Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Bedtime Kisses

Last night, just before she nodded off to sleep, TK cups a hand on my cheek and murmurs, "I love you, sweet Mommy."

And tonight, TK whispered, "I'm so glad you're my mommy." I whispered back, "I'm so glad you're my child." I closed my eyes and felt a little stuffed animal belly against my cheek, then heard TK's lowered "Froggy" voice: "I'm so glad to be with you guys!"

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Glimpses of You in Late Fall

1. I finish telling you your bedtime story -- part of our ritual, now. You like to add your own parts of the narrative: "and then Froggy said, 'Oh no!'" -- and your own plot twists: "But my Mommy was there, too." Always, though, you quiet down and listen while the story reaches its climax and relaxes into resolution. Then, every night, you sigh with a little smile on your face. "Thank you for the story, Mama" -- and it's as if I've just given you the most precious gift you can imagine.

2. It's Halloween night, and you have excitedly donned a dragon costume to join Tim and Katie and the neighborhood kids in the trick-or-treating tradition. I remember you last year at this time, in America for just two months, puzzled by all the new things you needed to learn. Now you seem to have mastered it. You run up to a house with the other kids, your purple trick-or-treating bag in your hands. The house owner plops a piece of candy in your bag. I expect you to run back to me, eager (like the other kids) to go on to the next house. But you look at me sadly. "Mommy, I'm all done," you say. "I want to give people candy from OUR house." So we go home, just the two of us, and make hot chocolate, waiting for the next doorbell ring, when you can offer the trick-or-treaters candy from the wooden bowl, your face shining with happiness.

3. I leave you at preschool early in the morning and watch you make your way to the snack table. You are wearing your green and purple dragon outfit from Halloween -- I think you love the tail and the claw mittens and the purple belly. One of the preschool teachers -- the one who irks me with her too-sharp voice -- slides your hood off your head. You look dismayed for a moment -- you don't look like a dragon without the hood! I ask why the hood has to come off; the teacher shrugs and says you'll be too hot. You nod -- you even look resigned -- and then walk hoodless to the snack table, where you cradle the hot chocolate I bought you from the coffee shop this morning and the kiss I've just blown to you (you always hold my morning kiss in your hand for awhile, before you put it in your pocket for safe-keeping). I walk to the jeep feeling sad -- tearful. I almost run back inside to scoop you up; I could call in sick; I could quit my job today. But then we wouldn't have rent money or groceries money or fly-to-Iowa money. You have to endure the teacher who won't let you fully be a dragon; I have to be a good grown-up and go to work. Neither of us is fully happy until we see each other again at the end of the day.

4. We've been outside coloring with sidewalk chalk at Gram's house in Des Moines. When I open the door for you, you make a beeline for Gram, who is sitting -- exhausted -- in her chair. You haven't connected with her much since we've been here, and I've wondered if her frailty troubles you -- but now you grab her hands and press them to your round checks. "Feel my cheeks, Gram," you tell her, speaking slowly and loudly like you've heard the grown-ups do. "Aren't they cold?" And Gram grins, cradling those soft cheeks in her wisened hands.

5. You are riding on my back in the baby backpack while we walk home from a hike out Basin Road.
"You know what song's in my head?" I ask you.
"Sing it, Mama!"
And I sing the song you taught me from your preschool: "The leaves are falling down, the leaves are falling down. . ."
"I put that in your head for you, Mommy!"
"Oh, thank you, TK!"
And we sing together all the way home, making up more verses for my head.

6. Your favorite game, lately, is to pretend you are the mommy and I am the baby. "Do you want some food, baby?" you ask me. I play along; you feed me, and then cradle my head in your arms. Then suddenly: "Mommy, how about you be the mommy again? I like that better."

7. At the First Friday gallery walk in downtown Juneau, we see Santa Claus on the sidewalk. This is your first official glimpse, since you were unaware of Santa's existence last year. You gape. Santa approaches and gets down on one knee. "Have you been good?" he asks. You nod wordlessly while he hands you a piece of red and white striped candy. "But, SANTA," you whisper, "I thought you weren't REAL!" Santa grins and gives his beard a good yank. "I'm real," he affirms. "So am I," you say solemnly.

8. How many cups of coffee and milk will we share together in cozy coffee shops, you telling me a long story, me enthralled with the little person you're becoming? I hope for so many that I will lose count.

9. We are climbing the tall, tall slide at the playground in Des Moines, while Aunt Katie snaps photos. I imagine how the photos will look -- me guiding you up the ladder, you looking upward with determination. The metaphor is obvious, but only partly true. So much of the time, you're leading me, showing me how to do this mama thing.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Afraid of Monsters -- Vignettes

1. TK runs pell-mell through the living room, paraphrasing Maurice Sendak in a loud shout: "I AM A WILD THING!" She bares her teeth and wrinkles her nose; she raises both of her little hands in claws. I pretend to be afraid. Ali always jumps up on the couch and mock-screams. Tim shrieks like he's seen a rat. Katie laughs. The Wild Thing, who never goes without her dinner, giggles and then bares her teeth at us again.


2. When I turn out the light at 8:32 p.m., TK, after an entire day of being the sweetest girl imaginable, turns into a monster, yelling "NO!" and thrashing around on her bed and screaming "I will NOT go to bed!". I calmly tell her I'm going to the living room until she becomes my sweet girl again; she proceeds to sob uncontrollably and beat her legs and arms against the bed. This continues for ten minutes (while I'm in the living room, trying in vain to have a half-way normal conversation with Tim about the Greek gods).

Then: "Mommy?"

I move to stand in the doorway. "Yes, TK?"

"I'm all done being a monster."

And I snuggle into bed with her, and she nestles close, and I inhale her non-monster scent of olive oil and almond butter lotion, of crayons and cupcake batter.


3. I burst through the door of Gold Creek, TK's preschool/daycare, and sweep TK up in my arms. We smile at each other, in love. Then I read the note her teachers have taped to her locker: "Mitike bit another child today." I read it again; I sense TK watching me read it. I meet her eyes. "You are a little girl. NOT a creature. I'm not happy." That's all I say to her, but she bursts into tears, and we walk in silence the entire way home. Her teachers told me the other child was aggressively trying to pull a toy away from TK, that TK -- who is incredibly articulate for her age -- must have panicked and resorted to biting. But I want to teach my daughter never to resort to violence. The silence is serious; it walks between us; TK keeps her little head down. She knows.

At the corner before our house, I stop and lift her up in my arms. I tilt her chin up so her eyes meet mine. Oh, her poor eyes are brimming with tears. "Mitike, my little monster," I say gently, "I love you, no matter what. Okay?"

She nods, and says seriously, "Mommy, next time I'll use my words. I'm so sorry."

We stand in the rain and hug, and then we walk up the hill singing a silly song we learned from a book about a lizard: "Zoli, zoli, zoli, rock is my home, rock is my home, zoli, zoli, zoli." And my little monster looks so happy, singing in the rain, her little arms wrapped around my neck.


4. "Mommy! There are monsters on the walls!" TK clutches the covers and points fearfully at the far wall, where her nightlight casts strange shadows.

"Those are just shadows, sweetheart," I mutter sleepily.

"They're bugs! They're bugs, Mommy!" She begins to cry, covering her head.

I stand up and pretend to shoo away bugs. "Go away!" I shout, and then glance back at TK, who is nodding solemnly. I snuggle back into bed with her.

"Sing me a song, Mommy," she murmurs in the shadowy darkness.


5. We attend the high school production of "Little Shop of Horrors," which is -- incidentally -- far more horrible than the movie version. I murmured "it's just a puppet, it's just a puppet" into TK's ear the entire show, but she seems a bit shaken when the lights go up at the end (so does our 9-year-old, Tim). "Mommy," she says, her eyes round saucers, "that plant ATE people. That's not okay."


6. "Mommy," TK asks me one day as we drive to her daycare, "when you're at work, who keeps YOU safe?"


7. TK and I chase each other back and forth across the kitchen and living room, pretending to be monsters, "rawrring each other", as TK calls it. She stops and looks up at me, sudden resolution shining in her dark brown eyes. "Mommy! We just need to stare into their yellow eyes, Mommy," she explains, quoting Sendak again. She grins and grabs the soccer ball. "No more monsters! Want to play this game now?"

Friday, October 16, 2009

Discussions About HAIR (Etc.)

"Can I touch her hair?" the white middle-aged woman wearing only a pink towel asks me in the pool locker room. She stares almost hungrily down at my daughter's spiraling, sproingy black curls. I look at Mitike. "Do you want the lady to touch your hair?" I ask my 2-year-old daughter. Mitike shakes her head. NO. The stranger looks abruptly embarrassed and moves away. I lean in close to TK and whisper, "Remember: you never have to let anyone touch your beautiful hair." She nods solemnly, watching with relief as the lady moves away.

I never knew -- before I became the mother of an Ethiopian girl -- how much attitudes about hair can reveal our culture's attitudes about race. As I google new hair products to make TK's tangles easier to comb through and to make her curls bouncier and shinier, I find a raging debate in the African American community: should black hair be left natural or should it be straightened chemically? Which style shows the most pride in being black? Which style shows submission to dominant white culture? A recent Time magazine article (Sept. 7, 2009) recounts the rampant discussion about Michelle Obama's hair -- the black community argues about what style exhibits the most pride; the white community marvels "How does she change its length and its waviness all the time like that?"

I live in an Alaskan community that, while diverse, has few African or African American people. Mitike's hair is rare, and a curiosity. Other children reach out to touch it; adults behave the way the woman at the pool did. Mitike looks at me with her brow furrowed and says, "Mommy, how about you are the only one who touches my hair?"

But my own fingers barely know what to do. Before TK's curls began to grow long (and tangle), I read and read on blogs and websites -- and even in books (proof of my quest to know!) -- about how to care for African hair. I bought organic products that contained olive oil and honey, shea butter and cocoa butter, lemon grass oil and coconut oil. I followed prescriptions from strangers -- spray with water first, then put some olive oil in, then follow with a leave-in conditioner; wash it with shampoo once a week. I was determined not to be like the white mama of a little African American girl in TK's daycare, who was stopped in the Seattle airport by two well-meaning African American women who shook their heads and said, "You do NOT know what to do with that girl's hair."

I've had moments of pride: a woman in Denver stopped us on the sidewalk (my heart caught) and praised TK's "natural" hair; an Ethiopian woman in Seattle nodded at me with approval and then greeted TK with "Look at your beautiful hair!"; a presenter on racism at an August inservice shook her beautiful dreadlocks and told me her pride in her skin color has come partly from the decision she's made to have natural hair -- she complimented the way I nudge TK in that same direction.

Thank you. But what do I do with the way her curls knot and tangle together when she wears her beloved purple stocking cap all day? And should she cry as much as she does when I do the weekly combing of those lovely curls (with half a bottle of the supposedly magic detangler worked into her hair)? And if I let her hair dread, how do we return to curls eventually -- cut it all off? And what will I do if -- like one of my middle school students, who is also adopted from Ethiopia -- she succumbs to the perceived standard of beautiful hair and begs me to let her straighten those beautiful curls chemically? How can I get support for her hair in a community that doesn't even sell shampoo for her (I have to order everything online and pay to have it shipped to Alaska)? How do I counsel her to believe her hair is beautiful? How can I teach her to respond politely to the people who want to touch it -- even if it's out of well-meaning curiosity?

I know it may seem strange to spend so much time thinking about hair. . . but this white mama is beginning to realize that hair discussions are the surface conversations on a vast ocean of discussion about race. In this community -- a community of "white" hair, Native hair, and Filipino hair -- Mitike's sproingy curls are a beautiful curiosity. In other communities, her unstraightened wild locks shout pride in her African heritage. In still other communities, her unruly black hair represents ugliness or -- worse -- inferiority. The presenter on race -- the one with the beautiful dreadlocks -- smiled at me gently and said, "Her hair will be so important." I'm beginning to understand what she meant.

This morning, as I sprayed TK's hair with water, then worked in organic olive oil leave-in conditioner (made by Africa's Best, sold by for $4.99/bottle), then hydrated the back curls -- the ones always submerged under her stocking cap -- with Olive Oil and Honey Balm (made by Quemet, sold by that company for $14/container), then used TK's favorite dark purple sparkly headband to keep her curls back from her face, I whispered -- as I do every morning -- "Look at those beautiful curls!" She smiled at me, and then bared her teeth and yelled in her best imitation of Maurice Sendak's Max (from "Where the Wild Things Are"), "I'M A WILD THING!" and leapt off the stool.

For now, I think, our conversations about hair will be mostly about what color of sparkly band she wants to wear each morning. I'll guard these deeper topics in my heart -- for when my beautiful-haired little girl is ready.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Friday, September 11, 2009

Belated Reflections on My Sweet Little Pain-in-the-Bum

I've been meaning to sit down and write about August 29, the one-year anniversary of TK's homecoming to Juneau -- but I haven't gotten to it until now. I had planned to write a sentimental, moving reflection on our sweet connection, on her generous and open spirit -- but on August 29, she happened to be a pain-in-the-bum (we don't say "butt" in our house) toddler: tantrums about nothing, screams of "NO!" at every juncture, refusals to apologize, grabbing, etc., etc. I don't even remember now, two weeks later, what we fought our small battles over that day, but at the end of the day, which included a party in which all our friends and their kids came to our house to celebrate Tk with a potluck, I was GLAD when she fell asleep. Most days, I feel a twinge of sadness -- the sense that we don't have enough hours together in the day. Not that day. Monster TK forced Monster Mama to emerge, regardless of the fact that it was the first anniversary of her homecoming from Ethiopia.

It wasn't until a week later, when our family went to Labor Day family camp out in Echo Cove, that I sat down to write after TK had fallen asleep in the cabin. It was evening, and the ocean's gentle rhythm soothed me as I thought about the day. TK had been fully herself, no monster in sight -- it had been a day of her giggling and snuggling with me while we read books on the couch (our Saturday morning ritual), of her traipsing along the path at Twin Lakes and then shouting "THE RED SWING IS STILL HERE!", of her kicking her legs with glee while we ran around the playground chasing Tim and Katie, of her sweet "Find me, Mommy!" in the clothing store, of her absolute joy at the pink milk I made her for naptime. She donned x-Tra Tuffs for our walk out to this cabin -- 2.5 miles -- but rode in the baby carrier most of the way ("Because I need you, Mommy!"). When I handed a grape fruit leather back to her mid-walk, she clapped her hands and exclaimed, "For me? Thank you, Mommy!" That night, at the campfire with the other kids at family camp, she roasted a marshmallow though her eyes looked exhausted, and now she was sweetly asleep, nestled beneath my sleeping bag, dreaming. THIS was my sweet little girl -- the pain-in-the-bum tucked away again.

Does she ever dream of Ethiopia? Of the tukul in which she was born? Of the orphanage? Of the cacophony of sound in the early morning? Of the gentle mist above the rounded green mountains? I dream of our long plane ride to Juneau a year and a week ago, the two of us facing each other in the cramped plane seat, trying to understand each other, inspecting each other. She learned to say "Yay!" first in English because I responded with that word most often when we played together. I learned before the plane landed in Rome that I wanted to hear her laugh again and again and again, my whole life. I never knew a mother-daughter story could be a love story.

What will I tell her about that journey from her birth country to her adoptive country, which my mom (who I cannot thank enough for accompanying me on that journey) and I talk about and talk about, trying to understand it? We stood in line for over an hour at customs in D.C., and I was exhausted -- she clung to me. In a rush before the next line, I knelt on the floor to change her diaper and -- naked -- she peed an impressive arc of liquid straight up into the air and all over my pants. We caught each other's eyes and then laughed until we both cried.

Ali met us just past customs, a purple iris clutched in her hand. TK knew she'd love her other mommy almost immediately -- two or three games of hide-and-seek behind Mommy's shoulder and she was convinced. Later, she'd bang the iris happily on the window until it disintegrated into pieces. She chanted happy syllables that sounded strange to us -- and were probably unintelligible even to an Amharic speaker.

Ali captured TK's actual arrival in Juneau -- August 29, 2008 -- on film: TK in brown pajamas, happily exploring her new house, a Barbie ball (way go go, diversity-sensitive mamas!) clutched in her little hands. What the camera missed was TK's first reaction to the house, the way she scrambled to get down from my arms when we walked through the door (though she'd clung to me for two straight days). Somehow, she knew this was her home.

The truth is, I can't process how much I love this little person, or how lucky I know I am to have her in my life. In a strange way, I appreciated her stinker-face-ness on her homecoming day -- it kept me from dissolving into tears all day, from gathering her close to me and just hugging her, not letting go. How did all of this wonderfulness HAPPEN? How did I receive such a beautiful life? I ask myself that often -- and not just about Mitike.

I had to actually raise my voice at TK on August 29, something that would have horrified the glowing new mommy who held the baby-toddler a year ago on the Ethiopian Airlines flight from Addis Adaba to Rome to D.C. But that glowing mother was still new; she didn't know more than a glimmer about who sat on her lap during that flight. I know her fully now. Every once in awhile, she's a little monster -- a little pain-in-the-bum -- but MOSTLY, she is an amazing little person, full of laughter, silliness, empathy, generosity, intuition, curiosity, and full deep love. This mommy -- a year and two weeks later -- knows what she's in for. . . and I'm so entirely grateful.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

A Year Ago Today: Meeting Mitike for the First Time

August 22, 2008: My mom and I wake at 5 a.m. to the Christian Orthodox call to worship -- the waking sounds of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. A half hour later, the muezzin calls the Muslims from the mosque's minaret -- the dogs start barking -- traffic noise begins -- Ethiopian pop music blares from the construction site across from our guesthouse. If I'd been a mere traveler, I'd have soaked all these sounds into my being and reveled in what the rising sun revealed: the gentle roll of distant green mountains, the cacophony of color and shape in the buildings crammed beside ours, the glimpse of a solitary man herding goats down the stone-paved street. But I had come to Ethiopia to be a mother -- to wrap my arms around a little girl whom I would meet for the first time in a few hours. My heart hammered.

August 22, 2009: I wake at 5 a.m. on a rainy morning in Juneau, Alaska, to read and write for awhile before Mitike wakes -- this is my only quiet time, my only time for reflection. I stay up late to plan my lessons and grade papers -- the day in its fullness is entirely Mitike's. I'm jealous of this time. I need it. In just under two hours, a little voice will interrupt my quiet -- "Mommy!" I need this time to reflect right now about this whirlwind year, about the impossibilities that brought me together with the beautiful little person sleeping in the next room right now.

August 22, 2008: The first day, she turned away from me and just cried -- quietly, sadly, desperately. She was 19 months old, clad in a ridiculously frilly dress, white tights and black patent leather shoes -- the orphanage nannies must have felt this was the best presentation. She sat on the carpeted orphanage floor with her legs splayed in a "V", toys gathered protectively in that space. The social worker told me gently that I needed to go slowly -- unlike the other American parents, who had been encouraged to play actively with their children (beside me, one mother tossed her new son in the air; another father pushed a truck back and forth with his new daughter). Mitike observed me from the corner of one eye and began to weep, reaching for the social worker. I sat beside her for hours, making futile efforts at connection: blowing bubbles, building legos, balancing toys on my head. The orphanage was loud -- children crying, screaming, parents over-enthusiastic at their attempts at connection. Mitike just cried -- or tried to move away. The adoption agency videotaped those initial meetings -- I've watched it only once. I look so hopelessly eager! And nothing worked. Mitike refused the connection. Later, in the guesthouse, amid the other parents' excited talk, I cried.

August 22, 2009: She's just woken -- briefly. It's 6 a.m. I rush to her -- she's crying the hiccupy cry of bad dreams, but her sadness is that Bunny has fallen from the bed and the covers have been pulled off. I move her to my bed, where she falls asleep again. Or is it possible that we are so connected now that she feels my re-creation of that first meeting in the Addis Ababa orphanage? She can't remember, but. . . Mitike's brain constantly amazes me. In her 2-year-old way, she's been working through her understanding of adoption lately -- telling the story of how she was crying in her tukul (partially true -- symbolically true) and Mommy and Nana heard her crying and came and got her in the big white airplane. This week, though, she's added a new piece to the story. "One time," she says, "you were little, Mommy, and I was your mommy, and you said, 'I need Mommy!' and I was there." Strange. . . but beautifully accurate in its own way. I didn't grow up until I was Mitike's mommy. I needed her just as much as she needed me.

In that first full day in Addis Ababa, which is a blur of raw emotion to me now (what else did our group do, after we left the orphanage -- our children still there for two more days until the embassy appointments?), I couldn't see past my worry and doubt and sadness to dinner, much less to the future. I couldn't have known that a year later, it would feel like Mitike had always been my daughter, that I had always been her mother. I couldn't have known that she would wake from sleeping to kiss me gently on the cheek and murmur, "You're my friend, Mommy." I couldn't have predicted the absolute joy of parenting her, of how amazing of a little person she is -- pointing out the color purple every time she sees it ("Purple car! Purple sweater! That lady has a purple purse!"), clapping her hands in absolute delight when we blow bubbles outside, writing notes to Nana with great seriousness and concentration, singing the "ABC" song at the top of her lungs or singing "Rain, rain go away, come back another day. If you don't, WE DON'T CARE! We will buy more UNDERWEAR!"

That first day in Addis, I just felt utterly lost. But so did Mitike. And maybe that shared darkness of confusion was the seed for this deep connection we have now. Most mornings, when Mitike wakes up, she declares, "It's LIGHT time!" She and I live in that light time now -- but there's sacredness in remembering what came before. It reminds me to cherish every moment with her now -- even as I savor these last early-morning minutes of quiet. Just a year ago, "Mommy!" never interrupted my mornings. I forget that sometimes. Come, interruption. This is the anniversary of you. . . and I am so utterly grateful.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Clouds: a Poem for Mitike, Iowa and Gram

Gram, who is 93 and both playful and wise,
says your facial expressions are like the fleeting clouds
in the vast blue Iowa summer sky

-- drift -- change -- drift -- change --

the storm arrives in a clash of thunder, flash
of lightning, rain pummeling earth to drowning
and then soft: white, fluffy shapes float
in cool air to become billowing dragons and houses
and cars my sister and I watched once from our farm's lawn;
and when we looked again the sky was a cultivated field
with cloud rows glowing golden in the late afternoon sun.
Later, the clouds themselves would be mirrors for the sun's goodbye:
purple, rose, orange, deep blue, violet, yellow -- then dim --
then stars.
We could see them, still, when we chased fireflies at the corn's edge:
the wisps of cloud wandering the Milky Way's long winding road

-- drift -- change -- drift -- change --

Gram perches on her kitchen stool and tells me the story
of how her father kept bees on their southeastern Iowa farm,
of how sweet the honey tasted. I try to imagine Gram as young as you,
short pudgy legs hidden by the long meadow grass, a purple clover
clutched in tiny hands. Now she sprawls onto her back to delight
in the way the clouds drift across the inverted bowl of sky

just as she delights in your raised and lowered eyebrows,
the flash of frustration, the sudden hearty laugh, the sweet smile,
the wonder of her African great-granddaughter whose laughter
is as sweet as Iowa clover honey

We'll keep our eyes open, and think of Halle Berry

I'll write about race. I'll write about skin, about color, about the way our eyes see. I'll write my understandings and my confusions -- so that, someday, I can help Mitike muddle through her own.

Vignette: Mitike and I are playing at the playground in Vanderveer Park, next to my mom's church in Davenport, Iowa. TK's poised to zoom down one of the slides; I'm laughing at the funny face she's making. She is my little girl; I'm her mommy -- neither of us ever think otherwise anymore. But then I see the graffiti scrawled in black Sharpie across the top of the slide, just above TK's sweet little head: "White people suck." A shout from the other side of the playground distracts me: two teenage boys, both Afrian American, straddle dirt bikes. They stare. I stare back. TK calls impatiently, "Watch me, Mommy! Watch me, my mommy!"

Vignette: Mitike and I sit next to my mom in church. The contemporary band is playing, and TK is clapping happily along, oblivious to what my more grown-up eyes see: hers is the only brown face in the congregation, hers is the face at which the white-blond-haired children in the congregation stare. She and my mom are also the only people clapping, which may be most serious of all.

Vignette, from six months ago: Mitike and I are enjoying our milk and coffee at an outdoor bakery-cafe in Oakland, California, where we're visiting my friend Sarah. A matronly, well-dressed woman approaches us, asks if Mitike is Ethiopian. I'd become accustomed to the question in this neighborhood, which boasts a large Ethiopian population. Sometimes, strangers assume TK is my biological daughter with an African American man, but people who know Ethiopians recognize the unmistakable eyes, the delicate curve of the jawbone, the coffee-with-a-drop-of-cream hue of skin, the looser curl to the hair. I nod. "I thought so," the woman says. She is African American, by the way -- not Ethiopian -- and, though that does not matter in most cases, it does matter to this story, because she goes on to tell me something serious. "She'll have a hard time sometimes in her life," the woman says, nodding, even as she plays with TK's fingers a bit, coaxing her to smile. "I heard an interview with Halle Berry, and she said her mama told her it's OTHER people who tell you you're 'black' and makes it negative, it's not you. You've got to get past what THEY say." The woman looks at TK and then looks deep into my eyes. "She'll get through it, though. You raise her with enough confidence, and she'll get through it."

Vignette: I am holding TK on one hip while we look at the family photos in my grandmother's hallway. Gram displays a photo from every year, starting in the year when my mother, the oldest, was a baby. TK begins to cry sadly. "But where's TK?" I hold her close. "Right here, baby, right here with Mommy." We leave the photos and go downstairs to the living room, where Gram has proudly displayed photographs of her Ethiopian-Alaskan great-granddaughter. TK is smiling now, and then she has rediscovered the wooden train and forgotten photographs entirely. I watch her play, half-amused by her sad insistence that she be present in every photograph (even the ones taken in 1956!) and in every story (". . .and TK!" she insists we add), and half-worried. How can I help her through her sadness when she realizes what it means to be adopted, when she realizes another family lacked the resources to care for her? And how can I guide her through her confusion when she realizes that her different hue of skin color will make some people doubt the depth of our real mother-daughter connection, that it will make some people judge her as less, that it will lead her into whole interactions and discussions and connections and disconnections with which I have had no experience and never will have experience?

How can I instill that confidence in her, how can I teach her to be strong enough to say she loves her color and her heritage, her adoptive family and her birth family -- and believe it?

She's napping right now -- one arm slung across her body, her little chest making the blanket rise and fall. When she wakes up, she always smiles her full smile to see me -- as if I am a gift she receives every time she wakes (every time, I'm overwhelmed, in love). Later, we'll go to the potty and she'll insist we look in the mirror together so she can point out that we both have brown eyes, that we both have a dark brown freckle on our foreheads. Someday, she'll notice we have different hues of skin. I keep reading adoption books to her -- picture books about bears that adopt yellow birds, hippos that adopt frogs, purple mommies who adopt little green children -- hoping she'll internalize the message the way she seems to be internalizing my message about her beautiful hair. "Oh, Purple Dolly," she tells her purple-haired doll, "you have such beautiful hair. I love it. We DO have to comb it, but just one time a week!"

But someday, her eyes will open more and she'll see more of what the world sees -- I can't protect her from that, like Halle Berry's mother could not protect Halle.

I want to be ready. I'm preparing myself, forcing my own eyes open though I sometimes want to close them and just see slides, with no graffiti.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Sunday, June 28, 2009

From Baby to Little Girl, Too Fast

This morning, the little girl who pitter-pattered out of her room -- shutting her door firmly behind her first, which she does every morning, as if to announce that she is DONE SLEEPING -- seemed months older than the girl-baby who fell asleep in my arms to my out-of-tune lullabies last night. "Mommy, do you want to play a game with me?" she asked, her eyebrows raised. I savored my awe at her complete sentence for a moment before nodding. "Okay," she said, nodding and moving toward the game shelf, "we play a game together, with Bunny. Bunny, you sit on Mommy's lap, okay?"

TK settled Bunny on my lap and then draped her pink blanket over both of us before she pitter-pattered over to get the matching game she loves to play. I felt young and teary, like TK was taking care of ME: how is she growing up this fast? When she throws herself on the floor because she wants gum before dinner, I long for her to grow older. . .but most of the time, I want to hold her close in her sweet babyhood; I inhale the lemongrass scent of her hair; I cuddle those sweetly pudgy legs and arms; I kiss her soft cheek. Motherhood must be about this pull and push, too: grow up -- no, stay little -- be a big girl! -- no, cuddle in my arms and be my baby.

The days move too fast. (Or it's raining and she's woken early from her nap, and we've already played with play-do and painted and made cookies, and time tick-tocks at an imperceptible pace).

Mostly, I'm astonished by the little PERSON she's becoming -- by the fact that it was a mere ten months ago that she babbled in Amharic and Hadiya baby syllables, that she feared the pool and dogs and most strangers, that she was so much more a baby. The other day, as she rode high on my shoulders to her preschool/daycare, I asked, "What are you going to do at school today?" and she responded, "Play!" then paused and added, "But I'll miss you, Mommy." Add that to the way she knelt importantly on a chair next to Ali's the other morning, pretending to type away on her own computer. "What are you doing?" I asked her, smiling. "Working, like Aye-Ay," she said, frowning at the computer screen and its burgeoning number of the letter "O".

Add that to our bedtime talks, when we list what we loved about the day and -- increasingly -- what we're thinking about. Seriously. She told me one night last week about how worried she was about the injured eagle up at the tram on Mt. Roberts (which the Juneau Raptor Center displays for visitors' education). "Somebody shot the eagle's eye," TK said sadly into her pillow, "and he can't see." I reassured her and reminded her that the eagle is loved now, and that he has a good home with the Juneau Raptor Center. But TK sighed. "He doesn't fly now," she reminded me. "So sad, Mommy."

I love the person TK is becoming. I love her empathy -- for eagles, for her family (she gives kisses to anyone who falls down or seems sad), for flowers. I love her silliness, and I love her seriousness (though I fear it, too -- as a sometimes too-serious person, I know the pitfalls of forgetting to be silly enough in this world). Some days, I'm ready for her to grow up faster, to move beyond toddlerhood. At her little friend Meadow's birthday party the other day, she dissolved into tears when she realized the present we had brought was JUST for Meadow, and today I carried her away from an outdoor carnival while she cried and shouted, "I'm NOT tired! I'm NOT tired!" But most days, I want to cling to every minute. I want to slow the clocks. I want to gather Mitike into my arms and memorize every syllable and every silly face. Writing here is not enough. I can't keep up with how much I want to record -- with how much I want to remember.

I Need My Mommy

ME: "Why are you sad, TK?"

TK: "I need my Mommy."

ME: "I'm right here!"

TK: "Okay, Mommy. I love you. You stay with TK?"

ME: "Of course. Remember, I love you more than the whale --"

TK: "-- loves his spout, and the raven loves his treasure --" [quoting from the book "Mama Do You Love Me?"]

ME: "-- and the dog loves his tail --"

TK: "-- and TK loves her Mommy!"

Saturday, May 23, 2009

A letter to Mitike, home for 9 months

And then, like time does, our days and weeks blur, moving too fast. It's been a month and a half since I stopped to write, since I paused to breathe. But don't read these gaps in my recordings as times I didn't think about you, Mitike -- instead, read them as times when I jumped on the "jumpoline" with you or wandered the sidewalk's edge searching for dandelions with you or waded in Twin Lakes "with naked feet" with you or watched you zip down the bright yellow slide or created a new colorful mosaic of chalk on the driveway with you or went on "an adventure" with you through the forest. When it's sunny in southeast Alaska, which it's been for weeks, no one has time to sit at a computer and record life; we're all too busy soaking it in, our faces upturned to the sky.

TK. We walked to a ballet performance downtown tonight -- our family and two other families. You ran most of the way, determined to prove to me that I didn't need to carry you in the backpack. I watched you, amused at your persistent stubbornness, which is also perseverance. You, running your toddler-waddle run in the scuffed pink slip-on shoes you call your "fancy shoes", clutching a handful of green maple leaves you'd decided to give to everyone when we got to the show. At a stop sign, you reached up to pat your new "ponytails" -- your short hair pulled into two tiny puffs -- and then you grinned up at me. "Uppy?" You'd proved your point; now you knew you'd be able to keep up with everyone if you had the speed of Mommy's long legs.

As of this weekend, you've been home with us for exactly nine months. That seems impossible. I'm sure I've known you your whole life. I'm sure I've always known the freckle above the bridge of your nose, the deep expression in your wide eyes, your wonderful overjoyed giggle, the way you stick out your tongue when you're happy. You're sure of all of this, too. You're sure I'm your mommy. You recognize the ways we're similar: both of us leaders (or both of us bossy, depending who you ask), both of us over-cautious (when it comes to high slides, big steps, etc.) but also confident (watch us both welcome the people around us), both of us over-serious rule-followers (the purple scissors go in that box, and it's annoying when we find them on the table) but also silly (witness our shouted rendition of "The Wheels on the Bus" tonight while we zigzagged home). You call for me when you're scared in the middle of the night; you pitter-patter your way to me in the morning.

But we had our first difficult adoption talk last night. You won't remember, so I'll record it here for you. We opened a new book together -- "The Cool Song," which is set in eastern Africa -- and we found a watercolor picture of a cluster of tukuls, the thatched round huts similar to the one in which you were born. You've heard me say "You were born in Ethiopia!" and we've read adoption books together; we've looked at the map of the world and you've heard me explain that I came to Ethiopia to get you and then we came to Juneau in the airplane together. I know you're only two and a half, but I want you to be accustomed to these conversations -- I want you to grow up comfortable with your story, as I grew up comfortable with the story of my mom bringing me home from a hospital. You don't know what "born" means yet, but you know about airplanes and home and Mommy.

Back to the story. I pointed at the tukuls in the book and I said, "TK! You were born in a place like that!"

Your eyes widened and you nodded, and then you looked up at me. "Mommy, you born in a place like that?"

I shook my head. "No, I was born in Iowa. I lived in a white house."

And then, without warning, your eyes welled with tears. "I want born in Iowa!" You hit the picture of tukuls. "I don't like that! I want born where Mommy is!"

Oh. A reminder: someday, we will have these difficult, sad conversations. Someday, your toddler innocence, your 2-year-old total acceptance of the fact that Mommy and TK have different colors of skin, your beautiful embrace of me as Mommy will waver. I know this moment was probably more about being 2 -- you will spit out your gum if I do, you will fall asleep if I pretend to, you will eat your lasagna if I eat mine. I know you don't know what it means to be born, that you just want everything about you to be the same as Mommy. But I also glimpsed what our future conversations hold.

Tonight, you picked that book again at bedtime. When we opened it, you pointed to the picture of the world and said, "Mommy, you come get me?" You remembered what I'd said about traveling to Ethiopia in the airplane to get you, to bring you home. But when I turned the page to the tukuls, you hit them again and told them you didn't like them. Here will be your struggle with adoption: your intelligent, logical acceptance of facts crashing into your deeply-felt emotions, your longings. Mommy's that way, too, TK.

Mostly right now, though, you are beautifully, fully two and a half -- chanting the ABCs ("A, B, C, D, G!!!"), counting your fingers ("1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 20!"), singing ("The wheels on the bus go all around the TOWN!"), asking questions ("But why?" "Why not?"), crying one moment because I told you you needed to finish your dinner before you have gum and then laughing the next moment because I've made a silly face at you. But you are more than just a toddler. You understand each of us: you read with me, color with me, sing silly songs with me; you laugh hard with Aye-Ay, share treats with her, plant in the garden with her, let her push you beyond your many comfort zones; you go on adventures with Tim -- hide-and-seek, jump-o-line tag, bubble-blowing; you cuddle up to Katie when she reads to you, you let her show you how to button your coat, teach you how to push your dolly in the stroller. None of us can imagine our lives without you. Look: you're in the backpack now, waving at Aye-Ay, Tim, and Katie, who have all turned around to wait for you. They're smiling. "Hi, guys!" you shout, and being born in tukuls or hospitals, Ethiopia or Iowa, doesn't matter -- not right now -- as much as catching up to your family, as much as diving into the fast-flowing stream of this beautiful together time.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Moving on to popsicles

The low point of today (April 19) would definitely be the moment I dropped my 2-year-old daughter into the toilet. No, the moment right after, when -- responding to her terror and sadness -- I scolded her for struggling so much when I was just trying to teach her how to use the potty and not need diapers, which were not only expensive, but had horrendous environmental impact, and that if she hadn't struggled at all, if she had just used the potty like she was supposed to, then she wouldn't have fallen in.

Or the moment right after THAT one, when I started crying, too -- about my sometime lack of patience, about my propensity to get very frustrated about inconsequential things, about the details: her little soaking wet bum, Bunny watching impassively from the step stool.

Most of the day was beautiful
-- breakfast together
-- the playground and the walk along the lake
-- lunch together
-- the folk fest (dancing)
-- walking back, TK dragging the bag with the popsicle box (okay, but then the tantrum about the popsicles when we got inside)
-- shrimp talk over dinner
-- popsicles outisde
-- sweet reading time

Okay, so motherhood is about forgiveness, and popsicles -- and all the sweet and sour in between.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Mitike the Reader

What makes someone a reader? I watch the struggling readers in my 7th/8th grade English classes, and I wonder what earlier interventions would have helped them become lovers of books. More books surrounding them when they were young? More patient parent voices in their ears, sounding out words, connecting picture to letter? Less access to video game and television, iPhone and internet?

Or -- and I think my 93-year-old grandmother, who reads the New Yorker weekly, and the newspaper and a wide variety of books daily, would agree wholeheartedly with this -- is a love of reading innate, flowing in certain people's bloodstreams, regardless?

Whatever the answer, my daughter's a reader. At home, she mimicks her brother's immersion in a book at lunchtime, trying to hold her "ABC" board book open with one little hand while she holds her spoon with the other. At Gram's house in Iowa last week, she settled herself in the tiny rocking chair and "read" books to the rest of us in front of the kitchen fire. This morning, when I sleepily told her 6:30 was too early to wake up, she nodded solemnly and asked, "Read books, Mommy?" and then proceeded to quietly flip through books while I dozed for a half hour more. In my half-sleep, I heard her pretend to read "Goodnight Moon": "Goodnight, goodnight," she said at every page.

It's true that TK's two mamas are lovers of words, that her brother would rather read than eat, that her nana makes sense of the world for others with words, that her great-grandmother (Gram) holds writers in the highest esteem. And maybe, since TK's early life in Ethiopia contained no books at all, she appreciates them as treasure even more. But I also think she LOVES books -- though she's only 2, she claps her hands to discover a new wonderful story, to hear a silly turn of phrase in Dr. Suess, to discover a character she likes (her favorite is Peter in Ezra Jack Keats' "Whistle for Willie" right now).

I'm not sure this kind of love can be taught -- but, like a mother who recognizes her child loves art and so puts paintbrushes in her hands, I'll keep introducing TK's wide-open eyes to new books. Nothing is sweeter than the sound of her little voice "reading", than the way she claps her hands at the last page and decrees, "The End! New book, Mommy!"

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Re-defining "Break": a Letter to TK

Dear Mitike,

In my past life -- which was still happening just last year -- "spring break" meant, as Oxford's second definition for the noun "break" explains, "a short rest or pause from work". I traveled -- Colorado, San Francisco, Minnesota. I read, widely. I cooked. I journaled. I napped. I took long walks; I trekked into the woods on snowshoes; I skied.

This spring break -- my first as a mother -- the two of us were suddenly in Iowa, at Nana's house, and a "short rest" was re-defined: I did the dishes as you and Nana searched for a blanket downstairs; I stole a walk along the field edges as you napped; I typed rushed words at 11:30 at night when everyone was sleeping; I gingerly turned pages of the New Yorker on the airplane, hoping you'd continue to sleep on my lap.

You are two, which means I need to be somewhere near you at all times -- to watch your somersault, to guide you down the long slide in the park, to wipe your bum or your nose, to help you reach a doorknob, to dry your tears, to listen to Bunny sing Abba's "Mama Mia". This is everything I miss, now, working, and it's beautiful to be immersed in you again every day, every hour. But this spring break is no break -- or at least this is no "short rest or pause from work". Your English major mommy needs to turn back to Oxford for other definitions.

The first alternative definition to "short rest" is "an interruption, pause, or gap". Much better. In Iowa for a week, we interrupt Alaskan rain and cold to play barefoot in a sandy playground, to pick purple Glory-in-the-Snow in Gram's backyard, to throw sticks into the river with Nana. We put our frenetic lives of Mama's work and TK's school on pause; we escape to those halcyon days when the two of us got to spend every minute together.

Or Oxford offers this other definition: "a sudden rush or dash", as in "a break for it". Here we are in the Seattle airport on a six-hour layover, sprinting full-speed through the atrium -- not because we are late for a plane, but because we are running away from the terrifying eight-foot-tall stuffed killer whale that stands outside the outdoor gear store. Or we are pretending to be airplanes ourselves, zooming along the edge of the enormous windows where the real airplanes wait for their passengers. We dash from table to table, our arms outspread, both of us laughing. I thought I would miss the long hours of reading magazines and writing in my journal that I had once, before you -- but I will choose the rush and dash of your break-for-it joy over and over and over.

Or -- my always moving little daughter -- let's examine the verb form of "break". As in "to separate into pieces" -- the way you eat your fruit roll-ups on the airplane, picking tiny pieces off and then naming the shapes: "Little triangle, Mommy!" -- the way you like you use your knife and fork all by yourself to cut up the lasagna Nana made you -- the way you love to use little scissors now (you turn the comics section of Gram's Des Moines register into tens of tiny colorful pieces). Or "to break" as in "to change suddenly", which you are doing too fast -- your face becoming less babyish, your body lengthening, your language developing into more and more "real" words and constructions. Or "to break" as in "to surpass" -- the truth of you surpassing every dream of you I had. Did I imagine I would enjoy your company so much that 20 hours of flying, through four airports, would feel like a gift?

I will give up the "short rest" spring break used to offer. Now I will love the interruption, the pause, the dash, the rush, the little pieces, the change, the surpassing of all understanding -- laughing, tumbling on every soft carpet square we find, our arms outspread. Now, on these breaks from work, I will drink in every minute with you, simply and fully glad to be your mama, to watch you re-define my entire world with your beautiful self.


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Duh DUH duh duh DUH!

TK [as she watches Katie skip down the sidewalk toward Rosie's house]: Mommy, where's Katie going?

ME: She's going iceskating with 'osie.

TK: Duh DUH duh duh DUH?

ME: What?

TK [grabbing my hand and imitating our usual silly ballroom dance when we pretend to ice skate on frozen puddles]: Duh DUH duh duh DUH!

ME: Oh! [And we sing together -- what's that song called, anyway? -- dancing around the living room, laughing.]

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Flawed Mommy

I am a flawed mommy, and I need a confessor today. Listen for a moment -- I'll only list 11.

Confession #1: It is the middle of the night, and I have just laid down next to Mitike to comfort her because she has woken up crying. She tosses and turns, then rolls over and whacks me in the face, then asks to use the potty, then tosses and turns after we come back, which makes me lose my patience, grab her firmly by the shoulders, and say -- through clenched teeth -- "Time -- to -- sleep -- now!", which makes her cry harder.

Confession #2: We're reading Harold and the Purple Crayon and we get to the page where Harold draws a moose and a porcupine so someone can eat all the leftover pie. TK insists that the moose is called a porcupine and that the porcupine is called a moose. I should think this is cute, and I mostly do, but I also don't want TK to be 25 years old, hiking somewhere in Alaska, telling everyone that the moose are climbing trees and the porcupines are munching willow branches on the edge of the lakes, so I calmly explain she's wrong. Then she argues, "No, Mommy! Porcupine. Moose." I argue back. We both get upset. Harold stares at us, waiting for us to enjoy his purple crayon drawings again.

Confession #3: In the grocery store, I firmly remind TK that we do not eat any of our food until we've paid money for it. Then I turn away from her and snitch a bite of the muffin in my hand.

Confession #4: At the end of a day in which I try to quell and channel the energy of middle school students, more noise sometimes seems unbearable. One night, TK decides to experiment with how loudly she can yell. "TK!" I finally say sternly. Her eyes widen, and I feel horrible. "Okay, we can only be loud in the bathroom." She nods solemnly and toddles off to the bathroom, where she continues to yell. Days later, we are walking together outside, singing, "If you're happy and you know it, shout 'hooray!'" and TK puts a finger to her lips. "Shh, Mommy. Only loud in the bathroom."

Confession #5: TK is throwing a small tantrum because she wants Bunny under the pink blanket, and I mistakenly put Bunny under the red quilt AND the pink blanket. I pick up Bunny and hurl him across the room, and then -- yep, it gets worse -- I say, "Then Bunny can just sleep over there!" TK starts crying, and Bunny looks at me reproachfully with his embroidered eyes.

Confession #6: Ali and I are playing with TK, when she holds up her right hand with her index finger extended and raises one eyebrow: "Hold on. Just wait." Ali looks at me pointedly. I am bossy -- can we say I "exhibit good leadership skills"? -- in exactly the same way. TK is definitely my daughter.

Confession #7: It's 6 a.m. on a Saturday, and TK has just called, "Mommy!" When I stumble groggily into her room, she cheerfully announces, "All done sleeping!" I shake my head and say, "Shh! Everyone's sleeping. The house is sleeping. The books are sleeping. Bunny's still sleeping." In the dim light, she peers at me. "Mommy still sleeping?" I nod and stretch out in her bed. I close my eyes. Sometimes, she lies down next to me and we sleep until 7 or so. Not this morning. She shakes me: "Mommy! Up! Time play with 'itike!" But all I want is more sleep.

Confession #8: On a special Mommy-TK date at a Mexican restaurant, TK abruptly decides she does not want to sit down anymore; she wants to stand on top of her booster seat. I frown and shake my head. "TK, Obama wants you to sit down." She sits down immediately, upset at the suggestion that anything she is doing would offend her beloved Obama. "Mama," she whispers, craning her neck to look around the restaurant, "where Obama is?"

Confession #9: TK shouts at Katie, "Stop it! Go away!" for no apparent reason. I swoop in and pick up TK, and we face the wall together. Like a textbook mama, I murmur in a calm voice, "That made Katie sad. As soon as you're ready to say 'sorry' to Katie, tell me. Are you ready?" TK shakes her head stubbornly. "What about now?" I ask. She shakes her head again. I turn her to face me, and my words escape me to disobey all textbook recommendations: "Say 'sorry' to Katie, or she'll be sad forever!" She goes to Katie and apologizes. I feel like a liar.

Confession #10: "You don't need Skittles. Vitamins are much yummier!"

Confession #11: To be silly, Ali draws a face on a large spaghetti squash with a black Sharpie marker. We set the squash on the counter and talk to it to make TK giggle. Later, TK pulls the squash toward her when she's sitting on the counter and hits it repeatedly, laughing. For some reason, it's abruptly important to me that we treat squash faces with kindness. I grab the squash, give TK a reproachful look, and proceed to rock the squash in my arms while I hum Brahm's "Lullaby". TK's eyes well up with tears. An hour later, when I decide to cook the squash for dinner, I let Tim throw it on the floor several times to break it open. TK watches me, her brow furrowed. I know. I know. I've betrayed squash face. I'm a hypocrite.

I could tell you more. These are just the major ones. There are also the little transgressions -- the cookie I offer her if she'll just eat two more bites of chili; the five minutes of movie I let her watch if she'll just agree to put her pajamas on; the way I scratched her chin a little with my fingernail on her birthday because I scooped her up with too much gusto. I know she knows I love her; I know she'll never doubt I wanted to be her mommy. But will she survive my mothering?

Maybe I should ask Obama -- or a moose named Porcupine.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Color Purple

In Alice Walker's The Color Purple, Shug tells Celie: “Listen, God love everything you love—and a mess of stuff you don’t. But more than anything else, God love admiration….Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it" (203).

I'm not sure about quite a bit about God, but I'm sure of this: my little girl, her smile wide, is absolutely full of admiration for the God/god/gods/??? who put the color purple in this world -- and she believes wholeheartedly that it's holy. Purple, purple, purple. In the mornings, Mitike chooses purple pants, a purple sweater, a purple headband; she claps her hands happily when I pull her purple coat and her purple stocking cap from the winter clothes basket. At preschool, she chooses the purple book, the purple sticker, the purple crayon, the purple play-do, the purple-frosted cupcake. Her teachers barely ask her opinion, now -- they hand her the purple whatever-it-is and then love her joy.

Last week, when Ali and I decided to move TK into Tim's room (and Tim into TK's), we decided to paint over the boyish green-brown walls. At Good's Hardware, TK did not hesitate: she pointed to the purple paint chips. Later, at Wal-Mart: the purple curtains. "'itike's new purple room!" she proudly tells any visitors to our house. Then she run-waddles into her room and stands in the center, looking up and around with the awe of someone beholding the Sistine Chapel for the first time.

I know: toddlers -- especially little girls -- often love to obsess over a color. But purple is not just a color. Listen to Shug. Listen to the Romans, whose Senate passed a law dictating that only the royal and important could don the color purple. Listen to the medieval kings of ancient Europe, who also reserved purple for the royals. Listen to lupine and its shout of color across southeast Alaska's meadows in high summer.

Purple is something to NOTICE -- and no one knows this better than my sweet TK.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Auke Rec, Juneau, Alaska -- January 18

ME: Where are the whales, TK? I don't see them.

TK: I don't know, Mommy.

ME: They must be underwater. Where are they?

TK, pointing up: THERE they are, Mommy!

ME: Where?

TK: Up in the air! Whales up there, Mommy! Whales up there!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Open the Door: Mitike's 2nd Birthday

On the morning of January 22, which is legally and officially Mitike's second birthday, my sweet daughter wanders to the top of the stairs in her brown and pink polka-dotted pajamas, like she does every morning, and calls out, "Mommy! All done sleeping!"

I rush up the stairs and sweep her up in my arms. "Happy birthday, sweet girl!"

Her eyes widen. We've been talking about her birthday for a few days -- she's been chanting, "'itike's birthday comin'!" and singing the "Happy Birthday" song, waiting as patiently as a toddler can wait. "Mommy," she whispers, "'itike's birthday, open the door?"

That's TK's way of asking if something is beginning, of course, but the writer in me couldn't help but savor the phrase. Open the door. Just five months ago, TK, I pushed open the door to an orphanage in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and searched a dim-lit playroom for your face, which I'd only seen in two photographs. A week later, Ali opened the door to our house in Juneau, Alaska -- exactly half a world away from Ethiopia -- and you squirmed out of my arms and ran inside, as if you knew what "home" meant already. Open the door.

"Mommy!" TK's voice brings me back to this moment. "Balloons!" I smile. We've reached the bottom of the stairs, and TK's just glimpsed the balloons Tim and Katie filled and then hid under a blanket to surprise her on her birthday. TK leans down and pulls the blanket away, then claps her hands in utter joy. Balloons, balloons! She reaches for the purple one, and I start singing: "Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear TK. . ."

But pause a moment. Let TK play with her purple balloon and come into the kitchen with me -- I need more coffee. The truth is, this isn't really her birthday. This is a date the translators at the Addis Ababa office recorded on her orphanage paperwork -- it's a date converted from the Ethiopian calendar one her birth father provided. Here is one of the many questions I did not ask Abose but which I wish I had in that mere half hour we got to meet: When was Mitike born? I'm certain he did not possess a calendar, or a concept of time -- he was struggling to feed himself and his family; his wife was sick; his thoughts were blurred by desperation. Two years later, he had to make a guess when the orphanage people asked him, "When was she born?" "Taerr," he must have replied, which is the Ethiopian month which begins on our Jan. 9 and ends on our Feb. 8. A guess.

Watch TK now. She is batting the purple balloon up in the air, laughing with her mouth wide open. "Lookit, Mommy! Lookit! Silly balloon!" She's clearly older than two. The pediatrician shakes her head, smiling: TK has all her teeth, she hits all the benchmarks for fine and gross motor skills, she is developing language at an amazing rate; she's either a genius or she's two and a half -- maybe three.

This makes me sad. I forget sometimes that TK's only been with us for five months; I feel I've known her her whole life. But because I haven't -- because she came to me carrying a green-brown country with round huts, goat herds, tall leafy false banana plants, a weary man with smiling eyes, 5:30 a.m. chants, wavering music, "Salaam!", and berbere spice -- I desperately want to know exactly how old she is. I want to know if it was the rainy or the dry season when she was born. I want to know which birds her birth mother might have heard when she woke in the tukul after labor. I want to know what farming task her birth father completed before he entered the tukul to find a new baby had joined his family.

I want to know how many days TK knew before she knew me.

Last week, our friends Topaz and Colin visited us with their month-old baby in tow, and -- as we watched TK run joyfully from living room to kitchen and back again -- Colin asked me when I started to think of her as my daughter. He said it was automatic for him, watching the baby grow in Topaz's body, witnessing the birth. I was startled -- not by Colin's good question, but by my own answer: when I opened Mitike's photo in my email on May 22, she was my daughter. She had been my daughter for her life, which did not mean she had not also been (and continues to be) the daughter of a woman named Amarech, whom I will never know. It simply meant that when I saw her photograph, I knew her already. That I loved her already.

And here she is now, proudly helping me balance the tray of cupcakes we made as we walk through the door of her preschool. The cupcakes are frosted in Technicolor, then sprinkled liberally with pink and purple sugar. TK has dressed herself completely in purple for her birthday day, and she beams her wide and beautiful smile when her teachers call out birthday greetings to her. I store away my sadness. I cannot know everything. I missed her first two years; now I miss these hours when she is at preschool and I am at work. What matters is this incredible little person, my brimming love for her, and the U.S. Embassy-recognized fact that today, January 22, is her birthday.

I scoop her up into my arms and kiss the soft place beneath her ear. "Happy birthday, my beautiful girl," I murmur. She wraps her little arms around my neck. "Happy bir'day, 'itike, beautiful mommy," she whispers back, and then happily squirms down to the floor, where she runs toward the other kids, toward a day of cupcakes and singing and the color purple. Toward a day of being two years old -- the door open wide.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Mama Work Airplane

Mitike is smart -- a boast I feel I can make only because she's not biologically mine. When I carefully explain to her that Mama has to go back to work and that TK is going to start school, but not until AFTER Nana and Gerry come on the airplane to visit, she nods, a concentrated frown on her face.

"Mama work?"

"Yes, and TK's going to go to school."

"After Nana-Gerry airplane -- up in the air?"


She nods, then pauses to take another bite of her bagel. "Mama work airplane?"

Okay, she is only two -- she can't understand everything. What she did begin to absorb this week, though, is that she and Mama have entered a new phase -- a phase in which Mama is suddenly dressed up in the mornings, with earrings and a necklace on -- a phase in which Mama is rushing out the door to her car when TK is still in her pajamas. She knows I go to a place called "work"; she knows I'm gone until after her nap. But because of the sweet presence of my mom and step-dad this week, TK doesn't yet know that her own days will be utterly changed from the slow, easy rhythm of the past four months -- that from 7:45-3:45 every Monday through Friday, she will now snack, play, eat, read, nap, and go to the potty with twenty other toddlers at the Juneau Puddle-Jumpers Day Care.

In an effort to stay positive, I call her daycare "TK's school". For a month, we've visited for an hour or two each day, and she's loved it. It's a bright, colorful, loving, safe daycare. My mom and step-dad confirmed that when they visited the place with her. But still I feel worried.

I watch as TK bounds happily through the daycare's door, packs her coat into her little cubby, and runs to join the 2-year-old group in the day's lesson. I stand back, nursing my sadness. I want our months of coffee shop dates, sledding runs, coloring at the kitchen table, splashing in puddles, yelling "Come on, Birdie!" to the seagulls at the harbor, cuddling at naptime, Bob Marley dance parties, cooking lessons, hide-and-go-seek games. I don't want to give her up. I want to melt onto the floor like she does when she's sad -- refuse to get up until someone tells me I don't have to go back to work, until someone says I can keep being a stay-at-home mom.

TK, on the other hand, runs back to me to ask, "Mama, come back?" and when I say of course I will, she waves at me and then turns back to building blocks with Ms. Charm and her small learning center group of 2-year-olds.

And anyway, though I wondered what TK was doing all day with my mom and Gerry this week, I never worried. As I circulated my classroom, bending to help students, my mind kept drifting to the way I knew Gerry was probably lifting TK high to touch the ceiling, the way my mom was probably cuddling her close, the way Gerry was probably allowing her to scribble on his hands with markers, the way Mom was probably letting her stick stickers all over her sweater. If only Nana and Gerry lived in Juneau.

I know TK will be entertained at daycare, that she will learn new things. My worry about daycare is more about influence. Two days ago, TK whined for the first time, "My toy!" to Tim -- a phrase she could only have learned in daycare. Yesterday, she said "Go away!" to Katie. I don't think she learned the way she said that phrase from my singsongy "Rain, rain go away. . ." The word "mine" has crept into her otherwise sweet vocabulary, and she's begun to grab for things again -- a habit I thought I'd convinced her to break.

This is my weight to carry about daycare for my beloved little girl: that she would learn more about becoming a good person if she had my one-on-one influence all day; that she would feel more secure being nurtured by her mother all day; that four months was not enough time. I know the social benefits of daycare, the reality that I HAVE to work for financial reasons, the gift long and open summers are to parents who are teachers like Ali and I are. But every utterance of "mine", every tantrum when she melts onto the floor in histrionic sadness will make me worry again.

My mom reminded me this week that TK is more than smart: she's also resilient, confident, strong-minded, and happy-spirited. The little girl who rides at the front of the long blue sled, gets a spray of cold snow in her face, and shouts, "Again!" will survive the challenges of daycare. The small person who looks confidently up at adults and invites them to sit -- "Bum!" -- and then promptly offers them imaginary tea and imaginary bowls of soup will emerge from the influence of the mine-sayers and the grabbers fairly unscathed. The silly child who points at the drawing of the moose in Harold and the Purple Crayon and shouts, "Porcupine!" will retain her personality in the midst of the crowd.

I know all these things. I know, too, that Nana and Gerry have their lives to live in Iowa, and that daycare is a necessary reality, whether I welcome it or not. Maybe it's ME I'm most worried about. When I came home Monday afternoon -- after the longest stretch TK and I had been away from each other since we met four and a half months ago in Ethiopia -- I swept her up into my arms and held her close, savoring the softness of her warm cheek, the sweet strength of her little arms around my neck.

"Were you okay when Mama went to work?" I murmured into her hair.

She patted my back in soothing circles with her little hand, just like I do to comfort her when she wakes from a nightmare in the night. Then she pulled back and looked at me with concern, her little brow furrowed. "Mama okay work?" she asked.

I suppose that's the real question.