After the murder of his father, Alan Potter was sent to a foster home on a farm in Upstate New York. His first night there, he was forced to pray, “If I should die before I wake,” a frightening prayer he’d never heard of before. The story below is excerpted from his riveting memoir, My Life in Shorts.
The woman from NYS Department of Social Welfare pulled the car out of the gravel driveway of Serenity Farms. I sat deep in the passenger seat, numb, scared and completely unaware of what awaited me at the other end of the road. She could undoubtedly sense my state and began telling me about the family I would be joining. They lived on a farm in the country with animals and tractors and barns and other farm-like things and they had a couple of kids around my age… Her distractions did not ease my nervousness. I was still in shock. At this point they could have leashed me to a doghouse and fed me kibble; it would not have seemed unusual.
It was dark when we arrived at the farm. I was introduced to my new foster parents and siblings, Matt, age 7 and Sarah, age 11. We sat around the kitchen table and talked until it was time for bed.
Pajamas on, we all climbed into bed. I was in the top bunk above Matt. Sarah was in the next room. The Master bedroom was further down the hall. My Foster Mother (frankly, I have no idea what to call her other than “Foster Mother” as I don’t believe I ever called her anything, let alone, Mom) came into the room and asked if we were ready. “Okay…close your eyes…Now I lay me down to sleep…” Matt and Sarah joined in…”I pray the Lord my soul to keep…” They continued on. I listened, understanding neither the rhyme, nor the meaning. I recognized it as a prayer, but it seemed foreign to me. ”If I should DIE before I wake…” Excuse me? Maybe I was just a little hyper-aware of death at that time, but I remember feeling immediately uncomfortable about that statement.
Who were these people? There’s a chance I might die tonight? Matt and Sarah did not seem to have a problem with the prayer and had obviously been around long enough to memorize it. As it turned out they recited the prayer every night before sleep, I eventually learned the words and joined in requesting that the Lord keep my soul and then take it when the time comes…whatever that means.
The prayer finished, Foster Mom (that’s what I’ll call her from now on) turned out the lights on her way down stairs. Darkness; like no darkness I have ever known. Growing up in the suburbs, even in the darkest night there are house lights and street lights and car lights and the constant glow in the sky from nearby cities, but there in the remote farmlands of Upstate New York the lack of light can be complete. I think it would have been difficult for a full moon to cut through that blackness. I was lost in my bed. Matt moved occasionally letting me know I was not alone, but I found it impossible to fall asleep. It’s hard to tell if your eyes are open or closed when the view is the same on either side.
And then, at that moment, just before falling asleep…a scream. What the Hell was that? A moment later, another scream…I’m thinking, I do not belong here…Lord, take me now…the screams continued. It’s just outside the bedroom window. Matt did not budge. How could he not hear this? Who were these people? The screaming continued for an eternity. And then it stopped. And then it was morning and Matt was shaking me, inviting me down stairs for breakfast. I was told later the screaming was a screech owl and I should get used to it.
Down in the kitchen the world was already in motion. Sarah was spooning cereal into her face while Matt poured himself a bowl. Foster Dad was long gone to work and Foster Mom was at the sink washing his breakfast dishes. Matt made an announcement they were out of milk and that it was Sarah’s turn to go get more. Foster Mom turned to me. I was still standing in the doorway, not sure how to proceed. She reached out a hand and motioned for me to follow her. “Come on. Let’s go get some milk.”
We exited the kitchen through the back door and started down the driveway. We walked past the pick-up truck. The store must be close. Just before the end of the gravel drive we turned sharp left, up the path to the barn. A little confused, I walked with Foster Mom into the barn.
There were cows everywhere. What seemed like hundreds was probably only a couple dozen. I don’t ever remember seeing cows so close before that moment. I was a little afraid, but my senses were in overdrive. The smells were overwhelming; manure coupled with whitewash and just to balance it out, the sickeningly sweet, fermented stench of silage. The cows loomed over me, mooing and pooping with tails flicking flies and hooves crashing onto the hay covered concrete.
We approached the first cow in line. Call me slow, but it was just beginning to dawn on me where we were getting the milk. Foster Mom picked up a short stool and a ceramic pitcher and placed them next to the cow. She looked at me and smiled. I’m sure my look of bewilderment gave all the ladies in the barn a good chuckle.
The cow continues munching on hay as Foster Mom began massaging her teats. She asked if I would like to try. I shook my head, no. Long streams of milk jettisoned into the pitcher filling it in a couple short minutes. A thick froth pillowed above the pitchers lip.
Back inside, the others had finished breakfast and vanished from the kitchen. I sat at the table and filled my bowl with cereal. Foster Mom poured from the pitcher. The milk flowed like syrup coating the flakes with thick cream. I could feel the warmth of the milk before it even hit my tongue. There was an immediate gag reflex. This was not right. Try as I might, I could not get the milk down. I don’t know how babies do it. After several days and many attempts; trying alternative methods, ice cold, watered-down, with chocolate added, a very aggravated Foster Mom broke down and bought a quart of milk from the local IGA; pasteurized, homogenized and packed in cardboard, just like milk is supposed to be.
Life in this home was interesting to say the least. Foster Mom stayed home working the farm; cows, chickens, ducks and I want to say, a horse or two. Foster Dad went to work early each morning as manager at the town dump…that’s right, the town dump. Now…picture yourself as an eight year old boy. Screw the swing set. Forget the slide and monkey bars and sand box. What could be a better playground than a dump? Matt and I would tag along with Foster Dad on weekends and spend the day picking through piles of other peoples refuse, collecting treasures and battling rats. My greatest finds were a ten foot long stuffed snake and a 6” tall, plastic, Mr. Peanut. The snake was ripped in two spots and missing an eye and the Mr. Peanut had only one arm (the one holding the cane looked to be chewed off), but for someone who had no possessions to call his own, it was Christmas.
The days ticked by and routines developed. I don’t remember much about school during this time. It was third grade and I believe school had already begun when I moved there, missing the first part of the year. The bus ride was never ending and at one point in the journey we picked up a large group of black kids from a shanty town.
Most of what I remember was at home. Every day on the farm held new experiences for a city boy like me. There was the day the vet was nearly swallowed by the ass of a cow, his gloved arm buried up to his shoulder. On another day, while collecting eggs from the chicken coop, I was approached, most maliciously I should add, by a large duck. It chased me from the coop to the house causing me to crush an egg in either hand. Foster Mom did not accept my excuse for the broken eggs. “It’s just a duck.” She told me sternly. For me it was a redux of my Walt Disney/Donald Duck nightmare.
Foster Dad, in addition to being the King of the Town Heap, had a very interesting sense of humor. One of his favorite games was to sit in the hallway near the bottom of the stairs with a bull whip and tell us it was time for bed. He would challenge us to make it up the stairs without getting cracked in the ass. When we would object, he would scold us and threaten us with his belt. Even if he had not been an expert with the whip, at such a close range he could hardly miss. I can still hear the crack of that whip followed by the sadistic laughter of Foster Dad.
Another activity, taking place on Sunday and definitely not one I could have ever dreamt of in my urban upbringing, involved chickens and may appear to the casual observer(or vegetarian), to be unsettling and even ghoulish.
Matt and I would don our oldest, dirtiest, clothes and watch closely as Foster Dad pinned a chickens head under a hooked nail on a stump. A quick drop of a hatchet and Matt and I had an instant dance partner. Blood and feathers flew, the headless chicken flopped in the dirt and we flung our arms above our heads and gyrated in a macabre ritualistic dance. When the bird finally stopped, we fell to the ground next to it, exhausted and satisfied. The chicken was then gutted, blanched, de-feathered, stuffed and cooked for Sunday supper.
It was about this time, I picked up a couple nervous ticks. I started blinking my eyes uncontrollably. Kids at school called me names and mimicked me. More annoyingly, I began licking my lips to a point they were chapped, cracked and swollen. I would wake in the morning on a blood soaked pillow unable to open my mouth without splitting open the fissures on my lips. Foster Mom’s solution was to coat my lips with a thick application of Bag Balm. I’m sure most of you know what Bag Balm is. For those who don’t, it is a petroleum based ointment for chaffed cow’s udders. It’s not meant to be taken internally and thus is not pleasantly flavored (and according to Wikipedia, Bag Balm used to contain mercury). If my lip-licking was a voluntary action, I could (maybe) go along with the treatment, but being mostly unaware of my action, I inadvertently ingested a fairly large amount of the salve. It did not work and for some time after this, any time I heard a reference to Bag Balm I would begin to lick my lips. Ironically, years later, I moved to the small town of Lyndonville, Vermont…the home of Bag Balm.
As mentioned previously, the darkness at night was complete. Having to use the bathroom, which was downstairs, could be a difficult, if not treacherous task. One particular night attempting the journey was unavoidable. I jumped down from the top bunk and started for the bedroom door. Whether from my groggy state or simple miscalculation, I ran into a wall. I adjusted, felt around with my hands and stepped into another wall or desk or something. For several minutes, I stumbled around in that room bumping and trampling; stubbing my toes and smacking body parts into obstacles. I finally found the bunk beds and climbed back in, bladder full. The next day there was a stern warning from Foster Dad that we were not to be fooling around after lights were out or hides would be tanned. Matt looked confused and denied making any noise, but it only earned him a smack upside the head.
Soon after, if not the next night, I woke in the night with the same predicament. I again hopped from the bunk and started towards what I thought was the door; again, the wall. I felt my way along the wall until I came to a corner. My bladder was about to burst, I was stuck in this corner and I was at risk of waking up Foster Dad. The only logical solution was to let it go right there.
The next morning I found the spot where I had relieved myself. It was not far from the foot of the bed next to a particle board wardrobe. The carpet had already started to dry. No one would ever know.
Over the next days, weeks and months, it became easier to just use the same spot next to the wardrobe. One day, out of nowhere, Foster Mom grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and half-carried, half-dragged me up the stairs and into the bedroom. She pushed me to my knees and forced my head into the corner, rubbing my face hard into the carpet. The fibers were wet. The smell of Lysol filled my nostrils. She was shouting and swearing and “How could you…?” and “Why would you…?” and “What are you…?” She let go of my neck and ran from the room. I sat in the pee-stained corner, sobbing and gagging; afraid of what might come next.
The following day, the woman from the county was at the door and I was on my way to another foster home. It was November. My mother had still not come for me.
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