Friday, April 17, 2009

Relentless Love

A super-long time ago, back when Mr. Peevie and I were young and carefree (read: no kids yet), our pastor asked us if we'd be willing to unofficially foster a teenage boy for a few months. His mom was having some substance abuse issues, and the boy--we'll call him L. Peevie--needed stability and support. We were willing, but clueless--barely more than children ourselves.

(Well, I guess we were around 30 years old, which, from the side of life that's brushing up against AARP membership, seems practically infantile.)

Anyway, we said yes, even though I had no idea if it was even legal for a non-relative to arrange an unlicensed, unofficial foster care home instead of calling DCFS; and the next day a 13-year-old kid from the West Side moved into our spare bedroom. He was sweet, polite, funny, smart and affectionate, and he had the brightest smile I had ever seen. I instantly loved him.

“Hey, mom!” he told his mother happily a few days later, “there’s even a computer in my room!” The walls were soon plastered with posters of Vanessa Williams and Mariah Carey.

L. Peevie was motivated to do well in school, had tons of friends, and loved to sing and dance. Soon every radio in the house was tuned to black hip-hop stations (if it was even called hip-hop back then; what do I know? I'm just a geriatric white woman); and there was hair grease on every piece of furniture.

This teen used more hair and beauty products than I did. We had one tiny bathroom on the second floor, which became cluttered with an astonishing array of skin care and hair care equipment and supplies. I didn't even know what most of them were used for. There were picks, gels, hairnets, colognes, bottles of stuff.

And then I discovered that the few beauty supplies that I did keep in the house seemed to be fair game for our new, curious teenager. Even my white-woman make-up, my white-woman hairbrushes, my bottle of Jean Nate (yes, Jean Nate. Get over it. I did.) attracted L. Peevie’s experimentation.

It became hard to keep food in the house. L. Peevie would come home from school , often with pals from school, and like a swarm of locusts, they’d devour everything in their path. One time I looked in the refrigerator a day after dropping a couple of bills at the grocery store, and my jaw fell open.

“There’s nothing in here!” I said. “What happened to all the food I just bought yesterday?”

L. Peevie brought an unfamiliar cultural perspective to the situation. “When white people say ‘there’s nothing in the ‘fridge,’ there’s tons of stuff in the ‘fridge,” he said philosophically. “When black people say ‘there’s nothing in the ‘fridge,’ the only thing in the ‘fridge is mustard.”

I looked in the refrigerator again—and he was right. Leftover pizza, lunchmeat and cheese, a few vegetables in the crisper: enough food to make a meal for a family of four, if they weren’t spoiled by comparative wealth.

When his friends came over, they’d hang out in the backyard, practicing their “stepping.” My neighbors peered suspiciously over the fence, wondering why there were six black kids hopping around between the hostas; there weren’t many persons of color in my neighborhood, and unless they were standing behind the counter at the Post Office, they were often looked upon with mistrust.

A couple of neighbors at different times asked us about our new family member. No one said anything overtly offensive, but I had the impression that they were calculating the drop in their home values if L. Peevie stuck around.

Meanwhile, even though we loved L. Peevie, we were reeling with all the changes wrought by suddenly having a teenager in the household. I talked and talked and talked to my friend Dr. Paradigm Shift, processing the seismic shifts in my life and getting her advice on how to handle the unfamiliar territory of parenting an adolescent. But things were harder on Mr. Peevie, who did not happen to have a social worker for a best friend.

One time L. Peevie asked to borrow a couple of bucks for a snack or music or something. We decided that a teenager needed to have his own spending money, so we set up an allowance for him. It wasn't much, but I think it helped him have more of a normal teenage existence.

In many ways, those four or five months of trial-run parenting were excellent training for the real thing: having L. Peevie living with us made our lives far more complex, interesting, frustrating, and hilarious. One time L.P. and I went to Six Flags for the day. It was practically deserted for some reason, and we rode the roller coasters over and over.

I was ready to hop on the American Eagle for one more ride, but poor little L. Peevie had had enough.

"Phew!" he said, wiping the sweat from his forehead and plopping down on a wooden bench. "They sure don't make old white women the way they used to!"

"Hmmmph," I told him, "Apparently they don't make young black punks the way they used to."

On the walk back to the car, L. Peevie spontaneously broke out into the national anthem, adding some pitchy warbling to his high notes like a young, tone-deaf male Beyonce.

"L. Peevie," I told him, "You are way off key."

"No I'm not," he contradicted me, "That's just the way black people sing."

Eventually, L. Peevie returned to his family, and our household returned to boring. L. Peevie went on to become an authentic Big Shot, styling hair for Victoria Beckham, Missy Elliot, and Eve, and for big shot advertising campaigns.

He sent me an email last week, which included these lines that brought me to tears:

I often think about that moment in my life and am so grateful to God for you both. The relentless love that you guys showed me will never leave my heart.

"Relentless love." Relentless love is not what comes to my mind--although we did love that boy. I mostly remember feeling like I had no idea what the hell I was doing, trying to parent a teenager. I remember talking, talking, talking--with him, with Mr. Peevie, and with my built-in therapist, to try to figure things out.

If L.P. remembers relentless love, instead of relentless talking and relentless cluelessness, then God gets the credit.

And one final note: L. Peevie told me that his mom has been clean for 15 years and runs a Chicago program in Austin called Sister House which offers a temporary home to women after incarceration or recovery from substance abuse.

Happy endings all around!

[Photo courtesy of Joe Schwartz at]


Meg said...

This may just be the best blog post I've ever read.

E. Peevie said...

Thanks, Meg. Nothing like a true story with a happy ending.

J. Cub said...

I agree. That's probably my favorite Green Room post yet.

Boy George said...

Thanks for that wonderful story, E. I remember those days. (Well, at least the little bits of them that I happened to be present for.) And I'll always remember the time L. had some friends over and we played charades, and you put in a certain song title that seemed designed to see how embarrassed they would get...

E. Peevie said...

J. Cub--thanks.

Boy George--Hilarious. I had totally forgotten about that.

Jodee said...

I love this post, evieeeee. Does he live in chicago? Maybe want to fix hair for the spares? Ya know - pro bono?

E. Peevie said...

LA, baby; he lives in or near LA. Sorry 'bout dat. Thanks for your support.