Jordan’s One Direction posters covered the wall where Emily used to hang her princess canopy, but the sunset still glimmered through the windows facing west. Hannah played with the dollhouse furniture that Lauren had left behind. Olivia spread her rug over the nail polish splotches on the beige carpet that Natalie had left when she went to cosmetology school. When Emma left, her room was pristine except for a handful of silky blond hairs in the trashcan from cleaning out her hairbrush. It always surprised me how the architecture of the room stayed the same when the girls came and went.
I was living in a house of girls, a rambling two-story house with a wide front porch covered in hammocks and red rocking chairs. The house got its name, Laurel Ridge, from the trees surrounding the house and the mountain that we were nestled up under. The girls came to this corner of Tennessee from across America, from Texas and Maryland, Georgia and South Carolina, as well as India, China, and Romania. They came here, to the boarding-school-meets-working-farm, for a variety of reasons. Each girl’s story was different but they shared a brokenness in their families that had made home life unsafe or unsustainable.
“More than a school, we’re a family” was our motto. But it was a strange sort of family whose members rotated in and out. I felt like a revolving door operator, or perhaps a merry-go-round conductor. The turnover meant that I had to be strong and stable, anchoring the moving parts. Officially, I was a mentor. Mostly, I found myself teaching algebra while making soup, or diffusing conflict while folding laundry, or driving children to the doctor, the dentist, the psychiatrist—typical mom duties, but these were not my children, and their presence in the family felt uncertain, impermanent.
When they came on their first interview, they were mostly enthralled with the place’s beauty. “Will I get to ride the horses?” many of them asked. Some got excited about the chickens or the new spring lambs, while others were more interested in the basketball courts and the climbing wall. The girls were usually too excited about the idyllic surroundings to be homesick at first. Their guardians or social workers would leave and we would busy ourselves unpacking the pink suitcases, hanging the Hello Kitty posters on the wall.
Two, or six, or 10 months later, we’d be folding crinkled dresses back into the suitcases and pulling posters off the wall. Sometimes the goodbyes were easy. When Sophie left, all the staff breathed a bit easier. With her, every request was a fight. We were weary of slammed doors and stomping when we asked her to take a shower or help clean up from dinner. When Kaitlyn left, I didn’t miss her scowl or the way “yes ma’am” came out of her lips like a curse.
Even the girls who were hard to love left a hole, though. When you’ve combed a girl’s snarly hair after her shower and held her crumpled body after a hard phone call with her mom, you can’t say goodbye without pain.
Their leaving was often sudden. Sometimes the girls left for joyful reasons—a lovely family was adopting them, or their family was healed and ready to welcome them back. More often than not, though, girls left because of cumulative homesickness or a series of increasingly severe infractions.
The unexpected leavings left jagged edges. Kaitlyn was gone, but her school shelf was stacked with half-finished math and spelling workbooks. She’d been in the middle of making a volcano for science and the papier-mâché cone drooped on the picnic table for weeks after she left. Her socks kept turning up around the house, under couch cushions, or in the box of UNO cards. There was no clean break.
While Kaitlyn’s socks were still turning up, a new girl moved in. We barely had time to wash and dry the sheets on the bed and clean the toothpaste stains off the mirror. I don’t remember the niceties of her move-in conversation, but I do remember resenting her taking Kaitlyn’s spot. I resented the work that her presence demanded. I would have to start fresh, asking questions and learning her tastes with the awkward love of a new adopted parent.
It’s hard to be the one who stays. The coming and going felt like a workout. At first my heart, like any other muscle, ripped and grew, ripped and grew. But over time, it stopped growing and grew defiant. With the defiance came a numbness. I didn’t cry when Jordan left. I methodically sorted papers and clothes as tears streamed down her face. I didn’t cry when I heard Megan wasn’t coming back from break, and we taped up her boxes and drove them down to the post office.
In those last months, tears only came late at night. When the girls were all in bed, I stood in the hallway downstairs where we hung pictures of whoever was currently living in the house. I would force myself to remember the faces that used to hang there. I would mentally walk through the rooms upstairs, naming the girls who had slept in each bed. The tears at night assured me that my heart was not completely numb.
Then one day, it was my turn to leave. My uncle had sent me a box of gladiolus bulbs and the girls helped me plant them the day before I left. I handed off my girls to a new mentor and stepped out of the revolving door. I’d stacked my linens in the closet for her, and posted a sign on the door welcoming her to Laurel Ridge. I said my goodbyes and made it over the mountains before I remembered a jagged edge I had left. My picture was still hanging in its frame in the downstairs hallway.