It’s the time of year for giving thanks and opening our homes to friends and family. But when world events leave so many homeless, we have to ask: what is home, anyway? Much more than just shelter. Four writers share their experiences—losing a home, helping build one for others, making one under adversity.
Nesting | By Annie Kassof
Dwelling on the Street | By Diana Divecha
Quilting a Home | By Risa Nye
Stone Soup Kitchen | By Heather Lockman
All Illustrations by Susan Sanford
Nesting | By Annie Kassof
When I was in the process of becoming a foster parent in 1999, I ran an ad in a local paper requesting donations of baby and children’s supplies. The ad said: help me help needy children.
I quit the nine-to-five job I’d been tired of for a while anyway, and with my only son, then ten, envisioned the foster children who might come live with us—kids who had been removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect, or maybe a drug-exposed newborn whose mother would be back to turning tricks while I was learning how to mix infant formula.
As I finished up my foster parent training classes, waited for the results of my background check, learned how to do CPR, and gathered the donated clothes, toys, and car seats, I also began to walk with an extra bounce in my step. I began to speak more confidently—with occasional moments of eloquence and wit even, and gazed more steadily into others’ eyes.
As someone who’d always considered herself more of a life-dabbler than a do-gooder, I started to sense a sort of metaphorical light illuminating around my head. I Was Going To Become A Foster Parent. I felt like Mother Teresa, only less humble. I was going to house, hug, hold, and love all the deserving babies and children of the world—or of Alameda County, anyway.
And here I’m tempted to say the rest is history—only it isn’t, because I’m still in the thick of it. In the six years since I became a certified foster parent, I’ve fostered 20 kids. Some have been adopted by other families while other children have been reunified with their birth parents or have gone to live with relatives. Some have gone to other foster homes. I adopted one myself and so far she’s doing just super, with her strong soccer legs and her laughing voice, her address book filled with her fourth-grade friends’ numbers. My son barely remembers the time before she joined our family.
Yet images of more challenging children jostle for space in my crowded memory: emaciated S, who would line her peas up as painstakingly as soldiers, and who would thump her head rhythmically against her pillow—hard—every single night. Or T, whose daily tantrums caused refrigerator magnets to skitter under the Wedgewood stove forever, and the cat to recoil under the couch. Or beautiful D (with the frying pan scar seared on her cheek) who battered a chair against a door, raging at me when she didn’t feel like going to a martial arts class I’d already paid for. I figured the real target of her rage was the step-father who’d sexually abused her.
Then there was the preemie, two pounds at birth, who had to be given 14 doses of medicine a day; and the 15-year-old with the two-day-old baby boy who came in a social worker’s car at midnight to escape the new teen mother’s abusive father.
As I look back on all the kids I’ve brought into my home over the years—some for as little as two days, others for upwards of 15 months—I wonder, how do I cope? But it all becomes clearer when I glance over at the sleeping baby in a bassinet a few feet from where I write, a baby girl I sometimes call “Chi-chi” or “Little Big-Mouth,” and I feel the same swell of affection and love I’ve felt for many of the others. My need to protect them comes as naturally to me as does being a single parent. Lucky for this baby she was abandoned at a hospital and not in a dumpster. She’ll probably wake up for a bottle and a change just as I’m drifting off to sleep, then be up a few hours later for more of the same.
I wonder what my girls are dreaming in their bedroom across the way: the seven-year-old placed with me six months ago, whom I’m fostering while her mother battles a drug addiction; and my eight-year-old, abandoned six years ago—my first foster child, who is now my adopted daughter. I wonder how aware they are that the arteries connecting them to their pasts may be severed, and I worry if they’ll somehow blame me as they grow.
But overall it’s been a rollicking ride dotted with Kodak moments, punctuated with hugs and kisses. Along the way we’ve ridden on horses, kneaded bread, slept under redwoods, held living-room spelling bees, taught infants to dance, sold lemonade, chased bubbles. My adopted eight-year-old and I braid cornrows in each other’s hair, and my seven-year-old is waiting for the tomatoes she planted to ripen. They should be ripe long before she gets to see her mom again—if she gets to see her again.
Sometimes there are far too many unknowns in a foster care system that more often breaks rather than shapes lives, and I may end up adopting her, too.
Still, some days are just really, really hard.
Recently, after chauffeuring kids to no less than three appointments, plus soccer practice, answering homework questions while putting away groceries with the baby on my hip, and then preparing simple but separate dinners for far too many discriminating palates, I was beat. The car was almost out of gas and so was I.
By seven o’clock the sponge was buried under dishes, and the crumbs spilled under the kitchen table threatened to attract ants before they got swept up. The girls were in the living room screaming songs from Annie instead of running the bath I’d asked them to. The unfinished homework was scattered about, I was down to just three diapers for the baby. There were new stains on cushions that looked stubbornly permanent, and I still had no idea how to respond if the seven-year-old asked when she’d be able to have a visit with her mom, who I’d recently learned was back in jail.
I left the dishes, hoping my now 16-year-old son might tear himself away from his beloved Internet to wash them. I scooped the baby from out of her butterfly chair without looking at the unswept floor. I announced to my son and to the girls that I was “off duty” for the rest of the night, and closed the door to my room.
I’d already decided that, once social services completed the excruciatingly slow process allowing my foster baby to be transferred to her adoptive home, I wouldn’t take more babies. For as naturally as I hold these needy infants until they start to feel like an extension of my own body, I’m beginning to forget what a day without diapers feels like. Then there’s the emotional toll of saying goodbye to all the ones who crawl inside my heart quick as a hummingbird’s wings.
Sometimes you just have to realize your limits. In the end all my kids might be getting shortchanged if I keep trying to help so many at once.
But the baby hadn’t gone yet, and the circles under my eyes were dark. I left the messy kitchen and the scattered homework, figured maybe just this once the girls would learn the consequences of having incomplete assignments. I was tired of being a pillar, weary of being a saint. I sat on my bed and picked up the guitar, played four chords over and over again for a long time. The baby liked it, she smiled and chortled. Then I curled up into a ball on the double bed and let her kick at my back with her five-month-old legs.
It was like being massaged by an elf. Feels really good, I thought, as I noticed the sound of water running in both the kitchen and bathroom simultaneously.
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A Berkeley freelance writer, Annie Kassof was recently published in the LA Times Magazine on learning to cornrow. Her essays on foster care, adoption, and race have also appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Contra Costa Times, KQED-FM, Adoptive Families magazine, and numerous others.
Kemp’s Corner is a sprawling and cacophonous intersection in Bombay where five roads meet and two more arch overhead. Every child that has grown up in this neighborhood, including my husband, knows Kemp’s Corner for its pharmacy, hairdresser, sandal vendor, and small ready-to-wear shop that serve the locals. Thrumming at the edge of a posh residential neighborhood of embassies, upscale apartment buildings, and romantic but decrepit Victorian mansions, the intersection is also a main throughway into the commercial heart of Bombay.
From my mother-in-law’s flat nearby, my family and I travel through Kemp’s Corner several times on errands before I realize that among the thousands of moving throngs, a young woman with her two toddlers and tiny baby who is just able to sit makes their home in the middle of the intersection. An island of stillness in the middle of the traffic merry-go-round, this little matriarchal family lives in the shade of the flyover at the foot of one of the immense pillars that support the road structure that soars overhead. The pillar rests on a six-inch high concrete block about five feet by seven feet, so that on any side of the pillar, the family has about one to three feet in which to maneuver.
Their only possessions are a few cooking vessels, some clothing, and three small, faded, threadbare hammocks that hang on the metal grate wrapping the concrete pillar. Lacking privacy, the young mother performs her domestic chores behind an invisible wall erected by will and necessity yet transparent to passersby. Surrounded by honking cars, exhaust fumes, and dirt, she folds fabric, grinds spices, cooks, sweeps, and feeds her babies—tasks I would do inside my own Berkeley home.
I am transfixed by this woman and the blasé horror of her situation, and I begin to watch for her from my air-conditioned car every day as we drive a hand’s length from her babies.
I’ve come to Bombay countless times in the last 22 years. I am married to a man from India, and every alternate year we travel here from Berkeley with our two growing daughters to visit our extended family. Touring the massive Gateway to India, the colonial Victoria Terminus Station, and the stately Taj Mahal Hotel once is enough for me, but I am endlessly drawn to the patterns of domestic life I see in Bombay. A “homely person” or “householder,” as Indians would say, I am fascinated by how people organize family life. I am compelled by essential questions of homemaking: how to live in balance, how to maximize resources, how to truly live well with others, even as I deflect occasional condescension for having left a career track to deeply experience family life and homemaking.
My widowed mother-in-law, Malu, lives in a modest ninth-floor flat with her sister and two aging servants. Her home is organized around entertaining, with a gracious living room, small dining area, and terrace where guests are warmly ushered when they arrive. Couches, chairs, and cushions are always neat and waiting for use; snacks and drinks are readily available. Malu’s home is decorated simply with her own pottery, photos of her grandchildren, artwork of friends, and traditional Indian folk art. From Malu and her friends, I have learned the art of easy and warm hospitality and have come to appreciate traditional Indian decorative arts.
Bombay is well known for its Bollywood glamour, Indian stock exchange, and glitzy high society. I have seen extravagant homes filled with antique carved wooden furniture, hand-tied carpets, silver boxes, and paintings with real gold; homes staffed with armies of servants lucky enough to have found work in this city. Yet the beautiful magazine-featured homes with their teen hangouts, home offices, and exercise rooms do not draw my interest as much as the homemaking at the other end of the spectrum.
In this city of 17 million people on an island the size of the San Francisco peninsula, a third of the city’s residents live in slums or on the street. Beyond Bombay’s downtown area, tiny hovels made of concrete, corrugated metal, or cardboard line the streets for miles, all pressed up against the urban arteries where speeding, spewing trucks and cars rush down busy roads. At the edges of the city, the suburbs give way to the slums, where on a previous trip we visited a young girl and her family that we sponsored. Witnessing their vibrancy in a concrete hovel the size of our bathroom with fewer belongings than we had in our carry-on bags, we were humbled to simplify our own lives and do even more to shoulder our responsibility for our fellow travelers in this life.
Poor urban women face the greatest domestic challenges. Access to food, water, and waste disposal is more difficult than in rural areas, disease is more virulent, and corrupt and violent men pose a constant threat. The family under the flyover at Kemp’s Corner, however, touches something even beyond the depths of economic disparity and deprivation. This little family lives closer to the edge than I’ve ever witnessed—the edge of the narrow median strip, the edge of lethal traffic, the edge of viability.
On a trip back through Kemp’s Corner, I look closely at the young mother tending a fire, stirring a pot, and keeping an eye on the little ones who toddle about bare-bottomed, precariously near the edge of traffic.
She is not more than 17, and her hair, unlike the shimmery black hair of wealthy women, is brown, tufted, matted, and caked with dust. Still, it is long and tied back, a bow to conventional grooming. She has attractive features, with smooth dark-wheatish skin, straight teeth, and a slim figure wrapped in her sari. The ubiquitous silver bangles, which all women, no matter how poor, seem to have, glint on both wrists. I wonder what she thinks about, how she feels, whether she is angry or complacent, simple or verbal. I wonder how she coaxes the children to sleep in those hammocks, if she sings to them or just places them there. I wonder if she lies down on the concrete underneath the hammocks.
I wonder where she gets more food and whether the traffic cop harasses her and threatens to send the children to orphanages. I wonder what the children do when boredom strikes. I wonder how several lives can be conducted in such a small space surrounded by moving cars. The stone on my chest threatens to crush my heart.
From childhood, I turned anything I could into a home, even an abandoned mail truck my father scavenged and parked in the backyard. It was my private play home to which I invited friends. Later followed a long string of dormitory rooms and apartments. In graduate school I made a home for a month out of a seedy motel room—setting up my sewing machine and ironing board, hot plate, and dishes, with my pepper spray ready at hand. Now, having established a traditional family home, I carry my domesticity with me, never traveling without my hot pot, tea, and laundry detergent, urging the children to take turns making a meal in a hot pot and stomping the laundry in the hotel bathtub.
One late afternoon, the woman under the flyover makes tea in a tiny pot over a tiny fire on the concrete—a composed, genteel act standing in harsh contrast to the traffic chaos that surrounds her. My gaze lingers on her graceful hands as she stirs, and I imagine the taste of her chai tea made from the dregs of tea leaves, heavily spiced, milky, and sweet. On the confines of the concrete base, one toddler teeters at the edge and pees over into the road while I sit at the stoplight; the other two play, rubbing their hands in the dust.
Cars, trucks, human pull-carts, and pedestrians rush around all sides of this home on the median strip, like a river roaring around a boulder in midstream. I hold my breath, ready to jump out of the car if the peeing little one falls into the traffic—surely he’d be crushed. There is no other adult with them, only the pot-bellied, khaki-uniformed police officer directing traffic 20 feet away, in the middle of the intersecting roads. So I wait at the stoplight despite honking horns until the little one finishes and backs away from the edge.
For our brief ten days in Bombay, my children and I keep an eye on the family under the flyover. Sometimes they sit closely and eat, sharing chapatis and feeding each other a gruel of rice and lentils with their fingers. The young mother is calm and purposeful in their transparent home with the psychic walls that she has erected. Another time they are absent, but their hammocks and belongings remain; we worry about them until we see them again. Along with prayers for their safety, I bless this family for showing me the divinity and sheer essence of this everyday job, done by millions of women, that is made invisible by the world around them.
The travel writer Pico Iyer says that the great thing about travel is that it takes you to places in yourself where you’ve never been. And indeed, the woman struggling to keep a home together under the flyover takes my hand every time I pass by, reminding me that the inner will to organize food and sleep and shelter, even under the flyover, is fierce and majestic. Every day she makes a home out of nothing except her very own life force—just her physical presence holding together her little corner of the world.
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Diana Divecha is a developmental psychologist and savors family life in Berkeley with her husband, two teenage daughters, and dog. She is a member of the Wednesday Writers.
Survivor, victim, refugee, evacuee—it doesn’t really matter what they call you. Yesterday you had a place to live and today you have a wet pile of sticks, rubble, or ashes. Maybe you have credit cards and a healthy balance in your checkbook, or maybe you are living in poverty. The haves and have-nots aren’t too different anymore, not right now. Not when the place you call home is gone.
Can you picture yourself right now: one of the needy, one of the newly homeless? You are looking at what used to be your home, your neighborhood, your world, and maybe all you have left are the clothes on your back. No toothbrush, no bed, no socks or shoes.
It’s easy for me to picture that scene. It happened, after the fire in 1991.
I couldn’t even begin to catalog the losses—many having more emotional value than monetary: the baby sweaters I had knitted for my daughter, secretly tucked away to be handed down one day; a growth chart, measuring the inches from toddler to teen; and old love letters, saved in a box for lonely afternoons. The everyday things that you reach for without thinking: a needle and thread; a bowl or a wooden spoon. And the special things: a black velvet dress, the good china, a gold watch from a beloved grandfather, a child’s handprint in clay.
We stood in line with our neighbors at the Red Cross. We gratefully accepted the generosity of friends and neighbors, strangers, and local businesses that helped us cobble together a semblance of a home. After someone dropped off a bag of clothes for the kids, I will never forget the looks on their faces as we pulled out worn, tired-looking T-shirts and frayed jeans.
“We don’t want these clothes,” they said. “We want our own clothes.” They asked sadly, “Is this charity?”
Don’t mistake this for ingratitude or snobbishness. It wasn’t like that. They could not have what they wanted—their things were gone forever. They didn’t want the pity, and I understood that then. It made me sad too. This is when they began to stick out their chins and call themselves “survivors” and correcting anyone who called them “victims.”
My older son, a fifth-grader, began to sleep in his clothes every night. We had huge battles about it. It finally dawned on us that he was trying to be prepared in case he had to leave the house in the middle of the night. He would have the clothes on his back at least—his own clothes.
We moved to a rental house immediately after the fire, and as we looked around at the green shag carpet and paneled walls, we wondered: How can we make this place feel like home? Every home has its own look, feel, and smell. How do we create that again, when we did it without thinking before?
We began with the basics: beds, a place to gather for meals, books for bedtime reading, and music. A thoughtful friend gave us a gift certificate to a bookstore. When my husband took the three kids to replace our copies of Madeline, Winnie the Pooh, and our favorite Shel Silverstein, he broke down in tears. He also went out right after the fire to replace his favorite music by Miles Davis and John Coltrane. “I miss my friends,” he told the guy behind the counter.
We rented furniture, bought sheets and towels, and stocked the kitchen. After a couple of washings with our familiar detergent, our new things felt like ours. We began cooking when there was time, and the spaghetti sauce had the same aroma it always did. We were constantly discovering things we didn’t have that we needed immediately: pot holders, laundry baskets, a vacuum cleaner, scissors, tape, and a hundred other things.
My younger son, then only five, had taken his treasured blanket along when we evacuated that terrifying Sunday. He could go to sleep peacefully in a new bed with new “Where’s Waldo?” sheets because he had the familiar yellow quilt to hold next to his face. But my older son mourned the loss of his special “cat blanket,” so we searched all over in an attempt to find the same fabrics: the pastel green flannel, the brown plaid, the midnight blue satin with tiny white stars. Two very gifted friends collaborated and managed to re-create the beloved quilt for him—a family portrait of cats, curled up together in front of a window full of stars.
With a mixture of the new and the familiar, we created a small, safe cocoon in our temporary place. The kids had some interesting reactions at first: new house, new rules, they thought. We set them straight on that, but it was clear that their whole world had been upended and they had to find the borders again.
In just over a year, we moved “back home.” We took care during the rebuilding phase to visit often and walk around, becoming comfortable with the place we would live, even though it wasn’t home yet. Gradually, we acquired more of the things that made our rebuilt house feel like home: pictures on the mantel, baking equipment so we could celebrate special events with homemade treats, and a copy of the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup—a Christmas morning tradition for many years.
In some ways, home is where you decide it is, whether you choose it or not. For us, even after the fire, home was all of us together, curled up like the cats, in front of a window full of stars.
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Risa Nye is a writer and college counselor. She and her husband live in Oakland, in the house that their three kids still think of as home.
There’s nothing especially noble about preparing meals for the homeless. There’s virtue in the impulse, of course, in the wanting to help where you’re needed. There’s a fleeting moment of saintliness when you pick up the phone and place a call to your local charity kitchen, explaining that you’re a decent cook who’s willing to lend a hand. After that, it’s just cooking. And in my case, cooking for 150 dinner guests in the span of less than three hours—without knowing what’s in the pantry before you walk through the door.
The first time I volunteered as a cook for Bread and Roses, a nonprofit feeding program and shelter in my small town south of Seattle, I cobbled a meal for 20 out of tinned fish and baked potatoes. That was 17 years ago, when dinners were served from a private house with card tables in the garage. When the program moved to a new space downtown, too large for one to person to handle, the staff paired me up, delightfully, with a cooking partner named Dottie.
Dottie is utterly fearless, at least when it comes to cooking. Thirty-seven homegrown pattypan squash in the fridge? “Can’t waste those,” says Dottie. Twenty-three pounds of blackened bananas taking up space in the storeroom? “Fire up the oven,” she tells me. “You’re making banana cake.”
We’ve cooked in three different kitchens and run through hundreds of helpers in the time we’ve been working together. Somehow we still show up once a month to empty the cupboards, pick through the produce, and hope that a meal materializes before six o’clock rolls around.
“God will provide,” Dot likes to say. But it doesn’t hurt that she and I are scheduled to cook on a Monday, when we catch the wave of donations brought in after weekend events. A tray of crudités left from a wedding can shave a half-hour off the time it takes to wash and chop things for salad. A plate of posh finger sandwiches—cucumbers, cream cheese, tomatoes, and cress—will work as an alternate entrée for diners who don’t eat meat. Stale cookies and brick-like tea loaves, though, go straight into the dustbin. We’re not about to serve anything that we wouldn’t eat ourselves.
Between the kitchen’s minimal budget and fact that the space is used each day by a different set of cooks, we can’t always count on finding even the most basic staples on hand. Rarely do we have butter. Sometimes there is no flour. Once someone left us five pounds of salt in the canister clearly marked “sugar”—an error we didn’t discover until dessert was well underway.
But there is always bread—boxcars and sled-loads of bread. It’s one of the things that grocers and bakeries find especially easy to donate, and almost all of them do. It may not be fresh, but it’s plentiful, and part of our job is to use it up in whatever way we can.
“Meatloaf,” said Dottie decisively some five or six years ago, and (except, perhaps, for a Monday or two in the sweltering months of the summer) we’ve been crumbling donated bread into massive meatloaves ever since. We are feeding twice the number now as when we first started making it. Dottie foots the bill every month for 40 pounds of ground beef.
I suggested bread pudding. “Sounds good,” said Dottie. “It’s yours.” Old French loaves, hard as cricket bats, are excellent for the purpose, though raisin-nut bread is a bonus if some happens to come along. I have made bread pudding with goat milk from the natural food cooperative, with flats of donated blueberries that wouldn’t fit in the freezer, with free-range eggs whose brilliant yolks turned the whole works marigold yellow. It’s a huge hit in every incarnation, puffy and warm from the oven, though the batch made with three quarts of donated cream was deemed to be extra good.
If finding enough food is challenging, finding enough help is worse. Few people we know are free to assist on a Monday afternoon. Aside from Dottie’s husband, who rarely misses a session, we are left at the mercy of teenage offenders performing community service and high school students who can’t graduate without doing volunteer work. They’re kids who have never set foot in a kitchen except to make microwave popcorn, who look at me blankly when told to run and get a whisk for the eggs. “Do I peel this?” they ask uncertainly, holding an avocado. One of them blithely added soy sauce to my bread pudding, thinking it was vanilla and never sniffing it first.
Occasionally our dinner guests offer to help in the kitchen, wanting to make a contribution in exchange for a free meal. We are happy to have them. Guys who have served in the army can peel potatoes like blazes and most of the rest have washed pots and pans in diners along the way. On a day when we desperately needed help cleaning two dozen half-thawed salmon, a pair of unemployed fishermen rolled up their sleeves and pitched in.
Sometimes they tell their stories while we’re chopping onions together. There was Eddie, who’d ridden a Greyhound bus clear across the country to make sure his drug-addicted friend checked into treatment on time. Now, having finished his mission, he was stranded out west without any money or any way to get home. There was hapless Lorna from Texas, a woman who fled to a different town whenever her life came unraveled, whose vision of bliss was “to bake my own cookies in my own kitchen again.” An edgy young man known as Jason, who was probably 30 but looked 45, helped in the kitchen daily for months before giving in to his demons and drifting away in a haze. Though I still see him out on the street sometimes, he no longer knows who I am.
We can’t put their lives back together. The only miracles we can work are the loaves and fishes kind. We can fill their empty plates with meatloaf and golden bread pudding, offering comfort food in a world where comfort is in short supply. All we can do, if we’re lucky, is give them a taste of home.
We may never earn any Michelin stars but our customers go away happy. And no five-star chef can receive higher praise at the end of a busy evening than empty pans in the kitchen, plates scraped clean on the tables, and not a stray crumb left behind.
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When she isn’t making bread pudding, Heather Lockman writes about history and historic preservation from her home in Olympia, Washington.