Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. Designed to give a voice to the many different perspectives of adoption, this series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying experiences.
By Jessica O’Dwyer
The Guatemalan searcher I hired to find my daughter’s birth mother, Ana, told us to meet in Panajachel, the town guidebooks refer to as Gringotenango. “In the village where Ana lives, San Luis, they don’t see a lot of white people,” the searcher explained, referring to me, the white adoptive mother. “Better to meet someplace else.”
That first meeting happened in 2009, when Olivia was seven. Most of the photos I took from the reunion are blurry, because I was crying too hard to keep my camera steady. To see Olivia and Ana fall into each other’s arms and hold on as if afraid to let go, left me shaking.
Their black hair and brown skin, their slim bodies and elegant fingers, their quietness and ability to be still in a way I’ve never witnessed in anyone else: If I ever doubted the invisible bond of blood, meeting Ana convinced me of its presence.
Since then, Olivia and I have visited Ana every summer, spending time in Panajachel with her and Olivia’s older half-siblings, Maria and Santiago, and Olivia’s grandmother, Abuela.
Our routine is always the same. We wait at Panajachel’s one gas station for the chicken bus from the mountains to arrive. Ana clambers down the steps of the bus in her woven skirt and embroidered blouse, and straight into Olivia’s embrace. Maria and Santiago climb down next, with another round of hugging. Finally, Abuela appears, and the group opens to include her.
Passersby stare, but no one comments. We’re anonymous in Panajachel, and as we stroll through the streets, Olivia walks between her mother and grandmother, holding their hands. We light candles and pray at church, and shop for shoes and other necessities. We walk to the shore of Panajachel’s Lake Atítlan, where I take the annual family picture.
Later, we share a meal at a restaurant, and Olivia and her sister and brother play cards and draw pictures while Ana and I pore over the pages of the photo album I’ve compiled, marveling at Olivia’s height and the thickness of her braid. We discuss her studies at school. The family speaks K’iché as well as Spanish and Olivia’s and my Spanish skills are developing. Yet somehow everyone communicates.
* * * *
Ana told no one about her pregnancy. She was in her mid-thirties, a widow, and Catholic, when Olivia was born. Ana delivered in a clinic ten hours away from San Luis, in the town where she worked as a housekeeper while Abuela cared for Maria and Santiago. In villages like San Luis, women who give up their children for adoption are scorned and reviled. Sometimes they are forced to kneel on broken glass while their heads are shaved. Sometimes they are covered in tar. Once, a mob lashed twelve people believed to be associated with placing children with other parents.
The day the searcher knocked on Ana’s door with a letter from me was the day Ana’s other children learned of Olivia’s existence. The searcher emailed me a photo of Ana after she received the news her daughter was healthy and alive. Ana is smiling, and tears fill her eyes. Her long, narrow face is the same as Olivia’s.
* * * *
Between trips to Guatemala, we stay in touch with Ana by telephone. When I booked our tickets this year, I knew we’d be celebrating three significant milestones: Maria married her sweetheart and gave birth to her first baby. Santiago set off on his own and moved far away. And Olivia turned thirteen and became a señorita.
On a Tuesday in July, Ana arrived in Panajachel by chicken bus at the appointed spot at the appointed time. But instead of clambering down the steps with Maria and Abuela, she climbed out the bus’s back door alone. “Today, we will meet at my house in San Luis,” Ana said. “Maria’s new baby is too young to travel. Abuela is too old.”
Knowing Ana had kept her pregnancy a secret from her neighbors in San Luis, I was surprised. A little nervous, too. In our trips to Guatemala, we hadn’t veered far from the tourist trail, and San Luis was too small to appear on a map. At the same time, I felt deeply honored by the invitation. “What do you think?” I asked Olivia. Half an hour later we hopped on the next bus for the return journey.
One chicken bus, one micro-van, one uphill hike, and two hours later, we stood in the lane at the gate in front of Ana’s adobe house. The house’s roof was made of corrugated tin, and wood smoke curled from the chimney. Clothes flapped in the wind on the long clothesline, and beyond that, rows of corn grew tall and dense and green. Chickens clucked and skittered and pecked in the dirt. A single spigot supplied the family’s only running water.
We walked through the yard and a yapping dog ran in circles to greet us. “What’s your dog’s name?” Olivia asked, and she laughed when Ana answered “Bob.”
The house had a door, but no windows, and smelled of wood smoke and corn. Two pictures hung on the wall in the kitchen. One of Pope John Paul II, fingers raised in a blessing. The other of Olivia, Ana, and Abuela, walking hand in hand and shown from the back, from our first visit.
Olivia and I sat on plastic stools at a small wooden table while Ana served a lunch of fried chicken and squash. The tortillas were handmade that morning from Ana’s crop; the Coca-Cola bought special for the occasion.
Abuela gave Olivia a necklace fashioned from Rosary beads and Maria let Olivia hold her new baby. As I watched the four generations interact, I reflected on the way we’ve closed a circle and expanded it, both. We have more people to love.
After we finished lunch, Ana jumped up without warning and dashed outside. A minute later, a hundred firecrackers ignited, loud enough for every person in San Luis to hear.
Ana’s daughter Olivia had come home.
Jessica O'Dwyer is the author of MAMALITA: AN ADOPTION MEMOIR (Seal Press). Her essays have been published in the New York Times Motherlode; Brain, Child; Adoptive Families, and the Marin Independent Journal. She lives in California.
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