MAY NICHOLLS AND HER BORROWED BROOD
Five boys of her own weren’t enough for this energetic I arm-wife so she took four more homeless children under her wing. Now she happily does a two-day wash every week and her biggest reward is nine good-night kisses
HERE ARE THE FOLK BOYS MAY NICHOLLS TOOK INTO HER ALREADY LARGE FAMILY
FOR MRS. MAY NICHOLLS, a trim brownhaired housewife of thirty-nine on a farm near Bolton, Ont., the complexities of domestic
life have assumed staggering proportions. Each week she has to budget for one hundred pounds of potatoes and fifty loaves of bread. Her washdays are mammoth sessions twice a week, starting at eight in the morning and running on until three in the afternoon, for she has to scrub and wring out thirty pairs of socks and sixty pairs of shorts. Saturday bath night at the Nicholls’ home is a marathon operation which starts at 7.30 and splashes on for three solid hours.
None of this bothers or flusters Mrs. Nicholls, who cannot be said to he an average Canadian mother. The average Canadian mother has 2.8 children. Mrs. Nicholls not only has five strapping hoys of her own between the ages of ten and eighteen, but she also has four other boys, “borrowed children” under the foster parent plan, from six-year-old Jackie to sixteen-year-old Fred.
This lively brood consumes eight dozen eggs and sixteen pounds of butter a week, not to mention the five pounds of brown sugar they sprinkle on their morning oatmeal. Yet in the end it is probable that Mrs. Nicholls will have to give hack some of the boys she has nurtured for so many years. A fifth foster child who was part of her household for two years has already been reunited with his parents. Mrs. Nicholls believes that this is a good thing, but it does not alleviate her sense of loss. “It was as painful as losing my right arm,” she says. For her foster children are as much a part of her as her own sons.
There are about fifteen thousand of these foster children in Canada. They are children who for various reasons - death, illness, divorce, or incompetency—have been deprived, often only temporarily, of their own parents. In such cases the local Children’s Aid Society becomes legal guardian until a child’s own family can take him hack. Wherever possible they place him in a selected foster home such as the Nicholls’. The Society forms a partnership with the foster parents and provides (taking Ontario as an example) a cash allowance of approximately a dollar a day per child, clothing, medical and dental care, as well as the services of a trained social worker who keeps in touch with the child and foster home. As for the foster parents, they are asked to provide a healthy and secure environment for the child.
The Nicholls and their nine hoys act as a family unit. The parents are “Mom” and “Dad” to all alike. Mrs. NTicholls’ brother and his wife in Hamilton are “Uncle Tom” and “Aunt Lil.” Mrs. Nicholls’ parents are “Grandpa” and “Grandma.” They send all the boys presents at Christmas. “It’s awfully nice for kids who are all alone in the world to suddenly acquire a family complete with uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents,” says Mrs. Nicholls.
This impartiality is so pronounced that Arthur, a nine-year-old foster child, lived with the Nicholls for several weeks believing that all nine were foster children. Recently a school trustee demanded the foster children he removed from school because one was involved in a prank. Mrs. Nicholls flatly refused. “If the school is too good for my foster kids it’s certainly too good for mine too,” she said, and won her point.
Privileges in the Nicholls’ household, a hundredyear-old farmhouse on fifty acres of land, are based on the child’s age rather than his family origin. Thus, depending on his age, Mrs. Nicholls gives a Christmas-shopping allowance ranging from $3.50 to $5.00. At mealtime the boys sit at either side of the long kitchen table in the order of their birth. The same goes for the seating arrangement in Red
Rocket, the Nicholls’ 1930 red Ford truck. There is a standard birthday celebration for all a cake with candles and a small gift. “’You’ve got to consider the kids’ feelings,” says Mrs. Nicholls. “Some of them have parents who don’t even remember birthdays.”
To he a good substitute mother you must possess a real love of children. Mrs. Nicholls has this in good measure. Recently when she was ill and hospitalized a relative told her,“ You’re overworked. Get rid of those four extra children and spend your time doing the things you really want to do.”
“But I am doing exactly wrhat I want to do,” May Nicholls protested.
It dates hack to her childhood. As a toddler she had twice as many dolls as any girl in the block. When she
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was seven a neighbor jokingly offered her one of her five-month-old twins. When she found the offer wasn’t serious she cried for an entire afternoon. She would often pester her mother, who already had four children, to “get a small baby.” In her teens she went into domestic service with a family with six children. Within a few months she was placed in complete charge of the youngsters while her mistress went out of town.
In 1931 she married Bill Nicholls, who had lost his father when he was ten. Bill felt he’d been robbed of a normal family life and determined to have a large family of his own. During the next twenty years the Nicholls concentrated on raising their own five boys. There were Walter, Ernie, Billie, Gordon and Tommy. By 1948 all were in school and Mrs. Nicholls felt lost without a child around. She thought it would be nice to have a little girl, so she applied to the foster-care department of the Toronto Children’s Aid Society.
The demand for girls is often too great to be met, so Mrs. Nicholls consented to take a boy. He was four and his name was David. His father was temporarily forced to break up his family when the mother was sent to hospital with a chronic illness. Mrs. Nicholls soon felt that it was cruel not to have a playmate for David, so she got Jackie, another four-year-old. Next came Fred, fourteen, a close school friend of her son Ernie. Fred was in another foster home, but Ernie begged his mother to let him come and live jwith them and she consented. Johnny, ten, the next child, came “just for a few days” because the Children’s Aid was anxious to empty its shelter during a ’flu epidemic. That was more than a year ago and he’s still there. The last to arrive was nine-year-old “Little King” Arthur, a problem child constantly in trouble. The Children’s Aid was at its wits’ end about him when one worker suggested, “Perhaps Mrs. [Nicholls has a corner in her house she’s not using.” Arthur fitted into the life of the family with astonishing ease.
Many applicants for foster children are refused because they want children for the wrong reasons. One woman desperately wanted a child to bolster fin ailing marriage. Another wanted to sneak a child into her home without her husband’s knowledge. She was turned down because it was felt the Dhild wouldn’t have the love of two parents living harmoniously together. Some applicants are looking for cheap abor, others want a youngster they ;an make over into a replica of a dead bhild. A few believe (falsely) that there s handsome profit in boarding children. Ml of these are weeded out.
The social worker from the Chiliren’s Aid Society sent out to evaluate ;he Nicholls’ home gave it a high rating, t was not a wealthy home, but the itmosphere was warm and easy-going. vJrs. Nicholls was young - looking, >atient, understanding and energetic. Jer husband Bill was a wiry man if forty-lrvo, good-natured, interested n his family, and always puttering bout the farm. He worked in Toronto s a molder, earning fifty-eight dollars
week, and commuting daily. The ve Nicholls children were lively and ninhibited. There was ample scope >r swimming, fishing, hunting, berryicking.
The first foster child, four-year-old •avid, arrived in 1948 just after his (Other was sent to a mental institu-
tion. He was a timid boy who wore glasses and was frightened by the strangeness of the country. He would come rushing in alarm to Mrs. Nicholls in the kitchen, shouting, “I've seen a bee!”
Gradually he made friends with puppies and kittens. Because he handled them as though they were made of glass they soon adopted him as their favorite.
As he grew more talkative it soon became apparent that David had a fine sense of humor and a lively imagina; tion. He made up fascinating stories about animals in the woods. “He’s got a small body but God gave him a large brain,” said Mr. Nicholls. With growing confidence he would rush up to Mrs. Nicholls and ask, “Please, Mom, can I take off my glasses and wrestle?” His fear of hugs and anij mals dissolved.
At one point his mother’s health improved and he went home. But after two months it became obvious the improvement was only temporary and David came back to the farm. “Gee, I’m glad to be back,” he sobbed, clinging to Mrs. Nicholls. He was to stay for two years, after which his father got a comfortable home for his children and brought them together.
Four-year-old Jackie, a pixy-like boy with black hair and eyes, arrived a few months after David, clinging to a worn headless rubber Mickey Mouse doll. Mrs. Nicholls’ friends wondered why she would take him. “All they could see was the devil in him,” she says. “They couldn’t recognize a little boy starving for affection who, through fear and suspicion, wouldn’t allow anybody ¡ near him.” He was desperately afraid of people. One word of criticism and he would drag himself along the ground, screaming and begging not to be punished. He wouldn’t let anyone hold him, wash him, cut his nails or remove a sliver.
She made no effort to force affection on Jackie but simply assured him that she and Bill loved him. At night she would often get up to tuck him in and comfort him. Sometimes he would awaken and drowsily ask, “Will no one come and get me in the dark?” She could chart Jackie’s progress by observing his relationship with his headless doll. At first he frantically clutched it night and day. As he became interested in the household his affection for it became less intense. He liked to follow Mr. Nicholls around as he did his chores. One day when Mr. Nicholls was cutting the boys’ hair Jackie asked if he could be a barber too. Mr. Nicholls let him handle the shears and later Jackie allowed them to be used on his head. He then let Mrs. Nicholls give him a sponge bath. Later he got into the tub with a few inches of water; the few inches grew to a full tub. He grew into the habit of sheepishly crawling on Mrs. Nicholls’ knee and telling her his “secrets.” The most significant came six months after his arrival: he thought his Mickey Mouse doll was too old and too tired to be used any more and he wanted Mom to throw it out. “I think that was the moment Jackie first really felt he had a secure place in our family,” says Mrs. Nicholls.
Fred, a school friend of Ernie Nicholls, was fourteen when he became Mrs. Nicholls’ foster child. For some weeks she noted that Ernie’s appetite had shown a remarkable improvement. Instead of the usual four sandwiches for his noon lunch he kept asking for more, until he was taking eight each ’day. Later she discovered the extras were being given to Fred, who claimed he wasn’t getting enough to eat from the foster parents who were caring for him. Fred came to live with the Nicholls.
He had a reputation for running
away from home. One of the first things Bill Nicholls did after Fred’s arrival was to tell him that if he ever did want to run away he should come to Mr. Nicholls and tell him so. “There’s no point doing it the hard way,” he said. “Tell me where you want to go and I’ll drive you there. We won’t be insulted and we won’t ask questions.” That was a year and a half ago and Fred hasn’t yet tried to run away.
With no real experience in family living Fred found it hard at first to fit into the Nicholls’ home. He was unaccustomed to calling anyone “Mother.” At first he called Mrs. Nicholls simply “Hey you!” Later, unaccountably, this was replaced by “Dinky-Do.” Then one day Elrnie told his mother that Fred wanted to know if it would be all right to call her “Mother.” She said she would like it. It was about the same time that he started to call Bill Nicholls “Dad.” Fred also found it difficult to learn how to share things. A number of conflicts arose between the boys, climaxed by a free-for-all in the barn one Saturday morning. Billie came out with a bite on his arm, followed by Fred with a black eye and Ernie with a fat hand. At dinner the three boys were selfconscious about their injuries but neither Mr. or Mrs. Nicholls said a word. From then on the boys have been good friends.
Johnny, the next foster child, was a tousle-haired nine-year-old with protruding ears and a pert face. After the war his family broke up. Johnny lived in various foster homes. “The^y were always picking on me,” he said, referring to his last home. He was indignant because promises made to him had not been kept. He had been promised a movie if he behaved well, but always some reason was found for not letting him go. He had his heart set on a pocketknife, but this too was denied him.
After the first few weeks Mr. and Mrs. Nicholls began to feel that perhaps they were not going to be able to help Johnny. Whenever he entered a group there was a fight. In a ball game he always wanted to be first at bat. He wouldn’t do his share of the chores.
Many factors contributed to Johnny’s progress in the Nicholls’ home. Tn the first place, living with eight other boys he learned he had to give and take to get along. Perhaps more important, he found himself with people who kept their promises. Within six weeks after his arrival he had been to the movies twice and he was the proud possessor of a handsome plasticcased pocketknife. “He earned these treats for his good behavior,” says Mrs. Nicholls.
The fact that the Nicholls family invariably went to his rescue in trouble impressed him. At school he began to come near the top of his class. At home he watched at first while the boys lined up to kiss their mother goodnight, then one night he rushed up to her, gave her a peck on the cheek and fled. Thereafter the good-night kiss became a habit. As the wall around him crumbled, some of Johnny’s good points began emerging. He was generous and liked to share his possessions. He was gratefjil for favors.
“Little King” Arthur, a nine-yearold with dark curly hair and large dreamy brown eyes, was the last foster child to come to the Nicholls’ home. Th« Children’s Aid Society held out little hope that Arthur would adjust to his new surroundings. Arthur remembered little about his own home. Sent to live with a succession of relatives, he was always in trouble. It was planned to send him to reform
school, but the institution refused him on the grounds that only children who had actually failed in a foster home could be accepted.
“We told Mrs. Nicholls that Arthur probably wouldn’t last more than a few weeks,” says Jimmy Gripton, of the society. In describing what happened later, Gripton says: “Mrs. Nicholls
made a fool out of me.”
Arthur spent the first day on the farm, a Friday, sulking in a kitchen chair. He avoided both Mr. and Mrs. Nicholls. But Sunday afternoon, when the boys got out their skis, he tagged along with them. After watching them make several runs, he asked if he could try. He did —and discovered he enjoyed skiing. He took part in more and more of the children’s activities
— skating, hunting, sliding, swinging on a rope in the barn and jumping in the hay. “He made friends with the boys first and then got around to making friends with my husband and myself,” says Mrs. Nicholls. To everyone’s surprise, Mrs. Nicholls now finds Arthur the most tractable of all her boys
— warm, agreeable and well-balanced.
Most of the time Mrs. Nicholls has
little contact with the real parents of her borrowed brood. When a mother or father wants to see a child a visit is arranged. Mrs. Nicholls sometimes feels that when the real mother is only half-heartedly interested in her child she can do more harm than good by her visits. One of her foster children, for example, has seen his mother only twice in two years. One time she sent him fifty cents. “He was dumbfounded at getting anything from his mother,” says Mrs. Nicholls, “since she usually didn’t even remember him on birthdays or at Ghristmas.” Another has received three or four letters from his mother, each promising that she is going to remarry and the family will be reunited. This promise has been made so many times that the child no longer pays any attention to it. “There’s nothing worse than breaking your promise to a child,” says Mrs. Nicholls.
Many people have asked the Nicholls if boarding foster children is profitable financially. It isn’t. May and Bill Nicholls figure they probably break even during the summer, when food costs are low, and lose in winter. “If you love kids you just do the best you can for them on your income and let it go at that,” says Mrs. Nicholls.
.She gets great enjoyment from thfe group activities of her large family, such as a regular Saturday-night movié. All go to the same theatre. On thfe ' drive home the family stops at k refreshment stand for ice cream, anil later in the roomy farm kitchen has cookies and cocoa before bed. The next day there are heated discussions about the picture.
The children made a swimming pool about three hundred yards from thfe house by dredging a natural pond until it was seven feet deep in spots. Besides swimming they stock it with chub, perch and suckers, which they catch at nearby Innes Lake. In winter they use it for a hockey rink.
The animals are a constant source of interest particularly to the citybred children. Each has his own pet, a ferret, mink, dog, cat or pig.
Living with her children and enjoying them, Mrs. Nicholls is sometimes distressed by the lack of sympathy some people have for foster childreft1. She remembers an ex-school trustee ih the district, the father of a large family, who has been unfriendly to her fostCT boys. “I sometimes wonder,” she says, “what would happen to his kids if something happened to him and life wife. I believe in doing unto other people’s children as you would havfe other people do unto your own.”