An American flag flaps in the winter wind outside Jessica Amos’s house, a bluish-gray two-story in a quiet Toledo neighborhood of ’70s-era homes. It’s a stable, cozy place, about 20 minutes from where she grew up.
Amos is dressed in a gray T-shirt and leggings, with 6-month-old Audrey riding on her hip. Her 4-year-old daughter, Annabelle, bounds around Amos’s legs, wanting to chat, wanting to play, wanting her mother’s undivided attention. With a gentle firmness, Amos shuttles her off to play in the other room and sets up Audrey on a blanket.
Audrey gurgles on a carpet Amos says they’re replacing as soon as their income tax refund comes.
She looks through a box of childhood possessions.
Included are a stack of pristine “Little Mermaid” books, with the “This book belongs to:” pages blank. She would have gotten into trouble if she wrote her name in them, she says. “We didn’t have a lot of money growing up.”
There’s a Dream Wedding Barbie still in her box. Amos laughs at the frayed cardboard top. “I wanted to open it, as you can tell.” Next is a black Ken doll — also still in his box — her mother gave to her when Amos was 16. She doesn’t know why. Maybe to match “my parents and make biracial babies,” she says, laughing. Her laugh is easy, contagious.
Amos’s mother, Joyce Harris, who is white, moved to Toledo for beauty school and wound up working at a Big Boy restaurant on Airport Highway with Amos’s father, Jeffrey Harris, who is black and was the chef and manager there. Joyce lived in Perrysburg, which Jessica calls “the uppity part of town.”
Jeffrey was often pulled over when he would drive to pick her up.
“My grandparents actually wanted my mom to have an abortion when she got pregnant with me, because of the mixed race,” Amos says.
They thought the child would be mocked, that no one would like her.
Jeffrey’s mother wasn’t thrilled with Joyce, either. She “did not like white people,” Amos says.
The first year of her life, “my father wasn’t really around because he was denying the fact that I was his.”
Her parents married after Amos’s biological brother came along 18 months after she was born. In those early years, her father was verbally abusive to her mother, she says. While her mother ran her own hair salon, he bounced between jobs — fired from one, he told the family, for beating the boss at golf and rubbing it in his face. That “could possibly be true,” Amos says.
Things changed, though, when Amos was about 10 years old and her father found Jesus. When she was 16, her parents began fostering children and eventually adopted five.
Her memories from that middle part of childhood are filled with singing, violin lessons and some of the teasing her grandmother had anticipated.
Most of her life, she says, she felt pressure to decide: “Do I fit in with the white crowd or do I fit in with the black crowd?” She is still skilled at code-switching.
She first met her husband, Steven Amos, in a junior high church youth group but found him immature and annoying. They met again during college — he literally ran into her with golf bags at the same spot, twice, a year apart. “Looking back, God kept sending me clues, and I kept ignoring them,” Steven says.
For Jessica, Steven was supposed to be a rebound. Soon after they started dating, she left for an internship hours away in Loveland, Ohio, in the greater Cincinnati area. She figured the romance would fizzle. But when Steven showed up at her door with a clutch of flowers two weeks into her internship, she knew, “Oh, he’s it. He’s the one,” she says.
Three years after they started dating, and 20 days after she graduated from the University of Toledo, Jessica and Steven were married. Six months later, she became pregnant with Annabelle. She had gone off birth control with a “Let’s see what happens” attitude and gotten pregnant within two weeks.
Annabelle tiptoes back in, spy-like, and slinks up to her mother’s side, wanting to listen. Amos brushes the girl’s hair back gently and gives her some ideas of what she can play next.
Doctors had to induce labor when Annabelle was born; then Jessica hemorrhaged and needed four blood transfusions.
“At the time, we didn’t know how serious it was,” Steven tells me later.
Breast-feeding Annabelle was difficult, too, and Jessica didn’t leave their apartment for three and a half months. Neither she nor Steven recognized that she had postpartum depression — he thought it was hormones.
It was during this time that she had her first anxiety attack.
“I thought I was going to die.” She remembers saying, “I can’t breathe.”
“It tested our marriage in the extreme,” she adds.
Soon after, she began a ministry program at Mount Vernon Nazarene University and eventually decided to pursue pastoral counseling.
Amos has long struggled with test anxiety, and when it came time to take the National Counselor Exam, she failed. She landed a job as a case manager, offering school-based and outpatient mental-health services for children. She has since failed the test once more, her anxiety thwarting her again.
“I’ve been saying that I’m going to get on anxiety meds for four months now,” she says, “and I still haven’t.”
Moms always use the excuse, “I’ve got to take care of the kids first,” she says.
At the elementary school where she works, she offers a quiet space for children on the brink of melting down in class. More than half of her clientele have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or oppositional defiant disorder. Among her students are children whose lives are touched by the opioid epidemic. A few have had parents overdose and die.
Audrey is soundly asleep as Amos rocks her and pats her back, her tiny head resting at her mother’s shoulder.
“There’s a first-grader that found her mother in the next room,” Amos says of one of her young charges, shaking her head. The area of Toledo where Amos grew up has the highest drug-trafficking rate in the city.
Looking toward the next decade, Amos’s goals include passing her counselor exam and getting a raise. She wants to travel, to visit Hawaii. She’ll be celebrating her 10th wedding anniversary in a few years and has two children, but still, it doesn’t feel like she’s going to be 30. “I still feel like I’m 18,” she says.
She and Steven want to try for a boy, and after that, foster and adopt. “Seeing her family and how they respond to adopting kids and the lives that they’ve changed, that’s something I want to be a part of,” Steven says.
Will she ever leave Toledo? No, Jessica says. “This is our forever home.”