Family Affairs

A professional Phoenix woman wanted to help one poor, "at risk" family. It was the type of private initiative that both political parties say will ease the harsh impacts of welfare reform. Her three-year experiment in personal responsibility rescued an 1

With Thanksgiving only a few short weeks away, Esther considered the upcoming dinner and the disastrous holiday a year earlier, when her daughters behaved so poisonously and broke her heart.

She accepted, understood, forgave.
"My children chose not to live in Phoenix," said Esther. "I think, at this time in my life, I could easily have had a really empty life. My husband works 12 hours a day.

"I could not make a life out of being Mrs. Dr. Goldstein. And that's nothing to do with Josh. It's just that I am an independent person. My children were my ideology for quite a while. Maybe that's why my kids were upset by Richie."

As Thanksgiving 1996 loomed, Esther's daughters reappraised the situation.
Both daughters no longer have one foot in their childhood home and one foot out. Today they are more independent. With their own lives in full swing, they are better able to allow Esther to go on with hers.

"People, my friend's parents, for example, suggested she should have been present during the surgery, and there again to dispense chicken soup afterwards. But she is the reason I am as independent as I am. She taught me to stand on my own two feet," said Carol.

And Carol's shock at Richie's presence during her mom's visit has subsided.
"When Richie came out to California with her, he really busied himself. He rented a bike one day, roller blades the next. He picked up that there was something different going on. He's very perceptive, quietly so.

"I know I am at the top of my mother's list; but there are others on her list."

Sarah recently concurred.
"She doesn't mother in the conventional sense," said Sarah. "She mothers in ways that are critical, unique and more effective than conventional mothering."

Instead of focusing upon their disappointments with their mother, both ladies take nourishment from Esther's efforts prior to the surgery.

"I have more acceptance now," said Sarah. "I think Richie has come further. I think I can be more generous. I accept it more because of the time that has passed. Our family is constantly changing its boundaries, so there are periods of adjustment."

A Better Thanksgiving
Esther could not believe her eyes on Thanksgiving Day.
"Richie was cracking jokes, talking with everyone. He was damned near debonair," said Esther.

He also pitched in without anyone asking, polishing silverware, setting the table and volunteering to help.

"I'll bet I'm the only 14-year-old boy emptying out the dishwasher at 6:30 in the morning," he told Dr. Goldstein.

The doctor initiated the youngster into the ritual of Goldstein's turkey stuffing, which involved all sorts of secret ingredients--especially giblets--that you must not tell the womenfolk about.

Richie's younger brother, John, spent the holiday at the Goldsteins', and the two boys romped together all day.

Carol was as astonished as her mother.
"I could not believe how much he grew up over the past year. He seemed like an average middle-class kid.

"Richie assumed the role of guardian with his younger brother. He told John to tuck in his shirt, not to play ball in the house, and how to act appropriately around adults."

Despite the obvious relief over the joyous gathering, Esther's turmoil is not over. A permanent custody hearing awaits. Esther no longer believes, as she once did, that she was solely responsible for the destruction of Richie's family; she acknowledges the role of crack.

But if she has forgiven herself, she knows also that she was midwife to a mother's worst nightmare: a family's breakup.

She remains troubled over the very idea of taking another woman's child.
"The state could come to me and say that I slept with too many men, that it was an inappropriate atmosphere for children to grow up in. I have always lived an alternative lifestyle. How would I feel?

"I break rules every single day. But if someone told me I wasn't a good mother, I would shoot them at close range."

As for the heartache she endured when her husband and daughters rejected Richie, she is philosophical. During her darkest moments, Esther fell back upon her belief in family values--her husband's traditional approach and her own more experimental ones.

The mutual acquaintance who introduced her to the doctor warned Esther in the beginning that Goldstein's greatest shortcoming was that he was too involved with his own kids. She believed in Josh. And Esther's faith in her daughters' decency, in the way they were raised, sustained her.

That faith was well-founded. Even during the worst moments with Richie, her daughters spoke glowingly of their mother.

"She has been the profound influence in my life," said Carol. "She is involved in everything in my life. . . . Not many of my peers would say that about their parents."

The youngest daughter, Sarah, had an abortion last year, and she is brutally frank about choosing that option. She did not think she was prepared to be as good a mom as Esther.

"She gives so much and teaches so much. Her motivations are so well-intentioned," said Sarah. "She is more evolved than any other human being I know."

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