Imagine cringing every time someone asked you a simple question like “Where did you grow up?” or “Where are you from?” Dante Drummond, a successful Palo Alto, California business woman, dreaded those questions for most of her life. Whenever anyone asked her about her childhood, she made up an answer to avoid telling people she grew up in foster care.
By the time Dante was 16 years old, she’d moved 17 times and attended 12 different schools. Her tumultuous childhood was scary and unpredictable. The only reliable constant in her life was change — new homes, new families, new experiences — always adapting to new lifestyles.
Amid the chaos, long-term relationships were hard to form. But Dante was full of love and wanted to be loved. As a young child, she was shuttled back and forth between her two parents who had each remarried, spent time living with her grandmother and aunt, and placed in many foster homes that would provide temporary sanctuaries.
In 2013, after a 35-year career in real estate, she decided to share her story, Homeward Bound: Memoirs of a Foster Child. She wanted her mother and two grown daughters to know who she was and what she’d experienced as a child.
That year she attended a conference and was inspired by the speaker, Andrew Bridge, who shared his journey in the foster care system. Bridge is a New York Times bestselling author, lawyer and advocate for children in foster care. He encouraged Dante to write a book and offered to help her. The following week she took a memoir class and began by writing the answer to one simple question her teacher posed: “What was the best day of your life?”
Dante imagined that Katharine Hepburn was her real mother instead of being a “lost child.” She was strong, powerful, confident and independent — just like Dante wanted to be. She’d seen her on TV and instantly fell in love. Rather than feel weak, alone and afraid, she made the decision to identify with a powerful person and claimed Hepburn as her mother. Dante thought she resembled her mother as she remembered her from when she was six years old.
When the class ended, Dante continued to work one-on-one with her teacher, Phyllis Butler. After two years of editing and re-writing, Dante published her book. Throughout that period, she was plagued with doubt and asked herself, who cares? Why do you think of yourself as so important that people would want to read about you? Would she offend people in her family?
And oh, the exposure. Would she want the general public to read it? Would she feel ashamed by revealing her past? Would it adversely affect her career?
Dante shared her inspirational story at our March GaGa Sisterhood meeting. She shared the touching moment when she reconnected with her mother at age 19. She got a call from her father who told her, “I found your mother and she wants to say hello.” After 13 years of waiting, she heard her mother say, “Hi baby, this is your mother,” and they both cried.
Now Dante is close with her mother, and cherishes the time she spends with her two daughters and two grandsons. She feels like a different person who has released her past and knows herself better. She underwent a metamorphosis of character and spirit. She overcame feelings of self-doubt and unworthiness through perseverance and determination.
She is especially grateful for the loving influence of one foster mom who cared for her for three years. On Mother’s Day in 2009, Dante re-connected with that foster mom, Mamma Jo. She sent Dante the Mother’s Day card that Dante had given her when she was 16 years old. In the card, Dante thanked her for putting up with her and said she would never forget her.
In the card was a 5 x 7 photo of Dante at the age of 13 when she’d first come to live at Mamma Jo’s house. As Dante looked at the image of herself, she was so overcome with emotion she had to sit down.
So this was the little girl who had caused all the trouble — the one who had been passed on from one home to another at least nine times by then — beaten, neglected, abused, and teased — the child for whom no one would take serious responsibility to protect and even more importantly, proudly claim as worthy enough to be their own daughter.
It was true what my step-mother had once said: I was a pathetic and pitiful-looking child and as I looked at my picture, I could see the pain in those eyes as if recalling a tragic flash-back. I relived the memory of this awkward, fragile and gangly red-headed girl as she stood up in front of a classroom of kids every year. Then the relentless questions that followed about her family history, and the lies she felt she had to tell to cover up the truth. I realized the teasing and cruelty that came later from the mouths of bullies had grown to be predictable and expected.
Something deep within my soul cried out for her. I wanted to hold her in my arms and tell her that she was loved and that she would be loved by many and that everything would turn out all right in the end.
Dante took that photograph upstairs with her to the safety of her room and lay down on the bed with it held close to her heart. It was as if she had taken that child in her arms and hugged her and they’d cried together.
For three days she held onto the photograph and a metamorphosis began to take place — the child and the adult were blending together as one. Somehow she knew that child had always lived there deep down inside her just waiting to be discovered, waiting to be reborn to someone who would fully understand and accept her for the valuable being that she was — someone she could belong to who was willing to give her the unconditional love that she so badly needed and deserved.
Dante vowed to be that person — the attentive parent she never had. She would love her for who she was, for everything she was not, for everything she had done and for everything that had been done to her by others. Dante would never abandon or neglect her or go away. She would always be there for her.