By Bonnie Jean Feldkamp
My boyfriend’s daughter processed her trauma in bouts of rage. It echoed through every corridor of the house. Her eruptions started with slammed cupboards in the kitchen and ended with shouts of fury over feeling unloved or unwanted. My love, she recognized as an intrusion on her time with her father. Only Dad could pack her lunch for school, and only Dad could help her with homework. If she couldn’t find an article of clothing she wanted to wear, only Dad could help her find it, even if I had done the laundry.
I was there to love her dad, not her. Right? We weren’t married yet. She wasn’t even my stepdaughter. I didn’t have any obligation to even pretend to love her. But I did love her. And I loved her for reasons that had nothing to do with where she came from or who fathered her. I loved her spirit, her resilience, and her sassy humor. When she was open, we talked, ventured out into the city together or sat in front of a good movie and crafted string bracelets. But when we got too close she didn’t trust it, so she raged. She wasn’t angry with me. She was angry with the woman who let her down. I got the “redirect” the therapist said.
Once, she raged to the point of destruction. She pulled the framed graphite and white pastel sketch of herself from the wall to smash it. It had been a gift I commissioned for her father. I recognized her disappointment in life. She refused to be a commodity or pawn, some leftover from her father’s previous marriage. I’ve been there and I’ve felt that. I grabbed her by the chin. “Listen to me,” I said, “I love you.” Her dad swooped in to catch her collapse. Her rage melted into sobs on his shoulder, she released the sketch from her grip. We repeated, “I love you,” to her over and over again. The words had to penetrate and disarm.
Summertime arrived and she went to a week-long wilderness camp for girls. It was the kind of camp that stripped away superficiality and uncovered a woman’s inner strength. Tents on a freshwater beach, no showers, and when they had to “go,” they nature-peed in the sand. They even filtered their own drinking water from the lake. The girls learned about womanhood, cycles, and sexuality. All of the empowerment a Red Tent community could muster. No technology. Complete seclusion. She got to celebrate her individuality in an atmosphere of supportive women.
At home, her dad and I transformed her bedroom from that of a girl’s to one that represented her crossover to womanhood. She was thirteen-years-old. Bamboo hardwood replaced carpet and we bought her a pillow-topped queen-sized bed. My week focused on the positive forces in her life. I rallied the women in mine and her father’s families. I asked for their stories of strength. One grandma wrote of her journey to the United States from Mexico as a child and the other wrote of being tear-gassed during civil rights protests in college. I filled the book with these stories along with positive photographs of her childhood.
The camp week ended ceremoniously with the girls and their female mentors. No boys allowed. I sat in an open barn with the mothers of other campers. Nervous. We were each given a red boa to symbolize our child-bearing position in womanhood and were told to wait. I didn’t know anything about her week yet, but I was already proud of her accomplishments. She had done it. I wondered if she would swear to never do it again, or tell me that roughing it was not for her. “How dare you send me out in the wilderness with these hippy chicks and no bathroom?” I imagined her saying. But I knew her spirit well enough to know that she would approach it with enthusiasm. She enjoys a challenge and loves to learn. For her, the anticipation was the hardest part.
I saw her come over the hill from the woods with the group of campers. She looked dirty and bug-bitten, but she wore a smile. They gave her a white boa to symbolize her stage in life’s cycle.
In the barn, the chairs formed a semicircle and when she sat next to me she grasped my hand. The girls each lit a candle and placed it in the circle. Each camper told us what they saw as their personal contribution to the world. She said that she contributed reliability. Of course she did. Her responsible nature was rooted in a childhood of self reliance by necessity.
We all played a game together. It involved a roll of twine that got tossed back and forth across the circle. Each person held on to the string as they tossed, which resulted in a large web. We set it at our feet. One-by-one in front of the group, Mothers sat with their daughters to tell them how wonderful they are and offer their boasts of pride and growth. Each mom removed her red boa and gave it to their daughter to welcome her into womanhood.
My heart pounded and my nerves shook me. It was our turn. I sat across from my girl at the open end of the semicircle. Words wouldn’t come. They choked in my throat with false starts. I stared at the web on the floor. She reached across and slipped her hand under the one in my lap. She squeezed it and I looked at her.
“Oh, what a tangled web we weave…” were the first words to come out of my mouth. “I’ve been through a lot of crap in my life. And you, you are my reward.”
That was the moment that I understood that I knew how to love this girl because of what I had survived — a mother dead at age seven, a stepmother I resisted through my adolescence, a stepmother who left us when I was 17 and a dad who threw me out shortly after I graduated high school. A child-in-waiting who never came to be at age 19.
She made me grateful to know what I know. Some people do go away and it hurts like hell. Others come back, like my stepmom did. We reconnected five years after she divorced my father. I have also reconciled with my dad. I know how to do this. I know how to heal and I know how to let go. And I can show her that some people do stay. She belonged with her dad and me. No matter how much she had tested us, pushed us away or how much she had raged through her own abandonment, we were there. While I helped her through her own hurt, she also helped me through some of mine. She helped me look through my own abandonment and see that it wasn’t about me at all. I saw it so clearly within her circumstance that I couldn’t deny it in my own. My stepmom loved me when I let her. My dad was grief-stricken for the second time in his life. It wasn’t about me at all, even though the time I was cheated out of should’ve been.
“You make the pain in my life make sense,” I told her.
I stood up from my chair with tear-filled eyes. The red boa still around my neck, I had forgotten the whole point of the camp ceremony. I stopped short and put the red boa on her neck and said, “Oh… and welcome to womanhood.” I heard a few chuckles and remembered the audience. They were crying too.
A photographer snapped pictures of us. We walked away from the group. I put my arm around her and said, “I feel like we just got married.”
She laughed. “We’ll have to tell Dad you married me first.”
I gave her my gift and she handed me an envelope. She had written me a letter. In it, she wrote, “I want you to know who I am… and even though you did not give birth to me, I am writing this to you.”
We had gotten married. I am forever hers.
Bonnie Jean Feldkamp is a writer, wife, and mother of three. Find her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/WriterBonnie or Twitter @writerbonnie