“She’s so annoying,” Ricka said, dodging Tabitha and making a beeline for her room.
Sisters Tabitha and Tia, ages six and four, were back with us for the weekend. They had been our houseguests through Safe Families at least eight times over four years. And they were smart girls: they knew the rules of the house, the foods I usually bought, the activities we had enjoyed in the past—and how to push all the buttons.
“She just wants a hug,” I said. “She hasn’t seen you in a while.”
Tabitha locked her arms around my fifteen year old’s waist, letting her legs go slack.
“She doesn’t have to be obnoxious about it,” said Ricka, attempting to peel off the seventy-pound dead weight.
“Stop this.” I skewered Ricka with a look. “Just hug her back.”
“Fine.” Gazing at the ceiling, my girl flung loose arms around the kid for a split-second. Tabitha dragged her tongue along Ricka’s sleeve, released her grip, and bunched over in a forced laugh that bounced off the walls.
“That’s disgusting!” Ricka said and stomped off.
I squatted to make eye contact with the six year old. “Listen. You need to be respectful. You can give a hug, but no licking. Got it?”
Tabitha ran into our home office, pounded on the computer keyboard and poked at the printer’s keypad like a woodpecker trying to bore a hole.
“We’re done in here,” I said, nudging her from the desk chair. “Time to do some drawing. In the dining room.”
I stocked the table with crayons, markers, and paper. I raised my eyebrows at twelve-year-old Dicka. “Could you oversee some art time while I get dinner going?”
She doled out supplies and the little sisters flanked her, snapping up writing utensils. Soon artwork turned the blank pages into beauty—except for Tabitha’s piece.
Ricka is ugly.
A stick figure of a girl with a scribble over her face accompanied the spiteful words.
“Aw, that’s not very nice,” I said, my tone set to breezy.
“She’s not nice,” said Tabitha.
This wasn’t the first time my teen and the first-grader had sparred. I drew in a deep breath and released it, returning to the kitchen.
Only forty-six hours to go.
The next morning over coffee, I formed a plan. While I hoped my bright attitude would banish any stinky behavior in public, I laid down an all-hands-on-deck mandate anyway.
“Everyone’s going to Dicka’s volleyball game.”
The visitors wiggled with excitement. Ricka wrinkled her nose. Flicka’s eyebrows drew together, and she bit her lower lip.
“Oh, I forgot,” I said to my seventeen year old. “I promise you’ll have time later today to get your research paper done. Okay?”
“Yeah,” she said, but her mouth sagged.
At the game, the two little visitors dropped to the floor in the doorway of the gym. The contagious Limp Noodle Syndrome—again. Heat rose up my neck.
“Come on,” I said, reaching for Tia’s hand. Flicka grabbed onto Tabitha’s. “Big girls walk on their own. Let’s go.”
But instead, they writhed on the floor, giggling, and three adults almost tripped over their flailing limbs before I could quash the girls’ fun.
When Dicka’s games finished, we headed home. The afternoon still held one more volleyball match for me to conquer with our weekend companions. Would we all survive?
After lunch, Tabitha fell asleep.
“I have to go to Ricka’s game now,” I told Flicka. “Stay home and do homework. Dicka will hang out with Tabitha when she wakes up. I’ll take Tia.”
At the game, the four year old whined during the entire first set and into the second.
“This is boring,” she said. “I wanna gooooooo.”
Her fussing cut through the ref’s whistles and the spectators’ cheers. I held her on my lap, and she swung her legs, kicking the man seated next to us. I readjusted her, but she found a way to kick him again. Finally, she whimpered herself to sleep in my arms.
That night after the girls were in bed, Flicka approached me in the kitchen.
“Dicka napped this afternoon and didn’t help with Tabitha. So I had to. I didn’t get anything done.”
“Oh no,” I said. “I’ll have a talk with her, because that’s not—”
“Mom, it’s okay.” Tears spilled from her eyes, but a smile leaked through. She shook her head. “I have so much work to do. But know what I thought of today?”
I reached for her hand. “What?”
“I usually don’t feel like helping you.” She laughed through the tears.
I chuckled. “You don’t?”
“But today I actually wanted to help you with those girls.” Another laugh. Then more tears. “I don’t know why I’m crying. Or laughing. I’m so stressed.”
“We’ll get through this weekend, okay?”
That night when the house was quiet, I remembered the advice I had gotten from one of the social workers. “You have to be stern with those girls. Like their mom is.”
But it was too late now. From the start, I had messed up. In my happiness to see Tabitha and Tia, I had paved the path in feathers instead of pouring concrete.
Only twenty hours to go.
Like the grand finale at a fireworks show, we finished off our weekend with an explosion of sparks that wowed us all.
“You two have to make it right,” I said, one hand on Ricka and one on Tabitha. The bickering had stripped away the last of my energy. “Now.”
Tabitha birthed new artwork with different words scrawled at the top of the paper.
I am sorry. I love you.
Ricka hugged her—and didn’t roll her eyes this time.
“Tabitha,” I said. “I’m keeping this picture on the fridge. That’s how beautiful it is.”
The front door opened. Husband, home from a work trip.
“Hey, who’s this?” he said.
Tabitha and Tia squealed, dashed across the room, and smashed into his legs.
“You know us!” Tabitha laughed, tugging on his jacket.
Tia bobbed in front of Husband, beaming.
An hour to go.
I folded the little girls’ clean laundry and packed it in their bags. Over the weekend, my girls and I had delivered a wobbly service. We had started out with good intentions. But one of us had traded prickles for prickles, one of us had nursed doubts about our calling, and one of us didn’t get her research paper done until Sunday night. But although rumpled, our willingness to do it again was still alive.
And maybe for now, that was all that mattered.