My first recollection of life was in the Tennessee Children’s Home in Nashville. I remember my little sister, but the home wouldn’t admit she was my sister; they said she was just a little girl I became attached to. I must have been two-and-a-half or three years old at this time.
I recall the day my sister left the home, and remember crying and running after the car that took her away. I also remember missing her very much. I would save one of my cookies from each meal for her. I kept them in my locker. One day, the lady who took her away brought her back to visit me. I excused myself, ran upstairs to my locker for the cookies, and gave them to my sister. I cried again when she left.
Shortly after this, a lady and man came to the home and wanted to adopt me. They were allowed to take me for a one-day trial. They took me for a ride and treated me to a big ice cream cone. They hugged me a lot. I felt good about them. Soon they returned and took me home with them. They lived on a farm in Blunt Springs outside of Birmingham, Alabama. I was happy with them. The lady—I called her Mom Susie—took me to town and bought me my very first pair of patent leather shoes. You know, the kind with straps that had to be buttoned with a hook. I loved those shoes so much. I would wipe them off every night and sleep with them.
I got where I could talk with Mom Susie a lot. I told her about my little sister and how much I missed her. She promised she would try to get me another sister soon. This made me very happy. The man—I called him Uncle Lewis—wasn’t home much. He traveled a lot for work. They weren’t married, but I didn’t know that then. He was good to Mom Susie, and he always brought me a little gift whenever he came home from one of his trips.
Finally, the day came for us to see about getting me a sister. Back to Nashville Mom Susie and I went. Uncle Lewis didn’t come along. We stayed in Nashville with Mom Susie’s brother, his wife, and their two children, Sam Jr. and Mary Lou. I really liked Uncle Sam and Aunt Myrtle, and Junior and Mary Lou. Uncle Sam would take us fishing. Many weekends we spent the night in a tent, and we would wake up to fresh fish and corn bread cooking over an outside fire. When I think of childhood fun times, it has to be when I stayed with Uncle Sam and his family. It seemed like we stayed a very long time with them, but I didn’t mind. The day finally came when Mom Susie said she had found a sister for me at St. Mary’s Orphanage. I didn’t sleep a wink that night.
I was up bright and early with anticipation. After breakfast, Mom Susie and I were on our way to St. Mary’s. I had expected to see a younger child, but Margaret was about my size and age. We were left alone to play and get acquainted while Mom Susie and Mother Superior talked in another room. After a while, Mom Susie and I returned to Uncle Sam’s. She said she had to promise to bring up Margaret and me as Catholics, and after I got baptized, we could have Margaret on a trial basis. I was soon baptized. Mom Susie had started calling me Jeanette from the day she took me from the home, so she had me baptized Mary Jeanette Ballentine. (I was born Alberta Wanda Riggs.) Shortly after my baptism, we took Margaret back to Blunt Springs. Needless to say, I was happy. Margaret and I became good friends and playmates.
I don’t know whatever happened to Uncle Lewis, but I can’t remember seeing him again. I do know Mom Susie changed. She became anxious and worried about not having enough food and money to keep up the farm. It was hard for her to keep good hired hands, too. I was often hungry.
Mom Susie would sometimes lock Margaret and me in the closet when she went shopping. One day, she left us in a bus station. We were there all day. Evening came, and we told the guard what had happened, and a lady from Welfare came and took us overnight. The next day Mom Susie came to get us.
One day, she pushed me out of the passenger side of the car on a highway. The scar over my right eye is from that incident. I believe now she wanted to kill me for insurance money.
Another day, I can’t remember why, she became angry with Margaret and picked up a lard can and hit Margaret on the head. All I could see was blood all over Margaret. I tried to make her stop hitting Margaret, and she turned on me, hitting me. My forehead and leg began bleeding profusely. Later, she knew Margaret needed a doctor, so she drove us to a hospital in Birmingham. She told the doctor a cookie jar had fallen on Margaret’s head when she was trying to get a cookie, and several pieces of the pottery had struck me and cut me, too.
The next morning, the county sheriff came to our house and took Margaret and me away. We both spent a couple of days in another hospital, and later stayed with a lady from the Child’s Welfare Department. It seemed like a long time before there was some sort of court date, and Margaret and I were separated after that.
I wasn’t told where Margaret went, but I went to a Catholic orphanage outside of Birmingham. I later learned that Margaret went back to St. Mary’s in Nashville. I also learned the authorities from the State of Tennessee had been looking for us. Mom Susie wasn’t supposed to have left Tennessee with us, and never did officially adopt either of us.
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