CINCINNATI – They don’t remember the names.
How could they? Ann and Al Hill have taken in around 100 girls, mostly teenage girls, for nearly three decades. What they remember, and in some cases what they will never forget, are the streets where the girls moved after they left.
Because they visited them.
Their daughters had gone to college and their home in Cincinnati felt empty. For the hills, it wasn’t a big deal. To hear them say it, bringing strangers home and caring for them – as if they were their own children – was no more difficult than a trip to the grocery store.
This is what makes the hills remarkable: they don’t think they’ve done anything special.
Al sits by their front porch, soaking up the sun on one of Cincinnati’s first great spring days. Hanging from the roof is a sign that says, “Remember to entertain strangers.”
Not many people on their streets are strangers to Al, but he waves to them anyway. When his wife comes out, Al places his chair on the porch in the shade. At 79, he has difficulty walking. Ann is 78 years old. Until last year, they were still in foster care.
The two sit next to each other, holding hands for a photo, canes between their legs. They have been married for 53 years.
Ann never really smiles, even though her daughter tells her to. It has been a difficult year. In August, their 46-year-old daughter Rhonda died after being diagnosed with cancer. Ann wears a necklace with her photo on it.
Al does most of the talking today, and almost every day, occasionally leaning over to his wife to check her memory.
“Mm-hmm,” she usually says.
Ann does not speak very loudly and at times it is difficult to hear her. Yet everyone knows she’s in charge.
As a foster parent, she was strict. His house had rules. Al remembers making their daughters brush their teeth again if they didn’t do it right the first time. Yes, she was stern, but the girls found out that she was someone they could always call. And sometimes that was all they needed.
“We were a team,” says Ann. “That’s how we did it.”
Born in Georgia, Ann and Al both moved to Cincinnati and met in their sophomore year in high school. Al had 16 sisters, but did not grow up with them. Ann was raised by her aunt.
At school, Ann said Al was a nuisance. Al said Ann was smart.
When Al was drafted into the military, Ann wrote to him. Perhaps more importantly, when he was serving in Vietnam, she sent him pastries. Five decades later, he’s almost salivating as he describes his pound cake. She was the only person in the world who could cook better than her grandmother, he said.
For Al, a driver and bus manager for 37 years, the welcome was often just as easy. He and his wife could provide a bed and homemade meals for young girls who needed them.
“Do you know what you are learning?” Said Al. “There are so many people who have nowhere to go.”
When asked how the couple benefited from foster care, Ann tells the story of a girl whose brother pushed her out of a window to save her during a fire. For a long time, Ann did not know that the brother was dead.
When the girl finally told her, Ann found a picture of him, framed it, and placed it next to his bed.
The point of the story wasn’t so much what Ann got out of their relationship, but more to illustrate that she could help in some way. Because the truth is that all of their daughters had lost something. And for people with nothing, the little things can sometimes seem like the most important.
Ann never really answered the question of how she had benefited from foster care. Maybe she doesn’t know. Maybe time has blunted the bad memories. Maybe it was really that easy.
But the slippers on Ann’s feet tell a different story. They tell how two people can tell the difference, even if they don’t want to admit it. They tell a story of 53 years of love, teamwork and parenting.
“Out of service” are the words embroidered on his slippers.
Maybe it seems easier now because Ann and Al are both retired – from work and foster care. Because if this story is about the hills, it is also about girls. Even those who ran away or stole them. The Hills couldn’t save everyone, but some of their adopted daughters still make their way for Thanksgiving dinner.
Some of them are still calling.
And for Ann, that’s enough.
Follow reporter Keith BieryGolick on Twitter: @KBieryGolick
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