Beneath the Smiles
I see them smiling in the grocery store, at the coffee shop. Strangers look at her, glance at me, and smile at us. She still holds my hand or slides her arm through mine when we walk. She is eleven. She has the dark eyes, black-brown hair, and warm tan skin of her Chinese heritage. I have the fair, light-eyed features of my European ancestors. I am her mother, through adoption. When she was younger, toddling at my knee, she had to reach her hand up to clasp mine. People not only smiled then, they spoke, saying she was too cute to be real, wondering on her origins, whispering their adoption tales. Early on, I noticed the smiles and nods as we passed by, a walking storybook ending, or beginning.
Maybe I stopped noticing because the newness wore off. I forgot about our differences as we grew into our similarities. Lately I have started to notice again. Startled, I have to remind myself what others see: a mother, a daughter, an unexpected bond. What strangers cannot see is like all that lies beneath the tip of the iceberg, hidden beneath the water. The sharp beauty above obfuscates the complex mass below. I love this child and she loves me. I carried her like a gift from one side of the sky to the other. Though chances are I will never know under what circumstances she was “given.” Our joy rests above the waterline of grief.
People, not the ones in the coffee shop, but the distant impersonal “they,” sometimes say adoption is a trend or so-and-so celebrity popularized adopting. As if an adopted child were this season’s accessory or status symbol. They also say I am a biological (I have another child by birth), adoptive mother in a multi-cultural, bi-racial family. This is when I smile. We are so quick to label the ingredients thinking this will help us understand what is inside. I am none of these things and, I suppose, technically all of them. Yet, celebrities and labels matter not at all to anyone who has paced the floor after midnight cradling a crying baby. To anyone who has explained to a curious toddler why our eyes do not look the same. To anyone who has had to say to a dawning child, yes you were given away but you were wanted, too. It only matters that love is bigger and stronger than the cold facts of loss.
When unknown kids whisper in the pool, “I think she’s Asian,” our family laughs in mock surprise. You are? She is, and that matters only in ways giggling children on vacation cannot know. I am her mother. She is my daughter. Our ingredients are courage and stubbornness and hope.
Walking into the dentist office, the hotel lobby, we hold hands and pass smiling people. I do not know really why they smile. But I smile back.
Photo credit: gfpeck