In the Pink: Karen’s Story

Karen Lash and her two roommates bought their house a little over ten years ago. The house sits up high overlooking South Main Street, with potted plants at the entryway and a covered patio out back. On weekday mornings, a city van for disabled adults stops out front to take the three women to classes or to work. The Family Dollar, with aisles of costume jewelry and hair fasteners, is walking distance, two blocks down the street. The Stockton Street group home is just around the corner. Years ago Karen lived there, and her best friend still does, but the brick house she shares with Melanie and Jane suits her better. Here she can be on her own.

It’s not that Karen and her roommates don’t get help. Group Homes of Forsyth co-signed the loan for the house with them, but the three women pay the bills with their disability checks and spend much of their time there on their own. The state provides caregivers for adults with disabilities. Back in 2012, Marcia Henry was assigned to Karen and came almost every day. She prepared most of the meals, paid the bills, took Karen on errands and organized a chore list for the women to follow to keep the house neat and clean. But as Karen likes to say, “I like to get up on my own and do a lot of things on my own, like making up the bed, cleaning up, washing dishes on my own.”

Karen has her own room, painted pink. She likes pink. The bedspread is bright pink; even the picnic table out back is pink. Karen collects shoes, barrettes, watches and handbags. Many of them are pink too. Marcia encourages her to save her change, which she does. And when the weather is nice, they often spend Saturday mornings going around to yard sales, looking for handbags to add to the collection. Marcia won’t let her buy any more watches. “I have too many,” Karen says.

There was a time when Karen didn’t believe in such permanence – even the permanence of a collection of pink barrettes. When she first moved into the Stockton Street group home, she would pack up her things every few weeks and give them away. “There was a lot on my mind then,” she says.

When she speaks about the things on her mind, she holds her hand up to her head, moving it in circles to mimic the confusing thoughts that filled her head. There are parts of Karen’s early life that are hard to tell and hard to hear. The story comes out in bits and pieces, with chunks of time missing, but it’s clear that her childhood was filled with events that she would just as soon forget. Someone beat her with an electric cord. The scars on her face have finally faded. A man undressed in front of her and the other children in the family and did other things she did not like. For reasons she does not explain, her mother couldn’t raise her. She remembers something about a knife. She lived in foster homes, then an apartment, then a house in a poor part of town where the heat was shut off and she was cold. “It was really bad back then, but I’m over that now,” she says. “I’m living a good life.”

Life on Main Street is defined by routine. Karen likes to clean. She likes to cook. She had a job once, at a Wendy’s, where she cleaned the bathrooms. She would like that job again. Weekdays she takes a van from her home to a center for disabled adults, where she takes classes. She likes math and she especially likes sign language because she has a deaf friend. Back at home, she likes to make bracelets from colorful beads, play bingo and the electronic Wii games, plant flowers, shop for clothes and spend the night at Marcia’s. Most of all, she says, she feels safe here on Main Street.

Karen spends holidays with one of her aunts and she likes seeing her cousins, nieces and nephews. Her brother is in prison and she hopes to be able to visit. But her home is here on Main Street, with Melanie and Jane. “When she smiles she just lights up,” Marcia says. “And she’s always seeing stuff. She just gives you all this attention. And I just love that about her.” Two years ago, Marcia took Karen and her roommates to the beach. Karen sat at the water’s edge and splashed as the waves came in, thrilled by the surf. But the seagulls scared her, swooping in and flying away with her chips.

Once a year, there’s a prom for disabled adults. It takes days for Karen and her roommates to get ready. They always get a new dress and get their hair done. Karen’s was lavender last year. The afternoon of the prom, Marcia did her nails and makeup, fixed her hair with barrettes that matched the dress and fussed over her shoes so that her feet wouldn’t hurt. “Look at me,” Karen says. “I’m fancy.”

Phoebe Zerwick, October 2013