Sunday, October 31, 2004

a penchant for bubble wrap

I remember when I was 4 years old. Like most kids my age, I was starting to ask questions about where I came from. Unlike most kids my age, though, the answer I got was not “you came from your mommy’s tummy”, but rather “mommy and daddy chose you, so you’re special.” My brother, I knew, came from my mommy’s tummy, but me, I got chosen. The word was “adopted”, but “chosen” seemed an adequate explanation at the time. In fact, I bought it hook, line, and sinker. What did I know from biology? I was 4 and I was chosen. End of story.

The problem with early memories is that they become a part of your personal myth, and once there, they don’t ever really leave. While most children’s personal myths are built on a pretty strong cause-and-effect relationship between their parents and their existence, my myth swam in a sort of creation limbo. Arising from having been “chosen”, the creation part of my personal myth skips the whole manufacturing process and starts off way in the consumer end of things. My birth wasn’t biological; it was administrative. There is no room in my myth for actually being born. Of course I grew up knowing that sex was the actual cause of babies. And logically I know that I was the result of a special sperm/ova mambo, and that I emerged from some woman’s womb all wet and whiny like everyone else. But, well below the radar of my own rationale floats this feeling, this undercurrent of myth, which I suppose, if pressed, I would claim has me emerging out of a shipping box. I was not born. I simply arrived. Now that I think about it, it might, in fact, explain my penchant for bubble wrap…

I love my adoptive family. Yes we’re dysfunctional like all good families are, and yes we have our differences and arguments, but I love my family. I have been well provided for, I have been educated to excess, I have been loved. What more can a child ask for?

But then there’s that nagging box issue.

Like most things in my personal myth, the “Federal Express - signed, sealed, delivered” birth process doesn’t hound me on a day-to-day basis. I work, I play, I raise children, I live, and I love without nearly ever dwelling on the fact that I know absolutely nothing about my birth. But, every once in a while, it does poke up into my consciousness:

Stranger: “Your son’s so cute, does he look like your side of the family?”
Me: “??”

Friend: “You have such beautiful straight, blonde hair. You must be Scandinavian.”
Me: “??”

Teacher: “Tell the class where your family is from.”Me: “Well, uh, the people I grew up with came from Russia, but, uh…”
Teacher: “Don’t you know where you came from?”
Me: “??”

Doc: “So, do you have a history of heart disease?”
Me: “History?”

History. That really sums it up. I have no history. Though it’s not something I do all the time, on the off chance I think of my life in terms of the history of all mankind, I’m honestly left with the image of my ancestry as nothing more than that box. In a drawing, the box would be represented by an X, and labeled “Start here”. Time only moves forward from the box, not backward. It’s important to understand that this is neither a bad image nor a good image. The “UPS guy as creator” personal myth does not negatively affect my psyche in any overt way. Having no history has always felt, just, normal.

But what happens when a history-free person suddenly realizes that she has a history? That she didn’t just come out of a box? When suddenly the faded lines of an ancestry pop up on that little drawing on the worn little piece of paper where none were before? If having no history feels normal, and has felt normal her whole life, how does suddenly having a history feel?

When I tell this story to non-adoptees, they look at me like they’re waiting for something important that I’ve left out. “So? You have a history. Big deal. You’ve always known you’ve had one, why are you acting so surprised?”

To keep myself from shrieking, I tell them a little story.

One morning as you dry off after your shower, you scratch at that annoying little flap of skin under your arm that’s always bothered you. It’s bothering you so much now that you pick at it, and in doing so you loosen it enough to be able to lift it up. Cautiously, you pull on it harder. A feather pokes out. Several others follow. “What the…? Where did this…?” How could it be that for 37 years you haven’t noticed this? What is this? Oh my god…it’s a wing. Or wings!??! Frantically you reach around to the other side, scrabble around that other always-tender area, and… sure enough, you have a pair.

Dreamlike, you pull on them, one at a time, and they stretch to an astonishing span. They don’t unfold easily, but rather reluctantly, like opening an old baseball mitt that’s been lying in the attic after decades of disuse. You feel with a twang the muscles attached to them fight back against the settling of time, but you still feel them! They really are your muscles! Though you can feel them, you don’t know how to control them.

Thoughts start to zip around your head like electrons in orbit: Can I fly? How does it work? Will I be able to swoop? Glide? Who will teach me? Will I just sort of know how? Where on earth am I going to buy shirts now? Do I really want people to know? What will I do if I can’t ever use them? Why didn’t I discover this sooner? Am I too late? Why me? Am I a freak? Are there more people like me?

Then come the emotions: an overwhelming, uncontrollable and unimaginable grief for the possible loss of something you never even knew you had, a feeling of joy at this thrilling discovery, a trembling fear that a suddenly unclear future would cloud a happy, if relatively uneventful past.

The past! You remember with a rush all those flying dreams you used to have and how you never understood them, but they always left you aching for something. You remember always believing as a child that you could fly, but with a sharp pain you remember no one else believing you, and then hollowly, you remember how one day you stopped believing yourself. You suddenly understand those childish dreams, and you weep for the child who gave up believing.

In your epiphany, you sit down. A cool chill flows over your skin. A peculiar clarity settles in and you feel like you could understand anything in this one moment. There really is a reason you feel and think the way you do. Maybe you never understood it before, but you’re filled with hope that now, maybe, you’ve got a chance to figure it all out…

Growing up adopted, without a history, is like growing up without wings. You may feel like you’re missing something, but since nothing you do as an adult depends on having wings, you’ve managed so far without them. It’s not bad, it’s not good; it’s just how it is. How can you miss something you never really had?

A few years ago, though, things changed. Back then, as part of my search for my birth parents, I requested my “non-identifying” information from the agency that handled my adoption. This was advertised to be all the information they had on my birth family except for names and addresses. I didn’t expect much. Eye and hair color, height and weight, general physical health of my birth mother. Maybe they’d have written down her religious background, and if I was lucky some bit of her heritage.

It arrived in the mail a week or so later, and what I got shook my world. When I read the THREE PAGES of history I received, my reaction was as basic and visceral as if I’d I discovered I had a set of wings this whole time. HISTORY!! I had a HISTORY!!! AND IT SEEMS I ALWAYS DID!!

My blonde hair and blue eyes weren’t just features listed on the side of my box, like shoe size and color labels adorning a box of Nike’s. Those features were imported directly and legitimately from Sweden! My 5’1” height turns out not to be completely caused by some undercover smoking during my formative years, but was rather doomed from the start with a 5’3” birthmother, a 5’7” birthfather, a 5’4” grandmother, a 5’8” grandfather, a 5’1” other grandmother, a 5’4” other grandfather, and I won’t go into the great-grandparents, but let’s just say that I had bad news for my son about his basketball career.

It turns out that the fact that I enjoy singing isn’t completely random, but might instead be related to the news that my birth mother’s entire family has musical talent, and most of them sang (in choirs! I bet they ate Wonder Bread, too!) The educational earnestness displayed by my 9 years of grad school (I wasn’t slow, ok? That was two different degrees, two different schools…) goes back a long way in my ancestry. Both maternal grandparents had masters’ degrees, one in engineering, and one in teaching. At least 3 great-grandparents had college degrees, one was an English professor and one was my 5’2” blonde/blue great-grandmother who would have been 22 at the turn of the century! (You go, girl!). Not only did I suddenly feel genetically excused for my academic addiction of chasing science and engineering degrees that I would eventually never finish, but I felt a surge of strength for my conviction to take on this completely orthogonal career of writing! At the age of 37 I waded into a huge gene pool of role models!!

Then there’s my birthfather. Born of tiny blond-haired, blue-eyed, Jewish parents in 1946 Germany, he has a story that immediately prompts more questions than I’d already collected on my own. No longer was it just “what do they look like, and where are they from?” but rather it was “Were they camp survivors? Had they been hidden? Did they manage to slide under the radar because of their fair coloring? How many Jews were left in Germany in 1946?” Though being raised Jewish meant that I’d been fed a huge amount of Holocaust history throughout my life, I suddenly had a connection to it. It’s always had meaning for me, but now it has meaning for me. I don’t just want to learn about the era, I want to learn about the people. More specifically, these people. My ancestors.

My wings were suddenly and truly aching to fly, but not only were they atrophied and weak, I didn't know if I’d ever make them work! I knew my history existed, but it wasn't within my reach! I felt like I’d been given the first chapter of a riveting book, and didn't know where to find the rest! I apologize for all the exclamation marks but my every thought was wound so tight it flew out as if from a catapult! I can’t remember when I’d ever been that excited about anything and that frustrated about not being able to get it!

Though it seems like I should have had enough history to keep me satisfied for awhile, it wasn't enough at all. All I really had were these few clues. A tease. No names, no locations. I wanted more. I still want more. But the courts in my birth-state have determined that I’m not allowed to be given the names of my birthparents. I’m not allowed to see my original birth certificate. I’m not allowed to look into the court records that finalized my adoption. Though it might seem like it would, this doesn’t make me angry. Frustrated, yes, but not angry. I do understand that the court is in a difficult ethical position. It has to weigh a child’s right to elemental information about himself with the birthparents' right to privacy, and the adoptive parents' right to feel confident that the child they’ve come to love won’t be taken from them months later by birthparents who’ve changed their minds. Of course, there is one member of this little legal group that goes into court that fateful day without representation, and she is the adult who the child grows up to be. The courts make their decisions in the “best interest of the child”, but as an adult, I would rather have the ability to decide what's in my own best interest, and in that, the courts have tied my hands.

So, how far would I fly if I could use these newly discovered wings to their potential? Would I fly over my birthfamily’s heads and watch what they were doing and learn about them from a distance? Would I perch in their trees and listen to their lives up close? Would I peck at them every time they came out the door demanding their attention, waiting to be fed and expecting their welcome? Would I caw to all their neighbors and relatives to announce my arrival? Though “the best interest of the child” is the catch-phrase most often bandied about at the time of the adoption, it’s most often the fear of invasion, exposure of secrets, and the disruption of the other party’s life that prevents the courts from overturning old decisions and opening records for adult adoptees. Yes, anecdotal evidence is often cited of adoptees who would harass birthfamilies, but they are, in fact, in the minority.

When I started my search, I was only looking for information. Medical history, ancestry, ethnicity, genetic predispositions… Now that I’ve had a taste of the history, I want the stories. I don’t want to disrupt or invade, but I admit that I would like to meet these people. I have two uncles and a birthfather who all reached majority in the mid-sixties. Did they get called up to fight in Viet Nam? Did they survive? Did my birthmother finish school? Do I have half-siblings out there? Cousins? What are they all doing now? To get my records opened, I would have to petition the courts and prove that I had a “need” to know, but I don’t have a need to know. I will survive as I have always done without this knowledge. But I do have a desire. It’s a deep-core, elemental desire to learn the stories of the people I came from.

Time will tell. I’ll keep looking, and maybe they’re looking too. Meanwhile, though, I’m just glad I’m putting a dent in that personal myth of mine. I’m glad I no longer have to believe that I appeared out of nowhere in a shipping container marked “fragile”. On the other hand, I don't think I'll ever get over my penchant for bubble wrap.

(Thanks to Leisa for reminding me about this piece that has also never really seen the light of day...)


annie esposito said...

Hello Laura! I just got a call from Troyle Tognoli - and we are SO JUICED to hear about you. I have some of your mom's diaries and artwork which i would be happy to give to you. plus some photos of the time that i knew her which was, i guess, the last 6 or 7 years of her life. A very creative person. And she ached for you.

Jenny Burnstad said...

Hi Laura, It sounds like you have inherited Andrea's "curly mind"....which is what she called her business making temporary tattoos "Curly Mind Productions"....doodles that she came up with at meetings that were so pretty....she called them "visual orgasms". She was an amazing graphic artist. Andrea lived with us for about 6mos after she returned from FL and her uterine cancer ordeal. We were dear friends for many years. It is such happy news to learn about you...the blog was delightful. I hope you will fly to Ukiah so all of us old birds can cluck and coo with you about Andrea and welcome you to the flock.