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