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Readers Write, The Sun Magazine, January 2024


She was 11 when we met her, a gangly pre-teenager who had spent her previous five years in foster care. A year before meeting her, my husband and I had adopted her younger bio-brother. We wanted to adopt her, too, but the social worker doubted our abilities to handle her anger and her acting out. We were stubborn and, quite possibly, a bit naive, but we persisted. Our lawyer called social services, and within a few days they arranged a visit. She lived 400 miles away; we packed and hit the road before they could change their minds.

On the first morning of her visit, our son wanted to show her his favorite play spaces: the woods behind our apartment where he hunted for fossils, the creek where he floated sticks and built miniature dams, the puddles filled with tadpoles. It was a kid heaven, a wonderfully mysterious and muddy space that appealed to his imagination, a place he knew his sister would love.

I sent them out with instructions to have fun and be back at noon for lunch. Off they went, hand-in-hand after a year of separation. A year is a long time to children, and I knew how much they needed this time together. Our son often cried at bedtime, missing his big sister and long-time protector.

As I was setting out lunch, our son came in the front door. He was covered in mud—and alone. I asked where his sister was. He said that she didn’t want to come inside because she was dirty. He told me that her foster mother said that good little girls never get dirty. He explained that she was punished for getting her clothes muddy. He  told me that he had tried to reassure her that I would just laugh, that I wouldn’t care how dirty she was. Nothing convinced her. In her experience, boys were granted this freedom, while she could expect a response of disgust or even anger.

I found her in the corner of the yard and sat beside her in the grass. It took a few minutes to convince her that I wasn’t angry, that she had nothing to worry about. I asked her if she had fun. She said yes. I asked if she liked getting dirty. Again, yes. Well then, I said, if you had fun, that’s what matters. Dirt is good fun, I told her, for girls as well as for boys. I promised her that clothes and bodies are easily washed.

That 11-year-old is now 40, and she’s been our daughter all these years. She gardens and goes camping and doesn’t worry much about getting dirty. This once-angry, scared little girl has become a loving adult daughter who can handle anything that comes her way.

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