I have no fond childhood memories of this place.
Altgeld Gardens is one of Chicago's many Housing Projects. A cloister for the forlorn.
We lived there but it was never home.
I suppose I may have looked forward to walking through that door once or twice. However, there was no loving mother or father to greet my siblings and me. No love to be found at all.
My mother would leave us for days on end. My older sister would pull a cushion from the dingy couch and the four of us would huddle in the nest that it formed until she returned.
More often, however, we would be tied to our cots in a locked room until she came back, whispering sweet nothings and offering us fruit in plastic cups. We warmed ourselves around the oven in the kitchen and we basked in her fleeting attention.
We were grimy. We had no clothes. No shoes.
Sometimes we would escape and run to the playground, naked and dirty.
Occasionally, a kind hearted person would leave scraps of white bread for us in the trash cans where we would scavenge. I'm sure it was intentionally placed there, for it was set on newspaper on top of the cans.
We were certain it was left by Jesus Himself.
I met my first hero here. A tall, lanky, black boy of about 14 years with an afro as big as the world! He carried me home after I stepped on a burning cigarette butt with my bare feet while watching him play basketball with the other kids.
Whenever I come upon that scar on the heel of my foot I think of him.
Where are you now, my hero?
Altgeld Gardens, Chicago Housing Projects
I imagine there are happy tales that come out of the projects. After all, a home does not solely consist of four walls. Even as a child I knew that all it really took to make a home was love.
This was my backyard, where my beloved kitty died in my arms. My mother had been gone for days and kitty waited for us by the door after being hit by a car. I heard her crying but I could not escape my bonds. I ran to the back door as soon as my mother arrived and released us but it was too late. I don't remember her name. It keeps me awake some nights, trying to recall her name.
Then one day our mother left for good.
The Chicago police found us naked, tied to soiled cots. What must they have thought of our protruding bellies and emaciated limbs? I remember the creak of their leather coats as they took them off and placed them on our frail, shivering, filthy bodies.
They even let us wear their hats.
I wish I could see them again, to thank them. I have tried to find them to no avail.
We were placed in various foster homes around the city. Sometimes with our siblings, other times alone.
The abuse that we endured in those places made life with our mother look like paradise in comparison. Malnourished bodies, broken bones, bloody noses and crushed spirits. We lived in constant fear.
We soon discovered that sometimes people become foster parents merely for the money.
Dark days indeed.
I recall the first time I saw a book at the home of a foster parent; Hans Christian Andersen, The Little Match Girl. It mesmerized me. I could not read because we had not attended school but I studied the photographs.
Determined to be a part of her world, I learned to read in earnest.
Books became my refuge. The one constant in a life of tumult. They became my home.
When my husband and I bought our first home my first endeavor was to create a room for my dear friends.
Each room in my home bears resemblance to something I plucked from a fairytale or a book long ago. If you look you will see the dining room from the Little Match Girl, the armoire from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, details from Alice InWonderland, even glimpses of Miss Havisham's home from Great Expectations and The Secret Garden among many others.
This particular room is not just an ordinary library! This is where I go to visit with Charles Dickens, Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm and so many other beloved companions whose stories changed the course of my life.
This is where I sit with my precious daughter and introduce her to the artistry of words that have the magical ability to transform and heal.
I am eternally grateful for the life I have been given. I wouldn't change a thing. This is where I belong.
I am home.