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.”

The County

By Nick Holman

It’s late afternoon, and the evening chores lay ahead of me. They’re identical to those I do in the morning. The first three months on The Farm have been tumultuous. I and my siblings initially struggled to adapt. Our lives, thoughts, and activity had always revolved around us as a family before our arrival on The Farm. As unhappy as that life was – and one could only describe it as miserable – it had a certain comfort in its familiarity. Now that’s gone.

Henceforth I refer to my foster parents as “Mom” and “Dad” throughout this series. Almost all the foster kids called them that. If I bring a birth parent into the events that unfold, it will be specifically noted at that time to avoid confusion.

Life on The Farm revolves around the farm and the need to continually devote time and energy to its care and existence. There are the daily farm chores that are done morning and evening, all seven days of the week. Everyone is involved in these chores. We boys, me and my three brothers along with Earl, help Dad with the outside activities, the ones associated with the feed and care of the animals. Earl, the oldest of a family of three foster kids on The Farm when we arrived, is about my age. They’ve been here for a little over a year. The girls (my four sisters, Mom and Dad’s adopted daughter Nancy, and Earl’s two younger sisters) help Mom with the indoor chores. There are always beds to be made, clothes to wash, meals to prepare, floors to sweep and so on. All these chores are divvied up so that everyone is kept busy and nothing falls through the cracks. Everyone is expected to contribute.

The Farm also has activities that methodically come at seasonal times of the year. There’s plowing and planting in the spring, fixing fences and baling hay in the summer, and harvesting crops in the fall. This is an abbreviated list, but it contains the important stuff. Winter is a time for a bit of relaxation, survival, regeneration and preparation for spring. Many of these seasonal activities will include machinery so we younger boys, for safety’s sake, will not be involved. We arrived on The Farm during early summer, so I haven’t experienced most of these activities yet.

Life on The Farm also revolves around the foster family and the need to integrate different clans into that family. We’re now living in close quarters with complete strangers.

Social norms need to be taught and observed. I can’t swear in front of others when I’m frustrated or disappointed. I can’t pick my nose. I have to brush my teeth. I can’t suck my thumb anymore. If there’s free playtime, we must agree on what games we’ll be playing. Why do we always have to get up at 6 AM and go to bed at 9 PM? There are so many rules to follow! Shoes are taken off in the utility room before we enter the rest of the house. No one gets up from the table until everyone is done eating. Elbows off the table, please. Don’t wear that shirt all week long, even if it is your favorite. Give thanks to the Lord before each meal. And bow your head. On and on they go.

If I slip up, there might be a swat to the backside, or a rap on the top of the head. Interestingly, I notice that it’s always Mom that metes out the punishment. If Dad sees something that he thinks isn’t right, he mentions it to Mom, and she’ll arbitrate and administer the reprimand.

I enter the chicken house to feed the chickens. That’s one of my chores. I’ve been doing it for almost two months now, so I don’t even have to think about what I’m doing. My mind starts to wander. School will start soon and I’m excited but also nervous. We get to ride a school bus that picks us up at the end of the driveway. That’ll be cool! But the only ones I’ll know at school are my siblings. Will the kids pick on me? I’m pretty scrawny, so I could be an easy mark for a bully. At least my shirt and pants are new, so I won’t be singled out for wearing tattered clothes. And what do I say when they ask where I live and why do I live there? Do they even know that The Farm is a foster home?

My thoughts are interrupted by a commotion outside. I quickly finish feeding the chickens and exit the chicken house. There’s a nondescript gray sedan in the driveway I haven’t seen before. A woman has gotten out and is having a conversation with Mom who’d come out of the house back door. They’re standing midway down the sidewalk. I can tell Mom is distraught about something by her animated voice and the way she’s waving her arms about. I’ve never seen her like this before. She can have a stern voice when necessary, but the tone is always controlled. Not like this. Dad comes over from the barn and joins the conversation. Perhaps “listens” is the better word. Mom always does the talking when there is something serious going on. Dad tucks his hands into his sun-faded blue bib overalls, cocks his head to one side and listens while Mom talks. She is vehemently shaking her head side to side, indicating “no” while she’s talking. The stranger gives a shrug of her shoulders signifying there’s nothing she can do about it. She turns toward the car and shrugs her shoulders again as if to say, “What am I to do?”

I hadn’t noticed but there’s another occupant in the car. A slightly balding man wearing a black tie and white shirt gets out slowly and walks grudgingly toward them. I notice he’s grasping a folder of some sort in his hand. He’s anxiously fumbling through it as he walks. He pauses momentarily until he finds what he wants. A sheet of paper or a document of some sort appears in his hand. He walks over and offers it to Dad who nods toward Mom. Mom reaches out and takes the document but doesn’t look at it. It’s in her hand hanging at her side. Even from my distance it’s clear she’s reluctant to find out what it says. She hesitantly reaches into the pocket of her apron and pulls out her reading glasses, slowly puts them on and begins scanning the document. It takes about thirty seconds before the significance of whatever she’s reading begins to fully sink in. Her shoulders slump slightly downward. A moment of complete stillness settles over the foursome before Mom looks up at the two strangers in bewilderment, anger, and resignation.

By this time my sister, Midge, has come out and is standing by the door. Mom says something to the white-shirt-black-tie guy as she hands the unwelcome document back to him, turns and walks over to Midge. They have a short conversation and go back in the house. Dad looks a little lost and unsure of what to do or what to make of the proceedings. He finally walks back up to the patio deck and sits down in a chair. Meanwhile the two strangers return to the car and wait awkwardly beside it.

I can’t understand what’s happening. What are the two strangers waiting for? Why aren’t they leaving? The guy now and then fidgets with his tie. The lady keeps shifting her weight from one foot to the other. They look anxious, like they want to leave, like they’re ready to leave …., but they don’t.

Finally, the house door opens. Mom comes out first. She has a large paper bag over-stuffed with clothes in one hand. With the other she’s leading my second youngest sister, Wendy, out the door. I can faintly hear Wendy sobbing from where I stand, but she’s obediently following along. Midge follows with my youngest sister, Eileen, carrying her in her arms. Both are crying. They’re followed by my sister Beverly, also crying. What is going on here? I don’t understand. The six of them – Dad has joined the group – half walk and half shuffle to the vehicle and the two strangers. The woman eases into the back seat and the man hastily heads for the driver’s side of the car. As they approach the vehicle, Beverly and Midge get down on their knees and give the two girls long, long hugs. The little girls’ arms cling tight to their big sisters’ necks, but finally slip away as Midge and Beverly stand up. The woman reaches out from the back seat to get Wendy’s hand and half guides and half pulls her in. Mom picks up Eileen, gives her a heartbroken embrace and hands her in to the waiting arms of the stranger.

I suddenly know what’s happening. It’s The County. I bolt back inside the chicken house, close and lock the door and lay down very still. The dreaded fear that had run through my body numerous times before was suddenly back. The words of my birth parents came ringing through my ears and head. “They’ll take you away, and split you up and adopt you out, never to see one another again!” I start sobbing. I can’t help myself. In the distance I hear the car start up and slowly drive away. I can feel part of my heart being inevitably pulled out of me as the memories and images of my two younger sisters flash through my mind and begin to fade. The realization sinks in that I’ll never see them again. The sobbing worsens. And when will The County be coming for me and the rest of my siblings? I cry myself to sleep curled up in a ball on the chicken house floor.

Next Week: The reality of foster care is that children can come and go at a moment’s notice. What will happen to the established routine on The Farm when a new girl, 16 year old Laurie, arrives? Read about it in Nick Holman’s next installment, “Pretty Girl.”