By Shimia Gray, 17, Centennial HS (Compton)
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I grew up in foster care and never knew my parents. I didn’t know my relatives either until I was 10 years old, but when I did meet them we didn’t get along. Even after all these years I don’t feel like part of the family. But it hasn’t brought me down. It’s made me more independent because I don’t have to depend on them. I’ve also met other people, like my auntie, mentors and therapist, who spend time with me and mean a lot to me. 

When I was young my older sister Crystale and I moved around a lot to different foster homes. Every school year waiting by the gate, there was always someone different picking me up. I started to wonder who my family was and where I came from. I heard other people talk about their families and I wanted to call someone my family, too.

At court I asked my social worker and lawyer about my family and they always gave me the same reply, “We will tell you when we know something.” I got tired of hearing this. When I was 10, my brother Robert, who was an adult, told me he had visited my family. He gave me the address of my grandmother (my mother’s mom) and told me that he would take me there one day.

I had watched TV shows and movies and I hoped for them to be the perfect family like the Brady Bunch. But when I got in my brother’s car, I suddenly didn’t want to meet them. Around the same time, I had met my mother for the first and only time and she was selling me hopes and dreams that my sister and I were going to come back home, but I knew the truth. I could tell she had a drug problem and wouldn’t be able to take care of us. I had not liked her, so I felt that I would not like them.

The visit to my grandmother’s was weird. It felt like starting at a new school when you don’t know anybody and everyone stares at you. When my brother and I walked into the living room and sat down, people started to introduce themselves. “Hi, my name is Kendra and I am your cousin,” and so on and so on it went until everyone had introduced themselves. My aunt said, “Oh my God, we are so glad to see you. We haven’t seen you since you were 2 years old.” She looked like she wanted to cry. I told them I lived in a group home in Rosemead and that I was happy. My cousins said they were glad to have someone close to their age. I was just trying to remember their names while they were talking to me.

During dinner they were loud. At my group home no one was allowed to talk at the dinner table. Everyone was staring at me as they were carrying on their conversations. After a while they started to make me feel uncomfortable. The only person who talked to me was my uncle, who told me that his day was going better because he got to see me. When dinner was over my brother asked me if I was ready to go home. I said yes. I felt disappointed. They didn’t feel like my real family.

Did they even care about me?

After that my brother would bring me over to my grandmother’s house every weekend. I didn’t look forward to it. I felt they could have made a bigger effort to make me feel like family. Everyone would say hi and then go back to doing their own thing. I wanted them to treat me like they wanted to get to know me and at least give me a little niceness. One time some of my cousins and I were watching TV and they were watching something I didn’t want to watch. I asked them to turn the channel and they said no because they had the TV first.

Still, my grandmother’s house was somewhere to go and something to do. Living in a group home was frustrating me. I never got to make any decisions, like choose when I went to bed, took a shower or watched TV. The one good thing was eating at my grandmother’s house because my grandma makes great ribs, cornbread, cabbage, mac and cheese and mashed potatoes.

When I turned 15 I left my group home and went to live with my sister and her foster mom, Lisa. I had lived there for six months when we got evicted from our apartment and moved into a vacant house that her nephew was finishing building. She found out that the walls were infested with bees, so she made us stay with our grandmother for two weeks. It turned out to be a bad decision.

My sister and I told our grandmother about the house we were living in and how the walls were infested with bees. My grandmother reported Lisa to the system as an unfit foster mother. I had a meeting with my sister, Lisa and my social worker. My social worker asked me if what we had told our family was true. I was intimidated by Lisa because she was mean. Whenever she opened her mouth nothing nice came out of it. So I said no and I said we wanted to stay with her. We didn’t think about how it made our grandmother look like she was lying about Lisa.

My family thought we were making my grandmother look bad on purpose. They weren’t the same around us anymore. When we went over there, everybody said hi but wouldn’t talk to us. One time my sister tried to give my grandmother a hug, but my grandmother motioned for her to move away and said that she was having a bad day and didn’t want to be touched. I think my family was being unfair toward my sister and me. If another family member had done something to them, they would never have treated them like that. 

Once, when I went shopping with my cousins, my cousin Ebony told me she knew everybody’s social security number in the family. So jokingly I said, “You don’t know mine.” She said, “That’s because you’re not part of our family.” When we got into the mall, I didn’t speak to her. She said, “Are you still mad at me?” I just rolled my eyes at her. It made me mad that she said that. So I made a rule for myself that I wouldn’t speak to anyone unless spoken to.

Now I feel weird around my family because they ignore me and my sister. I only go over there to see my cousin Kendra, who I like hanging out with because we have so much fun together. When I call and say, “Can I come over?” my grandmother says, “I don’t care” and hangs up.

Earlier this year, I asked my grandmother why I didn’t get to live with her. She said she didn’t want me and my sister living with her for reasons of her own, which she said she feels she shouldn’t have to explain. I wasn’t hurt because we weren’t close, but I was mad because I wanted an explanation and she wouldn’t tell me. I felt like she owed it to me because I was family. I know I couldn’t have lived with my other family members because they couldn’t afford to take care of my sister and me.

Sometimes I wish my family could have better lives so I could have a family that has achieved something. All of the adults finished high school, but they have never been to college and have low-end jobs, like working at McDonalds. Some are also on welfare. I’m not saying I wish they were rich, but have something to show for their lives. Every time I visit them I tell myself, “I hope I don’t have to live like this.”

I’m lucky though because a year ago I found my auntie Doe Doe (my father’s sister), who has shown me kindness and respect and how family is supposed to treat each other.

One day in December 2005 I was bored and looking through my sister’s stuff. I found unopened letters my dad wrote my sister and me. I opened one and there was a phone number at the bottom. I called the number and my auntie Doe Doe answered. I asked her if my dad was there and if I could speak to him. She told me that he wasn’t but she would pick my sister and me up the next day to take us out to dinner.

The next day, she told us that our dad had passed away a couple months before. It didn’t affect me much because I never knew him. She then told us her weekends were free and that we could come over any time. I remembered her from when she used to pick me up from my foster home when I was little and we’d spend the day together. Since I remembered her, I felt more comfortable around her than I did with the other side of my family.

I had only known my aunt for a week when she took my sister and me Christmas shopping at the Lakewood Mall. I was surprised when she did this for us. My sister got a cell phone and I got shoes and two outfits. This made me happy. My foster mom never took me shopping and I finally had the things that everybody else had.

I started seeing my auntie on the weekends. She takes me to the movies and lets me play on her computer. I enjoy sitting down and eating dinner with her, her husband and their grown daughter, and talking to them. We always take turns at the dinner table discussing how our days went. I don’t live with her because my aunt and her husband said they had already raised their daughter and didn’t want to raise another kid.

Meeting my auntie has made me more confident. When she was teaching me how to drive I ran into the curb but she didn’t get mad. She told me learning how to drive is 50 percent confidence and 50 percent trying. She encouraged me to keep going when I felt like I wanted to give up. Now when I am trying to do my math homework, I think of the advice she gave me about driving and I complete it. It also helped me when I recently read one of my poems in front of 200 people for a competition.

She’s a role model. She’s done something with her life—she programs computers—and that shows me that I could have a good life, too. I told my auntie that I want to be a screenwriter. She told me she believes that I can do it if I try hard and put my mind to it. If I told my other side of the family, they would put me down and say, “Black people can’t …”

I wanted to live with my family because it sucks being in the system. But when I look back on things, I don’t wish my family could have been different. I feel it was meant for them to be like that. That’s how God made them.

I’ve learned something from this

Not having my family be there for me has made me depend on myself. That’s a good thing because I feel like I can do stuff on my own like go places, cook for myself and pay bills. I know in the future I’ll be able to live on my own and won’t need any help from my family.

I’ve also learned you shouldn’t expect too much because the outcome will be different. My family couldn’t be compared to the Brady Bunch.

I’m going to continue seeing my auntie Doe Doe because she is a good influence in my life. As for my mom’s side of the family, the only thing I want them to know about my life is that I am alive. To me, my family is just my brother, sister and my auntie Doe Doe.

My life has been hard, but I got through it myself. I never gave up because I don’t want to be broke. I want to be rich and have everything I want. I hope I reach my goals. I want to show people that just because you don’t have your family doesn’t mean you can’t be anything. You still have yourself.