Here is a story about my mother, one of the favorites my grandmother used to tell us.
She grew up in Springdale, Arkansas, which was a little white Baptist town at the time. My mom was in elementary school when the whole Little Rock integration thing went down, and talked about it incessantly. She really wanted little black friends to play with, so much that when the first black family moved to Springdale, mom worked hard to make friends as much as she was able, even causing some “trouble” in town for mixing things up.
That’s my mom, a trailblazer.
That’s also when she started asking for a little black baby doll for Christmas.
At the church Christmas party, Santa made an appearance carrying a giant sack full of presents, which he delivered to the children one by one.
When he pulled out a black baby doll, my mom ran down the aisle, knocking over her new friends, shouting “that’s my little black baby!”
She got to keep it, though they scrambled to find another toy for the other girl.
It was hard on my grandma, who was raised in a different time and under different circumstances, but she tried.
Later, when I was in elementary school, grandma got upset once when she arrived for dinner to find a couple visiting that were my mom and dad’s friends.
You told me you were having guests with dinner. You didn’t tell me they were black.
You didn’t ask what color they were, mother. These are our friends.
That moment, and my mother’s stories about being in Arkansas when schools got integrated, taught me a lot about how people are people, no matter the color of skin.
My mother also told me my whole life that she knew me before I was born. I get this now that I am Mormon, but it used to seem funny. She was never Mormon, but was convinced that she knew me and what I looked like before I was born. I always loved those stories as a child, the adventures of how we knew each other long before I was born.
(These are stories I tell my children now, the things we know about them from premortality, sometimes from blessings, and sometimes from a flash of vision or a scent of memory in the air, or the sound of a whisper of something you almost remember.)
Once I was an adult, she would talk about my children, too, and the rainbow family I would have.
White babies and black babies, she would say.
White babies and black babies make brown babies, I would say.
Don’t tell your grandmother you are looking for a black man for brown babies, she would say, and we would burst out laughing because neither grandmother would be thrilled and mostly because everyone knew I wasn’t looking for anyone at all anyway.
Besides teasing about my grandmother, though, we were acknowledging a change in generations, the growth that comes from loving others well, making all kinds of friends, and uniting with those different than our own past experiences.
And really, even my grandmother got to that place, making me this doll as a gift for my mother when I was born:
These are the stories that flashed through my mind in a less than a second, in that first moment I laid eyes on the infant version of Toddler, who came to our doorstep at four in the morning.
I was freshly grieving the loss of my mother, and in that moment, clear as a bell, I heard her voice say, as loud and clear as if she were standing before me, I found your little brown baby. She is yours. Don’t give up on her.
That powerful moment gave me strength through the months of screaming that followed, through the tough love of boundaries and consistency required for an attachment disorder child, through the healing of her body from Rickett’s and a being completely tongue tied and unable to talk or feed properly.
That moment kept my vision steady when she hit everyone trying to be nice to her, when she acted out the terrible stories of her experiences, and when we wrestled on the ground through screaming fits of self-harm.
That vision carried me to the moment she gave me her first hug, when she finally started talking, when she stopped hiding food. It carried me into her sweet smile, her tender love for babies, and her infectious laughter. It carried me into teaching her to use a spoon and fork, into potty training, and into preschool.
It carried me into bedtime prayers, and “hold me mama”‘s, and pre-dawn snuggles.
It carried me into full blown love for a child, hope for her future, and peace in our relationship.
I knew the moment I saw her that Toddler was staying, even when she was still in an infant carrier on my dark doorstep that early morning.
I knew it when the sun rose, and I whispered to Five to sneak out of bed and come with me to see the new baby.
I knew it when he leaned over the pack-n-play that morning, and when I saw the look of shiny love in that first moment he saw her, and when he looked up at me with wide-eyes and said:
Oh, Mama! Where did you get that little brown baby? At the gift shop?
And I knew it when I laughed and said in reply to him:
No, silly, not the gift shop.
I got that little brown baby from my mother.
And I knew she was karma, and not nearly as hard for me as I was for my mother. I am sure about that. I earned every bit of hard that this child was.
When the Toddler came, when she used to be the Baby, many babies ago, she was really hard work because she had so much to be angry about, and so many reasons not to trust anyone, and such a feisty spirit making it known she is here on planet Earth to fight for agency. We have always know this was her gift from premortality, that choice matters to her, and that she is here to learn how to use that choice to make good ones.
And there was a day, someday last summer, when Cancer came and made me think about life and death, when Toddler’s mom started getting arrested again, when we had to consciously decide if we were going to keep her or not. This was not a question of our love for her, but whether we could do and were willing to do the very hard work of helping her continue to heal. There was a day, sometime last summer, when it became our choice to fall in love with her or not, instead of just babysitting.
I will never forget that day, the day I let myself fall in love with her, let my soul fall into her eyes, let her spirit meld with mine.
And that was the day I gave her that doll, the one my grandmother made for my mother when I was born, that of course my mother gave to me, the one that meant I knew that Toddler was my daughter here to stay, and that my mother sent her to me.
That’s the day Toddler started talking to my mom, “Grandma Neen”, on the toy phones sometimes.
That’s the day I started answering back when I got looks at Silver Dollar City, looks of reproof for obviously having some kind of illicit affair on my poor husband, looks of confusion at the mall regarding all our mismatched kids, stammering checkout ladies who get tangled in their failing small talk.
That’s the day I started verbalizing who made up our rainbow family: an 18 year old Latina daughter from Honduras who is finally legal, a 13 year old Mexican girl who is already legal, a black six year old girl whose biological mother insists is white, a red headed six year old boy, a brown two year old girl, and a white as anything twenty month old that everyone keeps thinking is a boy since we had to shave her head to finally be rid of the lice, back when she used to have visits months ago, and at any moment, a different kind of brown baby girl from Pakistan, legal and legit.
It’s 2015, I say, and families come in technicolor.
We’re a rainbow family, the kids always explain, and I smile.
It’s always funny to me, though, because all our colors and shades and shapes and varieties are not even the big news.
The big news is that we are a family.
And know what’s really crazy?
Do you know what I was doing when I got the call to return to the courthouse and found out Toddler was being signed over to us?
I was in my car, waiting on a caseworker to call me back about a new referral, working on my laptop for one of my sermons due for one of my classes.
Do you know what the assigned text was?
1 After these things the word of the Lord came unto Abram in a vision, saying, Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward.
2 And Abram said, Lord God, what wilt thou give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus?
3 And Abram said, Behold, to me thou hast given no seed: and, lo, one born in my house is mine heir.
4 And, behold, the word of the Lord came unto him, saying, This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir.
5 And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be.
6 And he believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness.
That’s the piece that made me cry: that I have faces to go with those temple promises, names to go with those faces my mother and I have seen.
That’s what made me cry: that God has been faithful, and that I have counted the stars.
That’s what made me cry: family, restored.
Tonight we told Toddler she gets to stay, and that she gets to be adopted on the same day as Five. She squealed with delight, cheering with her arms in the air, and understands most of what that means. The rest will come in time, in layers, and in stories.
And this doll, which will be in my daughter’s bed tonight, is the story of a family, a family who knew she was coming someday, a family who knew she was a promise as shiny as the stars.
Edit: Tonight I had to tell the children goodnight via FaceTime, since I am at the hospital already when it is bedtime. Nathan sent me a text afterward that said that when they hung up, Toddler said, “I love Mama. She is my friend.” And that made me cry all over again, because I cannot tell you how hard we have worked to be friends, and I am so glad she knows it.