen she was reminded of her story when Philip arrived one cold day and came with the warm smile and a hug. It didn’t matter to Eleanor if he forgot to bring her candy this time because his hug was enough. He asked her and her brother to come home with him, and he had news. Their mother was finally home! So the three again packed into the car with about the same amount of items they first left with, and returned to Niagara Falls, and walked into to the very same home they left as small children. There they found Liz and they couldn’t say she looked the same or different because they didn’t remember. A room was made for the two of them with a hanging sheet separating the room in half ~ one side for Philip Jr. and one side for Eleanor. Eleanor was home. She was home.

Home wasn’t what it was like in Sandra’s house. Eleanor thought Sandra was her mother. She called her mom. While she willed Sandra to love her better then the other children in the home, she never thought she didn’t love her. Why did she simply let her go? Why couldn’t she remember Liz? Philip, Jr. wasn’t interested in talking about all of this and kept to himself and followed the rules. He didn’t want to go back to Rochester. Eleanor didn’t like the rules and she didn’t like Liz that much but couldn’t say so, especially not to her father. What made it worse was that her father only had eyes for his wife and Eleanor was too tired to will another parent to love her more and so she learned to find love elsewhere in the streets of Niagara Falls.

Eleanor quickly met Tyson, known as a troublemaker in the school they both attended. “You’re the girl who stares,” he first said to her at the corner store near her home. She didn’t even look down in embarrassment, she was fascinated by him and desperately wanted to see his hand – the one that he supposedly burned when his technology room went up in flames. Tyson proudly showed his wounds, healed by then, and it was truly not disappointing to Eleanor. Third degree burns were devastating. Tyson liked Eleanor mostly because she didn’t wince at his scares and grinned when he looked at her. He liked the dimples on her plump cheeks. He liked that she did everything he asked and she liked all the attention, even if it was negative.

It wasn’t too long until Eleanor became pregnant. Her parents weren’t too happy that their daughter was out so much, but Philip and Liz were just getting used to teenagers in their home and so when they watched Eleanor’s belly swell, they knew they had to think of something. Philip felt lost and confused and guilty all at once. But Liz’s reaction was much different. She took very good care of Eleanor and instructed Philip to take their daughter to the doctor and to get her vitamins. Anita was born right before Eleanor’s 16th birthday with her grandparents present.

When Eleanor and the baby came home things were different. Eleanor struggled as a mother because she was young, immature and without knowledge of how to care for a newborn. Liz criticized and took over. She would shame her daughter for not knowing how to care for the baby. One day Eleanor felt she needed fresh air and went looking for the baby’s father. Tyson was not hard to find and she spent the day and night with him in his parent’s basement. In the morning she went home and learned that her mother called Child Protective Services to report that she abandoned her baby. Stunned and confused she spiraled downward and finally agreed to give her parents custody.

After losing Anita to her parents, she left her home quietly one day with just the clothes on her back and moved in with Tyson in a simple apartment in the heart of Niagara Falls. The accident that caused Tyson’s scarred hand, gave him a large bank account. He was on his own and doing what he knew best – getting into trouble. But Eleanor had a place to stay and lots of attention from Tyson. Before she knew it she was pregnant again.

Tyson wasn’t around for most of Eleanor’s pregnancy because he got picked up for beating up some guy, but once he got out he returned to her and was there for the birth of his son. Dante was born in the early Fall, and came home to his young parents who made lots of promises to each other and to him. But trouble wasn’t the only thing that started keeping Tyson away… it was the crying, diapering, feeding and runny nose. Dante always had a runny nose. Tyson would leave and not come back for days.

Within one short year, Eleanor was pregnant again, but this time, Tyson did not come home. Not because he didn’t want to but because his poor behavior got him good this time and the police said, “No more.” Three times and you’re out is the rule right now and Tyson was incarcerated and would not be released in time to see this baby born or see his Dante turn one. Eleanor and Dante were alone and things got progressively worse. Tyson’s money was sitting in the bank, but Eleanor did not have access to it. She went to Tyson’s parents but they would not help her. She even dared to go home. Her father hugged her and with a bright smile met his grandson. But Liz threatened to take Dante away from Eleanor if she wasn’t able to make it on her own, so she returned to the apartment to find an eviction notice on the door. Not knowing what to do, she telephoned a church she walked by everyday and told the secretary who answered that she needed diapers, food, and place to give a baby up for adoption. The kind secretary made sure she received the diapers and made plans to fill the young woman’s refrigerator and then she made a telephone call. The call came into an adoptive parent support group asking for assistance in helping a young Black girl place her baby for adoption. The call was referred to the adoption agency and an appointment was made.

I first met her in the apartment she shared with Tyson and that is where I first learned her story.

“Eleanor? Eleanor?” I will never forget sitting beside her and asking her questions. I remember feeling confused and using various ways to communicate with her but continuously found her aloof, disjointed, and inconsistent with responses. I finally asked her if Eleanor was her name. Yes, she said, but somehow not convinced I explained that she does not appear to be responsive when her name is said. She laughed and reached for her driver’s license which clearly showed her name was Eleanor. Do you have a nick-name? I asked. Like Elly? No, she retorted, just Eleanor.

Perhaps she had a learning disability? She left school so early, having her first child when she barely was a teenager. Perhaps she had an attention disorder? I made a note to remind myself to continue assessing her when we met again.

I learned her story by answering questions not by her voluntarily sharing the information. She was compliant, and kind, but struggled with Dante as he whined and cried and she did her best to console him. I tried to help by playing on the dirty floor with him and by showing him paper and pen as there were no toys in the small apartment. I asked her if I could give him a granola bar I had and he greedily grabbed for it barely allowing me to cut it into small enough pieces for him to safely swallow. She was due to give birth soon though she did not know her due date. She liked learning about adoption especially the fact that she could help pick the adoptive family and she knew she wanted to meet them.

While I found Eleanor filled with so many experiences in life, I also found her with large gaps in her development. She could read and write, but she could not plan for the proper nutrition of her year old son. She could ask for help, but did not know how to use the telephone book. She could shop for food, but could not cook an easy meal.

Eleanor would wear the same clothing, particularly one large red shirt with a small hole in it. When we invited her to the birth mother holiday party, she did dress more carefully and even wore make-up. She smiled all night as the staff told her how beautiful she looked. She really did.

When Eleanor gave birth to Michael she selected a lovely childless couple and just beamed when she met them. She enjoyed her semi-open adoption relationship with this couple and loved to receive pictures of Michael.

One day weeks after Michael’s placement, Eleanor called and when asked who was speaking she responded with another name! After a bit of confusion, we realized it was Eleanor. She apologized and said, “Vanessa is my middle name, everyone calls me that!”

Though we still laugh about that, Eleanor remains Eleanor to us. She and Dante remained together after the placement of Michael, but it was not without pain. Evelyn mourned the loss of Michael and struggled to parent Dante. She almost lost Dante when a neighbor reported her to Child Protective Services. Eleanor was determined not to lose Dante and allowed herself to enter counseling and receive support from the adoption agency. With our support she was able to receive assistance to live in a better apartment, the apartment was furnished with donated items received by the agency and decorated with care by the agency’s post-placement caseworker. Within a few months after placement, the place looked lovely and you could see the pride in Eleanor’s eyes. Dante learned to walk and looked like a little man. Things were going well until Tyson came home from prison. Tyson came home like he never left and took his place beside Eleanor. The quaint apartment was destroyed in a matter of days with Tyson’s friends stopping by, and with these same “friends” taking what they wanted from the apartment. A chair here, a table there, a lamp for keeps. We did our best and we tried to convince her to tell him to go. We told her that CPS would not tolerate Dante being in the presence of his violent father. Eleanor couldn’t bring herself to ask Tyson to leave but finally she left on her own and moved in with a pregnant girlfriend. She got to visit Michael and the adoptive family again. She was all smiles. Dante had a runny nose.

An emergency call came in to the answering service one day and it was Eleanor. She reported that she was pregnant again and she needed our help. She wanted to place the baby for adoption. She said it was going to be a girl this time she said and she wanted to know if Michael’s parents wanted a daughter. We set her up with the same caseworker that worked with her post adoption and found her again in an apartment that was ready to evict her. Eleanor was just shy of her 21st birthday and she went to her parents and asked if she could come home. Pregnant and with Dante, her parents said yes, her brother said nothing.

Anita barely knew her and hid behind Liz’s legs. Being at home with her parents caused rebellion in Eleanor, she couldn’t seem to follow the curfew or the family rules and often packed up Dante and returned whenever she needed a place to sleep. Despite the threats of being kicked out, Liz and Philip allowed her to stay, they fought all the time and threatened all the time, but they did not stop her from breaking the rules. Eleanor told them that she was placing the baby with the same family she placed her other baby with. Philip was keenly interested in learning about that baby and Eleanor proudly showed him pictures of her birth son. Eleanor asked if her agency caseworker could visit her at her parents home and her father immediately said yes very interested in learning more. He was able to emotionally articulate his sadness for never meeting Michael, but found solace in learning about the wonderful couple that Eleanor selected for him. He found it so interesting that she was able to keep in touch and see Michael again. Liz was quiet. For awhile it appeared that Philip and Liz agreed with Eleanor’s adoption plan for this soon-to-be-born baby, at least that was what Eleanor kept saying.

As the agency predicted though, Liz did not want Eleanor to place this baby for adoption, she was to give this baby to them or leave their home. We offered to help Eleanor set up an apartment once again, she just turned 21 and there were so many benefits for her and Dante. Her caseworker even set up a part time job for Eleanor and day care for Dante. But Eleanor quit the job and removed Dante from the free day care center. She soon stopped calling the agency. It appeared that maybe her parents will once again raise another one of Eleanor’s daughters. Not that we would not support that, but it was so painful to see, because it was clear that was not what Eleanor wanted. The due date came and went, we tried again to reach her but found no response. Then a call came in. It was Eleanor she called to check in. She was still living at her parents.

Eleanor appeared increasingly depressed and slept most of the time, missing many of her last month’s doctor appointments. Finally the doctor called and ordered her to be induced. Eleanor called the agency and asked if we would meet her at the hospital. Philip dropped Eleanor at the hospital that afternoon and never came in.

Eleanor indeed had a baby girl. A beautiful infant with a head full of hair and plump cheeks just like her mother. Eleanor was so proud of her. She asked for the adoptive family to come right away to visit her. They named the baby Melinda.

By the next day, Eleanor was in pain. She cried out often for pain killers and the nurses appeared to ignore her. The baby remained in the nursery and Eleanor said she needed to leave the hospital. She became agitated and begged her caseworkers to allow her to sign the adoption papers. She wanted to get Dante. She wanted to leave.

She was calmly told that she and Dante would be fine and she should wait another day to sign her papers. She should not be in pain, and she should have more time to be with her baby. She rejected these words but nonetheless stayed in the hospital. Her fears finally came to the surface when she spoke her worst nightmare. Her mother will call Child Protective Services on her for abandoning Dante and she would lose him forever. While we could not promise her that Liz wouldn’t do that, we ourselves were a bit concerned, we did tell her that being in the hospital to give birth and leaving your son in the care of his grandparents during that time does not constitute abandonment. She quieted down but her fear remained in her eyes.

Eleanor’s surrender day arrived finally and she signed her papers reminding the caseworkers that she had done this before and there was no need to go over them with her. Nonetheless the professional women continued to explain each document even while being shushed by the birth mother. One caseworker remained by Eleanor’s side while the other went to the nursery to discharge the baby. The plan was for Eleanor and the caseworker to drive to Philip and Liz’s home to pick up Dante and to take Eleanor and Dante to a motel near the adoption agency for two days until her apartment was ready. The adoption agency identified a lovely apartment and furnished it with generous donations. The caseworker managed to get the County’s Department of Social Services to pay for the rent, and the landlord agreed to re-tile the bathroom.

The caseworker pulled up to the house and the front door flew open motioning her to drive to the back of the house. She drove to the back entrance and parked the car. They found the back door locked. Eleanor knocked. After some time, her mother came out with two large black garbage bags and without one word left them at Eleanor’s feet. The door closed and locked again. The caseworker lifted the bags and brought them to her van. Eleanor just stood at the back door and didn’t move. Finally the door opened again and Eleanor’s brother came out with Dante, handed him to Eleanor and turned back to the house. Again, with no words, Eleanor carried Dante to the van lifted him into the car seat and the three drove away. Tears streamed down the case worker’s face.

Eleanor did not want to talk about it and days later she spoke about her sadness and disappointment over her father not responding to her. She never mentioned Liz.

The apartment plan did not last long, as within two weeks, Evelyn moved in with a girlfriend who also has a young child. She continues to involve herself with the agency and enjoys an open adoption relationship with Michael and Melinda and their parents. She appears so happy when she sees them and I wonder if she thinks, “This is just what I wanted for these children.” Or does she sometimes wish, “This is what I wanted for myself.”