Friday, November 6, 2009

Boxing Maya

I knew this day would come. One day. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced with Trent and Michela. It was simple with them. With Maya, there are more choices. That’s what makes it harder. I knew one day I would have to put her in a box. It’s bad enough that she is being raised by parents who are, arguably, incapable of raising her properly. But to have to box her in. When we are trying to live up to her rich history. To be forced to box her in. I hated it.

Today I registered Maya for school in Yonkers. She will turn 3 soon and will be eligible to go to pre-k next year. But to send her, I had to fill out the paperwork and register her by going downtown. I had made my appointment weeks ago. But I was running late because Maya had colored herself with orange Crayola marker and I had to take time to scrub her hands and face and toes before leaving. Finally, with Maya in tow, I entered the Board of Education building armed. I had all of my paperwork: I had her official birth certificate stating that Maya Nevaeh Nikol Gardner was born to Tim Gardner and Michelle Rago in Northhampton County PA. (Never mind that the birth certificate is a total fake. And that Tim and I had never set foot in Northampton County until months after she was born. That is a bitch session for another day.) I brought in my Verizon cellphone bill, my internet provider bill, and my ConEdison gas and electric bill (which I NEVER knew was so expensive since Tim pays all the bills). I proved that we were residents of Yonkers. I also brought in Maya’s immunization records and proved that she has been appropriately immunized.

After waiting only a short while (they are pretty organized for such a large city with 30,000 students in the school district), I sat down with a Board of Ed employee, filled out the last paperwork, and was interviewed. “Whoa, Ms. Rago.” The words stretched out slowly before me. “Help me here with this question. What are we putting down for your daughter’s ethnicity?” With a sigh, I began. “I filled it in. I want to put ‘Multi-ethnic.’” Maya has a history that pre-dates Tim and I. I have always wanted to be forthright about that. With her. And with other people. That means, first and foremost, we acknowledge the diverse family background that Maya has inherited. The woman interrupted my thoughts. “I see that you have written here – African American, Asian, Hispanic, Caucasian, and Native American.” I responded, “Yes, she is all of those. She has a Japanese grandmother, a Native American grandmother, and an African American father with Cuban ancestry. So I didn’t know what to write. How do I choose?” The woman responded. “I can’t choose for you. You have to choose.” I thought. “Well I can’t choose. I want to put multi-ethnic. I don’t want to deny any of her heritage by choosing one over another. The U.S. census has finally changed this year. In 2010, people will be able to choose multiple ethnicities as they identify themselves. That’s what I want to do for my daughter.” I could see my interviewer was slightly exasperated. “I understand your frustration. The U.S. census has changed. But this is the Yonkers school district. I have to check one box.” I patiently tried to explain my position, as I knew I would have to do many times in the future in order to advocate for my daughter. “Well, if I had to choose, she has more African ancestry than any other. But I really don’t want to choose. What does a child do when he has a Caucasian parent and an African American parent? Deny that he is as much Caucasian as African American just because there aren’t sufficient boxes?” My interviewer finally came clean. “Look. I have sympathy for your position. When you came in here with Maya, I had to do a double take. She looks exactly like my niece, Brittany, who is half black and half Irish. My sister married an Irish man and feels the same way you do.” She pulled out a photo of her niece who had the same complexion and curly hair as Maya. “I have written letters to the Superintendent. I have tried to explain,” she went on. “But, this is Yonkers. This is not the federal government. Yonkers doesn’t understand that none of us are pure blood. We are all mutts. And it shouldn’t matter.”

I knew that she understood that it did matter. I protested. “It shouldn’t matter. But it does matter. My daughter is being raised by white people. But she has an identity. She is not all white or all black. How do I raise a child with a healthy sense of herself if I have to categorize her as something she isn’t? It shouldn’t matter, but it does.” My new friend was very sympathetic. “Let’s hope that when Maya grows up, it doesn’t matter. But right now, it does. If I were you, I would put Caucasian because that’s what her brother and sister are listed as being here. Then, when she grows up, she can be anything she wants to be. She can just be American.” I thought about it and I chose Caucasian as recommended.

She is an American baby, I thought. Just like my husband. When people ask him where his family is from, he usually answers, “America. Here. And Switzerland.” My husband’s father’s family has been here from the time of the Mayflower. They are descended from Priscilla and John Alden. They are Dutch and English. But, after so many generations, what does it matter? No one speaks Dutch anymore. No one cooks Dutch. The farm that old Abraham Van Nest owned in Greenwich Village has long since been divided up and sold, (in part to New York University). His mother’s family fled Switzerland to avoid religious persecution as Mennonites. But, even that flight was so many years ago that no ties to Switzerland remain -- save a few of Grandma Liechty’s recipes.

I thought about how my life differed from my husband’s life growing up, and what that would mean for our children. I was “pure” Italian, as far as I knew. My father’s mother was from Muro Lucano, Italy, in the region of Basilicata, “provincia di Potenza.” (I had been to my grandmother’s house several times, even bringing my husband and children to meet my remaining relatives there several years ago.) Grandpa Rago was from Salerno, the launching point for the Almalfi coast. My mother’s parents were from Benevento, Italy, which was further north and east – a town famed for its witchcraft. Everyone I knew growing up was Italian. No one came into our home that wasn’t Italian. They sat around at the kitchen table, drinking coffee, and speaking Italian. My father was a shoemaker, working at a shop with his father. Everyone we knew were carpenters, plumbers, tradesmen or employees in the government. It was very insular and we knew our place in society. We were told about when the neighbors came to the door and tried to get my mother to join a group to keep Italians out of the neighborhood. We knew when we brought in eggplant sandwiches that other kids didn’t eat the same. And when we confused English words for Italian words on homework, we knew we were not like most of the kids in class. I never felt American as much as I felt Italian.

Trent and Michela have some sense of being Italian. They eat my food and I only know how to cook as I was taught by my mother and grandmother – start everything with olive oil and garlic and it will turn out. They have been to Italy and have heard Italian spoken. They want to learn Italian. They are also very proud of their father’s heritage. They know that his father is descended from people who came over on the Mayflower. And that his mother has Swiss Mennonite ancestry. They are true American children, but to outsiders, they are Caucasian.

Maya will have a more difficult road to understand her identity. Being raised by me and Tim, she will inevitably feel some kinship to Italian people and Swiss Mennonites and Mayflower descendants. That will be the environment in which she grows up. Still, she has a relationship with the mother who gave birth to her. Her mother Nikki is one quarter black, one quarter Native American, one quarter Caucasian, and one quarter Japanese. She lives amidst people from many different cultures in her town. Unlike the home I grew up in, the home in which Nikki lives frequently has Polish, Puerto Rican, African American, and Cuban visitors. However, while we live in a completely white neighborhood of European descent (overwhelmingly Italian American), our children go to Yonkers public school, which is truly as diverse as the United Nations.

Maya is a smart cookie. She will have no problem understanding the heritage into which she was born and the heritage into which she was adopted. But that is an intellectual undertaking. My job as a parent is also to raise an emotionally healthy and happy child. I believe that, in order to do so, Maya needs to feel proud of who she is: she is a multi-ethnic child being raised by European descended parents, amidst their families, and amidst her Mama Nikki’s diverse family. I have a hard time teaching her to be proud if the Yonkers public school district makes me box her into one category.

I think it is time to write my own letter to the superintendent of schools.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Flying Too Close to the Flame

We had just sat down to a late dinner in early August when we heard the lightening and the thunder strike. Suddenly the lights went out and it was dark. Each of us immediately had a private thought. Trent wondered if the computers were zapped. I wondered if we’d have no power for a week, like two summers ago. Michela said she wondered if there was anything on her fork. She said she couldn’t see it; that she had tried to spear some salad just as the power went out. She said that she didn’t hear any crunch that would tell her that she had caught something. She explained how hungry she was and how she hoped, as she brought her fork to her mouth in the dark, that there would be lettuce or tomato on it. (There wasn’t.)

We had become old hands at what to do when we lost power. Trent opened his cellphone for light to guide me to the candle drawer in the kitchen. Tim felt his way to the cupboard where the matches were kept. As soon as we had enough candles lit, I suggested that someone should call Tim’s aunt Fran down the block while I went to check in on our elderly neighbor Theresa.

Later in the evening, as we finished our meal, a moth flew too close to the candle flame and burned a wing, falling to the top of the china closet where the candle was situated. Michela pointed it out and Trent went to verify that, indeed, a moth had fallen dead on the oak cabinet. “The plight of many moths throughout history,” said my father-in-law Merritt to everyone and no one in particular. “Flying too close to the hot flame.”

Maya was very upset. “The moth flew too close to the fire and burned himself Mommy?” “Yes, Maya,” I replied. “Why?” she asked in her two year old way of dissecting all events. “It was an accident,” I told her. “Just like when you accidentally got too close to the pot on the stove this evening and burned your pinkie finger.” “Where did he go Mommy?” she asked. I wasn’t prepared for this. I decided I didn’t need to tell her that the bug had died. “He flew home crying to his Mommy so she would make it better,” I told her. I told myself that this wasn’t exactly lying. That maybe bug heaven was like going home to your Mommy.

“He flew home to his Mommy?” she repeated. “Yes,” I responded. “Wouldn’t you come crying to your Mommy if you were burned?” I asked her. “I would go crying to my Real Mommy,” she said. I couldn’t believe my ears. Her Real Mommy? Where did she hear that phrase? I ventured another question. “Who is that?” Hoping the answer wasn’t what I thought it might be. It was. “My Mama Nikki,” she said. I thought I heard my mother-in-law Ruth Ann audibly gasp. “Michelle is a good Mommy,” she blurted. She was trying to fix things, as she always did. But since when did we refer to me as Michelle in front of my daughter? I’m Mommy.

“Did someone say to you that I’m not your Real Mommy?” I asked. “No,” she answered. “Well, where did you hear that Mama Nikki was your Real Mommy?” I continued. She shrugged, “I don’t know.” I thought about how to approach the subject. “Mama Nikki is just a different kind of Mommy,” I told her. “She carried you in her belly and gave birth to you,” I explained, as I had on other occasions. “But I take care of you. I’m a Real Mommy, too.” I was rambling. “Do I look like a pretend Mommy to you? Do I look pretend? I look real to me. I’m real.” I turned towards my husband, “Daddy, do I look pretend to you?” He assuaged me, “You look real to me.” Merritt and Ruth Ann were on the front porch now, talking in low voices. Maya ran off to go play.

I asked Tim where he thought she learned that. I told him that I never use that language. He suggested that she learned it at our friend’s house. Our friend has had two foster children for three years and it is possible that one of the children there told Maya that I am not her real mother. Tim suggested that I drop the matter and not give electricity to the word and it would pass.

Later that night in bed, I asked Tim how I can make it clear to Maya that we don’t use that language. Just as we teach our children that there are certain other offensive terms that we don’t use. He said he expected that if we never used that terminology, she wouldn’t use it anymore either. “But then how do we teach that certain words hurt? That certain words are offensive?” I asked him. “It’s offensive to me. I mean, I know I’m her mother, but still. . . .” I protested. It did hurt a little. He reiterated that if we didn’t use that term, she wouldn’t either. And that she would understand that it was inappropriate. He said if I made a big deal out of it, she would use those words to push my buttons. “I still think there must be a way to gently, casually mention it, but not make a big deal out of it,” I told him. He said that the best way to teach was by example and that I should drop it.

My husband’s approach was always to avoid and deny, in my view. That was so not my approach. I am more in your face. An emotional, screaming Italian mess. With gestures to accompany the words. And, yet, I knew that Tim was right on so many things I didn’t know how to approach. I hoped he was right this time. . . . .

Saturday, June 27, 2009

My Little Girl Is Growing Up

Our little girl is growing up. Shortly after her adoption was finalized, we removed the crib in our room, and the crib in the room she shares with Michela. She never slept in those anyway. We just needed to have them to show to the social workers when they came for home visits. Instead, she slept with us. Right between Tim and me. We found on Freecycle some happy young couples that were happy to take the cribs away for us.

For Maya, we bought a tiny pink sleigh bed at the Salvation Army, using our own mattress of course, and gluing brightly colored wooded letters spelling MAYA on the headboard. She has been very excited about her Big Girl Bed since the day we moved it in. To anyone who came into the house, she would ask, “Do you want to see my big girl bed?” Or she would ask Tim or myself, “That’s my Big Girl Bed? Not anyone else’s?” We assured her it was. And we made it very comfortable by putting in the Elmo doll that she has had since she was born, and the Madam Alexander baby doll that her Aunt Marissa bought her, and the American Girl baby doll that I bought her, along with the teddy bear that her Ima bought her from Ten Thousand Villages, and the monkey given to her by her brother Dylan, and the blanket that was sent to her from her Nanny, Mima, and Mommy Nikki. She still is not sure she likes sleeping there. If we move her there after falling asleep in our bed, she will usually stay there all night now. But it takes more effort to have her start the night in her bed. We usually have to sit in the rocker and sing or lay down next to her for a time.

We have also thrown out all pacifiers in the house recently. I thought maybe her front teeth were sticking out a bit due to the “Nook” -- which is what we call them after the brand named “Nuk.” I told her she was too big for a Nuk, now that she was a big girl and slept in her Big Girl Bed. “Then I’ll sleep in your bed,” she reasoned. No need to be so hasty. “But Mommy’s afraid your teeth are crooked,” I told her. She looked in the mirror and agreed they might be. When I asked her whether she thought she could throw her pacifier in the garbage in the bathroom, she said she could. And ran off to do it. I heard the lid to the can close as she came out. It wasn’t until going to bed later that night when she couldn’t sleep and was truly suffering that I began to think I might have to give in. I told her I thought she could do it. I held her and tickled her feet and her back, like she likes. She cried for her Nuk and, like an addict, jumped out of bed and began rummaging through the bathroom garbage pail. I got there just in time to grab it from her hand and wash it with soap and water before she put it in her mouth. And then, after having it for awhile, she said, “I can’t have this. My teeth are crooked.” And she went and put it in the bedroom garbage pail.

There have been two other funny instances of Maya struggling with giving up her Nuk addiction. My friend Shanikqua tells me that, at her house, after Maya had given up Nuks, she found one in Shanikqua’s bedroom. Quietly, she placed it in her mouth and placed her hand over her mouth so as to cover up the Nuk. She walked around the apartment with her hand over her mouth, believing that she was getting away with sucking on the illegal contraband. That is, she thought so until Shanikqua asked her what was behind her hand in her mouth. She tried to respond, “Nothing” through her hand. Shanikqua says she fell out laughing.

The other instance of Maya facing her addition head on occurred today. From across the room, she turned towards the couch and her eye caught upon something. I heard her squeal “OOOOHH!” And then saw her dive under the couch. Like a fisherman who had reached into a hollowed log and pulled out a catfish, she raised her prize in the air and smiled with a grin that was somewhere between delusional and playful. “A Nuk!” she laughed in a jittery voice. “What ya gonna do with it?” I asked. “Maybe you should go downstairs and ask Daddy what you should do with it.” She fled from the room.

Tim reports that she came downstairs and showed him the Nuk and said, “Maybe I should put it in my Big Girl Bed.” Tim suggested, “Or you could throw it out.” Maya offered, “Or put it in your pocket for when I need it.” They looked at one another for a time that seemed interminable until Maya, in a voice more mature for her age, suggested, “I have crooked teeth. Maybe I should throw it out.” And she hopped up the steps to the kitchen. Tim didn’t know what happened to the Nuk after that, but Livie, our foster child for the week, told me Maya was very brave and threw out her Nuk.

It was so sad to see her come across an object that brought her such simple pure joy and to see that joy in her face again, only to be crestfallen to realize that she doesn’t do Nuks anymore. It was sad to see her then be brave and throw away the one thing that never failed her in her short life. This is growing up way too fast. I just wonder if there is a way to slow things down and ease the pain. My poor baby girl.

And poor me. Growing up so fast. Pretty soon she'll want to drive the car. . . .

Sunday, June 14, 2009

What If She Wants To Go Live With Her Mother?

I never refer to Maya's mother as her birthmother or biological mother or first mother. In my eyes, Nikki is Maya's mother. Not exactly in the same way that I am Maya's mother. But her mother nonetheless. "Maya's other mother," I sometimes say. I worry that people will think I don't think of myself as Maya's mother. Which is far from true. I KNOW I am Maya's mother. And Maya knows that. And Nikki knows that. But I can't refer to Nikki as a "birthmother" because I don't refer to myself as an "adoptive mother." And I can't refer to her as a "first mother" because I don't refer to myself as Maya's second or third mother. (Maya had a foster mother before she came to me. One who loved Maya so dearly that she was able to move easily to our home and love us completely because she had known so much love in her life.) I know that this is unusual even in open adoptions. But I have nothing but great respect and awe for Maya's other mother. And I can't take away from her the title and honor of being Maya's mother. She has been through enough hurt in her life. I don't feel right stripping her of one of her greatest accomplishments. So, often, I will tell Maya to run and give her mother a big hug and a kiss when we arrive at her home. Or I ask Maya if she wants to talk to her Mommy on the phone. Maya always knows who I am talking about. She is not confused. I will sometimes refer to Nikki as "Mommy Nikki" or "Mama Nikki." Even though I don't refer to myself as "Mommy Michelle." Being one of two mothers does sometimes require clarification.

Nikki is very good about recognizing me as Maya's mother. When I once went to a family birthday party and an in-law introduced me to a distant relative as Maya's step mother, I told Nikki about it after the party. She was adamant that I should have put the woman straight right there and then and told her I am not a step mother, that I am Maya's mother. She also tells Maya that she has to go ask her mother if she wants to eat a treat. Nikki and I also laugh about when we are out in public and people see us together and try to figure out the relationships. We are hesitant to say we are both Maya's mother because we don't want to lead people to believe that we are a lesbian couple. Usually, we let them assume what they want to. Once, when we were at my green grocer, the checker (who knew me) asked, in reference to Maya, "She's your daughter, right?" I nodded proudly. Maya was in Nikki's arms. I set more fruit and vegetables on the counter. The checker rang them up and bagged them. Then she looked at Nikki quizzically, obviously recognizing that Maya looked very much like her. Raising her chin towards Nikki, she asked, "She's your daughter too?" I thought and quickly said yes, that Nikki was my daughter. It was much easier to make her believe that I was Nikki's mother than to explain everything as I unloaded my bananas and tomatoes on the counter. Nikki and I had a good laugh in the car.

People are very curious about Maya because she is a little darker than me. Her biological father is black and his family is from Cuba. Nikki is one quarter Japanese, one quarter white, one quarter black and one quarter Native American. Maya is absolutely gorgeous with ringlets of curls on her head and bright dark eyes that sparkle and a smile that steals your heart. The supermarket is a place where women chat and ask questions indiscriminately. "She has such curly hair. And yours is so straight. Does her father have curly hair?" "Yes, he has lots of curls," I respond. I know that the woman is really asking if my husband is black or if the baby is adopted. But since that is not what she asked, I answered truthfully. My husband, Maya's only father, does in fact have very curly hair. Curls so beautiful that when he was a child people would say, "What gorgeous curls and what a shame on a boy." Another woman had the nerve to ask if Maya was my grand daughter. When I said she was my daughter, she dug her hole even deeper. "How wonderful that God made it possible for you to have a child so late in life." Admittedly I was 47 and Maya was only 2. But I had often been told I looked much younger than my years because I never wore make-up. And there is nothing in my relationship with Maya that says grandmother. She calls me Mommy. And I reprimand her for touching the candy in the check-out lane. It is true that I am a couple of years older than Maya's biological grandmother. But still.

My own mother does not think it is the best idea for me to continue a relationship with Nikki and her family. But Tim and I knew they loved her dearly when Maya's great grandmother and grandmother gave me a photo album of all of Maya's ancestors and living relatives on her mother's side -- with name and address and relationship written on the back of each one of them. They made the album with the belief that they would never see Maya again. If I had taken Maya from them, this would have enabled her to find them one day. I also knew how much they loved her when her great grandmother gave me a gold locket that was hers to give Maya when she got older. They asked if they could send her cards and presents from time to time. They were honest with themselves in what must have been one of the most difficult decisions of their lives: They admitted that they felt incapable of raising a child with diabetes who would require insulin injections for the rest of her life. Tim and I realized we could not remove a baby from a family that loved her so much. So, after one of our initial meetings and discussing how we could go forward, I hugged Maya's grandmother -- her Mima -- and asked, "We can make this work, right? We can have Maya feel that we are one big family who love her, right?" And through her tears and tight hug, Mima agreed. My commitment to Nikki's family was that I would not take Maya from them. They trusted me. Almost two years later, we are one large family created through adoption.

So, despite my mother's concerns, I continue to maintain a relationship with Maya's family. My mother asks me, "What if she runs away to go live with her mother?" Given the economic disparities of our families, I tell my mother that I think Maya might like the comforts of our life better than the harshness of her mother's life. But it is my husband who has more thoughtful answer to that question. "What better place to run away than to her mother, where she is loved as much as she is here?" (He always has such a sensible approach to problems.) Still concerned, my mother wonders. "What if Maya rejects you and doesn't want any part of you when she grows up?" My only response to that, perhaps naively, is: "If that happens, then I haven't done too good a job, have I?" Lastly, my mother (and others) ask, "Aren't you afraid her mother will come and take Maya or try to kidnap her?" I think my best approach to prevent that is to give her as much contact with her daughter as she wants, I tell them. And to be as good to her as I am to my other family members. So that she has a relationship with me and will not want to hurt me. I know that it feels odd and discomforting to others in the abstract. One relative said that it crossed her mind, when she first met Nikki at Maya's second birthday party, that Nikki could just grab her and run. (She added that she quickly realized how silly that was when she got to know Nikki.)

Nikki and I have become close. I am not her mother. But I am, in some way, like an elder aunt or sister that she can talk to. She confides in me about her boyfriends. And I chide her when I think she needs to do something differently. And I press a $20 bill into her hand when she has no money on her, much as my elder brothers press money into my hand when they know things are tight in my family. I want her to know that Maya is in a family that cares for her well, so I keep her apprised of Maya's progress. And I send her photos, and paintings by Maya, and curls from her first haircut. But I don't mince words when Maya misbehaves or wears me out, pretending that it is all milk and honey. And I admit to my shortcomings readily. I hope that through being real with Nikki, with my faults and strengths, that she can see her way to having a good relationship with a man and raising children herself one day. And I hope that she knows she can come to me for help when she needs it; and that I will help if I am able to.

If Maya wants to go live with her mother some day, as long as it is not in anger towards me, I will have fostered the relationship between them that I hope for.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Dinnertime at the Rago-Gardners

“That’s a soaker.” That’s what Tim or I used to declare, early in our marriage, when we faced a frying pan or baking dish with a cooked-on mess. Especially when we were too tired from work to exert the elbow grease required to clean it. After having cleared the table and washed all the dishes by hand in the narrow kitchen in our apartment, one of us would look at that last pot on the stove, sigh, and say, “That’s a soaker.” The other spouse inevitably would respond, “A soaker, for sure.” Once declared a soaker, a pan didn’t have to be washed that night. Rather, we would cover the bottom with hot water and dish soap, and place it on the back burner of the stove to soak overnight -- thereby making the grease and cooked-on blackness easier to remove the following day.

I remember dinnertime fondly in the early days of our marriage. We both would come home relatively late from work. Neither of us were 9 to 5 kind of people. I worked in New York City as a lawyer and Tim worked at Nyack High School as a math teacher. I would work late so as to impress the bosses, put in face time, and bill an exorbitant amount of hours in a day. Tim would work late to create a special program that he would use to teach his math students. Tim worked harder than most teachers and I worked harder than many lawyers.

Still, we believed in having dinner together. Cooking at home, setting the table, and sharing a meal together. Unless it was too late in the night to eat when we finally got home. I took pride in cooking for Tim. He delighted in my meals, claiming that he was so happy he married an Italian who knew how to cook. He would refer to himself as IBM, Italian By Marriage, when he finally knew enough about Italian food to be comfortable with labeling all the different cuts of macaroni. In the early days, my repertoire of meals was new to him and he enjoyed each meal. He even learned to make a few as well as many Italian mothers I know. For instance, his homemade pizza and his spaghetti with clam sauce rival the best.

I developed a rotation of good, healthy, quick meals when we were first married. Getting home late in the evening meant that I couldn’t spend too much time in the kitchen because we would be hungry and needed to eat sooner than later. Often I would start each meal with olive oil and garlic in the frying pan. To this day, I joke that even before I know what I am cooking, I can be sure that olive oil and chopped garlic in the frying pan will turn into something good. Some days I sautéed spinach and collard greens and just served canned salmon and leftover potato salad for dinner. Other days, I used the olive oil and garlic to sauté canned octopus, scallops, and clams with sun-dried tomatoes and artichoke hearts to pour over angel hair spaghetti. Or I fried Italian sausage (when we still ate red meat) and peppers and onions and leftover boiled potatoes. Naturally, these meals would leave behind many “soakers.” Whoever got home earliest would tend to washing the soaker.

Things were easy in those early days in many ways. There were just the two of us. And even though we didn’t have a dishwasher, there weren’t that many dishes to wash. We usually divided the work by having me cook and Tim doing most of the clean up. On days when he cooked, I cleaned up. “I cooked, you clean,” was an oft-heard refrain in our home.

Life got more complicated as Tim worked on developing his own business out of the house and I took on more complex cases as a lawyer. While I still enjoyed cooking as much as before, it became harder as my workload got heavier and I gained more responsibility. After the two children came, Tim would cook almost as much as I did. I would tease him that he didn’t consider color in his cooking. He would serve white fish, white rice and white corn on the same night. “Is that your all-white meal?” I’d ask. I had always taken color into consideration when cooking, so that it looked appealing on the plate. Yellow rice, a bright salad and chicken cutlets made for an appealing plate. (I was interested to read in a health magazine that colorful foods have varied beneficial vitamins and anti-oxidants that are good for you.) And I almost always served a green vegetable with a meal. Dinner was not complete unless it had a starch, a protein, and a green vegetable as far as I was concerned.

Cleaning became an issue and, when Michela was two years old, we hired a fulltime housekeeper/nanny. She watched the children after they came home from daycare or school and completed the routine chores around the house, including cleaning the kitchen. I still cooked almost every night, with Tim filling in. But, after clearing the table, we left the rinsed dishes and dirty pots on the kitchen counter and stove. (We now had a dishwasher which meant there was no washing of dishes required, but the dishwasher still had to be loaded and unloaded and we left that to Barbara.)

For more than eight years, we lived a charmed life. We could work as hard as we liked to and still enjoy dinner together and a clean house. We pushed dinnertime back to eight o’clock because that is when I returned home from work and was able to cook. Barbara left each evening at eight o’clock, just as we sat down to eat. We had no opportunity to label a pot or pan “a soaker” because, in effect, they were all soakers – left for Barbara.

Recently, due to the downturn of the economy, we were forced to let Barbara go. Trent is now 12 and getting out in the world on his own more; Barbara’s leaving didn’t affect him much. Her leaving affected Michela, but at age 10, even she didn’t need Barbara as much as she used to. Still, Michela was heartbroken not to come home to Barbara everyday. Barbara had potty trained her and shared in all her secrets for more than eight years. Michela was Barbara’s baby girl, since Barbara only had a son. For Maya, being new to the family and only a baby, Barbara’s leaving had no effect at all. Indeed, she has never mentioned Barbara’s name since she left. For Tim, Barbara’s leaving means that he does the laundry down in the basement while he works.

Barbara’s leaving affected me in several ways. I am now the person who takes care of Maya all day long and cleans the house. I am also the person who does most of the cleaning in the kitchen: floor, dishes, and washing the pots and pans. My cooking hasn’t been affected much. I still start many meals with olive oil and garlic in the frying pan. Tonight, for instance, I started the meal with olive oil and onions and red peppers in two large frying pans. I sautéed the vegetables and placed pork chops over them. While they browned and as I turned them over and over, I made a green salad with Romaine lettuce, plum tomatoes, pitted black olives, dried cranberries, pignoli nuts and, of course, extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Leftover potato salad served as the starch. After we finished eating, Tim cleared the table and unloaded the dishwasher, loading it again with the evening dishes. For me to wash, he left behind the salad bowl (I don’t like to put my vintage yellow ware bowl in the dishwasher and he knows that) and the two frying pans. I washed and dried the salad bowl, wiped up the kitchen counters, and the stovetop, and faced the frying pans. Tired from a day in which Maya never napped, I looked at the them wearily. “Soakers, for sure,” I declared.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Aunt Ruthie Passed Away

Maya's great great Aunt Ruthie passed away last night at 11 p.m. after a battle with cancer. Aunt Ruthie was my daughter's great grandmother's sister. She was a thin woman with long black hair.  She was Native American, of the Lenni Lenape tribe that lived along the Delaware River crossing from New Jersey into Pennsylvania.  I only met Aunt Ruthie a year ago. I tried a few times to get a good photo of her alone and one of her with Maya.  But I wasn't able to. I didn't want to be intrusive and force her to pose, as I was only just getting to know Maya's biological family. I assumed I could get another picture of Maya with Aunt Ruthie at a later time. That time never came.

The last time we saw Aunt Ruthie, her long black hair was gone. It had been sheared off after falling out from chemo-therapy. She was more thin than ever, though still looking like royalty with her head held high and her smooth tanned skin. She slowly moved in soft slippers across the sidewalk from the car. She was just coming home from the hospital, presumably to spend her last days at home. But she managed a smile and a hug for me and Maya. Maya kissed and hugged her as only Maya can do. I worried we would hurt her frail body by hugging too hard and told her she looked beautiful. We left her Valentine's Day card and gift in the house. The card had a photo of Maya kissing the mirror. The gift was a small wall hanging that declared Love Endures All Things; Love Never Ends. From Corinthians. I hope that she understood that our love for her will never end.

I owe a lot to Aunt Ruthie. Aunt Ruthie and her sister Virginia, Maya's Nanny, are the matriarchs of Nikki's family. Virginia was always very supportive of my adopting Maya and, I believe, helped Maya's Mama Nikki come to the acceptance that Maya would do well in my family. But still, for me, was the question of whether I would be accepted into Nikki's family. Would the family not resent me? After all, I ended up with the beautiful baby. Their beautiful baby. Would they think I was a snooty lawyer from New York with whom they could have nothing in common? Would they accept my presence coldly, merely to visit with their daughter, granddaughter, great granddaughter and niece?   Or is it possible that they might accept me as the person I am, even under these awkward circumstances?

Aunt Ruthie helped pave the way for my acceptance. I had tried to impress upon her how important family was to Tim and me. I tried to show her that it was important for Tim and me to make our relationship with them a good one. And to let her know that I had no intention of taking their baby from them. I told Aunt Ruthie that I believed we could make our unique family situation work because we all loved Maya. I gave out my cell phone number freely and sent photos and small gifts for holidays and birthdays as often as I could. She must have believed me. I was thrilled to hear from Virginia that Ruthie liked me and said, "She's just like one of us!"

I'll never know what she meant by claiming I was "just like one of" her family. I'll never get the chance to ask. Nor will I ever get the chance to ask her about her history --about my daughter's history -- of being Lenni Lenape. Nor will I ever get to take that photo of her smiling at me and Maya. But I will forever hold Aunt Ruthie dear to my heart. I promise to teach Maya to honor her legacy. And I pray that, in her passing, she has found peace.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Adirondack Camping With Maya

Adirondacks August 2008

This was Maya’s first year camping with us. She seemed not to understand why we loaded up the back of the station wagon with canoe paddles and orange life jackets. Nothing seemed unusual to her about the cooler in the back of the car – we had often filled up the cooler for the two and a half hour drives to our farm house. Perhaps she didn’t see the trailer riding along behind the car either.

Maya is a good traveler in the car. Many times she withstood the more than two hour drive to Allentown, PA (where Catholic Charities and her foster mother are located). She had even made the five hour car ride to Washington D.C. with us recently in her usual go-with-the-flow attitude. So, the six hour drive up to Brown Tract Pond near Raquette Lake in the Adirondacks passed uneventfully for everyone. Certainly Maya had no cause to believe that this trip would end much differently than the others had.

Maybe it was when we parked the car and trailer in a remote wooded location that she began to suspect that this trip was different than the rest. By the time the tent was set up and she wandered inside, she knew something unusual was afoot. She began to exclaim “Wowee!” and “Oh!” as she saw new things – her cot and sleeping bag in the tent, the campfire, the canoe in the water.

It will be several years until Maya understands the Gardner family tradition of tent camping that she has inherited. One day she will come to learn how her grandfather painstakingly built our trailer from the front end of a ’48 Dodge he salvaged from the junk yard. (And how her Ima waited several days past the time they were supposed to depart for him to finish it.) She will learn how the tent is the same one that her Daddy camped in when he was a little boy – with his two brothers and two sisters and parents. (I hope that, like me, she will be delighted that we are not so tight in the tent as to require bunk cots or – heaven forbid – a triple bunk cot!) In fact, Trent has begun to strike out on his own this year now that he is 12. He pitches his own sleek single-man tent he bought for Boy Scouts next to our Victorian canvas family tent. In the large tent, we have the girls – Maya, Michela and myself – and their father and my husband, Tim.

I think the family Maya was born into would be proud of Maya’s camping activities with us. Her great grandmother is a native American from the Delaware or Lenni Lenape tribe (later subsumed into the Cherokee Nation). In fact, Maya’s biological mother Nikki chose a natural outdoor park setting along a canal for one of our early visits together. She told us it was one of her favorite places that her parents used to take her when she was little.

If Maya has the great outdoors in her blood, she didn’t let on that first night in the tent. She cried much of the night, frightened by the loons calling out on the lake and the sound of her sleeping bag rustling in the quiet night air.

Having tended to Maya all night, I slept through her first canoe trip in the morning. Tim, Trent and Michela all reported that she didn’t fight having to wear the life jacket – not too much anyway. Michela paddled in the front of our Grumman Aircraft aluminum canoe. Tim steered and paddled from the back while Trent held one of the straps on Maya’s life vest, keeping her from diving over the edge of the canoe while allowing her to walk around a bit. Maya thoroughly enjoyed dragging her hands through the water and splashing as my family made its way around Brown Tract Pond.

Since that first trip, Tim has taken Maya out paddling alone early in the morning or at sunset. She has enjoyed these trips with her Daddy. She even convinced him to let her paddle – showing her resolve about having had enough by throwing the paddle overboard. Tim describes watching the paddle drift first five, ten and fifteen feet away in the current before deciding to lay his body over the front of the canoe and doggy paddling with his hands to chase after the floating canoe paddle. Truly experiencing the adage “up a creek without a paddle,” he managed to reach out and grasp the paddle, pulling it back into the boat. I noted without saying a word that he took two paddles with him on each of his subsequent canoe trips with Maya.

As active as she was in those trips with her Daddy, we were all thankful that it was Maya’s naptime when we decided on a whim to paddle the “Crick” between Brown Tract Pond and Raquette Lake just as the storm hit. Our neighbor at the camp, an avid camper whose license plates on his truck declared ADK CMPR, had told us that the small “crick” near where we were camped would take us to the larger Raquette Lake. On a morning when the clouds threatened, we decided to venture up the creek. We figured that we would turn around if it began to rain. Trent took the front seat, paddling, while Tim steered and paddled from the back. Michela sat second position and I sat third, with Maya on my lap. I decided to leave my running shoes on the bank of the pond near the camp to keep them dry in case we tipped. Michela had her flip flops on. The boys had on socks and shoes. Only Michela and I had sweatshirts, which we quickly put in the clear “dry bag” when the drizzle started. Because it was only a light drizzle, we decided to keep going and try to make it to Raquette Lake as it seemed we must be surely half way. The drizzle stopped for awhile, but continued to threaten in the distance. Maya fell asleep in my arms just before the downpour. I kept my arms wrapped around her, her soft, curly hair just below my chin. Michela kept my feet warm by sitting on them and tucked her arms in her shirt. We decided that Tim could walk the two miles back to the campsite for dry clothing and our car while we waited at the General Store on Raquette Lake. When we got there. . . .

We were very discouraged when we saw no sign of the lake around every corner. Two roads required us to portage the canoe and re-launch on the other side. One fallen log forced us to climb out and stand on the log, pulling the canoe over it by hand. Several times we had to duck down or lay very low in the boat in order to pass under fallen trees or branches. As Maya slept, the four of us talked about how families had to pull together to make it through hard times. So, Michela and I encouraged Tim and Trent in their paddling and told them how thankful we were to have such strong men in our family. Though we were shivering, we determined not to complain but to dream about what it would be like to be warm. Neither Tim nor Trent complained about the hard work of paddling fast to get us their, either. We all determined we could withstand another hour if that is what it took. (We had already been out on the creek over an hour and a half.)

Seeing several Great Heron up close in the tall grasses and among the beautiful lillypads made the trip special. Finally, seeing a kayak coming towards us gave us hope. At least we knew there was a way out. The kayakers told us that it would be about another hour until we hit the Lake. We soon saw two more canoes and our spirits were lifted. (We were envious that they had ponchos and we had forgotten to take ours. That is all it would have taken to make the trip so much more enjoyable.) Michela wanted a second opinion. She asked them how much longer until we hit the Lake. They said a half hour to forty five minutes. As the rain lightened up (and Maya remained asleep and warm in my arms), we knew we would make it.

Under the bridge in just over forty minutes, we paddled into the sun – now shining – triumphantly onto Raquette Lake. Our success was made all the sweeter when the owner of the General Store graciously offered to drive Tim back to the camp to get our car. That meant that Trent, Michela, Maya and I would not have to wait too long until Tim returned with warm, dry clothes and money to buy hot cocoa and treats for having endured the trip. We jokingly decided we would question Mr. Adirondack Camper on his definition of a “crick” upon our return to camp.

That canoe trip baptized Maya into the Gardner camping rituals. Thereafter, she became a veteran camper, crying out “ga-noo!” whenever she wanted her Daddy to take her paddling. She also learned the joys of Graham crackers (“crackey”), marshmallows (“mashalow”), and chocolate (“chockey”). She learned to chew on tooth picks, call to passing ducks, and admire the sunset. Maya delighted in picking raspberries (only the red ones) and blackberries (only the black ones). After a couple of nights, she insisted on sleeping in “Maya’s cot” during the night, scooching far down into her sleeping bag to stay warm. She learned to paddle, well almost. And even attempted to light the Coleman lantern and stove. (We think we will hold off on teaching her that until she is 5.)

Next year we hope that Maya learns to pull her weight hiking. (Daddy wasn’t feeling up to hiking with her in the back pack this year.) We also hope that she’s out of diapers and not as messy when she eats next year. We hope she will abandon her habit of pulling on the tent stakes and tossing the paddles overboard. But this year, despite her novice status – or maybe because of it – we thoroughly enjoyed camping with her. Maya reminded each of us of the first time we watched the pink sunset over a lake. Goodnight Sun!

Monday, March 2, 2009


When I first heard from a friend, who was a diabetes educator, that there was a baby in foster care that had Type 1 diabetes and needed a home, all I could think was that the baby could be mine. My friend merely made the statement in passing: that she had just brought diabetes supplies to a beautiful mixed-race baby in foster care. She wasn’t looking for a response. Just making small talk. She couldn’t have known that my heart raced and that I began plotting at that moment how to approach my husband. She told our group of friends that the baby was diagnosed at one month old and would require insulin injections for the rest of her life. That was fine with me. I knew a lot about Type 1 diabetes. Diabetes had come to live at our home eight years earlier when my then-four-year-old son was diagnosed.

I couldn’t believe that I might be so lucky as to be able to adopt a baby. My husband came from a Midwestern Mennonite family with five children. I came from an Italian Catholic family with six children. We always agreed that having a good number of siblings was a fun way to have been raised. Unfortunately, having married at 30 and having faced some fertility issues, we had a difficult time having biological children. Then, when Trent came, we felt very lucky. We tacitly agreed to accept whatever children God had in store for us. To much joy and surprise, Michela came two and a half years later.

For the following eight years, I wasn’t exactly disappointed every month to find that I wasn’t pregnant. I got used to it. But silently, I did hope. I was not about to complain. We had one boy and one girl. They were healthy, beautiful and intelligent. Life had been good to us. Still, sometimes, I found myself looking on the internet at children waiting to be adopted. But when I broached the subject of adoption with my husband, he was not keen on the idea. He didn’t like the idea of “shopping” for a baby. When pressed, he agreed that if a baby was born that we heard about that needed a home, he would be open to adoption. With that in mind, I kept my ear open.

When I first talked to my husband about the baby with diabetes at Catholic Charities, I was surprised to hear that he was immediately receptive to the idea. He knew that strong families could be formed through adoption. He has three siblings who were adopted. They are half-Jewish and half-black by birth and were adopted during the late 60s and early 70s when placing children of color into white families was unusual. We have a close relationship with all of them, especially his sisters who now live close by in New York. He agreed that we would be good parents to a child with diabetes with our experience. A mixed race child would be especially welcome in our family.

The striking thing was that he confessed that it was difficult to voluntarily bring diabetes into our home. For the first time in eight years, he told me, “I hate diabetes.” I had never heard him say that before. I always thought that he saw diabetes as just another problem to be solved, like a math problem. (He comes from a long line of mathematicians; math and problem solving are hard wired into his brain.) I never knew he had strong emotions about diabetes. Wasn’t it he who taught me not to feel guilty about giving our son shots and to be thankful for every shot we had to give? To be greatful we live in these times because before the discovery of insulin in 1921 our son would be dead? Wasn’t it he who for years meticulously calculated insulin doses and charted carbohydrates? Did he really hate diabetes? Would he choose not to adopt a child who had diabetes because he hated it? He said he hated diabetes for all the times it took our son from us: when he had high blood sugars and couldn’t concentrate or when he had low blood sugars and was too weak to participate in family activities.

Nonetheless, he agreed it would be nice to have another child. He agreed we would make good parents to a child with diabetes since we had become good at managing “the beast” over the years. He thought that it would be nice for our children to have another sibling; for Michela to have a sister to look up to her and with whom she could share secrets. For Trent to have another child with diabetes in the family. This child would be good for our entire family. Even if that meant inviting diabetes into our home once again. My husband told me to follow up and inquire about the baby.

I emailed my friend, “I have been speaking with Tim about the baby . . . . We might be interested in adopting her or even taking her for foster care if that were the only option. Is there a way you could put us in touch with her caseworker? We have always wanted more children. . . .” After a week, which seemed like an eternity, I finally connected with the social worker. I was encouraged when she said she didn’t believe the biological mother or any family members would be able to care for the baby. It was bittersweet to hear that families waiting to adopt infants had been approached but didn’t want a baby requiring a lifetime of insulin injections. Bittersweet because I knew that could be my son who was rejected merely for having diabetes. Bittersweet because I knew my son likely had been rejected in his life for having diabetes. Bittersweet because I knew more than ever that this baby was meant to be mine.

After a few phone calls back and forth, the social worker and I agreed that Tim and I would drive out on Friday to meet the baby. And to talk with all involved about how they envisioned the case proceeding. The caseworker told me the baby was gorgeous. She offered to email a picture of her. I was hesitant. I didn’t want to jinx anything. Oddly, she insisted on emailing me a picture. (She later told me that she had not sent pictures to the families who said they couldn’t handle a baby with diabetes because she didn’t want them to take on a baby they didn’t want just because it was good looking. By comparison, she wanted me to fall in love with the baby because I had already agreed to take her, insulin dependent and all, sight unseen.) From the moment I saw Maya's picture, I was in love.

I drove the one-hour trip from my father’s shoe and leather repair business in New Jersey, where I had been helping out, to my New York home. I was a swirl of emotions. I wrote down the following when I got home:

"I noticed it was a full moon this evening on the drive home from New Jersey. I noticed the most minute detail of everything around me as though the details were all so important that I had to commit them to memory. The smallest details kept jumping out at me and making me take notice: the fact that it was 7:26 on the clock on my dashboard when I left work; the spices in the chicken sandwich on my tongue included taragon; the fullness of the moon seemed to swell. I thought the moon was appropriate. My heart swelled like that moon.

All day I have felt like I am an eagle at the edge of a high cliff about to soar out over the horizon and feel the breeze in my face as I stretch my wings.

And yet, I am afraid to move even a muscle or to exhale because I fear losing the perfection of the moment. As though, if I move, I might set events on a course that might take Maya away from me. From the moment I saw her face in the photo on my computer screen today, I have also had a heavy feeling in my stomach. If I hadn’t seen her face, I might have been able to handle it if the adoption doesn’t work out. But now that I have seen her, it seems like it will be a cruel twist of fate if anything goes wrong. She seems so perfect and meant to be mine.

Too bad we just threw out all of those sippy cups."

I called everyone I knew to tell them that Tim and I might adopt a baby girl with diabetes. Tim’s parents were thrilled; they wanted to be kept abreast of every event that occurred. Tim’s siblings were happy; they would have a little one to guide through her adventure of being adopted into a white family. My father said adopting another child was something he had always wanted to do. My niece wanted to be the Godmother when we baptized the baby. My friends thought I was crazy but wished me luck. The daughters of one of my friends, Monica and Sarah, were overjoyed about hearing about the prospect of my raising a baby with diabetes. And, another friend, a devout Muslim, treasured the idea of having a baby around.

My enthusiasm was like the enthusiasm of the children I spoke with: bright and naïve. I had worked while Tim raised Trent and Michela and I had no idea of the demands a baby could make on a parent. I was therefore taken aback at the reaction of my own mother. Only she reacted negatively. Her first reaction was that we had financial difficulties raising the two we already had with all the medical bills. I responded that we could work it out. Her next words were that I was no “spring chicken” to be running around after a baby. I was 45 at the time. My eldest sister MaryLynn was with me when I called my mother. She suggested to my mother that I wasn’t calling for advice but for blessings. “In that case,” my mother responded, “God bless you.” The call ended hastily.

My mother had always made it clear how difficult it had been for her to raise 6 kids; how much she sacrificed; and how sometimes she wished she had fewer children. She always emphasized that nonetheless she loved us all deeply. Later that week, she proved her ability to love her 16th grandchild as she loves her own children and all the other grandchildren. Knowing that Tim and I were determined to adopt the baby, she gave me a bit of advice before we went on our first visit that Friday: “Michelle, if that baby is teething, you need to bring those Zweibac teething biscuits with you. That will soothe her gums. Or maybe one of those rattles filled with water that go in the freezer for her to chew on.” My mother had fallen in love too.

[The photo above is the first photo I took of Maya on Tim's lap the following Friday.]

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Happy Campers

I wrote this a couple of years ago. I post it below for my friend Pam. May she continue to enjoy her RV, free of bugs and water. And pray that my tent holds up, J.I.C. (just in case):

As the rain crackled on the roof of the tent, sounding like fireworks off in the distance, we questioned our sanity. Why was sleeping in a tent in the mountains, with a 300 pound bear on the prowl, considered vacation? I asked my husband.

“Do you hear any cars?” my husband retorted.
“No,” I answered.
“Any trucks?”
“No,” I conceded.
“See any streetlights?” he asked. Of course I saw none.

It wasn’t just the absence of these things that made it vacation, we concluded. It was the feeling of communing with nature, really experiencing it, that we enjoyed. We told ourselves that the people who merely drove through the Smoky Mountains missed all that we saw. Likely they didn’t see the bear family crunching on apples in the apple tree, the wild turkey or fox. For sure they never got to see Abram’s Falls or to swim in the icy pool at the base of the falls unless they got out of their cars and hiked the steep and rocky 2.5 mile trail along the creek and up into the mountains. We got to feel what a bear must as he accidentally walks through a spider web or comes upon a juicy patch of blackberries.

We told ourselves that the people sleeping nearby in RVs and trailers didn’t get the full experience of nature like we did. Even after the first drop of rain that leaked through the tent, we told ourselves that. A little water wasn’t going to spoil our commune with nature. In fact, it wasn’t until we were wading in puddles in the tent, sleeping in soaked sleeping bags, that we began to appreciate the beauty of those RVs. It was not until I realized that my sneakers, which I had set neat and dry beside my sleeping bag the night before, were drenched that I began to question my sanity anew.

“Refresh me. Why is this relaxing?” I asked my husband as the early morning sun peered into the tent.

He was silent for a moment. “Well, just thank Got there aren’t any mosquitoes,” he replied. “If there were mosquitoes or bugs, then I would know for sure that we were crazy.”

I slapped at my thigh where I was sure something just bit me. “Might as well get up and make coffee,” I said to him. “Big day ahead.”

* * *

Who could explain how the canvas tent, after serving my husband’s family well for more than 35 years, decided that night that it would no longer protect its occupants against the storm? As a child, he had camped with his two brothers, two sisters, and parents every summer in that tent. He and his siblings shared a triple-decker and double-decker set of bunk cots, while his parents had their own cots on the other side of a blanket which was draped to divide the tent into two rooms. He had fond memories of those early camping trips.

As an adult, he “inherited” the tent, along with the trailer that his father had painstakingly built from the front end of a ’48 Dodge truck salvaged from the junk yard. With only me, Tim, and the two children inside, the tent was more than spacious. It stood like an aged Victorian home – proud, if somewhat old fashioned, among the aerodynamically designed tents and RVs of the campground. In theory, the threads of the canvas roof swelled up with the rain and formed an impervious shelter. In fact, it worked that way for every single rain storm that my husband could remember. Even during the hurricane on Assateague Island, it was not the roof that let in the rain, forcing us to leave. Rather, the poles blew over and the walls fell in on us as the windows let in the storm. During the hailstorm on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, at Pictured Rocks National Seashore on Lake Superior, the tent had held fast for us.

We will never know for sure why then the tent suddenly failed that rainy night -- serving not as shelter but as a colander filtering the rain through the canvas on our family. One thing we did know: just as the locals had told us it would, the weather changed after we waited long enough. So, the next day we went about the business of survival, feeling much sympathy for the early settlers of Cades Cove and other parts of the Smokies who had, no doubt, suffered far worse leaking problems of their own. Unlike the early settlers, we were able to resolve our weather issues fairly readily. At a laundromat, all the soaked sleeping bags and clothing were washed and dried. At a Walmart, we purchased a blue plastic tarp which would cover the tent and, staked down, protect us from any further storms. Indeed, we even purchased new weatherproof carpeting for the floor of the tent to cover the threadbare material through which water had leaked.

Prepared for any further weather, we went about our days as happy campers. (Silently, I told myself that it would never storm again now that we were prepared.) Michela and Trent whittled toothpicks and chop sticks from twigs they found on the ground. Tim cooked pancakes on the griddle for breakfast. And I built a campfire in the fire ring (cheating just a little by using lighter fluid instead of blowing endlessly on newspaper). Later, we drove to watch the elk (reintroduced only recently to the Park) nibbling on greens in the meadows. We explored the historic homes of early settlers, and were reminded of our own farmhouse in upstate NY that stood desperately in need of restoration. We visited the nearby reservation of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee and learned about the Trail of Tears. And we spent long, silent moments watching a bear family high up in an apple tree feasting on apples in preparation for the long winter ahead.

The next evening we devoured steaks marinated in balsamic vinegar and flame-broiled over the open fire with garlic, salt and pepper. We relished the local, crunchy produce in our cucumber and tomato salad and savored the local sweet corn, roasted in the husks on the fire. Food had never tasted so good. Tim and I washed down our supper with cheap, red Italian wine. We smiled through the smoky haze of the campfire as Michela and Trent roasted marshmallows on sticks which they had whittled to a perfect point. Looking at each other, we raised our Tupperware tumblers and celebrated. “Salute!” We had made it through the storm.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

My Daughter's Other Mother

Many people, family and friends included, don’t understand the nature of the relationship we have chosen to enter into with the woman who brought our daughter into this world. And how could they? There aren’t words to describe it. The English language doesn’t quite have a word for the relationship between a biological mother and an adoptive parent. If the language doesn’t exist, how can others understand? And yet, just because the words don’t exist doesn’t mean the relationship doesn’t exist. Just because the words don’t exist doesn’t mean the relationship is not real.

Nikki gave birth to Maya. She cared for herself, her body and her baby for nine months during the pregnancy. She rushed Maya to the emergency room days before Christmas when Maya was just barely one month old, only to be told that her baby had a flu. She rushed her again to the ER the day before Christmas and, after being transported in a helicopter to the nearest large hospital, was made to understand that her baby would require multiple injections of insulin daily for the rest of her life. Maya was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was just a month old and Nikki was 19.

I know Type 1 diabetes. My son Trent was diagnosed when he was barely four years old and I was in my late thirties. I was dumbfounded. I had never heard of Type 1 diabetes; only the kind that my grandmother had: Type 2. She used to sneak sweets all the time and died of bone cancer in the end anyway. At first I assumed that Trent’s life would be like that: sneaking sweets that weren’t good for him. I didn’t understand that with Type 1 diabetes, because his pancreas produced no insulin at all to convert those candies into energy, he would have to inject insulin for the rest of his life. I didn’t understand at first that it wasn’t a mere misdemeanor to sneak sweets, but in fact could be a death sentence if the sugar in his blood remained above a certain level and damaged his organs. I was an “educated” lawyer and had never heard of Type 1 diabetes before Trent’s diagnosis. I was too numbed by the vast quantities of information I had to absorb to have any feelings at first. When I finally thawed out, I couldn’t believe that my beautiful, happy, innocent first-born would have to be injected by syringes with stinging insulin each and every day to stay alive.

I can’t imagine what Nikki must have thought or felt when her newborn baby girl was diagnosed with Type 1. We, in middle class society, have a tendency to think poorer people don’t have strong minds or capacity to feel subtle emotions, as though they are less than fully human. Like hapless, long-eared puppies. If I had not known Nikki so well, I might have thought she didn’t understand what was happening or that she didn’t feel the appropriate fear and sadness. But I know Nikki. She is very smart. And she loves her daughter keenly. She surely understood the severity of the diagnosis. And, from what I read in the disclosure files provided to me before the adoption (the social workers’ judgments aside), Nikki took on her new role as pancreas with aplomb. She pricked her infant daughter’s pudgy toes to draw blood sometimes more than six times a day to obtain a glucose reading. And she stuck the baby several times a day with a syringe to inject insulin and adjust the glucose levels. Moreover, she stuck the baby two more times each day with a whopping needle full of Luvenox to break down the blood clot that had swelled around where they inserted an IV into the baby’s leg in the helicopter. I have no doubt that, had diabetes not struck, Nikki would have been a loving and competent mother to her daughter, given a little support.

The visiting nurse assigned to Maya’s case did not understand how difficult diabetes is to manage. She mistook Nikki’s insecurity for bad attitude. And, as she hopped into her car driving from one home visit to another, she did not appreciate how much effort and precious money it took a 19 year old girl to bundle a baby and take several buses across town to get to doctor’s appointments. The only thing she understood was that, without proper care, Maya could die. She certainly didn’t want any baby dying on her watch. So she blamed Nikki for every mistake and for every high blood sugar number. Nikki never had a chance. She was reported to CPS for medical neglect and her daughter was taken from her.

I only had the verbal reports from the social workers at first: that Maya was near death and in a dangerous diabetic condition when they took her; that the mother did not understand how to care for her and was not competent. I would only really know the truth when I got to know Nikki and when, just prior to adoption, I read the files. When Maya was taken from her mother, her blood sugar was 232. Normal blood sugars are between 70 and 120, but a person with Type 1 diabetes sees 232 on the glucometer often. No matter how hard a person may try, he is never as good as a working pancreas. The social workers didn’t know that. I know that. My son has had Type 1 diabetes for more than 8 years. If they took him away from me every time his blood sugar was over 232, I would have lost him hundreds of times in the last 8 years.

Still, I can’t just give Maya back. I love her. So what do I do?

To start, I don’t deny that Nikki will always be Maya’s mother. She carried her in her womb. She gave birth to her. Most importantly, she loves her. Isn’t that the essence of what motherhood is? She is not merely a “birth” mother as the adoption industry would have you believe. She didn’t just give birth and then toss away all interest and concern like an old winter coat. She’s not just a “biological” mother, passing on pertinent biological traits and nothing more. Maya inherits not just her beauty from her mother. She has also inherited that hearty laugh and coy smile from Nikki. She has inherited her mother’s intelligence and her love of music, giving her the ability to sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and her ABCs from start to finish in perfect pitch. Nor is Nikki merely Maya’s “first mother” as politically correct liberals would have it. She was not only Maya’s first mother; she remains her mother.

This is not to denigrate my role and relationship with Maya. I, too, am Maya’s mother. I am the Mommy she runs to when I walk in the front door. I am the Mommy she emulates when she types on the V-tech computer Nikki bought her for her second birthday. I am the Mommy she refers to when she says “Mommy hold Maya” as she cuddles alongside me in bed. And I am the Mommy she cries for when she is hurt. I am not just an “adoptive” mother like some wet nurse in an old fable. I can’t just give Maya back like an attitude I’ve chosen to try on for a while, as experimental teens are want to do. I am her mother. Maya recognizes that. And Nikki recognizes that. I have no need to prove it to anyone else.

The truth is this: Maya has two mothers. It would be easier if she didn’t. Certainly it would have been easier for Nikki not to ever have me enter her life. Still, I think she recognizes that I am better equipped at this time in our lives to parent Maya. Certainly it would be easier for me not to have to deal with Nikki. That is the most typical scenario for mothers (setting aside lesbian couples raising children and step-mothers). Certainly it would be easier for Maya not to have such a complex family life. But I hope it will make her more complete, more rich, more full. To Maya, I am her Mommy. Nikki is her Mama Nikki, her other mom. We as parents can love more than one child. I believe that Maya can also love two mothers.

So what is the difference between Nikki and me? What has Nikki lost? What do I gain? I am Maya’s parent. I get the privilege of parenting her on a daily basis. I get the privilege of watching her master her world daily. I get to watch her wander the living room singing in her high pitched voice. I get to see her try on her Mommy’s high heels and fall over laughing. I get to see her pick up the cell phone, flip it open and say “Hello? Can you hear me?” I get to hear her insist, “Maya do it!” as she takes away the glucometer and tries to place in it the tiny rectangular strip. I get the privilege of watching her in wonder as she remains perfectly still while I prick her finger with the lancet, squeeze it, and drip blood onto the testing strip.

It is only my relationship with Nikki that has no words to describe it. I have come to calling her and her family my “baby in-laws.” My relationship with Nikki was born of a legal event: my adoption of her daughter. Our families are forever tied to each other through Maya. I am committed to making our relationship work for the sake of our family in the same way that I am committed to making the relationship with my husband’s family work. Others may not understand it. It is hard to describe to someone not in a similar position. I have come to accept that outsiders cannot understand. And they have no incentive to understand. Nikki and I have come to terms with our relationship. Of course, we have an incentive to make things work. We are Maya’s mothers.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Getting My E-Life in Order

Well. . . .

I have had e-mail accounts for a long time.  Outlook.  Hotmail.  Yahoo.  One at my husband's company ( and my own e-mail address as well.  (Not to mention a Google account that I never use.)  And I have been an avid purchaser on e-bay forever.  I have joined lists online and some of my best friends were made online.   So I am no online newbie.  I even joined Flickr recently to showcase some of my photos.  But it wasn't until today that I finally joined Facebook.   My husband had been prodding me to join for some time.  So had my friends.  Apparently I have been missing all the little smileys and cups of coffee people have been sending one another for so long.  And no one has ever read 25 Things About Me by me.  

So, I figured, now that I have joined Facebook, I might as well go headstrong into the wind (as is like me) and start the blog I have always wanted to write.  I majored in sociology in college. And I had a fondness for oral histories.  Blogging seems like a natural outgrowth of that.  (Can you imagine a good sociological study about blogging?)   I have fantasized about blog names. is unfortunately already taken by a German who is not using it to its fullest potential.  MamaLaw?  (I think Lawyer Mama is taken.)  Italian Mama?   I have also fantasized about blog subjects I might write about.  Parenting two children with diabetes.  Being the daughter of a shoemaker.  An Italian American in WASP America.  Legal subjects like securities litigation.  Or the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Parenting an adopted child from the foster care system.  Creating a multi-racial family through adoption.  Extending my family through open adoption.  There are so many blogs I enjoy reading and would like to emulate in some way.  (Most recently the ones relating to adoption.)

But, my blog?  I think I will just stick with what I know best: my family, my life.  Four Gardners and Me.  Here goes. . . .