My Peeps Are Whiteys
The mystery was gone. Bio-mom was not the exotic islander I envisioned. My peeps were whiteys.
I’ve always hated my nose. It is short with a wide bridge that plateaus off the tip landing with a thud. There is nothing elegant or sculpted about it, unlike my mom’s nose, which could have been the prototype plastic surgeons used for rhinoplasty in the 80’s. My nose has no structure or shape that gives it any dignity. There is nothing as righteous as a bump. It is just shapeless, with round nostrils like a baby’s. When I was a kid, I marveled at how my index finger fit perfectly into my nostril, while my friends had to forcefully cram their fingers inside.
I was never angry that I didn’t inherit my mom’s nose because it was impossible. We don’t share the same DNA. I was adopted and never knew my heritage. I know DNA doesn’t really mean much. Not everyone relates to their family, but at least you know where the manic depression, extra long second toe or hairy arms are from. You have someone to thank and to blame for your assets and deficiencies. A cord of disheveled genetic code that makes you… you.
I always looked different from my family, my skin a shade darker, my eyes and hair a milk chocolate brown. My parents are both fair-skinned and light-eyed, while my adopted sister has blonde hair and blue eyes. When we were together, I sometimes felt like the Sesame Street skit where they show three circles and one square and sing, “One of these things just doesn’t fit”. It didn’t matter to me because my parents loved and adored my sister and me. We were constantly told how special we were because they chose us to be theirs. They rejoiced in how lucky they were to be our parents. Adoption was something to be proud of. My sister and I always knew we were adopted and were mercifully spared the sit down at age thirteen to be told, “We aren’t your real parents.” My mom gloated about skipping the nine months of bloating, weight gain and moodiness most moms endure. I grew up in a free-spirited house with a jokester Polish/Jew lawyer dad and an Irish/French beauty queen mom. They were loving, fun and best of all, mine. I never cared that the kids in my first grade teased me that I was an “Indian”. Approaching me with one arm up, palm facing out, they greeted me with “How” and then hopped around on one foot patting their mouths “Awwwaaaawwwaa”. I taunted them back with the fact that I was more loved than them because I had two sets of parents, even if I only knew one pair.
When I left the cozy, liberal blanket of the Bay Area to attend college in upstate New York, people were interested in my foreign looks and asked what my nationality was. I lied most of the time and said whatever came to mind, “Italian!” “Greek!” “Moroccan!” Sometimes, when feeling spirited, I would just answer, “I don’t know, I was adopted.” My unusual name helped spur their interest. “What kind of name is Meika?” they would ask, fruitlessly searching for clues to my identity. While in college, I dated a guy who was half black and half Italian. He convinced me that I, too, might be mulatto. It was true, we did look somewhat alike and I was intrigued with this notion that I might be something--a real something with a long line of history. I started to attend the African American Coalition meetings at school. These were my peeps! That summer I went home and told my parents about my discovery. They assured me I was of middle-European descent. Disappointed, I quit the coalition and tucked away my ethnic curiosity like an exotic souvenir from a distant aunt’s travels.
I have had many people tell me what they think my origins are. Indian, Middle Eastern, Spanish, Puerto Rican. I had a guy come up to me once, randomly, and ask if I was from Genoa. When I replied that I didn’t know, he assured me I was Genovese and that everyone there looks just like me. Maybe the Genovese are my peeps! I have also had friends call me in a frenzy convinced they had seen my biological mother somewhere: a stewardess on a Greek airline, a retail worker in a mall along highway 80, an actress from a TV movie. Many times it felt my friends were more curious about my background than me. I had a friend whose mom was adopted and she found her biological mother. It turns out they both smoked Winston cigarettes, drove Cadillacs and bred Chow Chow dogs. DNA might matter. But I liked my parents, my family, my home. I had no complaints about a terrible childhood with alcoholic parents who made me eat string beans for dinner while they ate meat loaf. The truth is my biological parents did the right thing giving me up and I was dealt a royal flush by ending up with my family.
Everyone feels at some point that they wish their parents weren’t their parents. Moments of utter embarrassment caused by a parent’s clueless lack of composure. My husband’s father picked him up from his preppy high school in a beat up VW square back with the Batman insignia stenciled on both doors. My moments of complete red-faced disaster were rampant. My family is a bunch of show-offs while I am more reserved. They will gladly sing in restaurants, call out to you from across the room, or approach a celebrity and introduce themselves. There is nothing low-pro about my parents. When they came to visit me at college one year, they arrived in their very California red nylon sweat-suits, which I could have forgiven if they didn’t insist on following me around with a video camera while introducing themselves to my friends. But, I comforted myself with the notion that these aren’t really my peeps. I mean they are, but we are genetically different and that variance kept me sane through my early adulthood. Being adopted gave me the great luxury of engaging in my family’s quirky traditions but also removing myself when they were just too eccentric. I had the power to edit what I wanted to accept and make mine and filter what I wanted to disregard, such as going to the bathroom with the door open or talking out-loud in the movie theater.
My sister and I bypassed foster care and orphanages by being adopted privately. My mom found my sister through an electrician. It was 1965 and she had a guy come over to fix a malfunctioning outlet. He was gushing about this baby that he and his wife had just adopted. My mom inquired further and he mentioned that they had adopted the baby through his wife’s OBGYN who had a handful of pregnant woman who didn’t want to keep their babies. It turns out that my mom used the same OBGYN. This wasn’t some small town with one doctor; this was San Francisco and the chances of sharing the same gyno as your electrician’s wife were slim to none. My mom phoned her doctor and in June 1966 my sister was born.
The way they found me was just as obscure. My mom received a random call from an ex-neighbor who wanted to come and visit her. She was surprised to hear from this woman, who had moved away many years ago and hadn’t spoken to my family in ten years. During their visit, the woman was playing with my sister, and my mom mentioned that she and my dad were thinking about adopting another baby. The woman said she had a neighbor in LA who was pregnant and intended to give the baby up for adoption. That baby was me. My mom never heard from this ex-neighbor again. She was like a human stork that delivered news of a baby and then poof; she disappeared.
I was born in Orange County, CA in 1971. When the hospital called to tell my parents that their baby was born, my dad was the only one home. He is very proud to be the only father in the world who knew about the birth of his daughter before the mom did. He was practicing impressionist painting at the time, and was so excited by the news that he scrawled a cryptic canvas for my mother announcing my birth. Using the palette knife he had been holding when he answered the phone, he scratched out the words, “Baby Girl 2-18-1971, 7 lbs 8 oz.” in thick, uneven dark blue paint. He left it for my mom propped up on the kitchen table. That canvas is now framed in my bedroom, a perfect memento commemorating my existence.
Since my dad was a lawyer he was able to handle all the adoption papers through his firm. This means he had all the files, photos, birth certificates and letters in his office. All I needed to do was ask for my file and he could bring it home, avoiding the need for a private investigator or bureaucratic dealings with the state. So I did it. I recently asked my parents for my file and much to my surprise, they said, “Sure.” I was always worried that I would hurt their feelings by requesting it, like I was insinuating that they had failed me somehow. I imagined that they feared me finding my biological family and suddenly shunning the parents who had raised me. They would hand over my adoption papers in a formal way, maybe after dinner at our family table, prefaced with a speech about how much they love me and how I am truly their daughter, DNA doesn’t matter. But, it didn’t go like that at all.
I went with my parents to see the new musical “Lennon”. My dad was carrying his gigantic briefcase and as he struggled to tuck it away under the seat in front of him, he mentioned that he had my file. It was three minutes before the show was going to start and my mom said, “Well, let’s see it, Ronald.” I held back and let them review it all, squirming in my seat not to peek; I never imagined finding out my nationality while at a John Lennon musical. But as they “Oooohhh’d” and “Aaahhh’d” and showed the photos to the strangers seated in front of us, I couldn’t resist. “Okay, let me see,” I said, surrendering to my fate. There were three photos of my biological peeps: one black and white of my bio-mom in her senior high school portrait; one color photo of my bio-dad at a party, the person next to him cut out so it was really ½ a picture; and a third snapshot of the both of them standing on a suburban lawn. In this third photo, he was dressed in a suit, she in a yellow mini-dress and they looked like they were going to a high school formal. There were three rays of sun damage splayed like fingers across the print, leaving a ghostly sheen to their faces.
The musical started with the song, “All You Need Is Love” as I sat there with the photos on my lap. The woman in the photos didn’t look like me, even though my parents both thought she did. I didn’t feel anything when I looked at my bio-mom. No instant bond, or “Ah ha, this is what I look like!” To tell you the truth, it was sort of a disappointment. The mystery was gone. Bio-mom was not the exotic islander I envisioned. My peeps were whiteys. She had blonde hair! And she was wearing a cross! Bio-dad was darker, more like me and tall. I saw a little bit of myself in him, especially when I was a kid and had a pixie haircut. But I felt totally removed from them both physically and emotionally. Nothing felt resolved, just extinguished. All of my fantasies dissolved, my curiosity cured, my unique self now not so incredibly unique. I suddenly felt average. I pondered my blandness while “Imagine” echoed through the theater.
My bio-mom was German/Irish and bio-dad German/Italian. I guess that Italian gene was pretty strong, but German? I couldn’t feel less German. I hate schnitzel and sauerbraten and have no sense of superior order in my life. Where is the woman from Guadalajara or Sevilla or Mykonos that was supposed to be my bio-mom? I felt duped. And they were Catholic. I don’t feel Catholic. I can’t stand that whole guilt, suppression, do something wrong, admit it and be forgiven so you don’t end up in hell stuff. I feel more a Polish Jew than anything else. The show’s finale peaked on the song “Starting Over”.
I suddenly realized that it is history, the stories I share with my family, the knowingness of what is familiar, the foods we eat, the songs we sing, the fact that we are Jews who celebrate Christmas, Easter and Passover. That is what makes me… me. These are my peeps! Family is more than your DNA; it is who you share your past with. Maybe if I find my bio-parents someday, they too will be writers or dog-lovers or have a habit of eating ice cream for breakfast. But for now, living with the question is better than knowing the answer.
At the end of the musical, my parents jumped up for a standing ovation, wildly applauding and whistling. I followed their lead and rose from my chair clapping. I looked down at the photos of my bio-mom on my seat and noticed her nose. She had perfectly round nostrils.