My dog’s a kid magnet. So, one neighbor girl has been hanging around uninvited since the day I moved into my sister’s place four years ago.
This three-year-old little girl and her ten-year-old brother came over to pet my Black Lab Phoenix, who was six, and almost as rambunctious as the kids.
They threw tennis balls for her with the Chuck-it while I fantasized about their parents coming to find them. (They never did. Like never.)
Long after the boy grew too cool for anything but basketball, his little sister still came around, mostly during the day when my sister was at work and I was busy writing the next Eat, Pray, Love.
Now, I’m going to call this child Hope. Her real name, sadly, sounds like another word for rejection. Like she got labelled even before she was able to knock on neighbors’ doors looking for friends. She had to work harder at that than the other girls.
Hope carried the look of different. She certainly hadn’t become accustomed to positive attention. She could only receive it in small bits, although she could hang in my home for over an hour on any given afternoon.
It’s funny how a kid can seduce you with, “Can I play with your dog?” if you did the same thing when you were a girl.
Like little Hope, I had to be taught some basic manners.
“You don’t just walk into people’s homes, honey,” I said, “You have to knock.”
I doubt anyone had to tell me this, as I did her: “Okay, so when you knock or ring the bell, if I don’t answer, you stop knocking and go away.”
“But,” Hope said, “I knew you were in there because I saw your car.”
“Yes, Hope, but sometimes people are home and they don’t answer the door because they’re busy doing something else, like taking a shower.”
“I know. That’s why I kept knocking—so you’d hear me.”
One neighbor said, “You just have to be stern and send her away. She knocks on everybody’s door trying to get someone to play with her.” As if it was a crime.
All the gossip couldn’t come up with a good reason why her parents’ parental practices didn’t line up with the norms of my cul-de-sac neighborhood.
The thing is, I was once that girl and nobody called me Hope.
So, in the early visits I gritted my teeth and tolerated the kid so many resisted.
As the weeks, months, and years passed, I couldn’t reason why no one had embraced her before.
Hope grew more confident and less irritating. She stopped following me when I took Phoenix for walks, insisting she was joining us.
The day she was locked out of her house because her brother was at basketball, her dad was at work, and she couldn’t find her mom, this frightened five-year-old found her way to my door. Her vulnerable voice shook as tears ran down her face.
I was as relieved to be home as she was to see me. She wrapped herself around me in a helpless child hug. In that moment, I was her adult.
Later that evening, she came back and apologized for bothering me. “You’re not a bother, Hope. You can come to me any time you need.”
I saw the shame release from her face.
Hope’s presence became a norm in my life—without any formal introduction to her parents (I tried) or real relationship other than designated neighbor.
After a while, Hope was assigned a sister from Big Brothers, Big Sisters. She eagerly awaited those visits.
One afternoon, Hope told me she met a “real author” at school and how cool she thought that was. I did, too. Then, she said his name: Jack Hanna.
She also told me about her friends at school and the kids she tended to get into arguments with.
She mentioned how on special mother-daughter days she got to go to the movies with her mom while her brother and dad did father-son activities.
Sometimes, Hope and I colored together. She couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t give her my dragonfly coloring book after I’d said yes to so many other things.
Hey, the girl needed some boundaries, and these were my dragonflies.
So, I made copies of some pages for her. She said, “That’s okay” and left them.
She spent countless afternoons at our kitchen table and on our deck chairs doing homework like the good, smart kid she is.
One day, Hope said, “Can I come in and talk to you?” She was seven, so grown-up compared to the tag-along three-year-old sister I met on day one.
“My mom and my brother and I are moving to an apartment and my dad, he’s moving to New Jersey. That’s where he spends a lot of time because that’s where he’s from, and also, it’s where his girlfriend lives. So, that’s it. My parents are getting divorced. There’s a lot of stuff to pack.”
“Okay,” I said. “How’s your mom doing?”
“She’s sad, but I think she’s kind of relieved. They’ve been fighting a lot.”
Years before, this bright young girl who no one wanted to listen to said, regarding my sister whose husband had recently passed, “She just seems so sad.”
Hope knew what sadness looked like in another’s eyes. I winced seeing it in hers, especially after I’d gotten so used to the light.
I asked Hope how she was feeling about her parents getting a divorce and about moving. She said, “I guess I’m both sad and happy. I’m going to have my own room.”
I flashed back to the awkward, lonely girl I once was, my neighbor Mary Ashby who let me knock on her door and “play with her dog,” which led to playing cards and drinking sweet tea, and how my parents divorce hit me when I was just 10.
Sometimes we do kind acts by overriding our resistant egos and our constant need for comfort and convenience.
Hope was inconvenient. At first, I found her hard to take.
However, by the time she came to say a brave-faced goodbye and it was likely I’d never see her again, she’d tattooed herself on my heart and left me hopeful.