Thursday, August 30, 2018

The More Things Change

Going through our mother’s papers, my sister recently found a copy of this essay, which I wrote in my early twenties, about the experience of meeting my birth family for the first time. Tomorrow is the thirty-year anniversary of the day I called my birth mom and suggested that possibly, she was the young woman who had given me up for adoption at the Holy Family agency in Los Angeles two decades before.
I’ve been blessed in my life with the guidance and support of many admirable women: my grandmothers, each unique in her own way but both strong, loyal and loving, and several wonderful mothers—birth, step, in-law—and above all, my beloved, forever mom, who passed this year and left a gaping hole in my heart.
I tried to shush the editor in me as I retyped this essay (Paragraph breaks! Punctuation! So many long dashes!), but occasionally, I made a small change. But mostly, this is how I wrote it, many years ago. It certainly brings back the feelings of the time and reflects the self-gazing, emotional, young woman/writer I was then. And because this essay was written for a class by a professor who became an important mentor to me, it also brings back that early vulnerability of expressing something personal for others to read and judge. Lastly, it feels true and familiar to the relationship I have now with my own self-gazing, emotional, teenaged daughter. Life circles around, again and again, and once in a while, something reminds us of who we were, who we are, and who we can be.

The More Things Change
I look out the window and know I will always remember Wisconsin in two colors—green and gray. The endless, rolling green hills as we drove, and me wondering how anyone ever got anywhere. The flat, straight freeways of California make more sense—so direct, so fast. This particular day is a collage of gray: the glistening pavement of the runway, the small, metallic airport, the gray, turbulent sky spilling a downpour of cleansing rain. How different this water felt on my face today than the tears from two weeks ago, my last airplane ride. Those were tears heavy with guilt and fear, diluted with sleepiness. My brother drove me to the airport that morning, and he had his important-situation face on, and I felt very grown-up and close to him. It was still dark we drove. I’ve always felt cowardly starting a trip before sunrise; it feels like something sneaky. My mom was up to say goodbye. When she kissed me, then released me from her embrace, I felt pain—from where her collarbone pressed into my chest, and in my heart, where her anxieties passed into me, transformed into guilt.
Although my actual departure from Los Angeles was uneventful (my brother said something about being careful and gave me my second hug of the day—a quick, awkward one that was his trademark), I found myself sobbing in my window seat. I was twenty years old and going to meet the woman who had given birth to me. The thought of it was overwhelming. It was only a couple of weeks before that when I had first heard her voice. It was all so sudden, yet something I had dreamt of for so long. One time, I had a dream I went to Hawaii to find my mother, only to find she had been buried the year before at the base of a volcano. I read a book once about a young woman who was dating an older man who turned out to be her father via sperm donation. That one really had me going for a while. Whenever people tell me I look familiar, my heart leaps with possibility.
I’ve always known I was adopted. I remember feeling special because of it, but also remember wanting so desperately to be like the woman who raised me—read a lot like her, have glasses like hers, wear her clothes. Despite my efforts, resembling my mom turned out to be an unattainable goal. I stand a full five inches taller than her, have medium-0dark skin that tans easily, while she is light-skinned and petite. We look like distant strangers, at best. I always thought how great it would be to have someone who looked like me. That was part of the reason I always wanted to find my birthparents, and as I reached adolescence (those difficult, teen years), the widening gap in the lines of communication between my mom and myself created a new reason. I would just find my “real” mom, and she would understand me.
These past two weeks were a whirlwind, meeting people who met me with curious glances but open arms. As the airplane lifts into the sky to take me back home, my mine, too, is weightless, at last at peace. I know that my birth mom and her husband are still peering into the gray sky, watching me go as suddenly as I exploded into their lives. She turned out to be everything I could have hoped for, my birth mom, and when I hugged her the first time, it was like hugging myself—same height! It turns out most of my features are from my dad, though—I still felt a little incomplete until I met him. My birth mom helped me track him down once I got there. They hadn’t seen each other for, well, over twenty years.
As I met relatives (many, many new relatives), looked into faces that had my eyes, or my nose, and heard stories about how I came about, I felt fully together, whole for the first time in my life. And yet the gnawing guilt for my own joy continued—for I knew my mom at home was anxious about this trip, wondering what place she would have upon my return.
I started to realize that mixed with the guilt was homesickness, and instead of regretting what never was, my soul was leaping with happiness for the course my life had taken. How very lucky I am to have been cared for by this wonderful woman, my “real” mom. It was she who helped me and supported me to find my birthparents, driving down to meetings one Saturday a month, probably in an effort to get closer to me. So now, on this, my flight back home, I think of all those fights we’ve had—all wasted time. These new relatives I’ve met will always be a part of my life, but never a replacement. These feelings and thoughts rush around inside me and as the plane descends into Los Angeles—bright, sunny, yellow and blue California—I can hardly keep in my seat for the gladness. Things will be different with mom and me—we share so much history, she introduced me to life. We come to a stop and I stand in the aisle, flexing my leg muscles. The people are moving so slowly. “Out of my way!” I feel like shouting, “My family’s out there!” Peering over the heads in the boarding tunnel. I look for her. There are things I can’t explain, like how quickly I picked up the Midwestern accent from my birth mom, even in that first telephone conversation, as if my mouth was formed specifically for it, or how we use the same hand and facial expressions when speaking. But I can explain why I know what I know—because my mom made sure I was educated—and where I got my ideals and morals, from her.
Finally I see her, looking nervous and tired. I hug her, quickly, then complain about the hot weather.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Summer of Chabon Update: Two Books in One Post

I’d like to begin this post by reminding readers how much I LOVED The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. This is an incredible novel! Buy it! Read it! Also, I enjoyed The Mysteries of Pittsburgh very much and if you recall from my most recent post, Wonder Boys fulfilled every hope I had for a summer of immersive novels.
So. I didn’t like the The Yiddish Policemen's Union. Reading it was arduous for me, an exercise in will but not the free kind. Every moment felt like I was in a very loud restaurant, trying desperately to hear what the waiter was saying. The prose was like a thick stew spanning a creek; I couldn’t see the water. And I read this book on vacation! We were at the beach one day, and several young men were playing soccer on the sand before us. One of them was a bit older, blonde curly hair and slight paunch, and he had taken to the role of coach, barking out plays and in a slightly condescending way, encouraging effort from the members of the recently-formed teams. My daughter looked at him and said to me “He’s a try hard.” And I got what she meant, and I looked down at this book.
Listen, I feel badly about it, but Michael Chabon doesn’t need my support for this novel; it did quite well. So I moved on to Telegraph Avenue. And I have to tell you, the first several chapters had me worried. But maybe thirty pages in, the novel started to open up for me and I enjoyed most of the rest. Sure, at times I had to come up for air and resolutely dive back into the stew with rededicated focus, but in the final analysis, the characters kept me coming back. If you’re interested in such things, on a five-star scale, I’d give Telegraph Avenue a 3.5. I'm not doing a plot-based review of either of these, because you can find tons online for both books.
And now I’m feeling the pull back to short stories, so I’ll be taking a break to read a collection everyone’s been talking about (Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man and I’m sorry! I have to! I miss stories!!), then I’ll be back to Chabon action with the final book of my summer challenge, Moonglow. In the meantime, if you’re riding the Chabon train with me and might be interested in the author’s favorite reads (spoiler: lots of classics by men), here you go: Michael Chabon's Top Ten List.
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka