Edith Gallagher Boyd is a writer who lives in Jupiter, Florida. Her published work is available at edithgallagherboyd.com
Tammy slammed the lid on the spaghetti pot.
"Shh," I said. "Calvin doesn't want a bad report."
"Don't worry about him. He's kind of sweet on ya," she said, with traces of the Georgia Peach she might have been.
We weren't used to the industrial - sized kitchen utensils.
Our last job was at a half-way house with an incongruous, but lovely purple orchid hanging from the porch. It had a regular kitchen with normal-sized pots and pans.
There's no pretty way to put it. Tammy and I met in the slammer. I remember my eyelids stuck together and trace memories of being dragged along a cold, dark, corridor. As I pushed open my eyes, more ugly pictures flashed through my mind....breaking the glass in the hospital pharmacy, stealing the oxy and whatever else I could grab, landing with a thud on a bench.
Tammy and I clicked from the start. Her sins were much like mine...an addict who flew out of control. Her hair was speckled with sunlit hues, and her southern accent was still with her in Philly.
When we completed our time, we were assigned to Calvin Johnson, a probation officer who hated his job, and wasn't too keen on the people he managed.
Calvin reluctantly escorted us into his office, made less shabby by a picture of his son's full grin. When Tammy said "Yes sir," "No sir," he shot me a look like, "Is this one for real?" And I said, "Mr. Johnson, Tammy grew up in Atlanta."
Settled. Done. Philly speak for so many things...
Calvin had just finished an in-service training about matching community service to the skills of the offender. He actually read from a sheet, with a similar tone of an officer reading our Miranda rights.
Mid way through his recitation, he let out a sigh and said, "Other than being loser druggies, anything you're good at?"
We took it from there, interrupting one another with our desire to cook, cater, prepare and serve food. Our kitchen duties inside were our favorite.
When I was still able to care for Ashley, I used to love to try out new recipes on her, mashed into the only bowl she liked. In spite of the data against sugar, I often added a teaspoon to whatever I made, just so my food taster would eat it.
She squealed with delight when I pulled out my cupcake tray, knowing she would taste the sugar that she craved.
When Tammy and I were in jail, I tortured myself with thoughts of the sugar I shouldn't have given my daughter...feared I was fueling the addictions I may have passed on to her.
""Honey, Tammy would say as we raked the jail's garden. Kids like sugar. You didn't invent that." When I no longer could keep my whirling thoughts to myself, Tammy would get the full unadulterated vent.
"Susan," she would say, reaching her muddy hand around my back. "You're going to get her back. "
If I live to be a hundred years old, I will never forget her kindness to me.
Calvin, as we came to call him, seemed pleased with our zeal, and his hesitation about Tammy's other ness eased into a hint of a smile.
Which brought us to our community service in the half-way house. We were to arrive no later than seven A.M. to prepare a plethora of choices, as many of our residents were fueling for jobs they were hoping to keep.
Tammy and I settled in easily to the work. We agreed we wouldn't try to befriend the residents, but to concentrate on our work, and getting through our probation.
On the morning I had perfected my pancakes, I heard a baritone behind me.
"Susan, you missed your labs this week."
"Cal....Mr. Johnson, I wasn't expecting you," I said, baffled that I'd missed the appointment. How much had addiction stolen from me?
Wary of the stranger, one of the guys at the pancake table stood up and reached a wiry arm to shake Calvin's hand. "Susan here, is busy feeding us, sir."
I blinked back tears at the man's loyalty to me. I think he knew Calvin was a government worker, complete with the beige sedan parked out front.
I burned my hand on the griddle in my haste to speak to Calvin privately.
With a slight head tilt, I directed him to the living area.
"You may not believe me, but I'm not using. I was so nervous about this placement, I forgot about my lab tests," I said, while looking directly at him.
He leaned back slightly against the overstuffed chair behind him.
"Susan," he said, "This is no way to get your child back."
I was surprised how much it mattered that he thought less of me.
"Calvin, I'm trying to get it right! The probation, the community service...I lost sight of my Wednesday labs. My place is cluttered with cookbooks hoping to make the grade here...hoping to get an A in community service."
"That's all well and good....but you gotta prove you're clean...every...single....day... if need be."
Tammy, sensing I needed her, left the guys in the kitchen to join us.
"This isn't your concern," he said to Tammy.
I winced slightly at his tone, but remembered my goal, my child.
Visions of the social worker and all the forms I signed, still shaking in the detox unit pushed Tammy right out of my head. If Calvin had a pick on her, it was nothing compared to my quest to reunite with Ashley.
In our initial meeting with Calvin, I imagined community service where I could see my daughter. A week after he chose our site, I asked if I could see a list of our choices, as he determined our first rotation would be three weeks.
The Wilson Community Center nearly popped off the page. Kevin, one of our fellow inmates, a cop who had lost much...even his pension, still had contacts everywhere.
I remember how I clutched myself, as if shot, when he found the foster family who cared for Ashley. It was on the same street as Wilson, a city facility newly completed that shone amid the old Philly dwellings.
I asked Calvin if he could place us there next, and he patiently explained we needed to complete our rotation in the half-way house. I wasn't devastated by this news, as I needed time to adjust for rehearsing what I would say to Ash, and how I would say it.
She was nearly six years old, and she had been with the same family since my arrest. Kevin's sources were on target in all fields of civil service and civil law. Ashley was enjoying twin sisters, a little older than she, in her placement family. The Mitchell's twins were their biological children, and Ashley was reportedly happy there.
Kevin, our ex-cop inmate, was tuned into my reaction to this news , mixed at best, jealous to the quick of this family, when Tammy and I saw him at NA meetings. Sometimes, I had to stop myself from grilling him with questions, instead of asking how he was doing, trusting that he wasn't using.
When I could no longer stand it, I asked Kevin what was Mrs. Mitchell's first name.
"Susan, I really can't keep revealing stuff to you. My life is enough of a mess without some new charges about privacy law," and as he stubbed out his cigarette, he said, "Janet. Janet and Rob Mitchell."
"Stay well, ladies," he said, his nickname for us, as he headed out the door of the church where we went to meetings.
"She would have a name like Janet," I hissed to Tammy. "She's probably in the PTA and the 4H club, if there's still such a thing."
"So darling," she said with an exaggerated drawl, " You want Miss Mitchell to be a junkie?'
I came to a halt and gave her a look and she said, "Sorry, Susan...that was low."
"I'm sorry, too. It's just since my parents died, I don't have anybody to vent with.
They tell us not to look for excuses, but I think losing them got me started on the stuff."
"And with your cushy life, you sure weren't prepped for jail and diner work," she said with that lop-sided smile I'd come to love.
"Let's catch this bus," she said, taking off into a sprint to the corner.
Tammy and I enjoyed our time in the half-way house, and some of the residents appeared healthier; less ashen and disappointed. We settled into the morning shift in time to hit the diner we worked in by late afternoon. The owner knew me and barely asked us to fill out paper work to be servers where the strongest drink was coffee.
When I wasn't working, I became a regular at Wilson Community Center and was delighted to see so many children playing there. If the Mitchell family lived right up the street, there was no reason my Ashley wouldn't be among the happy children swinging and sliding, uninhibited with joy.
And then I saw her, skipping between two beautiful little girls, each of whom had multi-colored ribbons in their hair, as did Ash. The self-absorbed addict in me resented those ribbons, coiled me into a stoop, as I peeked at the woman behind them smiling broadly.
There was a convenient, tattered green sign stating the rules, the kinds of rules I wished I'd lived, so I wouldn't be crouching and fearful in the presence of my own child. The foursome went by with the twins bantering that Ashley was a better sister than the other twin. It was playful and twin-like, and Ashley giggled and cast them each a look of pure love.
Janet Mitchell didn't know me yet, as I had been procrastinating filling out the forms for supervised visitation. Still wobbly from rehab, I didn't want to tarnish Ashley's life any more than I had. Calvin promised to help me, and I knew he would.....when I was ready. And the evening of the Ashley sighting, before our NA meeting, Kevin told me the Mitchell family was considering filing for adoption of my child. Breaking his vow of silence, he steered me outside to the smoking section, his eyes darting wildly. I feared he was using again.
" Susan, my sources tell me that family wants to adopt your kid."
The next thing I remember was his cradling my arm with one of his own.
"Susan, I thought we were losing you," he said.
Knowing his sources were infallible, I reached into a part of myself that had lain dormant for too long. I was going to get my child back. I started by asking Kevin to get the word out that I wanted a meeting with Janet and Rob Mitchell. Screw the red tape. If they had fallen in love with Ashley, they would break a rule or two.
But Tammy and I, now committed to a rotation at Wilson Community Center, were preparing spaghetti for a high school football team, when she slammed the lid on the pot and I shushed her about Calvin. We'd had to adjust our diner schedule to fit in some evenings at Wilson.
To say that my first meeting with Janet Mitchell was memorable, doesn't quite capture it. After initial awkwardness and fearfulness, and many drawn out silences, there wasn't the adversarial hostility I expected. Maybe I can thank Ashley who had spotted me at Wilson on a class trip, and broke from the crowd with a "Mommy" that could be heard in Tammy's Atlanta.
I held my daughter, letting the tears flow freely, and told her I was coming to her new house soon. That Mommy had done some stupid things, but was trying to get better.
The children were out with Bob Mitchell the day I met Janet. When we began to relax, we clicked. We liked each other beyond our joint caring for Ashley, as we began to traverse the delicate minefield of Ashley's future. Her husband let Janet decide what she thought best for Ashley, and I was willing to allow for ample visitation rights, if they withdrew their quest for adoption. And they did.
Both Calvin and Kevin used their tentacles to get me legal help to plead my case to the courts to re-gain custody of my child. Ashley didn't lose her other family, although her sisters became more like cousins, as she spent much of her time in my care.
In the way that our children's lives pass by quickly, I found myself shopping with Ash for school supplies for high school. I understood and enjoyed how taken the Mitchell twins were with our unusual living arrangement; Uncle Calvin, who now sold cars; Uncle Kevin who had become a master mechanic; Aunt Tammy who cut their hair, and added the slash of purple to Ashley's that they thought was so cool.
There are times when I shudder in the middle of the night, when I think of how close I came to losing my child, but I console myself that had I relapsed, she would have been surrounded by good people who loved her.....and few of us can ask for more than that.