Let me begin with a bit of a brag.
My youngest niece just graduated from college this past weekend with a double major, nutrition and communication. She worked full time and went to college full time the five years she attended school. She is the first student in four years from her college to be accepted in an dietary internship at a prestigious Boston hospital. Her long-term goal is to be a food writer! She confided to me that I inspired her when I used to let her help me in the kitchen and didn't get angry when she made a mess; instead we cleaned up and made it fun. Can you believe that? That has to be one of the top ten compliments I have ever received.
Earlier this year, my oldest niece received her masters in pharmaceutical research. While she was an undergraduate she won first place in a national science contest and later went on to win third place internationally. She was the first in the history of our family to acquire a four-year degree, but to obtain a Masters is downright unknown. Currently she's working on finding a cure for Alzheimer's disease.
These young women did not achieve such excellence by accident. They had a tremendous amount of love and encouragement and support from their both parents, even when their mom and dad were no longer married to each other. When the days seemed endless and their goals unattainable, my brother would say, "Look how far you've come and achieved so far! When you were in high school, did you ever envision you'd come as far as you have? You can do this! Concentrate on today and do well today, tomorrow will take care of itself. Get help if you need it and don't be embarrassed to ask for it. Don't feel bad about asking for help; feel good that you know that you need it and you get it."
I am so terribly proud of them. When they were still in high school, I asked them individually if they had a boyfriend. My oldest niece, Hilli (BeanBag) was clearly put out by the question. "Aunt Kathi," she sniffed with all the confidence and arrogance of a fully informed teenager, "there will be no time for boys. I will have my education and my career first and then there will be time for boys. Boys are a distraction; they keep you from achieving your goals!"
Laura, on the other hand, half-heartedly gave me the same statement; perhaps it was wisdom their parents had instilled in her and her sister and she was still attempting to adopt it as her own. I heard the pause. She leaned deep into me, peering seriously into my eyes, and said, "Aunt Kathi, can we talk about boys?"
I have a former coworker whose daughter, Vicki, was dating a man who had sole custody of his young three children from a previous relationship. The children were beautiful, well mannered, and adoring of their dad and Vicki. They were the kind of little ones who would be welcomed anywhere. As time progressed and it seemed apparent that their adult relationship was leading toward commitment, I was happy for all as they looked like a loving family unit. Then one day my coworker, in describing the children, referred to them as 'pseudo grandchildren.' Then she went on to say how her daughter was looking forward to having her own children and being a 'real' mom. And she was looking forward to being a 'real' grandmother.
I could not contain the reverberation that shook within me. "I think your daughter has 'real' children to love and she is a 'real' mother to them."
My coworker scowled defensively. "It's just different to have your own, ones that you bore. They're yours. If you had children, you'd know what I mean."
Possession and ownership. Objects d' art. Mine, mine, mine. Yours. Mine.
Thank you, God, that I don't have children, for now I can love them all equally, without prejudice.
A couple of weeks ago, my Sweetie-Pi and I were sitting at our kitchen table, eating a simple lunch. Earl looked past me and stared out the front window. "Somebody's sitting on our retaining wall," he said. "Probably just a hiker who needed to stop for a quick rest." We munched quietly and I forgot about the person on the retaining wall. "The person's still out there," he said.
I put my sandwich down. "I'll go see if they need help. If not, I'll scare them away. For all we know they could be plotting to steal our irises that we have planted," I teased. I found my shoes and walked down the grassy knoll that is our lawn. An ash-blonde head slightly turned to the sound of my footsteps, and I was surprised to see the profile of a young girl, around ten I guessed. "Hi, are you okay?"
A rapid nod of the head dissolved to a a slow shake. "No, not really," she mumbled into her chest.
"Are you hurt?" Alarm set in and I wished I had brought my cell phone so I could've called for an ambulance or the police.
"No." She looked up at me, golden eyes filled with an uncertainty beyond her years, and then back down at her bare dangling feet. She hugged herself against the cool spring air, goose pimples dotting her arms.
Silence as I thought about what to say next. "Are you running away from home?"
A noncommittal shrug. A tentative nod. "Sort of."
"Oh, I see. Well, that's a pretty big decision. Things must be pretty tough at home. Would you like me to sit with you for a while so you can talk about it?"
"If you want to." Her voice was whispery soft, the invitation hidden in her despair.
"I do." I came around and sat beside her and for the first time had a good look at her and she studied me out of the corner of her eye. She had a spray of freckles across the top of her cheekbones. Her long hair blew into her face, hiding her expression from me.
"So, do you want to tell me why you've decided to run away from home?"
"Because my mother yells at me. She's always yelling at me and I'm afraid of her."
My heart seized at the word 'afraid.' "Did she hurt you?"
Shrug. "No, she just yells all the time and swears at me and calls me names, hurts my feelings."
I could feel my jaw tighten and the words choking in my throat. "Well...I don't think it's right that a person gets yelled at or sworn or called names. That doesn't seem like the right thing to do. It would certainly hurt my feelings if someone treated me like that, too."
More silence as each weighed what to say. "She's not my real mother. She's my foster mother." She turned away from me, ashamed. "I can't live with my real mother right now." She slunk further into her humiliation. "I was on the trampoline and my foster brother bounced me off and I fell off and hit the ground. And then she came out and started yelling and swearing."
I asked this brave little girl what her name was, and she told me, Lena. "Lena, I have to be honest here; I'm at a loss for words. I never had my own children, so I don't know what to say, but I can speak from some life experience." I plucked a cream colored daffodil with a coral center from my border and gave it to her.
"Life is not fair. In just the little time I've spent with you, I can tell that you are good and bright and smart, and yet you are given a difficult life." Lena nodded. "I'm sure that your mother wishes that she could be with you and that you could be with her." More nods. "From the sounds of it, your mother made some poor decisions and choices that are keeping you apart." Unspilled tears and thin lips.
"I'm sorry that has happened, Lena, and I'm sorry that your difficult life is part of the consequence of someone else's actions. One of the things we have to learn as we are growing up is that life is full of choices. Do you go left or do you go right, do you pay attention in school, do you say no to the pressures of your friends who may be offering something that could hurt you or your future. Lena, some choices are hard and will require you to be very strong and sometimes if means you may be alone. What I have learned is that there are all kinds of prisons, Lena. There are ones that the courts put us in because we didn't obey the laws, and the ones that we put ourselves in, maybe because of our attitude and maybe because of our poor decisions. Right now you have a hard life, and being a "kid" (we both chuckled at that) means that your life is not really your own now and that you are largely dependent on the goodwill of others. But you do have a job and that job is to be the best kid possible, to get a good education, obey the law. Eventually, you will find a freedom that you never knew existed. Does that make sense to you?" Nod.
"The other thing I've learned as I've gotten older is that what we learn as children and the experiences we have make up part of who we are as adults. You have learned that you don't like yelling and swearing, right?"
"I hate it! When I am around little kids, I never swear and yell at them!! I never get mad at them. I want to hug them! When I grow up I want to work with kids."
"See, you have already learned something that will make you as wonderful an adult as you are as a young person now."
I was missing the mark, and I knew it. She did come to my retaining wall to hear this. "Lena, sometimes people yell at us because they were afraid for us, and that is how they express their fear, through anger. Anger may be the only emotion they are comfortable showing. Maybe she was never shown how not to be appear angry when she's really just concerned for you. Have you tried telling your foster mother that you are sorry for scaring her and upsetting her and that next time you'll be more careful?"
Lena smiled brightly as the idea grew in her mind. "No, I never have! I didn't even think of it!"
"Hmmmm. Well maybe it would be a good thing to say to her and see how it goes?" I smiled in self-admonishment. Forty-five minutes later I finally hit upon what she needed to hear from me. I talked too much; listened too little.
"Yes, I will do that!"
I noticed the goose pimples had multiplied on her arms. "Want a jacket?" She nodded yes. As it happened I had a zip-up, sweat shirt type jacket from my thinner years that I had just washed and was going to give away. It had been on a hook, hanging in front of a window in the back set of the car. When I handed it to Lena, it was still hot from sitting in the sun. She slipped it on, wrapped it tightly around her to absorbing all its warm. "You don't have to bring it back. It's yours."
"Thank you. This is nice!"
"All set to go home?"
"Yes, I am going home now." She picked up the daffodil that was bent from being twirled in her hands and looked down the street in the direction of her home with her "not real" mother. She set off; her bare feet crunched and swished the sand that had remained on the shoulders from last year's winter, the too cool spring breeze blowing the hair back from her face, her eyes ahead, full of resolve, not turning to wave good-bye. I watched until I could neither see nor hear her anymore.
Journey well, little Lena. Go build some mountains.