Grandparents Day 2014: Reflections on the Known and Unknown. More More More.

One of my son Christopher’s favorite books as a toddler was “More More More! Said the Baby,” by Vera Williams. It’s lovely, a Caldecott Honor Book, published in 1990, with wonderful illustrations also by Williams. One of the three little stories features a blond, white grandma swooping up her Little Pumpkin, a black child.

Here’s an illustration from the book:

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You can hear Vera Williams talk about and read the book here. She wrote it for her grandson Hudson, and expanded it to include other babies.

Here’s Chris with his grandma, my mother, who–always with makeup and blond hair just so–never failed to get down on the floor and play with him.

Mom with her youngest grandchild, about 22 years ago.

Mom with her youngest grandchild, about 22 years ago.

My mom, who died 12 years ago, was an incredible grandmother. She loved her (adopted, African-American, African) adopted grandchildren unconditionally; her views on civil rights and racism moved from philosophical to personal, in a thoughtful, decisive way. She would have adored her great-granddaughter Z, born in 2006. I adore Z, as anyone who knows me even briefly is all too aware.

Like my mother, I am not biologically related to my grandchild. Z is the biological child of my adopted daughter, Aselefech. Z is genetically related to her aunt (her mother’s twin sister; both girls were adopted from Ethiopia in 1994), but not to her two uncles (my adopted sons). We all have dealt (from varying perspectives) with white privilege, with racism, with humiliation, with stereotyping, with grief. We crazy love each other.

Z has a non-adopted 7 year old’s understanding of adoption. She knows she looks more like her mom, aunt, and uncles than she looks like me, since I’m white and they are not. She knows what it’s like when people do double-takes when she says I’m her grandma. She knew since she was little about her Ethiopian family, in Ethiopia. She had seen photos, and heard stories. She has visited with her Ethiopian uncle who now lives in Seattle, via winning a visa lottery ticket several years ago.

Grandparents can be elusive creatures. They are often old when they become grandparents (I am a notable exception), though not as old as we think they are when we are children. Families used to live over the meadow or above the duplex from the grandparents; increasingly, that has changed. Adoption, especially international, creates a whole other level to knowing grandparents. As an adoptive parent, when my children were little, I thought about their birth mothers, then fathers, maybe. I gave little thought to other members of the family tree: the grandparents, the siblings, the aunts, uncles, cousins.

Over the years, as my children grew and my heart opened, I gave much more thought to their first families. Some are known, some are unknown. Some are gone. Some could still be found.

During our recent trip to Ethiopia, Z met Desta, her grandmother, Aselefech’s mother. Aselefech had last visited with her Ethiopian family in 2011; this was the first visit for Z.

Z did well, though she was understandably tentative. Like Aselefech, she looks like her Ethiopian relatives, yet she can speak to them only through a translator, one of the most poignant, painful parts of international adoption when the original language does not endure. Conversations with unfamiliar relatives can be awkward when we speak the same language and share the same culture, religion, education, and economics. It didn’t matter here. Desta loved Z before she met her on this visit, as she loves all her grandchildren (her 6th is expected anytime now). She cannot scoop up Z as my mom scooped up Chris, because Desta did not even meet Z until Z was almost 8. She missed those early years, as she will miss most of Z’s daily life; we don’t know when she and Z will see each other again. We will do our best to keep in touch, to send photos, to connect. So much heartache in adoption, along with so much love.

I am filled with gratitude and wonder that Z met, hugged, talked with, smiled at, and said goodbye to her Ethiopian grandmother, along with aunts, uncles, and cousins.

Chris lost his grandma when he was 12, and I know he misses her deeply. All my children do. Their grandmother was a powerful force of unconditional love in their lives.

My maternal grandparents died before I was born. I have good memories of my dad’s parents (we watched the Lawrence Welk Show together, and they came over for Sunday dinner each week), but I can’t say I knew them all that well. I wish I did. It’s astonishing how little we know about people just a generation or two away from us.

Adopted children (who grow up!) deserve to know their families. (Safety obviously has to be a factor, but fear of the unknown should not be.)  We adoptive parents need to embrace, at least emotionally, our children’s first families, including the grandparents who may well have wanted to know and love them. What a gift and blessing to know our grandparents, and to know their stories: what their childhoods were like, how they fell in love, what their happiest days were, what memories make them smile. I cannot imagine not having Z as my granddaughter; I love sharing stories with her and making memories. Being a grandparent has made me understand and appreciate so much in this wild life.

For all the losses and the missed time, what richness we have. Yes, it’s imperfect. It’s tempting to see only absence, rather than presence, and too many people have been marginalized or made far more vulnerable than is fair.

Still. Seek out more, more, more. Swoop up loved ones, known and unknown. Ask questions, listen to stories, and insist on understanding what the possibilities are. Tomorrow is not promised to us. People die. While you can, seek out more, more, more.

Happy Grandparents Day. Thinking of beloveds, in heaven and all over earth.

Z and me

5 thoughts on “Grandparents Day 2014: Reflections on the Known and Unknown. More More More.

  1. So nice! Thank you for yet another powerful and warm piece.

    It is all so interestingly complex, this adoption stuff. I no longer speak with my adoptive mother but do have a relationship, of over 15 years, with my first/birth mother . She and my husband’s mother are my daughter’s only grandparents – well, only present and active grandparents. My daughter, like me, is adopted. But it is my mother, my birth mother, who has always been most unconditionally supportive and loving of my daughter and holds her as a grandchild as much as she does her other 4 (biological) grandchildren. In many ways, my daughter adds a richness and grounding to my the relationship with my mother. She gets it, and she gets me more I think, now that she witnesses what it is like to raise an adopted child and how I talk about my child’s biological family (heading to China this summer to start a search). My adoptive mother, when we still had a relationship, was the one who saw my daughter as more of an ‘other’ and was less comfortable with how I parented her and talked about adoption.

    Rich, complex…though still unfortunate that it ever had to happen this adoption stuff.

    • Thank you very much, Catherine. It is so rich and complex, and based in loss. Your family story is poignant and powerful. I wish you and your daughter all the best on your upcoming search journey. Amazing what we can find when we are open to many possibilities, especially the ones we aren’t aware of until we find them. Ok that’s an absurdly constructed sentence lol–but it does speak to the complexity of the journey.

      Thank you.

    • That picture reminded me of all the matching dresses. My mom sews, and she always dreamed of her granddaughters, for whom she’d have all the time she needed to make outfits for them. When my niece was about 18 months old, the cousin-set dresses began–she continued until last year, making them easy to spot in crowds & connecting them visually for strangers.

      When my 13 yr old explained very carefully to her (white adoptive) grandmother that she and cousin both appreciate the sentiment, but even though Grandma doesn’t seem to notice it, they just don’t look good in the same colors, my mom burst out laughing. Her response: ‘Yes, I know, but that wasn’t the point. I didn’t want you two to have to explain why you were together until you were older.’

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