Honest Words

A few months ago I was plowing through audiobooks like crazy during my hour+ commutes to and from work. I wandered a bit from my usual fictional fantasy genre choice and explored the nonfiction section of my local library phone app. Without meaning to I came upon Instant Mom by Nia Vardalos and embarked on a “read” that was akin to long chats with a good friend that simply gets it.

2013-04-03-instantmomThe book is autobiographical in nature and briefly highlights Nia Vardalos’ rise to success with writing and starring in My Big Fat Greek Wedding as well as her subsequent projects. This storyline is told in conjunction with her struggle with infertility and her road to discovering foster care adoption. She is candid about her experience with being matched with and adopting her two year old daughter from the foster care system.

More than once while listening to Instant Mom I caught myself nodding along and proclaiming, “Yes!” Nia explains it herself in the beginning of the book, being a private person made writing and publishing such a personal and honest account of her experiences extremely difficult but she saw the value and need for positive press for foster care adoption. The tricky part of listening to audiobooks is that I couldn’t easily dog-ear a page or reach for my highlighter when encountering passages I wanted to hang on to, so as soon as I finished listening I bought a copy and began to reread to find the gems that made me want to shout, “She gets it!” So without further commentary here are a few of those prize nuggets from Instant Mom that resonated with me.

“I was surrounded by positive stories of adoption, but of course the scary ones kept me up at night. And the media did a good job of it too. It’s just human nature to pick up on the things that cause us anxiety. I could hear a hundred fantastic adoption stories in a row and then be stopped in my tracks by one negative one. There was always some story of some drifter who’d decapitated a store clerk because he’d once been adopted. Or wasn’t adopted. Or something. Googling ‘adoption’ took me to strange places. It was all a late-night Internet search haze.”

“We were at the swing set at a park and he’d heard from a mutual friend that Ilaria was adopted from foster care. He asked, right in front of my daughter, ‘Aren’t you afraid she’s damaged?’ Truthfully, this man’s only crime was saying such a dumb thing within my daughter’s hearing range. I actually don’t judge the question because I myself once had these same prejudices about kids adopted from foster care. I worried they’d been through so much that they might not be affectionate or would have trouble bonding or would be violent. It’s ironic that we’d all be more likely to bring a stray dog into our homes than a child. A stray dog has fangs and can eat our faces as we sleep. An innocent child just needs love. I’ve done adoption fund raisers and have met children from abusive backgrounds who were raised in loving foster homes–the kids are doing just fine. They’re well adjusted and doing average things like you and me–graduating from college, getting married, holding down jobs. Many of them become social workers and help kids much like themselves because they were raised by kind foster parents who treated them with the respect and kindness all children deserve. Sure, many kids live in not-great conditions in foster care and group homes. But I’ve met inspiring families: parents who adopted kids from terrible backgrounds. The kids then become happy, well adjusted and do well. Loving kids, providing them with comfort and safety, is what it takes. Plus a lot of patience. And so many people do it. So many adults have changed kids’ lives. You will rarely hear these stories portrayed in the media. But I have met them at the many adoption fundraisers I get to be a part of now. I have met adults who were willing to get into these kids’ lives and let them know they’re loved. They’re the most valiant people I’ve ever met. To be honest, they’re also quite average. They’re not superhuman. They’re just people who stepped up and said to a kid: hey, you deserve better. So no, the kids are not damaged goods. They’re just kids looking for guidance and love–like all of us.”

“Most of us have been around kids from many varied backgrounds. We’ve seen that ten-year-old boy who stomps toys into pulp. We’ve met that six-year-old girl who eats snot. We’ve known that fourteen-year-old girl who entertained the football team behind the bleachers. Were any of those kids adopted? No, they’re being raised by their biological parents.”

“Additionally, I see now in preschool all the kids are going through something, from hitting to learning disorders to anger issues, to shyness to crying fits to over-assertiveness . . . because kids are kids.”

“Yep, we’re all kind of strange. Can any of us really be defined as normal? Nope. Therefore, I’m not afraid my daughter will display issues because she is adopted. She may have issues, sure. Just like any kid. Just like I did. Just like you did. Uh-huh–yes, you did. And so did I.”

“The fear of the unknown can be a powerful deterrent from anyone adopting. Again, I am not suggesting parenthood is for everyone, so if you feel it’s not for you, I agree your life will also be wonderful without kids. But if fear is stopping you, please don’t let it. I’m wondering why as a society some of us are afraid of what an adopted child might do to us, when it was the Menendez brothers who shot and killed their biological parents. No adopted. Shot their parents while they slept. Shot them. Sleep tight, everyone.”

“A bonus in raising a child you don’t have a biological tie to is you will never saddle them with watching their every move and declaring they musical talent as ‘that’s from your dad’s side; his old Auntie Beulah played pianola.’ Or their bad penmanship as ‘well, there’s Grandpa Frank’s meat paws once again.’ Also, when someone says, ‘Your daughter is beautiful,’ you don’t have to murmur modestly. You can just boomingly and boisterously concur at the gorgeousness that is your kid and even point out her perfect bow mouth and tiny fairy ears, ’til that person backs away slowly. The benefit in raising the child you got to adopt is you just get to watch them unfold and become who they are.”

Through honestly and humor Nia tells it like it is. Her book is candid and refreshing and I highly recommend it to anyone thinking of stepping into foster care, is already involved in the foster care world, or knows and cares about someone that is fostering.

On the home front, we don’t have much to report. Last week, my first of summer break (yay!), I emailed our new licensing rep (#3) at our new agency because it had been weeks since I’d heard from her. She confirmed that she has received our information and wants to meet with us next week. Why, oh why, is it so difficult to give us more than a few words worth of  a response? Do we have to redo our home study? Where in the process are we right now? Time will tell.

This is Your Life!

Three weeks ago we had our second meeting with Licensing Rep No. 2. We didn’t know what to expect. We had set the date at our previous (and first) meeting with her where we were given a new stack of paperwork and gave her a tour of our house. We were prepared to hand over our newly completed forms but were at a loss for what else we might do.

Upon arriving, as laid back as ever, she announced, “Well, I figured we could start the home study questions.” Surprised, but ready to jump in, Mr. Something volunteered to go first. So, sitting around the end of our dining room table, lead by Rep 2’s questions, Mr. Something recounted his childhood. Who were the people that made up his immediate and extended family? How was he disciplined? How did he know he was loved? What were his parents views on education? What are his? What is his highest degree?  What was the demographic of his school? Did anyone in his family have substance abuse problems? Did he ever make reckless decisions?

blogger-therapy-gary-larsonWe joked that perhaps he should lie down on the couch or perhaps share a bottle of wine with Rep 2 to ease this seemingly one-sided first date conversation. We jested that it wasn’t quite fair that she was getting to the very core of who we are and, yet, we knew next to nothing about her. She tossed it right back at us saying that she actually wasn’t with the agency but just showed up at our door to learn about every tedious detail of our lives. Again, I was relieved that she shares our knack for sarcasm and relaxed nature.

After two hours she drew the evening to a close, with still uncompleted questions for Mr. Something and my own questions untouched. We set another date on the calendar to continue and our evening came to a close.

Rep 2 has shared with us that she has never licensed anyone before. She is predominately a caseworker for the agency and works with families and children after placement. She would make side comments about the questions she had to ask us, many became redundant or were just worded strangely. As tedious as it was, I was constantly aware that she was working to build a profile of us as individuals and as a family, a profile that would be the first impression of us that a caseworker would receive when deciding if we would be a good fit for a child or children in need of a home and care. Suddenly, poorly worded questions and jokes about this impromptu therapy session became very real and very heavy.

Our followup meeting got cancelled and rescheduled just once, so after a few weeks when she returned I knew it was my turn to share. Before she arrived we did a quick cleanup of the house. The weekend before we had hosted our annual Halloween Party for 31 of our closest friends and family. Halloween is a serious holiday in our circle of friends and we tend to go all out.

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This year I dressed as the woman in a painting that we have in our living room. Everyone always thinks that she is me so for one night I got to be her!Mr. Something went as the “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist” Tony Stark aka Ironman. (Nerdom runs rampant in my house and I love it!) 1457679_10151655107800044_1898175691_n

So, Wednesday night, as I pulled shot glasses out of the dishwasher and stowed bottles and bottles of alcohol back on the top of the fridge, I couldn’t help but be slightly amused. Our Halloween parties tend to be far from tame, not that we partake in anything illegal, but no less than five people ended up getting sick before the end of the night. Our final guests went home around 4am (that was old time, daylight savings turned it into 3am but my brain was still saying 4.) We had guests for over 9 hours, not counting the friend that spent the night, and just four days later we were preparing take another step toward proving that we are suitable for raising children with special needs.  The juxtaposition of these two sides of ourselves were amusing at the time, if nothing else. Mr. Something and I discussed before the party on Saturday that next year might look very different. There are so many unknowns about the children that may end up with us and the timing of it all that we must simply be prepared for things to be different and take it all as it comes.

Knowing that this meeting would be another lengthy evening, we included Rep 2 on our pizza order and planned to continue the home study over dinner. I set the table, leaving enough room for papers and notepads. We checked and double checked the plates and silverware for spots or food that somehow survived the dishwasher as if the completion of our licensing depended upon clean dishes. Some day she will be coming by to check up on our foster children and I know that spotty glasses will be the furthest thing from my mind.

She wanted to start my questions to get me caught up to Mr. Something and then we’d do the remainder of the questions together. Either she was abbreviating the questions or I am simply not as wordy as Mr. Something but mine went by much quicker. It was still interesting to walk through the halls of my past. Thinking about what did my parents do exactly to make me feel loved. How did I know the difference between right and wrong? And the million dollar question, “Who was the single most influential person in your life?” Talk about loaded! Even then I had to say, “Aren’t we all the product of everyone we have encountered in our lives?” I could easily answer it if you asked me, “Who is the single most influential person of your professional life? Or in terms of your educational career?” But when it comes down to the fabric of family, and your own parenting philosophies (which we had to define by the way) we are a tapestry of both of our parents, our friends’ parents, our grandparents, our aunts and uncles, and siblings. We have grown our ideals through watching peers enter into parenthood and endless discussions about, what would you do if that was your child, your situation? I was surprised by my final answer and not sure if it really answered the question but, no matter what, it gave her an additional window in who I am and that really is the ultimate goal of the home study.

After I caught up to Mr. Something the questions continued about our current relationship and parenting philosophies. At one point when answering a question about how we communicate or deal with conflict in our relationship, Rep 2 said, “That’s very insightful, you could be a therapist.”  I had to laugh, having a sister that is a mental health counselor for adults with developmental disabilities shows that perhaps insight runs in the family but it also proves that we really are a tapestry of everyone in our lives.

At this point we also got to exercise some of the knowledge we gained during our 27 hours of PRIDE class that we completed over the summer. There were questions about how we felt about maintaining contact with birthparents/families, how we would handle having a child that might require an IEP (Hah! As a teacher I live in the land of IEPs and have often battled to get students on them to get them what they need for the future. Cake and pie.) and what we would do to accommodate a child living with trauma and grief.

After three hours I was mentally exhausted and felt like I had relived the last 31 years of my life and then some! It reminded me of “This is Your Life” which, sadly, I don’t have the real-life connection to but the Sesame Street parody was a regular clip during my PBS watching days.

We went from laughing about childhood memories to waves of emotions recalling some of the more difficult lessons learned. Another checkmark on the list. Rep 2 left us with a bit of homework, charged with taking her pages and pages of hand scribbled notes and turning it into a veritable term paper on “The Somethings” All I can do is hope that we were honest and clear and that she was able to build a picture of us in order to match us with the children that are meant to be our forever children. So for now, we wait.

Paperworking

Photo Oct 07, 7 03 52 PMWith our next meeting with Licensing Rep #2 just about a week away, we have been grateful for the deadline and have been moving through the paperwork involved with this step rather quickly. Reading, signing, making backup copies, digging up house measurements, running bath water over a kitchen thermometer, fire escape plans, work schedules, financial information… it goes on and on. At this point, with a few left to copy, we have over 60 pages of completed forms. So far they haven’t been all that bad. Nothing as complicated or laced with legal jargon as refinancing a house, which has been much appreciated.

Today, a few hours apart and about 50 miles between the two locations, Mr. Something and I got fingerprinted. He ran out on his lunch break. It turns out I didn’t give him one of the forms that he needed for them but the people working the service were kind enough to look up the form and print it for him. I was grateful that they were so accommodating and celebrated a “Thank goodness for the internet!” moment. I made a stop on my way home at our local community college. A fingerprinting service sets up shop in one of the main entryways once a week to provide the service. I was hoping to ask the person if I could take a picture of the process, which is like something from the future nowadays, but she was a bit gruff. (I did run in about ten minutes before she was supposed to close but the whole process didn’t even take ten minutes.)

Photo Oct 07, 5 47 10 PMAs I was sitting there waiting for her to enter my information into the computer, a rush of college students were coming into and out of the building. Evening classes start at 6:00? Mr. Something started his college career in that very building. On days I had early or late classes on my own college campus, I would come here and meet him for lunch. We’d shoot pool in the rec center or just steal some moments together during our “busy” college lives. It feels like a lifetime ago. 11 years? We were such different people then but somehow very much the same. Even then we were committed to a future together but what college student can even pretend to know what the future holds? If I could wander those halls and catch a glimpse of the ghost of myself sitting at a table, reading my education textbooks or researching Niccolo Paganini for my music history term paper, killing time before Mr. Something got out of class, what would I say to her?

Our Tiny Human Project has felt so right from the beginning. (Despite the “What the F- are we doing?” moments that Mr. Something and I pass back and forth every now and then.) But a decade ago I wasn’t dreaming of building my family this way. Was I dreaming of building a family at all? I always knew that there were children in my future but I never dreamed of being pregnant, giving birth, having a baby of our own. I’ve often related to other foster families that share that they were “called” to this life. Was there a seed of this calling in that 20 year-old armed with a pack of glitter gel pens struggling to take notes on the history of education in the common area of this very community college building? Even now, hours later, I still don’t know what I’d say to that ghost of me. What pearls of wisdom or insight could I impart? As far as I can see, life is turning out pretty damn good and I got here without a word of advice from future-me. I think I’d merely watch her from afar. I’d watch for the way she’d glance up every time someone came down the hallway, watching for him. I’d watch the way that their eyes would meet and they would greet each other when he finally did come out of class. I’d smile with the secret knowledge of how good things were going to be over a decade later for those two. Not always easy but definitely arriving at something so comfortable and right. Maybe I’d brush by as they embraced and whisper, “You’ve got this.” and return to my warm and happy present.

After I got the fingerprinting lady to chat a little bit, she finalized my paperwork and showed me what I needed to turn into our licensing rep. She sent me away with a, “Have a good evening, Mrs. Something, and good luck.” How am I going to look back on this moment a decade from now? Will I need every ounce of that “good luck” from this stranger? Will future-me have a secret smile, looking back at present-me knowing that it’s just going to get better from here? Or will I be wanting to shout to myself, “Brace yourself! You have no idea what you are getting into!” If it’s any sign, God had his water colors out tonight. This was the glorious sunset that I drove into the rest of the way home. For now, I’ll take that stranger’s “luck”, stash it in my pocket, and enjoy the glorious now.

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Added Later: Being pre-digital camera, 11 years ago was a bit tough to find without raiding photo albums and scanning. I did dig up this one though, give or take a few months… (I just love this guy!)

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Spreading Christmas Cheer!

Yep, you read it right! I am just passing along the word from a fellow foster care/adoption blogger that I have been following for quite some time. The Ahlbrandt’s are an incredible little family that have unknowingly provided me with endless inspiration. Today Martina wrote to promote her husband’s latest musical endeavor, a CD of acoustic guitar Christmas Classics. Just the little preview in their promotional video was so yummy! (I really am hankering for a snow day instead of a heat day aren’t I?) Anyway, wander over to Martina’s “My Mid-Century Modern Life” blog, check out this fabulous lady and her husbands beautiful music. You might even want to crank the AC and imagine it’s sweater weather. 🙂 Enjoy!

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http://mymcmlife.com/2013/09/10/merry-christmas-2/

 

It’s almost New Year’s Eve

Historically there have been dozens of calendars used by civilizations and religions around the world. They all center on their own significant events, whether spiritual, astrological, or business driven. Today may be Sunday, August 18th for all intensive purposes but in my world I am on the cusp of a new year. This week my students come back to school and this past week’s preparations in my classroom will lead to the faster tempo of “back to school.”

I’ve always been grateful that my life follows a yearly rhythm. Each fall I get to start the new year with a blank slate. New students, new parents, new instructional ideas, no mistakes. It’s only with my fellow educators that I can use the phrase “last year” and they understand that I could very well be talking about something that happened three months ago. Wednesday night is my New Year’s Eve. It is generally celebrated by trying to get to bed early and struggling to quiet my mind and reassure myself that, yes, everything is as ready as it can be for Day 1. As with any New Year, these final days leading up to it lend themselves to a lot of reflection about the year I am putting behind me, more specifically the summer I am putting behind me.

As I reconnect with colleagues the standard questions is always, “How was your summer?” I’m finding it difficult that perhaps the most significant part of my summer, completing our foster care licensing classes, is something that I’m still not sharing with a lot of people. Mr. Something and I are telling people if they happen to ask us about children, but I’m not quite ready for the work announcement until we have a better idea of our timeline. So, I smile, I tell them it was quiet and relaxing, which it was. I did a lot of reading, please don’t ask me to recommend books because most of my reading was countless pages published by DCFS about types of abuse, trauma, the importance of family, community, and culture.

Another Blank Slate:

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The “before” picture for now.

Over the last few months Mr. Something and I also continued to prepare our second bedroom for the arrival of tiny humans. After redoing a second hand dresser last spring the room sat untouched until school was out. As I shuffled furniture and prepared the walls for painting, I realized that this second bedroom of ours was very much a blank slate. We have lived in our house for 5 1/2 years but I struggle to even recall even 2 or 3 significant memories that take place in that space. It served as an office for a while, but upon receiving a laptop from my district, I rarely found myself sitting at my personal desktop computer. At some point we flipped the room with our loft area and it turned into a TV room.  Again, it was rarely used. Mr. Something and I don’t often do things in separate parts of the house. When we are home together we like to be doing things together.

So, my blank builder-white walls became the soft grey of gentle rain. (Who is lucky enough to get the job of naming paint colors? Who wouldn’t want to sleep in a bedroom covered in something called gentle rain?) The walls were practically flawless given the lack of use the room has received over the years, but suddenly it was becoming a real room. Photo Jul 14, 12 00 57 PMI took down the tension rod that held up the white curtains that were left over “closet doors” from my junior year dorm room and installed actual hardware and a pair of Ikea curtains that I’ve had my eye on for months. With some colorful paper lanterns from WorldMarket, it’s taking shape, and the promise of some incredibly significant memories to come is making our little house feel more and more like a home. 

So, how was my summer? Special. Exciting. And exactly what I needed to prepare for the “New Year” to come.

(In the meantime we are in week three of waiting to hear back from our agency supervisor so we can find out who our new licensing rep will be. I’ll call again tomorrow…)

27 Hours Smarter

Oh how my blogging has gotten away from me during the second half of our classes. I suppose traveling over 1000 miles over the course of two weekends between Sessions 6 and 9 kept us pretty busy. However, as of Tuesday we officially completed our 27 hours of PRIDE training. Now, according to our instructors our licensing rep should be contacting us the moment we are done with the training to get our paperwork and begin the home study. As of two weeks ago we found out that our licensing rep had been transferred to the city office. She gave me the number of her supervisor and told me to call her to find out who our new rep will be. I am still waiting for her to return my call. We asked around in our class to find out about other agencies but our instructors advised us to wait until we are licensed before changing agencies that way there’s no risk of loosing paperwork and having to redo any part of the licensing process.

So the remainder of our classes included the following:

Session 5- Strengthening Family Relationships

We talked a lot about cultural identity and the importance of maintaining birth family and community connections, especially when taking in older children.

Session 6- Meeting Developmental Needs: Discipline

During this session we explored the differences between discipline and punishment. We received the DCFS guidelines about disciplining children in foster care which sparked an interesting debate about spanking children. The other hot topic was the issue of not using food as a punishment. Meaning, if dessert is a regular part of dinner there can’t be a “if you don’t eat your dinner you won’t get dessert” ultimatum. We also went over the steps to take to manage crisis situations and de-escalate problem behaviors.

Session 7- Continuing Family Relationships

This one was all about working as a part of a team and the importance of remembering that a child’s “clock” moves very differently than an adults. Even just a few months in foster care can feel like an eternity to a child. I felt a little like they were preaching to the choir on this one because the foster parents are completely helpless as to the timeline of events. I’ve read time and time again about the frustrations of foster parents in how the system is failing their foster children in terms of the timeline. I suppose it was a “be prepared to help your child through this” matter.

Session 8- Planning for Change

Hey! Your life is going to change! Oh really?

Session 9- Making an Informed Decision

Session nine could have been two sessions, I finally felt like we were getting actual information about how to do things, what to expect, and what to remember. I couldn’t take notes fast enough. There was a panel made up of various professionals that shared their perspective on the fostering experience. Keep records for everything. Save receipts when spending state allocated money. Keep a medicine log but don’t administer over-the-counter drugs without written consent from a doctor. Keep a behavior log, for both good and bad behaviors. Make sure children come with their medical card and medical “passport” when they arrive in your home. A comprehensive medical examine is required within 21 days of being taken into foster care. Don’t sign any medical forms or you might be billed, you are not a guardian! 6 hours of adoption certification classes are required before adoption. Say, “yes” to all subsidies offered upon adopting a child to ensure continued support from the state. Send all forms certified mail so there is proof of delivery… it goes on and on. I left feeling a bit overwhelmed because I felt like it was so much useful information given to us in response to our questions, but what if we didn’t ask all the questions? Luckily we left with the phone number of our instructor and the invitation to call with any questions that arise along the way.

The last four and a half weeks have been crazy busy with commuting to the city for classes, the reading, and homework. I’m happy to have crossed this one off the list. There are at least 16 more hours of classes in our future but for now the Tiny Human Project is quiet again.

Session Two: Climbing the Family Tree

Session two was actually called “Teamwork toward Permanence” but I like my name better. 🙂 Our second in-class session went well. We had another cheesey sunshine and rainbows video from DCFS where the birth parent actually hugged the social worker and proudly proclaimed, “I LOVE having a social worker in my life. She saved me!” Before the video faded to black, the birth family and foster family were gathered together in a cozy living room, laughing and smiling over the children like they had always been extensions of one another’s family trees.

Touching.

As our instructor switched off the VCR she turned to us and said, “Okay, now let’s talk about real life.” Including air quotes around “real life.”

I have to admit, I love that they are not sugar-coating any of the “one big happy family” propaganda that DCFS is providing. I am not discrediting the idea that there may be wonderful teams of birth families, foster families, social workers, and children that hold hands and come together for an afternoon at the zoo, but after blog reading for 16 months, you, my fellow bloggers, are painting a much different picture. Like my instructors, I thank you for the dose of the “real world.”

The big idea of the day was, “Be prepared to work with birth families, don’t judge them.” The woman next to me shook her head in disapproval, “I thought they just brought you some kids and you got to take care of them…” She wasn’t in class this week. Is she over it?

We learned the about idea of concurrent planning (which I can thank Carrie Ann, from Foster Wee, for sharing about here first) and how the team will be working on reunification for the child with their birth families all the while also planning for termination of rights and adoption. It looks good on paper but my “real world” lessons tell me otherwise.

We did a simple exercise where we were given a few minutes to answer the following questions:

1. What do you plan to do tomorrow?

2. Who do you plan to have with you tomorrow?

3. What do you want to be doing one year from now (personally or professionally)?

4. Who do you plan to have with you?

5. What would you like to accomplish in the next five years?

6. Who would you like to have sharing your accomplishments?

 

We handed in our worksheets and our instructor promptly ripped them up. There were a few gasps but I saw it coming. I get it. A person, of any age, is going to have plans and when those plans are disrupted, they are not going to be happy. As we have heard more than once now, no kid ever wakes up and says, “I want to be taken by DCFS today.” This feeds into the idea that no one (foster parents or otherwise) should ever expect their foster/adopted child to be grateful. Even if being abused, they are attached to the adult in their life and you are different and strange and you interrupted their plans, no matter how big or small.

Two other key ideas we hit on were connections and continuity. Connections in terms of establishing long-term and ongoing relationships with people who have a lifetime commitment to the child. Connections provide belonging, stability, and a sense of cultural community. Continuity refers to children’s ability to understand and make connections between their past, present and the future. It has to do with knowing where you’ve been and where you’re going. It’s a sense of familial and cultural heritage.

Photo Jul 15, 12 17 56 PMEnter the homework. In addition to about 20 pages of reading we were required to complete a genogram, or a drawing of our family tree structure. It examines family heritage and current family relationships. It’s a chart of our hereditary past and present. (My photo is purposely pixelated to obscure family names and to apparently protect the identity of my dog napping on the floor.) It resulted in a phone conversation with my mom where suddenly I was picking her brain for birth dates and dates of death. I love how the mind works, as she was rifling through her mental schema for the information I needed she would mutter things like, “She passed just after we moved to…” or “Well he was this many years old when your father was born so…” Family factoids tied to family trivia. Without cousins, my genogram came out quite compact. Mr. Something’s genogram, with an extensive supply of aunts, uncles, half aunts, and half uncles, required computer charting and quite a few creative guesses on his mom’s part.

Again, I got it. Bringing a child into our family adds a different type of branch to our tree and also provides them with a tree that isn’t really theirs to begin with. It’s a matter to never forget.

Purely by coincidence, I found myself climbing deeper (higher?) into my family tree just a few hours after that phone conversation with my mom. She and my father were headed out-of-town for a road trip and I finally got the opportunity I had been waiting for. In April, my parents will be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. I have known for a while that I wanted to make a DVD slideshow of pictures of them spanning the 50 years of their marriage. A project that would include raiding their family albums and scanning A LOT of photos. (If this post mysteriously disappears it’s because I have finally shared my blog with my mom and I’m being very top secret about the whole anniversary project. She was running internet on a dial-up connection until about a month ago, so spending casual time online reading blogs was not within her realm of patience!) So, with them safely across state lines, I headed to their house and took on the task.

After 3 1/2 hours of scanning photos I had taken a journey, not just through my own childhood, but into the twenty-ish years they spent together before I came along. In my scope, that’s practically a lifetime they spent childless and together. A lifetime that I know very little about. Apparently, they had secret lives as movie stars in the 60s. Could this pic be any more amazing? Photo Jul 15, 2 50 13 PMOut of the albums I unearthed, my favorite was one I had never seen before. It was stashed away in the back of a shelf, dusty. It was faded green leather with the word PHOTOS embossed across the front, black photo corners fastened the square snapshots (way to bring it back Instagram) to large black pages. My father’s neat handwriting was there with simple dates and locations penned in white under the images. Oh, I should have taken a picture of it. I’m hoping to return tomorrow, perhaps I will snap one then. Already feeling like I was being super sneaky taking on this project, this album was what I had been hoping to find. It started with pictures around the time of, and including, their own wedding. There were honeymoon pictures from the beaches of Miami and a photo of my mom standing outside their first home, an apartment above my father’s parents’ house, labeled “First morning back.”

The pages that followed included family gatherings and lots of other weddings. My dad smiled politely as a groomsman with unknown bridesmaids on his arm. My mom clutched bouquets next to glowing brides. It was “that time” of their lives. Everyone was getting married. We’ve all had summers like that, “What? Another wedding?”  I was recognizing the faces of family friends that became my honorary aunts and uncles twenty years later. Sitting there at my parents desk with albums scattered around me, I came to the realization that my family genogram could have been, should have been, much bigger. These dear friends of my parents are as much family to me as my biological aunts and uncles. Does it matter that they aren’t officially on my tree? No! When did I finally realize that they weren’t actually related to us?

I was seeing the reflection of myself in those faces. Bridesmaids in matching dresses, boutonnieres pinned to tuxedo lapels, friends smiling around banquet tables draped in white linens, it’s not far from what the last several years have been for me. I’ve said since the beginning that part of the reason Mr. Something ail_570xN.324941500nd I hope to foster to adopt is to bring a child into the nurturing fold of our family and friends. Our friends, that have trees of their own but will no doubt be “aunt” and “uncle” to our children. The genogram was supposed to bring us to the realization of the loss that one would feel to not have that information, that sense of self and history.Yet, I came to the entirely different conclusion that there is far more than that tree in one’s support system. You can feel loved, and nurtured, and protected by anyone that devotes their energy to caring for you. A tree can’t grow alone in the dark. It is our friends that make up all the rest. I cherish my family tree but I’m also so grateful that it grows in a forest.   

(“Love makes a family” image found at Manchester Studio on Etsy.)