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How a “Dog Person” Learned to Love a Neighbor’s Kid

I never expected to develop such a strong connection with another person’s child. But once it happened, I had to learn how to let her go.

Photo by Lotus Carroll.

I’m not much of a kid person. I’m more of a dog person. You know my type...the woman who stops strangers on the street to coo over their pet; the one who almost always has a four legged copilot when driving around town; who, when invited to dinner at someone’s house, is likely to spend more time on the floor chatting with the dog than visiting with the hosts.

"Excuse me," she said. "But I was wondering what goblins ate."

Kids don’t enter my heart so easily. Naturally, I am enthralled with my own children, but my enthusiasm for other people’s children pales in comparison to my interest in their dogs. I don’t dislike kids outright—at least, not now that I have experienced my own. But I’m definitely not the warm, fuzzy mom who welcomes all children to her breast. I connect with grown-ups and dogs far more easily than I do with other people’s children.

So I really didn’t expect to develop a connection to Ania. She was a kid, like any other, and she showed up at the farm one day with her mom to get some meat. She and Saoirse were both four. Ania, at that particular time, was very interested in the subject of goblins. And she w­anted to know more about their diet. Saoirse assured her that, since I know a lot about what people should and shouldn’t eat, and since we had been reading a book about goblins, I was probably the most informed grown-up to consult on the subject.

Next thing I knew, there was a little girl with an intensely serious expression at my elbow, gently tapping my arm as I added up purchases for another customer. I put down the short ribs I was was working with, turned my attention to her, and met her gaze.

"Excuse me," she said, in a most polite tone. "But I was wondering what goblins ate, and she," Ania pointed to Saoirse, "thought you would know."

"Compost, mostly," was my quick reply. "But sometimes, for a special treat, raw onions and sauerkraut." Satisfied (briefly), Ania turned her attention back to Saoirse, and they resumed their discussion. I went back to taking care of my customers, but I answered many more questions about the goblin diet before the end of the afternoon.

Saoirse and Ania became best friends. They have spent the last six years of their childhood as Harry and Hermione, Ivy and Bean, Percy and Annabeth. When her mom gave birth to triplets, we would take Ania to museums, take her out to dinner, take her into our home when one of her baby brothers was hospitalized with medical complications. We would take her dog, Nicky, too, whenever it was needed.

It was easy for me to accommodate Nicky. It surprised me how well I could accommodate Ania.

Despite my aversion to other people's children, when she came to visit our house, Ania felt like one of my own. To be honest, she never really gave me a choice. She has been pesky that way. She would wait until Saoirse and Ula would start to bicker over a toy, or over what part one of them would play in the next fantasy game, then sneak away into the kitchen.

She’d scramble up on the stool to discuss the finer points of the present bickering match; or she would ask to help chop, stir, or mix. If she slept over at our house, she had an annoying habit of waking me up in the middle of the night, for myriad reasons. Sometimes to be sick, sometimes to chat, sometimes to ask me to read to her. When the last baby in her family was born two years ago, she would wake me up and just ask me to hold her.

I learned to surrender my own personal schedule when Ania came to visit. She eventually managed to sleep through the night, but then she would wake up at four in the morning, apparently craving conversation or private time with me. While it seemed she was coming to our house to play with Saoirse, she soon made it clear that the purpose of the visit was to lend her spirit to our entire family. She wanted to be with Saoirse. She wanted to make time to play with Ula. She expected to have conversations with Bob. She wanted alone time with me.

And then Ania's parents called me a few weeks ago. Her dad had gotten a new job. They were all moving to California.

I know this isn’t my child. But at that moment, I felt as though someone had taken a knife to my stomach. Unable to control my emotions, I began to sob right there on the telephone. I hung up, found Saoirse, and we cried for three straight hours.

And the spontaneous outbursts of tears have continued ever since. We feel as though we are losing a member of our family.

We are trying to assure ourselves that this is not the end of Saoirse and Ania’s friendship. We try to encourage them to call each other, to chat live over the computer so that they can still feel close after the move finally happens. But their relationship has not developed that way. They are used to being side by side, shooting arrows at targets, experimenting with homemade lava lamps, building their own puppet theaters. They are not used to thinking of their friendship in terms of the exchange of electrons. I am not used to it, either. I am used to having her messing up my kitchen, rummaging through my fabric bags, waking me up in the middle of the night.

Somewhere, in spite of my aversion to children, I became a kid person. In spite of my willingness to mother only my own, I had welcomed another child from the community as an honorary member of my family. I came to love hearing her talk about her school adventures, about her wonderful big family, and the escapades of all her brothers and sisters. I would watch her and Saoirse stand side by side, growing tall and beautiful together, with pride in my heart over both of them. Maybe I chose to have only two children. But by living in this place, committing to bring my family up as part of this community, without even realizing it, I have adopted more. I have promised to care of my children’s friends as though they were my own.

Ania came to spend the night with us last week. In spite of the impending move in less than a month, she and Saoirse resumed their play as always. They battled Greek monsters, dressed up in costumes, built forts and fairy houses in the woods. I watched them, my heart fragile, from the kitchen window. When I couldn’t bear my sadness any longer, I would slip out to the raspberry patch to gather berries and allow myself a good cry.

I lose the child. But I get the dog.

When Ania woke up at four the next morning, I willingly slipped out of bed. I took her outside, and we went for a walk. When we came back in, she asked if she could help in the kitchen. I put her to work helping me make head cheese. I drank in every little moment I could get with this child. She pestered me with questions about pig noses and eyeballs. I willingly answered. I wondered if they would be good goblin food.

After a few hours, she told me she was sleepy again, and climbed the stairs to return to her bed between Saoirse and Ula.

I stayed up. In my prayers I wished her safe travels and every happiness. It is time for me to let her go, as much as I don’t want to. But she and her parents have decided that Nicky would be happier living with us than he would be in California. So I lose the child. But I get the dog.

As I write this essay and think about how much I will miss my daughter’s friend, about how I am going to help Saoirse move through this, he nudges my elbow to comfort me. He looks me in the eye, a serious expression on his face, and seems to be asking if I know anything about what goblins eat. I explain to him about compost, raw onions, and sauerkraut. He bends down to bite at a flea. Then he heads out to see what’s in my compost the goblins would be interested in. Not the response I was hoping for, but I get it.

It’s a good thing that, in the end, I’m really more of a dog person.


Shannon Hayes headshotShannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shannon is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmet, and The Farmer and the Grill. She is the host of Grassfedcooking.com and RadicalHomemakers.com. Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in upstate New York.

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