By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
bartesaghi@montclairlocal.news

January Levy, 35, didn’t have much of a sense of home when she was a child. Her birth mother lived in Montclair — but Levy often didn’t.

Levy’s mother’s struggles with substance abuse left her unable to care for the young girl, and her father wasn’t a part of her life. A series of arrangements were made with other family members. She lived with her mother, her mother’s husband and two siblings for a few years starting when she was 4. By 7, she was back to being bounced from one extended family member’s home to another — often in different states. 

And even when she returned to Montclair at age 10, her mother’s struggles weren’t over. She found herself back and forth again, often staying with friends.

“People would contact [my mother], realize that she couldn’t take care of me — and kind of intercept me in some way,” Levy said.

Nancy Lands has been living in Montclair for the past 40 years. She had been a nurse in the psychiatric ward in Mountainside hospital. She and her husband, Michael, lived with their four children next door to a friend of Levy’s mother from church who had taken the girl in temporarily. By that time, Lands was a stay-at-home mom.

Levy became friends with all the kids in the neighborhood. Lands would often find her on her doorstep, or climbing over her back porch to play with her own children. Lands didn’t mind that Levy was spending so much time at her home, but she sensed something wasn’t right.

“I have a lot of faith, and at one point the light bulb went off in my head,” Lands said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, I’m supposed to do something about this.’”

Levy recalls living with the family friend from church for about eight months, before going back to her mother’s home briefly. The family friend told Lands about Levy’s mother’s substance abuse problems.

“I was like, ‘Just send her over here for a sleepover and we’ll figure things out,’” Lands recalled telling the neighbor.

It was the longest sleepover Levy, then 12, would ever have. The few nights she thought she’d stay stretched into weeks.

“It got to a point where I was asking myself, ‘Am I staying here? Can I just open the fridge? I might need clothes,’” Levy said. “The reality started to set in where I actually had to become a dependent.” 

Lands contacted the agency then known as the Division of Youth and Family Services. With its help, she began the process that would eventually make her Levy’s foster parent. 

Levy remembers being defensive about her biological family. She was raised not to talk about the things that happened in her household — especially drug use — to outsiders.

“There were things that I was struggling with internally as a kid because I was told I couldn’t talk about them, but at the same time, I had to get it out. I had to figure out how to deal with it,” Levy said. 

She thought this new family would get rid of her. 

Lands recalls: “[Levy] actually said to me at one point, ‘I think it’s time.’ So, I was like, ‘Well, where would you go? This is your family.’ But in her head, that’s what she did when things started to get tough. It took her a long time to trust that she really belonged here.” 

Levy and Lands said that eventually began to change. Levy remembered a key moment: When Lands’ children “began to refer to me as their sister.”

She eventually became more comfortable with her new family, and in her new life. She was enrolled in Mount St. Dominic Academy in Caldwell, where she played soccer. She attended the Essex County Police Academy program as a teenager. 

Lands has fond memories of Levy as a teenager, including the year when she and Lands’ biological daughter wore identical swimsuits all summer. 

Levy’s own struggle

But around age 16, Levy found herself struggling. She remembers a suicide attempt. Medications. She started using marijuana and alcohol. “I was just on a mission to escape from my feelings,” she said.

That same year she’d gotten in touch with her birth father in California. She left home — staying with her dad for a while, and with a boyfriend for a while. She couch-surfed. She was put up in halfway houses, as a minor still formally in the care of the state. Home had become a fluid, intangible concept again.

Around that time, she tried cocaine. She picked up a methamphetamine habit. For five years, Levy would call Lands from California, Nevada and elsewhere.

She said she had to go through her journey of addiction alone, making her own mistakes before she had a chance of breaking the cycle. And Lands patiently waited at home in Montclair — her doors, and her arms, open any time the young woman who’d become her daughter wanted to return.

It finally happened when Lands’ oldest son, James, was joining the military. She asked Levy to travel back to Montclair, because she wanted all of her children to be together before he left. 

Lands paid for Levy’s round-trip fare.

“It was the night before [Levy] was supposed to go home,” Lands said. “And she said, ‘Mom, I don’t want to go back.’ I said, ‘You don’t have to go back, but you gotta get a job.’ And she did.” 

By that point, Levy already had a baby son of her own — and she’d later have another child. She remembered looking at him in the highchair at Lands’ table, she said: “I knew I was going to put him through exactly what I went through.”

The return wasn’t easy. Levy, 24 years old at the time, continued drinking and using drugs. She and Lands talked about her drinking a lot, sometimes heatedly. After eight months, Levy agreed to go for rehab. 

“I really had to admit to myself that I didn’t know what was best for me,” she said. “What was best for me was whatever felt good in the moment. And I had to — there were just some serious things that I had to change.” 

Levy completed her 28 days in rehab. It took — she’s been sober for the last 11 years.

‘You don’t give up’

The “express” version of her life since rehab, she said, is “I did a lot of soul-searching and growing up.” She got into therapy. She learned new ways of dealing with the stresses in her life, unlearned dysfunctional mechanisms for coping with her difficult childhood. She had a few relationships. She was married for a while, though that marriage has since ended. 

“I was starting to find my way as an adult mother who needed to stay sober and take some responsibility,” she said. 

Levy went to cosmetology school. She got her license to cut hair, and started working at barbershops in town. One agreed to sell the shop to her.

Now, she’s an independent business owner — the namesake of January’s Barbershop on North Fullerton Avenue.

She and Lands continue to live in Montclair, in different homes. They see each other often. The family, she said, has started to heal — “and not always have to worry about me.”

And though Levy has some limited contact with her birth mother, she continues to call Lands by the name she has for years: “Mom.”

When Lands took Levy in when she was a 12, she didn’t know what to expect. At times, Lands said, the path seemed dark and sometimes hopeless. But she said she never stopped because of one reason, and one reason only: 

“You don’t give up on your kids,” Lands said. “You just don’t.”