Family History

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In the ten years between my wedding day and the day I met my children, I spent a lot of time fantasizing about all of the traditions we would celebrate once I finally became a mother. The celebrations I imagined looked a lot like those from my own childhood. There would be Christmas stockings stuffed full of Clementine oranges, chocolate coins, and Bonnie Bell lip smackers; dyed Easter eggs hidden in an obvious way around the living room; piñatas and paper donkey tails poised in the backyard for a birthday party. I pictured my Jewish husband showing the children how to light the menorah. I saw cookie baking and hot cider drinking, Halloween costumes, and fireworks on the Fourth of July. They were all joyful celebrations—I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the rituals and expressions that come along with loss and grief.
Ever since I have known him, my husband has lit a candle on the anniversary of his father’s death. He likes it to burn all day, (fear of starting a fire usually causes one of us to blow it out every time we have to leave the house). For many years, it was really the only sad day that we marked with some sort of symbol. There have been many sad days in our years together, and many losses, but this was the only day a single candle was lit to commemorate a loss.
I always know when my daughter wants to talk about the people that she lost in Ethiopia. It happens right as I am putting her down for an afternoon nap or right after her last bedtime story. “Mommy,” she says, “How did Lummi die?” Lummi was our dog that died in 2007. I tell her the story again, and she asks more questions. She becomes silent for a moment, taking it all in. Then she looks at me again with her huge almond-shaped eyes and asks, “Mommy, how did Grandma Chris die?” Chris, my mother-in-law died on August 30, 2008, right in the middle of our adoption process. We now light a candle on that day as well.
Meazi and her little brother Melese, home with us since August of 2009, would have been Chris and George’s first grandchildren. Meazi knows of my in-laws and our pup through the pictures we have shown her and the stories we have shared. There are always the questions about the dog first, and then the questions about Chris’s death. Hearing me repeat these stories, Meazi relaxes. She begins to feels safe. The details of her life spill out as she talks and talks. She is calm, relaxed, and surprisingly articulate. She is emotionally astute. She tells me her story, and like every adoption story, it is about loss. Lying in our family bed, her head on my shoulder, I steel myself and try not to fall apart as she tells me what happened. When she finishes we talk a bit more and she crawls onto my chest. Her brother has fallen asleep by now, Meazi doesn’t begin the story until he has. Her head is on my shoulder, her chest is on my chest. Her tiny body suddenly feels remarkably heavy on mine. I take three deep breaths and by the third one she is sound asleep. For months this was the only way she could fall asleep, her whole body on top of mine, my body acting as a sort of makeshift anchor.
Our children had been home for only five months when Meazi started telling me their story. I was shocked at how quickly we had come to this point. Once she mastered the words in a language I could understand, she began to talk. I had read several adoption books that described how revelations and memories come out slowly, over time. I found myself a little ill-prepared for these intense dialogues so early on in our relationship. I guess that I didn’t think she would remember so many details. Loss is always mentioned in adoption literature too, but clearly I understood it only on an esoteric level.
Last February 19th, after I read her two bedtime stories, Meazi turned to me and said, “Mommy, I think my Daddy is sad about his Mom today.” I asked if my husband had said something to her about Chris. She said, “No, I just think so.” Remarkably, this date was Chris’s birthday. Her eyes got wide and she yelled, “Mommy! Why we did not celebrate? We didn’t even get a cake!” I told her that since Grandma Chris wasn’t here to enjoy it, we didn’t feel like celebrating. She was quiet for a moment and then said sternly, “Mommy, next time we are going to celebrate for her. We are going to get a cake. We will get a candle. I can make her wish for her. It is her birthday.”
Adoption professionals recommend that families mark dates specific to their adoption processes to celebrate coming together as a family. This might mean the day you met your child or the day you took formal custody of your child, a day many refer to as a “Gotcha Day.” (I always hated the term “Gotcha Day,” sounds like you are successfully swatting a fly not beginning your life together as parent and child). The day we took custody of our children in Ethiopia is a day we will never celebrate. That day the orphanage threw a farewell party for the children. There was singing and cheering. My daughter, the oldest girl leaving that day, got to cut the cake. We drank orange soda, and wiped powdered sugar from each other’s faces. I believe it was one of the worst days of my children’s lives. They were terrified. Their world was turning upside down again as they said goodbye to caretakers and friends they had known for months. We will add a day in August, the day of our re-adoption last summer. It was a day simple in its splendor. A half-an-hour in the judge’s chambers, where we once again swore that we would always care for them, followed by pancakes at a fancy restaurant, and a short walk on the beach.
Like other newly formed Ethiopian-American families we add Ganna (Ethiopian Christmas) and Enkutatash (Ethiopian New Year) to our calendar. We also add birthdays, deaths, and the birthdays of those who have died. March 23, has become one of these days. Last year, on the Tuesday afternoon of March 23rd, my daughter lit a candle, commemorating the event that propelled her and her baby brother into my life. She called her brother over to see it, “Melese,” she said, “Come here, this is for you too.” She put her thin arm around his shoulders and together they watched it burn. Meazi and Melese’s story is now familiar to me. I know the sequence of events. I know the names and the places. Our stories are beginning to merge. Their grief is now my grief. Their losses have become my losses.
Our children are teaching us new rituals, new ways to celebrate, and new ways to commemorate. We will light candles on joyful days and on sad days. The dead will get new birthday wishes. There will be cake. Our histories will continue to meld as we attempt to move forward as a family.

22 COMMENTS

  1. You are amazing. Mother amazing. Writer amazing. And I am feeling amazingly lucky even know this small glimpse of your amazing. Thank you.

  2. Thank you, again, for sharing your invaluable experience and insight with us. I’m so happy to see your writing in another great forum.

  3. Thank-you Julie. I´ve been reading your blog lately. We´re in the adoption process. You´ll never know how much I appreciate your blog and how I love curling up on the sofa reading it. Your words are a gift.

  4. When my son was 5 yrs old and started grieving his first Mom that relinquished him to adoption due to poverty, he made some drawings, one of which was his Ethiopian Mom carrying him on her back. I recently took that drawing and another me made of the toukol and his Mom and had a colleague who paints replicate it. We don’t have photos of his first Mom so this is the next best thing. It sits in his room and he can see his Ethiopian Mom whenever he wants.

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