I have a part-time daughter: a little girl from the South Bronx, who I’ve watched grow up from afar, taught how to read, camp, pick blueberries. I taught her how to use a tampon, importance of birth control, and shoved the importance of school down her throat to escape the only world she ever knew.
She’d started as a summer time daughter, turning 5 on the deadline date she climbed aboard a Greyhound bus, alone, and made her way to our hearts.
We signed up as a Fresh Air family when Boy was barely out of diapers, and our three girls under the age of 10. We signed up to have a little girl spend 2 weeks with us in leafy suburbia, escaping the South Bronx to hang with country kids in a far, far away never-never land.
People said, “You’re so brave to take a kid you don’t know into your home.”
They were so wrong.
Brave? Not me, that’s reserved for her real mom.
Her real mom, who put her only daughter on a bus and trusted that bus would deliver her to a family that would care, feed, play with and love her barely old 5 year old little girl. And that we did.
~ She saw the backyard swings, and asked why everyone has their very own parks.
~ She hoarded food. She didn’t see stores to walk to, and thought we might run out.
~ She taught our kids to dance. And double dutch. And say oatmeal in Spanish: aveña.
~ We taught her hamburgers were cow. She still hasn’t forgiven us.
That was well over a decade ago.
Summer weeks turned to months, then Christmases and school breaks and before long, she was ours: another sister, daughter, neighbor, friend. Everyone loves her. It’s hard not to.
Little girl grew to tween then tumultuous teen, she soon became too teenagery, too cool, too torn, too busy for visits with us, her “white” family, although we still got her for a long weekend now and again after long gaps of silence.
Today Facebook allows me to keep virtual tabs on her, and not-so-quietly comment, “like,” and DM mean-mom comments to keep her head on straight.
She’s gonna make it.
When asked what she wanted to be when she’s “a grown up” she said adamantly:
“Not poor. I don’t want to be poor.”
Quite different than, “I want to be rich”, don’t you think?
It’s not easy, though, breaking out of a holding pattern that seems destined to keep her. The ties of her brothers, her mom, boyfriend; her friends, cousins and people who love her keep pulling her back, but still she aims for something else.
Today she’s a graduate from a highly-selective alternative high school, famous for enrolling very few, at-risk, inner city kids who would succeed if only given the chance and removed from the distractions and danger of inner-city poverty.
Our girl researched, applied and got into this school on her own, and set out to navigate a difficult, carefully choreographed path to success that at times, seemed too impossible to complete. Even for our girl.
The little girl we watched grow up, grow away, then come home again. Torn between two worlds, two families that love her so, that continue to tug at her heart.
She’s growing up, our girl, and decisions are harder, distances farther. But she still aims towards tomorrow with exhaustion, frustration, lots of tears, heartache and, yet, determination.
I tell her: “No one said it was going to be easy, but listen to me: it shouldn’t be this hard. This is hard, it’s as hard as you think it is. But school is the only way out. You can do this.”
This is the little girl, our part-time daughter, who I not-so-patiently threw in the deep end and taught to swim so, so many years ago.
And while I can’t promise she will never be poor, I can promise this:
I will always – always – be nearby cheering her on, ready to help her to shore any time the water gets rough and she thinks she cannot make it on her own. Because I know she can and she will.
(This post originally ran on Kathryn Mayer.writer.thinker.doer.)
About the author: Kathy Kate Mayer is a potty-mouthed, sometimes cynical storyteller, humorist, and activist sharing life as she lives it in Newtown, Connecticut. She is a recent, reluctant inductee to AARP, the co-creator of two quasi-adults and two wannabees, and an aspiring writer with the rejections to prove it. She writes about work, teenagers, midlife, social issues, feminism, and gun violence prevention at www.kathrynmayer.com, and is sometimes funny on Instagram and Twitter as @klmcopy. Follow her on Facebook, but please don’t be an ass.