When I was a kid, one of my favorite rainy day activities was to dig through the hall closet and haul out family albums and other mementos and spend an afternoon studying them. Among these items were a small carving of Buddha, a picture of my father’s Japanese girlfriend, Mit-su, and a magical wooden cigarette box that he brought home with him from the Korean War; photographs of my mother and her seven siblings taken at Ocean View Beach, the streets of Berkeley and my great-grandmother’s house in South Norfolk; and a bronzed pair of baby shoes that had belonged to my older brother, a baby book that detailed his first year and every inch of him, his birth certificate riddled with errors, and an album fat with photos of him as a newborn.
I was eight before I realized that according to our closet, my own history with my family started when I was old enough to push my naked self up from my belly to stare into the camera. When I asked my mother why there were no pictures of me as a newborn and no baby book, she said, “I didn’t have time. You were a baby. Your brother was one.” And my babies shoes and birth certificate? “I don’t know. They’re packed away somewhere.”
For a long while, I pondered her indifference, and it wasn’t until a girl in the neighborhood told me that she was adopted that I suspected that I was, too. When I asked my mother, she snorted, “Adopted? You look just like your father.” And when I went to my father, he told me I looked just like my mother. To me, their answers were fishy. They looked nothing alike.
I turned to my grandmother for the truth as she was rolling out dough for dumplings on the kitchen table. She stopped long enough to roll here eyes to heaven, shake her head and sigh before continuing on with her work. From her actions and lack of words, I understood she had been sworn to silence.
Evidence mounted. I spent a good portion of my life on restriction for various infractions, from storing my dirty socks under my bed and refusing to eat eggs, gagging at the sight and smell of them to failing a math quiz and forging my mother’s name on it. That signature passed muster with my teacher but not with my parents.
It seemed as though years passed without my being allowed to see friends, talk on the telephone or watch TV. If these people were my real parents, why weren’t they nicer to me?
Then, when I was 12 or so, I read a newspaper article that said most children at some point in their lives believed they were adopted. Still, I had no evidence that I wasn’t.
And more to the point, I had nothing in common with my parents. My mother, a Southern Baptist, loved church and True Romance magazines. I did not. My father enjoyed any dinner that included wild game riddled with buckshot, which I did not. Both of them liked car trips that involved lots of scenery, especially long drives in mountains. With my behind petrifying in the back seat of the Ford, there was only so much scenery i could take, 10 minutes at the most.
After college, I decided to take my savings and travel solo in Europe for three months. This, of course, required a passport which, in turn, required a birth certificate that I ordered from the Virginia Department of Vital Statistics. When it came, I saw for the first time that my parents were who they said they were, although our last names, typed incorrectly, were scratched through and written by hand. Perhaps I should have been relieved to have my roots confirmed. Instead, I felt a bit let down. Elizabeth Taylor would not be coming to claim me. Ever.
But this story doesn’t end there. In time I started looking more like both of my parents who divorced after 21 years of marriage. I kept my father’s coloring and my face began to resemble my mother’s. As the three of us aged, I found much in common with both of them, too much and some things too embarrassing to list here.
Then, towards the last half of 2012, my parents each gave me what I consider as gifts.
My father told me about his cousin’s daughter, a woman close to my age whom I’d never met nor heard mentioned. He thought we would like each other. because — get this — we both shared common medical histories. While that might be something to discuss, I didn’t see this common denominator as reason to embrace another relative. (As those of you who read this blog know, I have a billion of them, not including my in-laws.)
My father sent me her email address, and I wrote her. Becky wrote me back. We continued to do so, getting to know each other as though we’d been set up by Match.com. It was crazy how much alike we were in our interests. Then, on Facebook, I saw her headshot, and there, I saw parts of myself — the shape of her face, the mouth, the teeth, and I knew her to be, without doubt, not just distant family but as a sister who “got” me and vice versa, even though we’d never met.
In November, during a visit to my 80 year-old mother, I told her of Becky and how much we shared in terms of genes, education, interests and so on, and when I finally stopped talking, she stood and said, “Wait here. I have something for you.” She disappeared down the hall toward her bedroom, where I assumed she had a piece of clothing to pass on to me, but instead she returned and held out a set of bronzed booties. “Take them,” she said. They’re yours.”