Tag Archives: memoir

Maybe

1 Feb

It is the start of my birthday week.  I think it’s an appropriate time to offer a sneak peek of my memoir in-progress.  This section, “Maybe,” will disappear in a few weeks, as I don’t normally like having my writing on my blog.  Thank you for this journey and I hope you enjoy!

 

Maybe

 

In 1984, I cut a square from a piece of tan construction paper and wrote:

HUDSON STREET ORPHANGE FOR GRILS

 

Spelling errors aside, I knew that this was where Annie lived.  Annie was that infamous red-headed, blue-eyed, freckle-faced, sass-mouthed orphan who vigilantly wore half of a gold heart-shaped locket around her neck.  The locket was her insurance that one day, her parents would come for her and whisk her away from the clutches of Ms. Hannigan and her bleak life at the orphanage.  In short, she lived with a broken heart until (she hoped) her real parents would find their way back to the Hudson Street Orphanage for Girls and claim her as their daughter.

 

Maybe far away or maybe real near by.

 

When my sister Lynne took me to see the 1982 movie version of Annie starring Aileen Quinn, I fell asleep halfway through.  I was five years old and the plot was lost on me at the time.  By the time the movie came out on VHS (and the plastic action figure dolls, and the soundtrack on cassette tape that I played in an endless loop on my purple cassette tape player, much to my mother’s chagrin),  I understood Annie’s plight and the grief that would keep her up a night, perched at the windowsill, looking out over Hudson Street for signs of her parents, singing about who they could be right then, out in the world as she imagined it: an ordinary couple doing mundane households tasks.  She played piano, he paid the bills.  They collected ashtrays (which my mother assured me was something that people readily collected during the 1930s and 1940s, and showed me her grandmother’s milk glass ashtray, kidney-curved with a scattering of yellow and blue flowers painted on it).  They were young, smart.  But they weren’t present.  They had given her away for a life beyond child-rearing, a life with a house hidden by a hill, a piano, and ashtrays.  They could be walking down Hudson Street, or in Connecticut, or Paris, or Mexico, or two blocks over.  Or dead.

When my mother would take me with her on shopping trips to the mall or my sister Lesley would take me once a year to the larger Galleria in Houston to see the Christmas tree that had been erected in the middle of the Olympic-sized ice skating rink, I would look for my birthmother in the wash of faces rushing past with bags from Neiman’s, JC Penney, Waldenbooks.

I pictured myself a detective in pursuit of the fugitive parent who had given me up for a better life, one, maybe, with a piano and ashtrays.  As I held my mother’s or my sister’s hand, I would scan the crowds, and look into the faces of each woman, and hope to see a resemblance.  Sometimes one of these strange women would catch me looking at them and I would hold my breath, waiting for her to walk over to me, bend down, say, hello, I’m your mother.  It never occurred to me how unsettling this would be—to have my birthmother be in the same shopping mall that I was with my own mother or sister, and further, to have my birthmother walk right up to me outside the Sunglasses Hut or Corn Dog 7 and greet me as her very own.  It never occurred to me how slim these chances actually were and how even if I did see my birthmother eyeing a strand of freshwater pearls in Dillard’s or buying perfume at JC Penney, I would never have known it.

 

He may be pouring her coffee. She may be straightening his tie.

 

When I would listen to Annie sing Maybe, I would imagine my birthparents in a house hidden by hill, one where my birthmother would straightening by birthfather’s tie while he poured her coffee in the mornings.  I once drew this picture, which has been lost to time or the garbage can or a wayward house cat, but I remember it clearly.  In the drawing, the green hill took up the largest portion of the white sketch paper.  The grass, shown as small slashes and straight lines rising from the hill’s curved surface, appeared to wave in an unseen wind.  There was a half-circle of sun in the far right corner, complete with yellow-orange lines representing rays.  On top of the hill was a small house (the technique of drawing a suggestion of a house hidden by a hill was lost on me) with a chimney smoking its fire plume into the clear, colorless sky.  There were windows everywhere and a narrow black door.

After I completed this drawing, I remember sitting on the bedroom floor with it in my lap.  Inside the house lived my birthparents.  If I looked very closely through the windows, I could see the evidence of their life without me: tables and chairs, art in heavy frames on each wall, a staircase, dishes in the sink, a piano.  His tie.  Her coffee.  I did not imagine another baby in the house.  It never occurred to me that they would not be together.  There could be ashtrays.  Perhaps a dog.  Through the little windows, what I pretended to see what not unlike my own dollhouse given to me as a gift from my mother’s friend, Jeannette Johnson, another foster parent who lived in our neighborhood.  Little replica beds and chaise lounges.  A miniature chest of drawers.  A doll wife at the kitchen table, smiling as her husband poured her coffee.

These were my parents: toy husband and wife in a house built of pencil, crayons, watercolors.  A sun shined overhead and a chimney smoked into the white sky.  The hill and the waving grass.  A dark door.  I sat on the floor and ran my small fingers over the house, the hill, as though reading its secrets.  As though my parents were speaking to me: come find us. We are waiting.

 

Their one mistake was giving up me

 

Some nights, after my mother tucked me in, brushing my cheeks with her soap-scrubbed face and Jean Naté talcum powder, I would sing Maybe to myself, quiet enough that no one else could hear.  My bedroom glowed night-light gold and the shadows of the dollhouse were deep black against the opposing wall from my bed.  I would sing, or sometimes the words would come to me in fragments—their one mistake was giving up me—and sometimes I would cry into my pillow for someone I could not visualize, a primal wound.  The words would come to me and sometimes I would sing them out loud as I watched the door, afraid my mother would come in and tell me to go to sleep, it was late, I had school in the morning.  Sometimes the words would come and I would think them to myself, repeating the remembered phrase over and over as a small prayer, an amulet worn smooth, until I fell into dreamless sleep.

When I was just on the verge of sleep, remembering the words as they came to me, I would try to picture my birthparents in the hospital where I was born.  My birthmother would always be holding me, smiling down at my pink face as I had by then seen so many mothers do on television and in movies.  As I pictured their faces, myself in the hospital, my birthmother would give me away.  She would hand me over to a nurse in white and she and my birthfather would cry.  I would cry.

They made a mistake, I believed then.  Maybe they wanted to find me, but didn’t know where I was.  I was lost.  I had a new name—Amanda Leigh—and they didn’t know.  I imagined them at shopping malls, asking, “do you know where our baby Shannon Reneé is?”  There were little girls on milk cartons, on paper fliers on telephone poles, stop signs.

I had a half of a heart around my neck.  It came with my Annie doll and it was the first thing I tore from the cardboard packaging.  It came with the other half so the child could put the halves together when Annie got adopted by Daddy Warbucks at the end of the movie.  I put on the broken locket and dressed Annie in her red and white dress.  The other half of the locket became lost within a few days.

 

So maybe now it’s time, and maybe when I wake

 

The Annie soundtrack wore out and my mother bought me a new one to play in my purple cassette player.  I integrated Annie into my collection of Barbie and Skipper dolls and dressed them all as orphans.  They wore mismatched skirts and blouses, never the pink or yellow plastic high-heeled shoes.  They slept on the floor and never in the canopy bed with red velveteen hearts.  I pushed play on the cassette player and Annie led the Barbies and Skippers through It’s a Hard-Knock Life and sang Maybe alone on the top of a book, looking out onto the beige carpet road and the towering desk and stuffed animals beyond.

Somewhere among the tennis shoes, the crayons, the scatter of Barbie clothes and peel-off Tinkerbell nailpolish were her parents.  Maybe.

At night, I would put Annie and the Barbie Orphans to bed on the floor, each, and sometimes two, covered by old washcloths.  Annie would remain on the top of a book, sometimes sitting in my actual windowsill overlooking our front yard, waiting for her parents to come.  Before I got into bed, I would stand with her, looking out my own window at the dark street, the lawn, the other houses and imagine a house, a hill, a piano.  The whereabouts of the other half of the broken locket.

 

They’ll be there calling me “Baby.”  Maybe.

 

I sold the Barbies, the books, the locket at a garage sale years later.  My mother came into my room with a box and said, pack up what you don’t want anymore because we’re having a garage sale.  I was eleven, twelve.  My friends were no longer playing with dolls, listening to Annie.  No one wore their broken lockets anymore.  I kept the cassette, the Annie doll, and put them in the bottom drawer of my dresser.

I sold the locket to a woman who wanted it for her daughter, then about five.  The little girl snatched it from my hand, ran off down the driveway that had filled with baby cribs, baby clothes, bicycles, dishes, stuffed animals.  The woman gave my mother twenty-five cents and I listened to the clank of the coin in the tin cash box.  Do you want me to get it back?  My mother asked when she saw me looking at the girl with the locket.  I don’t need it anymore, I said.  The girl swung the broken locket and smiled.

That night, I did not sing Maybe, did not perch Annie on the windowsill, the book.  I remember listening to my mother wash dishes in the sink.  The house settled.  I could not picture my birthparents’ faces and did not go to the window.  I knew if I looked out the window, there would only be grass, other houses, a moonlit street.  The words came but I did not sing them, even to myself.  The dollhouse was against the wall, empty.  The little beds and chairs, the kitchen table and miniature plates and utensils, were still in place, waiting for a family to come, to open the door, sit down, eat.  In another room, my mother did the supper dishes.  My father listened to the radio while my sister talked on the phone.  The night-light glowed golden across my floor, my walls, the small couches and dressers.  I did not sing.

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We Have Something To Tell You

6 Feb

On today, my 36th birthday, I’d like to share a tiny bit of my memoir in progress, What Took You So Long.  This “essay” (I use the quotes because it’s more of a section than an essay) is titled, “We Have Something To Tell You.”

 

[UPDATE: Thank you for all of your comments!  As I said in my original post, this excerpt has been removed due to privacy issues.  I am still at work (however slowly) on this memoir.]

 

3rd birthday!

3rd birthday!

The Memoir

1 Jul

For the past five+ years, many of my writer/editor friends have said to me more times than I can count, “you need to write a memoir.”  I can now safely (and happily) say, that I am.

 

The memoir, tentatively titled, What Took You So Long, is a work about adoption, foster care, and the exploration of self through the detritus (letters, photographs, emails, and recipes) of birthparents who are wholly absent — one through a tragic death, the other through choice.  It is a book that examines the notion that a person is not who they are as a result of biology alone, but the sum of the parts of nature and environment.  What Took You So Long is a work of exploring the delicate threads of a biological past wound in mythmaking and tragedy in order to find forgiveness and understanding for two imperfect birthparents.  Ultimately, it is a book about learning how to love two families and discovering one’s role in both.

 

I decided to finally write this memoir — and if you’ve been following me here, on Twitter, or on Facebook, you know a little of the story of my birthfather and the subsequent finding of my birth grand-parents — because in my research, I’ve found that the adoption narrative is lacking in scope.  There are a lot of books out there about adoption, but most of these are how-to books (how to adopt international children, specifically), or books on how to tell children they’re adopted (hint: don’t just shove a book at them and say, “Congratulations!  You’re adopted!”), and the like.  There are several good adoption narratives, specifically A.M. Homes’s The Mistress’s Daughter, Jeannette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? and the lovely Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, and I’ve read them multiple times.  However, sadly, adoption memoirs are few and far between.  According to the Adoption Institute, there are “1.5 million adopted children in the United States, over 2% of all U.S. children,” and, I can safely say, nearly all of these children want to understand the answer to the proverbial questions, “where did I come from?” and “what makes me the way I am?”

 

I always knew I was adopted. There was never a moment where my parents called me into the kitchen, sat me down at the table, and said, Listen, we have something to tell you.  There was never a time when I was digging through my parents’ closet and found a box filled with adoption papers, a sheet identifying me as once having been someone else. They never hid it from me.  I sort of grew up always knowing.  I have heard so many adoption stories from people over the years and I feel that my story will help give voice to these more-common-than-you’d-think narratives.  This book is not only about adoption, of course, but about selfhood, discovery, identity, things that all people consider at one time or another in their lives.

 

I feel great about doing this.  I’ve been working on the memoir for such a long time “in my head,” that the book is almost writing itself.  I’ve written poems about it (in my first book, The Glass Crib), a handful of essays, and now have almost 1/3 of the memoir completed.

 

My birthfather’s mother has been so helpful in this process — giving me photographs, stories, letters, journals, my birthfather’s poetry, his death certificate from the US Coast Guard, and so much more.  Four years ago, I met her and my paternal grandfather (who died shortly thereafter).  Four years ago, my world changed.  I am so thankful.

 

There is grief in this — a sort of delayed mourning and yes, even anger — but also much joy.  This process has made me appreciate my adoptive family in a way that I hadn’t before.  It has also made me love, among other things, my little round nose, my laugh, and my Italian-Irish-Mexican heritage, which for so long had been a mystery to me.  For the first time in my life, I feel like I belong, and the place I belong to resides in two wonderful families.

 

I am also appreciative — and writing about — that I grew up in a family as unique as mine.  We were a foster family and I first came to my family as foster child (weighing a whopping 4lbs, 1.9 oz at birth due to my birthmother’s starvation to conceal her pregnancy) and wasn’t even adopted until I was almost two.  My life included helping to take care of all sorts of babies — a myriad of races, babies with cleft palates, babies who were blind, shaken babies, babies with holes in their tiny hearts.  I have gotten in contact, recently, with some of our previous foster babies, and am just so thrilled to have been a part of this special process.

 

I feel that with the writing of this book, that I am doing the work I need to be doing.  There are 1.5 million people out there who know what it means to be given up and then chosen to be part of a family.  Yes, my family is different: 8 children (5 biological and 3 adopted), but my experience as a foster child, an adopted person, and a foster sister, has helped me in immeasurable ways in the writing of this memoir.  Adoption is love, pure and simple.  It’s a struggle, it brings pain, confusion, marked identity disturbances, but overall, it’s love.  It is the love I want to encapsulate.  It is the love that takes you home, sits up with you at nights, gives you a new name, holds your hand, wipes your tears.  It is the love that makes you forgive the past.

 

Weekend Reading Recommendations

25 May

 

[T-B: Saint Therese of Lisieux by Kathryn Harrison, Blue Nights by Joan Didion,  Two Minutes of Light by Nancy K. Pearson, Trespasses by Lacy M. Johnson]

 

Side Note: I will be interviewing Lacy M. Johnson about her book in the forthcoming Spring/Summer 2012 issue of Pebble Lake Review (mid-June).  Be sure to look for it!