On being a 'Big Sister'

By Jan Richman Schulman 12/06/2012

RE:  “Giving Thanks for Present-Day Heroes,” Feature, 11/ 21

In 1979, I adopted my daughter, who was then 9 years old. I was single and had always wanted to be a mother. Los Angeles had just developed a program allowing single adults to adopt “hard to place” children, i.e. children with special needs, developmental delays, who were older, physically and/or mentally ill, etc. My daughter had been bounced in and out of foster homes and had petit mal epilepsy.  Some of the other stories were horrendous. (One child had been burned with boiling water by her mother and would need special medical care for years to come.) My daughter could barely read and was not at grade level in school; she had been severely abused.

At that time I was also a “Big Sister” to a 13-year-old girl from the projects down below Culver City. Our partnership had been in place for a little more than a year and was not going very smoothly. I was unable to get her to communicate with me, but we seemed to get along fine and have a good time wherever we went. When I adopted my daughter, Sandy, my “Little Sister” decided she did not want to spend any more time with me. She had younger twin sisters, Kim and Leslie, who were also “Little Sisters” who loved me and my daughter. And, as it turned out, around this same time, they were both “dumped” by their Big Sisters. They were exactly the same age as my daughter and I offered to become their Big Sister. The Big Sister organization told me that I could not have both of them; I could only be a Big Sister to one. However, the twins decided that they did not want to be separated, so I broke off my official relationship with Big Sisters and took the twins as my “littles” on my own.

From that time on, I had the girls virtually every weekend, from Friday night to Sunday night. It gave them a reprieve from their environment (their mother was single with seven children and no income) and they loved spending time with us. I adored those girls. Their mother was a white Jewish lady and their father (whom they had never known) was African American. All the kids were mixed, having a number of different fathers. The twins were very dark-skinned. My daughter was fair with platinum blond hair and turquoise-blue eyes. I was a Jewish woman with long dark hair and dark eyes. We became a weekend family (and since all three girls called me “mom,” you can imagine the looks we got….)

On occasion, their mother would call me and say: “Jan, would you please come and get the girls. There is a lot of shooting going on around here and I would appreciate it if you could keep them overnight with you.” So I would get my daughter, jump into our little Honda Civic and drive down to the projects. I would pull my car up in front of their apartment, jump out, tell my daughter to wait, leave the car running and run to their door. As soon as the door opened, I would holler, “Come On!” and the twins would run with me back to the car, jump in, and we would take off. The next morning, I would take them to school. (They attended a different school than my daughter.)

About four or five years later, I moved to Oxnard. I continued to take the twins on weekends, but not every weekend. It would usually be every other weekend and I would get them Friday nights and take them back Sunday afternoons. The kids grew up. (My daughter became a strong reader … like me … and outgrew her epilepsy.) Everyone graduated from elementary school, then middle school and, finally, high school. After high school, the twins grew ever busier with their own social activities, college and jobs. They were flourishing. They moved out of their mother’s flat into their own apartment, which they shared with each other. Our visits, after they turned 18, became fewer. But they always visited together. If one was busy with something, then the other would not come. Over the years, because of distance and life experiences, we grew apart. Regretfully, I lost track of them.

But … a few years ago, I opened my mail and inside was a card that said, “Thank You.” It was from the twins and they wrote that they were fine, doing great and that they would always remember me and all the time we spent together. For a number of reasons, I was unable to find them again and their envelope did not bear a return address. I knew that their four brothers had been in and out of jail, that their oldest sister was married and had a child, and that the girl I had first “sistered” had dropped out of school and no longer lived at home. Mail sent to their old address was returned as undeliverable. Their mother was not a well woman and I seriously doubt if she is still living.

Today they would be 43 years old, and I think of them so often — of their bright eager faces, their shining eyes, one so shy, one so outgoing, both so affectionate and responsive to the love I felt for them. Somehow, I know … I KNOW … they are doing well and that they think of me as well.

It was an incredible experience; it enhanced my life. It gave so much to me to watch those girls grow up and become the wonderful, intelligent, beautiful young women they became. I loved being a mother and I loved being a “Big Sister.”  That was a huge piece of my life which I will never forget.

Jan Richman Schulman is a resident of Oxnard.

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