Chris Battles (left) and his sister Maryanne Battles. They had a difficult childhood that separated them from each other and lead them to live very different lives.
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Chris Battles (left) and his sister Maryanne Battles. They had a difficult childhood that separated them from each other and lead them to live very different lives.
Credit: KUOW PHOTO/Acacia Niyogi

My uncle has experienced homelessness for decades. He still comes to family dinner at my house.

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My mom, Maryanne Battles, and her older brother, Chris, had an extremely difficult childhood. But they always had each other.

My uncle has always been a part of my life. He sends me and my sister birthday cards every year, and he often comes to visit. He has also been been homeless for most of my life.

Even though he's always been there for us, I didn't know much about his life. So one night, over dinner, I asked my mom and uncle to talk about their pasts . After hearing what they went through in their lives, both together and separately, I started to understand why they are so committed to maintaining their relationship.

As young children, my mom and uncle would do everything together. My uncle remembers how my mom would follow him around. They would go on childish adventures, like skipping church to buy donuts.

But both of their parents were economically and emotionally unstable, and they found it difficult to take care of Maryanne and Chris. The tipping point was when they lost their childhood home in a fire.

"We were fairly upper-middle class," my mom said. "Then suddenly, I'm in a group home."

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At the group home, Maryanne and her brother were separated.

"Chris and I grew up very fast," she said. "I always felt very caring for him, but I remember being in the group home and feeling like he blew me off."

In their teens, they were taken out of the group home and reunited in the foster care system. But that transition was tough on Chris.

"Chris always had more trouble," my mom said. "I learned in my childhood how to get along with people. My brother instead argued, because he was a very bright and precocious boy."

Their reunion in foster care was short-lived, however, since they had to move to opposite sides of the country.

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Maryanne went to live with family in Pasco, Washington, and Chris went to boarding school in Boston.

This was when the siblings truly separated.

Left: A family photo of Maryanne (bottom left) and Chris Battles (bottom right) with their parents. Right: The back of the photo with a note from their father, who wrote, "I've done the best I was able to do under the circumstances of the times and my mental health at the time. It is a long difficult road in life."
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Left: A family photo of Maryanne (bottom left) and Chris Battles (bottom right) with their parents. Right: The back of the photo with a note from their father, who wrote, "I've done the best I was able to do under the circumstances of the times and my mental health at the time. It is a long difficult road in life."
Credit: Courtesy of Maryanne Battles

"I ended up acclimating to this family," my mom said. "At least I was able to have love, support, and direction. He had no one."

When their father died, the distance between the two siblings was bigger than ever.

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"A couple times I tried to see him," she said, "I couldn't find him at all."

He had left his former address, and she didn't have a phone number for him.

But one day, out of the blue, Maryanne got a call from Chris asking for money. She found out he hadn't had a job for months.

"I ended up flying down to meet him in San Diego," she said, "and it was clear he was homeless."

She realized he was sleeping on the floor of an apartment with about ten other people.

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"I was crushed," she said. "I remember crying and saying, 'I don't know what to do. This is my brother.'"

Maryanne channeled this sadness into compassion. Despite being newly married and pregnant with me, her first baby, she told Chris she wanted him to live with her. He didn't agree at first, but eventually gave in.

"I was returning from maternity leave," she said. "He called me and said, 'Hi! Maryanne! I'm in Seattle! Where do you live?'"

He ended up staying with us for a year.

Immediately, she noticed there were problems with Chris' short-term memory, ability to concentrate, and decision-making. She tried to get him help, but when she became pregnant with my sister, my mom realized they were running out of space. Chris had to move out.

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This time, things were different. She and Chris had a newfound bond and continued to stay in contact.

"I'm happy to see my family," Uncle Chris said to me and my mom over dinner. "I don't wanna get rid of ya! I love you, you know."

This bond gave my mom a new understanding: "The value I had placed on him living a certain lifestyle with him having hobbies and not being able to hoard were my values.

"I had to realize he was doing the best he could. I had to be okay with him having a really different sense of bottom."

My mom still feels guilty over Chris' living situation, but she's come to terms with accepting his future.

"The biggest thing," she said, "is I want him to be happy. I want him to feel good about himself. I think he does know that I care about him."

I asked my uncle what made him happy. "What makes me happy? Getting along with people, having family. I love my family."

This story was created in KUOW's RadioActive Intro to Journalism Workshop for 15- to 18-year-olds at Jack Straw Cultural Center, with production support from Mary Heisey. Edited by Carol Smith.

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