Saturday, 12 December 2015

My first months as a foster child in St Albans - Part 2

A few days after I went into foster care I told my Social Worker how sad and disappointed I was that I wasn't living like a member of a family at all and that living in the foster home reminded me of a horrible Bed and Breakfast place that Mum and I had once stayed in over in Cromer.

I don't know exactly what my Foster Parents had been told about what they were expected to do to help me in exchange for the money they were being paid but what I do know was they didn't do much.

They knew that my Dad was dead and that Mum was in a mental hospital but perhaps they thought that it wasn't their job to deal with anything apart from my physical needs? I wonder if they thought that my school or my social worker dealt with everything to do with my worries or the sadness I sometimes felt after visiting Mum in hospital?

My bedroom was fine and I had enough to eat so nobody should think that my foster parents didn't do that part of their job because they did. What they didn't do was any of the things that "proper parents" would do if their child was feeling lonely or upset.

I'm sure they were not neglectful on purpose. I just don't think that they realised it was their job to be a substitute family for me. Looking back their way of doing the job they were paid to do did cause some strange situations!

My Foster Parents used to go to the cinema about once a month (usually the Odean but sometimes the Gaumont) but in all the time I lived with them they never once took me with them. The Gaumont was further away so they used to go there in the car. I can remember two or three times when I watched the same film as them at the same time but with me walking there and back and the two of them going in the car!

My Foster Dad wasn't a great fan of football but about six times a season he would drive over to Luton to watch a game. I used to go more often but only when I had enough spare money of my own to pay the fare and then the admission charge to the Oak Road End. Surely it must have felt strange to him that the two of us were going to exactly the same place but that he wasn't taking me or paying for me?

I never got to love or respect either of them and I think that was a shame because if they had made a bit more effort I think it would have been easier for all three of us to share a house for 2 years. I also think that the Social Workers might have tried a bit harder to find my a placement with people that wanted me rather than with people who just put up with me. 

Friday, 4 December 2015

Role models for foster children in St Albans

TWO BAD ROLE MODELS - It probably sounds horribly ungrateful but I think that both my foster parents, but especially my Foster Dad, were not very good role models. He worked hard at his job and was clearly well thought of by his employer but that was it. He did almost nothing around the house to help my Foster Mum and he never showed any interest in what I was doing or what I was feeling.

Young people were only put into foster care when something had gone seriously wrong within their own family. Surely what was needed was some extra support? Not being made to feel that the only reason I was allowed to stay with them was because of the extra money it brought into the house!

He almost never started a conversation with me and most meals were spent in silence with him eating with one hand and holding the newspaper he was reading with the other. It never felt that I was part of his family or that I mattered even a tiny bit to him.

THREE GOOD ROLE MODELS - When I had to leave foster care I was a bit disappointed that I couldn't stay on at school but luckily in the 1970s it wasn't hard finding work at 16 and I found work at small engineering firm down one of the alleyways off the main shopping street in St Albans. The Boss there was the most professional person I have ever worked with. He had a lot of real "hard men" working for him but they were always in awe of the quality of his work so he never had any problems with them! All my life I have tried to be like the Boss by always trying my hardest to get jobs right, to get them done on time and to get them done at the agreed price.

One of the lecturers at the college where I studied for some City and Guilds qualification was always very kind and patient with me and always made a point of checking that I understood all the new skills he was teaching me. He was a pal of my boss at the engineers where I was working so perhaps they had discussed me when they were down the pub.

Mr T was an all-around good bloke and a very high quality engineer and he had a big impact on how my life developed. I think he would be embarrassed and shocked if he ever found out that I saw him as a bit of a father figure to make up for the Dad I didn't remember.
When I left foster care I lodged with Mrs H. She lived where the Maltings Development is now right in the centre of St Albans and only 3 minutes from my job. She was lovely and for the first time for what felt like ages I was happy to go home at night. Mrs H looked after me like a real Mother would and I started to realise that perhaps I did matter to somebody. Years later it was one of the very few times I cried as an adult when I went to her funeral. I helped carry her coffin from the hearse into the church and I was pleased and proud that I had been asked to do that.

Friday, 27 November 2015

My first week as a foster child in St Albans - Part 1

It is strange how some days stick in your memory right through your life. I will always remember my first few days in foster care with a mixture of sadness and puzzlement. When Mum had to go into hospital I was told I was going to a foster family "for a few weeks". Neither of these things I was told was true, or at least not true in the mind of a 14 year old boy.

My new Foster Mum and Dad didn't have any children so to me they were not a proper family at all. Looking back over 40 years later I still think it was a bit strange that the first time I ever met my Foster Parents was when I arrived at their front door with my social-worker in tow. I had been waiting around all day for all the arrangements to be sorted out - the biggest delay was caused by the social worker wanting both adults to be there when I arrived and my Foster Dad not wanting to lose a days pay.

My bedroom was fine. It was clean and warm and there was a decent desk there where I supposed to do my school work in the evening. That was a good start but when we went back downstairs I noticed something very curious. The lounge was at the front of the house and it contained a large and very ornate sideboard, the television and two single arm-chairs. That's right when I first arrived there wasn't a chair for me to sit on!

The dining room at the back of the house had a table with four chairs and the four of us (me, 2 Foster Parents and the Social Worker) sat there talking for what seemed like ages. I kept expecting her to say something to my Foster Parents about needing to buy another comfortable chair for the lounge but she didn't and I was too shy to say anything.

When the Social Worker left it was all very difficult. I didn't know what the house rules were or even what I was to call my Foster Parents. It didn't take long before I realised that the whole fostering project was my Foster Mother's idea and that my Foster Dad had no interest in any part of what was going on.

That first evening was horrible and very unfair on me. After tea I helped wash up like I always used to do when I was living with my Mum but then I had no idea what I was supposed to do. The two of them sat in the lounge watching the TV and I didn't know if I was allowed to go in to sit with them or not and anyway if I was allowed to go in where would I sit? On the floor like a dog would?

So I went upstairs and read a book in my bedroom feeling rather lonely and abandoned.

About three days later a different (more senior?) Social Worker came round to see how I was getting on. We sat in her car so my Foster Mother couldn't hear what I was saying. I tried to be brave but I was so sad and disappointed that I wasn't living like a member of a family at all and that living there reminded me of a horrible Bed and Breakfast place that Mum and I had once stayed at in Cromer. I don't know what was said or when but within 48 hours another comfortable chair had arrived and my Foster Mother started trying a bit harder to make me feel welcome.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Adventures on the Harpenden and St Albans buses (321 and 355)

I have many fond memories of travelling on the 321 bus between St Albans and Harpenden. After Dad died we didn't have (couldn't afford) a car so the bus was our main means of transport. The shops in Harpenden were quite limited, especially for families like us where money was tight so the trip to St Albans market was a regular event. One time I remember really well was when I had a hospital appointment at the St Albans Hospital (Mid Herts Wing). We wanted to travel from Harpenden to St Albans between 8 and 9 in the morning but the busses had loads of school children going to the secondary schools. We had to wait quite a long time before there was a bus with any space for us.    

A few years later, after Mum had died as well and I was in foster care in St Albans, I did some trips between St Albans and Harpenden on the 355 route. This was when I was going to see a young lady friend who lived in Batford. Her Dad worked at the same small engineering works that I did and for some reason he thought that I would be a good influence of her. Sheila was her name and although we became quite good friends for almost a year it was only a friendship - nothing more. There was nothing romantic in our relationship.

Sheila's Mother was very strange. She didn't like me or trust me not to get her daughter into trouble so she used to chaperone us all the time. When the dog wanted a walk she wouldn't leave us alone in the house so we had to go with her. We used to cross over the little bridge at the bottom of Crabtree Lane (where the ford was, and still is?). We would walk up the hill, along Grasmere Avenue, down Granby Avenue then along Marquis Lane to cross over the road bridge over the River Lea. I still remember it quite well. Some the houses we passed were quite posh and it all seemed like a different world to the Batford Council Estate that was just a few hundred yards away.

The 355 was always a  single decker bus because of the low bridge where the railway crossed over Station Road. Sometimes it was almost full and sometimes almost empty for reasons that were never obvious to a youngster like me.

In the end Sheila's Dad changed jobs and I felt safe to end a relationship that was never going anywhere. It was done properly - face-to-face and not by email or text like youngsters seem to do now.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Christmas and Birthday celebrations before and after fostering

My first Christmas in foster care in St Albans was a real shock to me and I think was the only time I cried from sadness and disappointment during those two years. Mum and I used to make a real effort at Christmas time and we used to have a large Christmas tree and we used to give each other nice presents. I used to make things during the lunch hours in the Craft Room at school and with a bit of help from the teacher and the technician I was able to make things that looked really expensive but that were actually not too dear at all.

My foster parents only had a small tree and my present from them was a cheap wallet. And that was all. They gave that to me at breakfast so during the morning I kept thinking that they would give me something else after lunch - but they didn't. I felt so sad that Christmas was never going to be how it had been before Mum got ill that I went up to my room and cried. It didn't help of course and so I never did it again.

Most of my pals were busy with family for the days around Christmas so I got bored. My foster parents never made me feel particular welcome in the lounge where the TV was so I would leave the house and just wonder around in the park. I felt quite lonely and left out - I was almost starting to want the school term to start so I would have more people to talk to!

After Christmas my social worker, unusually, visited me at school. She asked me about my Christmas and I told her the truth about what had happened. I think she was quite surprised because she had already told my foster parents off for ignoring my birthday a few months earlier. Anyway she then went back to my foster parents and they must have had a big row because when I got home my Foster Mum had red eyes and looked quite embarrassed. My second birthday and second Christmas in Care were a bit better so whatever the social worker said must have worked.

When I timed out of foster care I moved in with the lovely Mrs H. She used to buy me a present and bake me a birthday cake and once I met Jane - who later became my wife - I started getting presents and cards from her as well. Jane's family were very good at remembering events like birthdays and for our whole time together we used to receive and send little gifts and cards. Jane used to write all the dates on the calendar we kept in the kitchen so nobody would be forgotten.

It is funny how things improved so much and so quickly once I left foster care and started living with Mrs H.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

The lies that are told to foster children

When I was told that my Mother was going to have to go into hospital "for a few weeks" I believed what I was told. Why shouldn't I? I was only 14 years old and even I had started to notice that she wasn't well. Nothing was said to make me believe that my time in foster care was going to be anything more than a few weeks duration and I was happy to pay that price if it meant she could receive the treatment she needed.

But I soon realised that I hadn't been told the truth. Of course I had no medical training whatsoever but even I could tell that each time I visited the hospital she was worse than the time before. She wasn't making any progress that I could see and there didn't seem to be anybody at the hospital who could answer my questions.

After about a month I began to notice that she didn't immediately recognise me when I visited her and that her memories of our life together after my Father had died were slowly but steadily disappearing from her mind. I can remember being quite frightened - I didn't know what to do or who to ask for help. All my foster parents used to say was that, "The doctor's know what they are doing."

I started taking in photographs of important events from her life. Things like the photo taken when she got engaged and the photos of her wedding. But soon she would just glance at them in the way you might look at the photos of somebody you didn't know. I used to tell her who all the people were but she didn't seem either interested or bothered.

I feel quite ashamed now but once she didn't recognise me it didn't seem worth visiting her every week and gradually my visits became once a fortnight and then once a month. I was getting used to living with my foster parents and in my heart I think I knew that Mum was never going to be well enough to come home. I was also getting old enough to start planning my own life and common sense told me that it wasn't going to involve her however much I wanted it to.

My home - that was another set of lies I was told. The little rented house we used to live in wasn't that far from my foster home and as I still had my key I was able to get in. Quite suddenly somebody decided that it wasn't going to be our home any longer and everything that we owned that was still in the house was packed up and sent to my paternal grandparents in Yorkshire. I wasn't told this of course - I was told that it had been put into storage locally and I could have it all back when Mum was better.

The months and then the years drifted past but nobody seemed bothered about telling me the whole truth - they just let me work it out for myself. Mum lasted 8 years in the hospital and it was only after she died that I found out what had been wrong with her. It was also then when the boxes containing so much of our life together were returned to me.

I have been worried about telling this part of my life history. But I have told it as I remember it. Perhaps the social workers and my foster parents hadn't been told the truth either. I'm guessing that I will never know the complete story now but it seems strange that a few weeks in hospital became 8 years.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

My last day living with my foster parents in St Albans

Sometimes I think that my memory is starting to fail me because I cannot always remember the order in which different events happened during my years as a teenager in Care!

On my last day at school I was interviewed by the Head Master. All the people who were leaving the school at the end of year 11 (we called it the 5th form in my school days) were interviewed. Most of the leavers were pupils the school wanted to get rid of or were pupils who were not clever enough to stay on at school. I was a bit of a special case partly because I was in Foster Care and partly because the only reason I was leaving the school was because I didn't have the money to stay there any longer. I was seen last of all the leavers and I remember having to wait for ages for my turn.

I can remember my last day at the foster home. I have a picture in my mind of me lying in my bed on that morning with my old brown suitcase already packed and two open bags waiting for the last few items to be put in them. I heard my foster parents getting up and using the bathroom and toilet and then it was my turn to get washed and dressed and to go downstairs for my breakfast.

It seemed funny that neither of them said anything about it being my final day and even stranger that my Foster-Dad didn't offer to give me a lift in his car to my new lodgings. Anyway he didn't so after breakfast I finished my packing and then walked up the hill to my new home carrying the suitcase and one bag. I left them with my new landlady Mrs H and then went back to collect the second bag. Strangely neither of my foster parents were in the house when I got back there so I let myself in, picked up my bag and left the house for the last time: remembering to post my front door key through the letterbox!

And that is how aged 16 I left Care and became - so I thought - a "proper grown-up"!

I only saw my foster parents a few times after I moved out. Once was when the postcard with my O level exam results were sent to their address so I had to walk down to collect it and just a couple of times I bumped into my Foster-Mother while I was shopping in St Albans.

"We are the Oak Road Boot Boys"

I saw, but sadly I wasn't close enough to speak to him, my Foster-Dad standing at the Oak Road End of Luton Town FC in about 1973 or 1974. That was the last time I saw either of them and I expect that they have both been dead for a while now. I wonder if they ever thought about me in their later years?

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Starting the hunt for other fostered children

About a year after I moved in with Mrs H I happened to see an article on fostering in a magazine in the dentist's waiting room. I wrote to the magazine asking them to forward a letter to the author of the article and as I didn't really expect them to bother it was a nice surprise when I got a long letter back.

The lady author was a former foster child like me although she was a bit older. It felt like we had quite a lot in common when she said how much she wanted to meet with other people who had been fostered and how lonely and isolated she sometimes felt. She mentioned a few ways she had tried to find young people who had shared similar experiences to her and how unsuccessful her attempts had been.

I wrote back almost straight away and then I waited and waited for a reply but one never came. I felt quite sad that she didn't want to have me as a pen friend but of course I couldn't force her to write to me could I?

A few months later I wrote to the Herts Advertiser (the local newspaper) asking readers if they knew of any organisation that people like me could join. Of course the newspaper used to get lots of letters and mine wasn't one of the ones selected to be published so that idea didn't work either. There was then a short gap until I tried again. I was in Harpenden one Saturday seeing a friend and I visited the public library. I asked a very stern lady in the reference section for help but she didn't seem very bothered about helping me and within a couple of minutes she wondered off to support somebody else.

After that I gave up looking - I have written an earlier blog entry about Mike who was fostered and who became my very best friend - but apart from him all my attempts were failures. It wasn't until decades later, after Jane had died, that I tried again. One day I will write about all the wonderful things that led to.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Death and the foster child

I ended up in foster care because my Father died when I was little and then a while later my Mother got too ill to look after me. I'm guessing a bit here but I wonder if what happened to me also happened to quite a few children who ended up in foster care because a parent or parents died and there was nobody left in the family prepared to look after them. I wondered at the time why my Father's parents never offered me a home but perhaps they thought they were too old to take on the responsibility?

I don't remember my Father dying but of course I do remember getting a phone message from the hospital to say that my Mother had died. That was in 1977 so she had lived in the hospital for about 8 years. She had long since forgotten who I was and I think that made it easier for me not to mourn too much. I didn't, and still don't, believe in Heaven and Hell like some people do but I would like to think that Mother would have been made well again and that she would have been reunited with my Father.

Perhaps they are waiting somewhere for me to join them?

In 1977 I was still living with Mrs H and I was engaged to Jane. It was a happy time for me and I didn't let my Mother dying spoil things too much. It was far, far worse when Mrs H died in her sleep. That was nearly a decade later. I had stayed in touch with Mrs H all that time and I thought of her as the closest thing I had to a proper Mother. When she died it was one of the very few times I cried as a grown-up.

It was over 20 years more to the biggest shock of all when my dear wife Jane died from heart disease. The last year or two of her life had been very difficult. She kept working almost to the end and I don't think her employer ever realised how poorly Jane was. Jane had been my anchor. I hadn't got any family ties of my own so as far as possible Jane's family became my family.

When Jane died her family kept in touch quite well for the first few months but gradually the number of invitations I got to family event went down. What they didn't do enough of was actually helping me with all the jobs that needed to be completed when somebody dies.

It was a lonely and sad time for me and it was only having young people around me at the school where I worked that gave me the kick to get up in the morning and to put a brave face on things. Not having children of my own to share the sadness of Jane dying was a heavy burden to carry!

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Family history and the foster child

I went into foster care when I was 14 and my foster parents had no particular interest in my family history. They knew that my Father was dead and that my Mother was in a local mental hospital and that was about as far as their knowledge went. They never encouraged me to talk about my family but if I did happen to mention something they at least seemed to be interested so it wasn't too much of a problem for me. In the early days I used to go to visit my Mother in the hospital most weeks and when I got back to my foster home my foster parents always asked me, "How was your Mother this week?" So they were not cruel or unthinking towards me: just rather casual.

It was the same, just in reverse, with my foster parent's own family history. I don't remember anything being said about their lives before I had arrived on the scene. There were a few photos around but the earliest one was one of their wedding and was a picture of just the two of them signing a book with the vicar standing behind them. I don't remember seeing any photos with the rest of the guests so I don't know what type of wedding they had. At the age I was I wasn't old enough or sensible enough to appear interested in things like that so I don't think that I ever asked questions about their family.

It wasn't until I moved out of foster care at 16 and into lodgings that I met somebody who was interested in my background. Mrs H was a good talker and a good listener as well and over the years that I lived in her house we gradually found out more and more about each other. It made a big difference to think that somebody wanted to know about me and that I mattered to someone. This feeling of not mattering and not belonging to part of a bigger group is one of the things that has been a problem for me for almost as long as I can remember.

After I married Jane and we had moved to Wolverhampton I gradually met her quite large family. Some of them, mainly the older ones, were quite nosey about my background and it was quite difficult knowing how much to say about private things like my Mother's illness. Jane's family had all sorts of family feuds involving some members falling out with other members about really minor things. I used to think that they didn't appreciate how lucky they were to have family alive and living close by!

From what I have found out since I started writing this blog a lot more time and trouble is now given to the family history of the young person going into foster care. I'm very glad about that.

Friday, 2 October 2015

The Harpenden years - before the fostering storm clouds gathered

I don't remember much of my first few years in St Albans and my first clear memories seem to be just before I started school after we had moved 5 miles north to Harpenden. Although I didn't realise it at the time we moved there because our previous home in St Albans had too many sad memories for Mum to cope with.

Mum needed to work lots of hours to pay the bills. At different times she worked at Woolworth, Boots and J S Sainsbury which I seem to remember were almost, if not actually, next door to each other on Harpenden High Street. On "Early Closing Day" she worked for a few hours as a cleaner at a large house on Station Road Harpenden.

Because of the hours she worked she had to make arrangements with other people to get me to school. There was a lady who lived quite near us - we were living near the old Harpenden East railway station - that Mum was friendly with. So after breakfast Mum walked me round there and her friend used to walk me and her own daughter to school. I think that went on for about a year and a half. Mum decided then that I was old enough to manage on my own. There were not any busy roads to cross so this wasn't quite as dangerous as it sounds!

After school I used to walk home and let myself in the back door using the key hidden in the garden. I would play in my bedroom and then I would watch Children's Hour and eat the sandwiches Mum had prepared for me and wait patiently for her to come home. I think this used to be about 5:45PM.

I was quite happy at school and never got into real trouble. I was in the A stream and I can remember Mum being quite proud about that.

School holidays were a problem. Mum couldn't afford not to work so I was left on my own all day. The old lady next door kept an eye on me, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. I was quite happy either playing with friends or on my own and I didn't realise until much later that Mum was probably breaking all sorts of rules by leaving me unsupervised.

I was sad when Mum said we were moving back to St Albans. I had lots of friends in Harpenden and when we moved house I never saw most of them again. In the summer of 1966 we moved into a small rented house just off Holywell Hill, just in time for me to start secondary school.

I never guessed that I was soon to become a foster child!

Friday, 25 September 2015

Do foster children make good parents?

Jane and I were unlucky that we were never blessed with children but quite often I wonder what it would have been like to have had a son or a daughter. I do think having good role models must help somebody to be a good parent and I think both my parents always did their best.

My Father's health was ruined serving his country but when he came home he didn't, or so my Mother told me, even complain or say that what happened "wasn't fair". He didn't want charity and he used to force himself to go to work even when not feeling well. It is sad that I don't remember him but I do know that my Mother loved him dearly and that his early death was a terrible blow to her.

My Mother worked hard to provide for me. She worked long hours is not very exciting jobs so that the two of us had somewhere reasonable to live and enough food to live on. I think she sometimes only gave herself tiny portions saying she wasn't hungry so that I had enough to eat. She always put me first. When her mental health got worse she needed help that just wasn't available. She coped for as long as she possibly could before eventually having to go as an in-patient at the mental hospital. In the months before her memory went completely she would ask how I was managing on my own, she didn't realise that because I was only 14 I had been put into foster care. I think that would have really upset her so I am glad she never realised.

My foster parents were not such good role models. They were never nasty to me it is just that they never seemed interested in what I was doing or how I was feeling. It is quite hard to put into words without seeming too ungrateful but it was all rather like living with strangers rather than with somebody who cared about you. Perhaps if they had cared a bit more they could have helped me pay for the new school uniform I would have needed if I had gone into the 6th form at school. I got the grades but I just didn't have the money.

Mrs H who became my landlady would have made a wonderful parent. She was a widow but she treated me just like I was her own child. She was one of the nicest and most caring people that I have ever met and I would love to think that some of her niceness rubbed off on me.

Jane's parents (Jane was my wife, she is dead now) were very kind to both of us especially in the early years of our marriage when money was in short supply. They treated both of their girls equally and they only offered advice when it was asked for. They never interfered.

So overall I think I did quite well for role models and I think Jane and I would have been good parents so it is sad that we were never given the opportunity to prove it.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Family traditions and the foster child

Although I am quite old (over 60) my skills in Information Technology are not too bad. Not as good as the youngsters I know of course but much better than the retired people I see doing the Beginners or Intermediate courses in the local library.

I thought that this site was quite interesting.

In a strange way reading what foster parents are supposed to do now makes me both happy and sad at the same time. It is good that more is done now to make the foster child feel loved and wanted but it makes me cross that nobody seemed very bothered about that sort of thing when I was being fostered in the 1960s and 1970s.

My foster parents were white working class. They were not religious, except at Christmas time when they used to play Christmas carols on an old mono record player. Christmas and Easter were just holidays from having to go to work and would involve them sitting in front of the TV watching old films or various Christmas Specials. Most of my non-fostered pals would be expected to stay at home with their families over the main holiday time so I used to get bored with having nobody to have fun with. I used to go out to the park when the remains of the Roman walls are and walk round and round the lake just to pass the time. Quite often there would be families there with the youngsters trying out their new bike or other toys and it used to make me rather left out of things.

For some reason my foster parents were far more generous at Easter rather than Christmas. I used to get 1 big chocolate egg and 6 of those small cream filled eggs from them. I used to make them last a whole week.

Obviously my foster parents must have had some family but I cannot remember much about them so I am guessing that they either lived a long way away or that there had been a family row sometime in the past and they had stopped talking to them. I certainly don't remember any family visits, phone calls or letters.

All this meant that when I left foster care I didn't really have any family traditions to take with me when I went into lodgings with Mrs H.  Mrs H was quite old, but she was lovely and she made my birthday and Easter and Christmas feel like special times. Decorating the Christmas tree always made her cry a bit because she had been doing that when the police called to tell her that her husband had been killed in a factory accident.

When I moved away to live in Wolverhampton to live with my new wife Mrs H made me promise to put the little angel she gave me on top of the Christmas tree every year. And every year I still do!

Friday, 11 September 2015

Foster kids and their lack of fixed points

"Friends come and go but your family never changes." - that was something that Mike used to say quite often. Usually when he had a pint of lager in his hand!

Mike had lots of casual friends but I think I was the only one he would have called a close friend. He used to work long hours when he was doing up houses so by the time he finished work there was usually not much time left for socialising. It was Mike who introduced me to the hobby of stamp collecting and he had a very fine collection that he left to me in his Will. I think it is probably worth quite a lot of money although I would never even think of selling it. I think the only social event he would always go to was attending the monthly meeting of whichever was his nearest stamp club.

Because he didn't have a family to talk to I always felt that underneath the cheery exterior there was quite a lonely person. In all of the years I knew him he almost never mentioned his birth family. I think he must have had a very troubled time as a youngster and like most men of his and my age he didn't find it easy to talk about his feelings. We used to joke about how few birthday and Christmas cards we used to get but in his case I think his jokes were just a way of hiding that he was feeling sad.

Although he and I had a lot in common we were different in other ways. I always wanted a job where I was working with other people. Mike tended to think of other people as being unreliable so he always did his building projects on his own. I never felt the same amount of restlessness that troubled Mike all the years that I knew him. Wherever it was that he was living it always felt that he was planning his next move to somewhere else. I think he was looking for somewhere or something that he couldn't find.

I don't know for sure where Mike lived before he ended up in St Albans. He had a London accent so perhaps it was from somewhere down there. After he died his solicitor and I went through all his belongings . Mike had stopped his building projects after the bad news from his doctor so he was living in a medium sized flat but it didn't take long for us to realise that Mike had destroyed most of his "made of paper" history in the weeks before he died. I think he must have guessed he was very ill and didn't want people prying into his past once he had gone. The only important  name that we could find was the person he left his money too. She was his last-but-one lady friend and she must have got a real shock when the large cheque arrived.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Mike, my best pal, was a foster child too.

Mike - just how I remember him
Mike was my best friend for over 30 years and when he died in April 2011 it hit me very badly indeed. We had exchanged letters and emails about every ten days for all that time so I suppose it isn't surprising that when that stopped I felt really sad.

Mike was a very skilled builder and decorator and that is how he made his living. He would buy a house that was tatty but just about OK to live in and he would transform it. I saw loads of "before and after" photos of projects he had done and it was amazing what he could achieve.

He would sell the improved house at a good profit and use some of the money to buy another house to start working on. But in the gap between finishing one house and starting on the next he used to do something very strange - he would go on a quite long and expensive sea cruise. I can remember at least 10 of these cruise he did and he must have seen more of the world than most people. I was quite jealous when he visited Antarctica and when another time he went to New Zealand.

Another strange thing he used to do was to suddenly get bored of where he was living so he would pick somewhere almost at random and move there. When I first met him he was living in Watford, then it was Taunton, then Hull and finally Chester. He used to say that he had never had a home as a grown-up. He just had places where he lived. I have heard other foster children say that as well so perhaps it is a common feeling to have?

Mike never married but he had lots a lady friends. Sometimes in his letters I could tell that part of his brain wanted to settle down while the other part was so restless that settling down to married life was never going to happen.

Mike was a fixed point in my life. Part of my weekly routine and somebody I could share things with that might seem strange to a non-fostered person. He helped me sort out my wife’s funeral and that was typical of the man he was. I think he deserved better than he got from his life. Hardly anybody made the effort to go his funeral and there were less than ten of us there.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Older and adult foster children and birthday cards

One of the little sadness's of being fostered and having few, if any, family around is how few birthday cards you receive. It probably sounds horribly silly and trivial to normal people but it was an annual reminder that I was different from most folk.

When I was in foster care from 14 to 16 I used to get one card (plus a postal order) from my Dad's parents up in Yorkshire and one card (without a postal order!) from my Mum's sister who lived in Southern Rhodesia in Africa. My Mum didn't know where she was in time or space and as she was in a mental hospital anyway she couldn't pop out to the shops - so she had an excuse!

My foster parents probably should have brought me a present or at the very least a card but they didn't bother. That was how it was back then, many foster parents regarded their young visitors as little more than lodgers and not somebody to be cared for or nurtured. Because I didn't have a birthday party (or an event like 10-pin bowling) I tended not to get invited to other peoples celebrations.

When I timed out of foster care I moved in with the lovely Mrs H. She used to buy me a present and bake me a birthday cake and once I met Jane - who later became my wife - I started getting presents and cards from her as well. Jane's family were very good at remembering events like birthdays and for our whole time together we used to receive and send little gifts and cards. Jane used to write all the dates on the calendar we kept in the kitchen so nobody would be forgotten.

Now of course there aren't many people around who remember my birthday except when I was 60! - then lots did!

Friday, 21 August 2015

Settling down and starting to grow despite having no "roots".

It is strange when one half of a married couple has a family and the other doesn't! All the time I was growing up I didn't have much or any family around so having so many of Jane's family within 20 miles was something I had to quickly get used to.

When we moved to Wolverhampton 3 of her 4 grandparents were still alive. Only her Dad's Dad had died (on holiday and in his sleep). Her Mum and Dad were both working - Mum worked in personnel and her Dad in sales for a well-known brewery. Jane's sister and assorted aunts and uncles lived further east, the Birmingham direction.

1979 was the year when we managed to buy our first house. We paid £16,000 for it which doesn't sound like very much to young people today. Jane's Parents were very generous to us. They gave us £5,000 out of their savings to help us and I think the lady at the Building Society was impressed that a young couple like us had such a big deposit. We felt very proud and very grown-up when we moved into our own home.

The 1980s were very mixed for the two of us. We both did OK at work and we gradually moved up the career and salary scales but we had a bad run when every year for 5 years somebody important in Jane's family died. By the end of the 1980s all her grandparents had died and so had one of her aunts and her god-mother. We used to dread getting a phone call at an unusual time because quite often it was somebody calling us with bad news.

It was also during these years that we found out that it was very unlikely that we would ever have children of our own. We didn't try to have children for the first few years but once Jane came off the Pill nothing happened. Eventually we went to the Health Centre and a bit later we went to the local hospital for various tests but nobody could find out what was wrong. Perhaps nothing was and we were just unlucky?

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Our wedding and moving to Wolverhampton (2)

After the reception and the honeymoon we started the final planning to move from St Albans to Wolverhampton. Jane's parents found us a rented flat about a mile from where they lived and they paid the first three months rent for us as part of our wedding present.

We had both given in our notice at the school in St Albans so once we had worked through that we were free to leave. We both were given good references and I think that helped us when we started looking for new jobs.

Saying goodbye to Mrs H was the hardest part. I had lived with her for about 7 years and I knew I would miss her friendship and her wise advice. I wrote to her every two weeks from the day I left St Albans until she died a few years later. It was quite a shock when I got a phone call from one of her neighbours with this sad news. Jane and I went to her funeral and I was one of the people allowed to carry her coffin into the crematorium chapel. It was nice that some of her former lodgers had been tracked down and that they were able to come to her funeral and the wake. I still think about Mrs H quite often and remember all the years and cups of tea we shared.

A friend of ours gave us a lift to Wolverhampton in a van he owned and he helped us unpack our few possessions into our new home. After a pub tea he drove off back to Hertfordshire and Jane and I started our new life together.

The first few weeks of job hunting were a total failure. We would leave the house about 8:00 AM and we spent the day visiting possible employers. We both wanted a change from what we had done in the past but without experience people just didn't want to take the risk. So in the end we only looked at catering (Jane) and school (me) jobs. By chance we both got a job the same day. I arrived home excited because I found a job only to find Jane bursting to tell me her good news before I could even speak!

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Our wedding and moving to Wolverhampton (1)

1978 was a strange year. St Albans was one of most expensive places to buy a house in the whole country so there was no way that we would ever be able to afford one on the wages we were earning as a School Cook and as a Junior Technician. But the newspapers and people on the TV kept on saying that home ownership was something that all sensible people should do.

In the end we decided we would move to Wolverhampton - Jane's home town - where houses were much, much cheaper. She was keen to get back in her family's "good books" as they had been very unimpressed when she had moved south with her boyfriend and had then ended up getting engaged to somebody totally different.

I knew it was going to be difficult for me. All of my friends were in the St Albans area and so was Mrs H who I thought of as my second Mum. I didn't fancy moving to a place where I knew nobody and basically starting my life again. But I agreed to do it and in the end I came to realise that we had made the right decision.

But Jane and I insisted that we got married in St Albans. We did this so our friends could come to the wedding and so we could also use the reception to say our goodbyes. We looked at loads of venues and in the end settled for one that was more expensive than we could really afford. But they promised us so much we thought it would be worth it. What they promised and what we got were VERY different. Somehow they had misjudged the time needed to get the room ready after an event on the Friday evening (We got married on a Saturday). The whole room was grubby and smelling of stale beer and smoke and although the food was good and the cake excellent the venue was just so horrid and it was quite embarrassing asking guests to sit in such messy surroundings.

We didn't have a professional photographer so the pictures we were able to put together varied quite a bit in quality. We were sensible and we wrote all the names of the people appearing in each photo in the album so we didn't forget who they were. One or two people stayed in touch with me for a while but for most of them it was the last time we socialised. A few years later I was driving up Holywell Hill and one of my former friends "Jacko Jackson" was walking down on the other side of the road. I wonder if he ever worked out who hooted and waved at him?

Our honeymoon was 3 nights in Cambridge. It was warm and sunny every day so the weather matched our mood.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Life in foster care - part 2

The strangest thing about my time living in foster care was that we never did much as a family.

We had meals together at 7:30 AM, 1:00 PM (weekends and school holidays only) and 6:00 PM but it was a bit like living in a cheap Bed & Breakfast place and not much like living with people who cared about you. There was a 7 day rota for meals so I always knew what I was going to have to eat every single day. I can remember that on Sunday it was always a chicken, on Monday it was always cold chicken with boiled potatoes and on Friday it was always fish.

They had a car (a Vauxhall), but no garage, so it was always parked on the street outside their house. My Foster Dad used to car to go to his job in Luton but apart from that it was almost never used. I really truly cannot remember ever going anywhere in the car with them but I supposed I must have. In the evening when I finished my school work I usually went out to hang around with friends but sometimes I would sit with my foster parents and watch some TV in their front room. They had a colour TV with just 3 channels, BBC1, BBC2 and ITV.

If I wanted to go the cinema or to watch St Albans City or Luton Town play football I paid for myself and went on my own or with friends. It was never suggested that the three of us would go together or that they would pay for me. I don't think they ever went away, even for a single night, during all the time I lived with them.

But I don't want people to think that my foster parents were nasty or cruel. They were not. It was just the way it was when you went into foster care. It was a business to them, they were paid to look after me - not to look out for me. I used to get visited by a social worker. Sometimes at school and sometimes at my foster home. I never bothered complaining about things which meant their visits were short which is how I wanted them to be.

My foster parents only did fostering for 1 year after I had left. This had a girl for 12 months, I think she was called Toni. I heard that Toni was "too much" for them to cope with so she was moved somewhere else and they stopped doing fostering altogether.

They will both be dead and buried years ago so I cannot ask them for their memories of those days.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Mum dying and becoming an orphan

When Mum died in 1977 I went to her funeral but I didn’t feel gloomy. Most of my life she had been ill or sad or both and I thought she would be better off in Heaven with my Dad and her parents. One thing that was quite nasty was that most of her former friends from work and people who had got to know her during her time in hospital didn't come to the funeral. I don't know why because I had gone to quite a lot of trouble to tell them. I called on some, phoned some from a telephone box and even wrote to a couple. A few did come of course and a few others sent flowers but most of them didn't seem bothered. I had enough money to pay for what she would have thought was a "respectable" funeral and for her to be buried and not cremated.

When I was a grown-up and happened to be anywhere in the St Albans area I used to visit her grave. It was only a short trip off the M1 and it would have felt horrible not to make the effort. Now I have moved over to west Wales I doubt I will make the trip again but I can picture her inside my head and of course I have some photos of her grave and also of Dad's grave that is an older part of the same cemetery.

At the same time as seeing Mum's grave  I used to put flowers on the grave of an old school friend who had died in an accident on the Watford by-pass the previous year. His grave was 2 rows down and 1 grave across from my Mother's plot. I must have visited his grave 6 or more times over the years. But then one year his stone had vanished and there was a different stone there. I asked at the site office and they knew nothing about any changes. I have never managed to find my friend's stone again but I kept looking for ages! I think the family must have had the body moved?

I was born in 1955, Dad died in 1958 and Mum died in early 1977 so by the time I was 21 I felt as if I was on my own except for Jane and Mrs H my land-lady. Dad's parents were still alive but we were not in regular contact. I had their address and phone number but once I knew they were not coming to Mum's funeral I never bothered with them again.  My Mother's parents had lived in Southern Rhodesia (as it was then) with Mum's sister who never married. She is still alive but very old and I write to her a couple of times a year. I don't remember exactly when Mum's parents died but it certainly was in an off-road accident when my Mum was still quite newly married. Her Dad used to work for De Beers (the diamond people) in South Africa and he was waiting to start a new job when he was killed. Life in Africa as a mining engineer was exciting but dangerous in those days.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Back to school

There was lots of different types of technician at the school. There were about equal numbers of men and women with me as the youngest employee and one (Mr Hearne) who was 64 and in his last year before retiring.

It was strange getting used to the different ways of working in a mixed school and in a fairly "rough and ready" factory. People used to say please and thank you in the school and there was far less bad language. Because I was the new boy I didn't get many of the more interesting jobs but once I was able to show that I knew what I was doing things like that gradually got better.

There was a staffroom for people to use but only the teachers seemed to sit there. It seemed to be the rule that the technicians didn't go in. It didn't bother me and I would take my sandwiches out onto the playing field if the weather was nice or sit in the corner of the woodwork room if it was cold or wet.

My working day was from 8:30AM to 4:30PM which meant I had a bit more free time than I was used to having and that was nice. But what was much, much nicer was when I first met one of the kitchen staff walking out of the side gate of the school at the same time as me. I thought I recognised her and I was right because she didn't live that for from me and we had a few friends in common. I never guessed that I would one day marry her.

Jane had come to St Albans to be with boyfriend who had been moved there by his employer from Wolverhampton. He found another girl he liked better than Jane so he dumped her but Jane didn't want to tell her parents what had happened - she felt rather ashamed I think - so she stayed on in St Albans living in a bed-sit.

It took me a while to be brave enough to ask her out but once I had managed that part we started spending most of our free time together!


Sunday, 12 July 2015

Trying to better myself - part 2

I don't have many sleepless nights but I did before my 9:30 interview for the school technician job. I had never bothered to buy a smart suit but Mrs H got me a new shirt and tie and made sure I wore them! "I don't want you looking untidy" was what she said.

It was the first proper interview I had ever had. I had prepared answers to all the questions that Mr T guessed they would ask me and I was pleased that almost all his predictions were correct. There was also a short practical test as well but after working in the factory the school test seemed really simple. There were three other people after the job so I was a bit surprised when it was offered to me. Looking back that was one of the most important days of my life.

It was strange leaving the factory for good after nearly 5 years. It was an all male environment and some of the staff were real "hard cases". The toughest were the few who had worked in the London Docks or in the Armed Forces and I was always polite to them! I gained a lot of practical skills to go with the knowledge I had picked up at school while I was working there and they were happy times.

The London Docks - a home for "hard men"!

On my last day at the factory they gave me a bicycle. I have often wondered exactly where they got it from as it was almost new and it must have been quite expensive. I used that bike for nearly 10 years before buying a new one.

I used to walk past the factory on my way home from my new job and sometimes I would pop in and have a word with the boss about the best way to do a particular job. He was always pleased to help me and it was good that he was able to come to my wedding.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Trying to better myself - part 1

After a long hunt I found a letter that my school sent me over 40 years ago pretending to be sorry that I wasn't going into the sixth form. I wasn't allowed to go because the sixth form had a different uniform and I didn't have the money to buy it. No uniform meant you couldn't go. My foster parents wouldn't pay, the Council said it wasn't their responsibility and the school said "no exceptions can be made". I hope things have improved since then! 

In those days it wasn't hard finding work at 16 and I worked for a small engineering firm down one of the alleyways off the main shopping street in St Albans. I didn't expect any support once I left the foster home and I didn't get any. My foster parents did it for the money as Mrs X was a bit disabled. I do wonder about "what if this" or "what if that" sometimes but not often because it wasn't going to change anything. Some kids like me went to the National Children's Home in Harpenden, the next station north, but fostering was supposed to be much better than going there!
The National Children's Home

I found maths quite easy so the boss started to give me the job of doing the costings for the different jobs people wanted him to do. He was glad to get rid of that particular job and the small bit of extra responsibility meant that I got a small pay rise. We had 30 minutes for our lunch break and some of the men used to go off to the nearest pub for a "liquid lunch". I used to stay in the factory and eat the sandwiches that Mrs H had made for me. Sometimes the boss would sit with me and it was him that suggested that I try to get some extra qualification.

A typical small engineering factory

Eventually I took his advice and I did some City and Guilds qualifications at the college in St Albans and ended up as a technician at a school helping in what they call Design Technology now. I ended up working at the school by accident. The lecturer who taught me for most of my C&G courses also worked at a school and when there was a job going there he encouraged me to apply and then helped me prepare for the interview. Mr T was an all-around good bloke and had a big impact on how I became a man. He would be shocked if he ever found out that I saw him as a bit of a father figure to make up for the Dad I never had!

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Leaving Foster Care

When I left foster care I was told that lodgings had been found for me with a Mrs H. She lived where the Maltings Development is now right in the centre of St Albans and only 3 minutes from my job. I can still remember the day that I moved from my foster home into the back bedroom in Mrs H's little house. All I had in the world could be fitted into a brown suitcase and two large bags and I expect that seems strange to people today who seem to have so many possessions.

My foster home was 3 minutes from here

Mrs H was quite old, but she was lovely. She looked after me like a real Mother would and I was very happy there. I stayed there until after I got engaged to Jane my late wife. You didn't usually live together until after you were married in those days but Mrs H didn't say anything when Jane sometimes stayed overnight. Mrs H had been a widow for many years, her husband had been killed in a factory accident when they hadn’t been married very long. It was one of the very few times I cried as an adult when I went to her funeral. I helped carry her coffin from the hearse into the church and I was pleased that I had been asked to do that.

My lodgings with Mrs H were 2 minutes from here

I only saw my foster parents a few times after I moved out. My O level results were sent on a postcard to their address (no going into school to collect results in the 1970s) so I went down to collect them. Grades went from 1 to 9 with 1 to 6 counting as a pass. I got 1s in Maths, Physics and Chemistry - a grade 2 in art and a grade 3 in English. I was pleased with 5 passes and later on I used the results to get onto FE college evening classes. Lots of people did evening classes in those days and I made some new friends there. We used to go as a group to watch the professional football in Luton or in Watford, travelling there on the train.

It is strange that so few books have been written about the 1970s. It was an exciting time to live through and in some ways much better than now. There were no computers in schools and just a few in the college. Nobody used mobile phones and there was no internet or email. Like now social workers were always moaning about case loads and they always tried to look trendy. They never did much for me!

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Life in foster care - part 1

I reckon that I only went into foster care because of the 1939-1945 war even though I born about a decade later. My Dad's brother John and my Dad both served in the Far East. Uncle John was killed in a Japanese air raid just before the fall of Singapore and of course my Dad came back in a terrible physical and mental state. Uncle John was engaged when he went off to War and I used to wonder if Uncle John’s "young lady" used to think about him as the years went by? Parents today probably can hardly imagine what it is like to send their children off to war. I wondered sometimes would Uncle John have got married as planned if he had come back safe? Perhaps he could have looked after me rather than me ending up in the foster child system? It is sad that I don't remember Uncle John or my Dad other than as fading pictures in a photograph album.

The British surrender at Singapore - Uncle John had died a few days before 

I have never felt very upset about those foster child years. Even in the 1970s men didn't show much emotion and mostly I just got on with my daily life. I used to visit my Mother in the mental hospital but she quickly got worse and quite soon hardly recognised me. I feel a bit guilty now but the weekly visits soon became monthly and once she didn't know who I was and didn't recognise photos of her own husband there didn't seem much point in visiting her. It wasn't dementia she had: it was something else with a long 3 part name that ended in syndrome. She would have been OK I expect if Dad had still been around to support her so the war got in the way again.
My foster parents never hit or abused me. They never starved me or stole from me. The house was warm and I had a room of my own. But they never showed any love for me or any interest in me. That was just the way it was back then. I had a front door key so I was able to come and go as I wanted. They didn’t care what I was doing providing the “Boys in Blue” – the Police! – never got involved.

Sometimes it was a bit difficult being a foster child at school. Once a year there was a evening meeting where parents could meet the teachers and the teachers never seemed to know that I was fostered so they would get confused about the different surnames. Going on school trips was always a long battle to get the money. Especially the time my year group went off to St Malo in France!
I used to walk past the another school's playing fields that used to be on Alma Road backing on to the gasworks and sometimes I felt quite jealous of the posh kids with their posh Mother’s sitting in their posh cars to take them back to their posh homes.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

How it all started

I'm 60 now, male, a former foster child, a former widower and now newly married.  

I was fostered during the 1960s and 1970s. It was a different world then but some things never change. All the people involved are long since dead although the middle of St Albans hasn't changed that much. I lived near the Abbey Station (the Watford line station) not far from the Cathedral. I was a foster child from 14 to 16+ when I had to leave school after my O levels. 

The Abbey Station - the line to Watford.

My Father had served in India and Burma during WW2 and when he came back to England he was in poor health. Physically he had suffered a lot fighting the Japs and mentally he never seemed to recover from the dreadful things he saw when he was out there. I don't remember him at all as I was only 3 when he died. There is a photograph of him holding me as a baby and you would swear he was mid 50s rather than mid-30s.
Dad's parents lived in the East Riding of Yorkshire. They had two boys, my Dad and my Uncle John. John died in the war and after Dad died we (Mum and I) had almost no contact with them. There was just a card on my birthday with a 10/- postal order and another card at Christmas with a 12/6d postal order but even the cards stopped when I was 18. They both died a long time ago.  
My Mother coped with widowhood well for a while but in the end her assorted eating disorders meant she went into one of the many large mental hospitals near St Albans. So I went into the fostering system. There was another family who also fostered children next door to where I ended up. Rosemary was their foster child and she was my first teen crush. She then moved to a more permanent place up on King Harry Lane and I only saw her again by accident. The last time I saw her during my years in St Albans was by the Old Clock Tower in about 1973/4. Over the years I often wondered what happened to her.

Not everything I write is going to be in the exact time order. Perhaps when I finish the story I will be able to tell readers what order they need to read things!
The Clock Tower - just as I remember it (except for the old fashioned people)