Thom Garfat writes: Some time ago Bette Simons submitted a paper to a journal we are associated in which she talked a little about her life growing up in care a “number of years ago". Given that Bette is older than me, the “number of years ago” represents an important part of our history. Bette shared with me later the autobiographical history she had written which took the form of letters to her mother, explaining some of her life after her mother died and she had to go into the care of others, including both kin-care and system-care. As I read Bette’s work I became convinced that it was an important piece of literature about our field and one young person's experience.
With Bette’s permission, therefore, we are publishing her never before published work here. It is called Snail Silk, a title which she explains in what follows. We will be posting here on CYC-Net one chapter each month – sort of like the old serial novels. We know that you will be as intrigued as we have been – and probably as grateful for this insight into someone’s experience.
What Bette has to say about her work follows here ...
Growing up in a group home for children meant having many mothers in my life. But as an introspective adult who valued the art and therapeutic nature of writing, especially letters, I once realized I had never written to my mother, to seek the kind of healing people can get from being able to tell their stories.
A therapist once told me “death ends a life, but not a relationship.” How tender it was to talk with my long dead mother.
Jungians will say the snail is the symbol of the soul. I think of it as Japanese artists have, a thing of beauty. But snails are most often rejected and stamped on in many gardens,once its trail of silk is seen heading for the more interesting beauty of flowers. Snail Silk is dedicated to all the caring people who read this journal to learn more to care for the children and youth who may suffer more than they can handle because of the trails they leave.
Bette Bottger Simons
* * *
I who love potatoes
am born among the cabbages
Somewhere in the damp garden
where snail silk ribbons
the clotted earth
brushes my head
as I unroll
from my green cradle leaf
I am from peasant stock
but always have my ear
on the big house
his notes skip up and down
slide the bannister
I clean my nails
put my big feet
in narrow shoes
make points about things
and forget the onions
Now I look through my china cup
sigh over my belly
Soon the cuckoo
will close his door
I smell yellow roses
think fat cabbages
the snail is coming
Chapter 1: New Jersey Winter
Elfriede is mad
Soft slippery on mein bed
I won’t let it out again
You let them take mein crib here
Ears bang and bang in there
Tearing in my head
Elfriede put mein head
on little stone pillow
I think summer sand
Mein sister-Jewel is here
Mutti you come for her
And your little Eleonore get too
The rag on your throat
Elfriede tooked me away
Mutti did I make your words go away?
Mutti come get me.
* German for mommy
My Aunt Elfriede must have had little tolerance for me as a very sick three year old, shamefully messing my crib in her spotless German household. Besides this flu, I can still remember the piercing throb of earaches in the days before penicillin.
All the comfort I got came from a hard little pillow of sand that was heated and put under my ear.
My mother and father were both in the hospital. After weeks of illness, my Aunt and Uncle Bottger had taken them there, that cold New Jersey winter.
My sister Jewel, two years older was sleeping in a room with our mischievous cousin Helmut.
I slept in my own crib that had been brought from our parent’s home. The last time I saw my mother she was in our house. My aunt had brought us back to see if she was improving. My mother had put a rag around her pained throat. What had started out as a cold would end in diphtheria. I don’t think I ever kissed her goodbye. I never saw her again.
Rag round your throat there
You didn’t call your Nora back
Did I take your words away?
I see you no more
Uncle Karl has a toy mouse
He won’t tell me how it moves
“See her fat little arms“ they say
I say Aunt Elfriede has fat arms too
I stay by Aunt Elfriede’s soft arm
It is not big like yours
Karl hits his Helmut with the strap
Helmut is like frog on the floor
white bottom has blue spots now
I stay by the soft arm
Elfriede wants to see brown stink from us each
She makes a sharp soap thing with her knife
Sticks it in our bottoms
It gets the stink out
Mutti come get me
Before the death of my parents, my father had taken our family from California to New Jersey so he could be close to his brother’s family. We had traveled in our square olive-green Studebaker. After each day on the road, my father would assemble my wooden crib in the place where we would stay for the night. The crib came together for the last time in my aunt and uncle’s house and my life with my parents went to sleep.
My mother died two weeks before my father did. He did not know of her death. Strangely, I feel my mother does not know what happened to me after we were separated, and I need to tell her.
My mother was large, compared to her sister-in-law, my Aunt Elfriede, who was a small practical woman, given to white shirt-maker blouses and straight skirts.
My mother was more feminine. Her good clothes were sewn of velvets and crepes, beaded and lace trimmed. She let our hair fall in soft curls.
Both women had a German insistence on bowel regularity. In later years, my cousin said he remembered seeing us two “little angels” as our father called us, sitting endlessly on white enamel pots.
Elfriede’s quest to control the bowels was ruthless.
To this day, I am one to complete large quantities of work, forgetting the knife at my backside is only made of soap.
Uncle Karl did not think of us as “angels”. These Bottgers, who took over the care of my sister and I, had one son, my cousin who was named Helmut. He seemed to me a boy as wild and mischievious as one of the Katzenjammer-kids in the cartoons of that day. At age nine he was never still and often got spanked, by having Uncle Karl take his pants down and smack him on the buttocks with a strap, as best he could. Helmut wiggled and screamed. I was horrified.
My curls are gone
Elfriede made my head burn
rubbed butter in tangles
A little comb she used
Now my eyes sting
My hair is short
Uncle Karl has put things in a cart
We walk in snow
to new house
My pants are wet
Vatti* should come and get me
They have roasted apples in a fire
Helmut gives me one
It burns me
My tongue is dead now
They say my parents are dead
Mutti, the new house, the toilet room
Purple, green glass squares on the walls
There is no dark cellar where coal comes anymore
Mutti, come and see
* German for daddy
Of all the nine handsome Bottger children, my
father, Alfred, was the adventurous one, always thinking of coming to
America. At eighteen he finished his apprenticeship as a fancy cake
baker and got his father’s permission to leave the little village of
Naunhof and sail as cook on a ship going to America. His youngest
brother, my Uncle Karl, was just a boy then.
The family in Germany didn’t see Alfred again until he came back to a golden wedding anniversary of his parents. He brought with him his young wife Hildegard and their two year old child, Jewel, my sister.
At the reunion, Alfred found his brother Karl grown up, with a wife and child of his own. Karl had finished trade school as a painter and decorator.
Germany was in a severe depression, so at Alfred's urging, the younger Bottger brought his family to America. Before long Karl Bottger had his own painting business. He had purchased a house and was ready to move into it, when our parents died.
In that bitter winter of 1933, my father had been struggling to make a living. He got up in the dark to be a baker at one job, then went on to another. Alfred thought of himself as a handsome strong man. He liked body building and believed in natural healing. He entered my sister and me in healthy baby contests.
When he got sick that winter, he opened the windows to get fresh air. My aunt and uncle took both my parents to the hospital and my father died painfully, his lungs diseased with pleurisy. He thought my mother was still alive.
I don’t remember my father, but I have studied his pictures endlessly. They say he was a good story teller and loved telling about his adventures. He had jumped ship to come to America in the first place, then refused to serve in the army during world war I so he was interned in a camp for conscientious objectors in Hawaii.
His first wife had died in childbirth.
He started a restaurant in Hollywood and it failed miserably.
He had a vast collection of postcards from a friend who found him baking and decorating cakes all over the United States. When he was in his forties and was working in California, he met and married my mother who was only eighteen.
My father adored my sister, named Jewel. When I was
born he is said to have been angry. He had wanted a son. I think I was
born trying to please, so loved him anyway. But I don’t remember him.
My shiny black party shoes are gone
brown shoes now
Jewel goes to school
She says “bread”, not brot
She and Helmut
Me and Elfriede
We eat goose grease on bread
Elfriede makes parsley soup from her garden
I call Elfriede mutti now
You never came back to get me
My mother sewed look-alike clothes for my sister and me. Often my grandfather would send her jewelry for us – little garnet rings, silver filigreed lockets – a blue enameled one for Jewel, a pink one for Eleonore. She sent her father letters and enclosed drawings from Jewel and scribbles from Eleonore.
They called me Nora then.
Elfriede grew a garden and cared for three children in yet another depression. She cared little for my maternal grandfather in California. He sent money for shoes. It never seemed to be enough. Eventually he sent for us.
In the car
I see the clouds follow us
wherever we go
He doesn’t pinch me
Mutti said we would go on a boat
Now we go
Why is Helmut so good to Nora?
Maybe he won’t go with us
This big place is the boat
My collar keeps my ears warm
Mutti puts my cap on tight
Until the Panama Canal she says
Uncle Karl gives me spit kiss I want to wipe
No more his brown stink tongue in mein mouth
Maybe he won’t go too
Maybe I should cry too
But grossfatti** sends me the bracelets
Now we send him little Eleonore
I smile and smile
Until the “horn"
It blows up my scared place
Now I cry
They say the boat is moving
* morning, ** grand daddy
When the Bottgers in New York were to deliver us to California, Elfriede discovered a trip to there by boat, through the Panama Canal, was the same price as going across country by train. My grandfather, Paul Kirberg, who paid for the trip, never believed it.
Jewel would be leaving her cohort, wild Helmut. I, the mommy’s girl, would be out of range of torments.
Just Aunt Elfriede, Jewel and I would make the trip. It did not occur to me that Aunt Elfriede would leave me in California, with my maternal grandfather and his second wife. We would call them granddaddy and grandmommy in German. I would begin to learn English.
I love being dressed up and fussed over. On the ship, we wear our winter coats, and long socks, held up by garters. We have tam o'shanters and carry little purses. I smile, Jewel frowns. We are like the two figures that come out of a cuckoo clock to tell the weather. A sad boy if it will rain, a happy girl if it will be sunny.
On the ship we shed our winter clothes. When we cross the equator there is a costume party.
Just Mutti Elfriede, Jewel and Nora here
We are warm and it smells summer seashore
(When vatti cooked at Rockway hotel)
We wear party hats
I wear stretchy paper ribbons
I drink coconut milk
It’s a party!
We eat and eat in the big restaurant
We don’t fall off the boat
Soon we will live with your vater
Mutti, Elfriede, Jewel and Nora
Are you there too?
Is that were you have been?
We will all live together
You, Elfriede, Jewel and your little Nora
My feets squeeze in mein party shoes
Elfriede says Grossvatti will get new ones
I want pretty shiny black ones again, Mutti
Not the hard brown
You'll get them for your Nora