My mother never believed that kids could have actual troubles; they could have nothing more than trifling grief. “Children can’t have troubles,” she said to me when I was a kid, and again when I was a new mom. “What do children have to worry about?” She sipped coffee from her pink Melmac cup and the women in her kitchen nodded in agreement. The women were like my mother, hard-working, women who rubbed their bad backs and grumbled about the bushel baskets of ironing growing moldy in their kitchens. Whenever my mother was not lying facedown, she drank coffee from pink Melmac with those women who said over and over: “Oh to be a kid again. Not a worry in the world.”
They were wrong though. My kids had troubles. Like poppies, their troubles shot up and out in what seemed like a single day, made Ken and me catch astonished breaths. So quickly I heard things from the children they had never said before. I listened to them say: I don’t fit. This isn’t the right place. Why did you adopt me anyway? I knew those words meant more than a skinned knee. They were trying to comprehend what makes family, trying to understand how our family fit into the concept of family. The questions began around the third grade for each of them and worked their way out from there. Back and forth. Up and down. Easy and hard, terrible then okay.
I looked at the kids and when I saw them I thought, my children. I knew they counted me as their mother, no matter that they said they didn’t fit. They yelled at us and hugged us at the same time. Some days I wished it were easier, but I loved the kids—forever. That was the promise. It felt good to say that, the words melted in my mouth.
The kids smiled when I said forever and told them they were caught like a fish on my hook, an animal in my sight line. They laughed and shoved their spoons deep into bowls of ice cream. They wanted that ice cream. They begged for more every time I headed off to the grocery store: chocolate chip mint, peppermint stick, fudge ripple, marshmallow. They loved what they had, but they wanted other things too. They wanted their story. They wanted to know who they were before I caught them on my hook. Their story! Like in a baby book, between covers, fastened with wide French ribbon, their newborn picture in the lead spot. Where were they born? How much did they weigh? Was it snowing or raining, cold or sunny, the day they were born?
Most of us consider birth weight and place as markers in the bigger story of our lives, nothing we pay much attention to. But without those markers, it’s possible to feel there is no story at all. Which might make you listen to any story you hear, good or bad. Which might make you question your family.
Well, we had that picture of Sung. We had the potty time picture for Anita. No pictures for Minh, the get-out-of-Vietnam baby. Mostly we had nothing but a blank in place of their stories. We kept the clothes they wore on the flight to the States. We filled albums with cards and drawings. We kept mementos: the bear John and Mary Ann gave to Minh, the white dress with pockets Ma gave Anita, Sung’s red-and-white Korean shoes. We took pictures of them and their birthday cakes every year. But none of that was the story they wanted. Who were they before they were Minh, Anita, and Sung? They didn’t even know their real birthday! How weird was that?
* * *
In Ann Arbor on the edge of Tornado Alley, residents are expected to listen for trouble. Every Tuesday once a month, from April to October, sirens shriek a practice test. We’re encouraged to have a predetermined shelter, a battery-operated radio, a flashlight, and medical necessities at the ready. But most of the time, when the sirens shriek, people pay no mind. Most people think, It’s going to be okay. The worst that happens, a few tree limbs come down. Ann Arbor is fine.
But what if, sometime, it isn’t? What if we are caught in a mean rain, shivering, bone cold, the roof torn off our house? We are baffled—as if a bullet lodged in our chest cavity while we were giving change to a homeless person. The story is all wrong.
But why should we be surprised?
You will never know. You have to be prepared for surprises. Every time we filled out an adoption form, we were reminded of that. I thought I was prepared, but the truth is, I wanted, even expected, a story I would control, start to finish. My kids yearned for their stories. I wanted mine.
The moments when our stories merged were what I lived for.
* * *
One summer day, when the kids were still young, we took a day trip out to Independence Lake. We ate tomato-lettuce sandwiches, spit pits from Royal Ann cherries until it was dark and the park ranger sent us home.
Ken drove down North Territorial, past Saint Patrick’s Church with its red steeple poking up into a navy-blue sky. Anita, in the back seat, made up a goofy song:
Hot, hot, hotter than a pot. Hot, hot, hotter than a pot.
She stuck her bare foot up toward me; “Hold it,” she commanded. I grabbed her foot, held on, and turned to Ken. “You can drive off the edge of the world now,” I told him.
He smiled his patient smile, always more laid back than I was. Always the one who expected things to work out. He believed the kids would find their way, lost stories or no. Things would work out. He listened to my concerns about the kids, but he didn’t share them. He had grown up assured. No one in his family did anything that deviated from a confident, successful life. They were expected to do well, and they did. No fuss. At sixteen, Ken drove from Cleveland to Washington, DC. Alone. He did not mess up, did not wreck the car or even get a speeding ticket. Did not party wild. He spent the summer at Georgetown University taking a course that would qualify for college credit. Then he drove back home. No drama. And, of course, he drove to Olean, New York, where he met me at seventeen. Easy as pie. He found it hard to believe that our children would not behave the same way. Why not? So he smiled that patient smile of his and continued to drive, past the stone lions in front of the big house on Barton Drive, around the corner, and up our driveway.
Inside the house, I turned on the attic fan and cool slipped over us. We put blankets on the kids, already half asleep, then curled next to each other under our own.
The Amtrak train whistled as it rounded the bend of the Huron River. The sound came with me into sleep.
That day was the story I wanted, a story both the kids and I were glad to have. Everything about it was right, beginning, middle, and end. It would be lost. Gone before I heard a single warning siren.