Remembering Their Birth Mother’s Face

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My first Christmas with my Ethiopian children came 10 months after they were officially adopted into our family. During the year we settled in, we learned that one of our daughters was still heavily grieving the loss of her mother two years earlier. One of the most difficult struggles for Ella was that she was starting to forget her mother’s face. She had only been about four when her mother died and by Christmas 2008, Ella was seven years old and grasping inside her memory to recall a glimpse of her mother’s face. We had received no pictures of their mother during our pick-up trip in Ethiopia in February 2008. Once back in the U.S., we would sometimes stop and stare at African-American women because Ella, or her sister Grace, would look at me and say ‘Mom, I think that is what she looked like.”
When it came time to decorate our first Christmas tree together, I knew that I wanted to add something to represent our new African children but wasn’t sure what. Then I found the most beautiful African angel when we were out shopping to place on top of our Christmas tree. This made our three Ethiopian children very happy, especially Ella, because she was insistent that the angel looked just like her mother. We now have a Christmas tradition where Ella delightfully places the African angel on top of the tree in remembrance of her mother and Africa.
Even though this Christmas angel was a great comfort to Ella, it didn’t take away her anguish over forgetting her mother’s face. It took us two years to track down a picture of Ella’s mother. This meant waiting for friends to go to Addis Ababa to research and identify phone numbers of people who may know the location of their biological grandmother. Once they found her, they asked her to relinquish the only picture of her daughter, so that her grandchildren could be reminded of what their mother looked like. (It was eventually returned to her.) When we finally received the picture in mid-2010, we decided to make a big deal out of it. We invited over our Ethiopian friends who found the picture to present an enlarged photo to our children as a surprise (the original picture was only about an inch high and an inch wide). I will never forget my children’s faces when they laid eyes on their mother again. Ella finally had a picture that she could place at the side of the bed and didn’t have to worry about her mother’s memory being permanently erased.
Miraculously, the African angel on the top of our tree really does look like the mother of our children. But what is more incredible is that the spirit of their homeland and their mother will always have a place in our home and in their lives. They can rest better at night knowing that the parents who traveled across the world to bring them into their family understand the value of a cherished memory of a mother’s love. Her face can now forever shine on them as bright as the Christmas lights that emanate from under the angel on top of our tree.

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