Chapter 15 - Beverly Sue Kiser
Gertrude Ramey changed my life when she introduced me to the world of books.
After my parents dropped me at the Ramey Home, she took me by the hand to the third floor where Golden books were stacked on the shelves, and to another room where ethnic dolls stood in rows. There were Barbie Dolls too. It was exciting at a time when I also felt sad and bewildered. But it was when I read The Secret Garden and how Colin and Mary were healed in the beautiful garden in India, that I wanted to know more.
In the Secret Garden, the concept of the neglectful parents, and the spiritual healing in an unusual place for the child, gave me insight and hope. At last, I understood about the dynamics of our family and how to work for a different outcome. I believed I might heal myself and that our mother could chose to get better too; but she did not get better. She stayed the same.
When Mother did not come to get me, I feared she really did not want me after all; that she became sick to avoid me. I buried myself in Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys too. They became my best friends. Later on, Miss Ramey found classics such as Milton and Keats for me.
The second time mother brought me to the Ramey Home, I was five, elephantitis had settled in my legs. Uncertainty about what even caused the disease caused misdiagnosis. I lived in a wheelchair and was not allowed to run and play with the other children. For obvious reasons, I was wheeled into the Ramey Home Board meetings. I was given Valium too, and that narcotic addiction has plagued me.
Later when I started school, I wore prosthetic dark brown shoes with braces. They were ugly. Now, we understand elephantitis can be cured with antibiotics, not Valium.
As I sat in the wheelchair, Miss Ramey told me: "Now don't be a victim to this, you can do anything you want to do." Her message empowers me even today. It was a struggle, but I obtained my degree in social services at Morehead University. Our mother is a wonderful person, but she was ill many years ago when we were children. She is better now and tries to make up for those omissions. Once, as a small child I heard her screaming, screaming. She explained that she was "Having babies, in my head." She experienced real childbirth pain.
Three different times that I remember, she collapsed, and returned to the Eastern State Hospital. Her breakdowns coincided with each of our births and gaps in her marriage to my father, Tom Kiser. He made his living making moonshine. They divorced when I was two. I was three years old the first time I lived at the Ramey Home: But I did not stay long. At five years old, mother took me back to the Ramey Home, and I lived there until I was twelve.
Five of us siblings lived at the Ramey Home: my sister and I were the first. Our half sisters, Cindy and Mary were born later and came with our baby brother Charles. I rocked him in the nursery. We were grouped by age at the Ramey Home and sometimes at night, I slipped into their room because I missed them.
There were other kinds of hurt, too. For example, children were brought in nearly every day. They were upset and sad. Then, with no explanation, children we already loved simply disappeared. One day the front door opened and a little black boy was shoved into the room. The adult with him, said to me, "Take him, I don't want him." Ricky Nelson was sick and I helped to care for him. Then one day he too, was gone. Maybe Ricky went back to his family?
These separations left me uneasy, off balance. Each time another child came, and there were hundreds, our fears of abandonment were renewed. Some children stayed overnight, and some came to stay, as I did. I felt the uncertainty of it. Conflicts from my early home life, and from my life at the Ramey Home are not resolved even today.
Each of us brought our own special anxieties to the Ramey Home: fear of abandonment, fear of abuse or even fear of not having anything to eat. We also feared our authority figures at the Home: for us girls, it was Minnie Suttles and Bettye Jane Sullivan and for the boys, it was Jim Stambaugh.
Miss Ramey did not hire trained staff; they were often unkind to us. Our anxieties were also exacerbated by their emotional problems. Bettye Jane Sullivan and Minnie Suttles had been brought to the Ramey Home as young children. After they grew up, they stayed on to work for Miss Ramey, and to supervise us children. Jacqueline Ying was an abandoned child who grew up there too; she stayed for a while. Then she married and moved out on her own.
I too feared abandonment, and suffered the pain of my abusive stepfather even after I was safe from him. I felt lonely for my mother, but safer at the Ramey Home. Through books, I was lifted past my insecurity; at least part of it, until I tried to live in the real world.
Minnie brought the Valium. I guess a doctor prescribed it. I don't know whether she also took the Valium; she was often moody and rough with us. She was in charge of the younger boys. Sometimes she took me with her to the boys sleeping quarters to stay for the night. For some reason she wanted me to stay with her. I saw her physically discipline her own son Michael and some of the other little children. There was Maxine Enyart who brought her four children to live with Miss Ramey when the Home was located on Winchester Avenue in Ashland. She was a kind maternal figure for us.
There was always an activity for us to enjoy. Often we sang and played the guitars. Some of us took piano or dance lessons too. We dressed up for special events such as Halloween. At Christmas, we all went in search of the perfect Christmas tree. We tromped around the hills in back of the Ramey Home. When we agreed on which tree was best, we each got a sip from Jim Stambaugh's flask. We worked hard too. Our system was efficient: older girls helped the little ones and took care of the babies. We learned to work with food, to cook and set the table for a proper meal, and how to enjoy a formal meal together. There was always work to do. We rode the school bus to Ironville.
Miss Ramey welcomed me into her room at first, and to her private porch sometimes. Many children did not have this special attention. Maybe it was because I was in a wheelchair. Children usually shared their sleeping rooms with another child, and most times, four slept in bunk beds. I'm not certain how those decisions were made.
My room was a small cozy place over the kitchen. From there, I had access to nearly every part of the Home. Some places were restricted, but I was able to grab a snack, visit the doll room and get books to read anytime I needed to.
As I grew up of course Miss Ramey grew older. She often took to her room with what may have been headaches. We did not see her for days. She left us in the care of her staff that was themselves former foster children unable or unwilling to leave. Miss Ramey's policy was to talk with a child or send it to its room to think it over. This was not the practice of her staff.
I was uneasy when I did not see her often. I didn't know what to think. She was a mother figure for me, safe and dependable. My life was protected and every physical need was met through donations of housing, clothing, food and medical attention, but I was unprepared for the real world without that structure, and without medication. When I left the Ramey Home, at twelve, I was addicted to the Valium and other prescription medication Miss Ramey provided to me, before anyone knew addiction was possible.
My departure from the Ramey Home was sudden. Minnie Suttles designed it while Miss Ramey was ill. The pivotal event was when Minnie insisted I endorse a check our father had sent and I refused, she taunted me; called me names. The next thing I knew, Minnie sent me home to my mother. I did not even know where my mother lived, but there I was getting out of a taxi and she was standing at her door shaking her head, "I can't take you." The taxi driver said, "I won't take her back." At last, my mother allowed me to come in. Her rejection that day is a hurt I carry with me still. I had no other place to go or I surely might have left.
I am still comforted by the friendships of the other children at the Home, including my sisters, Cindy and Mary. Reading is also a comfort to me. Presently, I am reading, The Cabin by Henderson.
Beverly Sue Kiser - November 2008
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