Nineteen years later, Valerie is still receiving afdc, but not for her children. Her son Leon is in Seattle. "He's always in a lot of trouble. He calls me once a week. He's the only boy, so he's like, he's got his own little daughter, ALEO naijim...his own little family. He's not married; this is like a third generation of single parents. He is with the mother, helping her with her girl." Her daughter Lanisha still lives with her, but afdc didn't believe it and denied her claim. The children she does receive aid for - Devon, Devon-isha, and Devona, ages five, four, and two - belong to her oldest daughter Dominique, who is up in Las Colinas.
"She [Dominique] already had a warrant for not appearing in court," explains Valerie. "They gave her probation when she went to court, and three weeks later, she tested dirty. She had stopped smoking marijuana, but it was not out of her system. She swears marijuana is a religion; she's just Rasta. She got pregnant with twins, and she told the judge, 'I'm going to do my marijuana,' and he said, 'I'm gonna give you a year then, so I can make sure the babies are born all right.' I'm going to have to pick them up in June if they don't let her into a rehab program."
Before they started living with Valerie, Devon and his sisters were staying with the father of Dominique's unborn twins. Valerie was living in Perris, south of Riverside, with a friend, but when Dominique went to jail, "I would not leave my grandkids with a man I don't know, and he wouldn't let me stay in the house. I decided to go into a motel room. We started off with $70. We paid for two days. I braided hair [$65 and up per head]. My daughter helped me braid hair to make money day by day, living in a Motel 6 in Chula Vista for a whole month. I pawned my sister's camcorder for $75 to get rent and food for two days. One time, we split a hamburger in four pieces in Burger King to feed my kids. I went without, but God filled my stomach. I prayed and I drank water."
The next month, she received an afdc check for $824. "My sister knows a lady - her name is Marlene. She bought this house, and she wanted $1175 a month for it. I didn't have that kind of money. My sister said, 'Hey, why don't I move in with you.' She pays $500 a month, I pay $675." Charrene works at a chiropractic clinic on El Cajon Boulevard. She has three children. "That was hard. The next month, I had to live on the [remainder]. I had to buy the kids socks; they didn't have any socks or shoes - the guy didn't let me get nothing out of the house. They still don't have any beds. We don't have a refrigerator. We have that big freezer; we have to freeze everything, even their milk. This is my sister's furniture."
Two weeks' worth of groceries comes to $193.27. "But I saved $42.61 at Vons. Pears, celery, limes, spinach, avocados, fish sticks, fillet of fish, country baby back spareribs, salami, baloney, Apple Jacks, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, orange juice, grape juice, bananas, gizzards and hearts, hominy, and Arrowhead water." Extra food, picked up by a woman (who preferred not to be identified) staying with Valerie, comes from St. Stephen's Church of God in Christ on Imperial. Today, she brings in canned goods, rice, beans, bread, string beans, and applesauce.
"Clothes cost a lot," continues Valerie. "Here's a receipt on a church dress, a coat suit, $134.53, just for me. I had to put it on layaway. The boy wears his shoes out all the time, so every three months, I'm buying tennis shoes, $24 to $50. Girls have a lot more shoes than boys, so we get pass-me-down shoes for the girls."
Valerie and her daughter still braid hair, including their own. A ring of braided coils encircles the back of Valerie's head, while the braids in front hang down and frame her face. Besides the braiding, there is no income. They are struggling, but the house does not feel like a place of hardship. There is a buoyancy about it. "We have dessert every night - the sweets show there's a lot of sweetness in the home. We don't have the money to buy certain things, but she brought in that rice - I will make rice pudding. They give us bagels with raisins and blueberries in them. I make a bomb bagel pudding. You soak the bagels in the milk, then you add the sugar, the vanilla, sometimes the cinnamon, and the eggs, you whip it, and you bake it, and when it comes out, it's a bomb. It's good. You learn all kinds of neat recipes when you emphasize the kids. People give you stuff, and you say, 'I can't waste it,' so you create."
Holidays are far from Dickensian. "I'm the cook. I call myself the queen bee. My sister's a good cook too. Lord, we invite all our brothers and our sisters and their family and their friends, and lots of military guys, because they're so far from home. We just cook up a storm, three days. We have a special lemon pie. Everyone chips in. The military guys, they'll call me and say, 'Mom, what do I need to bring?' I'll give them a list. We enjoy our holidays." Valerie tells about a military man who lent them a car for six months, "because we share ourselves."
Other entertainment includes Disney videos and excursions. "They just had zoo day; we went there. We'll drive to Shelter Island, watch the lights. We'll go to Coronado. We can't afford Knott's Berry Farm, but we did go to Disneyland. I had to save up $25 a month for six months."
Valerie has been speaking of kids - hers, her daughter's, her sister's - throughout the interview. She has also been speaking of God - "We praise Him daily," she says, smiling - a Providential God, who takes care. Suddenly, she brings up abortion. "I don't believe in abortion. I feel like, if God puts something inside of you, and if it wasn't forced, you should have that. Every one of these kids is precious. My daughter was 15 years old; she was at a school for performing arts. She got pregnant with Devon, and I decided to get her an abortion. I brought her down to my sister, because I couldn't do it. Then I went and talked to a lady, I call her Mom, her name's Miss Russell, and she had nine kids, and she got about 62 grandkids out of them nine kids. She told me, 'You go get that girl, you let her have that baby, and you stick by her, like a mother, and you help her.' And my grandson is the only boy, he's the joy of my life. And they might make something of themselves for her. Maybe God will bless her with a good husband.