Thursday, November 09, 2006

National Adoption Month: My Mother's Anger

This is the month that those touched by adoption are encouraged to contact their local media and share a positive story of adoption. Won't do that. As an adoptee from the now infamous closed era (secrets! shame! more secrets! half-truths! in the best interests of the adoptive parents!), it's hard to find something positive to say. Instead, an ongoing series of little stories in hopes that adoptive parents today will avoid the pitfalls of the past and embrace a more open and healthier attitude toward what can only be called a surreal experience...in which a child born to one family is transferred to and raised by another....in the best interests of the child.

My Mother’s Anger Part #1

My adoptive mother died at 72 after ten long years with Alzheimer’s. The first signs of her disease? Change in personality and attitude toward me, her only child. Gone were the loud laugh, the mood swings and the ever present simmering anger and resentment. And while it was sad to see the disease rob her of her personality, it also came as a relief to be in the presence of a softer, gentler version of my adoptive mother.

It’s her anger I remember most. It ruled my life...and hers...for so many years.

When I look at pictures of her as a young woman, she is beautiful and laughing and smiling at the camera. The center of attention. The beautiful clown. Taller than everybody else. A commanding woman. A woman of many secrets. In my mid-thirties, during one of her hallucinatory episodes, she revealed she'd been married and divorced as a teenager. This came as a shock. She'd always portrayed herself as the perfect daughter, obedient to her mother. In the course of her Alzheimers, I learned she’d kept many secrets. Some small. Some big. The biggest, of course, was my adoption.

I understand now that her infertility (its cause mysterious) must have been a source of great and continuous pain. That my adoption, five years after her second marriage, her last hope. That my very presence in her life served as a public reminder of her shame. At the time, there were no popular books that talked about the harm done by unresolved i fertility and even if they'd existed, she wouldn't have read them because she would have had to admit that I was adopted. The subject was so taboo that when my adoptive father finally got up the nerve to express some early concerns about my behavior (or hers?), she threatened to divorce him if he ever dared the mention the "A word" again.

As an adult, I am trying to understand her. She grew up poor. And while she had a big, loving, extended family, it was dysfunctional , ruled by shared secrets (suicide, death by alcohol, divorce, cancer and even the fact that some members had been born in Mexico) and the Myth of Matriarchy, where daughters gave lifelong loyalty to the mother before them. She was undereducated and made no attempts to widen her world. You would not think this to look at her pictures. In them, she is imposing and perfectly dressed. And while she had street smarts and a certain savvy, she was still the Mexican girl from a small village where girls did not get an education and stayed close to home.

I remember my mother as loving and caring. When I was young. Her attention slavish to my bodily needs. Sweltering in a sweater in sixty degree weather to ward off cold chills, the homemade food, the panicked trips to the doctor at the first signs of a fever. But around the age of reason, around seven or eight, things began to change. Small disagreements between us, over matters such as cleaning my room or coming inside when called, became symbols of a bigger struggle. My struggle for independence. Her struggle for control. The more I resisted, the more she clamped down.

And then there was the haircut. The haircut of 1968. She hated my long, dark hair. She wanted it cut and tamed. She had just the solution. A pixie cut! She showed me a picture from a magazine. I was horrified. In 1968, the ideal hair was straight, long and blond. I had to make due with slightly curly, longish and brown. But the super short pixie? No one had hair like that at school. I refused. My mother grew alternatlely sullen and tearful. She called her sisters on the phone. Snippets drifted down the hall. "Obstinate," "ungrateful," "she has to have her own way or no way at all." But still I refused.

My mother took me to the hairdresser "for a trim." I didn’t like this man. He had mean eyes and fat red hands with fingers like hot dogs. I watched him nervously in the mirror. He yanked my hair this way and that and told me my face was too small for so much hair. I shook my head. He rolled his eyes and exchanged glances with my mother, who nodded and walked away. Then he cut off all my hair. I was so shocked I dared not move or make any noise. In silence I endured the rest of the haircut until he was done and I was sporting the Pixie. A school picture shows me, my lips pulled down in a frown, the thick brown hair sticking up in all the wrong places, an awkward looking helmet instead of a trendy style. Of course I cried.

I hated her for tricking me. For making me look ugly. Looking back on it, I think she was trying to make me look like her. To take some part of my features and shape them into something familiar. For she wore the Pixie cut. But she looked beautiful. She with her big, angular features and high Indian cheekbones. Even she seemed disappointed by the results, blaming my thick course hair that defied gobs of Dippity-Do. But no matter what she did, I would never look like her. We may have shared the same ethnicity, but there the similarities stopped. She looked like Pochahantas and I looked like...someone else.

To be continued.

7 Comments:

Blogger Being Me said...

I love your storytelling. Thanks for contributing and helping fill up the gaps in our worlds.

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Blogger Joy said...

ohhh, they did this to my afather too, my agrandparents, made the barber cut off his too long of hair, I think it is so cruel.


I too am ejoying your blog a lot.

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