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

While Esther and the doctor jostled each other in this new and delicate marriage, the male-female tension crackled, the taut cable between husband and wife hummed. Said Dr. Goldstein wistfully, "Richie saw Esther as saving his life. He saw Esther as Jesus, Mary, Joseph and Nefertiti."

As doctor Goldstein wrestled with Richie's visits during the periods of their temporary custody of the child, his wife plunged ahead. Without talking to her husband, Esther set them on the formal path of becoming foster parents. The first step required the two adults to take extensive parenting classes from the state.

Cancer, drug-addiction nightmares, financial reversals, crucial expectations left unfulfilled, the most fundamental fears of manhood and a wife whose inner demons drove her to ignore the common decency of consultation . . . stronger men short-circuit under lesser loads. Dr. Goldstein rebelled and refused to attend the lengthy classes the state demanded for all prospective foster parents.

The Daughters
If Dr. Goldstein's early antipathy to Richie pushed him into passive withdrawal, Esther's daughters lashed out directly and viciously at the intrusion of the young boy and his family into their mother's life.

"My children are pissed," said Esther. "They are jealous. They think it is wrong to have Richie in our home."

The young women, Carol, 25, and Sarah, 23, had not minced words.
"They feel free to call her a 'fucking asshole,'" Dr. Goldstein observed, "because she raised them as her friends instead of as her children. If my kids talked to me like that, I would collapse in shock."

In fact, Esther had never demanded that her daughters treat her with discretion, or parental respect. They were pals.

And so when Richie was introduced into the family, he wasn't merely an example of their mother getting on with her life, now that the daughters had moved out. Richie meant that Carol and Sarah's closest friend had dropped them for the new kid in the neighborhood.

"He is an infringement on my relationship with my mother," said Sarah.
The older daughter, already burdened with law-school debts and no job in sight, voiced practical concerns.

"It was difficult to see my mother spending money on a third child when I felt I needed her most," said Carol.

And both daughters were appalled by Richie's family. When they learned that Richie's sister had named her out-of-wedlock baby Mary Jane, Sarah sniped to Carol, "How nice. She named the baby after one of her family's favorite drugs."

Carol replied that the baby's full name might as well be Goldstein, because that's who was going to end up supporting the child.

"I was so hurt that my kids could behave like that," said Esther with a sigh.

Esther, who thought no one could deny comfort to a child in obvious pain, found her entire family united in revulsion.

And like the initial acidic response from her new husband, her daughters' vituperative reaction sprung from old wounds. The girls were nothing so simple as the snooty stepsisters in Cinderella.

Ever since Esther left the security of the college teaching ranks for the far riskier private enterprise sector in 1980, her small consulting firm had teetered on the financial edge. In addition to this very real fiscal pressure, both daughters grew up in a fishbowl. They had a well-known mother whose lifestyle choices were as disruptive as they were daring.

Throughout their lives, the demands Esther's life placed upon her daughters kept ratcheting tighter.

In stable times, Esther made as much as $60,000 a year, a solid middle-class income. But times were not always stable. And other than the specter of poor health, Esther's only admitted terror was poverty.

So financial instability did more than threaten Esther's bottom line; it spooked her heart. Both daughters grew up with Esther's ghosts--and terrors more real: From 1991 to 1993, Carol and Sarah watched helplessly as their mother faced bankruptcy.

Caught in the tail end of Arizona's real estate collapse, Esther returned from a holiday to learn that the IRS intended to put a $37,000 lien on her business. Without her knowledge, Esther's comptroller had neglected to stay current on payroll taxes; Esther sold her Mercedes, leased a Honda and paid off the government. She then faced a long line of creditors, but without a fancy car to sell off.

"She flew out to see me one weekend when I was in law school," remembered Carol. "I was having my own problems in class, but here Mom's greatest fear had come to pass. To set an example for me, she decided that weekend to try to work it all out and avoid bankruptcy.

"So, yes, money is an enormous issue. She hasn't provided properly for herself, or me," said Carol, who faces a $60,000 law-school debt. "I know the kind of expenses a young boy can rack up. She and Josh are confronting an enormous expense. At their age, they are looking at bikes, shoes, cars, college."

Esther does not argue the point.
"The financial reality is that my husband cannot afford to retire, and neither can I."

Esther's business partner at the time she faced down bankruptcy was her fourth husband, Carlos.

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