Scenes from Childhood
My name is Sara Desidarius. Granted, not the name I was born with,
the name I have now. I was born Sara Christine Foster on 17 March
1879 in Rochester, New York. My father was James Anthony Foster and
my mother was Christine Marie Stevens. I had three brothers and a
I'm the baby girl of the family. Always daddy's favorite. He
indulged my bizarre hobbies and seemingly unladylike behavior. What
would be considered commonplace now was absolutely unheard of after
the war (that would be the Civil War, ladies and gentlemen). I was
always extremely interested in learning, reading and art. The art
part was fairly accepted. Girls were allowed to be artists all they
liked. The reading, learning and wanting to go to school, were
extremely out of place. Women did not go to University. Women did
not move out and live in the city. Okay, so maybe they did. But not
women who didn't need to leave home. I didn't need to leave home. I
could have stayed in Rochester with my parents and lived an
extremely comfortable life. It would have been boring as all hell,
but I could've done it. It would've driven me mad. However,
contemplating living at home for the rest of my natural life is a
little bit silly now, I think.
I started drawing when I was 5. Most children start drawing when
they're 5, but how many do you know who draw portraits of their
family members at the age of 5? I moved quickly from drawing to
painting. Somewhere there is a painting of my family home. Probably
hanging in my family home. Convenient, no? My parents indulged my
artistic dreams. It kept me out of trouble... most of the time.
My older sister, Amanda Rose really didn't like me. I cannot for the
life of me figure out why. She was the golden girl of the family.
She had beautiful long, curly blonde hair, bright blue eyes and a
smile that made hearts melt. At the same time she had a glare that
made those same hearts freeze. We bumped heads on more issues than I
can count anymore. When we were young, more than anything in the
world, she wanted to get married, be wealthy and have beautiful
children. I would make fun of her something awful about that. We
never agreed on the subject of men. I never wanted to get married
and thought Amanda's dreams were foolish and limiting. The logic of
my statements and sheer defiance of her dreams vexed her to the
point of violence. She was always mean to me. Most of the time,
she'd pull my hair when no one was looking and bump my elbow while I
was painting or drawing. That sparked some serious catfights. I got
her real good one time.
Amanda managed to completely ruin one of my paintings. I didn't say
a word. I simply took the canvas from the easel, walked up to my
room, and stored it in the closet with my other art supplies. I
didn't speak to her for two weeks. Whenever she walked into a room,
I'd be busy doing something else, like reading or sketching. She was
extremely confused. I was 8, she was 10, and everyone was expecting
me to react. Even my oldest brother David, who had seen me flip out
a million times over Amanda's antics was downright shocked that I
hadn't done anything. I didn't run to father like always, I kept
silent and calm. Under my veneer of tranquility, I was quietly
plotting my revenge. By the middle of the second week, I got a late
night visit from my other older brother, Stephen. I was sitting at
my desk sketching. He sat on my bed and watched me for about five
minutes. When he realized I wasn't going to look up he spoke.
"Hmm?" I replied, not looking up from my paper
"Darling little sister, what are you plotting?"
I paused for a moment, turned my head slightly towards his watchful
eyes and said plainly, "Absolutely nothing, Stephen. Why would
I be plotting anything?"
He raised an eyebrow and gave me the most incredulous look, "I
know you, little one. You're up to something. You don't just sit
quietly when she does something like that. You're just as spiteful
and cunning as Amanda is. Tell me."
I completely stopped what I was doing and turned in my stool to face
him. I merely smiled at him. He just looked at my innocent face and
sighed. "All right, but I know you're up to something."
With that he took one of my tiny hands in his, stood, kissed my
forehead and left.
Three days later, a high-pitched, scream emanated from Amanda's
bedroom. Everyone ran to see what the commotion was about, including
me. Before us was my older sister on the floor playing with her
favorite raven-haired doll. Amanda's yellow dress and hands were
covered in inky black paint. Mother and David immediately took to
cleaning up the hysterical girl, admonishing her to be more careful
around my work. I took my five-year-old baby brother Robert by the
hand and led him away from the scene and back to his bedroom and
toys. Stephen came in moments later and informed me that Father
wanted to see me in his study and to make haste. I know my face went
deathly pale. But, I did as I was told and headed straight for his
I knocked lightly on the huge mahogany door and waited for
acknowledgement. A deep, "Come in, Sara," came from the
I sighed deeply, steadied my hand and opened the door slowly. As I
walked in the room, he ordered for me to close the door and sit
down. Never once did he put down his paper. I bowed my head and
dutifully walked to one of the leather chairs in front of his desk.
I sat in it, folded my hands and placed them in my lap, all the
while keeping my head down and eyes on the floor.
When I was seated, he folded his paper carefully and placed it
gingerly on the desk. A task that would take seconds took an
eternity in my 8-year-old mind. He placed his elbows on the desk and
folded his hands in front of him. Leaning forward, he asked me,
"Do you want to tell my why you did what you did?"
I just shook my head slowly, no.
"I'm very disappointed in you, Sara."
With those five words, my heart fell out of my body and hit the
floor. I could not stand displeasing my father. He was my world. My
father gave me everything in life that I could ever want and then
some. Disappointing him was the last thing I ever wanted to do. But
I had this time and my heart was broken.
"Do you know why I'm disappointed in you?"
I nodded my head, yes.
"Tell me why."
"Because I did a mean thing to Amanda and I shouldn't
"Do you know why you shouldn't have?"
I thought for a second and shook my head no.
"Because she's your sister, Sara. She's the only one you've
got. And she's the only one you'll ever have. Treasure her. She
thinks the world of you. She envies you sometimes, I can see
it." He paused for a moment and continued, "You are a good
girl, Sara. And you're smart and strong. Revenge does not suit you.
I don't want to ever see you doing something this childish ever
again. Do you understand me?"
"Now, I want you to go to Confession. Have Stephen walk with
you. While you are walking there, I want you to think about what
you've done and how you could have handled things differently. When
you get back, you will apologize to your sister. I want you to
promise me, right now, that you will never do anything like this
"I promise, Father."
To this day, I have never broken that promise.
When I got back from Confession, I went up Amanda's room. She was
sitting on the floor; tears streaked down her face still. She looked
up and saw me standing in her doorway.
"What do you want now? Come to ruin the rest of my dolls?"
Those words stung with the venom of a thousand bees. I almost
completely lost my composure and ran out of the room. She could pick
on me till I was blue in the face and my eyes were shrink wrapped in
tears, but when she finally got as good as she gave, she couldn't
handle it and felt horribly wronged by the world.
"No. I came to apologize."
"Really now? Well isn't that just lovely! Go away. I
don't want to talk to you."
"Amanda? Stop it."
"Stop what?" She was genuinely confused. I was appalled.
"Stop playing like you didn't know this was coming. You had to
have seen it from a mile away. When have I ever ignored what you've
done to me? This isn't fair. You're always doing mean, horrible,
nasty things to me. And you never get what I got today. To top it
all off, when I come to apologize, you turn me away with a sneer. I
give up. I'm sorry for ruining your favorite doll. It won't ever
happen again. I promise you that." With that, I turned on my
heel and walked out of the room.
To this day, I have never broken that promise.
Over the years, she would bother me less and less. She stopped
completely because I stopped reacting. Amanda would consistently
bump my elbow and pull my hair. I'd glare in her general direction
and remember my promises. After David's wedding in 1894, she had
completely stopped bothering me. She would even come to me for
advice about things. That took me off guard every time.
Occasionally, she'd come to talk to me just to get into a fight.
After I got used to it, I would enjoy the debates. Needless to say,
my relationship with my sister was anything but normal. But who can
honestly say they had a "normal" relationship with any of
As far as I know, she got married and was very wealthy, just as she had always imagined. Reluctantly, she invited me to the wedding. I will admit, it was an extremely lavish ceremony and the dress was to die for. As a wedding gift, I painted her portrait in her wedding gown. It was painted over the canvas she ruined when I was 8. It was the first time she truly understood that I loved her. Despite all the nastiness we put each other through as children, I loved her with all my heart. She was my sister. Amanda started crying when she read the note that went along with the gift. It said, "A mistake forgotten, a memory rewritten and old wounds healed. A canvas reformed and beauty renewed throughout it. Congratulations, Amanda. -Love, Sara" I smiled at her from the back of the room, blew her a kiss and left. It was 1900. As it would turn out, I would never see my sister again.
David James Foster, seven years my senior, never understood his baby
sister. He expected me to be the perfect, darling little angel that
Amanda had proven herself to be in only five years of life. David
was expecting a three-year-old to act like the vision of perfection.
God, help me, I loved my family but they were the most confusing lot
of human beings I would ever come to know and adore.
I wanted to draw, paint and play in the snow. He wanted me to play the piano and have mock tea parties like all the other girls. When I didn't lash out at Amanda during that infamous two weeks in 1887, he was so proud of me. I was sitting outside under the old oak tree, sketching the flowers and trees, when he came up beside me, looked over my work and give me a familial kiss on the forehead.
"What was that for, David?" I asked.
"For being the proper young lady, I always knew you could
I was silently plotting my revenge at that point; so I just smiled
at him and went back to work. Now, the pangs of guilt sing through
me like icicles. Then, I just smiled up at my big brother and went
back to work. He really was that oblivious.
David was extremely intelligent, devilishly handsome, and dreadfully
boring. The first-born son and destined for greatness. By the age of
15, he had already had his entire life planned out perfectly. He
knew he wanted to be a lawyer. He was positive that he was going to
be wealthy. He would be damned if he were going to live the rest of
his life in Rochester. That was the one and only thing we agreed
Rochester was a beautiful town. Everybody knew everybody else, gossip spread like wildfire and everybody was happy. Except us. David and I wanted to get away from the friendliness and false congeniality that come with close-knit communities. It was by no means a small town. But it paled in comparison to our dreams. We wanted New York City. Just like immigrants always believed America was the land of milk and honey, David and I believed that New York was where everything was happening. The difference between the immigrants and us was David and I were right.
My father would sit me on his knee and read me stories from his
paper about the gallery openings and about all the artists that made
their home in Soho. I loved it. I couldn't hear enough about this
big beautiful city teeming with life. More than anything, I wanted
to be a part of it. I wanted my father to some day read about me in
his paper. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see David standing
just outside the threshold taking in the magnificence of the stories
being told to me. We never spoke about it, really, but David and I
both knew the dreams in each other's hearts. Our eyes gave us away
In 1890, David went off to University at Yale in New Haven,
Connecticut to pursue his law degree. Every month, I would get a new
letter from him describing to me our city. He told me of busy
streets during the day and the high society parties during the
night. He met so many fascinating people. He was happy there, but
despite it all, he missed us at home. During one of his breaks, he
met Cassandra Evans. She was the most beautiful woman in Rochester
and everybody knew it. She always had her eye on David and everybody
knew it. And secretly, I knew that they started courting two months
before he went away to University. The engagement was announced
officially in 1893. A year later, after he graduated from Yale, they
wed in December of 1894. Amanda and I were bridesmaids.
At the ripe old age of 15, David commented on what the refined young
lady I had become. Despite our shared secrets and the city we had in
common, he was still boring. Shortly after the wedding, David and
Cassandra moved to New York City, where he started his own law firm.
Two years after that the letters about my city stopped coming. He
would only write to tell us the wonderful news about his three
children being born and to send his well wishes and love on our
birthdays and holidays. He lost touch with the family and that was
something nobody expected.
I saw him for the last time at Amanda's wedding. He had grown a
mustache and looked more like our father than he ever had before.
His hair was beginning to gray and the hard lines from poring over
law books at all hours of the night were starting to show. He found
me as I was leaving the reception.
"Take care of yourself, Young Lady," he smiled.
"Always, Old Man," I smiled back.
He pulled me into his strong arms and for the first time since he
held me as a baby, he hugged me warmly. David let go and kissed me
on the forehead. Before I could even get the question out, he
silenced me with his hand. "For being Sara," was all he
So, maybe he wasn't as boring as I thought.
I felt the hot breath of a four-year-old and the prodding paw of Mr.
Bear on a cold December morning in 1885.
"Sairwa?" I heard in a loud whisper behind my ear,
"Are you awake?"
I turned on my side and with sleep filled eyes, found a trembling
Robert Daniel Foster at my bedside. Without a word, I scooted away
from the edge of the bed, and lifted my covers to welcome my little
brother into the warmth.
"I had a bad dream," he began. He told me the story of all
the bad monsters in his dream chasing him and how scared he was. He
almost got away but he turned a corner and there they were waiting
for him to catch him. I just stroked his hair and listened to him.
Mid-sentence, he was fast asleep, still clutching tightly to Mr.
Robert always had bad dreams. Sometimes they were about ghosts and
goblins. Other times, they were so frightening to me, I couldnít
bear to hear them and I wasn't even the dreamer. He would have
dreams about Mother crying all the time. Each time he'd go to
comfort her; she'd push him away. His descriptions of her to me were
so vivid. He had every detail down to the stitch. Mother would be
sitting in a rocking chair, wearing only her white dressing gown.
The chair would be in a dark cobweb filled room and in front of a
roaring fireplace. Mother's hair was long and ragged and her eyes
were strained from staring into the fire. Robert said that she'd be
muttering to herself and rocking back and forth. When he got closer,
he'd see the tears running down her face. He reached out his small,
trembling hand to console her but she would recoil instantly at the
attempted contact. This was always the point where he'd be jarred
awake by his own flinching and he'd come to me.
I know the story better than he could ever imagine. After Robert was
born, I would hear sobs coming from the library and hear the
crackling of a fire. Slowly, I crept down the hallway keeping
perfectly silent. When I reached the doorway, I poked my head around
the frame and looked in. I saw my mother rocking in her chair,
rubbing her stomach and crying. She mumbled unintelligible sounds in
between sobs. Ever since Robert was born, she was different.
Although people told me I looked exactly like her when I smiled, I
never saw my mother smile. Stephen would tell me stories of how
beautiful Mother's smile was and how it would light up a room. But
after Robert was born, something inside our mother died. I would
find out much later, that Robert was a twin. Our brother, Anthony
was stillborn. Complications in their birth prevented our mother
from ever being able to conceive again. She couldn't handle the
stress of it and became extremely depressed. Robert never really had
a mother to speak of. When he needed advice or comfort, he would
come to me. I was his support system and mother figure. I got a lot
of help from Stephen.
With Stephen and me as his role models, we shaped Robert into the
consummate artist. He was typically depressed and moody, more like
our mother than we would ever have imagined. Robert managed to
channel those feelings into music. Under our tutelage, he became an
accomplished pianist, cellist, and composer. Later, he would arrange
pieces for smaller chamber ensembles. Stephen and I were the ones
who attended his recitals religiously and encouraged him in every
way possible. He very much enjoyed playing his cello alongside the
great organ at Sunday Mass.
When Father agreed to let me move to New York and pursue my art
career in 1898, Robert begged me not to go. Stephen had just
graduated from Eastman and moved to Connecticut with his wife
earlier that year. Robert was bound for Eastman himself. He couldn't
bear the thought of both of us being so far away from him.
I touched my gloved hand to his cheek, "Hush now. Be strong for
me, please. You have to."
"Sara, do you really have to go now? Can't you wait a few more
months? Please?" he begged.
"Darling, I can't. When those few months have passed and it's
time for me to go again, you're going to try and persuade me to stay
a few months more. It'll be that much harder for the both of us if I
wait any longer." I took his other hand in mine and moved over
to the small couch in my bedroom. I sat down and he knelt on the
floor beside me and placed his head in my lap, just as he always had
done when he was upset. I took a glove off and gently started to pet
his hair and calm him down. "You'll be heading off to
University soon, yourself. Instead of me leaving you, you'd be
leaving me. It's time to grow up, Robert. Time to take our first
steps out into the real world."
"But who's going to... and where will I when... Oh, please
don't go, Sara." He wrapped his arms around my knees and held
on for dear life.
I sighed and placed my hand on his head. He looked up at me with
pain filled eyes and found a smile. He let go of my legs, stood up
and helped me to my feet. His six-foot frame towered over my petite
body. My little brother was all grown up, yet the fearful child
inside of him was trembling before me.
"Be strong for me."
"I will," he replied.
"I promise to be strong, Sara."
"Good. Now walk me out. The carriage is waiting."
I saw him again several times over the next few years. He was always strong for me. I was so proud.
"Sara Christine! Stephen Christopher! Get down here right
this minute!" Shouted our extremely unhappy mother from the
We both froze in our tracks and flashed one another worried looks. I
sighed first and headed towards the stairwell. Stephen was soon
behind me. We knew we were in trouble when she shouted our full
names. The minute I stepped off the staircase, I felt a cool hand
take hold of my left earlobe and pull me into the sitting room.
Mother let go of my head and simply pointed at the center of the
room. Scattered on the rug were several pieces of paper, bottles of
ink and paint, and pens and brushes.
"I want this room spotless when I come back in 10 minutes. Do
you understand me?"
"Yes, Mother," we said in unison.
She left the room and Stephen and I just looked at each other and
"After you," he said. The cleaning commenced.
Stephen was always my partner in crime. Ever since that time when I
was six and we made a huge mess with our art supplies in the sitting
room. David had his favorite little sister, Amanda. Stephen had his
favorite, me. Before Robert was born, it was clearly us against
them. There would be dirty looks across the dinner table, sabotaging
the other's fun, and framing somebody else for our messes. It was
great fun. After Robert was born, the campaign was on to turn him
over to one side or the other. Stephen and I won, hands down. The
fun eventually stopped and the five of us did our own things from
that point on.
If forced to choose a favorite sibling, Stephen would easily be that
one. He understood me better than anyone ever would. He knew when I
was lying, upset, plotting, and keeping things to myself. He always
knew where to find me. He always knew what was on my mind. He just
always knew. It drove me crazy sometimes. But, I absolutely adored
the fact that he could read me like a book and I could talk to him
about its pages. Our midnight chats were the best. We talked about
everything: music, art, literature, and superstitions, random hopes
and dreams for the world. Looking back on it now, the way he
indulged his little sister's idle ramblings, I know he made a great
Long before he became the perfect father, he was the perfect artist.
I swear the man could do everything. My brother, when he was five,
and I was one, was already planning out his first sculptures. By the
time he was seven, he was practically a piano virtuoso. When he
turned fifteen, he turned his talented mind to poetry. Like me, he
was a perfectionist when it came to his art. Everything had to be
just so or it was garbage.
I never saw him lose his temper over his work, before, though. He
would be less than pleased with the results he was getting with a
sculpture and just stop. A few days later, I would find it in the
garbage heap. Drawings that didnít turn out right ended up in the
fire almost immediately. He knew when the work was crap. He knew
immediately. Two lines of a poem would barely get written before
they were completely scratched off the page and written again.
I take it back; I did see him get upset once. He had turned 20 and
was on break from Eastman, where he was studying piano and
composition. Stephen hadnít written a line of poetry in two months.
Not out of choice, but because he was blocked. To take his mind off
of it, he turned to the piano and began to pound out Bachís Well-Tempered
Clavier. He missed a passage in the second c minor fugue and was
off the bench and in his room immediately.
Sounds of crashing could be heard outside his bedroom window. He was
throwing things out of his window and letting them fall to the
ground below. The first things I saw hit the ground were his
"Stephen! Stop!" I burst into his room, without knocking.
"Go away, Sara. I donít want to hear it." He just
continued on his merry way of destruction.
"I will not, until you stop acting like... well, like me."
I looked at him bravely.
He lowered the small sculpture in his hand back to its place on the
mantle and just looked at me in utter defiance.
"What has brought on this surge of rage and display of manly
"I canít write," was all he managed to get out before
turning his back and staring out the window.
"Ever again? Or just right now? Whatís the matter?" I
moved to sit on his bed and waited for his response.
He turned his head to the side, as he spoke, "Maybe not ever
again I donít know. Iím afraid that Iíve written all I can and that
will be the end of it."
"Iím sorry, Stephen. I donít know what to say. I think if you
He cut me off mid-sentence, "Give it time? Sara, youíre
becoming predictable in your old age. Look, I donít really want to
talk about this right now. Please, go."
"But, I was..." I pleaded.
Without another word, I just stood slowly and left. Stephen never
turned to see me go.
When I moved to New York in 1898, I would always write letters home
and to Stephen and Robert. At first things were lovely. I was
learning quite a bit and having a wonderful time getting to know my
city. I took art classes for a few years before the teachers told me
not to bother any more. There was nothing they could teach me that I
didn't already know. I realize how arrogant that sounds, but it is
the truth. They didn't have anything else to teach me. So, they sent
me off into the real world with my raw artistic talent and hoped for
the best. A few of them got me in touch with different art galleries
to help me get on my feet. But that is a story for later...
Needless to say, I struggled quite a bit. I was lucky enough to have
my father still sending me money and paying my expenses. I was not
getting where I wanted to be at all. However, I never told my family
of this. Robert believed my flowery lies of everything going
wonderfully and how truly happy I was. Stephen refused to believe a
word of it. He was furious with me when he read the letters. I got
one letter, late in 1900 long after Amanda's wedding, announcing
that Stephen would be up to visit me and I had better have the truth
ready for him when he got there.
A hard knock came on the door to my small loft in New York.
"Sara, it's me, Stephen."
I opened the door and my 25-year-old brother immediately took me into his strong arms, giving me the warmest hug I've had in ages. "Oh, it's so good to see you," he muffled into my hair.
I led him into the loft and showed him the multitude of paintings
that were piling up there. He was stunned by all of them. Over the
years my work had gotten much darker, apparently. I was capturing
things on canvas that he hadn't seen before. He was so proud of me.
Unfortunately, the other gallery owners in the city didn't agree
with him, and I told him as much.
"They're idiots, Sara. This is wonderful work. I can't believe
they could possibly turn these down. What did they say when you
showed it to them?"
"I'm sorry, Miss, but it's not quite what our audience is
looking for," I said imitating perfectly the same answer I'd
been receiving for over a year and a half. I motioned for us to sit
on the small couches and few chairs I had in the loft. "It's
because I'm a woman, Stephen. I know it is. They just can't handle
the idea of a frail creature like me producing such pieces as that.
I've had some people accuse me of forging the works. I don't know
what to do anymore."
I just put my head in my hands. Stephen leaned my head over onto his
chest and just comforted my frustration. "Sara, there's
something more to this story, isn't there?"
I just nodded feebly. I was also furious that he was doing it
again... He just knew.
I adamantly shook my head no.
"Tell me, Sara. Please. I can't help you if you don't tell
me." He tilted my face up to look into his. Genuine concern was
residing in his deep blue eyes. Stephen sat me up straight, brushed
the hair out of my face and took hold of one of my hands.
"I can't, Stephen. It's too embarrassing. I just..." my
voice trailed off.
Stephen gave my hand a reassuring squeeze.
I took a deep breath and began again. "The gallery owners
didn't just reject my work. They..." my voice trailed off
"Oh, God. Sara, they didn't. Please, tell me they didn't."
Tears started to flow down my face at that point. I just nodded no
at him and mumbled, "Not for lack of trying, though."
Stephen pulled my sobbing body against his and just held me. He
gently stroked my hair trying to shush me and reassuring me that
everything was going to be okay. I felt so ashamed of myself,
ashamed of my weakness. I couldn't do anything to stop them or to
keep their eyes from penetrating my flesh. Their leers are forever
burnt into my memory.
Although Stephen was doing his best to stay calm to keep me calm, I
could tell he was furious. He was furious at those men who tried to
cheapen his sister and he was furious at me for not telling him
earlier. "Sara, why didn't you tell me before?"
"I don't know. Because I don't want anyone to know about this.
It's horrible and disgusting and I don't want anyone to know.
Promise me you won't do anything. You won't say anything. Please,
promise me, Stephen." I looked up at him with pleading eyes
threatening to overflow again with stinging tears.
He sighed and pulled me to him again, "I promise."
That night, he tucked me into bed and stayed by my side until I fell
asleep. I felt like a small child again. I can't imagine how he
felt. We never spoke on the matter again.
We stayed in touch consistently for a little more than a year. He
would write to me making sure that everything was going all right
and if there was anything he could do for me. I wouldn't lie to him
any more. I told him when things were going horribly and when things
were going all right. The trauma of situations never escalated the
same way ever again.
In 1902, I told him of a great inspiration I was having and how
excited I was to get it out on canvas. He wrote that he couldn't
wait to see it and anxiously awaited news of its completion. I
promised I would tell him as soon as it was done so he could come up
and see my masterpiece.
To this day, I have not kept that promise.
On April 24, 1902, I met a man named Maximilian and I never saw anyone I knew, ever again.
Scenes from Childhood © 2001 by Jessica Robinson. Reproduction of any part without permission is strictly prohibited.