Constant Movement and Change

moving-house-04-06-11It took only a few interviews to realize there was a constant in Rochelle’s world.  There was constant movement and change.  By the time she had reached the age of eighteen she had moved more than twenty times.  When I tried to get Rochelle to put these moves in chronological order about six months after we had begun the interviews, she had a difficult time.  She would start describing the places but then would remember another one that she had forgotten:  “No, that’s not right.  I know we lived in the south part of town at one point,” she said.  So she would then try to figure out when it was that she had lived there and I would put it into the list of places.  She also had difficulty remembering all the different people who had lived with her at the various places.  Sometimes it was just her mother and sisters; sometimes she was living with her great grandmother; sometimes it was with her mother’s boyfriend, once it was with her mother’s boyfriend and his wife and child.  There was a time she was living by herself with some friends or relatives she didn’t know, and her mother rarely came to visit.  Rochelle remembers that well.  She doesn’t know why her mother didn’t visit often.

There were people coming and going at the different places Rochelle lived.  It was a constantly changing mix of roommates: different relatives, boyfriends of her mother, boyfriends of her sisters, and friends of friends or relatives.  Once there were at least 13 people living in a two bedroom place.  These people were also living unstable lives and needed places to stay at times.  “I think I now let other people stay with me sometimes because I had to find people who would let me stay with them when I was growing up,” she explained to me.  Often she does this even though she usually comes out financially behind from doing so.  The people she has mentioned  staying at her own apartment have been needy, but not the best influence on her children.  An uncle who stayed with her is now in jail on drug charges, and an aunt who lived in her apartment for a while is a drinker and moocher.  Rochelle’s mother, who lives with her two days a week and whom she pays to take care of her children while she is at work was absent from her own children’s lives and is lax with the care of her grandchildren.  “I need to set up a chart so the kids can see what they need to do and check it off,” Rochelle told me recently. “ My Mama isn’t making them brush their teeth when she takes care of them,” she explained.  Now a daily schedule chart is posted, and the children check off their daily duties such as homework and tooth brushing.

One of the most traumatic places Rochelle stayed was in her great grandmother’s two bedroom house when she was twelve.  Her great grandmother had taken to drinking, had had a stroke, and was in a nursing home.  Rochelle, her sisters, and her mother were living there, but her mother went out drinking and partying most nights.  One night Rochelle and her sisters were asleep with two neighbor children they were babysitting.  Both mothers were out at clubs.  Rochelle awoke to a fire that had been started by an open flame gas heater.  There was no phone in the house, but they ran to a neighbor’s, and the fire department was called.  The house burned down completely and when Rochelle’s mother returned late at night she started screaming. She thought her children were dead.  Rochelle and her sisters were alive, but the youngest neighbor child had died in the flames.  Rochelle burst into tears when she told me this story during the fourth interview:  “I always think none of this would have happened if Mama had just been home and not gone out that night,” she told me through her tears.  I learned then to keep Kleenex nearby.

“After the house burned down, Mama never had a real place to stay again,” Rochelle told me.  “She just drifted and I drifted with her.”  The constant movement and constant change intensified.  Rochelle was in the 6th grade.  Her sisters drifted off with boyfriends, but Rochelle was the youngest so she went wherever her mother put her.  Schools changed; where she lived changed; who was living with her changed; but what remained constant was the moving from place to place and school to school.  Movement remained a constant in her life.

An Unsettling Childhood

broken-family-glass“My New Year’s resolution is to make peace with my mother’s relatives”, Rochelle stated confidently at the beginning of her first January interview with me in 2013.   “I don’t know why they don’t like me.  I never did nothin’ to them, but it is their problem, and I need to get over it”.

I had been interviewing her for five months and tears always welled up when the conversation drifted to this subject, as it often did.  Her mother’s family lives three hours away in another big Texas city.  This was where her mother had been raised, and every summer of her very young life Rochelle and her two older sisters had been shipped off to live with that grandmother.  In the vicinity were also several of her aunts and many of her cousins.  Some were often living in the grandmother’s house.

Rochelle’s early childhood, in fact most of her life, is dramatically unstable.  “I don’t know what my mother was doing those summers, but I know she wasn’t taking care of me and my sisters,” said Rochelle when I raised the question.  As mentioned earlier, the care and raising of children was not a focus of Rochelle’s mother’s life. It turns out it was also not a focus of her grandmother’s life.  “My grandmother’s house was so ghetto and dirty,” is how she describes it.  “Falling apart, too.”  The grandmother just put the children outside in the Texas heat for the day.  “There was nothin’ to do and it was hot.  I hated it,” said Rochelle.  “My grandma abused us.  She didn’t really feed us.  She would feed all the adults first, and then we would get the scraps.”

There was also abuse in other ways.  Rochelle remembers one day when she and a cousin were fighting.  She was a young child and so was her cousin.  “They put us in a room and told us to fight it out.  They told us to hit each other.”  The scene was described very much like what one sees at a boxing match or dog fight. The adults were the spectators and the very young children were the entertainment.  The cousin Rochelle fought with that day is now a prostitute with a pimp, and her children have been taken away.  This prostitute cousin is constantly praised and admired by the relatives who aren’t fond of Rochelle.  According to Rochelle, her family admires the cousin, Shaneekra, because she “always gets her hair and nails done, wears sexy clothes and has spending money.”  These are attributes much admired by the extended family. Shaneekra is considered to be a success in life regardless of the fact that her children have been removed by Child Protective Services, and she makes her money taking directions from a pimp.

Rochelle’s childhood memories are not good ones.  Today many of those maternal aunts and cousins write horrible things about her on Facebook and do not come to visit.  Recently some had driven the three hours and were in Rochelle’s hometown, but they didn’t visit. They did call to say they were in town and were visiting another relative.  None of these relatives came to her mother’s large 50th birthday party, though they were invited.  Rochelle does not know why this is.  Both she and her mother seem to be rejected by the family, and it hurts her deeply.  She doesn’t discuss the problem with her mother but knows her mother is hurt, too.  She doesn’t discuss much with her mother and never has.  The dynamics of this dysfunctional relationship remains a mystery but strongly impact Rochelle’s life today and brings on tears every time it crosses her mind.