The empty roller bag twists to one side bucking like a resistant toddler demanding a mindful yank to settle it back on two wheels. With one final leg remaining before my return to the comforts of home, I search between the gates for a fresh salad. I haven’t flown in two years and wouldn’t have today, except I had an errand 1200 miles away, a delivery and same day turnaround.

American airports reek of coffee, burgers, tacos, cinnamon buns and a stale swirl of garlic from dark corners where crowds gather drinking beers and eating pizza. Upscale dives in small airports, named Joe’s or Mama Mia’s, serve mounds of spaghetti with mixed frozen carrots and peas. Rolling past a restroom where sweaty passengers like walking zombies gulp artificially conditioned air with a twist of hand sanitizer, everyone moves fast here as if late for a flight or in the same race for last overhead slot. 

Unable to slip outflow of the crowd to visit the only place with green salads and made to order sandwiches, I twist around, flip a U-turn. Then plopping into a booth seat, my bag seated next to me, I reel, feeling woozy. I haven’t eaten since last night and left the house at 3 am this morning. Maybe I’ll order breakfast, though it’s two in the afternoon. Under the table I drop my shoes onto the sticky floor. My imagination animates the linoleum with hundreds of thousands of germs, spiky Covid balls, so I hover my bare feet until my legs rebel then drop them on top my shoes. 

I wonder what my little wildcat is doing? Hope she’s eaten by now. Low blood sugar doesn’t sit well on her. No longer my worry. Let it go. I exhale, channeling the wisdom of a 50-year friend and advisor, “Let her go. They’ll work this out on their own. You did the right thing.”

Did I? No one can know that. This very same friend didn’t want me to rescue my granddaughter as a toddler eleven years ago. Told me to let the system do what its good at, saving children, supporting and strengthening families. In this case, it was my family and I knew better. This family didn’t have it in them, no bones or muscle to build upon, nothing to strengthen. The baby’s father is my oldest and least capable son, and at the time, the baby’s mother was addicted to pain meds. No other family members stepped up. I was it. That’s what I told myself and told my sons, my husband, social services, the lawyer and later, told the child, my granddaughter. She called me Grand-mama, and I called her my little wildcat. 

I retired from college teaching to become her mother.  To become a healthy, productive and loving adult, like every child needs, a consistent, loving adult, dedicated and adoring. What if the loving adult is consistent and loving but has issues? Like being abandoned shortly after my own birth by my birthmother? Yep, we’re two insufficiently attached human beings, working to connect, in spite of having two bottomless pits of unmet need. By licking her wounds might I heal my own?  That’s what I hoped.

A couple of years later when she was three, postmenopausal for at least five years, I had a full-on menstrual cycle. My doctor laughed, “Incredible.” “One for the books!” “Not surprising at all.” To me it was. I thought I had cancer. “You are nurturing a child. She has your hormones behaving like hormones after childbirth.” We called it our intense bonding experience. When she was six years old, we’d reached our developmental toddlerhood. We behaved like any mother and toddler with daily meltdowns. “No, no, no! Mine!” And that was me! But, seriously, she had meltdowns, too, huge ones and in public, no shyness or pride in that little wildcat, she’d scratch, scream, kick and twist about on the ground after a checker took her apple to weigh it. Then she tossed it across the room after it was handed back. Tantrums look dangerous on a six year old. Healing can re-open wounds. It was loud and bloody and I hated myself for hating her. Not her, her behavior, inappropriately immature at six. But, by then we were all-in, there was no turning back.

What had I done to deserve this? I never asked myself this question, because I’d stepped up, volunteered. I did what good people do, take care of their own. Counseling sessions, swim lessons, daily bike rides, never strapped into a child seat, but zipping along behind me on a scooter or a pedal-less strider bike until she flew past me, then refused to wait for me to catch up. That’s how we remained, her dashing past, never allowing me to catch her. She’d noticed I grew slower as I grew older and as she grew older she became a speed demon, a show-off. Whether on a bike, on the water, running, walking or playing cards and at meals, she had to win. My wildcat had to show me how fast she could eat those noodles then how ruthlessly she’d toss the plate in the sink breaking every glass and bowl in the stack. But, most importantly she needed me to stay in the race. I was her person, and her designated loser. 

Now, at age 12 and looking more like a woman everyday, she’s winning the race on breast size, hair texture and quality, gorgeousness of skin with feet growing faster than a golden retriever puppy’s. Starting middle school meant leaving our small rural school after nine years with the same kids since preschool to attend a big school with more children she doesn’t know than does. She had a handful of friends in our local school, but some moved others attend a different middle school. Intent on becoming someone new, mountain kids stopped talking to one another. Her version is that she is invisible and no one cares about her anymore. Isolation and disconnection is a common lament for insufficiently attached children. But she was also bucking for change, new social groups and for kids who shared her interests. I watched as she tucked her wildness away, as she grew disinterested in bike riding, running and swimming. She exchanged activity for closing down behaviors like shyness, hesitancy and victimhood. 

In woodshop, the class she was so eager to begin that she practiced with tools at home, she begged for help on every assignment. Yet at home she used a belt sander, drill press, chop saw and band saw with confidence She re-built a wagon with wooden sides, a stool and little table. She’d arrived at some kind of crisis point, newly defined herself helpless and frightened and incapable. And with me she hit a barrier, an “I cannot take this anymore” stance. Out of the blue, she screamed, “You always have kept me from my real mother!” 

I knew she hated me when she screamed, “I hate you.” Though, she’d said that hundreds of times, but when followed by violent and an outrageous trashing of photo albums, special toys, her doggie bed lamp and tossing her stuffed animals in the trash, I listened with new ears. She cut up her clothes and pulled childhood art off the walls. Maybe this how a wildcat does a hormone-infused developmental shift.  

She hadn’t seen her mother since she was three years old for an hour visit on her driveway. Of course, I expected it would come up one day and now she’s all she’ll talk about. Revisiting her longing, her incompleteness in regular intervals, she re-stimulates my own deep seeded loss from way back. This time is different, more serious for both of us. Am I keeping her from her mother? Like a kidnapper? “You can’t really want to leave our home, me and your family to live with a mother you don’t know.” “Yes,” she said, “I do.” 

She doesn’t know you either, I thought, but didn’t say. It turns out that her mother was waiting, hoping this day would come.  She’d imagined this scene, “I’ll have my baby in my arms again.” She cried for joy at the thought. I imagined it differently.

Several states away, in a mobile home, 1200 miles from my granddaughter’s always-home, her mother lives alone and works nights as a dispatcher. “It’s time we get to know one another,” her small image nods on Facetime. “Please, Grandma,” they both begged.

I lived with my great aunt until I was five when my mother married and took me back. We moved 400 miles away and I didn’t see the person I’d believed to be my mother, actually my great aunt, except at Christmas and Easter. I didn’t remember living her for five years. Be it trauma or the workings of the mind of a young child, I lost those years. Though in photo albums I saw the three of us around the Christmas tree, riding my first tricycle and in visits from family that included my young birthmother. It wasn’t until age 30 that I got the whole story from my maternal grandmother. How could I not have known? Yet, there was a re-occurring nightmare of me slapping a hollow blue door, screaming, “Let me out” until I collapsed. Many of the puzzle pieces of my early life are still missing and I suppose I suffer some emotional wounds. The trauma of losing a mother as an infant, then losing her substitute at age five, is likely well-researched cause for concern. I have read about the trauma of loss and the disorders associated with insecure, insufficient and lack of attachment. They are better understood now than they were during my childhood. My family in the fifties wouldn’t have taken anything seriously enough to send me off to counseling. But, I’m okay. I survived my mother’s multiple marriages and divorces, violence, abuse, neglect and survived my working class upbringing. It’s likely that my mother and I never forged an attached familial bond, but she remains a consistent figure in my life, gave me a sister and two brothers and today, in her nineties, lives a few miles from my home. Growing up I may have handled life’s challenges less capably than well-adjusted friends, but I learned by watching, listening and storytelling, also called misrepresenting, lying and sneaky misbehavior. 

I loved school and got my first job at age 12. I was determined to be independent, to make it on my own one day and not have a baby before 30. Then life being what happens while you’re off making plans, during college at age 19, I got pregnant. But, with no hesitancy and a clear sense of the future, I had and abortion, and did not become a parent until years later, at age 30, when I deemed myself ready.

My 12-year-old granddaughter has a chance. She has a chance to re-connect with the mother she lost, to sufficiently attach. There’s no guarantee, of course that either of them are up to the task that my mother and I managed to avoid. But, I have a husband, two sons and had a long and fulfilling career as a teacher. I am healthy, well and mostly just fine. My mother and I didn’t find the glue to cement our broken bond. My granddaughter and her mother may not either. But staying, hanging in there, counts. Being there through meltdowns, fights, challenging behavior, lies, tears, fears and confusions bonds us to those who stick around, stand up for us from time to time. Of course, not everything goes as well as we hope or have planned, especially when it comes to our expectations of others. Traits associated with executive function, self-regulation, resilience and self-awareness can lead to confidence and wholeness. 

I flip over in bed, reposition my pillow and sleep fitfully for days after I left my wildcat with her mother. I feel as empty as the roller bag I returned home with, the one that once bulged with my big-girl wildcat’s softest and warmest bedding, books, drawing materials, a supply of vitamins and boxes of favorite snacks. She packed her own bag with clothes that currently fit, a few in the next sizes and new warm boots, gloves and a beanie. She’s visited snow but never lived in it. Now it’s time for both of us to practice letting go. I imagine her doing it more readily than I do.

As I shove the empty roller bag, now a huge wrinkled prune, into the closet, I remember a surprise I tucked deep inside, marked “Do not open until your first period,” a kit supplied with hygiene necessaries, samples and choices, a few special pairs of panties like old fashioned toddler training pants, a book about periods, suggestions for celebrations and rituals to do with Mom and girlfriends and a party kit with whistles and streamers to welcome her to womanhood. I’d been ready for this event, her significant moment and imagined sharing it with her since shortly after that day at 15 months old when I sang and rocked her to sleep after she cried herself into a puddle at the patio doors the day her mother left. 

I generously offer this small gift to her reclaimed mother, a special moment to share with our Wildcat as she manifests the Lioness that must surely dwell within. Best to you, Wildcat and your mother.