She called me “Ballerina.”
I suppose it was because she was just 2½ the first time I met her. She had a fountain ponytail on top of her head and a doll baby tucked under her arm.
“Karina” must have sounded like “ballerina” to her.
No one had ever mistaken me for a ballerina, so I never corrected her.
I can’t tell you her name; she was a foster child. But I know I’ll never forget her.
She had been taken into state care the first time after she had been left alone in a bathtub full of water, in a motel room, while her father smoked spice, a synthetic marijuana.
She spent six months in foster care before going to live with her mother. Two weeks later, child welfare workers found her living in filth, the refrigerator empty and her mother high.
‘Baby Girl’ and ‘Ballerina’
My cousin Kasey had just been licensed as a foster and adoptive parent. The girl with the ponytail arrived at Kasey’s house wearing clothes that were a size too small and clutching a Cinderella wand. She talked like a baby.
A few days later, Kasey brought her to my house to swim.
I was at the grocery store when they arrived so I missed the tantrum. My teenage son Sawyer gleefully reported that she had thrown herself on the travertine floor under the bathroom sink and yelled “Die! Die!” at him.
We’re a hard family to scare.
She pulled on my hand, “Ballerina.” I called her “Baby Girl.”
We spent the afternoon in the backyard swimming and pushing her back and forth on the tree swing. We read books. She ate her weight in grapes.
We made plans for the next weekend.
And just like that, she was one of us.
Our tribe, our own kind of family
My family is not very traditional. There’s the part created by blood and bonds of marriage, and then there is the part I’ve pieced together over the course of a lifetime.
When my son was born, I recruited a tribe for him, one made up of family, friends, colleagues and neighbors.
Some of the people we call “aunt” and “uncle” really aren’t. Some cousins are real; others are people we’ve known since they were kids.
What we called them — Minski, Miss Karen and Mr. John, TomandAmy (like it was all one word) — didn’t matter as much as the fact that they were there, for the good times and for the bad.
All together, they have provided this foundation from which we could push off and a safe place where we could always return.
So when the little girl with the fountain ponytail arrived, we closed ranks around her, all of us. She called Kasey “mommy.” Kasey’s mom became “Nana.” Her brother Virgil was “Uncle.” So was their step-brother Elliot.
My friend Ally went to Target and outfitted her in shorts, shirts, dresses and leggings. Baby Girl called Ally “Goofy” for a while because Ally dressed as Goofy for her third birthday party. (I was Daisy Duck, Niki was Donald Duck, and Rhonda was Minnie Mouse.)
Rhonda bought her a Minnie Mouse dress with a frill around the bottom and shoes. Baby Girl called Rhonda something that sounded like “Doh.”
I bought her books and puzzles and tutus. (A girl can never have too many tutus.) She kept calling me “Ballerina.”
Kasey did all the hard work. She took her to the doctor, a child development specialist, a therapist, the dentist. She taught her to talk, use silverware and keep her napkin on her lap. She took her to her first dance class and her first movie. She took her on an airplane and to the beach for the first time.
She pushed her on the swing in her backyard a thousand times and read a thousand bedtime stories. She picked her up after every tantrum, and held her tight, until they tapered off.
Kasey juggled work as a Realtor with preschool and nap time. When Kasey needed help, she called her mom, or Anna, or Virgil, or me.
I taught her to wink. Sawyer tried to teach her to play the piano.
I spent $60 on a Little Mermaid dress and took her to see the play, where she insisted on meeting Ursula afterward even though she trembled a bit. I took her to the aquarium and the pet store.
Finding her own kind of family
Baby Girl turned four. She wanted to be an artist. She learned some sign language and Spanish. She gave up Mickey Mouse Clubhouse for Strawberry Shortcake. She developed a love of lip gloss.
She didn’t want me to call her Baby Girl anymore. She was big. Big Girl.
For her forever family, she said she wanted a mom and a dad and a dog.
Her own mom and dad weren’t doing the things they were supposed to do, like completing classes in parenting and domestic violence prevention. They didn’t always show up for supervised visits, and Big Girl came home sad or mad, sometimes both.
The parents got more chances than she ever did. There were do-overs, extensions and court dates.
A family expressed interest in adopting her and began overnight visits that stretched to three or four days a week. She changed schools, to one closer to their house. There was a mom and a dad and a dog and even a brother and a sister.
But several months in, they decided not to take her. That same week the court severed her parents’ legal rights to her, freeing her for adoption.
Officially, she had no family. She had us. We talked about whether one of us were the right ones to adopt her but then an aunt and uncle — real blood relations, not an “aunt” and “uncle” — wanted her.
They live in another state, but they spent hours talking over Facetime. She could see their dog. The aunt and uncle spent hours more on the phone with Kasey, learning all about this little person.
‘They’re the best’
Kasey brought Big Girl to see my tap group dance at a retirement community. After our first number, the applause died down, and I saw her lean from her seat into the aisle and call out, “Good job, Ballerina!”
Afterward, she told me that she was going to go live with her aunt and uncle.
“They’re gonna be my momma and daddy,” she told me. And then, “Maybe they will love me.”
I hugged her so she wouldn’t see my tears. “I’m so happy for you,” I said into her hair. I told her I would miss her.
I could come visit her, she told me, if I make good choices.
I wanted to tell her that I would because family is forever. But she knows that’s not true.
Her aunt and uncle came to visit for a week. I went to dinner at my Aunt Dana’s house to meet them.
Big Girl rolled Aunt Dana’s boyfriend Michael out of the little chair next to her at the kids’ table. (She had warned him that he’d have to vacate once Ballerina arrived.)
Kasey asked her if she had introduced me to her aunt and uncle.
“Ballerina,” she started, and then in perfect Emily Post-style, she told me their names. “This is Ballerina,” she told them.
She leaned into me and loud whispered, “Do you like them?”
“I do like them,” I told her. “Do you like them?”
“They’re the best,” she said.
Our side of the family
They are the best. The aunt brought a small photo album filled with pictures of the dog, the neighborhood, and her new bedroom, the white furniture set and bright pink bedsheets, butterflies and flower decals on the walls.
She showed her pictures of extended family, “Granny” and young cousins she’ll get to play with.
They are family from her uncle’s side. The aunt doesn’t see her family, the one she shares by blood with Big Girl; there’s too much that isn’t right with them, the kinds of things that resulted in Big Girl being in foster care.
She climbed onto her aunt’s lap. She held tight.
I watched them, smiling. “I know you think you’re just getting a 4-year-old but really, you’re getting all of us,” I said.
She looked around the room, at all of us.
Kasey with baby Willow on her hip.
Anna with her kids, Reagan and Dallas.
Elliot and Virgil.
Aunt Dana and Michael.
She nodded. There were tears in her eyes.
“You can be my side of the family,” she said.
We are her family
Everyone wore tutus to her party on Saturday, even Sawyer, though he did so grudgingly. “I hate you,” he muttered in the carport where he stepped into a black and red taffeta pouf.
Big Girl squealed when she saw him and hugged him around his legs. “I love you, Sawyer,” she told him.
The house was packed with people. “These are all the people I care about,” Big Girl said. She pulled on my hand, “Come on, Ballerina.”
The next day at the airport, her aunt and uncle flew in, and we ate lunch together before the flight that would take all three of them home.
I gave her a bag with matching pink-and-purple tutus for her and her new mom and a camouflage-colored one for her dad.
She looked at the group standing around her and wiped her tears with the back of her hand. She hugged her Court Appointed Special Advocate, one more time. She took hold of her aunt’s hand and her uncle’s little finger, and they walked to the gate. She looked back twice.
We watched her until we couldn’t see her anymore, all of us.
Because whatever you call us, we’re her family. Forever.
Reach Bland at firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-444-8614. Read more here.