Friday, August 24, 2012

Adoption and Grandparents

Our family relationships extend beyond our parents and siblings. What's your experience been like with your extended family (either adoptive/natural or both)? How does adoption play into those relationships (or not)?

"Broken Heart" by Gabriela Camerotti
at PhotoRee
Growing up, I was extremely close to my maternal grandmother.  I have fond memories of overnight visits where we would sleep back to back, her top arm draped lightly over my body.  Our visits had a predictable rhythm.  She would paint my nails, fingers and toes.  I'd rummage through her jewelry box then parade around wearing her treasures. In the morning we'd sip coffee, hers black and mine with plenty of cream, from a china cups that clinked against their saucers.

It was at her house that I often donned my mother's green taffeta and chiffon bridesmaid dress and twirled to the music of The Lawrence Welk Show.  She made my christening gown, the same dress my daughter wore for her baptism,  and countless other outfits.  I was her first grandchild of five, her only granddaughter, and I was treasured beyond measure.

In a time when the popular advice was to let babies "cry it out", my grandma told my mother to hold me as much as I needed.  Thanks to my grandmother's wisdom, I was rocked, walked, bounced, and snuggled with a tenacity that would delight even most ardent attachment theorist.  It's impossible to know how much I was held in my foster home.  What I do know is that those were the days when fussy, grieving babies awaiting adoption were sometimes drugged to keep us calm and quiet, and that a bottle of phenobarbital accompanied me to my adoptive home, along with information on the dosage I'd been receiving.  Knowing what we now know about human development, I can only think that the high level of physical contact my grandma encouraged was greatly beneficial to me.

Did adoption affect our relationship?  It's hard to say.  It didn't seem to, but then, we didn't really discuss it.  I was little after all. I was never her adopted granddaughter, as some grandparents say, and I've never thought of her as my adoptive grandmother.  She was just my grandma.  Today, the term adoptive mom sounds normal to me.  I've been discussing adoption online long enough that I've had to do a fair amount of clarifying to let people know which mother I'm talking about.  I can acknowledge it as truthful without it taking on a negative connotation. But adoptive grandma? It has hard edges.  It seems like such a poor description of what we had.  Yet it's true.

Would she approve today of my activism?  Of my speaking out against harmful adoption practices? Would she see it as a slight to her daughter, or would she be proud of my efforts to elicit change?  I have no way of knowing.

I recently met my biological paternal grandparents.  I think it was hard for them.  It being everythingAll of it. Not just meeting me, but having the past dredged up again, having to deal with things they thought were behind them.  Difficult things.  Because in the 1960's an out-of-wedlock pregnancy was certainly difficult.

They didn't want to meet me at first.  I don't begrudge them that because I understand a fair bit of the mind-set of the time thanks to hours of discussion and books like Ann Fessler's The Girls Who Went AwayI suppose though that if I allow myself to admit it, it did hurt. All I knew of them for 43 years came from two short paragraphs. Hair color. Eye color. Height. Occupation. Nationality. Allergies.  This was the totality of my heritage, and I clung to it.  How many times did I pour over their descriptions?  And yet they did not share my delight when the possibility of meeting arose.  Twice my grandmother declined the opportunity to meet me. 

When we did finally meet, they were gracious, and I think maybe even a little relieved. They wanted to know what my life had been like with my adoptive family.  They said they remembered the day I was born.  My grandmother gave me a tour of the house and showed me the family pictures adorning the walls.  I wondered, as she pointed out all the grandchildren, if she thought about the fact that her oldest grandchild was missing from the photos. 

We hugged and took pictures.  They let each of my children choose two stuffed animals.  They told me to keep in touch, that they would like to know how I'm doing, and that they hoped I would stop by and see them the next time I was in town.  I think they meant it.  I think that meeting me was probably much easier than the anxiety that precipitated the visit. 

As pleased as I was to meet them, my emotions were surprisingly tepid.  I felt like I was meeting my father's parents, rather than my grandparents.  It was like meeting someone else's family, rather than my own. 

Perhaps that was because we have no shared memories, or maybe it was because they weren't as adoring of me as my adoptive grandparents had always been. Though my relationships with my paternal adoptive grandparents were not as intimate as those with my maternal adoptive grandmother, they were still very loving. My dad's family was a bit louder than my mom's.  Quite a bit, actually.  There were six other granddaughters, and three of them lived close enough for very frequent contact.  They knew our grandparents better than I did, and their outgoing personalities and tom-boyish interests provided an avenue for my grandfather to relate to them in ways that he couldn't relate to me.  I was the quiet, gentle, studious one.  Prized. Delicate. They loved me, but I'm not sure they ever knew quite what to do with me.  I think they thought I might break.

One particular memory of my grandfather stands out.  I was a young adolescent. We had just arrived at their home and they were greeting us at the car.  My grandfather reached out and swept a lock of my long hair behind my shoulder.  It was a tentative, tender gesture that said more than any words.  I knew I was loved.

My adoptive grandparents are all gone now.  Three of them passed away in our home.  I remember their gaunt faces, their labored breathing.  I remember both the peace and the emptiness that accompanied their passing.  I was blessed to share in their final weeks and moments. 

Now there are new opportunities, new relationships to build, blessings I had not dared to hope for.  How strange and wonderful to find at 43 years of age that I still have grandparents walking this earth. 

How sad that we are strangers.