Who do you think you are? I wish I knew…
I’ve watched every episode of the CBS-TV crime drama, “Blue Bloods.’’ Frankly, Frank Reagan the show’s criminal cases are rather elementary, but your Sunday family dinners left me teary-eyed every time. I vicariously passed along the peas, meatloaf, and banter with the four generations in this sturdy Irish-American family tree.
Secretly, I pined for a “Family Tree’’ of my own ripe with leaves, branches, and ancestral tales, but the truth was mine consisted of a few broken twigs. Two sisters to be exact. (Later I would discover they were both half-sisters.) Janelle was nine years older than me and lived at Callegie Hall Group Home in the East Village. Rhonda was 18 months younger than me and we lived together at Mrs. Parham’s in the Northeast section of the Bronx.
The three of us were wards of the State of New York along with 42,000 other children under the jurisdiction of the Administration of Child Services (ACS). During their mandatory visits, the caseworkers penciled in reports and never dropped any tidbits about our family history.
Rhonda and I were kept in the dark literally: Not only did Mrs. Parham never kissed or told us anything, and we were also forced to spend most of our time in the dark, creepy basement with our foster brother Edgar Torres (E.T.) The three of us, however, weren’t alone down there. Inside a tiny room, sectioned off with a flimsy polyester curtain, lived Mr. Parham’s 80-year-old mother, who spent most of her time silently rocking in a chair. She was an Apache Indian with tan wrinkled skin and long white straight hair parted down the middle; sometimes I’d sneak into her room and she’d let me brush her hair and plait it in two long braids.
HOW DID I GET HERE?
I had no idea and my memory certainly didn’t provide any clues. The earliest one places me behind a desk in a classroom; perhaps it was Kindergarten, or was it First grade? Mrs. Parham’s scowling face in symphony with a pointed finger spooked me through the classroom window. She caught me in the act—vigorously pulling my hair (which turned out to be a lifelong habit). Faint giggles from the frightened kids echoed in the hallway as the frightening Werewolf escorted Rhonda and me from school that day.
Mrs. Parham’s outfits were legendary around our Bronx neighborhood. She had heavy footsteps even though she stood shorter than five feet tall and her Pucci front-zip tent dresses–punch-happy with paisley prints–clung to her 40FF bosom before swirling to freedom at the hemline. Topping it all off: rhinestone bifocal glasses which never left her face until bedtime and a variety of blue Afro wigs which were supposed to simulate salt and pepper hair. Clearly, Ms. Wong who ran the Korean Wig Supply Shop on Baychester Avenue was color-blind.
MY SISTER IS COMING TO TOWN
Janelle’s visits were scarce and conducted under Mrs. Parham’s watchful Wolverine eyes.
Once during a memorable visit, Janelle, Rhonda, E.T., and I were seated at the kitchen table while Mrs. Parham rustled with a pitchfork to poke the pig’s feet on the stove. I reached over and touched Janelle’s gold cross necklace on her chest. She smiled and whispered in my ear: “We’re Catholic. Our father was Joseph Noverez. He was from Venezuela. Our Mom is traveling around the world with him.’’ Finally, a family tidbit. I relished it like the sour pickles and popcorn snack I bought at the bodega every morning on the way to school. My fantasy was fueled: One day our Mom would reappear and sweep us away to the Gingerbread house. Yeah, I was always very hungry too. I had no palate for Mrs. Parham’s pig feet, chitterlings, and other inedible cuisines.
Later that night I had a nightmare: the pig’s feet were chasing me; a forewarning that the dinner with Janelle would turn out to be our last supper.
There would be no letters or sightings from her for years. She had vanished, leaving me starved for any morsel about our family.
Finally, a tidbit was tossed our way by one of the rotating caseworkers. Mrs. Minx told us that Janelle had aged out of the group homes (she had been transferred from Callegie Hall to another in Ossining) and married Robert Talbert, a jarhead she met in Times Square on New Year’s Eve; the wedding reception was held at a White Castle in his hometown of Stamford, Connecticut. Robert was stationed at a military base near the Hualalai Volcanic Mountains in Hawaii. I envisioned a sun-kissed Janelle in the Cinder cone hills, sipping Island Breeze cocktails and shaking her ham hock hips in green grass skirts.