When she is finally widowed at age twenty-seven, Helen Tadmore has enough training to start working at a pre-school and the wits she’d need to study her way up to elementary school teacher. She tries her hand at public daycare once, about three months after her husband is under the ground. It takes less than a week before she and the principal decide she won’t thrive under the official restrictions.
Just as money starts getting tighter than she really likes, Helen gets talking to the friend of a friend who knows of a little boy in need of a place to live while the courts search for a relative fit to be given custody. Eventually, his aunt gets enough of a grip on her life to take him in, but before that little Amos ends up staying with Helen for over a year. By then, eight-year-old Shauna is waiting in the wings. Twelve-year-old Mikey has come and gone.
Helen finds she can do society more good by staying at home than by struggling for a teacher’s license. What little the government pays her to take in uprooted little angels is a means to an end. It’s not the incentive she needs to give the task she has found for herself her all. A few years after Amos, she has up to six children in her care at any one time.
They're good kids, the little devils, even if their own mothers never saw fit to teach them any manners. Helen gives them a roof over the head and food on the table and a strict schedule of chores and homework. A raised voice and the occasional good thrashing never does them any harm.
Grateful neighbors whenever she supervises their respective broods aside, Helen is fully aware of how most society sees her. She can tell the thoughts by strangers’ eyes often enough. Black, single. Can’t keep a man. Too ignorant to use/teach her daughters to use protection.
None of them know, none of them care, and none of them will be told because it's none of their business: Helen is the best alternative, is in fact the best thing that has ever happened to any and all of the kids that call her ‘Nana’ over the course of thirty years. People who see her march a gaggle of children of all ages around the streets don't know that Helen has, in fact, never herself been pregnant even once. She's got eyes and likes compliments as much as any sister but she has long since found that she doesn't need a man for herself, although sometimes she likes the fantasy of one.
That woman at the bus stop who keeps turning up her nose at Isabelle’s handmade skirts will never know that Helen tells each foster child to find one thing for themselves that they truly want. For Isabelle, sewing new items out of second hand clothing was it. That man accusing little Alec of pick-pocketing on the subway the other day will never know that Helen uses school hours to teach herself all manner of things that schools won’t teach. How to act in all kinds of situations and when to speak and think without their neighborhood’s inflections - and when to let it all go and turn everything that flits through their mind into a cuss – is the least of it.
The circumstances of their birth would keep her kids back. She won’t have it.
And if one or two leave the nest and pursue their happiness through less than legal means… Well, Helen is a woman of ailing health who can’t be expected to know what all they do, but what she does know is that she raised her girls to be as independent as she has become and her boys to be men her younger self could have relied on.