She was born with a voice and knows exactly how to use it. So far, she is the embodiment of much that escaped me in my childhood and that still challenges me to this day—physical confidence, the ability to express opinions, and to set firm boundaries.
I gave her a pink-and-purple truck for her first Christmas. I wanted her to know, early on, that she wasn’t limited to dolls and cooking sets. After all, she is the granddaughter of someone who skewed far left of girly and slightly toward awkward on the female spectrum during childhood, who was the only girl on her all-star sixth-grade boys’ softball team, and whose favorite childhood toy was a sturdy Tonka dog pound truck with a dozen plastic canines that fit in small kennels on either side of a double flip-top lid.
I loved my truck, and I just knew she’d love hers. But alas, in five years it has not moved from her dresser, serving only as quiet homage to her Lolli and to gender neutrality, amid princess dresses, crowns, wands, books, dolls and cooking sets. And she loves them.
Hadley is sandwiched between two brothers, and I would dive into churning waters or bend steel bars apart to rescue any one of them if I had to. But there’s something about her in particular that informs me about me. She is enough similar, yet at once distinctively different, to throw some of my life issues into sharp relief.
Late last spring, when she was four-and-a-half years old, her parents were gone for a few days on a trip, and I was taking care of her and her older brother in their home. That Friday morning, I was trying to hurry everyone down the steps and out the door. I had just finished brushing her hair into a pony and had sent her back into her room to find her sandals when she did an abrupt U-turn in the hallway and burst back into my room like a crossing guard putting her hands up to stop traffic. “We can’t leave yet! We have to paint my toes!” I looked at her in disbelief, and then she nudged her head toward the bathroom to rush me. “C’mon! The polish is in the top drawer!”
Two days later, getting ready for church on that Sunday morning, I didn’t argue when she wanted to cover up those stylish toes with her tattered ruby-red Oz slippers with the front soles coming loose from the beaten-up toes. Nor did I object when she elected to sit with us in the big people service instead of going to her own class. I dug a pen and a small notebook out of my purse, and she intently drew on every page. Then she got tired of that and climbed onto my lap with her lovey to suck her thumb.
She relaxed into me, and I shifted a little and leaned back to get more comfortable. I looked down at her legs extending out over my knees, punctuated at the toes by these glittering red exclamation points, and randomly thought of something I had recently learned: that women in ancient times, who couldn’t have children of their own, would sometimes lie back on the bed to straddle the surrogate mother with their legs while the baby was being delivered, to symbolize that it would be their child.
The sermon faded into the background as I became ultra-mindful of Hadley’s warm weight nestled outward against my womb. What would this mini-woman in my lap, infused with part of my DNA, bring forth into the world that I couldn’t?
A year later, when her parents were away on an anniversary trip, I got to fill in for her mom at a pre-school Mother’s Day tea. When I arrived in the building and lined up in the hallway with the young mothers in her class, it dawned on me with a panic: Oh no, they’re probably going to serve food. In the rush of packing and traveling out-of-state to get there on time, it never once crossed my mind so that I could plan how to deal with it.
For five months, I’d been on a strict eating plan designed to eliminate cravings and stabilize blood sugar. Like an alcoholic capable of relapse at any weakened moment, I acknowledge my addiction to certain foods and am part of a supportive community that abstains from sugar, wheat and flour. It might seem silly to those who don’t know what it’s like to be pushed around by food against your will. But to those of us with this biochemical nature, we know one wrong bite can set into motion a cycle of dire consequences.
I felt torn. How could a grandmother refuse the treat her loving granddaughter has made for her on this special occasion? What would I say to her? I’d be a horrible embarrassment to her in front of her little friends. This is like Communion at church, I reasoned. They’ll probably have a couple of small tea cookies, so maybe I’ll take a tiny bite or two and ask God to help it not affect me.
But my eyes popped wide open in desperation when the teacher presented me with a large paper plate with a fat wedge of angel food cake piled high with whipped cream and strawberries. I broke out in a small sweat and breathed a panic prayer for help. It wasn’t that I wanted to eat it; it was that I didn’t know how not to eat it.
Then, a miracle happened. Somewhere in the distance between that plate and the kid-sized table it was about to land on, Hadley put her hand firmly on my arm and said kindly but sternly, as if she were my mother, “Lolli, remember you don’t eat desserts, okay?”—then immediately and matter-of-factly to her teacher, “Ms. Sullivan, my Lolli doesn’t eat desserts.”
And that was that. The teacher said, “Oh, I’m sorry,” and the plate magically lifted back up into the air like a drone that had gotten the wrong address. Hadley had honored a boundary of mine that I didn’t know she was even aware of. She had securely locked the gate so the fox couldn’t get to the chickens. She had tightened the valve and stopped the gas leak. In doing so, she gave me a vision for how to honor other boundaries I have been poor at defending as well—protecting time for creative work, being a more careful steward of our finances, not saying yes to everything asked of me, or jumping in every time my mercy heart sees a need.
Where along the way, and why, did I shoot myself silly with so many permeable holes, where water I deeply need to survive leaks out on a daily basis? Why have I adopted so much minimizing language, made so many unnecessary apologies, and acquiesced to everyone I perceive as having a stronger, clearer voice? I’ve been told that my maternal grandmother is part of this. Left and abandoned as an infant on the doorstep of an Amish farm and raised by their community, she never felt like she truly belonged to anyone or to any place. She was the humblest soul I knew, and I loved her dearly. But even I can see now that she spent much of her life apologizing for taking up space in the world.
By God’s grace, I think that particular strain of DNA may have come to an end in Hadley. And in some mystifying, generational reverse gear, it has come back to heal me.
In three short months Hadley will be in kindergarten, and already I feel like I’ve learned everything I need to know from her. Her mother confided in me after the Mother’s Day tea that she had alerted Hadley before they left on their trip that I might not eat the dessert. But she didn’t tell her to make the decision for me.
She also told me that this last photo was taken at Hadley’s pre-K graduation, just after Hadley said, “Mom, would you like to take my picture like this? MOM??? MOM!!!”
Maybe I’ll also stop shying away from the camera while I’m at it.