When she decided to adopt, Gussie Latta was recently retired, a widow with grown children, and feeling somewhat lonely.
She was thinking of one child, maybe two, but then she heard about four children who had been abandoned and would be separated if no one could be found to take them all.
The oldest was 12, the youngest 5, a sister and three brothers.
Gussie was 67.
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Are you crazy? one of her grown daughters asked. You cannot raise these children.
You're crazy! her other daughter said. Why don't you move in with me, and just enjoy life?
Gussie said she couldn't just enjoy life after finding out that four children needed a home. She heard they once lived in an abandoned trailer park and scavenged for food in garbage cans. Here she was living alone in the three-bedroom house she rents on the west side of town.
So when the children arrived in Charlotte for a get-to-know-you meeting, before she even got to know them or the problems they would bring, she smiled and said: I'm Gussie, and I'm going to be your mother.
For most of her adult life, Gussie has opened her home to extra people. Her husband died of an aneurysm in 1978 when their youngest child was 7, their oldest 12. She raised their four children, and took in 18 foster children, and adopted one foster child and now, when she talks about her children, it's hard to know whether she's talking about her biological children, her foster children or her adopted children.
They all call her Mama.
“I love children,” she said as if that simple declaration explains why a retiree would even think of taking in four youngsters when most people look forward to relaxing.
Gussie said she needed a purpose.
“I needed to do something to help somebody. I see so many kids in prison and in graveyards. I knew I wasn't going to sit down. I was either going to take care of those children or go back to work.”
A promise from Gussie
Gussie waited on the love seat in her living room one recent afternoon, looking up from a soap opera to the front yard.
“Here they come!” she announced as a school bus roared by. She walked outside. From a block away, three boys in three different sizes approached, dressed alike in white shirts and blue slacks, the uniform at Lincoln Heights Elementary.
Gary, who is 9, saw her first.
“Hey, Mama!” he called and waved.
As she waved back, Gussie looked like a doting grandmother, with gray hair turning white and soft arms that instinctively reach out and seem capable of taking away the hurt.
“Hello!” she called.
“Hey, Mama!” shouted 11-year-old Joseph.
“I love you, Mama!” yelled Jason.
The day they first met two years ago, Jason, now 7 and the youngest of the bunch, grabbed the leg of Gussie's pants and it seems he has never let go.
You will never leave me, he often tells her.
Jason is not asking. He is telling, as if he feels the need to remind Gussie.
Gussie knows from experience that it takes time for foster and adopted children to trust adults. They've often heard adults promise not to leave, and then they do.
No, she tells Jason again and again, and still again: I will never leave you.
Stealing and running away
Thirty minutes after the boys arrived home, a second school bus roared past.
“Here she comes!” Gussie said and walked outside again. From a block away, Brittany approached, dressed like her brothers in a white shirt and blue pants, the uniform at Martin Middle School.
Brittany, who is 14, didn't want to move here two years ago from Goldsboro, where she and her brothers lived in a foster home. She didn't want to have anything to do with Gussie, and refused at first to speak to her. Brittany is old enough now to know what a hard time she and her brothers gave Gussie, and sometimes still do.
They stole from her and lied to her, and worse. Many times, they ran away from home. They upset Gussie so much, her daughter Pam Latta, who is 46, worried about Gussie's health.
Why are you doing this? Pam remembers asking her mother. Send them back.
Gussie's son Shan Latta, who is 30 and lives in Colorado, shared with the children a lesson from his life. He was a foster child, he told them, sent to live with Gussie. She adopted him when he was 6 months old and raised him as her own.
Her love for him, he told them, was no different than her love for her biological children. She loves you, too, he remembers telling the children. What is she getting out of helping y'all other than seeing y'all succeed?
Gussie had a powerful ally in those turbulent early days: Patience.
As bad as it got, she had faced tougher situations as an in-home nurse working with elderly people and as a police officer in Davidson in the 1970s.
“I can't hold anything against these children,” she said. “They have upset me to the point where I say I don't know how much more I can take.
“But I will not give up on them.”
Gussie belongs to everyone
Parents adopt for different reasons. Most want infants, and many go out of the country to find them. Gussie knew there were thousands of African American children here in the United States who need homes. She had a home. She had experience. She had time.
And, as her daughter put it, “She has a big heart.”
Not long after the four of them came to stay, one of Gussie's grandchildren turned jealous.
That's my Nana, he informed the newcomers.
No, one of them shot back. That's my Mama!
Gussie said she reassured them: She belongs to everyone.
She set house rules and bedtimes, bought toothbrushes and clothes, worked with them on their homework and loved them and worried over them and cooked for them, and cooked even more for them because they seemed so hungry, and talked with them and fussed at them and prayed with them and praised them, hoping their behavior would improve.
And it has.
“I know how happy those kids are now, and how happy she is,” Pam Latta said. “It's worked out.”
Tony Johnson, a counselor with Carolinas Medical Center who mentors the boys, said some days he feels as if he needs to take a deep breath for Gussie. “She's constantly working… . They've got some things to work on, like any other kids. But they're lovable. They're adorable. I think it turned out to be a really good fit.”
Gussie is their advocate, getting outside help when needed, including a monthly state stipend for each child. Once, she turned to Loaves & Fishes for food.
She says she agreed to tell her story for one reason: “I hope and pray it will make somebody else think about adopting. You don't have to be rich. You have to be able to take care of your home, and take care of yourself and take care of the children.”
‘She's a good Mama to have'
Four framed documents hang in a place of honor on her living room wall, each with the name of a child and Gussie's name, titled “Decree of Adoption” and dated March 7, 2007.
“She has taken on a whole lot,” said Brittany. “We were a handful, not the greatest of children when we first came here. I feel like it is a blessing that she took me in.”
Added Joseph: “She's loving, caring and sweet. She's a good Mama to have.”
And Gary: “She has really been good to me by taking me in from out of the wilderness.”
Jason didn't say anything. He just hung on to the leg of Gussie's pants.