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Facing It

April 13, 2012

In one of my favorite photos from when my mother met my birth mother last August, the four of us are standing at the top of Mt. Baldy in the Indiana Dunes, our arms linked. My birth father is on the other side of the camera. Lake Michigan spreads behind us, so pale in the photograph that it is difficult to determine where water ends and sky begins. My birth parents raised their family not far from the Dunes, and they’ve crested Mt. Baldy a dozen times. My sister and I grew up farther south in central Illinois, separated from them for the first twenty-five years of our lives by two hundred miles of sand and prairie. Given the information that we each had from the adoption agency, we likely could have found one another on a compass. We pointed south; she pointed north. And we would have been right, not necessarily close, but still right.

My birth mother remembers rolling with her children down the southern slope of Mt. Baldy, and when we arrived at the base last August, she was disappointed to find access to the former trail blocked by plastic fences, forcing us to take another, more roundabout route to the top. Too many feet, too little Marram grass taking root, and the mountain she knew has begun to slip. It was hot and humid and the mosquitoes dive-bombed us as we trudged single-file up the thick sand along the new path. “Isn’t this something?” my birth father marveled from his anchor position at the end of the line. “Who would have thought? All of us together like this?”

The view from the top was both magnificent and disorienting as the sand stretched and swooped in long curves that reminded me more of a Middle Eastern desert than Indiana. My kids turned their bodies into logs and went rolling and giggling down the hill. When they reached the bottom, they were such miniature versions of themselves that I couldn’t make out their features although I knew exactly who they were.

The picture of the four of us at the top of Mt. Baldy is disorienting, too. When my sister showed it to a friend of hers, she asked her friend to guess which woman was our birth mother and which was our adoptive mother. The friend guessed wrong. She showed another friend. Wrong again. In fairness, there is no obvious answer in this photo. My sister and I do not look like our birth mother. If you saw us together, you would not cluck your tongue, the way people still do when my sister and I are together. “You must be sisters,” they say. We must be sisters because we look alike. There is an insistence to biology, a confirmation of it, when you bear the proof in your face. The only proof in this photo lies not in our faces but in our touch. My sister and I are both leaning into my mother. My mother’s shoulders are tucked under our arm pits in an unmistakeable familiarity. Our heads are bent toward hers. We tip toward what we know.

If we don’t resemble our birth mother, then maybe somebody else? “You look so much like Grandma D.,” my birth family tells me, and I beg for photos, eagerly await them. When the photos of a youthful Grandma D. arrive, I don’t see what I’m supposed to see. I search the eyes, the nose, the mouth, but I don’t recognize anything. I’m surprised by my disappointment, as if sharing features with this woman who never knew about me would somehow undermine the secret of my existence, long after she had died.

My birth mother’s niece sends photos from the other side of the family. In one old brown photograph, she recognizes my middle son in the face of a somber, blonde child with dark eyes. I look and look and look, but I don’t find my son. She finds other connections in eyes and lips and smiles, but I don’t see them, either, and neither do her daughters. If you have to look that hard, I ask her, are you merely seeing what you want to see? “You are who you are,” she replies kindly, with understanding. “You are the product of your family.” And I know she means my family, not hers, though biologically, we are first cousins. In the past, I’ve poured through photographs of my mother and father’s families, of ancestors I’ve never met, of ancestors who don’t belong to me but do. I can show you the slope of a nose or the brown pool of an eye or the height of a hairline that might fool you into thinking that we shared genes. For most of my life, this was my most fervent desire: to be so completely theirs that nobody would ever question my place in the family. In the absence of that, I dismissed it all. Except for my twin.

Yes, the paradox with which I continue to struggle as an adopted twin is this: I have spent my entire life denying biology, telling myself and others that it doesn’t matter, that my family is my family no matter what our genes reveal, or don’t reveal, on top of our skin or under it. For me, family transcends biology. I still believe that. Family transcends biology, and so do I. What I have done, what I have become, what I will do: I will myself free from the tethers of DNA. Yet, behind my confidence, my identity, my sure sense of self, is my twin, my biological other. Behind me, with me, in me, is my blood twin. Here I am, still trying to rid myself of this notion of biology, while clinging to it as if it is my lifeline, as if, without it, I would surely sink.

If it weren’t for biology, there would be no reason for us all to come together again, to stand at the top of a shifting sand mountain, red-faced and sweating from the climb but marveling at the view. On the top of Mt. Baldy, my sister and I resemble each other. There is no mistaking that. You must be sisters. We must. Our brown hair is pulled back in identical pony tails. Our matching sunglasses, hers green, mine purple, perch atop our heads in a similar swoop. Our mother is between us, sure and firm and familiar. Behind her back, my sister and I meet, our arms touching. Even with our mothers beside us, we hold onto each other.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Helen permalink
    April 17, 2012 5:40 am

    Jenny, the photo at the top shows none of your lovely FACES. I know your Mom from the shirt, but assume you are in black, Jackie in blue and your birth mom went to Cancun?! Love reading these chapters! Sorry we missedd you in St. LOUIS.

    • twinprint permalink*
      April 17, 2012 1:03 pm

      I left out the lovely faces on purpose! 🙂 I’m trying to give my birth mother some privacy by not using her image in the blog. But to answer your question, Mom is in black, I’m in blue, and my birth mother is in the yellow Cancun shirt. I can e-mail you the whole photo! Yes, I”m sorry I missed you in St. Louis, too. Next time!!!

  2. April 15, 2012 3:37 am

    I like the ‘leaning into’ your mother. These subtle signals of claiming are overlooked a lot of the time in favor of big declarations and explanations. The reverse is true as well, I know. I also like the struggle of the dunes…..I spend a lot of time where there are dunes (Lake Superior) and how they look and how it is climbing on them are very different things, like a lot of other things, I guess. Such swell work.

    • twinprint permalink*
      April 17, 2012 1:04 pm

      Isn’t it nice when the landscape fits so perfectly into the story? 🙂 Thanks, as always, for your comment.

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