Tag Archives: biological family

“The M Word”

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Sometimes, one little word can change everything.

Language has always been tricky for Cathy and I to find the right words to describe what we are experiencing and who we are to each other. Others box us into words that don’t fit very well and the daunting truth remains quietly in flux with our paradox, unattended by the right words. The love that anchors us is stingy with words but we are grounded at the core even without them.

They’re just words. Words to describe us are often are contradictory, bordering on the ironic and suggest complexity bigger than our connection. Mother-daughter. Relinquishment-reunion. Adoption-birthright. Lost-found.

We’ve tried to respond to each other with honesty even when we’re at a loss for words. The people we were when we were younger remind us of where we’ve been as we look for ways to talk about where we are now with others like us and around us. We both go through this, it’s two sides of the experience we share.

After Cathy’s firstborn arrived years ago, she announced to me over brunch that she didn’t want me to use “the M word” anymore in relation to her. In a soft voice she listed the reasons with a firm but practical tone. She was a new mother and now she knew the difference. I hadn’t done any of those things with her. Her mothering came from her adoptive mother and that word belonged only to her. I took in what she said and nodded without argument. “It’s only a word” I said to myself. I asked her if it was okay to continue to call her my daughter. She nodded yes, and said that was fine. I was relieved. She was all that mattered to me in that conversation.

I was careful not to use “the M word” after that day. Nothing closer than the more acceptable (there’s that paradox again) assignations of “birthmother” or “first mother” came from me. I don’t like those names but it didn’t matter. It didn’t change who I was or what I felt. I didn’t care what she called me. I dropped the qualifier and referred to her adoptive mother as her mother from then on, and took my place in the language of our relationship. In my heart I knew what I knew – that we were more – and I didn’t need a name. She would know me by who I was – by my voice, by my laughter, by all we shared – not by a moniker that only reminded her of someone else and who I hadn’t been to her when she needed me most. It made me sad and I understood.

The surprise came on my birthday in late October. I arrived home from work to a lady on my wet doorstep holding a delivery in the rain of an outrageous bouquet of flowers tied up in brown paper from the exotic florist on the corner. Birthdays and holidays were often a source of discomfort for Cathy and I had learned not to expect anything. Mystified, I thanked the woman and carried them into the kitchen and turned on the light. When I saw the card I started to cry.

“Happy birthday, Mama! Love, Cathy” was written with a flourish in a confident hand.

Stunned, I looked again to be sure I was seeing it right. “The florist must have gotten it wrong” I said aloud. It even looked like her handwriting, though I knew it couldn’t be. “Maybe Cathy had a drink and felt mushier than usual and dared to say this because she knew I’d like it?” I knew that wasn’t like her but scratched my head. “Is it a joke? Did she mean to do that?” “Is this real?” I put the flowers in a vase from the cupboard and loosened the arrangement. “Should I call her and thank her, or wait to see if she meant to do this?” “Will she be embarrassed if I love this?” “Did she really say this?””Is this her? Are these her words?” The flowers were incredibly beautiful but my eyes were glued to the card. I went from exhilaration to confusion to doubt and looked again. Yet there it was. The M word.

I didn’t know what to do so I took a picture of it with my phone. My heart lilted as a swift of joy winged up from some secret tunnel deep down under the skin of my heart. Even though I was still uncertain, it’s magic began to sink in. It didn’t matter. What’s in a word, right? Even if this was a mistake or some kind of hoax, something unlocked in that moment. The truth was that the gift had been given. Her acknowledgement was embedded in an armful of flowers on my birthday. It was intentional. She had given me a name. There it was, a boldly written word that had never been uttered before. Mama. I am mama. I’m her mama. She called me mama. Call me Mama. That’s who I am.

One little word can change everything.
BirthdayFlowers_Mama2014
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To read my daughter’s counterblog, please visit ReunionEyes.
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Moving Home to Portland

One of the only times I ever heard my oldest daughter cry was on the telephone when I told her I was leaving Portland to move north a few years ago. I can still hear her voice tremble on the phone, “But it will mean that I won’t see you and losing you when I was a child just makes it really hard now. I want my kids to know you.” I heard her words and felt the pain inside of me roar back up my spine as I responded from a parking lot hundreds of miles away in my RV parked after a gig in Wallowa County in far eastern Oregon.. “I know. I will miss you, too” and the dull ache of the all too familiar loss took its seat back in my gut. Family needs compelled us to break away from the familiarity of home to try a smaller place near my youngest daughter who was putting herself through college with our granddaughter who was turning six.

We made the move and when we weren’t traveling with work as musicians, we were nearby to help and to be close with our daughter and granddaughter in Olympia. It was a special time for us, exploring life outside of the home we had known for thirty-five years in Portland. Then a back injury took me off the road and I took a job offer in Seattle. We moved further north and over the next eighteen months we traveled frequently between west and east coasts to tend to my husband’s parents in declining health. Along with their passing, our motivation to maintain the life we lived in Seattle lost its luster and we yearned for our home, our original home with family and friends in Portland. Our Olympia girls rooted for our return to Portland; they preferred it to Seattle. Our sons in San Francisco and New York City encouraged us. Our adult children strengthened our confidence that we were on the right track.

I had told Cathy on the phone that we were looking to come back to Portland and my ears felt around for her response. Her voice seemed surprised but was a little reserved about it. In the weeks that followed, she didn’t ask about our hunt for a place in Portland. She was quiet. I imagined she was holding her breath to see what I was going to do next. After being born to relinquishment, how could trust be expected to be her first response? I began to worry. What if she likes it better without me there? Will my return feel complicated? Is life simpler without me within reach? Our visits since we moved away had been warm and happy times with Cathy – and with her husband and our two young grandsons. We missed them, and seeing them on the fly from down the street when we were neighbors in Portland had been one of the great joys of being in the same town. Time passes so swiftly; children grow so fast. She was quiet from week to week.

Our old friends were looking out for us and we heard about an apartment through the grapevine. Pete texted me on my phone that it had just opened up for rent. On the way back from teaching on the Oregon coast on the equinox weekend, we stopped in Portland to see the place and fell in love with what would become our new home in the heart of our old neighborhood where many of friends live within walking distance. Cathy’s house is a straight shot up the hill, just a few blocks further from where we used to live. The 1906 wood frame house painted barn red reminded me of my in-laws’ place where we gathered over summers past in Sag Harbor. Divine Intervention seemed to come into play and our destination in Portland was realized. I couldn’t wait to tell Cathy!

I called her to let her know as soon as I got home. She was quiet at first and sounded like she didn’t quite know what to say. “That’s great!” she said but I wasn’t sure I could hear the exclamation point in her voice. Maybe it’ll take a while to sink in that Steve and I will be right down the street before long.

After I handed the phone to Steve, she told him that she had had a dream the night before about his parents. Our beloved Anne and Marvin were in the middle of the dream and all of the family was gathered in a house that held shades of the houses we had gathered in with them over the years: Sag Harbor, Woodstock, Manhattan. Every member of the family came together and it was a great celebration.

Cathy had dreamed the truth before I could tell her, and I felt the blessing of that dream that includes all of us, draw us close to heart and hearth as it shimmered inside to spread its love across all boundaries, visible and invisible, to the core of our beautiful family.

I am so thankful.

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To read my daughter’s counterblog, please visit ReunionEyes.

Mushiness

KateHalloween1958The affection factor in the large family I grew up in was strong. We were a physical family of ten and as siblings we hugged, held hands, and sweet smiles wove us together in eye-to-eye moments that conveyed understanding and acceptance. We also tussled with each other in the inevitable pecking order of so many kids. It was part of our body language and we were expressive and comfortable with each other. There were times when the family was young when we slept head-to-foot just to fit all of us in the available beds on family outings to visit relatives – and we knew each other as well as a litter of pups making our way between giggles and wriggles into whatever space held us as children growing up together.

In between the countless tasks at my mother’s hand was a sweet woman who did her best to kiss our scratched knees and soothe our bumpy insecurities, and she patiently held us close when we just cried without any reason at all until we were cried out, and then let us go back to what we were doing more confident than before for the love we were given.

Our dad traveled in his work but when he was home he opened the door into new levels of fun and adventure awaiting us in the bigger world. He opened our minds with introductions to odd flavors of ice-cream he brought home for dessert, souvenir chocolate covered ants from a business trip in Japan, mental telepathy games at the dinner table to guess what number he was thinking of, and occasionally he’d fish our minds with existential questions just to hear what we would say. Our personalities were clearly marked in our answers and he and my mother both enjoyed our differences and taught us to appreciate the unexpected in each other in these first lessons in diversity.

After our mother held us in the water with her forearms under our bellies to teach us how to swim, we’d graduate to holding onto my father’s feet as he floated on his back and we’d follow him around kicking like propellers in the water.

Laughter and wit erupted from the core of our family and we manifested affection easily. The older kids took care of the younger ones. We were paired off in our bedrooms with the sibling closest in age. We were a family of huggers. When times got hard, we learned to hold back more and the distance between hugs became a measure of our family distress. When things were good, we were close and we knew how to show it. Learning to be reserved became a discipline that came with maturity but we had started out open and accessible to each other and each of us were part of the whole. It was a good place to be most of the time.

All these decades later, we are still affectionate people. Sometimes our hugs and lovelit eyes surprise the people we are with as much as the times when it doesn’t happen. There is a delicate balance between what we can share from inside with the people outside our skins, but given half a chance, we are most at home when we can let it out naturally because that’s how we learned to be in the beginning. We shared ourselves with each other and a hug spoke a hundred words in one embrace.
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To read my daughter’s counterblog, please visit ReunionEyes.

Strength & Weakness

leaf in crackThe characters portrayed in adoption triads are strong. The birthmother is seen as strong because she has made the counterintuitive decision to go to term and then release ownership of her child to other people. The child is automatically perceived as strong because she is perceived as adaptable from her original family to another, and can co-exist as being “different” from the other members of her new family. The adoptive parents are strong people because they have made a socially admired decision to take care of someone else’s child as if she were their own. The birth family members are also strong because they hold the façade together of continuity in the family when the pre-born has been reassigned to live outside of the family because “it’s better that way.” Strength is confusing.

Strength is an inherent characteristic of each member of the adoption triad. The social cast is so strong in the adoption culture that signs of vulnerability, loss and tragic sadness are avoided, overlooked and often perceived as weakness or brokenness.

When an aunt, uncle or grandparent steps in after the of a loss of a parent, the child is regarded as the child of their natural parent and the substitute parent, while greatly respected for their loving care, doesn’t usually reassign the child’s identity to an unrelated one. We are known by and associated with the families we come from. When a child is reassigned outside their family of origin, the original, natural connection is rendered null and void. To bring it up weakens the carefully built illusion that everything is normal. The birthmother and the child disown their mutual history and although it is part of their story, ignoring it is part of their survival. The original link between mother and child is legally unbound but the natural ties live and exist inside us. The ones most affected are quiet because to question it is considered weak, unfair, and irreversible. So we adapt to be accepted. We carry on as though nothing is out of order and the more normal we appear, the more we are accepted as we are. Birthparent, adopted child, adoptive parent.

But underneath?

Underneath a quiet roar of insecurity, loss and separation is felt and re-absorbed over and over, day after night. This is true for all the members of the triad. To express this discomfort makes one appear weak and wanting, and supplants the apparent confidence in ourselves with doubt that exposes a deep fear of being wrong, or even being a mistake. Nobody wants to be a mistake.

But maybe being a mistake is what we all are – conception is a surprise, the creation of a new person where there once was none; each person unique and complete. The disconnection in adoption lies in pretense. If the adoptee is recognized for who they really are; and the birthmother, the extended family, and the adoptive parents share a mutual focus on the true wellbeing and honest heritage of the child as she is, there may be less room for confusion inside the adoptee as she grows into her identity. She would spend less time compensating for being who she’s been told she is now, and more time being herself, unique and complete.

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To read my daughter’s counterblog, please visit ReunionEyes.

Aging Mothers

51 Lennie Power new baby Kathleen

My mother turns 90 today. Her smile brightens her worn and faded self as she shuffles and nods hello as she passes resident neighbors in the hallway at Lexington Manor. My memory is quick to recall her young face, cropped with dark auburn waves, sharp bright eyes and strong beach tanned arms that held me tucked on her hip while she stirred the supper on the stove. Her warm intelligence was clearly present and without saying a word she exuded confidence and wellbeing in her petite body. She had mothered nine children and I was her first daughter, fourth in line when she was twenty-eight. She awed me. My brothers and sisters beheld her as a dazzling rare bird among urchins. She was the light of our days and made everything work from sunrise to nightfall. We loved her without end.

As the lines begin to creep in around her eyes and mouth her beauty was tied to the track of time and our mother aged and grew more somber with the passing years. Things that had delighted her turned to relics in her memory of the life we knew with her when we were all so young and the world around us so bright with color and the adventure that came with every day. Routine supplanted surprise and we scattered to both sides of the continent; in contact by phone, mail and the trails from our hearts back home to hers in our thoughts.

            When I think of my mother, I am a youngster. When my daughter thinks of me, I am an elder. Although she is middle-aged now, and assumes the responsibilities of order in her household with grace, she appears in my heart’s arms as the baby I held so briefly, swaddled and close, to croon into her ear and kiss her little face hello, as my mother so often did with me.  We circle round and round as babes-in-arms in our forties, sixties, and now ninety – waiting to be held and kissed hello by our mother – the one who knew us, bore us, held us, cherished us and let us go.

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To read my daughter’s counterblog, please visit ReunionEyes.

Reunion Haiku

mother child tug
underneath ties that bind us
together again

Fra Angelico - Madonna and Child 3

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To read my daughter’s counterblog, visit ReunionEyes.
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fra angelico – madonna and child

Grandchildren

WaldmuellerMy grandson Quinn just turned 8. His brother turned 6 last month. I love them both and they are easy with me – there is complete acceptance. It’s a lovely thing. They have no idea how significant that gift is for me. They just know we love each other and that’s all that matters. They also love my husband and call him their “Uncle Grandpa Steve”. He is a special person to them and someone they cherish. We are their artistic grandparents. They are quite at home with my hugs and laughter. They know I love their mom.

I don’t know if the complexity of who I am to their mother has hit yet. They are still young enough to take me at face value. I don’t know if they ask about why I am called her birthmother instead of her “real” mother. I’m sure they know what the word adoption means and that their mother’s life has been the journey of an adoptee.

They look at me freely, sweetly with clear open eyes. They trust me. They know who I am and they love me. Trust between us has not been broken. Their eyes don’t yet have the guilty weight of questions that contradict our trust. They know the truth but the love between us is a strong and an unquestioned bond. The love between grandparent and child is reinforced by their mother’s tie to both from the middle but it’s also a love of its own unlike the others, unconditional and freely felt.

Maybe they are young enough that the past is still a story. The person they know as me is familiar and I have always been someone in their lives. I held each of them on the day they were born, and have been peeking from the seams of their daily family life ever since. They don’t mind me.

The wound between my daughter and me is still being tended. Layers of skin have recovered the gap over time but the gnarly scar that bridges us together pronounces what happened and what cannot be undone. We have grown together from the moment of our reunion and the cells of the skin we share continue to grow.

The gift is that my grandchildren knew me from the start. I was never gone to them. Underneath the fear that my act of relinquishment could stir in them is the truth that I am here now. I am not gone. I came back. They know me. The story of loss is a puzzling story of the past. It’s relevant, scary and interesting but it’s not what they experience now. In the present, I am in the family picture. For them, I’ve been here all along.

They will know underneath all that scares them that love can overcome loss and that even the saddest beginning in one generation can find its way to begin to heal in the heart of the next where there is love. I am thankful for my grandchildren. Their mother’s tender care allows their innocence to return hope to all of us. They are in the middle of our bond and from there, love will teach them.

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To read my daughter’s counterblog, visit ReunionEyes.
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Family Vacation

Kate Two Fish_CapeCodFamily vacations are one of the anchors of recall that floods me with sweet and salty memories of noisy excitement, laughter and resting in a sandy wet bathing suit drying on a towel to the soundtrack of waves rolling in and out on the beaches of Cape Cod and New Jersey. I can still taste the lobster and clams dipped in bowls of warm melted butter, Este’s fudge, saltwater taffy, and marvelous fish caught by our own lines off the side of my father’s boat. Burnt Irish skin slathered in noxema at night and cousins chasing the days in and out, carefree and wild – free to explore the expansive world of sand, marshes and beach stretched all around us. First cigarettes and going to the arcade for “something to do” and passing the time just looking for fun together.

I fervently wish to reproduce that for my children and grandchildren and am stymied by the blocks of circumstance, distance and timing that make it so challenging to achieve. Sheer determination isn’t enough. I hope to figure it out while the grandkids are still young enough to initiate memories like these. Cathy’s recent trip to New York brought the family vacation quest back to mind. Her family was only a block away at the Museum of Natural History from my beloved in-laws’ apartment on West 79th Street.

My in-laws passed away recently. Their absence as my New York “Ma and Pa” is starkly felt, knowing how much joy they would have had to receive Cathy’s family after their trek to the museum. The normal scenario would have been loud and joyous hugs just off the elevator inside the open door to Apt. 6-A. Grins would take over and Quinn and Reed would be admired for their marvelous height at almost 8 and 6, their handsome looks, innate brightness and they’d be called “sweetheart” and “darling boys” with gusto. They would be awed by the welcome and feel it down to their toes. Proud smiles would fill Cathy and her husband’s chests and they would all sit down together at the table laid on a blue cotton tablecloth spread with plates of food from Zabar’s under my husband, Steve’s large gold and amber collage that hung on the wall.

Anne would have asked every kind of question to the boys, and poured exclamations of pride and admiration into the long well of happy ears as my daughter and her husband would preen from the perch of this stop on the map that was a place of home and extended family that stemmed from our mutual connection as mother and daughter.

This scenario that would have been natural, honest and predictable – a common area Cathy and I got to share in our family. My chosen family by marriage, these parents, grandparents and great-grandparents thrived on being involved and present every step along the daily way and we held them close to the heart of people we shared. They knew we had a complicated history but they didn’t care. We were mostly loved just as much, just the same.

The only exception was the in-laws’ annual family gathering for immediate family and their spouses and children to converge for a week at the whim – and as a gift – by the grandparents. The stepchildren and relinquished-reunited children and their children were excluded from this invitation. It was an odd and treacherous line of demarcation that disturbed the family peace for our little cobbled together family every year from our west coast perch. Interventions on my part did nothing to open the door nor to prevent the feelings of hurt, rejection and exclusion for my two daughters. The three of us were well-practiced at being outsiders from an early age, and we each found coping mechanisms that allowed us to come to terms with it and to accept the circumstances gracefully. None of us allowed it to interfere with the genuine loving exchange at other family gatherings when we would all come together over visits and family occasions that had room for all of us. It was just the way it was.

It was not unlike the dilemma I’m faced with as a birthmother, and as a divorced mother – there are just times when it doesn’t fit to put everybody under the same roof. The intention remains with the elders to decide who is invited to their party. We all get it and life goes on. There is still love in the family and it is protected as sacred in spite of the gaps.

In my case, now that I am an elder, I would like my invitation to become a family gathering in some natural setting once a year for my true family (which includes my first daughter, my youngest daughter, their families, and my stepsons) to provide an enjoyable space and a sense of untethered welcome. My children and grandchildren can be together and relax – to enjoy each other on a family vacation so that decades from now, long after I am gone, they will remember the sweet and salty love of being together as a family members – sisters, brothers and cousins – that no social condition or outside person can ever untie from their essential memories of true familial love.
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To read my daughter’s counterblog, visit ReunionEyes.
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Is Ignorance Bliss?

SophieAndersonTakethefairfaceofWoman_72This week, my daughter brought her family to the Museum of Natural History – a block away from my in-laws’ apartment in New York City – and on Long Beach Island at the Jersey shore where I spent many summers growing up, and in recent years with my husband’s family. Reflections of those places sparkle like sunlight on water and warm me with bits of light that merge in and out my memories of being there.

I was surprised to hear she was in New York City. She had texted that she was going east to visit her old friend, Olga. I didn’t realize that her kids and husband had gone too. Then when I saw the new pictures she posted today on Facebook sitting in a restaurant looking all summery, I began to recognize the other people in the picture as her in-laws and relatives surrounding her at the table. They are all there together. Everyone is smiling and looks relaxed – they are a happy family on vacation, just the way it should be.

Ignorance is bliss. Knowing more feels complicated. No blame for that. My role carries a weird element. It must have been too hard for her to tell me it was a family affair. I’m glad her family is celebrating together.

Inside the paradox of being an outsider as birthmother in Cathy’s world, we share a lot – more than most people in our situation. Even if the circumstances were more normal, this would have been her family by marriage. It must have been awkward for her to try to tell me about a natural family vacation when it is so far afield of what we do easily. She has matured into a middle-aged adult with children of her own and motherhood has galvanized her sense of family in deep and natural ways. It’s clear in the pictures that everybody is loved and cared for all around. That is all that matters. Life is good.

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To read my daughter’s counterblog, visit ReunionEyes.
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Jersey Girls – Friends Forever

1964 Power FamilyBeing a Jersey girl in the early 60’s meant that you were savvy, pretty and street smart. My oldest brother hung around with car monkeys who, bent under the hoods of a pair of Mini-Coopers in my parents’ garage, puzzled to turn two beat up cars into one running one. With cigarettes hanging off the side of their mouths, they cannibalized the engines to life fueled on beer and testosterone. Town greasers flocked to the local soda fountain across the street from the Corner Cupboard where I waitressed after school. I would watch them as I stole a smoke during my break, and they would come and go like peacocks up and down the wooden steps, hoods with slicked back hair as they strut their stuff in tight jeans and leather jackets. The hippie movement was afoot and murmured its peace-and-love talk under the radar of the social storm about combust with activism for civil rights in the south and dissenters marching against the Vietnam war on the television news nationwide. Even though I’d left school in a plaid uniform while the public schools girls wore whatever they liked under teased hair and strong makeup, there was a universal default we shared as young women in the metropolitan New York City area. We were Jersey girls.

Looking back now, I’m glad that I came of age there. Coming out of a shy adolescence in New Jersey, I found ways to explore courage, independence and vast variations on the human theme as a budding songwriter. At fifteen, I would act on a dare to myself, skip school and take the shortcut through the woods behind our house to the train station. When the train came in I would hop on a coach to the Port Authority, and take the subway to the West Village where I would walk to Washington Square. After checking out whatever musicians might be busking at the time, I’d beeline from there to the Chock Full O Nuts a few blocks away to buy a cup of coffee and a glazed donut. Then I would perch soundly on a round chrome and vinyl stool to write poetry in my journal and look up to watch the tide of passersby through the safety glass of the window. Once done, I would retrace my steps back to the train and home, composition book underarm filled with insights from of my fresh adventure tightly rhymed within its pages. In my large family, the thrum of my unrevealed journey to the city and back resonated exotically inside, oblivious in the noisy din of family life at home. These dips in the world from the safety of the bedroom community exhilarated my teenaged sensibility and became my prompts to bigger steps as I grew closer to my emancipation from the nest.

Fifty years later, the familiarity of the streets of New York reminds me of those early days. I fly in from the Pacific Northwest, where I’ve resided for the last thirty-seven years, and walk in the Upper West Side from my in-law’s apartment on West 79th to take the subway with my husband to Brooklyn and visit relatives ensconced there. Manhattan is filled with the same charge that excited me all those years ago as a Jersey girl in Gotham. The feeling, the smells, the crush of people in the subway, the rush hour on the streets and sidewalks – it’s all still there in its daily improv with the elements and a cast of millions. The dynamics of just being there in the thick of it are breathtaking.

After blurting out the news of my pregnancy to my mother at eighteen years old, I walked into my bedroom teary-eyed and red-faced looking to escape. My younger sister Mary and her friend, Ruthie, a romantic poet of fifteen, were prone on the floor in the depths of swapping journal entries, dreams and Ouija board speculations. I told my sister I had something important to tell her. From the distressed look on my face, Ruthie picked up her diary and said she’d be downstairs in the kitchen. I told my sister what was going on. Mary would be one of the only siblings to know the truth. We told each other everything and this was no exception.

Fifty years later, this comes back to me as I ponder all of us Jersey girls. Ruth has remained friends with my sister and visited with us during family gatherings over the past few years. She is a seasoned editor and writing coach in Massachusetts and has been a strong advocate of Kathleen~Cathleen since its inception and has cheered us to finish over these ten years. This year she joined us and became our new editor for the project. We three aim to bring the manuscript to completion by the end of this summer.

I am struck by synchronicity once again as the story continues, not only from its history but in the living story today. We all live in other places now but we are telling the tale from the root and branches we stem from – as Jersey girls.

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To read my daughter’s counterblog, visit ReunionEyes.
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