Nick Holman’s poignant stories recall growing up in a rural La Porte City foster home

Editor’s Note: At just six years of age, Richard “Nick” Holman, a member of the La­ Porte City High School Class of 1963, was placed in the state of Iowa foster care system with his large group of siblings. For the next twelve years, he grew up on a farm in rural La Porte City. Following a successful career in the United States Navy and working as a plant manager and in long range planning for an international food company, he began writing a book about his experiences. In the Foreword, he writes, “Virtually all foster kids come from dysfunctional family environments and they absorb the bulk of the broken home fallout. The common thread they all share while in foster care is the uncertainty of what lies ahead. This uncertainty can cause them to think and act in ways others may not consider or understand. When they eventually leave the foster home, their futures will range from heartening and uplifting to unsettling and tragic. All incidents that unfold [in these stories] actually occurred during the time I and my siblings – three brothers and four sisters – were growing up in a foster home on a farm [near La Porte City in the early 1950s and 1960s]. However, some events have been slightly changed to avoid potential embarrassment for yet-living individuals. All the names [except my own] have been changed, only their ages remain the same. This is the story of a close-knit family of siblings as they struggle to stay together in extended foster care. It’s also a story of life on the farm, but a life and a farm few have ever known or experienced, even those born and raised on a farm. It’s told through my eyes but relates more than just the experiences of me and my siblings. As you’ll see, it all comes to a rapid and unexpected conclusion.”

Beginnings

By Nick Holman

It’s the 19th of May 1952 and a young boy, six but ready to turn seven in a few more weeks, is squeezed in between a younger sister and an older brother in the back seat of a 1949 or ’50 Chevy sedan. That boy is me. I’m still trying to understand and digest the events of the last couple of weeks. Changes came tumbling one after another, so fast we – my siblings and I – couldn’t get out of their way or wish them away. Mom and dad’s separation and then divorce, or was it the other way around? I wasn’t sure which happened first, but it didn’t matter. As a traveling shoe salesman, Dad was seldom around anyway, which made us wonder how he was able to father five girls and four boys in only 13 years from the same woman. Lack of birth control options in the 1930’s and 40’s certainly contributed. And when he was home, we often wished he wasn’t.

He was a man intolerable of any disobedience, and young children have a hard time understanding some of the rules. So, a raised, swift, hard hand was always there, ready to apply what he deemed was the needed discipline, and a swollen lip or black eye was not uncommon. The divorce didn’t surprise the older siblings, and we young ones were still too little to completely understand. We all knew he had a wandering eye, a moral fiber supporting that kind of behavior, and a history of not coming home at night, even when he wasn’t traveling on business.

Shortly after the divorce came the moves from one town to another, two of them in four months, each move ending in eviction because of rent not being paid. We, all nine of us kids, had remained with Mom. Dad had zero inclination to be saddled with kids as a single parent, and even less desire (and perhaps capability) to contribute toward keeping us clothed and fed. A divorced mother, whose only source of income is from county social services, naturally prioritizes feeding her kids versus paying the rent. Although the feeling of helplessness she was experiencing must have been agonizing, the torment she was enduring was unnoticed by me. All I knew was that I was changing schools every month or so, being stared at again as the new kid, visibly poor with holes in the knees of my pants and soles of my shoes.

And then there was the place we were temporarily housed after the county stepped in and took the nine of us from Mom. The details of that intervention were not clear to me, but I was too numb to care. We were in this large two-story residence for a week or so. It was meant as a short-term foster home, and the proprietress treated us with kindness. That was something rare from strangers I’d encountered in the past. It was nice, and there was food at the table for every meal, as much as I wanted to eat. The wonderful smell of toast wafting into the bedroom as I woke each morning was almost decadent to me. I’d heard of bacon and eggs before, and now I could have them. But there was no Mom – that’s mom with a capital M – now. According to the county, she was a mother unfit to care for her children. But she wasn’t unfit to us. She always showered us with love and affection, which is all she had to give. She just didn’t have the money to feed and clothe nine kids. We were now a ward of the county and in a new, temporary home.

This morning the oldest of my siblings, 16-year-old Darlene, was returned to our mom. It was a concession the county made to get Mom to sign the legal papers. The social services agency needed them for any potential future county actions. So now there are eight of us.

My two younger sisters, Eileen and Wendy, are ages three and four. I’m Richard, though sometimes I’m called Nick. I’m six. Following me in age, are two older brothers, Howard and Lonnie, ages seven and eight. After them are Beverly, age 10, Leroy, age 12, and Midge, age 14.

Though our ages span more than a decade, we are very close. That happens when the only life you’ve known is turmoil, poverty, hunger, abuse and a bleak future. The only ones to turn to are brothers and sisters.

There was one other item in the agreement Mom signed that we were unaware of until several months later. When it revealed itself, it absolutely devastated us, having a psychological impact for the rest of our lives. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Back in the Chevy, I’m somewhat anxious and trying to see out the side windows, but my older brothers are already occupying that view. There isn’t much for me to do but try to entertain my younger sister. As we come up over a hill, I sense the car slowing down. I thrust myself forward just far enough to get a quick glance out the front window. In that moment I see just ahead on the left side of the road a driveway leading to a two-story brick house and a bunch of buildings. It’s only a quick look, so I don’t recognize what the buildings are. However, never having been on a farm before, a long intent stare wouldn’t have helped me identify the barn, corn crib, hog house, chicken house and some out-buildings – all places I will come to know better than the fading image of my mother’s face.

Next Week: In “Flashbacks – Me, Age Five,” some of Nick Holman’s earliest memories recall the turmoil that strengthened the bonds shared by he and his siblings but, ultimately, resulted in their placement in foster care.