Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Family Photographs

My bureau keeps coughing up long-lost relatives.

I'll back up.

When my mother went into assisted living, much of her furniture came to us. It is mid-century Danish teak gorgeousness. Our house was built in 1954 and when we did our superficial remodel upon moving in, we styled ourselves "modern". The furniture is perfect. You walk in the door and it's like stepping onto the set of "Mad Men".

My parents had a set of matching dressers in their room when I was growing up. My dad's was thin and tall, much like the man. My mother's, long and low. We didn't acquire these two pieces until fairly recently, when my mom moved from assisted living to a furnished board-and-care.

Though I hold my mother up as the home-organization tree from which my finely-ordered apple dropped, if you opened a drawer in the house I grew up in, you might get a whole lot of crazy. By the time I was packing up her condo just after she was diagnosed with Alzheimers, those drawers were full-on nuts. Her dresser was crammed with old bank statements, silk scarves, opera programs, control-top pantyhose, magnifying lenses, European coins, love letters from my father (that was worth a good cry, snuffling dust in the failing light of a winter afternoon, him dead, her vacant, his twenty-one-year-old words of devotion scrawled across a yellowing page), and finally, family pictures.

I didn't really know my family. Yes, I knew my father, my mother, my brother, my sister. But my mother's parents were dead by the time I was on the scene. My father's parents, somehow, had no interest in meeting me. Might have had something to do with the fact that my mother wasn't French and Catholic, unlike the zillion generations of depressed and depressing French Catholics that made up my father's lineage. I met my father's sister once, when her Navy husband was stationed in California. Aunt Charlotte informed my mother that I was spoiled and my mother should really give me a good smack like Charlotte did with her two-year-old son (the son that, shocking!, became a professional criminal later in life). My mother's brothers were in Michigan and she and I took a trip there once when I was five. For a week.

My mother grew up dirt-poor, downright hungry, in the Depression. Her parents were immigrants from Romania. Her mother died early and her father couldn't speak English, couldn't get a job beyond being a laborer. My father was born into the lower middle-class, a step above my mother. Though his first language was French (my mother's was Romanian), his parents were born in Massachusetts. It was another generation back that had emigrated from Quebec. Regardless, they were both essentially immigrant stock. And like many immigrant children in American, they shed everything they could of their past and sailed full-steam into the future.

My father joined the military at seventeen. By the time they met on a Miami beach when he was twenty-one, he was a pilot in the Air Force. The G.I. bill put him through college when he was in his late twenties. My mother put him through medical school in his early thirties. Soon, they emerged, fully formed, on the West Coast, a doctor and his wife, two beautiful children (the third beautiful child - that'd be me - not yet in the picture), a new house on Mount Tamalpais above the ever-chic Mill Valley.

They lived their upper-middle-class lives, with no connection to their past. When I was packing up the condo, I stayed true to family form and filed all the old pictures away in storage. But here's the thing. Photographs keep appearing in my mother's dresser.

The first time was a year ago, when I was unpacking after our move from San Jose. I accidentally pulled an empty drawer too far and it came out of the dresser completely. With it, apparently stuck for millenia to the bottom of the drawer, came a photograph.

It was a posed family portrait, circa mid-forties. My mother, about fifteen, stands by a grand staircase - certainly not theirs - dressed in some kind of uniform, complete with a stiff nurse-like cap. Was she a candy-stripper? Some kind of war volunteer? At the center of the photo is her father, looking kind and tired, dressed in a shiny three-piece suit and his second wife, Stella, wearing a giant flowered dress, her face set in a smug, double-chinned smirk. Stella was eventually committed to a mental institution. She was a rabid horder and psychotically messy and abusive, screeching and smacking if my mother quietly cleared the sink of it's piles of dishes. I had never before seen a picture of this woman. This woman, who, it must be assumed, had an awful lot to do with my mother's later obsessive need for cleanliness and order and my own inability to sit down to read a book if there's a speck on the floor.

Also featured are my mother's two older brothers, one round and Romanian-looking, the other, surprisingly, a ringer for my dad, clean good looks in a varsity sweater. A little boy stands in the center, my mother's half-brother, Stella's son, sweet, rumpled and big-eared. Off to the side is the infamous cross-dressing uncle, looking creepy as could be. It's said that he lured my grandmother, my mother's mother, Valeria, to the United States, with a promise of work as a seamstress and locked her into a marriage with my grandfather, twenty years her senior and poor.

Just last week, as I was storing winter clothes and bringing summer clothes out of bins, a drawer in that very same dresser wouldn't close completely. I pulled it out to extract the pair of leggings that had been stuck behind it, to find, along with the leggings, a bank statement from 1981 and a manila folder.

I set the folder on the dresser, knowing it might hold a surprise from my unknown past, a long-dead someone reaching a skeletal finger to find me. I took a breath and opened it. There were five photographs. One three-by-five sepia portrait of a young couple I didn't recognize, peering solemnly into the camera. As I turned it over, I realized it was indeed a postcard. On the left were words that I could only recognize as Romanian, having seen letters arrive in a similar script for my mother when I was a kid. I could make out the word Bucarest, the city my mother's people came from and what could be names, "Elenoi si Surel Dron". It was addressed to Dan Belgoir. My grandfather, Dan Balger. Here before me was his original Romanian surname, a name that had been bastardized at Ellis Island, a name that my mother had never known. A name that, until this instant, had been lost.

The other four pictures were different prints of the same image. My father, probably in his early fifties, sits in his red winged armchair, his eyes downcast at something he must be reading. I believe, actually, that I took this photograph. I vaguely remember taking a summer photography class after my freshman year of high school. These four prints, each having sat in the developer a different length of time, were my homework.

It was good to see my father's handsome face again. His cleft chin that I see echoed in Lana, the slant of his cheekbones that I now see in myself. But as I gazed at this picture, standing beside the dresser, summer and winter clothes in untidy piles around me, what I could see, even more clearly with the wisdom of time, was his disregard for me. His teenage daughter stood above him, not a foot away, taking his picture, certainly on a weekend because he was never home during a weekday, and he continued reading his medical journal. In the crease between his eyebrows, I could see his irritation at my attempted interruption. All this picture says to me is "Go away - I'm busy." Really, the story of my life with him. It's difficult to admit because I loved him so, I miss him still and I know that he deeply loved me. And, to be fair, how many times have I attempted to escape to a quiet corner of the house away from the noise and demands of my kids? Though mine are little and loud and many and one would have to think that one bookish fourteen-year-old girl wouldn't have the same effect. But perhaps he was still so busy striving for greatness, still so busy actively forgetting where he came from, that there was little space for anything else.

There are mysteries in these photographs. Family I've never seen, shades of a relationship I had forgotten or wished to forget. It's a little magical, that dresser. Will a snap-shot of an illegitimate half-sister fall out of a drawer next? Or a grainy picture of Mihiretu's birth mother? Our history keeps on unfolding itself, long after the players are gone.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The "Me, Too"

"You know what's amazing?" Ben said tonight as he was ferrying the dinner dishes into the kitchen.

"What?" I said from my position at the sink, pink gloves up to the elbows in soapy water.

"How many people, when I tell them that we've adopted from Ethiopia, say 'You know,'" and here his voiced deepened with gravity, his face drawn long and ardent, "I'm considering doing the same thing.'"

I set the pot I was scrubbing down into the sink, struck with the realization. "Oh my god," I said. "You're totally right!"

It is incredible how many people, strangers generally, who, when they see a picture of our family or spot Mihiretu on the playground, divulge that they, too, might just adopt a child from Ethiopia. I want to say it's like thirty percent. I love to talk about adoption, both the general idea and our specific experience. I want as many people as possible to adopt if they think it's a fit for their family. I want to be a sounding board for anyone considering the idea. That said, most of the people who tell me they're considering the concept, while well-meaning and perhaps even earnest, are also aware it's a really right-sounding thing to say.

I was sitting at the local ballet studio a few years ago waiting for my little ballerinas to finish class, when I got talking to the mom next to me. One thing led to another and soon I confessed that we were in the process of adopting a child from Africa.

"Oh, I want to do that!" she said, her eyes wide and bright.

She told me that she and her husband have donated a "great deal" of money to the many needs of Africa. She said that they were debating whether to have another biological child or adopt. I, new to this game, immediately met her enthusiasm with my own. I offered the names of the agencies we were using, the details of the process, what I knew of the orphanages in Ethiopia.

"Well," she said, after the chitty-chat had gone back and forth for a good long time. "On the other side of the argument - you know, we got this dog from the pound once -"

Here she seemed to stumble, her confident, breezy stream of talk slightly stymied by this less attractive point.

"Well, the dog wasn't good. It was a mutt, you know, which was great, except that - well, it just didn't work out." She leaned in confidentially. "We had to take him back. And then we got a pure-bred - our dog, Lucky - and it was a WORLD of difference."

"Not that," she eyed my frozen grin. "Not that I'm comparing a child with a dog."

No, I thought, a headache beginning to pound in my temples, my jaw clenched. Of course you're not.

I somehow exited the conversation with my new friend and managed to avoid her for the rest of the class term. A year or so later I ran into her at the market. Mihiretu was seated in my cart, reaching for every can, every apple. She was serenely caressing her rounded belly.

"We didn't end up going in that direction," she said, with a lift of her chin at Mihiretu and a self-satified smile. "But what a cute boy you have! I love his hair!"

She reached out to touch his curls and simultaneously, Mihiretu, perhaps in self-defense, pulled a bottle of olive oil from the shelf and it crashed to the floor between us. She swept back her skirt to avoid the splash, her smile hardening on her face.

"Okay," she said, backing down the aisle. "Good luck!"

I don't know if she meant with the spill or my son. What I do know is that sometimes people are full of shit.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Bunny

Our house backs up to open space which makes for a lot of wildlife. We see hawks, deer, wild turkey by the bushel, and even the occasional coyote or bobcat. Ben and I woke the other morning to the distant scream of a mountain lion. That's better than coffee for getting the blood pumping. You should try it.

In amongst these creatures, is the quiet and elusive jack rabbit. Often, when the kids are making me apeshit on a Saturday morning, I'll send them out on the hill to look for bunnies. We know the warrens are there, the bunnies are less reliable.

Usually, a bunny sighting happens about once every month or so, a rate akin to spotting a celebrity in L.A. For the past few weeks though, virtually every morning, we've seen a bunny, we assume the same bunny, somewhere close to our house. Sometimes he's down by the trailer, sometimes near the chicken coop and often camped out by the great oak that reaches over the living-room. Generally, he's with his two friends, the deer and the turkey. Always a single deer, always a single turkey, though those animals usually travel in groups. It is, it goes without saying, mysterious. Ben and I have been joking that this bunny is our spirit animal.

This morning, the bunny was settled for a good hour just outside the living-room windows. He stayed while Mihiretu performed his routine seven a.m. joyful whoop up and down the hall. He weathered the frantic few moments of the feeding, clothing, combing, shoeing and backpacking of Mae before she spilled out the front door at eight. He even remained zen during the shoving and screaming match (performed on bar stools) between the invincible Lana and the undefeated Mihiretu.

As he stayed and stayed, I suggested that perhaps we should give him a name. "Tip Top" was Lana's suggestion. Predictably, "Butt" was Mihiretu's.

The truly amazing moment was when Mihiretu opened the window not four feet from the bunny and hollered at top Mihiretu volume (on a whole different scale than other voices, his goes to eleven) and the rabbit merely turned one long ear towards the barrage of sound.

If we did indeed have spirit animals, Ben might be an otter, basking in the waves on his back, cleverly working a clam shell open, I, perhaps, a preening peacock, fanning colorful feathers, Mae undoubtably a horse running free, mane streaming behind her, Lana, a sly kitty-cat in the window, sleek and aloof, and Mihiretu a road-runner, moving fast and beeping loud. Put all those animals together and what do you have? A zoo, I suppose. Where in there, I wonder, is this placid jack rabbit, fast and shy and silent? Maybe that furry little guy knows something I don't. Could there be some soft, quiet, peaceful undercurrent that calls him to our record-high decibel house? It might just be he's a little masochistic and neurotic, a fuzzy Woody Allen. Or a flunkie Easter bunny, looking for entertainment while his cousins are frantic with colored eggs and beribboned baskets. Whoever he is, I like him.