In the second half of 1999, while living in Belgium, I met the beautiful young neighbor of my now ex-husband. She had an intense awareness that completely betrayed her youth.
Only 15 at the time, her depth of character made her feel a contemporary, not twenty years my junior.
They say you can see someone’s soul through their eyes and as cliché as that statement is, meeting Coralie brought that notion to mind. We barely spoke, she shy and me newly arrived in town and still in observer mode, but I felt a connection to her that shook my core.
As fate would have it, Coralie ended up becoming my foster daughter and lived with me for one of the most perplexing periods of our respective lives. Following years of familial upheavals that are her story to tell, not mine, Coralie needed a place to land.
I’d only been married for less than three months, was new to our little town and experiencing all of this in a second language. Yet, when a troubled teen turns up at your door, you can hardly say, “Gosh sweetie, I’d love to help but could you come back in a year or two when I’m more settled?” No, you open your door and arms and welcome her and do your best to help. And maybe I did. I hope I did.
My sense is that the best thing I brought to her life was a different perspective on the options a woman can have. I’d come from another country and very different background to her own family and through me she met women with varying careers and experiences and saw, first hand, that life could be whatever she wanted. But, aside from practicing English and sharing a few recipes and tips for sorting laundry, I don’t think I gave her much else beyond a safe haven and a shoulder to cry on.
What I learned from Coralie, however, was maternal love. I’ve never had any biological children of my own and although I’m very close with my nieces and nephews, this bond was something different.
The first day that I had to send Coralie back to school after a few tumultuous weeks at home, I felt my heart rip out of my chest as her train pulled out of the station. I wanted to drag the train back with my bare hands, pull her off and hold her in my arms. I had never felt anything so strong, certainly not the desire to protect someone so forcefully that it hurt. This, I gathered, was what maternal love felt like. It scared me, but also made me feel both blessed to have this teen in my life and humbled by the responsibility I held.
After extreme highs and lows, tears and laughter, Coralie eventually moved back in with her mother and on with her life. Our paths veered when I moved to New York for a job, leaving Belgium and, ultimately, my marriage, but Coralie reached out and following a long stretch of emailing, we reconnected in 2006, some seven years after our first meeting.
The woman I met on that visit was even more beautiful and confident and was clearly determined to maintain control of her life. She’d returned to school and was one of the most dedicated students I’ve ever witnessed. I watched her in her apartment tending to domestic chores and preparing delicious meals and couldn’t help but feel proud that she’d grown into such a resilient woman.
She visited me in New York, we emailed and connected on Skype and stayed in touch, growing stronger in our strange mother-daughter-friendship relationship by the year. In 2010 we met up in London and spent a few days catching up, yet again.
Weeks after we parted ways in London, she met a man and fell deeply in love and is now the mother of two gorgeous young children of her own. They are lucky to have her, she is caring yet strong and a natural at all things maternal.
I’ve now earned the title Mamouche — a French endearment for granny’s — as well as the role as her children’s supplementary grandmother as it is always good to have a spare. I don’t see them as often as I’d like, but thanks to technology, I feel connected to their lives on a daily basis and I try to visit as often as possible, in person.
Today, this gorgeous woman turns 30 and I could not be more proud of my sweet Coralie. I’m not really her mother, yet I’m more than a friend. She’s not actually my daughter, but I love her as if she were.
Fostering her was one of the most challenging experiences I’ve ever been through – for countless reasons that deserve more than a blog post – but it was also among the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life; the thing I feel most proud of and that I’d do all over again without hesitation.
My reward was – is – having Coralie in my life, and nothing could be more worthwhile.
Happy Birthday, my dear, I love you!