Ultimatum

            “Ultimatum” comes from Latin, meaning “final demand.” Typically, the word has negative connotations—it implies a means of repairing a relationship that has soured because of one person’s words or actions. How many of us have heard something like, “If you don’t stop talking to [your ex], I will break up with you”? Not you? That might mean you’ve never been in a possessive relationship where co-dependency and mistrust dominated the scene. Lucky you.

            But I digress. Ultimatums aren’t always about threats stemming from jealousy or intense discontentment in misguided attempts to motivate a partner and keep the relationship alive. While, by definition, an ultimatum is intended to encourage change, sometimes that desired change is positive and healthy for both people in the relationship. 

            This was the case with my parents. For those of you who don’t know my story, the short of it is I was brought home by my sixth-grade teacher to live with her and her husband as their foster kid. They’d never fostered before. And conversations about having kids ended in an agreement to let God decide.

            And then I came along. 

            During my eleven-year-old summer, CPS placed me in a new foster home because the one I was in made me lonely, sad, and sick to my stomach. And when the school year started, I began school at Yorbita Elementary in La Puente, CA. My teacher, Mrs. Ferguson, greeted me with her kind, blue eyes, and she taught all of us with compassion and brilliance. As the school year progressed, and as I exhibited signs of both high intelligence and neglect, Mrs. Ferguson slipped behind the scenes to read my cumulative file and contact my social worker to discover more details about my situation. 

            I was hungry all the time because my foster mother imposed strict rules about eating. After I vomited the contents of my stomach in the school bathroom one day, Mrs. Ferguson inquired about my health. I thought I had the flu, but I was malnourished, and over several weeks, Mrs. Ferguson observed as I lost weight and showed up regularly but unbathed and with greasy, stringy hair.

And then one morning, when I sat at my desk, I noticed items in the cubby that didn’t belong to me. Class was about to start, so I didn’t have a chance to question or turn over the goods. 

            Then, Mrs. Ferguson spoke, announcing a classroom rule change. “I’ve decided you can now eat in class if you want. I figured if you’re hungry, you should be able to eat.”

            I placed my hand inside the cubby, touched the foil-wrapped sandwich, the little baggie of pretzels, the bright reddish-yellow apple. 

            I looked around the room to gauge my classmates’ faces. Did they have food in their cubbies, too? Not that I could see—I was the only one.

            When my dad tells of how I came to be their child, he merely says, “Your mother came home from school every day talking about you, worried about you, and wondering how to help you. I told her she had to either shut up about you or bring you home.” 

            So she brought me home. 

            I’m eternally grateful for my mom’s big heart and my dad’s ultimatum. Together, they did what most people would never think to do—they rescued a stranger from emotional abuse and provided unconditional support, guidance, and love. 

            I often wonder what my life would’ve been like had I never met Mrs. Ferguson and her husband. Would I have fallen through the cracks of the child welfare system? Would I have turned to drugs and other dangerous behaviors as a means of escape? Would I have died on the streets somewhere with nothing but loneliness and fear in my pockets? 

            Today is my dad’s birthday, and I’ve sent him a Bitmoji text with a little birthday wish in it. It’s not much, but no matter what gift I give or how many words I write in cards, I will never feel like I can appropriately express exactly what he means to me. He helped save my life, but he’ll never see it that way. He’s too humble—a man of few words who sprinkles sarcasm like dust on everything he says. 

            If you ask him about the time he gave his wife an ultimatum, he’ll say he just wanted her to make a decision. He got his wish, and I benefitted in the grandest way imaginable by being in the right place at the right time. I often apologize to my parents for my terrible teens and for costing them so much money and grief over the years. My mom will correct me and say I was easy to raise. My dad will say it’s about time I pay up. They may use different words, but lucky for me, they speak the same language. 

When I Was Her Daughter: A Memoir Excerpt

Road Trip, part 1

William was climbing the birch tree in my grandparents’ front yard, and I was in the upside-down part of a cartwheel, when Mom drove up to the curb. She didn’t care that her car kissed the curb backwards, on the wrong side of the street. She never cared about rules. 

The window on our side was rolled all the way down, and she leaned towards us.  

“Kids,” she said. “Get in the car. Hurry.” 

She had a white bandage wrapped around her wrist when she put her arm out to pull the lock up. Her other hand rested on the steering wheel. A bandage cuffed the wrist of that arm, too. It had only been a few weeks since she’d tried to kill herself in the middle bedroom. Nobody had talked about it, and now, here she was, driving up as if nothing ugly or bloody had happened. 

I thought about the white lines across her wrists. I somehow knew she’d cut them even though she never as much, and I believed her when she said the scars were from before I was born. This made me feel a little better because at least it wasn’t my fault she wanted to die. Something else in the past made her feel like killing herself. But that was then. Now, I felt responsible for her suicidal tendencies.

William jumped out of the tree and ran to the car. 

“Don’t,” I said. “Stay back.” I backed up toward the house. “You can’t be here,” I shouted. “Gramma said.” 

“Just get in the car, now.” Mom said it like she was in a hurry. I knew she wanted to drive away with us before Gramma and Grampa could stop her. 

“I’m getting Gramma.” I ran to door, but Gramma already stood there with her hands on her hips, and Grampa walked up right behind her. They both darted out onto the grass. The screen door banged shut. 

“Go on, Roberta.” Gramma put her arm out and flicked her wrist as if shooing a fly. “Get out of here. We’ve had enough. Stop harassing us. You can’t have them. You’re not well.” 

I beamed at Gramma, feeling secure in her attempt to protect us. That’s right, I wanted to say to Mom. You can’t have us.

Mom scowled hard before giving up and speeding off, using the neighbor’s driveway to turn around. 

“Come on, kids,” Grampa said. “Get inside. We’re done for the day.” He went into the house first, and then Gramma, followed by William and me. 

The sky was blue, and all the dirty, flowery smells of spring filled the air. Fall spread out all around us, but winter was coming. And it had been such a perfect day for playing outside.    

***

A few weeks passed. William and I attended school regularly for the first time in over two years. It seemed like a “normal” family life for us meant living with our grandparents and without our mom.

I believed that maybe Mom had given up trying to take us away. After she tried to rob us from the front yard that day, Gramma and Grampa used the word “harassment” every time they talked about letting Mom come over to visit us. They said they just weren’t up for it, and that more time “without incident” needed to pass before they could trust her. 

***

And then, one day, at recess, while I swung high on a swing, Mom shouted at me from the other side of the school’s fence. Her fingers gripped the chain link tightly like she might be trying to lift the fence out of the cement and throw it across the playground. 

The most stylish person in our family, she wore over-sized sunglasses and an orange and pink paisley scarf to hold down her hair, and even when she was trying to steal me, she was beautiful. 

“Leslie,” she said. Her voice rushed out of her face in a strained, harsh, and deep sound, like maybe she didn’t mean for it to come out that way. 

I scraped my shoes along the dirt to slow myself, and I bunny-hopped out of the swing. Standing on the safe side of the fence, I glared at her. The way her scarf blew a little in the breeze made me want to run to her. 

“Leslie, come on. It’s time to go.” Her voice sounded normal this time. “Come around and get in the car. Hurry.”“No.” I shook my head to show I meant it. “I’m getting my teacher.” I turned away. 

“Do what I say, Leslie. It’s very important that you listen to me. We have to go.” 

I turned towards her again. William sat in the passenger’s seat, blinking at me.

“Gramma and Grampa know I’m picking you up. They said it’s okay.” 

I relaxed a little. Then I ran around to the skinny opening in the fence by the office and squeezed through. 

A bag of Fritos and a cold Pepsi greeted me when I slid into the back seat. 

We drove and drove for what seemed like hours. My stomach turned sweet-and-salty-sick.

When it started to get dark, I said, “What are we doing? Where are we going?”

“Vegas,” Mom said. “But first, Apple Valley. It’s where Sherry lives. You remember my girlfriend Sherry, don’t you? She used to live down the street from Auntie Philys.”

It was twilight when we turned into the driveway. 

At the front door, Mom bent down and pulled up the doormat to get a key out from under it. 

We tip-toed through the cold, dark house. Mom switched on the kitchen lights. They buzzed a little. 

“Be quiet inside.” Mom waved her hand around as if to make sure we knew she meant inside the whole house. 

In the backyard, a giant trampoline sat in the middle of a grassy area. 

“Can we jump on it?” I felt for a latch that would unlock the sliding door.

Mom didn’t answer, but she didn’t stop us, either. 

William and I climbed on, alternating our jumps, then trying to get in sync. I bounced and laughed until my breathing heaved and my legs ached, and so much darkness descended I could barely see the edge of the trampoline. 

***

“When are we going home?” I said once we’d reentered the house. “Gramma and Grampa must be wondering where we are.” 

“I told you, they said it was okay,” Mom said. “Now, stop talking about Gramma and Grampa. Aren’t you glad you’re with me and we’re reunited as a family? Mommy’s missed you so much.” She leaned against the kitchen counter, smoking a cigarette, and came closer to hug William and me at the same time. 

“I’m hungry,” I said. 

William said he was, too, so Mom opened the kitchen cupboards one at a time until she found bread and peanut butter. She pulled a knife out of one the drawers and a jar of strawberry jelly from the fridge. 

The glint of the steel reminded me of Gramma’s knives and how Mom used them to make herself bleed. My stomach turned. 

“Peanut butter sandwiches, it is.” Mom untied the bag of bread. Her cigarette dangled from her lips, and the ash grew long like a snake firework squirming in the street before it died.

“Mom,” I said, “your ashes are gonna fall into my sandwich.” 

“Here.” She pushed the bread, jelly, and peanut butter towards me along the counter. “Make it yourself, then.” 

I ran my finger lightly over the shallowly serrated edge, feeling good that it was in my hand instead of Mom’s. I made sandwiches for the three of us. William and I stood in the kitchen as we ate. Mom watched us with squinty eyes through cigarette smoke. She never touched her food.

We left the ingredients on the counter, and I put the knife in the sink. 

“What now?” I said. 

“Nothing,” Mom said, tapping her fingers on the counter. “We wait.” 
        

“For what?” William asked, peanut butter clinging to his lips. 

“For tomorrow, when it’s safe to get back out on the road.” 

Sherry never came home. 

Mom stared at the dark television screen. She must have been looking at the glare and slices of light and movement we created. She closed the drapes, and we sat there in Sherry’s living room, shifting our eyes between each other and nothing while the kitchen lights buzzed into the night.