Lost in the Woods
“If every one of these men had just come in here with, you know, a prized walleye, a whitefish…and you gave me my childhood filet knife, I could out-filet any of them.”
Sitting in a booth near the bar at Las Palapas in Livonia, Kelly Ann Ramsey is telling her story. And it cuts to the bone…
Yesterday was Halloween, and at this time of year people like to watch scary movies. For example, The Blair Witch Project, which made a cultural impact upon its initial release in 1999. Marketed as “found footage” of three twenty-somethings who disappeared while making a documentary about a legendary witch in Maryland, the film was actually a work of fiction.
During a pivotal scene in the movie, after the three cast members have been lost in the woods for days, the one who doesn’t know how to read the map destroys it by kicking it into the river, and laughs hysterically about it when confessing to his companions. The one person in the group who could read the map was livid, “You have betrayed us all,” she says to him.
“You betrayed us when you couldn’t get us out of the woods,” he replies.
Listening to Ramsey’s stories about her summer trips with her father, one is reassured she knows what she’s doing.
“I’ve been lost in the woods,” Ramsey asserts. “I can figure it out.”
Our anxieties should not be about some undefinable or unsubstantiated fear, but our children. Right now, as it pertains to the community’s children and investing resources into their personal development, Wayne County is lost in the woods, and doesn’t know how to read a map. Furthermore, the county is so bogged in bureaucracy that the frustration has reached a boiling point — they’re ready to kick the map in the river, rather than look at the problem through the lens of reality.
“It’s crooked,” Ramsey declares, when asked what has been the most important thing that working in the judicial system has taught her.
“The judicial system has the power to shape the community, and that’s exactly what it does,” she continues. “There are many things within the judicial system that have to be improved. For instance, how we address our children.
“Right now we have, in many cases, a pipeline to prison. And if we do not hold the judicial system — and its participants — more accountable for the rehabilitation of our families and our children, then we’re gonna continue that pipeline. Our most at-risk citizens need real, comprehensive services.”
The waiter comes to the table to take the food order, and Ramsey comes to attention.
“I’ll have a side of guacamole, please, thank you.”
She’s already eaten. She just came from a lunch meeting, and two meetings before that. She’s tired, and yet, tireless.
Ramsey uses gotta instead of got to, hadda instead of had to, along with gonna, wanna. (But never woulda, shoulda, or coulda.) She talks fast. Not because she has somewhere more important to be, but because she has something important to say. A lot of important things, actually. And she wants to make sure she gets to say all of it. But she knows time is hard to come by these days, and she respects yours. When Ramsey talks to you, you feel like the most important person in the world.
Still, the community comes first.
A Solid Foundation
“I’ve seen nothing but a decline in services to children. We’ve all seen it in our educational system. There are countless studies which validate the need for children to have recreation, music classes, art classes, and how each advances proficiency in mathematics, advanced thinking, creative potential, and other skill sets.”
Kelly Ann Ramsey is still answering the question about the most important thing working in the judicial system has taught her.
“The bottom line is we have everything upside-down. If you want to lower the cost of prisons in this country, then you have got to give real and effective services to the families in this country. We don’t have sufficient services for our children, and all children are our children.”
Decades of experiences, both in her personal life and her career in courtrooms, have taught Ramsey that in order for anyone or anything to succeed, a solid foundation must first be established. She believes that parents, who are consciously present and hold their child accountable at the earliest possible stages of life, are the foundation upon which the success of each child is built.
“The distinction between me and many of the children that I care for is that I had a picture-perfect childhood, which may be more tragic to lose,” Ramsey poses, “because I saw parents who loved each other, and effectively parented me.
“I had incredibly interesting parents, and the dynamics of my parents played a role in my life, because my mother was five years older than my father, and she came from a family with a higher socio-economic standard than my father.
“I think I had a perfect childhood until I realized my mother was going to die.”
Ramsey’s father was a Detroit police officer, and her mother was a social worker. She was born and raised on the 18200 block of Rutherford, in a two-bedroom, one full-bath home between 6 and 7 Mile and Southfield and Greenfield Roads.
“Back then, if I did something wrong, I knew about it.”
She goes on about the city.
“It was Detroit, I knew everybody. I could tell you who lived in every single house on each side of the block, from corner to corner. If you had done something wrong on your way home from school, your parents would know about it before you got home. Everybody knew everybody in the neighborhood, and it was much safer back then. It would have been okay for the neighbor to discipline a child, not necessarily hit them, but discipline them.”
She reminisces about school.
“I went to the same school for twelve years. My core group of twenty or so pals are the same people that I’ve known since I was a child. We all went to grade school and high school together. People didn’t move around as often back then. We lived in the same neighborhoods.”
On her parents’ educational expectations…
“My mother set the standard: she graduated from college with a major in Chemistry, and became a published research chemist.” (Cancer Can Be Cured, Science Studies, Saint Bonaventure College, November 1942)
Ramsey continues, “Going to college was an expectation. My father did not graduate from college, so he expected me to follow in my mother’s footsteps. He expected me to be as smart as she was, excel as she did.
“My father had so much pride in the fact that he had a wife who was older than him,” Ramsey elaborates, “made more money than him, came from money, and had more education than he did. He beat that into me, that ‘you can achieve your dream in your life’. And I think that men today, now fifty years later, might struggle with an older woman, more money, more education, et cetera, but when you look through the lens of reality at the 1960s and 1970s, my father was incredibly ahead of his time. He flaunted the reversal. So, that was an interesting male perspective for me.”
When asked about her father’s identity apart from his marriage to and adoration for her mother, Ramsey smiles.
“Everybody loved him. Everybody gravitated to him. He could talk. He could silence a school room and tell stories.” Her eyes light up. “He was just a cool guy. He was a phenomenal cook, grew up on a farm. He made incredible pies and breads. Phenomenal soups, roasts…’country food’, so to speak.”
“My father hunted with Canadian elders. Even after my mother died we would still go to the wilds of Canada, and my father would leave me with the Indian elders’ wives while he went moose and elk hunting. He was a tremendous hunter and fisherman, idolized by people, they sought him out wherever we went. I was living in Canada the entire month of June my whole childhood. I swam with otters around me. I think I was probably twelve years old before I understood that not every child gets to see twenty moose every summer.”
Those trips with her father would help shape and inform Kelly Ann Ramsey’s inherent discipline and accountability, along with her spirituality.
“There was an island you had to swim to. My father went with a canoe. When I could swim to the island on my own, which was over a mile away, then I would be allowed to go anywhere and swim unsupervised.”
Her father didn’t limit sink-or-swim trials to the water.
“My maternal grandparents owned eighty acres of land, my paternal grandparents, one hundred sixty, and my father would leave me in the middle of the woods and say ‘We’ll see you at home. Find your way out.’ It was intentional.
“But…I can read a compass, I can understand a map. I can figure it out.”
She peers out the front window of the restaurant, approximating a certain distance.
“You can give me a thirty-aught-six and tell me to take a bottle off that fence across the street, and I could do it.”
Ramsey’s father’s influence went beyond essential survival skills. After her mother died, Officer Robert W. Ramsey — ‘R.W.’ or ‘R-Dub’ to most — would take young Kelly to court with him, where he worked.
“I was fascinated by the whole thing. I loved it, I loved the excitement of it all,” Ramsey remembers. “Later, as a prosecutor, I remember one defendant that just scared me. And I just remember being so scared of him. You could feel almost a permeation of meanness, from his vibe.”
Throughout her time in court with dad, and in the years thereafter, she witnessed what happens when accountability falls by the wayside.
“You know, it’s so easy to say ‘What’s the big deal?’, but I think nobody should be allowed to live their life in a manner or fashion which brings harm to others, whether that’s stealing flowers from next door, or being drug-addicted all your life and soaking up taxpayer dollars, or having eleven drug-addicted babies, or any number of other things. Whether you take it from the lowest denominator — ‘cut your lawn, have a better-looking yard’ — to the extremes of rape and murder, anything in the spectrum, you can’t bring harm to others. Period. The flower incident solidified that for me.”
“I occasionally tell this story when I speak about children and responsibility: one day, I was walking home from school, a longer walk than most kids would be allowed today. I picked flowers all the way home, from other people’s lawns — if a flower had grown through the fence, I picked it. I came home with a beautiful bouquet for my mother, who was dying of cancer. I was proud as a peacock.
“My father marched me back to every one of those houses to apologize.”
The lesson many kids would take from that, especially if they didn’t share the type of relationship with their parents as Ramsey had, is ‘when I try to be nice, I get punished, so why bother?’ She claims she never saw it like that.
“Those flowers didn’t belong to me,” she explains. “The intention was to make a bouquet for my mother, which would have warmed anybody’s heart, and the homeowners were probably told by my father that she was extremely ill. But the point was, it was stealing.
“My mother and father are equally the most influential people in my universe,” Ramsey concludes.
This is the first installment of a seven-part story. To read Part Two, click here.