The Tale of Leticia

Leticia was not technically a preemie since she did not reach the finish line under the thirty-seven week limit, but she only weighed four and a half pounds, just like Alice, the premature baby we had taken care of earlier that year. She had many of the same physical attributes but without the jaundice. We took her to a visit at the CPS headquarters where we saw a family waiting in the lobby consisting of a: thirty-five year old grandmother, a very slender but pretty and hard as nails looking mother with crimped hair, a young looking dad with a shaved head and lots of interesting, super-cool gang tattoos, a couple of five or six year old kids—I wasn’t sure where they fit into the mix and a middle-aged aunt (a great aunt, actually—she was grandma’s sister).

Dad was no stranger to the streets but he wasn’t exactly a posturing bully either. There’s something about the possibility of being stripped of parental rights that can have a chilling effect on a man’s tendency to be an overbearing tough guy/jerk. Mom was just as quiet. Neither of them spoke up; although they sent curious glances our way. I said something to the aunt, and she didn’t respond so I spoke to her in Spanish. She was Hispanic but spoke no more Spanish than George Wallace had. The birth father spoke Spanish and we got off to a confused start as we finally realized that everybody spoke English best. Finally I asked, “Are you Leticia’s parents?” as the social worker walked in and introduced us, ushering us to the visitation room.

The visitation rooms were small and filled with chairs and toys. Even if the foster kids couldn’t play with the toys, the other little relatives could. The five and six year old alternated between playing with the plastic cars and talking to me. Sometimes kids can tell when you are a teacher, and they hover around you. Mom held the baby, while dad bent over looking down at her. Neither was teary eyed, but they seemed engrossed. Mom stroked the baby’s cheeks with her fingers, and dad seemed hesitant to touch her at first. It was a quiet visit—the two older kids and I did most of the talking.

The grandmother seemed to be in control. Everyone showed her a strange deference. A couple of times the mom started to do something and glanced at grandma. When she took the bottle out of the diaper bag she gave grandma the look. The matriarch nodded her head slightly, almost imperceptibly, and mom started feeding the baby. Halfway through the feeding, mom stopped and looked at grandma again. Grandma did the head nodding business again, and mom put the baby on her shoulders while grandma helped her adjust the burp rag. After a moment of repeated efforts mom succeeded in burping the baby, and then finished feeding Leticia. I took a long look at grandma sitting serenely and saying little. Interesting, I thought. This is what’s meant by gravitas. Presidents don’t have this much quiet uncontested sway—kings and queens maybe, but not presidents.

We talked a little, hesitantly, awkwardly. It wasn’t the difference in age or race or class—it was the things they started telling us. For example, Leticia’s mom said that until she was sixteen she didn’t know who her mother was. There was an older female who lived with her and her grandma. She thought the older female was her sister and thought her grandma was her mom. The older “sister” was actually the biological mom, but since she didn’t have her act together she became sister and grandma became mom. She spoke about it like it was no big deal. And I thought I was a hard-bitten skeptic.

Ghetto cynicism trumps middle class cynicism every time.

It wasn’t much of a surprise when Leticia’s grandmother took custody of her. She was the matriarch, and mom and dad were slow about following their program, so they relinquished their rights in favor of the grandma. Mary and I were pleased. By this time Leticia was a little bigger and even a bit chubby. Slow to warm at first, she now attacked her bottle with enthusiasm.

So far only one of the birth parents we dealt with had regained custody of their child. Will she be the one and only, I wondered.