by Brenda Bellinger
No doubt this letter has already been opened for you.
I’m trying to picture you now, age-progressed since I held you in my arms when you were two months old. You were an adorable baby.
Over the years, I’ve had only an unfortunate and distant glimpse or two of you on your path toward adulthood, the last when I read about the events of 2003 that lead to your present circumstances. I’m not sure how clear and complete the picture of your past appears to you nor am I confident that what I’m about to tell you will be something you want to know. Perhaps my motive is simply self-serving – an effort to purge any culpability I have carried for almost thirty years.
You came into our lives for one long weekend beginning on a Friday in July, 1988, when my husband pulled over to offer a ride to you and your mother, hitchhiking in 105 degree heat. Your mother was seventeen years old and living on the street. She told David she needed a lift to an agency that supplied free diapers and formula. He was on the way home with our own two young sons after having met me for lunch. During the short ride, she must have been impressed with David’s ability to care for young children and asked him if he’d be willing to watch you for the weekend until she could pick up her welfare check. She told him she wanted some time to hang out with her friends downtown. David called me from a phone booth and put her on. We gave her our home phone number and she promised to call.
At 4 p.m. that afternoon, I called home from work to see how things were going. David told me he’d given you a bottle and a bath. The back of your head was a little flat and you still had a bit of dirt under your tiny fingernails, but you seemed content. Over the weekend, our two boys enjoyed trying to entertain you and even helped with feedings. On Sunday morning, you woke with a smile. Your mother called us and asked that I return you to her at a motel on Monday afternoon.
When I knocked, the door opened to reveal several adults and children inside, TV blaring. Someone was handing out slices of white bread smeared with mayonnaise to the kids. Your mother stepped outside. You smiled at her when she took you from my arms.
“I didn’t know he could smile!” she said, beaming at you.
I gave her a handwritten list of all the local resources and agencies I could think of that she could go to for help. “Our names and numbers are on the list, too,” I told her.
“How do you know about all these places?” she asked.
I told her I worked for Juvenile Court. In the hot afternoon sun, she began to visibly shiver. “We enjoyed having Matthew and would be happy to help you anytime,” I offered.
She took the bag of baby clothes I packed for her, thanked me and quickly stepped inside and locked the door. We never heard from her again.
When you were about five years old, your mother was charged with felony child abuse. Apparently, her then boyfriend was the perpetrator. She was charged for failure to provide protection. Ultimately her charge was reduced to a misdemeanor and later dismissed after she completed a parenting education class.
Ten years later, our local newspaper reported that you and an older boy beat and robbed an 87-year-old woman. The victim, a petite, white-haired, retired teacher testified that you wrapped her in a blanket “so it wouldn’t hurt so much” and apologized, saying you needed the money because you had a child.
This broke my heart. I’ve always wondered whether I could have made a difference that weekend, so long ago. At the time, I admit that I had some serious misgivings about returning you to your mother, given her circumstances. As a mother myself, I also felt I couldn’t breach the trust your mother, a desperate young woman, placed in us, by notifying the authorities. The question that plagues me is whether or not your life might have turned out differently if I had. I am so very sorry.
Brenda Bellinger writes from her never quite empty nest on an old chicken farm in Northern California. Her work has appeared in Small Farmer’s Journal, THEMA, The California Writers Club Literary Review, and in various anthologies. She has been honored with first place awards for non-fiction and flash fiction at the Mendocino Coast and Central Coast Writers Conferences, respectively. Currently, Brenda is at work on a young adult novel, negotiating with her characters over revisions.