When the Hausslings went to the counter of a fast-food restaurant the other day and ordered $21.43 worth of hamburgers, fries and shakes, the mob scene of raised hands and shouted orders prompted a stranger to ask: “What is this, a boys’ club?”
“No,” said Damien Haussling softy. “It’s a family.”
And what a remarkable family.
The seven adopted sons of Ruthann and Henry Haussling of Northern Virginia are of all sizes and backgrounds. James is the oldest at 13; Luke is the youngest at 3. Ruthann and Henry are white, the kids are black.
To the world in general, the kids were problems. To the social service agencies of Virginia and the District of Columbia, they were special-need children whose natural parents could not keep them, whose lives carried too high a price.
But up the gravel road past the cornfield, in a big brick house on a hill, the boys are just Hausslings, and Ruthann and Henry are just Mom and Dad.
They all belong there along with Ollie the one-eyed tomcat and Bun-Bun the rabbit.
Thirteen years ago, when they married, the Hausslings thought they would have no children of their own and perhaps adopt one or two. But they went the adoption route first and decided to keep adopting. “Seeing how many kids needed homes,” explains Ruthann, “we didn’t see a need for producing more.”
As the Hausslings quickly discovered, most of the children who needed homes were kids with mental or physical problems. Birth control, abortion and society’s willingness to accept unwed mothers were factors in the steady decline of healthy infants put up for adoption. In Virginia, for instance, the number of healthy infants up for adoption declined threefold in the last decade, from about 1,400 to 400.
But the Hausslings do not want to be considered part of a modern-day adoption trend. Nor do they want to be considered extraordinary. With the $37,000 Henry earns as a computer specialist, the $9,000 the family receives each year in state and federal subsidies, and a priceless amount of togetherness, this family tries to live as normal a life as possible. “The thing I find irritating is when someone says, ‘Oh, you’re so wonderful’ and puts you up on a pedestal,” says Ruthann. “These are my boys. We didn’t plan to have this many. It just happened.”
It is Saturday -- Doughnut Day -- at the Hausslings. While Mom gets ready upstairs for her quilting class in town, Dad is downstairs in the playroom with the kids. Earl, Nick and Damien swivel in chairs by the bar, mouths caked with powdered sugar. The babies Luke and Jesse sit at a doll-sized table nearby, cinnamon doughnuts dwarfing their tiny hands. Andy darts around, shrieking and smiling. Jimmy is upstairs eating grapefruit; Mom thinks he’s getting pudgy.
Twenty-one doughnuts disappear very quickly. Three are left.Four kids want more.
Nick begins to whine. “There aren’t enough Dad.”
“Sure there are. What’s 3 divided by 4?”
Damien answers first. Often, the frail 9-year-old sits alone and writes out multiplication tables while the sturdier boys roughhouse. “Three remainder 1,” he offers.
“No, says Dad. Others shout answers.
Then Nick to Earl: “You can’t figure it out.”
“Neither can you, sucker,” snorts Earl, with a street-wise inflection he learned from Jimmy.
Dad glares at Earl, and the 10-year-old’s smile buckles into remorse. He leans toward Nick, hugs him from behind, kisses his neck.
“I’m sorry, Nick.”
Eight years ago, the Hausslings sought to adopt a baby girl. They got 1-year-old Earl, the first of their sons. He was crying when the caseworkers brought him to the house that day in late September. They put him down on the floor in the living room, near the window that overlooked the red and yellow leaves of the old crab apple tree. He moaned and banged his head. Ruthann was ready to cry. She recalls: “They assured me I could still change my mind.”
She didn’t, but things with Earl got worse. He hit himself in the mouth, picked at his skin. Meals ended with food on the dining room wall. At Georgetown University, Earl was diagnosed as hyperactive, bordering on autism. “There [are] places for such children,” the family doctor told the Hausslings.
That was eight years ago. One recent day, Ruthann showed a visitor a paper Earl wrote for school:
When I was at the beach I was having lots of fun swimming. One day I saw something coming up on the shore. It was a brown bottle and it had a small message. The message said, “This message is for you. You are the best person here.”
On a fine spring day, the Subaru Pirates are meeting the Thomas Co. Giants. Henry deposits Andy, 7, on the Pirates’ bench and nods distractedly as the coach explains in great detail his whiffle ball, string and clothesline technique for teaching toddlers to bat. He takes Luke, 3, and Jesse, 4, to a spot up the first-base line. There, he sits down with the morning papers, avoiding the fathers who swagger in twos and threes around the infield waiting for the game to start.
Andy, after sitting out the first two innings, comes to bat in the top of the third. Pulling the batting helmet gingerly over his dual hearing aids, he strides to the plate. Quickly, he strikes out.
He walks off the field and leans dejectedly against the backstop. Andy cries a lot, and that warning look is descending slowly over his face, a curtain of despair. Henry walks toward Andy.
“Good cuts,” the coach calls to Henry. “He took some good cuts, real good cuts.” Henry points to the coach, signs his message to Andy, who bounds off to where the other kids are and gets into a dirt-throwing battle with another boy.
Meanwhile, on the sidelines, Luke takes a toy car from his older brother Jesse. Jesse begins crying. He has been outside for an hour, and the heat makes him weak, aggravates his sickle-cell anemia. His last sickle crisis left him in the hospital for six weeks, a $10,000 expense covered by Henry’s government health insurance. All Jesse remembers are the cartoons. The Hausslings don’t have a television.
Watching a visitor trying to stop Jesse’s tears, a blond-haired little boy standing nearby runs to his father and takes one of three toy trucks from his lap. “I’m going to let that black guy play with this,” he says.
The Pirates lose by one run. One of the mothers distributes watermelon. Dad urges Andy to eat quickly; Earl, Nick and Damien are on another team and their game starts in a few minutes. Another Pirate approaches Henry. “Andy loves watermelon. He came to our class picnic and ate four pieces, and two brownies and a cookie.”
“Everybody in town knows Andy,” Henry says later. “He makes so much fuss and so much noise they can’t help it.”
But the neighbors treat Andy as a prize. At his brothers’ game, one little boy gives him two Star Wars bubblegum cards. And while the other kids stand at a distance and watch each motion jealously as a mother unwraps a candy bar, breaks it in half and hands it to her two daughters, Andy comes forward and hits his chest, shouting, “Me! Me!” The mother takes the pieces back from her daughters, breaks off a share for Andy.
At home, Ruthann allows no such liberties. “I never wanted a situation where any of the kids are put on a pedestal because of their indifferences,” she says. Andy is learning that if he goes and slugs people, he’s going to get decked himself.
“A large family is like a minisociety,” Ruthann continues. “There’s a pecking order among the kids, and they’ll fight with Andy like nobody’s business.” But that’s at home. One time the kids came home from school and told Jimmy that another kid was picking on Andy on the school bus. Jimmy was ready to go down there the next morning and take care of the bully.
Recalls Ruthann: “I said to Jimmy, ‘But you’re always hitting Andy yourself.’”
“That’s different,” Jimmy said. “He’s mine.”
Five pounds of hamburger, three pounds of coleslaw, two liters of soda. Dinner time near, Ruthann flicks on the trash-masher and turns to the mail. One letter brings a smile. It contains Jimmy’s birth records, information the doctors at John Hopkins University will need when Jimmy goes there for testing later this summer. At the top of the sheets is a whited-out name. “I’ll bet this will tell us Jimmy’s real name,” Ruthann says.
Savoring her discovery, she holds a page up to the light, then shakes her head. “No,” she says, “he doesn’t look like a -----, he looks more like a Jimmy.”
The stars are bright in the big, dark sky that meets the valley below the Haussling house. Whippoorwills sing in the woods, crickets chirp. Inside the house with the yellow porch light, Jimmy pokes his face through the iron railing on the stairs.
Long after his parents have gone to bed, he walks the floor upstairs, stopping across to caress one of Mom’s antique boxes or homemade wall hangings. He peers intently at the shelf of antique doll-house furniture, then sits down in a rocking chair and looks into the distance.
“What’re you thinking about, Jimmy?” a visitor asks.
“Nothing,” he says. He places his chin on a fist and rocks.
Jimmy doesn’t like the dark. When the 13-year-old first came at Christmas, he never slept in his bed in the alcove between the two rooms downstairs where Andy and Earl and Damien and Nick sleep in bunk beds. First he carved out a nest of clothes and towels in a closet. Then he slept under the desk in Andy’s and Earl’s room. Once, Ruthann found him crammed between the shelves under the bar. These days he mostly uses the bed, but still demands a light.
Jimmy was given up for adoption when he was 4 months old. Before he was adopted the first time, he lived in four different foster homes -- the second and third moves, the report says, resulted from community pressure about his mixed racial background. His mother, white and 24, told the hospital staff at first that Jimmy’s father was black, then changed her story and listed the father as Italian.
The first adoption ended after three years when, records say, “Jimmy’s adoptive parents blamed Jimmy for the trouble their neighbor was having at the time. The “trouble” was that the neighbor was being prosecuted in court for beating Jimmy when she baby-sat for him.
Three years later, he came to the Hausslings. Aside from his fear of the dark, there was the matter of his jacket. Red and shiny, boys’ size 18, he wore it to meals and to bed, indoors and out. When it was being washed, he waited patiently outside the laundry room. “It was a kind of security blanket for him,” Ruthann said.
But in school, Jimmy’s special education teacher saw the jacket as a behavorial problem. On the chalkboard each day, she wrote: “Jimmy should not wear his jacket in the classroom.” Then one time he shoved his teacher. The woman called Ruthann and told her, “Next time I’m going to hit him back.” Ruthann took him out of school the following day.
Jimmy no longer wears his jacket; he ran it over with the family lawn mower this spring. And he gets his education at home -- two hours a day by a county tutor, the rest of the day by Ruthann -- in one of the three upstairs bedrooms that has come to be known as “Jimmy’s Schoolroom.”
In Jimmy’s special education class at school, “They had him on a survival-skill program only,” Ruthann says. “I can’t see a 13-year-old boy whose only reading experience is, ‘The gnats sat on the hat.’”
Next year she’ll teach him the classics, having him make puppets of the characters and put on little plays. And together, Ruthann and Jimmy will study Spanish.
This summer, the Hausslings will form a Caveman Club. Using the barn as a cave, Ruthann and the kids will wear furs, grunt instead of talk and draw pictures of animals.
Ruthann says some of her boys, like Jimmy, “can’t set limits for themselves. When a situation is unstructured and they have to set down their own parameters, it makes them anxious.For Jimmy, he’s been hurt so much; his ego is so fragile.” So Ruthann and Henry have given Jimmy a role. As the oldest, he helps out with the others and takes them each day to the bus, letting each take his turn as line leader.
Nick really took to Jimmy. Although Nick has freckles, green eyes and straight red-brown hair, he recently wrote a paper in school in which he described himself as having “shiny black eyes and hair.” Nick liked the dialect Jimmy brought with him to the Haussling home. “He liked the way Jimmy talked and the way he walked, all his scowls and stuff,” Ruthann says.
One day the two came to Ruthann and said they’d be happy if they were the only children in the family. “The other kids have too many problems,” they told Mom.
“Okay,” Ruthann said. “Who should we get rid of?”
They went down the list, but kept saying, “No, we can’t get rid of Earl. No, not Jesse. . . “
They ended up keeping everybody.