She is kind of family in a far-fetched way, this little girl I have known since she was one. At that age, she was hanging on her extremely obese mother, crying out loud when she saw new faces. Her life was chaotic with no structure and the social services were already engaged.
At two I got to see a little more of her because she stayed with her grandmother in a house beside our summer house. Still anxious around new people, she spoke only a few words. Nevertheless, once she got used to us, she was happy to participate in family life: played with pots on the floor, slept in her pushchair on our walks, and sat in our knees.
Of course I worried: is it fair to give her all this love and attention for a few weeks and then disappear from her life once again? But I convinced myself that it’s better with as much love and attention as possible, than indifference. Maybe she would store it somewhere and use it when most needed.
By the third summer her life had become even more chaotic: her parents had divorced, she experienced poverty, moves, and moves again. But preschool had done wonders to her development and I was no longer that worried about her cognitive abilities. She was not afraid of us anymore and for many long summer mornings – when her grandmother was not well enough to get out of bed – she was with us. Our children treated her as a little sister. They told her stories, painted her nails, and took her on discovery walks. More love for her to store for worse times.
The beauty of being able to give, what you yourself have gotten, struck me as I watched my children engage with her. I remembered the Hungarian story of the old woman who found a kid (as in baby deer) with a broken leg and took it home to cure it. Her dog and cat befriended the little animal, just as they themselves once had been taken to heart by the old woman.
Those worse times came for the little girl soon after that third summer. Her mother had committed suicide – luckily on the week when she was with her father. Although the little girl didn’t have to find her mother dead she was taken to the morgue to see her. She was prepared by her hand being put to the porcelain sink in the bathroom to show her how cold her mother would feel like.
With no mother and a father with cognitive difficulties I was sure the social services would opt for out-of-home placement. We would then have some big decisions to make. But rather than doing so, massive supports were planned and put into place, albeit pretty half-heartedly. There was also some family back-up, but most of all, the wondrous preschool personnel, who brushed her teeth, treated her eczema, and had extra clean clothes and breakfast prepared for her.
On this fourth summer she recognised us right away. Apparently she told her grandmother that I had missed her and marched right over to our house. She is now here as much as she can. Says yes to everything: water colouring, swimming, even brushing her teeth. She remembers our bicycle adventure from last year and asks to go again and again. She has all her twenty nails painted by my daughters and chatters on all day long.
She eats anything I put in front of her; we bake berry pies, prepare meat balls, and cut fruit sallads. My son is duly jealous of someone taking on the role of the youngest, but is gentle and kind with her and tries to show off his reading skills.
But the one thing she can’t really do is actually to focus when being read to. Already at four she knows Daddy cannot read so well so of course there is no regular reading at bed-time. But wise as she is she knows that learning is valued in our house. So she asks to be taught to write her name and makes me read out loud all the numbers on the jetty, marking the places for the boats. We find her own number there: “4”. She follows it carefully with her finger.
I watch her with amazement; where does she get it from? This appetite for life, this sucking in of love and whatever good things life pleases to give her. The odds are terrible: early attachment disorder, poverty, parental loss, intellectual disability in her genes, inadequate home environment in her epigenome.
And yet, something tells me she will make it. Her resilience leaves me in awe and makes me wonder if we as a society are not underutilizing children’s ability to overcome challenges in our efforts to keep them happy and safe.