Jacqueline Provo's father was born in West Africa, her mother in Barbados. Soon after their marriage, they moved to New York, where Jacqueline and her three brothers were born. Edward Provo had known days of unemployment. His wife LuAnne worked when she had to, although she preferred to stay at home with the children. That is putting it mildly. According to Jacqueline, who is 17, her mother dispised the idea of having to work, and grew furious with Edward when he would announce in his capricious style, "Well, guess who's out of work again!"
The olderst child, Jacqueline has vivid memories of that scene: her father stepping gaily into the room, her mother, tight-lipped, staring, and the silence as she just shook her head. Damn you, she seemed to be saying. Edward would look to little Jacqueline and she would put her arms around him, not without some fright, and somewhere in the small apartment a baby cried, or was it two babies, or were all three boys, born in consecutive years, crying at once?
The statistics of unemployment and poverty are familiar to most of us, as are some of the policies and reforms intended to improve these statistics. But most of us know little of the daily lives of welfare families, or familiers where unemployment remains a chronic problem. Equally significant, we know very little of the human effect on families where one or two of their members are out of work. The case of the Provos (a ficitious name, but a real family), suggests some of the human implications of unemployment that the statistics and policies, while valuable, tend to obscure. u
I met the Provo family on the eve of Jacqueline's 11th birthday. I remember going with Edward to a little store, looking for gifts for the children who would be coming to the Provos to celebrate. I bought Jaqueline a book. I recall inscribing a sentimental in the book about how much I hoped we would be friends. Two days later I received a lovely note from Jacqueline in which she said anybody who gave her books had to be her friend.
At 16, Jaqueline took a job with a family in a suburban community. She was hired to work Saturdays, cleaning up around the house by mainly looking after the family's four-month-old baby. Nordell and Theresa Wishner, in their middle forties, had decided to have a third child. The baby, Belinda, presented quite a challenge to her parents, her 13-year-old sister and 11-year-old brother. Jacqueline was the ideal solution. In fact, she was so good for the Wishners that they doubled her salary after the first day, and made arrangements for her to travel by taxi. Later they decided Jacqueline had to live with them and attend high school with their oldest child, Sara.
Jacqueline was overwhelmed, her family touched by the Wishner's kindness and their invitation to a Sunday barbecue. The day was a great success, despite a slight tension that existed between the families, the one so rich, the other having to contend with unemployment, an inadequate apartment and other problems. But it was a good day and Jacqueline was jubilant. The star attraction of the day, naturally, was Belinda, who was held and cuddled by 10 pairs of hands.
The Wishners had changed Jacqueline's life, as she had changed theirs, a point her mother frequently underscored. LuAnne talked of "people with all the good intentions in the world, trying to take children away from families like ours. We don't need reminders of who we are and who they are. I understand they mean well, but I'm more interested in doing than meaning. Before they're through, they're going to turn our daughter into a white child. Schools here are good enough for Jacqueline, and this home is good enough for her too!"
Jacqueline was surprised by her mother's reactions. The Wishners had been generous, and they needed her services. They made her work hard, but respected her and showed their affection in numerous ways. That they trusted her to care for Belinda said what they felt about her.
Then, suddenly, everything stopped, as quickly as it had started. Jacqueline arrived at the Wishners' one Saturday morning to lean that Belinda had fallen off a washing machine and broken her cheekbone. Mrs. Wishner had looked away for no more than a second when Belinda fell onto the tile floor. Jacqueline could barely look at the child, who, surprisingly, was delighted to see her. Jacqueline's tears came softly at first, but then she began to sob uncontrollably. Mrs. Wishner could not comfort her, and she was sent home in a taxi.
A week later LuAnne Provo called Theresa Wishner to say that Jacqueline would not be working anymore. No excuses or explanations were given, although everything was said in kindness. The Wishners were shocked. Their letters to Jacquline went unanswered, their phone calls were intercepted by LuAnne. Edward took no role in the matter, and Jacqueline, in amost uncharacteristic way for her, let the issue slide. She neither called nor wrote the Wishners, which was peculiar for a girl who once wrote me a thank you note for an insignificant gift.
It was year before Jacqueline spoke to me of the Wishners and what had caused her inexplicable departure. Throughout the conversation, Jacqueline's tone was calm, her words carefully selected.
"You remember how I told you I saw the baby Belinda all black and blue? That was true. And it was true that she fell when she was with Mrs. Wishner. At first it didn't hit me. I just saw the baby and felt terrible. But I couldn't stop staring at her, like I was looking at a corpse or something. She looked horrible, but Mrs. Wishner kept trying to make me feel better because I was, like, in worse shape than Belinda. It was so foolish. The baby looks terrible, and the mother is doing her best to make me feel good.
"Then later that morning I realized how I had been having some strange thoughts. Like, I wasn't even aware of Mrs. Wishner holding me in her arms. I was just looking at the baby in her little crib. And I felt afraid. Then I started to think, why is this baby's skin so white? Is that part of the accident too? Her hands and her legs were white too. Then I thought, Jacqueline, you're going crazy. This baby didn't turn white, this baby is white. Sounds like a crazy thought, but it was the only thing that made me feel a little bit better. c
"I could have controlled myself, I think, but something sort of exploded in my head. I don't even know how I explained coming home so early to my mother. My mother didn't like me working out there, no matter how much she was glad to have me making some pin money. So my quitting wasn't all that bad, although she didn't give me a hug like Mrs. Wishner did. w
"That scene, I tried to tell you about, with my father saying he lost his job, and embracing me, and my mother getting angry and me feeling afraid? Well, I had some of the parts right, but I had them mixed up. He did come home and make his announcement, and my mother did get that look on her face like she could have killed him for what he just said, although he was just as upset as she was. But the part with the baby crying and my father putting his arms around me, that's not exactly the way it was.
"What happened was, he didn't have work, those were the worst times for us, and my mother took it worse than he did. She'd get really angry sometimes, and I'd get scared. She'd be upset, moping around and really angry, and she wouldn't talk much. She hated having to go out and tell people, '"guess who ain't working again. Our life's going nowhere but to hell, and it's going there the fastest way it can!' When she was like that, the thing that really got to her was the boys making noise, especially their crying, I tried to be the good little girl, so she had no complaints about me. But the boys, she couldn't take their crying, and babies cry. You should have heard Belinda. Rich babies' cry too. Maybe they don't know they're rich."
Jacqueline broke out in a wide grin. Then, as quickly as the smile had formed, the edges of her mouth drooped and she began to cry.
"Mamma beat our boys," she said between sobs. "She beat all three of them.
I saw how they looked when she got done. Walter wasn't even eight months old when she was doing it. But she hit him. He cried even harder so she hit him harder. She hit him until he stopped breathing. I though he was dead. I went over to him but she pulled my arm and said, 'You stay away. I didn't kill him , if that's what you're thinking.' But Walter was lying there bleeding. Both his eyes were closed, and there was blood coming out of his nose. She just left him.
"Maybe there was nothing she could do. If she took him to the hospital we for sure would have had a visit from a social worker and they would have looked around, put two and two together, and decided we weren't a fit family to have these children. So they might take Walter away. That would have been worse than him lying there beat up like he was. My mother never hugged me either. She didn't hug nobody when she got mad enough to beat her own children. Nobody touched her. Maybe they should have. Probably we should have talked about it. But if they weren't going to bring up the subject I wasn't either. a
"Once, just in all those years, I talked to my brother Stevie about it. He said, 'Ain't my business what she does. If she's so upset about her husband not working that she goes and hits a baby, I say, let's be thankful she didn't start hitting her children when they were just born.' Stevie knew. He knew as much as I knew. But nobody said a word about it."
By now, Jacqueline had composed herself. "When I decided I might tell you about this," she resumed, "I decided I had to tell you about how I'm going to be when I get old enough to have children. It'd be easy for me to say I never want to be like my mother. But that wouldn't be nice. I didn't like what she did, but she didn't like it either. You don't promise never to do things like that, they just happen. My promise to myself is not to be poor when I marry. Ther must be some money around, because without it, people like my mother, they get so worried something horrible is going to happen, they begin to do horrible things. She can't stand the idea of being on welfare. I don't blame her. She didn't like the idea of her daughter working. It was like I was going out to the Wishners claiming I was poor, the same way my father would stand in the door telling us he didn't have a job again.
"She's not mean, my mother. All she wants is a simple kind of life, but she knows she's never going to get it. People like my mother who are afraid something horrible's going to happen have a reason for thinking that. She saw too many horrible things in her life. I want to be as sure as I can nothing horrible's going to happen. I mean, babies like Belinda can always fall, but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about when a man come in the door and says from now until nobody knows when, things are going to be horrible because that's the only way they can be."