EXCERPT: Ashley Rhodes-Courter's 'Three Little Words'

Ashley Rhodes-Courter spent her childhood moving between various foster homes.

Rhodes-Courter's new book, "Three Little Words," gives readers a glimpse of her childhood in the foster-care system.

Read an excerpt from "Three Little Words" below:


I have had more than a dozen so-called mothers in my life. Lorraine Rhodes gave birth to me. Gay Courter adopted me. Then there are the fillers. Some were kind, a few were quirky, and one, Marjorie Moss, was as wicked as a fairy-tale witch. No matter where I lived, I waited impatiently to be reunited with my mother. Sometimes we had frequent visits, but other times—for some unexplained reason—I did not see her for years at a stretch.


I remember the rush of joy as I fell into her arms after one of those interminable separations.

"Sunshine, you're my baby and I'm your only mother. You must listen to the one taking care of you, but she's not your mama. Never forget, I'm the only mama who will love you forever and ever." She pledged that we would be together soon. Soon! How often I heard that word. It was soft, soothing. "Soon, I'll be back," she promised. "I'll bring more presents, soon. We'll go home—soon."

Soon, soon, soon . . . I would croon the word to myself like a lullaby when I would try to sleep, a mantra when nobody would listen to me, a chant to block out doubts that surfaced when it seemed too long between visits. My mother loved me. I was her special Sunshine. She would be back soon. Soon! Yes, she would. Naïve and trusting, I always believed her, and in some very small way—even now—I still do.

The Day They Stole My Mother from Me

Two days compete for the worst day in my life: The first is the day I was taken from my mother; the second is the day I arrived at the Mosses' foster home four years later. Three weeks before I lost my mother, I had left South Carolina bound for Florida with her, her husband, and my brother. I was three and a half years old and remember lying on the backseat watching slippery raindrops making patterns as they plopped down the car's windows.

My infant brother, Luke, was in a car seat, which nobody had bothered to belt in, so it squished me into the door when his father took a sharp turn. Luke had a heart monitor, but it must not have been on him all the time because I remember using it on my favorite toy: a Teddy Ruxpin bear.

Until Dustin Grover came along, we shared a trailer with my mother's twin sister, Leanne, who had dropped out of school to help support me. Even though the twins looked completely different, they were interchangeable to me since Aunt Leanne spent almost as much time with me as my mother, and I never minded when one left and the other took over. I loved to nestle by Aunt Leanne's side. She would rake my curls with her fingers while talking on the phone to her friends.

My mother was only 17 when she gave birth to me. If she and my aunt were anything like most teenagers, they probably were more interested in hanging out with friends than changing diapers. Nevertheless, they worked different shifts and took turns caring for me. Their trailer became the local hangout because there was no adult supervision.

"Turn that down," my mother yelled one afternoon. I was watching cartoons, trying to drown out the teen voices by raising the volume higher and higher. "I said, turn that down!"

"Well, if you would shut the hell up, I could hear the damn TV," I said. My mother and her friends burst out laughing.

I was an intuitive two-year-old soaking up language and behaviors from a crew of rowdy adolescents who were trying on adult attitudes and habits. I got attention by acting grown up, and my mother bragged about how early I was toilet trained and how clearly I spoke.

My mother had a carefree attitude. She was too self-absorbed to fuss about my safety. Although she always strapped me in my car seat, her battered truck did not have seat belts. Driving down a bumpy South Carolina road, the unlocked door popped open. I tumbled out, rolling a few times before landing on the shoulder. My mother turned the truck around and found me waving at her. I was still buckled into the seat.

When my mother began living with Dustin—whom everyone called "Dusty"—the whole mood in the house shifted and Aunt Leanne wasn't around as much. Dusty was like an ocean that changed unexpectedly with the weather. One moment he could be placid, the next he turned into choppy waves that broke hard and stung. I cowered when he yelled. Since my mother was busy with me, she did not always have the perfect hot meal her boyfriend expected ready the moment he walked in the door.

"Can't you even bake a damn biscuit right?" he yelled after he saw the burnt bottom on one, sending the pie tin flying like a Frisbee.

I hid under my blanket as I always did when the fighting started, hoping it would protect me from their nasty words or physical brawls. I peered through a hole at a single object—like a shoe—and tried to make everything else disappear.

I remember when my pregnant mother awoke from a nap and found my aunt and Dusty sitting close together watching television. She caught them tickling and laughing. My mother screamed at my aunt, "How could you? He's the father of my baby!"

"You sure of that?" my aunt screeched back before she slammed the screen door behind her.

After that, she was gone for weeks, and I missed her so much that I would curl my hair around my own fingers and pretend it was her doing it.

Not long after that, there was a new baby: Tommy. My mother brought him home in a yellow blanket and let me kiss his tiny fingers. I don't remember much else because he came and went in less than two months. Sometimes I thought that I had dreamed him or that he was merely a doll I was not supposed to touch. The last time I saw him, he had suddenly stopped moving and turned from pink to gray. We all sat in a room and everyone passed him around. He was lying in a box that was padded with a pillow.

My mother got pregnant again shortly after Tommy disappeared. A few months later she married Dusty, and for a short time we seemed like a happy little family. But only nine months after Tommy was born, Luke arrived premature. Before my mother was even 20, she had managed to have three children in less than three years.

At least Luke—unlike me—came into the world with a father. At birth my new brother weighed only two pounds. My mother had to come home from the hospital without him.

"Did you really have a baby?" I asked my mother.

"He has to stay with the nurses until he gets bigger," she explained.

A few days later I awoke to her sobbing. Dusty was trying to comfort her, but she pushed him away. "It's all your fault because you hit me!" she yelled.

I tried to understand how Dusty's hitting her could harm the unborn baby. I rested my head on her belly. It felt like a balloon that had some of the air let out. "When can I see my brother?" I asked.

"They had to take him from the hospital in Spartanburg to the one in Greenville where they can care for him better," my mother explained. "We'll drive up there as soon as we can."

In the meantime, my mother went back to work. Dusty was supposed to watch me while my mother worked the late shift. One night neighbors found me wandering through the trailer park alone and kept me until my mother returned home.

The next day she packed a bag and we moved into a Ronald McDonald House near the hospital.

We went to see Luke every day. Most of the time I had to wait outside in a room where there were little tables, coloring books, and crayons. Sometimes they would let me put on a mask and come into the room where the babies were kept in boxes—not like the wooden one that had held Tommy, but a plastic one that I could peek through when my mother lifted me up.

"Is he ever getting out of there?" I asked.

"Oh, yes," my mother promised. "He's strong like his daddy."

When Luke came home seven months later, he was not much bigger than one of my dolls. He sometimes wore a doctor's face mask instead of a diaper.

Aunt Leanne came by to help and called often. "Where's your mama?" she asked when I answered the phone.

"In the kitchen cookin' dope," I replied.

"I'm coming right over," she said, but when she did, Dusty refused to let her in.

Dusty worked as a framing subcontractor. After an argument over money, his partner stormed over to our trailer. Dusty locked him out, but he busted down the door and then started tearing up the house. A chair hit the wall and a table flew in my direction. I ducked, but my mother started screaming, "You almost hurt Ashley!"

"I'm okay, Mama," I said as I crouched in a corner.

"We need to move," my mother announced to Dusty while they cleaned up the mess. "There are too many bad influences on you around here."

"And you're an angel?" he shot back. "Besides, all my work is here."

"There's plenty of work in Florida." She kicked the broken chair into a corner. "I wish I had never left there after Mama died."

Her mother—my maternal grandmother, Jenny—had her first child when she was 14, but she put that baby up for adoption. Over the next six years she had Perry; followed by the twins, Leanne and Lorraine; and finally, Sammie. Then, at 21, Grandma Jenny was diagnosed with cervical cancer and had a hysterectomy. Sick, poor, and battered by her alcoholic husband, she decided she could not raise her kids any longer and turned them over to a Baptist children's home. My mother did not have much to do with either parent for many years, but when Jenny was about to die in Florida, my mother went to see her for the last time. Jenny was 33.

Using her small inheritance, my mother enrolled in cosmetology school. Before they would allow her to train with the hair treatment chemicals, she had to have a physical checkup. This is how she found out she was pregnant with me. My mother thinks she conceived me when she partied the night of her mother's funeral. In any case, I was born 39 weeks later. While she was in labor, she was watching The Young and the Restless, and so she named me Ashley after one of the soap opera characters.

When Dusty agreed to move to Tampa, my mother cheered up. As she packed, she hummed "You Are My Sunshine" and explained to me, "We're moving to the Sunshine State to live happily ever after."

I do not remember much about the long car trip except singing along with Joan Jett on the radio. When we first arrived in Florida, we stayed at a motel, then a trailer that smelled like low tide. I have memories of walking around that trailer park carrying Luke's bottle and begging for milk.

Our car always smelled of pickles and mustard from all the fast food we ate in it. I was enjoying my usual kids' meal in the backseat when my mother shouted, "Shit, shit!" A flashing red light made the car's windows glow rosy, and I liked the way my hands looked, as though they were on fire.

A siren blared. Dusty banged the steering wheel. "Ashley, you keep saying you gotta go potty, okay?" my mother ordered.

A police officer asked where our license plate was.

"Mommy, gotta go potty!" I called loudly.

"Where're you headed?" the officer asked.

"To my stepfather's house," my mother said in her most genial voice.

"We're just in from South Carolina. We're moving here," Dusty continued rapidly, "so I'll get a new Florida plate tomorrow."

"Welcome to Florida," he said, glancing at me and Luke before arresting Dusty for not having a license plate on the car or a valid driver's license.

My mother alternately cussed and cried while we waited for Dusty to be released. It was several hours before we could go home to our apartment. The shoebox-style building was on tree-lined Sewaha Street. "We're living in a duplex now," my mother explained, and I sensed that we had come up in the world. Three days later I encountered more police officers—the ones who broke up our family forever.

I was sitting on the stoop dressed only in shorts when the police cars pulled up. "He's not here," my mother said when they asked for Dusty. One of the men kept coming toward her. My mother, who was holding Luke, screamed, "I didn't do anything!"

"Mama," I cried, reaching both hands up for her to lift me as well. A uniformed man pushed me away and snatched Luke out of her arms. I tried to rush toward my mother, who was already being put in the backseat of a police car. The door slammed so hard, it shook my legs. Through the closed window, I could hear my mother shouting, "Ashley!" Someone held me back as the car pulled away. I struggled and kicked trying to chase after her.

"It's okay! Settle down!" the man with the shiny buttons said.

I sobbed for my Teddy Ruxpin. "Winky!"

"Who's that?" The officer let me run inside. I pulled Winky out from under a blanket on my bed. "Oh, it's your teddy. He can come too." He grabbed two of my T-shirts and told me to put one on and to wear my flip-flops. My Strawberry Shortcake T-shirt ended up on Luke, although it was way too big for him.

At the police station a man in uniform handed Luke to a woman in uniform. Luke tugged on Winky's ears as I sat beside him and the female officer. In the background I could hear my mother yelling for us, but I could not see her. Two women wearing regular clothes arrived. One lifted Luke; the other's rough hand pulled me in her direction. The woman who held Luke also took Winky.

"No!" I cried, reaching for Winky.

"It's just for a little while," the first woman told me.


My mother came into view for a few seconds. "Ashley! I'll get you soon!" Then a door slammed and she was gone. I turned and Luke was no longer there. I was pushed outside and loaded into a car.

"Mommy! Luke!" I cried. "Winky!"

"You'll see them later," the woman said as our car drove off.

Thinking about that moment is like peeling a scab off an almost-healed wound. I still believed everything would return to normal. Little did I know, I would never live with my mother—or see Winky—again.