When our family became participants in the Indian Placement Program, we began one of the most enriching experiences in our lives. But we weren’t so sure when we were just considering it. Oh, we knew it was a great educational opportunity, affording young Indians a quality of schooling they probably would not otherwise get. But we had heard conflicting reports from those who had participated in the program—some were concerned about the difficulties their Indian foster children had with cultural adjustment. And we had hesitated.
Now, as Doug drove me and our four children to the “picking-up place,” we were alternately pensive and excited. Our new foster son would be a ten-year-old Navajo Indian from New Mexico named Wayne—and beyond that we knew little of him. During the month before Wayne’s arrival, we had tried to imagine what he would be like. Many Indian students spoke only a few words of English. Would we be able to communicate? Would he fit into our family? Would we like him? Would he like us? As Doug and I pondered these questions, our ten-year-old son John stopped worrying about it and got to work. He built a big box with Wayne printed on the side for his new brother “to keep his stuff in.”
When we arrived at the meeting place, we were first ushered into an office to complete some paperwork formalities, and then we met Wayne. His body was slim, and his hair was shoulder length in back. Before we could say a word, he stopped in front of each family member and pumped our hands briefly and mechanically. This chore completed, he stood head down, as is his people’s custom, awaiting our response. We tried to be relaxed and friendly. Soon boy and suitcase were loaded into the back of our station wagon, headed for whatever the next eight to ten years of school months might bring.
On the way home we stopped at a bike shop to purchase a new red banana seat for the bicycle we had rebuilt for Wayne. That bike proved a refuge for the rest of the day. Wayne’s homesickness was apparent; only with difficulty did he keep the tears back. But he was able to cope on the bike. He rode up the street, then back, up, then back. He put miles on that bicycle that first day.
At mealtime we tried to make him comfortable by asking about his favorite foods. He didn’t respond. Afterward he went to sit on the front porch and I followed him, saying I needed to work on the flowers that were growing by the porch. I saw that he was crying softly, and I longed to ease his hurt. I thought of my own ten-year-old son being faced with such a situation. I wanted to hug and reassure Wayne, but I knew that it was too soon for that. Instead, I asked if he would help weed the petunias. As he knelt and plunged his small brown hands into the earth, I realized that he found this a familiar task and that it gave him some relief. As we worked together he occasionally smiled up at me in a way I’ll never forget.
I tucked him into his new bunk bed in John’s room that first night, and he was asleep almost instantly, exhausted from the long bus trip to Utah, riding the bicycle, weeding the flowers, and meeting his foster family. As we watched him sleeping, we silently prayed that we could meet his needs.
The next day was Sunday. Wayne was rested and seemed at least resigned to being part of things. After he had squirmed and fidgeted through Sunday School and sacrament meeting he asked, “Do we always go to church this long?”
Day three ended with family home evening. Since Wayne hadn’t spoken much we wondered whether to call on him to participate in scripture reading. When his turn came, Doug asked him whether or not he would like to read. He nodded. And then, as we waited nervously, he took the Bible in his lap and confidently began: “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matt. 6:33). From across the room, I saw Wayne put his hand in his foster father’s hand and lean on his shoulder for the rest of the evening. It was the first affectionate expression that we could perceive from a loving little boy.
On day five our schedule included a haircut. I watched in amazement as the barber unveiled the handsome face of our new foster son. Wayne felt his head a hundred times that day, and I heard him giggle softly on one of his numerous trips to the mirror.
Social workers had suggested that we have our foster child address us as mom and dad. This was not easy for Wayne to do at first, understandably, but one day when he had been with us about two weeks he forgot himself and called “Mom! The phone’s for you.” When I appeared he was somewhat embarrassed, but from that time on he called us mom and dad. I never got over the special feeling it gave me to hear him say it, nor the feeling of responsibility I felt to fulfill successfully the role of mom for nine months of the year.
For two days in succession he forgot one of his school books and called from school to say, “Uh, uh, well … this is Wayne. Could you bring my math book?” After the second time I was out of patience and planned to give him a scolding for being so careless; but when I reached the school he was out in front, so glad to see me and smiling so broadly that my resolve melted away.
As the days went by, although Wayne was affectionate, he good-naturedly rejected my offer of a goodnight kiss. When I came to tuck him and John into bed it became a ritual for me to ask, “Do I get a kiss tonight?”
His standard reply: “Nope!”
But one day I noticed on his bulletin board a list of “Things to Do Today.” Last on the list he had written, “Kiss mom.” I could scarcely believe it and was eager to see if he had the courage to carry out his intention. That night when I asked the usual question he jumped up, kissed me, and then, giggling, dove under the covers, pulling them up over his head. Mission accomplished!
Wayne loved all sports, especially swimming. He was an enthusiastic Scout, a good student, and a brave patient when he broke his hand playing football. He was artistic and especially good with sports pictures and Indian figures.
Eventually we learned that his own mother and father were separated. He rarely saw his father, which perhaps accounted for the special relationship he developed so quickly with Doug.
Wayne loved to earn money helping Doug in our basement woodworking shop. Once he was denied this privilege for a week because he fell behind in his schoolwork and needed extra time to study. On the fifth day Doug relented and allowed him to work in the shop. After Wayne had gone to bed, Doug discovered a note attached to the power saw, “Dad, thank you for letting me work. Love, Shopworker.”
Wayne had the habit during a long church meeting of putting his head on Doug’s knee to rest and “endure to the end.” One Sunday as he was doing so, he was playing with the cuff of Doug’s pants. None of us had noticed what he was doing, but when Doug got up at the end of the meeting to sing with the choir, his pant leg was rolled up nearly to the knee. Wayne could not conceal his delight in spite of Doug’s stern face.
By way of apology, Wayne made a simple card on which he printed in his matter-of-fact fashion, “I like having you for my foster father.” Another time he left a note on his thirteen-year-old foster Sister’s dresser which said, without flourish, “I like you.” Both recipients were deeply touched by these notes.
In a letter from Wayne’s mother to us, she asked if he had played any tricks on me. I knew what she meant, for there had been many. For instance, one day he had thrown a huge cardboad box down the basement stairs and then screamed as if he were falling. I ran frantically to the stairs only to find him sitting on the top step laughing. He and I had a good talk about which kinds of pranks are harmless and which are not.
Then, early one morning two days before school ended, a knock sounded at our door. An attractive Navajo woman introduced herself as Wayne’s mother and said she had come to take him home. At that moment I realized how much I considered myself to be Wayne’s mother. I invited her in, then went to his room to get him, fighting the strange feelings I was experiencing. After all, he is her son, I reasoned. But he is so much ours too—how can I let him go? As I sat by his bed, looking at him for a few extra seconds before awakening him, I felt numb.
“Wayne,” I said at last, “your mother has come to take you home for the summer.”
His sleepy eyes registered happy surprise, and he jumped from his bed and started out of the room to find her. In the doorway he paused briefly, looked back at me, and then said uncertainly, “I have two moms, huh?”
Their greeting was reserved, but their quick glances and occasional smiles told me much about their relationship. As I watched them I thought of the great courage his mother had shown in sharing her son with us, hoping that we could give him opportunities that he would not otherwise have. She left later that day, in a pickup truck, carrying Wayne and her several other children in the back. I stood on the lawn and watched them go, feeling a strange mixture of joy and pain, and glad for the year’s lesson in love.