Isabelle, Mary Grace and the families we get to choose
I never thought I would have a child.
I was one of those adults who talked to them too loudly and gave them awkward pats on the head. I had heard it takes a village to raise a child—who hasn’t? I just always assumed it was one of the neighboring villages they were talking about.
But when my best friend Mary adopted her first child 10 years ago when we were in our mid-40s, things changed.
We’d known each other for years and had a nice collection of childless friends, most of them single, as we were. Still, I went with her to pick up 6-month-old Isabelle at the San Francisco International Airport, where she’d arrived from Calcutta, India. When I looked at that baby in Mary’s arms for the first time, those big brown eyes just got me. Today, even when I’m arguing with her about why she should study the whole spelling list and not just the words she’s worried about, her face looks the same to me, and I melt in the same way I did 10 years ago.
I stop at Mary’s house every day after work to help Isabelle with her homework. We do everything from converting fractions to writing paragraphs about erosion. When we’re finished, I usually play catch with Mary Grace, Isabelle’s 8-year-old sister, who arrived from Calcutta two years after Isabelle. She coaches me in throwing the same way her Little League coaches do her. I protest that I don’t really need to learn to hold my mitt in the perfect spot, but it doesn’t matter. She gives the same advice to our friend Doug when he plays with her, and to my partner Jodi. It’s simply part of our job as villagers.
Whether they’re going to a yard sale with Rose, playing Hangman with Stephanie, getting new fishing poles from Dave or riding scooters with their neighbor Nick, the two have come to expect a large collection of devoted grown-ups in their lives.
Last week, Nick and I made a ramp so Mary Grace could practice her skateboarding. Vanessa gives all her old fingernail polish to Isabelle, manicure included. Kim built Isabelle a pink teacher’s podium for Christmas when she had become obsessed with playing school. Kim’s dad sat on a tiny chair in Mary Grace’s classroom when it was “Bring Your Dad to School Day.” But the dedication we all feel is not just for those two beautiful (and sometimes bratty) creatures; it’s for the bigger picture itself. Ours is family in the greatest sense of the word—the one we choose, the one we support, even though we didn’t plan it ourselves.
We will never take the place of Mary, but every mother needs some committed, good-humored assistants. That’s what makes up the group of folks who have fallen for these girls in the last decade. Some are related by blood, but most of us are just lucky hangers-on, willing to do what it takes to keep our village going.