Archive for June, 2012
June 1, 2012 by Kimberli, under Uncategorized, Writing.
Posted 6/1/12 Life changes quickly as the branches fall away, are broken and sprout anew. Death, divorce, birth… Posted in honor of those who have passed recently – Grandma Grace Records at age 98 and Grandma Marj Cooney at 98. And to my fathers Paul Ransom (2008) & Ross Nida (2012), as well as my birth father who is always present even when absent.
These thought are just my memories and thoughts. Not necessarily accurate. We all have our own realities.
Written May 2006
Mine is a tree of many crooked branches. As a small child, I drew a picture of my family tree. Like many other children my tree was sturdy and tall and there were three branches. One reaching out for my mother and father, another for my 3 teenage siblings and a final one for me. Each branch was straight and lined up perfectly. I was born in Portland, Oregon, but adopted by this family at six weeks of age. My cradle rocked gently.
I am older now, a better artist and my tree has more depth and dimension. It has grown in ways I could not have imagined as that small child. The branches are no longer straight. There are four sets of parents now, 17 siblings, 29 nieces and nephews, many of whom I’ve never met. There are so many cousins. My story is one of adoption, and yet it is simply a story of family. Perhaps not so different from yours. My tree is a real tree with roots held firm in all of it - love, disappointment, joy, nature, nurture. I have had the unusual privilege of belonging to many ways of life and types families. My tree includes cowboys, hippies, professors, high school drop-outs, doctors, meth addicts. We subscribe to Utner Reader and Readers Digest, we support pro-life and pro-choice, we live in million dollar condos and trailer homes. We serve our country, serve on school boards, serve prison sentences. I could prune this tree, simply cut off the branches that do not frame my life. Instead, however, I chose to climb up into it and sit in the center, as I have always done, supported by those who are strong and holding fast to those who threaten to blow away. This is my tree, all of it.
We lived at the end of a long dirt road in Eastern, Oregon. Ten miles outside of Milton-Freewater, near the Washington border. Our two-story farmhouse sat a quarter mile across irrigation ditches from our only neighbors, the Records family. My mother, sister and I used to walk through the cat-tails and milk-weed to that house almost daily. My Grandma Grace lived there. Not a grandmother that came with my family, but one I chose to draw into my tree. She was the one who made me cookies and colored with me. My sister later married her son, the boy next door, and the branches of our families were grafted together even after he died 15 years later and my sister eventually remarried.
As my tree began to grow so did I. My red hair and freckles became more pronounced, my legs stretched at an unbelievable rate and though I was unaware of it, it became more apparent that I did not come from my dark haired 5’3” and 5’9” parents. I was told early on that I was special, that I was adopted, and that I had many people to love me. That there was another mother and father somewhere who gave me to my family as a gift. That my family chose me because they wanted a baby girl to spoil. Throughout my childhood I made up stories about my biological parents because I didn’t know the details – she was a famous pianist, he was in the Vietnam war. She was married and had an affair with my birth father, and both he and her husband wanted me and she couldn’t decide… The stories were always full of love. I don’t remember hating them for giving me up.
At the age of 7 my steady tree shook and the branches bent. My parents divorced, my siblings were all grown and out of the house. There was a bitter custody battle and my father moved with me to an isolated ranch in central Washington hours from my mother. He gave me a puppy to make up for this. I spent long summer days riding my horse alone through hay fields writing songs. In the evenings my father and I would drive 20 miles to the local swimming pool where I would rinse off the day’s loneliness.
My father eventually met a woman from Minneapolis through a personal ad in a horse lovers magazine. She drew pictures of cats for me during the weekend she came to visit. Soon after we all moved to the middle of a cornfield in North Dakota. My tree had a new branch including a stepmother with 5 inner-city kids who terrified me. I watched one of them pull the other down a staircase by the hair our first day as a family. I was 11 and wanted my mother.
I returned to Eastern Oregon. My mother’s arms were held wide open for me and on her finger there was a new ring. My new stepfather was a policeman with two sons around my age. Another branch was added. My mother went from a farm wife to a police dispatcher. Their jobs came home with them each night. I was learning to oil paint, started theater, was in choir – none of the things my family did, but all of which they supported. There was room for me to explore and be different. I was adopted.
Although my family was simply ‘my family’ and I only occasionally gave thought to not looking like them, my mother’s family reunions in Ellensburg, WA, always brought up questions. The real drama didn’t start until I was a teenager. Like all teenagers I said terrible things to my parents. As an adopted child, however, I had the extra ammunition of “You’re not my real family. None of these relatives look like me.” Family reunions seemed to bring on these periods of teenage angst more then most. As a young girl, however, I loved the reunions – all the cousins, my grandma Maudie yelling at my grandpa, “God damn it, Bernie!” and everyone talking at the same time. My favorite uncle, Uncle Art, always had his guitar and drank Jack Daniels from a coffee cup. He never knew all the words to a song, but he could still make you cry. When he passed away, in the midst of my career as a songwriter, I inherited not only his guitar, but his love for storytelling. As little girls my cousins and I would sing and sing under the big willow tree in my grandfather’s front yard. My mother kept a close eye on us there, however. There were things girls shouldn’t learn from their family.
My grandmother once asked my mother how she could love an adopted child. I don’t know if this was because she couldn’t image it, or if she was curious if the love was the same. Or did she not love me? With her seventh pregnancy, in the midst of the depression, my grandmother made a difficult choice. Did she wonder if she had given the child up instead, would it have been loved? We are all complex and our branches crooked.
On my 18th birthday I wrote the letter. Martha was my caseworker at The Boys and Girls Aid Society my entire life. She was the one who handed me over to my parents at six weeks, the squalling baby who instantly quieted when placed in my new mother’s arms. I had kept in touch with her my entire life. Martha held the key to connect my tree with the missing branches. It never occurred to me that I was part of Martha’s job, that she might chose to work somewhere else, retire or move on. Two weeks past before I heard back from Martha regarding the letter. Those two weeks were among the most unsettling of my life. Would she want to see me or reject me? Who would she be? I envisioned a woman in a wide-brimmed summer hat sitting at a café in downtown Portland. But what if she was a drug addict, or a criminal. What if she had married and had never told her husband? What if she was dead? What if, what if? There was no book on this nor anyone else with my exact experience. My sister-in-law had tried to find her birth mother and the woman denied having a child. Martha called, “Your birth mother’s name is Pat, she lives in Georgia and wants to fly to Portland to meet you. You have a half brother and sister. You have grandparents living in Lake Oswego.” Another branch instantly sprouts to life.
My mother, who’s name is Helen, and I pack up the car and head from Milton-Freewater down Hwy 84 to Portland. It’s a very long 4 ½ hour drive. As always, my mother is supportive, trying to calm me, but I see the fear in her eyes. Who is this woman? Will she take my child from me? I stare out the window and try to imagine how my life is going to change or if it will change. We find our way through the city traffic to NW Portland and Martha greets us at the old Boys and Girls Aid Society building. “She’s here,” Martha says. “Are you ready?” My mother and I look at one another and answer together. We start walking down a hallway that must be a mile long. My birth mother, Pat, is walking toward us from the other end of the hall. She’s not wearing the wide-brimmed hat I had imagined. We move closer and I see my eyes in her face. I’ve never seen my eyes in any place except a mirror. Her red hair moves past me straight to my mother. She hugs her and says, “Thank you.” Both mothers cry, I simply watch. I don’t remember the details from that first hour. After the meeting we sit in the park by the river. My mother and I show my birth mother pictures from my childhood. My first birthday cake. There’s frosting on my face. A clipping from a newspaper, I’m 9 and have just won a free throw contest. She tells us how I looked just like her at that age. We show her the academic scholarship to attend Lewis and Clark College. I’m moving to Portland that next month.
My birth mother tells us the story, the real reason for my adoption. It’s not one the stories I made up, but it’s equally as loving and generous. She tells me about my birth father. I have not thought of him recently. I have not thought of anyone aside from a birth mother. Pat is her name, I remind myself. She doesn’t know where he is, but knows that he wanted me and tried to help her during a difficult time. We drive to her mother’s house for a spot of Irish tea. “Just a little visit,” Pat says. The house is full of tall people, my people with my eyes. There is the most beautiful redheaded grandmother. Grandmother? I have not thought about a grandmother before. There is a small sister and brother ages one and three who want to be part of the party and put their fingers in the cake that reads, “Welcome Kimberli and Helen.” There are cousins with gifts and tears. “Who are you people?” my mother and I say to ourselves, all the while grateful to have found so much love. There are flowers in the bathroom and someone yells that someone must have stolen their bra, they can’t find it. The tree grows huge big branches and sets these people on top of them until they later become the branches themselves.
The weekend meeting is just the beginning of a long integration that takes some three years to really come to grips with. There are gaggles of cousins, aunts and uncles, a grandfather who takes me out on the deck for a sipper of scotch when he sees my eyes glaze over. There are the gifts, the newborn bible and the Madame Alexander doll that all girls in this family are given on their first birthday. But this is my 19th birthday. It is, however, my first birthday with Pat’s family and they need me to be a child for a while longer. There are the heartfelt comments so hard to understand. The new great aunt and uncle who tell me they have prayed for me all these years. Like the others, I’ve never thought of them. My birth mother wonders why they never told her about this. No one spoke to her about me after she gave birth at the age of 24. The dam that held that river back stayed in place until I returned 18 years later and the floodgates re-opened.
There are the trips up and down Hwy 84 to introduce family to family. The city family loads up the car for the long trip to visit my sister’s farm family. My Eastern Oregon father, Paul, comes to meet my birth mother for the first time. They could not be more different. My new little siblings ride the pigs. We have pictures, there’s more cake. The tree is growing thick with branches that overlap – nothing grows straight anymore.
We slowly all learn our places and who we are to one another, each filling a new role replacing no one else. My graduation from Lewis and Clark College brings everyone together once again. There is my sudden illness and all branches hold my bed firmly in place and wait for the storm to pass. It passes seven years later. I am 27, two years younger then my birth father when I was born. The tree feels steady and solid again. I talk to everyone about finding my birth father for the first time. I pray he’s not Irish Catholic like my birth mother. My tree is so big already, what if there are more cousins? I ask Pat for his name. She cannot spell it correctly. She’s a PhD, but cannot spell. I’m comforted by this, as I now can blame genetics for my own poor spelling. I go through state records, look up old information, find a social security number and have someone do an illegal DMV search for me.
I find him in Missouri. “Missouri,” I think, “that’s good.” How would I handle more Oregon cousins? His name is Darrel. I have my boss call him. “Hello, did you know you have a daughter in Oregon?” He knows he has a child, but thought I was a boy. “Would you like to have contact with her?” Yes. The answer is yes. He has four sons. Two are my half brothers. He has parents, brothers, and many many cousins all in Oregon. They had not told my brothers about me, and one of them overheard the original phone call. He runs down, yelling, “Dude, we have a sister.” “Shut up and get out of my room,” is their first conversation. I fly to Missouri, step off the plane. This time I’m walking toward my birth father. I don’t see my own eyes in his face, although I do see a resemblance to my flat chest. Genetics again. The meeting goes smoothly, there is no drama. No one steals a bra this time. My brothers wonder about their new sister only between commercials of the football game. It’s all quite normal. I fly home to Portland, continue my life and Darrel calls me every single weekend since then. The branch is firmly in place and grows stronger with each phone call.
I am now 37 and my tree is still growing. I recently married my husband, Louis. He’s an L.A. city boy who doesn’t know a how to milk a cow, but may someday create a vaccine for AIDS. He’s invited all over the world to speak, but his favorite destination is arguably Milton-Freewater and my mother’s Thanksgiving dinner table. He has two sons, now my sons, ages 11 and 17, and each day I am amazed by what it takes to raise a child. Our wedding was the ultimate gathering. Both my mother, Helen, and father, Paul, from Eastern Oregon, along with my step-father, Mike, where there and gave me away. My birth mother, Pat, her husband, my redheaded grandma were there. My birth father, Darrel, and his wife were there. And so many siblings. We did not have a bride’s side and a groom’s side. We simply felt lucky that the groom’s family of 10 did not run away at the site of all of us.
My birth parents, Pat and Darrel, had not seen one another since before I was born. No one knew how that first meeting would go, least of all the bride. I expected a brief an exchange of niceties then off to their own corners for the remainder of the wedding. What happened was the best gift they could have offered to us. They liked one another. Their spouses liked one another. They sat together the entire weekend long wedding and laughed. I have pictures of myself with my birth parents. My only pictures with them. They left no doubt in anyone’s mind that the mother and father of the bride were my Eastern Oregon parents. At the same time, however, everyone understood that my tree was full of parents.
There’s one last branch on my tree. It’s the one Martha, my caseworker from the Boys and Girls Aid Society, is part of. There’s the foster family who cared for me from birth to six weeks. There are the people who did the paperwork, who bought my clothes, who made things work so that an infant could find a home. There are the people I’ll never know who supported the agency financially. They are part of my tree as well. Since I don’t know them, I will thank you instead. Perhaps it was you who made it possible for a farm family to adopt a child because they wanted one to spoil. Not because they had the most money or access to the best education, but purely because they wanted a child to love. I’m not sure that most farm families could afford adoption these days. I’m not sure that most birth mothers could afford to place a child through a non-profit agency when lawyers made such generous offers. What I am sure of is that the work that is done with infant adoption here needs to continue. It needs the financial support to be competitive with the way adoption has changed. What we do here grows branches for children we will never know.
This summer I am invited to many family reunions. My birth father’s family will meet in Yellowstone, my mom’s family in Ellensburg under the same old willow tree. But I’m going back down the dirt road with the cat-tails and milkweed to Grandma Grace’s house. She was the neighbor, the grandma I drew into my tree as a small child. Family is not defined by biology or legal papers but by love.
Mine is a tree of many crooked branches. I imagine yours is, as well.