There was never a time when the children weren’t there.
If Elsy and Eliud went to the mall, her kids — three girls from a previous relationship, ages 11, 7, and 4 — were part of the entourage. And while she wasn’t necessarily looking for a partner, she couldn’t help notice Eliud’s attentiveness and care.
His cousin was Elsy’s neighbor, and Eliud was “a magnet to the kids. He fell in love with them, and I was the added package,” Elsy jokes. She wasn’t eager to date — ”we became friends quickly, and I didn’t want to ruin that friendship” — but slowly warmed to their unconventional courtship.
“He never said, ‘Do you want to go out?’ We were always hanging out anyway; we were always together. He jumped in for the girls; if they needed something, he was there. Everyone thought we were together.”
The two can barely recall a date that didn’t include the kids — perhaps one time, for Elsy’s birthday. But they do remember a trip to the mall in spring 2000, two years after they met. Eliud announced that he liked someone and asked Elsy to help him pick out a ring for that woman.
“I thought: Wait, this is my best friend! I didn’t want him to leave. But I did want his happiness,” Elsy says. She helped him choose a simple diamond band and was puzzled when he complained loudly about the cost.
A few days later, Elsy asked her daughters to clean their room. Eliud was missing in action, and she wondered if he was secretly helping the girls with their chore. When she went up to see, he proffered the ring. “I said: Sir? He said: Hey. I was the girl I’d picked the ring for. Of course, when I put it on my finger, it matched me.”
The wedding, at Philadelphia’s City Hall, was a fiasco. “Our bank account got frozen,” Elsy says. “Our ceiling caved in; there was water everywhere. I had bronchitis. I couldn’t breathe. I got my hair done, and it looked like I’d stuck my finger in an electric socket.”
When they reached City Hall, the clerk said they’d arrived on the wrong day. It took a trip back home to unearth the paperwork — one of the few dry pieces of paper in the house — that indicated it was, in fact, the correct date, Nov. 21, 2002.
“I was crying, having an asthma attack,” Elsy says. “Finally one judge came out of a meeting and married us. We didn’t even wait to say ‘I do.’ ”
They tried designing, but never succeeded. “God gave us children another way,” Elsy says. By the time they were 37 and 39, they were grandparents.
“Then it started multiplying,” Eliud says — children born to their daughters as well as to their son Carlos, a classmate of Vanessa’s whom they raised but never officially adopted.
“We went from being everybody’s mom and dad to everybody’s grandmom and grandpop,” Elsy says.
Vanessa was fostering, and the agency planned to separate a pair of the siblings in her care. “She said, ‘Mom and Dad, can you do the [foster] training so we can move one of the siblings to you?’ We said OK.”
Shortly after Elsy and Eliud were certified, they got a phone call from a caseworker: “We have three siblings who need somewhere to go. Then I hear [the kids] in the background. We thought: OK, we’ll help out. Then [the caseworker] said, ‘If this goes toward adoption, are you open?’ I looked at Eliud. He was like, ‘Sure!’ We fell in love with the kids.”
The fifth child came during a rare date night, when the kids were all at their daughter’s house. “We’re sitting there, watching TV, and we get a phone call that there’s a baby. I looked at Eliud: A baby. We getting started the crib out. They bring this beautiful baby girl, 9 months old.
“We thought we were at our max, but our son-in-law had a coworker whose son was in the [foster care] system. He called and said, ‘I know you guys don’t really know me, but I work with your son-in-law. Is there any way…?’ And that’s how we got our last child. That was just a couple of months ago.”
Both Elsy and Eliud say their parenting style has changed with each successive round: their daughters, the grandchildren, and now the foster children, three of whom were adopted last month. As young parents, they tended to hew a traditional line: Do it because I say so. “Now we take into consideration what the kids are saying,” Elsy says. Sometimes their adult children bristle at the ways they discipline the younger ones; other times, they scoff that their parents are “too soft.”
Eliud and Elsy say it’s a constant balancing act. “The kids have ADHD, emotional baggage, autism; there’s one who’s deaf; there are language barriers. Sometimes I think: Am I doing the right thing? You want these kids to have a perfect world so they can leave the drama — which they didn’t ask for — behind.
“You think your heart can’t open anymore until you see one of these kids,” she says. “They’ll come home and have a nervous breakdown because a squirrel died, and you’re the only one who can make it better. It gives you a sense of purpose.”
The children keep them active: playground jaunts, finger painting, trips to Wildwood and Sesame Place. They decorate the house full-tilt for Halloween and Christmas. And when they’re out with the whole crew, which often includes several of their 10 grandchildren along with their adopted and foster kids, they have a ritual for corralling everyone.
Elsy and Eliud will make the sign-language gesture for “love,” then shout, “Gang gang Longshore,” naming the street where they live. The kids echo, “Gang gang Longshore!” Then they rush toward their parents, gathering in.