Foster Home at Five



Neighborhood: Poughkeepsie

I was only five, but I knew my mom and dad were in court that day fighting over custody rights. The rainy gray outside—plus the turmoil of yelling and crying, nighttime stirrings, and mornings waking up in different rooms or houses or cars, and not understanding what was going on or where exactly was home—had me nodding off at my grandma’s kitchen table. 

I remember fighting to keep my eyes open, jerking my head back up each time it dropped, and eventually letting myself go to sleep, but still being aware enough to feel myself gradually slipping under the table. I was in the non-time between sleep and being awake. The front door opened and my eyes opened for good. My dad was squatting down to me. It was strange to see him in a suit. I came to him in response to his silent gesture: an open hand reaching out. It was strange to see his eyes brimming. He carried me to grandma’s couch, forever covered in plastic.

“You’re gonna have to go away for a while,” he said. “But daddy will get you back soon. I promise.”

“I don’t wanna go.”

“The judge ordered it, Mikey. Just a week or so.” The tears were now flowing. “Quick. Don’t worry.”

The cab, already waiting at the curb, brought us to a police station. It was probably in Poughkeepsie. Googling, just the other day, I think I found the very place matching the imprint in my memory. 

There was a lady waiting outside with an umbrella in the drizzle. “Hello, Mikey,” she said. She only looked at me. It seemed she was refusing to look at my dad. The lady put an arm around my shoulder, leading me to a white car and keeping her body between me and my dad. She got me to the passenger seat, leaving no time for my dad, police officers by his side, to say anything more than “I love you.” She seat-belted me in and off we went. I have seen enough movies to imagine myself at the window, a hand open on the glass for my dad. But I know myself. I go within: focus folding back on to myself, shutting off the outside like the body shuts off blood flow to limbs in the cold.

The lady told me she was a social worker. I do not remember her name. I would be going, she told me, to a nice home with many kids to play with. 

It turned dark as we drove, and she asked me if I wanted McDonalds. My stomach, I remember, was in knots. I said, “No.”

“Don’t you want a happy meal?”

I shook my head no. I can imagine myself crying as well. 

But I can better imagine myself silent. A family violence counselor recently told me I was “guarded.” I was merely criticizing the assessment questions, spotting ambiguities in wording that—with so much at stake—I would need clarified before answering. I am a Doctor of Philosophy, after all. But despite having the washed-up look of the recovering drunk that she admitted she was, perhaps that counselor did sniff out some truth.

We turned down an unpaved driveway, the big lone house, lit up by lights, growing bigger as we approached. And then we were there. The social worker brought me up the stairs to the porch. The door was already open, and the house was lively with kids and light. A lady in an apron said, “Why don’t you go and play with all the other children.” 

The living room was swarming with children of all ages. Children were climbing on the jungle gym at the back of the room. Children were jumping on the furniture. There was even a toddler in a playpen. I was in no mood to play. Instead, I lay down on the couch, prayer hands between my legs, which is how I still sleep now.

A little black boy, whose face was painted white, came up to me. He watched me for a while, perhaps studying my pain. He offered me a bite of his corndog. Several of the kids were walking about the jungle-gym living room holding corndogs. I refused his offer, even though I sensed he was trying to make me feel at ease. The boy was even younger than me, I think. But it seemed on some level he understood what I was feeling.

Aside from that first day of foster care, only random memories come back. These are less and less, and with diminished vivacity, now that I am in my thirties.

I remember being in the backyard on a sunny day. One kid, perhaps between eight and ten, was pulling up grass and inspecting the blades. Noticing me watching him, he said, “Onions!” He showed me the roots, and there were little bulbs. I helped him pull more up. Imitating him in wiping off as much dirt as possible, I then followed him in eating the bulbs. The sharp and pungent taste, the crisp and crunchy texture, the burning-biting burst—I recall all these sensations, but wonder if I actually had them at the time. And yet I must have. Only a few years ago, when I was still married, I found such grass in my lawn and revisited those sensations.

Finding and nibbling these little bulbs might have been, for all I know, one of the only times I surrendered to pleasure while in foster care. The saddest thing to me now is not when I picture myself there in shutdown shock over what was happening to me. Nor is it picturing myself moping because I wanted to go home, or hysterical with fear that I would never see my parents again. It isn’t yelling at the foster mother “You’re not mommy!” The saddest thing, rather, is when I picture myself, looking backward, losing myself in play, as I did that day picking grass onions.

For whatever reason, I also remember my foster mother cooking asparagus in a big pot one night. “I’m not eating that,” an older black girl said. I had seen her only a few times before that, but I had a deep need to know her. She talked back and would go around repeating that she was leaving soon because she was about to be eighteen. I followed in her steps and refused to eat the asparagus too. It has taken me years to work asparagus into my diet. And for the longest, I was not open to corndogs.

A couple of times during my stay, I got picked up by a social worker—the same white car, but a different lady. We would go to what I assume to be City Hall in Poughkeepsie. I say assume, because in my late teens that is where my dad and I went to visit my sister, who was herself in foster care at the time. We brought her a coloring book and disposable camera, while grandma and grandpa waited in their junkyard Mazda (hand-brushed red). My dad—nervous—had guzzled what he could of a forty in a nearby park—before asking me, absurdly, to carry it inside city hall in the leg of my sweatpants (“You got baggy pants, boy.”), and then burying it in the snow next to a bench (“Gotta keep it cold”) when I refused to bring it in. 

Having seen supervised visitation from that side of things has no doubt colored my memory of how my parents’ earlier visitations went with me. Perhaps there was the stock coloring book, yes. No pictures were taken—not that I ever saw at least. My mom, I think, brought along my teddy bear, the one that I had since I was a baby and whose eyes and nose I had bitten off. The visits were quick, though. I remember that. I felt that. I imagine my parents cried, but I do not know if I cried. Did they worry that I was forgetting them, getting accustomed to a new family? That is what I would worry about in their shoes.

After a while, I guess I did get accustomed to living in the foster home. I remember sleeping in bed one afternoon and being jarred awake as I heard the foster family van driving away. I jumped to the window and watched it move down the dirt driveway. The house was quiet. No swarm of children in the living room. I was alone. I ran outside into the same gray drizzle as on the day when I was taken to the police station. Like a nightmare, my socks sunk deep into the mud. I screamed out for the van, “Wait—you forgot me!” Red brake lights flashed in the gray, I remember. But it was only in preparation to turn onto the street. The foster father, a bearded man, found me kneeling in the mud. They were just going to the supermarket, he told me.

Then the day came when I was to go home. Not much longer than a month had passed. A social worker, in that white car again, buckled me in the passenger seat. I was happy to say “Bye” to everyone from the window. 

Since I knew I was leaving, it is easy to imagine that part of me wished I could stay a little longer to play. I know, though, that if by some magic a few extra hours had been offered to me, I would not have taken it because of my fear that the chance to go home could be withdrawn.

The car stopped along the curb in front of a white house. I did not register right away that this was a planned destination. A feeling of being betrayed flooded through me, as the social worker unbuckled my seat belt. But she merely put me in the back seat and told me, “Don’t worry. We just have to make a stop.” The sensation receded as she walked to the house. I know the ebb and flow of that betrayal wave. I feel it at least once a month, and more like once a week, with romantic partners. So perhaps I project too much into the past. 

The social worker came back with her arm around the shoulder of a black girl, probably between twelve and fourteen. The girl was crying. I assumed she was headed off to a foster home. I felt sorry for the girl. Empowered by the euphoria of going home, I had an urge to console her, to touch her shoulder and tell her, “It’ll be okay. Look, I’m going home right now. And it wasn’t long at all.” I imagine, now at least, that I also wanted to say, “Take the McDonald’s if it’s offered.” Words were right on the cusp of coming out, but they never did. 

Instead of the police station, I was dropped off in front of my old house. My mom and dad were waiting on the street. We went to lunch together, and I was glad there was no fighting. They promised me they would be better at getting along. They told me they were sorry this had happened. From what my dad still tells me at least, it was rage bouts at the courtroom that resulted in the judge ordering me into foster care. People I tell my story to insist that something else was going on, that there must be more to the story.


M. A. Istvan Jr., poet and philosopher, teaches at Austin Community College and is the current editor of Safe Space Press. Visit

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§ 14 Responses to “Foster Home at Five”

  • John says:

    Heartwarming story. Sometimes the story just ends. No backstories. Sometimes we hide the ending or the really embarrassing stuff. Don’t worry I filled in my own blanks.Great writing.

  • Trevor says:

    You certainly have a way with words. I concur that the events of our adolescence shape our future relationships. Thank you for sharing your experience, it helped me come to terms with my own time spent as a ward of the state.

  • Stanley Wanglund says:

    That is a profound story Mike.

    As a psychologist who was the Director of a children’s clinic for over 20 years, you have certainly painted a very authentic experience and set of perceptions that really shows the individual and highly emotional reactions people have in these circumstances.

    How strange what images are most powerful, how they remain and effect us for a lifetime.

    This is very powerful stuff man.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  • Albert says:

    Moved to chills

  • Bub says:

    Absolutely stunning. Tears and smiles throughout. A beautiful stroll through the memories of a beautiful man!

  • Aaron says:

    To reach that far back and deep and come up with something so real is a feat. Thank you for this and thank you for sharing something so raw without even the slightest hint of any “Brian Griffin” level self-indulgence. Your writing is a gift for us.

  • Roy says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience with the world. Your account of foster care left me cheering for and also wanting to hold space for whatever comes next. Cheers to the amazing writer and person you became.

  • Darlene says:

    You have genuinely painted a picture of what stays in the heart of a child. And will creep up in adult hood and find a way to lash out in other ways in adult hood of that child. The layers carried forever lie dormant in the body, never be forgotten, like the layers Of a onion. It lies profoundly forever in our souls, but through the pain there are two main things that happen. 1. The brain’s memory will find ways, not intentional by the person to lash out and react to them sad times that are deeply planted in memory. and never seem to totally fade away. they come back to repeat themselves in words, actions or affictions that will show up one day in a negative way. And on a positive note, we grow profoundly through our mishaps, pain and suffering and we create a wonderful story to help others as you just did. Bravo my nephew, the wounds that we open heals our own soul as we are healing others by our own stories. We by telling our stories, we are sending our opening to heal others at this very moment. As you are. There’s so much pain in the world and we need people like you, as you wrote and told your own story to make and show others in the world they are not alone. We are one and everyone has a story to tell on this Journey called life. Beautifully written, we are never alone in our pain. Xoxoxo

  • Triston says:

    I enjoyed reading this, it brought me back to a somewhat simpler time in my life. The newness to the unknowns that were so common, but also the fear that comes with them. It’s interesting the small things or sensations that we remember and take with us after everything. I have a good amount of friends that were raised in foster care and changed multiple homes throughout their lives and it really stressed them out when it was about to happen. I should probably see if I can figure out some places of my own childhood, I’m sure that was a unique feeling to revisit.
    P.S, I did the same exact thing with the grass onions when I was younger. That took me back. Thank you for sharing

  • Leesa says:

    I resonate with your story Prof. Thanks for sharing.

  • Bernadette says:

    Thank you for sharing, Mike! Definitely was difficult to read, very sad, but wonderfully written. It’s awesome when we move past something and we can explore it in another way, especially creatively. It’s a gift to be able to turn pain into something positive. Thank you for baring your soul. And I’m sorry you went through that. You’re stronger today because of that experience 💯! Sending you light and love!!!!

  • Kiya says:

    Glad to see this. Your voice is precise/penetrating. It is wonderful to see something more personal. It complements your twitter material, which remains my favorite.

    Your small poetry there gut punches me like only Denis Johnson can. An Istvan latest (2/23/2021):

    “to know how it was for those before the time of Christ, where impossible it was/
    to satisfy our craving to be saved from inborn disgustingness, think of all those born/
    into wrong bodies—fat, man, white, and so on—before the time of modern surgery”

    Christopher Hitchen’s level. Who doesn’t wonder how pre-Jesus people got along or could even get up from bed knowing themselves deep down as sinbags?

  • mikey iii says:

    i love the part where you almost said don’t turn down the MacDonald’s.

  • Elihu says:

    Great read, I can definitely relate with some of these experiences. I think back on moments like these often to keep me driving forward and being a more positive influence on my family.

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