A mom for every child

May 11, 2001 12:00 am
Mildred Gales home is filled with the memories of the 52 foster children who for a time called her mom. (Baker City Herald photograph by S. John Collins).
Mildred Gales home is filled with the memories of the 52 foster children who for a time called her mom. (Baker City Herald photograph by S. John Collins).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

Mildred Gale told herself, promised herself, that she wouldnt cry when she thought about the day before, the day they took the kids away.

Then she went to church and she cried anyway.

When I got there I couldnt help it, Gale said. That was always the hard part when they came and took them away.

And they always came.

It is the feeling every foster parent knows. And Mildred Gale felt it more often than most.

Fifty-one times, in fact.

Thats how many children she and her husband, Henry, welcomed into their Baker City home during their quarter-century as foster parents.

There were babies and toddlers and teen-agers. Some stayed with the Gales for just a short time; a few remained for years.

No matter their age or circumstances, though, for at least a little while every one of those children knew they had a father and a mother who loved them.

Henry Gale died 12 years ago. The Gales had been married 52 years.

Although she was alone in her home, Mildred decided to accept another foster child, her 52nd. But it didnt work out.

The boy got into trouble, stole some things. One day they came to get him, except the they this time wasnt the state child welfare workers, but the police.

She cried that day, too.

But most of what Gale, 84, remembers about her years as a foster mother provokes laughter.

Like the time her daughter, Pam, one of the couples two biological children, was home from college.

The Gales had a foster son then, Bobby, and he was leading Pam on a chase through the familys home at the corner of College and B streets.

Pam had almost caught Bobby as they sprinted from the kitchen into the dining room.

But the younger boy zigged, jumped onto the table, ran across it and went the other way, leaving Pam with a handful of air.

Pam went on to a career as a flight attendant with TWA. She married James Murphy, a captain for the airline, and now lives in Boulder City, Nev.

The Gales other child was Byron. They called him Ron, and he was three years older than Pam.

Ron was killed in a car accident when he was 19.

Mildred said she and Henry had considered being foster parents even before the tragedy, but their minister at the Methodist Church advised the couple not to accept foster children until Pam had gone away to college.

They waited, and after Pam left the Gales desperately wanted children to look after.

We had this big house six bedrooms, three bathrooms and we needed some activity in it, Mildred said. It sure was lonely.

So for 25 years the Gales offered shelter and love to children who were not receiving those two necessities from their own parents.

Mildred admits the task was not always easy.

Children who end up in foster care have not had the carefree, happy life all parents wish for their kids. The problems sexual and physical abuse, abandonment, parents dying unexpectedly could break the heart of even a cynic.

Theyve been through a lot of turmoil, Mildred said. But we just liked children, and we thought we could help some of them.

And the children themselves made sure the Gales knew they had achieved that goal.

The couple watched their former foster children be married, visited their homes, googled at their own children.

At Christmas time we get wonderful letters, Mildred said.

Her use of we even now, 12 years after her husbands death, tells much about her 52 years with Henry.

He was a wonderful husband, she said. He could tell yarns that you couldnt imagine.

Thanks to their daughters and son-in-laws jobs with TWA, the Gales were able to travel extensively for a pittance.

Once they flew across the country for $10. There were free flights to Japan and Australia.

On one trip the Gales were part of a guided tour. The guide was narrating, but he noticed that Henry, who read a lot of history books, seemed to know every fact on the tour script.

He told Henry, I think Ill just turn over the tour to your, Mildred said with a laugh.

Despite their busy schedule of raising foster children and running Gales Market, the couple also managed to renovate the College Street home they bought in 1955.

The Gales essentially rebuilt the home.

Their efforts were celebrated in a feature story in the Democrat-Herald, the former name of the Baker City Herald, in 1972.

Mildred remembers that the day they moved in the house had neither doors nor windows. They covered the openings with blankets.

When she returned from work the next day, Henry had installed the doors.

He was a wonderful carpenter, Mildred said.

Henry built the homes stone fireplace by hand, using rock left over from the construction of U.S. Bank on Main Street.

As Mildred tells the tale she points from her seat on a sofa, this whole floor was just covered with rocks. Henry would say, I need one this size and I would hand it up to him.

Henry may have been a craftsman, but he had the eye of an artist.

Instead of installing a storebought metal grate over the air vent above the fireplace opening, he fashioned slices of shale-like rock he collected near Durkee.

Mildred asked him to build a small alcove near the top of the fireplace.

When she returned from work that evening the alcove was done. She flips a switch and an amber light glows there.

Perhaps the hardest thing about raising 52 foster children is deciding which stories to tell someone who asks you about your favorites.

Who is to say which child is more special than another?

Many of Mildreds favorite memories involve Ally and Gabe. They were siblings, the last two foster children the Gales had before Henry died.

Mildred recalls one evening at dinner when Gabe, who was several years younger than his sister, was regaling the family with jokes.

He was telling one, and the Gales were laughing so hard at the young raconteur, that Mildred at first didnt understand why Gabe stopped suddenly, looking upset.

The family laughed even harder when the boy said: Dont laugh yet, I havent even gotten to the punch line yet.

Another of Mildreds favorite Gabe stories happened up at Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort.

Mildred loved downhill skiing, and she taught most of her foster children the sport.

On this particular day she stopped skiing several times to ask Gabe if he was cold.

Hed say, Im fine, Mildred remembers.

She would suggest Gabe go inside to warm up but he never would.

The boy ended up with a minor case of frostbite.

Gabe and Allys uncle eventually petitioned the state for custody of the siblings, and it was granted.

The Gales visited the pair once later, and they were doing fine, Mildred said.

But she never really did get over the day Gabe and Ally left.

That was the day they came to get the kids, the day before she went to church and cried even though she promised herself she wouldnt.

Mildred wouldnt ever trade her tears for the memories, though.

Give up all the letters from their former foster children, the ones who wrote thank you again and again for how much the Gales had done for them?

No, the tears were just a cost of being a parent so many times over.

Theyre just part of you after youve had them for a while, Mildred said. Theyre family.

The Gale home is quiet now.

There are no children scampering through the rooms, no Bobby scooting across the dining room to evade capture, no Gabe telling gut-busters.

It is, Mildred concedes, lonely more so even than when Pam went to college, because Henry isnt here.

But the home has a happy feel, too, the TV and fireplace and coffee table festooned with snapshots of grandchildren and great-grandchildren and other relatives, every one of them smiling.

It is as if all those dozens of troubled children who lived here left a bit of their happiness behind, as if one of Gabes punch lines maybe became as much a part of this place as the plaster and the rocks and the mortar.

Certainly Mildreds memories are tangible.

But she cant sit around all day to reminisce. She has another appointment in 10 minutes, something about a rug.

As she stands to usher out her visitors, she mentions, with a hint of defiance in her voice, that she rises every morning at 5:30, turns in every night at 10.

Im an antique, she says, grinning as she pauses, the better to emphasize the last part of a line that sounds like one she utters frequently.

But I still kick.