“When I am writing I am far away and when I come back I have already left”
– Pablo Neruda
Further stepping into the wilderness of Montana and the wilderness of writing this week. If you’d like to create haven for your creativity…come to a Haven Writing Retreat here in Montana. June and September retreats are now booking.
Please enjoy this powerful entry to my “Long Ago: Community” series/contest. Submissions close Feb. 1. Winner announced mid-Feb. Thank you to all who are sharing and reading and commenting. We can build community from far and wide. yrs. Laura
Chosen, by Annette Baesel
I was twelve and stood in a sky blue coatdress feeling very small among somberly dressed adults at the edge of my father’s open grave. A slim silver crucifix lay on top of the simple oak casket. An only child, I stood with my small hand nestled inside my mother’s. She trembled from the cold wind that blew out of the March sky and the grief that had come from nowhere into her life descending like a twister from a Midwestern sky. I felt lonely and afraid yet at the same time comforted by the strength and love that flowed from the family and friends who gathered around my mother and me. These people stood around us like an army ready to do battle in our names. They were the promise that we would survive. This circle of guardians was a reflection of the life my parents had created for themselves, a life filled with decent, fair-minded people who, just like them, treasured and nurtured true friendship and supportive love.
Years before that day at my father’s grave, there was a half-moon high over our rose-colored, one-story tract home. It was a warm Californian summer night. I smelled orange blossoms from the small grove down the street, mingled with the heady aroma of gardenias from our neighbor’s well-tended yard. I was five years old, small and skinny. Mom and I waited at the side gate while Dad drove the long, pink Oldsmobile into the garage. His teeth flashed white in the dark as he smiled and walked towards us. Mom took my hand in hers. We walked into the backyard and I heard the gate clang shut behind us. My entire universe was within my sight, my parents, our tidy backyard with the big leafed mulberry tree, the light from the kitchen window, and the brilliant starry sky.
We walked out from under the spreading branches of the mulberry tree. Mom sat down on the top step leading to the back porch of the house. She gathered me up into her arms and looked up to the sky. “Look at all the stars, Annie,” she said. I obediently looked up at all the twinkles. She continued, “You know, you can make wishes on stars? And sometimes they come true.” I nodded, liking the idea quite a bit. With a bit of a hug and a kiss to my forehead she said, “Your Daddy and I wanted a baby for so long. We wished and wished for a little girl. Finally one day, a little star was given to us…you.”
After twelve years of marriage and trying to conceive, they adopted me, a three-day-old baby girl. Mom would tell of crying tears of joy the entire seven miles from hospital to home, saying, “Oh, Jimmy, she is so beautiful.” When they got to the house, she ran to the bedroom to undress me and to stand arm in arm with my Dad staring at the miracle of a beautiful, naked baby on their bed, their own child. That sense of being chosen shaped much of how have I lived my life. Our close-knit family was comprised of people related by blood and people my parents chose to make family. They knew to nurture all those relationships like prized orchids. They took nothing and no one for granted. So when I stood next to my father’s grave with my numb and bewildered mother I was a little less afraid because of the presence of all those that stood with us, stood for us.
My father’s death at age fifty-two following heart surgery was unexpected. My mother was cast adrift. She was suddenly without her smiling Jimmy,her anchor, her light-hearted partner. She was a single mother with only a part-time job and large medical bills. She was faced with sleeping in an empty bed for the first time in twenty-five years. She was stunned, angry, and afraid. Our community of family and friends supported us in ways I only fully came to appreciate later as an adult. They sheltered me from just how badly damaged she was until I was old enough to understand.
Through gestures and actions both small and large they got my mother through the first couple of years helping her find herself and her direction. She gradually regained her smile and found a new path into the future. Our community of loved ones kept laughter in our lives, even at a time when it seemed hard to find something to laugh about. These were conscious, deliberate decisions on the part of our family and friends. They chose to support us, to remain as close as we would allow, to help us remember the good times, and face the bad times.
Thirteen years ago, with the support of my adoptive mother, Maxine, I made the decision to search for my birth family. Unlike some, I was not looking for the “missing piece,” as I have never felt incomplete or discarded. Rather, it was the simple importance of family connection and community that drove me to search for my birth family at the age of forty-three.
With a few facts my mom remembered of the circumstances of my birth, I found my older half-siblings, a sister and a brother. Despite the passage of years and circumstances surrounding my adoption, our coming together was immediate, intense, and joyous. There were long late-night phone calls, even longer emails and letters, and the sharing of many photos. My birth mother, Betty, was relieved to find out that the daughter she had to give up was safe, loved, and happy. Yet she was not ready to meet me. I understood. I was content with the relationships that I was building with my siblings and the eight nieces and nephews that I acquired almost overnight. I believed that time would take care of the rest.
Eventually, my birth mother and her second husband made the long emotional journey to my home. We shared many secrets, shed tears together, and began to forge a relationship. When several years later, I planned a visit to California to visit my adoptive mom, my birth mother emailed me to say she was ready to meet my mother.
A Christmas tree stood in the corner of the common area of the senior apartments where my adoptive mom made her home. Good King Wenceslas was playing on the stereo system and the scent of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies floated through the air. Mom and I held hands while we sat nervously on the small love seat next to the fireplace. We saw the car pull into a guest parking space. Mom could not wait. She rose with remarkable speed given the arthritis in her knees and walked outside. I stayed behind a few steps. Betty walked across the small palm-lined parking lot towards my mom, followed by her husband a few paces behind. Under a big blue Southern Californian sky my two mothers embraced. They stood with their arms around each other looking into each other’s eyes. Betty said in a whisper, “Thank you for taking care of her.” My mom gently responded with tears on her cheeks, “Thank you for letting me.” It was the intersecting of two worlds, two lives, through me. My sense of being chosen was never stronger. I had been, in fact, chosen twice. Once by my adoptive parents when they chose to make a family with me, and now a second time when my birth mother chose to reconnect completely with me, my mom, and my family.
The following years brought a sad, slow decline in my adoptive mother’s life as she battled poor health and dementia. As heart wrenching as it was, she and I never doubted the love and connection we had with one another. Nor did we ever feel abandoned by our pieced-together family that surrounded us. We navigated the unwelcome and unchartered waters of her last few years by the light that shone from the many lanterns lit by our loved ones. In her last days in hospice, we were surrounded by pictures of her beloved Jimmy. I would sit holding her hand like I had so many times before. We listened to the Big Band music of her early days with dad. Long after she could no longer speak or perhaps hear I would talk of memories, of family, and of friends. At the end, as it had been in life, it was the family we chose to create that gave us the strength and courage to fight the battle and face the unknown.
She died in the middle of the night. When I left her for the last time, I walked out under a star-filled Florida sky not unlike the one she and I had sat under so many years ago back in California. I remembered how once upon a time she had wished upon the stars for a little girl. Now, it was me looking up to the stars in thanksgiving and grief. It was me wishing on the stars for her safe passage. It was me giving thanks to the stars for choosing to bring us together. As I walked to the car, I knew that family waited for me at home to wrap their arms around my aching heart with love and support. I knew that I would grieve. I would heal. I would grow stronger. I would remember. I would remember that I was chosen.