New York Newsday By Jeff Pearlman
The moment Mabel McCormick hit rock bottom occurred exactly 27 months ago, on a frigid February evening when nothing –absolutely, positively nothing – would go right. Throughout the years, the then-23-year-old Brooklyn native had experienced her share of lowly times, from becoming pregnant at 15 to dropping out of high school to being evicted from her mother’s home to discovering unfamiliar hickeys up and down her husband’s neck. Miraculously, she survived each setback. With tears and heartache, yes. But she survived.
Now, however, it was all too much. Pregnant, homeless and unable to afford a baby-sitter for her second child, Jeffrey, a rambunctious 3-year-old whom nobody in the neighborhood was willing to watch, Mabel dragged him to a prayer group at the home of an elderly couple. As she began to mingle with other adults, Mabel looked across the room and spotted Jeffrey taking video cassettes from a cabinet and stuffing them forcefully into the VCR.
“JEFFREY, STOP THAT!”
“JEFFREY! THAT ISN’T OUR STUFF!”
It was no use. Jeffrey was on a tear. Tired of the tapes, he picked up a nearby guitar and – POW – slammed it into the ground. The noise was deafening. “It was the most humiliating moment of my life,” Mabel says. Eventually, as everyone bowed their heads in prayer, she grabbed her son by the arm and quickly left the apartment, never to return.
For the next 20 minutes, mother and son waited for the B63 at the bus stop on the corner of Bay Ridge and Fifth avenues. When it finally arrived, Jeffrey irrationally bolted down the street like a deer chased by a cougar. By the time Mabel tracked him down, the bus was long gone. The two could either wait another half hour, or hike the 40 blocks. “I sat him on the bench and walked away,” Mabel says. “I was crying and crying, just overwhelmed. I left him there. Simply left him there….”
As she speaks, Mabel’s eyes glaze and her voice trails off. Normally bubbly, with a melodic Betty Boop pitch, her words come listlessly. It is hard to talk about, she admits, because it brings back memories of a person she never particularly liked or respected. Guilt forced her to turn around and retrieve her son, but that’s hardly the point. “That was my lowest point as a mother,” she says. “I never want to get back there again. Never.”
* * *
Mabel McCormick never has gone back. Never. Right around the time of the bus incident, with nowhere else to turn, she began attending parenting counseling at Family Reception Center, a well-regarded social service agency in Brooklyn.
Many of the discussions centered on frustration. Mabel cherished her children. But, quite frankly, they drove her bananas. “Talking about being a better mom was soooo important,” she says. “You can’t be ready for everything when you’re so young, and I never got a real education on how to raise kids. I needed it.” Although she does not easily admit so much, once upon a time Mabel was – flat out – a bad mother. Not malicious and certainly not abusive. Just unprepared and overwhelmed. That’s what happens when you’re a sophomore at Franklin D. Roosevelt High School in Sunset Park and you don’t use a condom; when morning sickness is so crippling that it forces you to stay home instead of attending classes; when your mother, who once, looking at your high grades and limitless future, called you “My hope,” kicks you out of the house with nowhere else to go; when you’re just happy to have a warm floor to sleep on; when the father of your three children lies, cheats and – on Mother’s Day 2000, of all days – tells you he wants a divorce.
She is 25 years old now, a full-time secretary at Anchor House, a Brooklyn drug rehabilitation program, with a GED and plans to attend college and become a teacher. Two months ago, she married Michael McCormick, an Anchor House counselor who often marvels at how Mabel has bounced back from so many hammerings. Most impressive, she has become Supermom. The woman who once almost ditched her son at a bus stop now calmly, coolly forces him to take a time out when he climbs under the table during lunch at Pizzeria Uno on a recent Saturday afternoon. The woman whose mother gave her the boot smothers her children in kisses and promises – swears, even – “I will never, ever, ever abandon my kids that way.” When she wakes up for Mother’s Day this Sunday, Mabel will be greeted by a husband with designs on cooking her a full-course dinner that night. Her children – 8-year-old Chassity, Jeffrey, 5, and Josef, 2 – will surely coat her with hugs and I LOVE YOUs, as they commonly do.
To Mabel, as well as countless mothers in similar positions, Mother’s Day is not simply another Hallmark-produced excuse to buy chocolate and roses and drop $150 on a snazzy dinner. No, it is a celebration of achievement. Of survival. Of entering motherhood as an unprepared teenage ignoramus and – against the odds – excelling.
“People don’t always understand the struggle these women go through,” says Dave Gregorio, director of Covenant House’s Rights of Passage program. “Bad childhoods, bad men, low self-esteem. The real mark of success for the mothers we see isn’t getting a job or finding a good partner. It’s doing those things, and having your child thrive. If you can do that, you can do anything. Absolutely anything.”
Gregorio pauses. “But it’s not easy.”
Because The Box was darker than the blackest of nights, Melanie does not remember seeing the creatures sneak around her space, scavenging for food or skin to nibble on. But the sounds – how can she forget?Eeek, eeek, eeek.
What is that?
Scratch, scratch, scratch.
What the hell is that!?
Eeek, eeek. Scratch, scratch.
God … God! Help me, God!
As Melanie huddled in the corner of The Box – a 10-by-10-foot isolation chamber with a tiny hole for oxygen –her imagination went crazy. There were monsters. Big monsters. Monsters that sucked brains and crushed hearts. Monsters that wanted to kill her. Yeah, she shouldn’t have been dealing heroin. And yeah, it was a mistake to drive a large shipment from New York to Pennsylvania – a federal offense. But the penalty was severe – five to 15 years at Monroe County Prison, one of Pennsylvania’s toughest. And then 30 days in The Box, the ruthless punishment for fighting.
Eeek, eeek, eeek.
That noise. That horrible noise. Melanie did anything she could to drown it out. Sing. Hum. Mostly, think. She replayed the details of her life, usually beginning with that day eight years earlier, when she returned from high school to an empty house and a note on the kitchen table. Her father had raised Melanie and her younger brother in Flushing from as far back as she could remember, and now … this?
Sorry, but I’m leaving.
Sure, there was more to the note. But not much more. Melanie was 15 years old, and suddenly the head of the household. There were no nearby relatives to turn to, and she knew the perils of foster care. So Melanie did what Melanie needed to do: She sold drugs. At first, marijuana. Then cocaine, ecstasy and heroin. She was making $300 a day, $1,200 on weekends, driving a sweet car and attracting the most handsome neighborhood men.
Then she was busted.
A couple of days after entering Monroe County, Melanie, 23 at the time, took a blood test and learned that she was pregnant with her second child. (Her son Anthony, who lives with his father, was born when she was 18.) “I cried, because I knew I’d lose her,” says Melanie, who requested that her last name not be used. “It was the first time I felt real responsibility as a parent. I begged for anything – probation, work … anything to keep me with my daughter.” Following seven horrific months at Monroe County, Melanie was transferred to Rikers Island, where her daughter, Stephanie, was born.
Eight months later, Melanie’s life began anew. A judge agreed to send her and Stephanie to the Harlem-based Odyssey House, a drug treatment and mental health housing facility, and New York State’s largest residential mother-and-child program. At Odyssey House, the women engage in job-training programs, vocational counseling and – most vital for Melanie – parenting classes. “When people come here, a lot of them don’t understand that when a baby cries, the child needs something,” says Peter Provet, Odyssey House’s president. “Or when a baby should be fed. Or changed. It’s all a mystery.”
Such was the case with Melanie, who used to leave her baby son for hours to make drug deliveries. After completing Odyssey’s 10-week parenting skills course, she handles Stephanie with the confidence and dexterity of a veteran baby nurse.
On the facility’s colorful playground, Melanie coos constantly at her daughter – a beautiful girl with cafe au lait skin and an infectious giggle. “Get the ball! Go on, get the ball!”
Game but confused, Stephanie darts for the nearest tricycle. Her mother cracks up.
“Now that I look back, I’m ashamed of the mother I was,” says Melanie, who is looking for a secretarial job to take upon graduating from the program in two months. “I’d let my son do whatever he wanted, and I didn’t care. It was pathetic.” Now, she visits her son on weekends and revels in her daughter’s progress. “To me, the best satisfaction comes from seeing her grow, and knowing I’m responsible.”
Were parenting skills somehow tied to bowling ability, Shaunette Morris would be a superstar. While attending George W. Wingate High School in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in the late ’90s, Shaunette was a hotshot on the bowling team, once rolling a 230 and often hitting the 190s. “I was pretty good,” she says with a sly smile. “I threw a couple of strikes every so often.”
Then the 17-year-old senior with good grades and college aspirations got pregnant and gave birth to her daughter, Makeda. It was a theme heard way too often in the social work arena – the adolescent girl’s quest for love. “My mom and I were going through some problems,” says Shaunette, now 23. “I thought if I had a baby, I’d have someone to need me.” She pauses, awkwardly. “Sounds silly,” she says. “But back then….”
Things did not go as planned. Shaunette’s mother kicked her out of the house, and on Aug. 26, 1998, she moved to a youth shelter operated by Covenant House, where the mission is to provide room and board, child-care and life skills to homeless youth. Makeda, now a happy-go-lucky 5-year-old with a pet goldfish and her mother’s smile, struggled from the get-go, speaking only on rare occasions and routinely fighting for Mom’s attention by acting out. When her daughter misbehaved, Shaunette held back, fearful of providing excessive discipline. “You’re young and stupid,” she says reflectively. “You have no idea what’s going on.”
Like Mabel and Melanie, Shaunette turned to education. She was paired with a mentor who offered nonstop child-care advice, and she received a great deal of one-on-one parenting guidance from the Covenant House staff. Slowly but surely, with more encouragement and increased interaction, Makeda began to open up. She laughed and smiled more. Even responded positively to discipline. “I’ve always loved her so much,” says Shaunette, sitting cross-legged on the floor of her two-bedroom apartment. “It made me happy to see her having more fun in life.”
During her early days at the shelter, Shaunette began working at Ezekiel’s, a restaurant Covenant House owns and operates (as a training center) in the West Village. One could make the case that Shaunette’s bread pudding is the city’s finest. In two months, she is scheduled to graduate from the New York Restaurant School. Mother and daughter live together in an apartment in Crown Heights. The dream for herself is to start her own restaurant; for Makeda, to make sure she studies hard and attends college and doesn’t make the same mistakes her mother did.
“Sometimes, someone will ask Makeda what she wants to be when she’s older,” says Shaunette. “And she’ll say, ‘I want to be just like Mommy.’ That makes me feel special. Like every day is Mother’s Day.”
Copyright (c) 2003, Newsday, Inc.