When Kathleen Piñon-Cassidy heard the doorbell and walked over to answer, she opened the door to an affirmation of her life.
Standing on the porch was a young woman with her sweetheart alongside. Though Kathleen had not seen her for a dozen years and had known her for only a few months, she immediately spoke the woman’s name — Jennifer — followed by a big hug.
Jennifer had stopped by to introduce Kathleen to her fiancé. And perhaps to show her man that being embraced by such a woman as Kathleen was an affirmation of worth.
The young woman had been a foster child of Kathleen’s, delivered to her care as an abused child.
Jennifer didn’t remember Kathleen’s last name or her address. But she did remember the route from her temporary school to Kathleen’s sedate Mission Hills house in San Diego.
She went to the school and backtracked. After a few blocks, she stood before the Piñon-Cassidy large, Spanish-style home that has been reconfigured for seven bedrooms, none of which was or is allowed to stay empty.
Why would Jennifer return to that hiding place from her troubled childhood? The answer is the love that Kathleen pours out on children like anointing oil.
“That night, my daughter made me feel a little sad,” Kathleen says, “because she said, ‘Mom, she was only in your house for four months when she was a kid. It’s sad you’re the one she wants to introduce her fiancé to.’
“At first I was unhappy at that, but then I thought: Maybe I’m not the only one. Maybe I’m just one of many people. So then I cheered up again.”
That provides insight into Kathleen’s spirit. She knows her daughter was probably right, but she has no room for the idea. This woman crushes negativity like flies with a swatter.
Kathleen, 76, is that older woman down the block, of whom your mother always said: She never has an unkind word about anyone.
In her youth among the tenements of Providence, R.I., where there was never a shortage of rascally kids to hug, she saw plenty of children adrift like small boats in rough water.
Kathleen, who had been a social worker, and her husband, Ramon Piñon, a biology professor, moved to San Diego 42 years ago for him to teach at UC San Diego.
Kathleen greets everybody with the leprechaun smile of her Irish upbringing. That good cheer has persevered through the parenting of 10 of their own children — including four adoptees — plus foster-parenting 129 children in 12 years, mostly on a short-term emergency basis. She has also mothered 280 foreign-exchange students from 52 countries.
Whew! Which one do you help with homework?
“I told Ramon, before I married him, that I wanted a dozen children, and he agreed,” she says.
Well, everyone “agrees” to things in the thrall of romance, Kathleen, don’t you think?
“Well,” she says mischievously, “a man’s only as good as his word. And he didn’t get me No. 11. So I told him, when we’re in the old-age home and no one comes to visit us, I’m going to say, ‘Number 11 would be sitting right here beside us.’ ”
Kathleen is grateful for Ramon’s patience and support, and rightly so. Think about some of the guys you know — not all, some — can you imagine their reaction coming home from work, or on a football Sunday, to a half-dozen rug rats in front of the TV?
Kathleen, there is kind of a sentiment in the black community that black children should not be adopted by white people. What do you think of that?
“I think it’s crazy. My son married a black woman, and I have four gorgeous black grandsons, and if they’re black, I’m black.”
Told there’s a controversy that some foster parents are motivated mainly by money to take in children with an attendant lack of affection and care, Kathleen blinks in amazement. “No one would do that!”
Yes, they would, Kathleen. Yes, they would.
Kathleen stopped fostering children several years ago but still opens her home to foreign college students needing a place to stay for a few weeks or a semester. She currently houses five. She loves having them around and cooking for them. Not long ago, a Korean former student-resident visited with his family. As they left, the daughter gave a note to Kathleen: “Hello, grandparents. I am living in Seoul. I am 6 years old. I am happy to have dinner with you. Thank you.”
Her own children, remarkably, willingly shared their bedrooms and Kathleen’s affection with their needy house guests. Aside from the usual kids’ kerfuffles, Kathleen recalls no incidents harmful to either set of children. She believes that, as a life experience, her own children profited by growing up in a laboratory of love.
Kathleen, didn’t your own children show jealousy, like, “Mom, why are you giving all this attention to these strangers? Pay some attention to me.”
“It’s normal for kids in a large family to feel a little of that, but I don’t think it was because of the foster kids. I honestly don’t. However, I tried to be sensitive to that. That’s why I mainly took preschool little ones, even though school-age children were less work.
“What I maybe misjudged is how difficult it is to be an adoptive child in a home where others are birth children. You know what I mean? Maybe a child is thinking, ‘I’ll bet she loves (birth children) more because I’m adopted.’ Of course, they’re all your children.
“One boy, when he was a teenager, said to me, ‘You’re not my real mother.’ ”
At one time or another, doesn’t every adopted child lash out in anger with those words?
“I suppose so.”
Kathleen has had a knee replacement and a shoulder replacement but says she has one unsatisfied ambition: She would like a redheaded child.
I understand, Kathleen. How can you be Irish without a redhead in the family?
“Ramon says to me, ‘If you wanted a redhead, why did you marry a Mexican?’ ”
Of her 10 children, the youngest is 29. All are doing fine. There are only a few of the foster children that she’s in touch with, but she intuitively knows life has been tougher for them. However, she says most are living good lives.
Cute and heart-rending though they may be, foster children do not arrive on the doorstep out of a vacuum. They bring the victimhood of screwed-up parents and treatment that causes pain and scarring.
I know you don’t like to talk about it, Kathleen, but you must have gotten some really troubled children.
“Uh, well ...”
We’ve all seen what can happen to mistreated kids.
She nods slowly. “Yes … some children, I was glad when they left, that’s true. … There was this one little girl, she was about 10. She said to me about her social worker, ‘He’s going to do what I want, because if he won’t, I’ll say he molested me.’ And so I called the social worker and I said, ‘Listen, don’t be alone with that child. (Meet with her) in my house. I’ll be in the kitchen.’ But you know, that whole thing scared me.”
The same Jennifer who appeared at the door, when she was in Kathleen’s care, told classmates at school that her father had raped her. True, but it made Jennifer something of an oddity to classmates, which, almost inevitably, also made her isolated and teased at that vulnerable age.
“And so they made fun of her, and she ran away from school. I explained to her, ‘It’s not that they want to be mean to you, it’s that they’re scared. They’re scared that if it could happen to you, something bad could happen to them.’ About bad things like that, I would tell them not to tell (others), but sometimes kids talk anyway.
“One little girl, all she could talk about to the social worker was that my husband drank wine with his meal and didn’t get mean.”
Another child in Kathleen’s care — actually, now a man — was recently convicted of murder. Kathleen, however, believes he was treated too harshly by the system and has come to his defense.
“Emotionally, (the conviction) upset me terribly. He had a sweetness in him, a goodness in him. He was good to animals. He’d carry my bunny around. There’s something good about people that are good to animals.”
Kathleen, how did it affect you when a child left you and you knew he or she was probably going back to a bad situation?
“That was hard. That really was hard. Because you feared what was going to happen to them. But I did all that I could for them.”
Asked why she basically sacrificed a lifetime of quiet evenings at home by having a platoon of kids fighting for the bathrooms and grabbing at the breakfast toast, Kathleen says: “I am a strong Catholic. I go to Mass every Sunday, but it wasn’t mainly a religious thing. …
“I just love children.”
Given the opportunity, Kathleen would clasp all the needy children of the world to her bosom. But since she can’t, she spreads a wide blanket of love over the remainder.
Just because the children leave her home does not mean they leave her heart.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
Email is [email protected]