Are You My Mother?

The book Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman is the first one I recall being able to read all by myself.   I bought a copy for my children when they were small.  Even after all these years,  I still smile when I open the bright aqua cover and see the illustrations inside.  It’s a classic story of family love. Mother Love.

If you’ve never read it, here’s the premise.   A baby bird falls out of its nest and starts looking for its mother. It travels far and wide, asking other animals and even a steam shovel the same question, “are YOU my Mother?” until finally, with help, the hapless little guy  finds his way back to the nest. A happy ending.  When I was small, I worried a lot about that baby bird and felt sorry for  his mom.  It would be scary to not be able to find the most important person (or bird) in your life, wouldn’t it?

Lucky for me, my own two “birds” are sharper than the main character of the story.   They know me when they see me.  But the world doesn’t.   This is an odd feeling, even after almost twenty years of looking the way we do when we go out in public as a trans-racial family of four.

It has happened to us four times in the past six days.  No lie.  A new record!   The first time,  I was talking to my daughter about leaving the high school to run an errand during her free period.  Another mom was also volunteering that day, and when she heard me say this to my girl, she piped up worriedly, “I don’t think you can just let her go without having her go to the office.  What if she gets into an accident and her parents sue the school?”     I said, “Oh, I wouldn’t do that!” still not realizing why she had said it, and then she said, “NO!  I’m sure YOU wouldn’t! But what if HER mom did?”

This woman and I didn’t know each other prior to that day.   She’d looked at the lovely young Asian woman, then looked at me, and didn’t realize that we were connected.  Really, REALLY connected.  Easy mistake, right?

Then, yesterday in Walmart, we had another adventure. My college age son  and I were at the checkout. He had one cart. I had another. The cashier asked me if I needed another cart for my load, and I said I didn’t because I already had two carts. Now,  if we’d been in a cartoon, a giant question mark would have been drawn directly over this guy’s head.  I could tell that  the wheels were a-turnin’  as he searched in vain for the second cart I was hiding.   There was a long pause in the action as he tried to make sense of the middle aged white woman with the irritable Korean kid standing behind her in line trying to get her to pay for his stuff.   Tired and in a hurry, I finally pointed at my son and said, “he’s with me.”

Then, there was the icing on the cake.  A late night ER visit with my daughter.  There were forms to fill out and questions to answer about a sick teenager with a bloody nose that wouldn’t quit. The nurse was trying to decide who to talk to, who to look at, who to hand forms to, who to give the prescription to. It was a visual/verbal midnight tennis match. Who was she supposed to be talking to???  The old white woman?  The young Asian girl? Back and forth. Back and forth.  I wanted to say, “Oh, I don’t really know this miserable, bleeding child…I just found her walking along the highway. I think she was skipping school without her mother’s permission.  And by the way, can we hurry this up?  I have to get to Walmart to see if any strange Asian men need me to buy their groceries for them” just to see the reaction.

But alas…I am a mother.  I am THEIR mother.  I try to be motherly and not any more embarrassing than absolutely necessary whenever possible, so I seethe and answer questions, and show restraint while my head tries to explode.

It puzzles me when I hear smart, well-meaning people say, “Oh! I don’t see color! We are all the same on the inside” whenever the topic of race comes up.

Come ON, intelligent, well-meaning people. Really? Of course we see color.  It’s the first thing we see.  It helps us make sense of the world. We categorize. We sort. We decide what goes with what.  Like with like, ya know?  Like Legos. It’s not a good thing, or a bad thing on the surface.

But in doing this very natural thing as human beings living and serving and working in our communities, I’d like to ask what it is we’re building and whether the color of those building blocks is all we see.  If it’s enough just to know that. Or if we need to know more than that.

I would like to write a letter to the world.

Dear World,

In case you are confused, yes, they are my children, and I am their mother.  We don’t look alike, true, but  in every way that matters, they are mine.  Mine.

Dear Concerned Volunteer…..  I saw you watch me hug my girl when she came into the classroom before you made your comment and I know you heard me ask her about her plans for the evening, and yet, you still commented. Why?    Um, Walmart Guy…. didn’t it seem a little bit odd that I was turned around  talking to my son and taking the coupons from him right before we attempted to check out? And to the very nice,  but confused Nurse….you determined that my daughter was a minor in the first two minutes with her. On what planet would ANYONE but a parent attempt to have a child seen in an ER if that child wasn’t insured?

Oh, and while I’m on a roll….to the waitresses and servers of America…  if a middle aged couple takes  young  nieces and nephews out for lunch and everyone at the table is the same race,do you ask those at the table whether separate checks are required, or do you just save that question for families that look like ours?  And for future reference when my two kids go out to eat alone, trust me…they are not a couple out on a date.  Give them separate checks or I’ll have to hear about it. Again.

What defines family in your opinion, World?  Can you tell families who look like ours the rules for clear, unfettered  passage through  your stores, and schools, and hospitals and restaurants?  Because I’m learning that the questions and confusion and strange pauses are coming fast and furious these days.  Would it be helpful if we wore signs or should I perhaps carry their adoption decrees in my wallet?

We  are a family of four with two white parents and two Asian kids. In a state with the highest number of Korean adoptees in the United States of America.  The highest.   Yes, we live in a region where the majority of people are white.  And my kids now look like young adults, not tiny, black haired “lucky” orphans any longer.   I get that.  And because I get that, I try, really try, to be nice. I do. Really.

But four times in one week in the life of a trans-racial family gets old.  Really old.

And the last time I checked, I didn’t look like a steam shovel at all.

Brevity

It started with a warm loaf of banana bread fresh from the oven.

A sweet “welcome to the neighborhood” treat handed to a young bride by a tall silver haired lady.

Her name was Ann. She was fifty years older than her new neighbor.  I was the newlywed.

We learned that we shared a love of fine china, good books, and dark chocolate.

We were neighbors for two years, and then pen pals who wrote each other once or twice a year. For twenty seven in a row.

She raised two children.  A son, and a daughter.

Her daughter died young, leaving two small sons behind to be raised.

She loved gardening,   planning dinner parties, and beating  the contestants on “Wheel of Fortune” in front of a crackling fire on cold, January evenings.

She traveled extensively, read extensively, loved extensively. She and Life were good friends.  Her humility and grace and cheerful outlook made each day brighter for anyone who crossed her path.

She was a “glass half- full” kind of gal, sewing a silver lining into every dark cloud.

In a world populated with pessimists, she shone brightly.  A smile, a pat on the shoulder, a sweet treat delivered to people she didn’t yet know was her way of making the world less harsh, less cynical, less arrogant.

Each Christmas, for over a quarter of century, I have said a quiet prayer that a card with a carefully penned note would appear in my mailbox.  And it did, without fail.

She became a widow, and moved, and then  she’d write about life in her assisted living facility, and about her grandchildren, great grandchildren, and a great great grandchild.   About how they’d grown, and how proud she was of all of them.  She was especially grateful for the two grandsons she’d helped to raise.

She was grateful for each birthday, and  grateful for every day in between.

I thought about my friend last Saturday.   Her card in December had come with her grandson’s return address on it, rather than her own.  In her letter, she said that she’d been moved to a nursing home and that she needed more “help” from her grandson.

Then, yesterday I sat down to read the Sunday paper.  And I knew that no more letters would come.

My good friend’s life was summarized in a two inch long, two inch wide column of newsprint.  Two inches of small print.

She was 102.

We are living during the Age of Accomplishment.  Each job, degree, award, promotion, and game won by our kids, our spouses, and ourselves is reported to the world.  Every activity is documented digitally. Every pound lost or marathon completed gives us bragging rights.   It’s a measuring stick with no end, but still, we wait for that next trophy or medal or “good job” to come our way, believing, perhaps, that it is those accomplishments that complete us, justify our existence, make us who we are.  Make us matter.

I cut out my friend’s obituary yesterday and placed it in a small stained glass frame.   It sits on the windowsill above my kitchen sink.  When the sun rises in the east, rays of light catch in the colored squares of glass and dance around the kitchen.

It reminds me, every morning, that it is the small things like being kind, and being patient, and being interested, not interesting, that matter most.

And loaves of banana bread to young brides matter, too.