At 96, Foster Mom of 162 Says Goodbye
A half century later, she still remembers the frightened faces of the first two children.
The girl was crying, red-eyed and puffy-faced.
The boy was scowling, and he flinched when she tried to unclasp a pin holding together the summer coat he wore that wintry day.
It was March 1948, and Vashti Risdall, already a mother of four grown kids, was eager to fill the emptiness of her rambling six-bedroom house. So she made a call.
Soon a social worker came knocking. And, at 45, Vashti became a foster mother.
That first night, she recalls, both little ones were too scared to eat, so she cuddled the girl to soothe her. The boy wouldn’t be touched--he wore his coat and shoes to bed and clutched a paper bag tightly. Don’t push, she thought. And she didn’t. The next morning, he relaxed a bit.
Shortly after, Vashti opened a brown spiral notebook and wrote:
1. Margaret. Two years old. Blonde. Blue eyes. A real nice little girl.
2. Robert. Four years old. Brown-eyed. Light brown hair. Very shy. Took a great shine to Pop [her husband].
“It was the beginning for me,” Vashti recalls.
The two stayed for months. But soon the notebook had names of new foster children who came, then left the Risdall home.
One book filled up, then another.
One decade passed, then another.
Before she knew it, it was December 1998. Vashti was a great-grandmother--and, at 96, still a foster mother.
It was time to call it quits, though she hated to do it.
It was time to close the notebooks.
By then, her list of children had 162 names.
Some were a few weeks old, some a few months shy of adulthood. Some were disabled and couldn’t walk or talk, some wouldn’t sit still. Some tried to run away, some didn’t want to leave.
But over Vashti’s decades of foster parenting, they all knew her as Mom. For one boy, it was official: He was adopted.
“Those 50 years went by so fast, I can hardly realize it,” she says, her voice a wistful whisper. “Sometimes I say I didn’t grow up, because I just enjoyed those children. I really did. Even the bad ones weren’t bad.”
In recent years, Vashti cared for disabled adults who had lived with her for decades. “I thought I’d die before I stopped,” she says.
But nature finally prevailed.
Vashti suffered a stroke a few years ago, her eyes are failing and her legs are slower. Still, her memory, wit and will remain strong and, even at 96, she would have continued had her 74-year-old daughter, Ardis Armstrong, not put her foot down.
But she too understands her mother’s sadness.
“It’s the end of a career,” says Armstrong, who helped Vashti with the children for many years. “It’s the end of a way of life.”
It began as a partnership between Vashti and her husband, Arthur, an easygoing World War I veteran she married when she was just 17. Clearly, though, taking in kids was her idea.
Six months, tops. That’s how long Vashti thought it would last.
But six years later when Arthur died, the door was still open. Living with her youngest son, Dean, who was physically handicapped, she continued to welcome an ever-changing brood, sometimes to the stares of disapproving neighbors.
It was an era when Dr. Benjamin Spock was guiding millions of mothers and fathers, but Vashti needed no advice in handling orphans or kids whose parents couldn’t--or wouldn’t--raise them.
She had her own brand of child psychology: Once she hid two brothers’ shoes during winter so they wouldn’t run away; another time, she talked a foster son out of leaving.
But she also knew when silence was best.
“You never, never, never talk about the families unless they want to tell you something,” she says. “It’s not a pleasant thing . . . and it’s none of my business either.”
Some nights, after diapers and dirty dishes, laundry and ironing, baths and homework, she’d tuck kids in their Army bunk beds, reassuring them that they’d see their parents again.
But some afternoons she’d watch them “hardly leave the window all day, thinking Momma’s coming--and she doesn’t come.”
Her house, she decided, had to be a refuge, no matter how long kids stayed.
“Home has got to be pleasant,” she says matter-of-factly. “Home is peaceful. If something happens outside, they have to come in and know Mom is there. She’s not going to slap them; she’s not going to be mad at them.”
“She always put herself in the child’s place,” her daughter says. “She always thought, ‘Why does that child feel bad? What would I do?’ ”
The years provided answers, and steeled her for unnerving moments.
One night she discovered a foster son walking down the street, sneakers smeared with grease, clutching crumpled papers dipped in grease and the neighbor’s back porch “nicely in blaze.” The damage turned out to be minimal, but the news made the paper.
“Police arrested a 7-year-old boy,” says a yellowing story from 1954, clipped inside one of her notebooks. It adds this detail: Vashti put out the fire.
“I spanked him,” she recalls. “What could I do? You couldn’t put him in jail.”
There were other troublemakers, but Vashti doesn’t dwell on negatives. “I can laugh about almost anything,” she says, her heavy-lidded eyes lighting up, a calm, knowing smile deepening the creases in her face.
“Vashti remembers the good in life,” says Kathy Cullen, a social worker in Ramsey County, which honored her recently for her foster-care service.
Vashti has another explanation: “I think God has been with me all the way.”
And the reality is, most misdeeds she encountered were decades ago and relatively harmless. There’s a Bedford Falls-like innocence when she recalls her boys pushing a Coke vending machine out of a building or taking cars for joyrides.
As Vashti pages through her notebooks, each name has a story:
There was Del, No. 73, who took his $200 from his paper route and ran away with a friend to Chicago, where they dyed their hair, then headed to his uncle’s farm in Michigan.
“You can’t blame him for wanting to find some relatives,” Vashti says.
There was Shirley, remembered with this notation: “Called me more plain and fancy names than I’d ever heard in my life.”
There was Pete, a boxer, who became a paratrooper before a violent end noted in another faded newspaper clip: He was shot and killed while trying to rob a gas station.
Vashti, of course, was notified of his death. “Pete had no other home,” she says.
Then there was Leonard, who arrived in his late teens.
“He came to us one day and said, ‘Mom, you’ve got to adopt me. I just have to belong.’ ” Months later, he became a Risdall. Leonard died a few years ago of cancer.
A handful of the 162 kids didn’t work out and left. But most, she hated to see go. And each time one was adopted or joined the military or was reunited with family, she cried.
“I got to thinking, this has got to be selfish,” she says. “I said, ‘Do I think I’m going to be the only one who’s nice to that child . . . ? Of course, that person who wants them is going to be nice . . . and I can’t keep them all.’ So I had to talk myself out of that or I would have gone crazy.”
But, she adds: “Every one that left, left a little empty spot in my heart.”
Sentimental to this day, she has saved ink-smeared report cards, handwritten lists of inoculation dates, dogeared growth charts. She recalls the corner in her dining room where she rocked an autistic girl with croup long ago and the exact words of a social worker who deposited a boy with cerebral palsy at her door and asked that he be walking in six months.
“Give me a year,” Vashti replied. He left walking.
“She never asked of a child what a child couldn’t give,” says Cullen, the social worker. And she always gave of herself.
Cullen remembers a foster-parent support group meeting a few years ago when someone told the 90-something Vashti, “Now is the time in life to sit back and relax.”
No way. There were more children to help.
Since the 1970s, she raised disabled children who grew into adults under her roof.
Jo Ann, a 41-year-old with cerebral palsy, came from an institution at age 13 and remained for 10 years.
“She was a fantastic mother,” she says. “She treated me like a person. She was just there for me.” Once, she recalls, Vashti, then in her 70s, knew she adored wrestling, so they attended a match where, Jo Ann says, “I screamed so loud that I lost my voice.”
They now talk almost daily. “I consider her my mother,” Jo Ann says.
Carl, who arrived as a 4 1/2-year-old in restraining straps and harness, stayed 27 years. Now 36, he owns a house, works as a janitor and, for Easter, brought Vashti home-cooked ham. “I just let him grow up,” Vashti says.
Mary, who is 32 with Down syndrome, was No. 162.
She left just before the New Year after spending nearly her entire life with Vashti.
“I cried and cried until I just shook,” Vashti says. “It’s hard now to come down to nothing.”
Though her daughter lives upstairs, Vashti is alone for the first time in her long life. Kind of.
She has 11 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren. And memories of 162 more.
“I don’t know if I’ve been a good mother,” she says. “I think I’ve been a friend.”