the living messages we send to a time we will not see

Ralph comes home and tells me, “I’m so glad I’m married – to you.” His tone of voice, I can tell he means something different than the other times he’s said it. He’s just returned from a quick trip to the kids’ friend T.’s house to check her in with her family. And now, the three kids out of earshot, he describes the fight he’d witnessed at the house (a place with a revolving set of grownups at all hours, noticeable substance abuse, and from what I’ve witnessed a running litany of distrust directed toward T. which is, of course, self-fulfilling) – involving grownups. The fight was bad, like bad-Scorsese-movie levels of verbal vitriol. F-bombs and gendered insults all in the living room in view of my husband while T. stared and waited and felt embarrassed. She didn’t need to feel this way, that Ralph or I would be scared off by what goes on in her home, but of course she did. On the way back to our house Ralph said to her, “It sounds like it’s not a happy house tonight,” and she acknowledged this. I am impressed with my husband as he relates this to me, his compassion and tact.

T. stares a lot. She starts a lot. She lies a bit, or more accurately, is duplicitous quite fluidly, over even minor things (I see this in many children I know). When she first visited, I’d walk in a room and she’d back away from whatever she was near, her big beautiful eyes flying up to my face. She behaves butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth polite around me, but I know she behaves differently when around other children and unobserved (or thinking herself unobserved) by grownups. One time she destroyed a little something in my house (deliberately but in that half-assed no-plan ways kids can evidence) and I was busy and I asked Phoenix if she’d be willing to send her friend home; Phoenix said yes and was quite grave about the whole thing. So was Nels. Both kids were firm in their conviction our possessions should not be broken deliberately. We didn’t see T. for over a week at which point I came across her in town and bade her a warm welcome; she was at our door not fifteen minutes later. That afternoon she explained she’d been sick.

She hadn’t been sick. She’d been ashamed; she’d been afraid.

Having so many children in and out of my life and hosting them at our house is a window to their precious and amazing lives. Their parents might voice aloud their kids’ Reputations or Characters, assign them and label them, but children have a life outside of parents and very much a life if they think they’re outside adult supervision. Given our circumstances and our lifestyle, I am able to let children Be as much as possible, and it works – even with the more troubled children who come around. Their behaviors are difficult at times but I recognize the occasionally angry reactions within me are directed by an old, old script authored by stale Fear. If I don’t “control” these children in my house, these children my children spend time with, Something Terrible will happen… I must take charge, make them see who’s Boss!

It’s a script I’m proud to say I can usually think past.

The sad thing is I suspect many, many parents would get a whiff of a child demonstrating T.’s problematic behaviors (which are pretty mild as long as one is paying attention to what’s going on in one’s house) or her family scene and these parents would just work, outright or insidiously, to keep T. away from their children and vice versa. People in my peer group, or families a bit higher up on the socioeconomic totem pole, working to keep T. and her family with “their own kind”. No one says it like that of course (gauche!). But it’s so easy for most adults to decide who their kids keep company with – at this young age. It’s easy because most kids are long-trained to not feel personal empowerment nor the rights to their own life, and most young children are happy enough to be around most any other kids, really. Deterring them from a few choice families is no major task.

T. loves my children, especially Phoenix, quite dearly. While she is here she draws pictures and drafts love letters that profess this; she brings them to me and I hang them up or put them on the fridge. In the last months she has calmed around me considerably and trusts me in some new way, but she is still quite nervous and agitated when my husband is home (another young lady who visits, who lives with a violent male in her home, is much the same). My calmness seems to have begat increasingly “good conduct” and a more settled mien from T., although I still observe troubling and occasionally heartbreaking behaviors; for instance, T. never asks for food unless she sees me preparing it and even then, she hints obliquely (which I am ashamed to say I sometimes find irritating). Tonight at dinner she gulps pasta and meatballs and waits inertly after finishing until I directly tell her she is welcome to seconds, whereupon she jumps up to get some. I remind myself, I have to do better, I have to offer her food often instead of waiting for her to hint.

Despite the fact T. often wants to be with our daughter and/or the family as much as she can, Phoenix hasn’t wanted to be at T.’s house for quite some time and now firmly resists sleepovers (unless they’re at our house) and even car rides from T.’s folk. She says T.’s family is “mean to T.” and they keep the television on loud all the time. I am again reminded integrity is not something we instill into children by regulating their actions and every move and social experience, but something we allow to develop. At age eight, so far, Phoenix is on-course in that regard.

Tonight when T. leaves she does not want a ride or an escort home. But it is dark, and Ralph and I like to take children home when it’s dark, especially if they’re on bikes and the weather is poor. Complicating this further is the fact T. has found herself in trouble for simliar conditions – her folks told us months ago they’re not the type to let their girl wander the streets at dark. So even though T. is adamant she doesn’t want Ralph to take her, my husband suggests a compromise: he will escort her but will not come inside the house.

I don’t know how long my kids’ friendship with T. will last, but the girl is welcome in my home for a variety of reasons, mostly:

She is a friend to our family.

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