Dishes, Dresses, Boxes, Beaches, Days, Bikes, Wishes, Things, Names, Children. Ten spelling words Cherrisa was supposed to learn for her new school. Her homework was to memorize the words, but she couldn’t yet read. She was 8 years old and repeating the first grade for the second time. Her sister, DeAndra, was 4. They’d been in foster care for 6 months, 4 different homes, moved 5 times. These were the numbers involved, but they were only the beginning of the story.
DeAndra was a violent, angry child. She hit, bit, broke things, and held her breath until she hyperventilated. Cherissa over-compensated for her sister. She was nice beyond reason: too considerate, too polite.
The girls came to live with Tom and me when we were on the ranch, before I was mom to Carter, before we had the twins. It was just after Christmas, and they arrived with plastic bags of mismatched clothes and a truckload of toys in various states of disrepair—babies missing a leg or an arm, a light-up vanity with dead batteries, little pink ponies with ratty manes. I called the social worker and asked about the sackfuls of belongings: The girls were just supposed to stay for the weekend. Why did we have all their stuff?
Their three-day stay turned into an extended placement. I enrolled DeAndra in daycare and Cherissa in school. I tried to help them fit in, but they were different, and they knew it. In addition to being in foster care, their mother was from Guatemala and the girls favored her. They had coffee-colored skin that turned ashy in the dry Montana air, and hair that was thick and black.
DeAndra found two crickets and asked if she could keep them, her first pets. She named them “Horses” and “Sally.” She and I spent hours in the rocking chair–sometimes she sobbed quietly, other times she howled, as if in pain. Tom and I didn’t know what to do for her, so I called the social worker, who called a psychiatrist. The answer–hold her and let her cry.
In the quiet moments after bath time or while I was brushing hair, they told me their stories. Abuse, neglect, broken trust. Childhood wasn’t supposed to be like that. I frequently felt overwhelmed, and just when I’d hit bottom, a day would come, out of the blue, when everyone was happy. A Saturday morning building castles out of cardboard boxes, Cherrisa wearing her Snow White costume and DeAndra dressed as a lion. Or a pizza party with the kids from neighboring ranches; Disney movies and popcorn on Friday nights.
But at best it felt hollow: They were not ours and we were not theirs. We all knew that someday, they would be leaving. That was the goal—reunion with their father, who had sole custody.
My time with these little girls happened more than 10 years ago; now I’m the mother of 3 sons. I’m happy with my boys, but every now and then, I catch a glimpse in the corner of my mind of a dream daughter, a girl I might have mothered. She is, in part, a way of honoring the girls I did mother, if only for a short while.
Reading The Daring Book for Girls by Andrea Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz calls these experiences to my mind. As I looked at sections like “Stand up for Yourself–Or Someone Else” or “Boys,” I wished I’d had a chance to talk to the girls about these things. Sections like “Princesses Today” and “How to Negotiate a Salary” made me hope that they’ve learned all this on their own.
I think about the last days the girls were with us. In the midst of the sadness, a warm chinook wind blew across the ranch, melting the snow off the peaks, greening the grass in the meadows. There was so much that they needed that I couldn’t give them.
The Daring Book for Girls encapsulates the very best things about being female: We are smart, we are strong, we are playful, we are kind. It’s all the things I’d want to teach my daughters. I wish I could have given this book to them; it would have been a good thing to hold on to, when I was no longer there to show them the way.
To see what other moms are writing about The Daring Book for Girls, visit MotherTalk. And I have one copy of the book to share: If you’d like it, leave your name in the comments and I’ll draw a winner at random.