Three Little Words: A Memoir

Three Little Words: A Memoir

4.5 113
by Ashley Rhodes-Courter
     
 

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"Sunshine, you're my baby and I'm your only mother. You must mind the one taking care of you, but she's not your mama." Ashley Rhodes-Courter spent nine years of her life in fourteen different foster homes, living by those words. As her mother spirals out of control, Ashley is left clinging to an unpredictable, dissolving relationship, all the while getting pulled

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Overview

"Sunshine, you're my baby and I'm your only mother. You must mind the one taking care of you, but she's not your mama." Ashley Rhodes-Courter spent nine years of her life in fourteen different foster homes, living by those words. As her mother spirals out of control, Ashley is left clinging to an unpredictable, dissolving relationship, all the while getting pulled deeper and deeper into the foster care system.

Painful memories of being taken away from her home quickly become consumed by real-life horrors, where Ashley is juggled between caseworkers, shuffled from school to school, and forced to endure manipulative,humiliating treatment from a very abusive foster family. In this inspiring, unforgettable memoir, Ashley finds the courage to succeed - and in doing so, discovers the power of her own voice.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In this engrossing memoir, college senior Rhodes-Courter chronicles her hardscrabble childhood in foster care, detailing glitches in the system and infringements of laws that led to a string of unsuitable-and sometimes nightmarish-placements for her and her younger half-brother, Luke. Using a matter-of-fact tone at times laced with bitterness, the author recounts how she was wrenched away from her teenage mother at age three and was later removed from her unstable grandfather's home to live in cramped quarters with strangers. She acknowledges that there may have been legitimate reasons for her and Luke's placement in foster care but pointedly criticizes the manner in which she was repeatedly uprooted. She also blames the ineptitude of social workers who, more often than not, acted as advocates for foster parents rather than the children they were assigned to protect. The girl's frequent moves and sporadic mental and physical abuse left emotional scars that affected her even after she was adopted by a loving family (the "three little words" that change her life are her guarded consent to legal adoption, "I guess so"). The author's ability to form intelligent, open-minded conclusions about her traumatic childhood demonstrates her remarkable control and insight, and although there are plenty of wrenching moments, she succeeds not in attracting pity but in her stated intention, of drawing attention to the children who currently share the plight that she herself overcame. Ages 14-up. (Jan.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Children's Literature - Paula McMillen
This is indeed a memoir, pieced together from personal memories, scavenged photographs, recollections of relatives, and piles of state documents. It is also a powerful indictment of the worst failings of the systems that are charged with protecting our most precious resource—our nation's children. Taken from her mother at three years old and adopted at age 12, Ashley tells a nearly unbelievable tale of foster care personnel who repeatedly violated protocols for checking on children in their care, ignored charges of abuse and even doctored documents, all to the detriment of the children in the foster care system. This is a very personal and vulnerable tale that will touch teens and adults alike. Ashley continues to hold out hope that she will be reunited with her birth mother as she is shuffled, sometimes with her younger brother and sometimes separately, from one placement to another—more than a dozen over the course of nine years. The "three little words" of the title are not the ones you expect, but are the ones that change her life, finally, for the better. What is perhaps most remarkable about this book is that Ashley eventually triumphs, thanks to the help of a dedicated guardian ad litem and her adoptive parents. She becomes a crusader to hold the guilty accountable and to give voice to all the children who feel they have been lost in the system. This is a book that can help readers to better understand the challenges that children in foster care may face and can serve to promote belief in and strategies for self-empowerment. Reviewer: Paula McMillen, Ph.D.
School Library Journal

Gr 8 Up
Rhodes-Courter was three years old when she and her younger brother, Luke, were removed from their mother. She spent the next 9 years in 14 different foster placements. Some caregivers were nurturing, others indifferent or negligent. Marjorie and Charles Moss were terribly abusive. The author, who was intermittently placed with Luke, continuously dreamt of a happy ending with her mother until the state permanently terminated all parental rights. Eventually, she found a loving home, and her adoptive parents supported her involvement in legal action against the Mosses. Rhodes-Courter tells her story in understated prose, and she is honest about her mistakes. For example, she unflinchingly recounts how she tried to drug the Courters so she could sneak out with a friend. She also struggled to balance her desire to protect Luke with her life in a separate adoptive family. Quiet scenes cut deepest: the author's description of her only after-school visit to a friend's home lingers heartbreakingly in one's mind. This gifted young writer's moving and eye-opening story will especially appeal to fans of Jeannette Walls's The Glass Castle (S & S, 2005) and David Pelzer's autobiographical books. Like those books, Words contains some troubling scenes, particularly one in which the author watches a violent pornographic video left in a VCR by a foster parent. This memoir lends a powerful voice to thousands of "boomerang kids" who repeatedly wind up back in foster care.
—Amy PickettCopyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

From the Publisher
"Ashley Rhodes-Courter is triumphant in her quest to overcome insurmountable odds. I celebrate her courage to seek out the best in humanity in spite of its failings." - Victoria Rowell, New York Times bestselling author of The Women Who Raised Me: A Memoir

"Nine years in the foster care system could ruin a kid. But [Ashley] not only survived, she's thrived." -Teen People

"The author's ability to form intelligent, open-minded conclusions about her traumatic childhood demonstrates her remarkable control and insight, and although there are plenty of wrenching moments, she succeeds not in attracting pity but in her stated intention, of drawing attention to the children who currently share the plight that she herself overcame." —Publishers Weekly

"Quiet scenes cut deepest: the author's description of her only after-school visit to a friend's home lingers heartbreakingly in one's mind. This gifted young writer's moving and eye-opening story will especially appeal to fans of Jeannette Walls's The Glass Castle and David Pelzer's autobiographical books." —School Library Journal

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781416948070
Publisher:
Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Publication date:
05/05/2009
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
336
Sales rank:
85,396
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range:
14 - 17 Years

Read an Excerpt

1.

the day they stole my mother from me

Two days compete for the worst day in my life: The first is the day I was taken from my mother; the second is the day I arrived at the Mosses' foster home four years later. Three weeks before I lost my mother, I had left South Carolina bound for Florida with her, her husband, and my brother. I was three and a half years old and remember lying on the backseat watching slippery raindrops making patterns as they plopped down the car's windows.

My infant brother, Luke, was in a car seat, which nobody had bothered to belt in, so it squished me into the door when his father took a sharp turn. Luke had a heart monitor, but it must not have been on him all the time because I remember using it on my favorite toy: a Teddy Ruxpin bear.

Until Dustin Grover came along, we shared a trailer with my mother's twin sister, Leanne, who had dropped out of school to help support me. Even though the twins looked completely different, they were interchangeable to me since Aunt Leanne spent almost as much time with me as my mother, and I never minded when one left and the other took over. I loved to nestle by Aunt Leanne's side. She would rake my curls with her fingers while talking on the phone to her friends.

My mother was only seventeen when she gave birth to me. If she and my aunt were anything like most teenagers, they probably were more interested in hanging out with friends than changing diapers. Nevertheless, they worked different shifts and took turns caring for me. Their trailer became the local hangout because there was no adult supervision.

"Turn that down," my mother yelled one afternoon. I was watching cartoons, trying to drown out the teen voices by raising the volume higher and higher. "I said, turn that down!"

"Well, if you would shut the hell up, I could hear the damn TV," I said. My mother and her friends burst out laughing.

I was an intuitive two-year-old soaking up language and behaviors from a crew of rowdy adolescents who were trying on adult attitudes and habits. I got attention by acting grown up, and my mother bragged about how early I was toilet trained and how clearly I spoke.

My mother had a carefree attitude. She was too self-absorbed to fuss about my safety. Although she always strapped me in my car seat, her battered truck did not have seat belts. Driving down a bumpy South Carolina road, the unlocked door popped open. I tumbled out, rolling a few times before landing on the shoulder. My mother turned the truck around and found me waving at her. I was still buckled into the seat.

When my mother began living with Dustin — whom everyone called "Dusty" — the whole mood in the house shifted and Aunt Leanne wasn't around as much. Dusty was like an ocean that changed unexpectedly with the weather. One moment he could be placid, the next he turned into choppy waves that broke hard and stung. I cowered when he yelled. Since my mother was busy with me, she did not always have the perfect hot meal her boyfriend expected ready the moment he walked in the door.

"Can't you even bake a damn biscuit right?" he yelled after he saw the burnt bottom on one, sending the pie tin flying like a Frisbee.

I hid under my blanket as I always did when the fighting started, hoping it would protect me from their nasty words or physical brawls. I peered through a hole at a single object — like a shoe — and tried to make everything else disappear.

I remember when my pregnant mother awoke from a nap and found my aunt and Dusty sitting close together watching television. She caught them tickling and laughing. My mother screamed at my aunt, "How could you? He's the father of my baby!"

"You sure of that?" my aunt screeched back before she slammed the screen door behind her.

After that, she was gone for weeks, and I missed her so much that I would curl my hair around my own fingers and pretend it was her doing it.

Not long after that, there was a new baby: Tommy. My mother brought him home in a yellow blanket and let me kiss his tiny fingers. I don't remember much else because he came and went in less than two months. Sometimes I thought that I had dreamed him or that he was merely a doll I was not supposed to touch. The last time I saw him, he had suddenly stopped moving and turned from pink to gray. We all sat in a room and everyone passed him around. He was lying in a box that was padded with a pillow.

My mother got pregnant again shortly after Tommy disappeared. A few months later she married Dusty, and for a short time we seemed like a happy little family. But only nine months after Tommy was born, Luke arrived premature. Before my mother was even twenty, she had managed to have three children in less than three years.

At least Luke — unlike me — came into the world with a father. At birth my new brother weighed only two pounds. My mother had to come home from the hospital without him.

"Did you really have a baby?" I asked my mother.

"He has to stay with the nurses until he gets bigger," she explained.

A few days later I awoke to her sobbing. Dusty was trying to comfort her, but she pushed him away. "It's all your fault because you hit me!" she yelled.

I tried to understand how Dusty's hitting her could harm the unborn baby. I rested my head on her belly. It felt like a balloon that had some of the air let out. "When can I see my brother?" I asked.

"They had to take him from the hospital in Spartanburg to the one in Greenville where they can care for him better," my mother explained. "We'll drive up there as soon as we can."

In the meantime, my mother went back to work. Dusty was supposed to watch me while my mother worked the late shift. One night neighbors found me wandering through the trailer park alone and kept me until my mother returned home.

The next day she packed a bag and we moved into a Ronald McDonald House near the hospital.

We went to see Luke every day. Most of the time I had to wait outside in a room where there were little tables, coloring books, and crayons. Sometimes they would let me put on a mask and come into the room where the babies were kept in boxes — not like the wooden one that had held Tommy, but a plastic one that I could peek through when my mother lifted me up.

"Is he ever getting out of there?" I asked.

"Oh, yes," my mother promised. "He's strong like his daddy."

When Luke came home seven months later, he was not much bigger than one of my dolls. He sometimes wore a doctor's face mask instead of a diaper.

Aunt Leanne came by to help and called often. "Where's your mama?" she asked when I answered the phone.

"In the kitchen cookin' dope," I replied.

"I'm coming right over," she said, but when she did, Dusty refused to let her in.

Dusty worked as a framing subcontractor. After an argument over money, his partner stormed over to our trailer. Dusty locked him out, but he busted down the door and then started tearing up the house. A chair hit the wall and a table flew in my direction. I ducked, but my mother started screaming, "You almost hurt Ashley!"

"I'm okay, Mama," I said as I crouched in a corner.

"We need to move," my mother announced to Dusty while they cleaned up the mess. "There are too many bad influences on you around here."

"And you're an angel?" he shot back. "Besides, all my work is here."

"There's plenty of work in Florida." She kicked the broken chair into a corner. "I wish I had never left there after Mama died."

Her mother — my maternal grandmother, Jenny — had her first child when she was fourteen, but she put that baby up for adoption. Over the next six years she had Perry; followed by the twins, Leanne and Lorraine; and finally, Sammie. Then, at twenty-one, Grandma Jenny was diagnosed with cervical cancer and had a hysterectomy. Sick, poor, and battered by her alcoholic husband, she decided she could not raise her kids any longer and turned them over to a Baptist children's home. My mother did not have much to do with either parent for many years, but when Jenny was about to die in Florida, my mother went to see her for the last time. Jenny was thirty-three.

Using her small inheritance, my mother enrolled in cosmetology school. Before they would allow her to train with the hair treatment chemicals, she had to have a physical checkup. This is how she found out she was pregnant with me. My mother thinks she conceived me when she partied the night of her mother's funeral. In any case, I was born thirty-nine weeks later. While she was in labor, she was watching The Young and the Restless, and so she named me Ashley after one of the soap opera characters.

When Dusty agreed to move to Tampa, my mother cheered up. As she packed, she hummed "You Are My Sunshine" and explained to me, "We're moving to the Sunshine State to live happily ever after."

I do not remember much about the long car trip except singing along with Joan Jett on the radio. When we first arrived in Florida, we stayed at a motel, then a trailer that smelled like low tide. I have memories of walking around that trailer park carrying Luke's bottle and begging for milk.

Our car always smelled of pickles and mustard from all the fast food we ate in it. I was enjoying my usual kids' meal in the backseat when my mother shouted, "Shit, shit!" A flashing red light made the car's windows glow rosy, and I liked the way my hands looked, as though they were on fire.

A siren blared. Dusty banged the steering wheel. "Ashley, you keep saying you gotta go potty, okay?" my mother ordered.

A police officer asked where our license plate was.

"Mommy, gotta go potty!" I called loudly.

"Where're you headed?" the officer asked.

"To my stepfather's house," my mother said in her most genial voice.

"We're just in from South Carolina. We're moving here," Dusty continued rapidly, "so I'll get a new Florida plate tomorrow."

"Welcome to Florida," he said, glancing at me and Luke before arresting Dusty for not having a license plate on the car or a valid driver's license.

My mother alternately cussed and cried while we waited for Dusty to be released. It was several hours before we could go home to our apartment. The shoebox-style building was on tree-lined Sewaha Street. "We're living in a duplex now," my mother explained, and I sensed that we had come up in the world. Three days later I encountered more police officers — the ones who broke up our family forever.

I was sitting on the stoop dressed only in shorts when the police cars pulled up. "He's not here," my mother said when they asked for Dusty. One of the men kept coming toward her. My mother, who was holding Luke, screamed, "I didn't do anything!"

"Mama," I cried, reaching both hands up for her to lift me as well. A uniformed man pushed me away and snatched Luke out of her arms. I tried to rush toward my mother, who was already being put in the backseat of a police car. The door slammed so hard, it shook my legs. Through the closed window, I could hear my mother shouting, "Ashley!" Someone held me back as the car pulled away. I struggled and kicked trying to chase after her.

"It's okay! Settle down!" the man with the shiny buttons said.

I sobbed for my Teddy Ruxpin. "Winky!"

"Who's that?" The officer let me run inside. I pulled Winky out from under a blanket on my bed. "Oh, it's your teddy. He can come too." He grabbed two of my T-shirts and told me to put one on and to wear my flip-flops. My Strawberry Shortcake T-shirt ended up on Luke, although it was way too big for him.

At the police station a man in uniform handed Luke to a woman in uniform. Luke tugged on Winky's ears as I sat beside him and the female officer. In the background I could hear my mother yelling for us, but I could not see her. Two women wearing regular clothes arrived. One lifted Luke; the other's rough hand pulled me in her direction. The woman who held Luke also took Winky.

"No!" I cried, reaching for Winky.

"It's just for a little while," the first woman told me.

"Winky!"

My mother came into view for a few seconds. "Ashley! I'll get you soon!" Then a door slammed and she was gone. I turned and Luke was no longer there. I was pushed outside and loaded into a car.

"Mommy! Luke!" I cried. "Winky!"

"You'll see them later," the woman said as our car drove off.

Thinking about that moment is like peeling a scab off an almost-healed wound. I still believed everything would return to normal. Little did I know, I would never live with my mother — or see Winky — again.

Copyright © 2008 by Ashley Rhodes-Courter

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