This is Part IV of my novel, Jenna, about an eight-year-old girl from a dysfunctional home who is placed in foster care.
In past issues of Foster Focus, we published part of Jenna. Here is a quick synopsis:
Jenna is old before her time. From an early age she has had to fend for herself. She is the “adult” in her house. Her parents fluctuate between staying up for days and “crashing” for twenty-four hours or more at a time. One night Mom and Dad leave her alone and robbers break in the house. Jenna hides under the kitchen sink while they ransack the house. She attends school sporadically. Teachers and neighbors quiz her about her parents, but she has been coached and knows how to lie. When police arrive at the house, her parents make a scene. Her father blames Jenna. Jenna is placed in foster care with a loving but unconventional family. Her new teacher is concerned about her progress. Jenna misses her birth parents and wants to go back. Jenna gets help at school for her reading and goes for a supervised visit with her parents. She gets the wrong idea, thinking she will go home with Mom permanently and is disappointed when Dad doesn’t show up. Jenna becomes attached to her teacher but doesn’t want to interact with the other students. Miss Teak forces the issue and encourages Jenna to make friends and accept that she is not always in charge. In this passage, Jenna gets to meet her foster mother’s mom.
Miss Laurie and Jenna walked in the house and saw Mr. Dan standing in the front room wearing overalls and an old shirt and hat that made him look like he belonged back in time.
“Wow!” said Jenna. “Are you going to be in a play?”
He smiled, and it made him look less shy. He reached down into a bag and came out with a smaller outfit for her: overalls, a bright red shirt and a big, crumpled, floppy, straw hat. She tried to fit it on her head. It was a little big on her.
“Get changed, Jenna,” said Miss Laurie.
Soon all three of them looked like farmers. Miss Laurie drove and Mr. Dan read a book. The car meandered up a thin, twisting, misty mountain road.
“I’ve never been in the mountains,” Jenna said, looking out the back window, over the edges of the road and down into the valley below. She saw fog, fog and more fog, spreading out for miles. In the distance mountains and hills poked their way through the heavy, dreamy haze, like little islands in a sea of fog.
Mr. Dan and Miss Laurie made lots of comments about how wonderful everything was. Look how blue the sky is! No smog! Check out the trees, Jenna! Isn’t this wonderful?
Jenna rolled her window up. The higher they drove, the chillier it got.
The turned off on a dirt road and drove up to a house made of logs. Abe Lincoln lived here, thought Jenna. They got out and Dan handed Jenna a blue jean jacket. She put it on and smiled.
“Does it fit?” asked Miss Laurie.
“Cozy,” answered Jenna.
They walked inside, and a grey haired woman practically ran toward them. She was so tall. Taller then my Dad, thought Jenna. First, the lady hugged Laurie, then Dan. She bent down and stared Jenna in the eye. Her eyes twinkled a little.
“You must be the famous Jenna that I’ve heard so much about. My daughter speaks very highly of you.”
Jenna started to smile, but she stopped herself. She glanced at Miss Laurie and the grey haired woman. “Is she your daughter?” Jenna asked.
The tall woman said, “Yes, Laurie is my daughter. And I want you to call me Grandma.”
“My grandma’s dead…” Jenna started to say.
“In this house I’m Grandma,” she said proudly.
For a Grandma she sure looked young, except for the gray hair. “We better show you around while we still have some light outside,” she said, leaping over a creek. Jenna ran and tried to jump the creek, but she didn’t quite make it. She landed in about a foot of water with a splash. The lady smiled, took her hand and pulled her along. “You get wet a lot around here,” she insisted.
Jenna glanced back at the creek. “Fishes!” she cried, pointing and jumping up and down. Tiny silver fish swam through the creek.
“Watch this,” the gray-haired woman said with a smile. She bent down, cupped her hands and pounced down, scooping something out with her hands. One of the tiny fish flopped around like it was doing a crazy dance on this lady’s fingers.
“Do you want to hold it?” she asked.
Jenna’s eyes grew wide. She held out her hands, and the crazy woman dropped the fish into her palms. It squirmed around. Jenna got up really close. She wasn’t used to animals, except maybe the crickets around the dark corners and cabinets. It felt just a little slimy, but that didn’t bother Jenna. It had the beady eyes, and its fins looked so spiky.
“We better put it back in the creek,” said the lady. “It won’t survive out here in the open air.”
Gently Jenna lowered the fish back down to the water. When she was an inch above the surface, the slippery creature did a backflip out of her hands and landed with a splash. It raced down the creek like a flash of silver.
Dan and Laurie were snuggled up on the couch. The gray haired lady and Jenna huddled up near the fireplace. The glow of the dying ashes was the only light in the room. Jenna wore her snowman pajamas, and the woman had sweatpants and a sweater with a guitar on it. She handed her a mug of hot chocolate that had been cooling off on the coffee table.
“Careful,” she warned. “It’s boiling.”
Jenna gave Grandma her best I’m tough look, took a sip and jumped back, eyes wide open. “Wow!” said the girl. “That was hot. I should have listened.” She took a second sip, this time much more slowly.
“What is your real name?” asked Jenna.
“May I call you Sandy?”
“No. You may call me Grandma or Ma’am.”
“May I call you Grandma Sandy?”
The grey haired woman smiled for a moment and said, “Yes.”
Grandma Sandy said, “Did you know Miss Laurie was adopted?”
“She’s not your real daughter?” asked Jenna.
The woman raised her eyebrows. “Of course, she’s real. Did you think Miss Laurie lived in your imagination?”
Jenna grinned as she glanced over at Miss Laurie who was leaning up against Mr. Dan’s shoulder. Both of them had their eyes closed.
“But if she’s not your real daughter…”
“She is my real daughter!” insisted Sandy. “She is adopted, and I love her just as much as I would if I gave birth to her.”
“Miss Laurie is always painting the house,” said Jenna.
Grandma Sandy chuckled a little and said, “She was always painting or drawing or making something. There was a store, Steed and Feed, that sold animal supplies, and they had the ugliest statue of a cowboy out front. The paint was chipped all over, but on the eyes it had washed off completely, leaving these odd black marks…”
“Black marks instead of eyes,” laughed Jenna. “It must have looked like a zombie.”
Sandy laughed some more and took a sip of cocoa. “That’s exactly what people around town said, a cowboy zombie. Anyway, when they closed the store, the old man who owned it let Laurie have the statue. She wheeled it home on her red wagon. I almost choked when I looked out the front window and saw her wheeling that monster into the front yard.”
“Did you make her take it back?” asked Jenna.
Grandma Sandy sighed and got up. She gave Jenna a look and pointed to the backdoor with her thumb.
Grandma Sandy lifted the garage door, and it creaked, shuddered and shook its way up and open. Sandy aimed her flashlight. There in the center of the room, near an old pitchfork, was a larger than life cowboy, with blazing blue eyes and a huge hat.
“Help!” yelled Jenna before she could stop herself, but her cry turned into a laugh. “She painted that when she was a kid?”
Sandy put a hand on Jenna’s shoulder. “Ummm… she was about two years older than you, but yes, she was still a kid.”
Jenna walked forward a few hesitant steps and touched the cowboy’s face. It was smooth, like it had just been painted yesterday. Jenna muttered, “I bet it comes alive at night, and ropes cattle or whatever cowboys do.”
Jenna pried her eyes away from the statue and stared at Grandma Sandy. “Did Laurie get in trouble a lot when she was my age?”
Grandma Sandy’s eyebrows rose up. “No more than usual,” she answered. “She did have that fire in her eyes that some ornery little girls have.”
“Orn-er-ee?” asked Jenna. “Does that mean she was bad?”
“No,” said Grandma. “It means she was tough. When she needed to be.” Grandma reached down and tickled Jenna’s chin for half a second and added, “Like somebody else I know.”
Jenna followed Grandma Sandy back inside, watching the trail, by the flickering flame of the flashlight.
When they got back to Miss Laurie’s house, Jenna couldn’t help it. Whenever the phone rang, she asked, “Is it Grandma Sandy? Can I talk to her?”
“Just a minute,” Laurie would answer. “You’ll get your chance.” Miss Laurie would speak to Grandma Sandy and Jenna would squirm until she got her turn to talk.