I’ve been saving letters and postcards since I was a child. In a tiny closet in my attic study are hat boxes filled with these relics. Most of them are from my twin, my mother, and my grandmothers, but I have decent-sized stacks from others, including my best friend Emily, who still writes to me several times a year, and my husband, who was living in a different city when I met him. Most of these letters were written during years when I was away from home and from people I loved, college and graduate school years in which long-distance phone calls were 25 cents a minute on the MCI Friends & Family plan and my e-mail address was email@example.com. The popular world of text messaging was still 10 years off. Back then, too, I had plenty of time to write, and to wait.
There’s one letter, though, that I’ve never been able to find despite a dogged search through all of the boxes and bins of memorabilia that I’ve lugged into my present. It’s a letter that I wrote to my birthmother when I was around 12, the age my oldest son is. He writes e-mails to me like: “Dear Mom, November 26 is Mrs. Spinelli Day. I need to bring in a $1 by next week. Love, A.” The first letter I ever wrote to my birth mother begins, “Dear Lady,” and launches into a long explanation of my difficulty in knowing how to address a nameless person. For the longest time, that letter was sealed in an envelope and tucked between the mattresses of my childhood bed. It was one of those letters that needed to be written, even if I knew it would never be read, because somehow by writing it, by putting words into the universe, I was convinced my birthmother might hear them. It worked for my sister and me–this talking to one another without speaking–and so I hoped it might worked for “Dear Lady,” too. In that sense, it was more prayer than letter, promising that I had turned out well, that I was loved and happy, that I harbored no ill will.
By the time I was a sophomore in college, my letter to my birthmother was angrier. It’s less of a prayer and more of a late adolescent howl. It’s a letter missing the context of a full life, though no less real for its moment. Several years ago my birthmother asked me if I had found the “Dear Lady” letter I had told her about. The angry college letter is all I turned up. I quoted her a few innocent lines from the letter, but I didn’t tell her what it really said. By the time I finally knew who she was, I was somewhere other than the emotions of that letter. And she had a name.
There is a hatbox now for my birth family although it’s nearly empty. Most of our correspondence has been by e-mail. In fact, our first words to one another came packaged in e-mails that began tentatively, wondrously. She called me Jenny. I called her Mrs. D. We didn’t talk on the phone for four more months. I’ve saved over 1,000 e-mail messages in the last five years, mostly from my birthparents and their son, my biological brother. I communicate now most regularly with my birthparents’ daughter, but that occurs in the ephemeral space of instant message and text.
These days, other than the communication that is hard to hold onto, I am confined to notes of last resort, to the scribbles I leave my boys in the final moments before I head off on a trip. In our daily leave-taking, my last words are spoken. “Be kind!” I say as they head out to the door to school, uttering my daily mantra. They’re smart boys. Most days, they’re good boys. So I trust that everything else will fall into place if only they remember to be kind.
But when I’m about to leave them for an academic conference or for a research trip or, as I did last December, for travels across the world to meet my nephew in an orphanage in Morocco, my compulsion is fueled by an inexplicable panic. What if something happens to me? What if they never see me again? I think of them as I imagine my birthmother thinking of me all those years, with hope and yearning from an insurmountable distance. What I have to say must be written down. After all, I reason, if something happens to the Mother of Flesh, then the Mother of Words can take over.
“Dear boys, Leaving you on Christmas is hard! Please be good for Dad and to each other. Be kind! It’s the most important gift you can give to the world on this day of gifts. I love you. Mommy will keep you close to her heart. You do the same.”
And so I become that child of adoption once again, leaving my boys epistles to tack onto their bulletin board, leaving my boys with all that I have: my heart and a name. Love. Mommy.
I recently came across a Huffington Post feature titled “30 Perfectly Imperfect Holiday Card Outtakes” that immediately reminded me of my own decade of perfectly imperfect holiday card outtakes that I have been collecting since, well, since I began taking holiday card photos of my perfectly imperfect children. In fact, I have so many of these perfectly imperfect holiday card outtakes that I’m surprised that the Huffington Post editors didn’t contact me directly for material rather than bother with crowd-sourcing from their Facebook readers. While many of the HuffPo contributions made me laugh aloud, I knew, oh, yes, I knew, I could compete. You want outtakes? I’ll show you outtakes.
Every year, come Christmas card photo taking time, I swear I’m just going to haul the cherubs over to Picture People and let somebody else deal with them. This holiday chore, which I once truly enjoyed, has grown exponentially difficult the more (closed) eyes and (troublesome) temperaments we’ve added to our family. But then I’d have to purchase the photos from Picture People. Why buy marginally better photos when you can get marginally worse ones yourself–for free? Besides, I’m the sort of person who does not like to be defeated, especially by her own children.
Now, when I suggest that I can get my own photos for free, I am simply referring to the cost of my trusty Canon 7D, long paid for, and to my labor. I’m not referring to the price tag of the emotional toil of this endeavor, nor to the therapy my kids may one day need for enduring it. There’s also the cost of couples therapy for the years that I mistakenly involve my husband in the outing. My spouse is the right man for so many situations, but Christmas card photo taking is not one of them. He’s got too much couth, and too little patience, for the roles I assign him: clanging spoons over my head to get the baby to LOOK. AT. THE. @%#$. CAMERA; jumping up and down while holding Jingle Bells so the toddler will SMILE. FOR. THE. @%#$.. CAMERA; remaining Christmas-cheery-cheerful as the whole lot of them breaks down and the five-year-old comes charging at THE. @%#$. CAMERA. That means I am often the one simultaneously hopping up and down, making deals through gritted teeth–if I get a good one, you can watch TV for the rest of the day/week/year/your life—and trying to snap a decent photo.
While at Valley Forge National Historical Park earlier this fall with my oldest son’s robotics team, I got the hair-brained idea that a Revolutionary War battlefield would be the ideal backdrop for a Christmas card photo. After all, nothing invokes the misery of the 1777-1778 winter encampment like four boys between the ages of one and twelve trying to cooperate for a single perfect photograph. Indeed, what better metaphor for the Christmas card photo shoot than the dogged determination and perseverance of the continental soldiers at Valley Forge?
To make a long story short, I lost the battle. Friedrich Wilhelm Rudolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben himself could not have saved us from ourselves. When I showed the boys the photos I had taken, they cried and begged me not to use them. I admit, I momentarily considered accepting bribes. How much is it worth to you to keep these photos off of Shutterfly? Instead, I settled for the more ethically responsible and mature, “I told you so.”
A week later, I tried a new tactic. I told the five-year-old, who was largely responsible for the ruined shoot at Valley Forge, that he was in charge. I said we would do whatever he wanted, and I gave him everything he asked for, except the camera. So, on a cloudy Sunday morning, before the sun rose overhead and ruined everything with its bright, chipper light, I ordered my husband to stay put while the rest of us trudged out into the frosty backyard. The five-year-old wanted all of the brothers to pose like reindeer, wearing reindeer ears, on the roof of their log cabin playhouse. He wanted a Santa hat on the chimney. He wanted a singing, dancing stuffed Rudolph in the picture. He didn’t want nice clothes or matching clothes. Frankly, he probably would have preferred no clothes at all. To keep the peace (a.k.a. giving in to prevent tantrums), we went along with it–although I allowed the twelve-year-old to ditch the reindeer ears in honor of his pre-teen dignity. (The five-year-old threw a mini fit over this insult but eventually recovered.) And, to cut to the chase, I got the photo. It’s not worth showing here because, well, it’s too good to be true.
I’m keeping the outtakes from Valley Forge to add to my ever-growing collection. Other than to honor the historical record, and perhaps to trot them out at a graduation or wedding some day, why hang onto them? Because they say more about us than one good photo that, by some Christmas miracle, turns out just right and makes its way to the mailboxes of our friends and family each year. Because, one day, when the wounds have healed and all Wii privileges have been restored, I hope we can sit back and appreciate these snapshots of our perfectly imperfect family enjoying (surviving) this wonderful life.
Callie-the-cat isn’t coming back. It’s been two months since she disappeared. I finally packed up the litter box last weekend and found a home for the enormous cat condo taking up space in our sun room.
In my journalism class yesterday, we discussed a poignant story about a University of Montana student who vanished in 2013 while on a month-long Colorado River adventure with classmates. The student’s body was eventually found, offering a grim ending, even if the details of how she came to drown in the river may never be known.
With that story, and others like it, as backdrop to the grand scheme of everything and everyone who can go missing in our lives, I fully understand: She’s (just) a cat.
But the missing cat has catapulted me back into childhood, to an earlier loss, when our pet dog Tippy bolted out our front door and never returned. I was a small child, but in the blur of memory, I still see Tippy’s black-and-white haunches high-tailing it down our street, running as if her life (or getting away from it) depended upon it. In contrast, my siblings and I stood with toes on our property’s edge, as far as we were allowed to go, screaming after the dog: “Come back! Come back!” At the end of the street, Tippy turned the corner, and that’s the last we ever saw of her.
In my child’s understanding of the world, running away was an act of desperation. For years after, I wondered what made her take off like that. Was she that bored? That miserable? If we had loved her more, would she have stayed?
As I grew, the disappearance of Tippy became conflated with the disappearance of my birth mother. For years, I scanned the world for both of them, wondering what had become of the missing dog, and the missing mother. I knew what Tippy looked like, but my birth mother was a mystery. In part because I had a twin who looked like me and in part because our younger brother, not adopted, was a dead ringer for our dad, I assumed that our birth mother was an older replica of my sister and me. So it was a version of myself that I continually sought in faces of strangers, in crowds and on family vacations, in Chicago especially, where we were born. But our paths never crossed, Tippy never came back, and decades later, when we did meet our birth mother, I realized I would have passed right by her and never known who she was. I also realized that reunions can be non-endings; they aren’t guarantees of details, closures, or peace.
When I was in my twenties, a neighbor confessed to my mom that her husband saw Tippy hit by a car all those years ago. The dog turned the corner at the end of our street, darted into a busy road, and was killed. The neighbor said it had been on her mind all those years, how they knew the dog had died but hadn’t said anything.
While I forgave the neighbor’s desire to avoid devastating us with news of our pet’s death, I wondered how she could think that knowing was worse than not. As somebody who was adopted, I well understood that not knowing is a far greater burden, that not knowing plays games with your mind, that you can’t shake not knowing; it crawls after you, wherever you go, pestering, poking. There is absolutely no closure to not knowing. You may learn to live with it. But it never goes away.
Callie-the-cat’s sister is buried in our side yard. We have her body, hit by a car, euthanized by the vet. The kids held a funeral, we put a small stone on her grave. End of story.
But I’ll never stop looking for Callie. I know this about myself. Decades from now, when I am an old woman in this house where I have raised my four children, I will still be searching for that cat. When I pull into the driveway, I’ll scan the daisy patch where she used to hang out. When I’m raking leaves from under the raspberry bushes, I’ll pull the rake slowly away, as if she is still hiding there. I’ll look for her in the kitchen window where she used to try to catch our eye when she tired of the outdoors and wanted to come in.
We’ll have more pets. Maybe more cats. Probably a pup next for the eight-year-old who has been begging for a dog since he was a toddler.
But it’s the cat who went missing who won’t let me finish the story. For the rest of my life, I will write and re-write her ending, unable to let go the absence of what I will never know.
Adoption, for me, has long been an act of psychological resistance. The fact that I was adopted is most certainly a part of who I am, but what I resist are narratives that attempt to wrangle me into a shape that fit a particular explanation or agenda. I am adopted; therefore, I am __________. Nothing stops me short like someone–expert or activist or amateur know-it-all–filing in those blanks for me with his own theories and assumptions. Even my kids, in their innocence, sometimes do this to me. The other day, my five-year-old remarked out-of-the-blue, “It must be very sad for you to be adopted.”
Adoption is rife with grand narratives: birth mothers who always loved their babies; clueless white people who adopt kids from other countries; adopted kids who are incomplete puzzles that only roots, and reunions, will fill. These narratives are populated by heroes and villains, saints and sinners, or at least binaries and foils, and the roles are often interchangeable, depending on the story, on who’s telling it, when, and why.
Several years ago I picked up a copy of Nancy Verrier’s The Primal Wound. For many people connected to adoption, Verrier’s book is a game changer, revolutionary in its attempts to validate the feelings of adoptees who suffer, suffered, and continue to suffer from a traumatic separation from and abandonment by their birth mothers. I read the whole book shaking my head “no.” I didn’t feel validated; I felt repelled by a theory that didn’t fit my own feelings and experiences. In the last few years I’ve met many adoptees whose narratives do support Verrier’s assessment of the impact of adoption, including a dear high school friend who is a big fan of Verrier. That they claim a primal wound and I don’t doesn’t make them broken and me whole. It doesn’t make them realists and me a denier. None of us is more real, more true than the other; we’re just different, and resisting grand narratives in that difference.
If anything, the more people I meet in the world of adoption, the less adoption feels the same. The more of us there are, the more stories there are. It’s not that there aren’t universals in adoption, aren’t strains of sameness that compel us to seek out each other, and our stories. It’s just hard to tease those universals from the vast experiences that make us who we are.
Adoption is incredibly complex. It’s easy to understand how we are drawn to certain narratives as a way to corral those complexities, and perhaps to make us feel better or validated or vindicated, depending on what we’re searching for. If there are good guys, we want bad guys. If there is abandonment, we want salvation and hope. My story has all of those things. My story has none of those things.
If all goes well, my twin will return shortly to Morocco to adopt a second child. I plan to be there, at the moment her child is placed into her arms, the moment his story takes a turn. That my twin, who was adopted, is now an adoptive mother herself, is now a mother, has added a new layer of complexity to the unfolding narrative of our lives, much as it must have done for our birth mother who went on to give birth again, and to adopt three times. It’s not requisite empathy for an adoptive parent to have played another role in the adoption triad, but it certainly must help. There’s a danger of hindrance as well, though. My twin and I guard against reading her children through the lens of our own feelings and experiences and then writing their story as if it were our own. What we wanted and needed as children who were adopted may be very different from what her sons want and need.
The key is listening, to all the voices, to the clamors and the whispers all writing their stories as they live them. Somewhere in the tangle of these voices and stories is what adoption really is. If you press your ear against the ravel, you’ll hear it.
In all the blue skies of my living, I have never been able to shake that hovering cloud of worry over money. Perhaps it’s the legacy of grandparents who lived through the Depression. Or my own coming-of-age in the 70s and 80s when my pipefitter father went for long stretches without work. Maybe, too, it’s those many years I spent in graduate school, barely making ends meet, racking up degrees while my peers racked up IRAs.
Fortunately, I learned how to stretch a dollar from my parents, who made the most of whatever money they had, including my dad’s unemployment checks. Even when my dad wasn’t working, my parents managed to pay their bills. They didn’t accrue credit card debt. They still tithed at church. We went without wants, but we never went without needs.
Still, I was conscious of how we seemed to be skirting the edge of something much worse than the government cheese in our fridge. I began to see the world around me in price tags: what we ate, where we went, what we did. How much was it? Could we afford it? Did we really need it?
I put a price tag on my sister and me, too, peppering our parents with questions. How much did it cost to adopt us? I wanted a figure, not a guess. I wanted that figure to the tenths and hundredths and thousandths. Maybe some day, I thought, I could pay them back.
My sister and I had made a pact as young children never to ask for anything in a store. Ever. We knew our parents would never send us back if we expressed too many desires, but we didn’t want them to suffer for us, either.
It was hard for me, in this family of penny pinchers and bargain hunters, to get past the idea that my sister and I were a transaction, past my obsession with hoping that my parents got a good deal when they bought us. At times, I measured my achievements by this scale. The more achievements, the better the deal. I was never jealous of our younger brother, never jealous that our mother birthed him into this world and bartered for us—except in this one regard.
Years later, when I told my mom how consumed I was as a child by my own expense, she looked horrified. She actually cried out. “Why didn’t you ever tell me?”
But it was just one of those childhood anguishes that I could only whisper to my sister, who understood. I didn’t want to make my fear my mother’s burden, too.
My sister is in the process of adopting another child from Morocco. A window has opened, unexpectedly. It’s now or never, sooner rather than later, this chance to return to the orphanage where her first son once lived, an orphanage bursting with children who need checks to spring them and help care for the ones left behind. Now or never, sooner rather than later, despite the fact that she has not had enough time to save the initial outlay of cash.
Most people don’t (need to) bank tens of thousands of dollars before deciding to have another child. Regulations have made the process more expensive than it was for my sister’s first child. Agency fees. Government fees. Medical exams. The U.S. Adoption Tax Credit is also up in the air again.
And so, I advised my sister to do what many others do when faced with seemingly insurmountable adoption costs. I told her to raise it. I told my sister to ask our friends and family to help make it possible.
I’m aware of the controversy in the adoption world over people doing just what I suggested my sister do. It doesn’t matter that we’re raising funds to help the orphanage, too. We’re not—as critics would offer—using the money to empower women to keep their children in the first place. We wish for that world, too, where no one who wants to keep a child is forced to relinquish that child or abandon it. In the mean time, the orphans are reaching.
Our birth mother said she was told if she changed her mind about giving us up for adoption, she’d be on the hook for the bill for her prenatal care and for the labor and delivery. She’d be on the hook for that and raising the two of us.
Money is not the only what if in the complex equation that is adoption, but at the time, my parents had enough to make it happen and our birth mother was backed into a corner in part because she didn’t. By the grace of our own hard times in the years to come, my twin and I went on to learn humility and gratitude that had nothing to do with being adopted but certainly adds some irony to the differentials in the initial transaction.
I wonder what my new nephew will think some day of these efforts to make him a part of our family. I don’t want or need or expect him to be grateful. I only hope, as he works out his own story, that he will feel the village’s love. For this is true at any cost: So many people loved him before any of us knew who he was.
For the last week my oldest son has been away at the beach with my twin and nephew. He’s living the dream, which amounts to a week without his brothers. He loves his brothers, but there are a lot of them. He needed a break.
While he’s been away, I’ve been plowing through his assigned summer reading for seventh grade. A voracious reader, he devoured most of the books before sixth grade ended and left them sitting in a stack on his desk gathering dust. I don’t usually read school books alongside him, mostly because I have my own books to read but also because I witness so much helicoptering in my life as a university professor that I deliberately avoid buzzing around him. But I’ve missed him this past week. And so I’ve been reading his books.
I couldn’t put down Sarah Weeks’ So B. It, a novel about a 12-year-old girl named Heidi who has so little knowledge of her birth that she’s not even sure of her birth date. She lives with her mother, who has a “bum brain” and cannot tell her anything, and is cared for by a neighbor, who found Heidi and her mother when Heidi was days old. Most of the book is about Heidi’s quest to unlock the mystery of how she came to be. When she discovers a clue from pictures on an old camera, she travels alone by bus from Reno, Nevada, to Liberty, New York, to demand information from the place, and people, in the pictures.
I finished So B. It in stolen moments, leaning against the trash cans in the garage while my other boys played in the yard. I wondered what it would have been like to read this book at 12, the same age my son is. I’m sure it would have stirred in me what it still stirs, despite my knowing so much more about my beginnings. I tried to imagine, too, taking this book into my seventh grade classroom and talking about it with my teacher and peers, with people who, for the most part, had no idea what it was like not to know where they came from.
My son, a dead ringer for his father, has never, not once, wondered how and why he came to be. There is no mystery, no evasive truth. When he wants to know the story of his birth, I tell him. He is surrounded by grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins whose stories wrap him in a cocoon of knowledge.
The 12-year-old me would have felt alone in that classroom. She would have been afraid to speak, to cast herself as different, knowing she was, wishing she wasn’t. She would have spent class period after class period having intense discussions with everyone–in her head.
I call my son at the beach.
We agree that we found the book compelling for different reasons: he, because he’s never felt like that; me, because I have.
“Do you think it’s important to know how you came into this world?” I ask.
“How else would you know you were in the right place?” he says finally.
In my head, I say so be it.
Aloud, I say amen.
As a child, whenever I conjured my birth mother from the blackness of memory, she was always alone, a solitary shadow. I wondered sometimes if she ever married, if she ever had other children, and hoped she had. In my child’s simplicity, I wished that whatever love came to her after she relinquished us had filled her back up.
But even then, even with my wishing, I was still caught off guard when the confidential intermediary from the Midwest Adoption Center who found our birth parents in 2009 told me that my sister and I had a full biological brother, just one year older than us. My intense months of searching had been so focused on our birth mother that I did not even think of anyone else. Now there was a mother, and a father, and a brother. Then there were more children our birth parents had adopted: another sister, two more brothers. But not biological. Even the confidential intermediary issued them forth as asides. So not a sister, not two more brothers. Just three more children.
The search for a birth family is, in many ways, a search for blood, for biology. The reunion is about blood, too. And the days and months and years to follow, they are also about blood. What other motivation is there to keep at it? To do the hard work that goes along with meeting at this stage in our lives? If not for blood, we would still be strangers to one another, enjoying each other’s company–or not–the way people in this world come together, drift apart, come together based on myriad other circumstances.
It took me more than a year to reach out to my birth parents’ daughter. She wasn’t blood, so what right did I have to pull her into the story, into my story? I kept putting myself in her shoes and wondering what it would have been like for two biological daughters to spring forth from my own mother’s past. I didn’t want to bother her, to intrude, to stake any kind of claim. But I wanted her to know, from one adopted person to another, that she mattered. Just because she wasn’t blood, she mattered. After all, she is my birth mother’s daughter. I was relieved when she wrote back. She’d wanted to reach out, too, but wasn’t sure if I wanted to hear from her.
In 2013 we decided to meet at Hersheypark. We brought along our husbands and, between the two of us, our seven sons. We talked all day, and we haven’t stopped talking since. It’s hard to explain this bond between the three of us: my birth mother’s daughter, my twin sister, me. It has nothing to do with biology. It has something to do with adoption, but that’s not everything.
Earlier this month, they stayed with us here in Philadelphia for a couple of nights. In the days before they arrived, I told people we were expecting company. I said, “My birth mother’s daughter and her family are visiting from North Carolina,” and watched them try to sort it out.
Our kids don’t have trouble sorting it out. They consider themselves cousins. They don’t know what to call the adults–are we aunts? are we uncles?–but they are sure of each other. On the first night they were in town, we took them to Rita’s for water ice, and as we stood in front of the counter weighing our flavor options, their oldest boy threw his arm around my oldest. “You know what I like, right?” he asked my son. “Because we’re related.”
Of all the gifts this journey has given my sister and me, this one has been the most surprising, this gift of my birth mother’s daughter. Our connection is not about blood. It’s not even about a shared experience of adoption. While we understand each other in profound ways because of our adoption, we experienced adoption very differently. It’s that: She loves this woman she calls mother, our birth mother, the way we love our own. It’s that: This biological family that is ours by blood is more truly hers. It’s that: She claims the ancestors we don’t feel connected to. It’s that: When we say family is family, we are saying the same thing.
My birth mother’s daughter, my twin, me: we share a mother although it’s far more complicated than that. We share each other, too, but there’s no word for what it is. It’s something like sister, but not, something like it, but more.