So, the question of the week has been “How did it go?”
And the answer is “We had a great time.”
While it was a wonderful adventure meeting my new-found sister-in-law Susan and niece Ana (my only surviving biological relative – that I know about), it was a tiny bit strange for both of us. Not bad strange, but OK strange. Like being on a blind date with a cheat sheet, trying to get more details as the night progressed and laughing as we walked to the car, giving each other a final hug.
It was also a bit amazing. And heart-warming. And weird. And mind-blowing.
And good. Definitely good.
I’m not sure what anyone’s expectations were for this face-to-face meet. Did I want a warm embrace? Got several. Did I expect more questions? Of course. Did I hope for a spilling of the emotions, a “we’ve been looking for you forever, etc.” kind of response? Not really. I already got my treat with Susan’s enthusiastic “I knew it!” when I initially contacted her.
What I wanted to prevent more than anything else was ‘the click’ that every adoptee fears. The “OK, we’ve seen enough of you, now go away again. Forever.”
Thankfully, that didn’t happen. There were lots of hugs and smiles. Lots of looking into each others’ eyes – for what, the answers known only to the looker – and comparing or pondering each other’s unique features.
Like my eyes. They’re big and really, really green. My mom had hazel eyes and according to what she told the state of California, my dad’s were blue. Nobody in the family that came before me had green eyes, but I definitely handed that gene down to my girls.
My niece and my daughters look slightly similar, except for their noses. My son looks the most like my mom. My niece has her father’s nose, slightly larger than my kids’, but the smile – that big face-brightening smile, and even the knowing smirk – is definitely something she and I share.
And the big, bright eyes. Even though hers are brown.
If there was one word to describe the events of the last month or so, it would be “overwhelming” and my weekend in the Pacific Northwest would have been impossible without the love and support of my extended family members from the theater, my in-laws and everyone Rock-related who fed, housed and entertained me while my head swam with new information and emotions. To them, I offer immense thanks for making sure I made this journey safely, both emotionally and physically.
Just when you think you have everything figured out in life, somebody pitches a wrench at you causing a change in your direction and angle and quite possibly making you pull a muscle. I was content with my little family of kids in three cities, my granddaughter becoming a fierce little heart-tugger, my sweetheart and I planning on things to do now that it’s just the two of us (well, plus our furbabies). I cook a lot, bake some, walk regularly, drink a lot of coffee, enjoy social media, play fantasy football, dabble in theater, advocate for the arts and am fighting my damned procrastination gene by seriously trying to write the books within me.
Then that yearbook picture surfaced.
And the whirlwind investigation began. And the finding … oh, the finding!
No clicks on the first round of calls. And an encouraging response to my proposed visit, which became an immediate priority. The Grim Reaper had already taken away my mother and brother and I wasn’t willing to let the rest of them slip away.
When I pushed open the door to Manzana Grill on the waterfront Friday night, I recognized Susan right away. We hugged a couple of times and settled on a table outside. There was some sizing up, and some heavy sighs, but I think at our ages (I’m 63, she’s a few years younger), we’re already comfortable with each other – new-found friends who happen to be not-so-distantly related.
We quickly launched into more questions about my brother; what was he like, did she see a resemblance, how was their marriage, was he a good father … you know, the normal grilling. I learned more about his reality, his strengths and shortcomings, his interests and his faults, causing me to pause and wonder how someone would describe me if the situations were reversed.
She told me that Amber would not be coming down from Seattle, that Amber was her impulsive one, contrasting Ana’s fondness for planning. I was a bit sad that she wasn’t there, but decided that it just meant a trip to Seattle might be in my future. And there’s always email and social media. I chose to focus on the positive.
We talked about our children, their growing up experiences and how grandparents (mostly my mom) played into the picture. We talked about work and the military and where we lived and traveled. I told her about my adoptive parents, how they were wonderful people and always supportive of my search. Talking to her, I probably unconsciously slipped into reporter mode, probing for details, trying to coax out enough to flesh out the two-dimensional people in my special adoption notebook that holds 8×10 prints of every photo and documents in plastic sleeves. It’s all I’ve got of them.
Even though Amber offered to contact my mother’s husband for me when we spoke last month, Susan encouraged me to make that call. She opined that he might welcome contact from a part of the wife he loved for so long, even if I might have been She Who Will Not Be Mentioned.
A potential click. Why the hell not? We’d talk about it later, Saturday afternoon, when she thought that Frank and I flying out for a meet and greet might be better. Our bank account has something to say about that. A phone call will have to do.
After a few hours, we ran out of words. We talked about where to meet the next day and where to park. Ana was joining us and it would be the first time I got to see her. I was excited all over again.
Then we got in our cars and drove away. Nobody was expecting me home and the sun was still up in a twilight kind of way. Both Starbucks I stopped at were closed and Siri was no help at all in finding a play or a movie nearby. I drove past a funky looking bar and restaurant and thought I’d stop in for some fish and chips. I posted a message on Facebook for my Oregon friends, telling them where I was in case they were wandering and wanted to join me.
I ate alone, then went back to my nephew’s house. His wife was home and we had a chance to chat. She was eager to hear how my night had gone, but I was still in the processing mode, so we talked about lots of other family stories, about their daughter and roommates and coworkers and the house and life.
The best this wordsmith could muster up in assessing the evening was “Good. It was very, very good.” And it was sincere.
The next morning, I arrived at Kell’s Irish Pub a good 15 minutes before the agreed-upon time and while I was sitting out front, heard laughter and turned to see Ana and Susan walking toward me. And it wasn’t weird, it was more like a normal Saturday where three women met to go to Saturday Market in Portland. Those kinds of events are always more fun with a group, so you can ooh and ahh over things or snicker when it’s appropriate. It’s also a good way to learn about each other’s likes and dislikes. I learned that Susan loves candles (would you believe that we only found ONE candle vendor in the whole market?) and that Ana loves her cat (both Susan and I bought toys for the kitty).
Susan wanted to either get a henna tattoo or a caricature, but I hesitated, because a friend once had an allergic reaction to the henna and ended up with a permanent scar and I’m not too keen on the work of caricaturists. Visually, she dresses more like the free spirit, while I’m a little more reserved – the Grace to her Frankie. We briefly considered getting our faces on garden gnomes, but quickly kiboshed that idea. I bought a couple of toys for Sadie, some hot sauce (Ana loves hot sauce and the vendor got excited when I told him my son grew his own hot peppers) and we walked past booth after booth of eclipse t-shirts and jewelry (one vendor got very upset when Susan and I thought her eclipse earrings were sunflowers, show us that she had her husband make partial eclipse pairs with the black circle off-center). At the end of the market, we decided to go back to Kell’s and enjoy a good Irish repast and a cold beer, as the Southern California heat I thought I’d left behind had made its way north.
In the booth, we talked about Disneyland, Portland, grandma and grandpa, work, school (Ana’s upcoming doctoral studies and me finally graduating with my bachelor’s at age 60), my kids and when Susan and Ana could come down to Southern California to be tourists. I tried to explain where places they’d heard of were in relation to our house and promised to take them wherever they wanted to go. I learned more about Ana’s work on a clinical study and how she is on call even when she’s off work because of her subjects. I shared some of my career highs and lows, we talked a little politics and Susan and I talked about how much we loved being grandmothers.
After buying sweatshirts to commemorate our visit, the three of us headed out to a Portland landmark, Voodoo Donuts. I hadn’t eaten a donut for months (I allow myself two every January) and now they were taking me to the mecca of glazed creativity (there is one x-rated donut that is never listed on the menu board outside).
During our 45-minute wait (which I heard was short), I discovered a few things: they should sell sunscreen to the people waiting in line; L.A. does not have a lock on bad singers, as the Voodoo Elvis karaoke singer proved and they really are dedicated to Keeping Portland Weird. It says so on the building across the street.
The walk back to the car was short and we were tired from the heat. We knew the visit was almost over and they lingered at the car to look at my collected pictures and documents, posing for some quick selfies (Susan shot a couple of Ana and me, then I turned the camera on all three of us) before they walked away. I put my book away, stashed the donuts and hot sauce and toys and carefully tucked away the memory of our moments together.
My niece, in whom I saw my history. My sister-in-law – hell, my SISTER – who met me 11 years after losing her husband. Those who knew about me before they knew of me.
I’m still mulling over the memories and the joy in getting to know them. I hope they are feeling the same. I hope they know there is much warmth in my heart because of them.
And I hope we see each other again soon. After all, we’ve got a lot of time to make up for.
Carol Rock is a writer based in the Los Angeles area. She is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years experience covering all areas of news and features. She works as a freelance public relations and media consultant, with writing remaining her strong suit. Her tattoo, if it were real, would read “Don’t Die Wondering.”
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