It’s so strange, hearing dead people speak. The other day I listened to an interview I had recorded over the phone with my grandparents back when I was in college. The cassette tape had been in storage all these years, but suddenly I had a car with a cassette deck and I was driving up 280 toward Palo Alto listening to my younger, higher voice asking my grandparents about family lore and traditions.
Their voices and laughter were so familiar to me, and I listened through the silted lift of memory: that’s my grandma; that’s my grandpa, but the love I felt was the felt the same as what I had felt thirty years ago. Soft. Safe. Sweet.
As I drove and listened, I realized that my brain never did with my grandparents what it did with my parents: it didn’t look at them through the filter of adoption. My grandparents existed for me in a way that my parents never completely did: my grandma and grandpa were mine.
Traditionally there is an umbilical cord that at one time connected a mother to child, and, by close relationship, also connected father to child, and that scar connection didn’t exist between my mom and me, my dad and me. That lack created a scrim of once you were not mine that colored the space between us, the confusing heartbeat of you are my mother you are not my mother you are my father you are not my father I exist I don’t exist.
It seemed that my parents’ job was to worry about me, judge my performance as a person, a student, a daughter, a sister, a friend. The less they said, the more my imagination took the wheel. My parents, my mother in particular, had a loud, critical voice in my head. What are you, an idiot? Who do you think you are? Why don’t you just keep your big mouth shut? Why can’t you be better? What is wrong with you? Why aren’t you easier? Prettier? Nicer? Smarter?
The irony, of course, is that my mother may well have never said these things to me, ever. She praised me so often I grew to need the words like sun even though I distrusted them and by proxy, her. How could I be so great if she, in whom as a child I thought all that was perfect resided, routinely smacked herself in the head and called herself stupid? If she couldn’t look at her reflection in the mirror because she didn’t like what she saw, how could I love my own reflection?
Why didn’t she love herself as much as I loved her? And where was the mother who had given birth to me? Why hadn’t she stayed?
Women were unsteady ballasts. It’s only recently that I have begun to trust them, seek out their friendship on the level of if you leave me I will suffer.
My friend told me that she’d sent my book to her sister, and that her sister had called her after reading it and had said to my friend, “I love you and I will never leave you.” My friend teared up when she told me this story. “I’m not adopted,” she said. “But clearly that was something I needed to hear.”
My grandparents died within a year of each other. I cried at their funerals, but I wasn’t devastated. I didn’t fall apart after they died the way I fell apart when my mother died. I thought I was losing my mind in the months, years, after she was gone. I couldn’t read a clock. I couldn’t remember the word for “toothbrush”. I cried in traffic. I cried when the clouds moved.
The love between my grandparents and me had been river love—it flowed easily, naturally; my sense of self-worth and identity didn’t depend on their love the way it depended on my mother’s love.
Father’s love, at least for me, was different. It was like the sidewalk. There. A thing I took for granted, never desperately needed.
Mother’s love was something else. And as an adopted person, a person whose first mother had said No, mother’s love was like oxygen: necessary and dangerous. Too much, too little, you die.
I never thought my grandparents would leave me, but I waited for my mother to go. The first time she had cancer, I turned my back to her when she was most vulnerable. I knew you were going to do this, my child brain thought. You are going to leave me, but I’m okay. I’m in control. I will leave you first.
I was able to pull myself out of these fits to be the loving daughter my mother needed, but I wasn’t consistent, and we both suffered.
My grandfather talked about how on a business trip one year, he’d seen a house with the front door tied up with a giant ribbon so it looked like a present. He brought this idea home with him, and for years that was the prop for their Christmas card. The first year his mother asked him why they had a cross on their door and why the kids were crying. My grandmother laughed and laughed as my grandfather told this story.
My grandparents were laughing. My grandmother was in the kitchen and the cookies were still warm. Everything was going to be okay.
When I packed my bags for Smith College, my mother had sat on my bed, watching me fold my sweaters. “My generation paved the way so your generation could shine,” she said.
I lasted ten days at Smith before I got on my bike, looking for the Mass Pike, looking for home. I thought I could leave my mother, but it turned out I wasn’t ready, and for the rest of my life, until she died, I kept trying to go home.