Welcome to the sixth annual acclaimed series, 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 Veronica Chenik Gilmore
“I would like to come to y’all and maybe go on an adventure with your family, ” her text message read. “I’m just happy to be able to finally see and love on every one of them,” she added.
“An adventure?” I asked curiously.
“Let’s go to an amusement park with her together,” my husband suggested.
“Perfect,” I said.
My husband and I were planning our vacation to Florida in conjunction with several reunions with my adopted children’s biological family. This two-week trip included side trips with their great grandmother, grandmothers, father, paternal and maternal aunts and uncles and cousins.
After three years of communicating through telephone calls, emails, texting and Facebook … we were ready to meet up in person. Unlike many current birth parent adoptions, these family members never had an opportunity to select us as their niece and nephew’s adoptive parents.
We were strangers.
In many birth parent adoptions, birth parent(s) and their family have the option to help select the adoptive parents. These days, most families opt in for an open adoption, to include the thread of biological family members for pictures and sometimes even visits. There are no set rules; the families both decide together on what suits them and their comfort level.
Sometimes these arrangements can work out well, if both parties are in agreement – although they are not enforceable, should the relationship sour. In our case, no such agreement existed until we forged one.
Before we met our adoptive kids, we worried about attachment and loyalty issues. We were concerned that if we adopted older children (who had bonded with their parents), would our children live with us for a few years and then eventually want to move out and live with their “real” parents, thus rejecting us?
Perhaps that’s why most prospective adoptive parents might hesitate in adopting older kids, they are afraid of risking everything. They are afraid of attaching and letting go. They are afraid of their own loyalties. It takes imagination to love not just adoptees -- but all children -- for who they are. Rejection is rarely kind.
Prospective adoptive parents don’t want to be rejected after all efforts are exhausted in providing for their children, but sadly there are no guarantees. Parenting is paradoxical (both painful and pleasurable) and so is adoption.
A child can be raised well by good people and turn out badly. Contrarily, a child can be raised badly and turn out well. Birth children are no less defective genetically or environmentally flawed then adoptees. Adopting older children from foster care is not about choosing sides, forgetting the past, or fearing it. It’s about accepting ideas about things you have not seen, experienced or explored.
Our adoptive children have a maternal uncle who lives in Savannah, and their paternal family lives in a suburb of Atlanta. Their maternal Aunt also lives outside of Atlanta. However, their Aunt was planning to be in Florida when we were vacationing on Anna Maris Island, a couple hours a way.
We agreed to meet up for lunch and go to Universal Studios for the day. “Everybody should have an adventure with their family,” I said. This would be the first time I personally spoke to or made contact with my children’s family members. As I revealed in my 2014 essay, my husband was in charge of all birth family communications for the past three years:
When our adoption of the children was finalized, we decided to re-establish contact with our children’s aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, mother and father (there are two fathers, only one is appropriate of contact). A risky move, I know, but it felt so right for us. Our children’s caseworker in Tennessee agreed to receive the letters from family members and forward the letters to us. We wondered, would anyone write?
In June, after school let out, we packed up our Suburban and drove our family from Virginia to Georgia. We stopped at a suburb of Atlanta to meet their paternal family. We pulled into a newer subdivision where the single detached patio homes overlooked a manicured cemetery, decorated with fake colorful flowers and American flags.
The American flags were “waving” to us when we arrived at my children’s great grandmother’s house. Their grandmother greeted us in the driveway and then she invited us in. “Finally,” I said, hugging their grandmother for the first time. All of us exchanged hugs and introductions.
It had been many years since the grandparents had last seen their grandkids, then just toddlers and elementary school students. We entered their family home and the first thing I noticed was a table with picture frames of family. This included an older photo of the kids. This made me instantly smile.
Shortly after our arrival, their father arrived and then their uncle. The family resemblance was strong. The dirty blond hair, the angles of their faces and slender body composition of the boys -- all this matched.
And I knew from my kids’ reactions, that we had made the right decision to reunite them. The boys were eager to interact, while my daughters hung out in the background at first, listening to their great grandmother. Their great grandmother is an impressive ninety-two years old, and she served as a WWII nurse.
Immediately, we sat down and did what most families do -- we talked and listened, and we laughed and cried. My husband and I took turns taking pictures, documenting this emotional reunion. Out came the photo albums, art projects, ancestry documents, drawings, and letters into all of our hands, in addition to some “Loofah” gourd seeds that their great-grandmother gave us to sow in our garden.
Their father, a creative scrappy man who works in construction doing commercial carpentry trim work, spoke a lot about his carpentry work and showed us pictures from his cell phone, “These are the fancy places I work on in the city,” he said in a thick southern accent.
Ironically, I recognized one of the pictures on his phone. He had photos of the Sun Dial restaurant located in the heart of Atlanta, Georgia. The restaurant is located on the 72nd floor, with 360-degree views of the city, an iconic place in the city with great views. “Wow,” I said. “That’s where we’re going tonight for dessert!”
I could see where my kids get their creative and artistic abilities from; it’s in their genes. It was clear that my children’s biological family loved these kids and never forgot about them when their mother moved to Tennessee and uprooted them from Georgia years ago.
The visit continued with just the grandmother “Nana” and their biological father. We followed them to a public park and together we had a picnic, where we ate fried chicken and watermelon. Their father requested a prayer before we ate and Nana asked for our safety during our travels. Their grandmother was eager to have a moment with her granddaughters, to “love on them.” She gave them each a bit of yarn and a needle and showed the girls how to crochet a chain. Their father gave the boys some old coins from his collection.
That evening, we left with a bag of personal mementos, which included a bag of fun books, a picture frame with sea horses and seashells, a crochet doll, coins, some yarn and needles and the “Loofah” gourd seeds.
“I’d like to show you my place,” their father said, wanting to continue our visit. I looked at my husband and he looked at me, gauging my response and the time. We left the park and followed his car down a gravel road to his home.
For a minute, I worried if we were doing the right thing. We wanted to get to know him and build trust with a man who had a checkered past. There were no guarantees that he would not act irrational, that he didn’t own a weapon, and would not turn our visit into something you hear on the news. My fears felt very real.
In a split second, we were in route. My husband and I decided to invest on getting to know him better. His authenticity excited and scared me, as we stepped inside his heart and his head.
His temporary home had no electricity, no water and no plumbing. The abandoned house had a tired camper situated on a cozy lot with goats running loose from a neighbor nearby. “The neighbor lets the goats out sometimes, and they eat up all the poison ivy,” he explained.
He told us about another neighbor who sits in his car across the road for hours -- “ I think he’s a hoarder” – and he told us all about the inside of his neighbor’s house. He has ambitious plans to purchase and renovate the house for his mother, brother and him to live in. For the time being he lives in the camper, while his mother and brother stay temporarily with the grandmother.
We stood outside the boarded up and abandoned house when he realized he left the key in his truck, which was parked at his grandmother’s house. A piece of plywood covered the door with a padlock. Since he forgot the key to the padlock on the makeshift door, he kicked in the plywood, Boom!, his action made one of my sons chuckle to see his father’s strength.
Their father took us on a tour of his home. We followed him through the dilapidated moldy structure with nothing but our cell phones lighting the path, watching out for weak spots (and holes) in the walls and floors. He showed us his collection of leftover materials from different odd jobs that he plans on using in his new abode.
Each pile of leftover materials reveals an interesting story that he shares with us as we pass each item by - the white tile, a fiberglass bathtub, an old door with peeling paint, a rectangular kitchen cabinet, a bathroom sink, a granite slab, a carved table – some inside the house and others left outside in the natural elements accruing some degree of weathered character, just like the storyteller.
When we finally decided to end our visit, it was clear that their biological father wanted more of a connection with his children. “Can I get their cell phone numbers and we can talk?” he asked me, (gesturing to his sons) seeking permission. An awkward silence surfaced.
“I think it’s best to just keep the communication as it is,” I said, “through us.” I continued. “How about if you write letters to each other?” I offered. I could see his happiness fade.
I reached out to him as a parental figure and said goodbye, both of us crying and holding on to each other. “This is not the last time, you will see us,” I assured him. “Next year, your son will be graduating high school,” I said. “You are invited to come.”
During our visit with their father, he revealed his sadness and regrets – his issues with the law and addiction. How he found himself often homeless, depressed and suicidal. How he grew up too fast and became a young father to children so quickly without a clue as to what to do next.
“I could not have raised you -- I just didn’t have it in me,” he said to his sons and daughters, apologetically crying. He spoke of how his recent faith in God revealed a path for him to remain sober and hopeful. A strong but emotionally fragile person, in his own way, he asked his children for forgiveness.
Many group hugs ensued in the swampy humidity of his front yard. Like his boarded up home under much construction, I was watching a family relationship being re-built.
That evening we visited the Sun Dial bar and had dessert on the 72nd floor. The room spun slowly around the city as we listened to the Jazz band play Prince. We took notice of the trim work around us. In our heads and our hearts, his stories rambled in and out of our conversations, and my family felt pride, surrounded by their father’s work.
In Florida, we met up with their maternal Aunt in Orlando at Café Tu Tu Tango. There were many hugs and tears - an emotional reunion evolved. I could see the family resemblance in the girls – it was the beautiful eyes, the curvy bodies and affectionate smile…the laughter, the sassiness. Yes, they are related, I thought.
After lunch we set off for our adventure at Universal Studios, Island of Adventure theme park. We let the kids ride with their aunt. When we got through the entrance gate, I took their aunt aside and whispered in her ear, “Have fun and pay no attention to me.” “Please,” I added, “ This is your time, be their aunt -- have a great time with your nieces and nephews!” She burst into tears and thanked me with a tight hug.
Our long waits in line were resourceful times for conversation and catching up on things in the past.
“Your mama was the youngest, and I was the oldest girl,” her aunt informed us. “Our mama made her come with me on every date,” she explained. “She was the cutest little thing,” she added. This made my youngest daughter (age twelve) giggle.
My children were loved early on.
Their aunt shared a story about how “spoiled” my oldest daughter was. According to their Aunt, when my oldest daughter was little she “didn’t want to be in that car seat, not for one second” and “you wailed, ‘mama, mama, mama!’” she told us, expressing each Ma-ma in a very southern drawl. “We had to stop the car every hour just to get you out so she could hold you,” their Aunt said. We all laughed and smiled, in agreement, “Yep, sounds like my daughter!” I said.
My oldest daughter (age fifteen) was listening, but not adding as much to the conversations. Their aunt got an authentic version of our family’s personality quirks on our adventure together.
Sensing the distance, their aunt asked, “Did I say something to upset her?”
“Nah” I said, “ It’s been hard lately. You know," offering a half answer, "teenagers testing boundaries." Reunions are difficult to take in, even in the best of circumstances. All children eventually expire at amusement parks, and our time had come to an end.
On the tail end of our trip, we said good-bye to Florida. Just two weeks after the Orlando tragedy, family weighed heavily on my mind as we headed home to Virginia. But before we made it home, we made another stop in Georgia.
We met up with our kids' maternal uncle and his family at Huey’s on the river in historical Savannah. The restaurant was crowded and loud, not ideal for conversation, but the food was authentically southern and memorable. During our meal, pictures and conversation ensued. We had the finest Jambalaya and shrimp etouffee I ever had. And then we shared a dessert of beignets covered in white powdered sugar. We became experts on reunions, even though each one unique, the fears we had disappeared and once again we blended in.
The girls were especially excited to meet their young cousin in person. A freshman in college, she came with her friendly boyfriend in hand. It was decided early on that she was a brunette version of my oldest daughter – and selfies ensued.
After dinner we walked along the river, in the humid heat, listening to the live music blaring out from a riverside stage and bar. We watched street vendors perform their tricks, while they crafted art for us. Together with sticky hands and sweaty bodies we watched the freightliners & ferries float by effortlessly on the river as we waved to the patrons aboard.
Every family member we met expressed sadness and relief. Each and every one of them wished they could have taken in their nieces and nephews. But instead of regret, they were grateful to be in their lives again -- thankful that things had turned out as well as they did. “Thank you for being great parents, for taking them in and loving them as your own,” they said.
I believe my favorite author Andrew Solomon put it best, in regards to parenting, “We must love them for themselves, and not for the best of ourselves in them, and that is a great deal harder to do. Loving our own children is an exercise for the imagination.”
Veronica Chenik Gilmore is an adoptive parent and writer/advocate. She lives outside Washington DC with her husband and their seven children. They are an official spokes family for AdoptUSkids website. Veronica draws from her personal experiences regarding humanist values, adoption and stories of identity and parenthood. Find her blog at Chronicles for Social Change. She is a contributing writer on a book with the same title We Are All Adopted.
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