In search of a new dresser for Julia late last year, I drove her to Ikea, which, no matter where you live, is always far away. We headed south from Boston in heavy rain, at the start of Julia's winter break in her final year of college. I had volunteered to take her because her mother Janet wouldn't let her drive after she had totaled a car, and because Janet was dying and could no longer drive herself.
Janet was still at home on the couch, remarkably coherent but in the care of a hospice nurse. The adults guessed she had a month or two to live, but we hadn't told Julia, and didn't know how she read her mother's condition.
It was a gloomy day and a tragic situation, but Julia's style is upbeat and exuberant. Pictures from a hidden camera would only reveal her high spirits and excitement about her new romantic interest. She would want me to say here that Janet adopted her as a single mother from China, and that Julia has tattooed on her back, in discreet fourteen-point type, the words MADE IN CHINA.
When her mother died, Julia would have no "immediate family" beyond Janet's three brothers, their wives and children. I am the long-time girlfriend of one of the brothers, James, and therefore an unofficial aunt. Perhaps because I'm more of an Auntie Mame than an ordinary aunt, and perhaps because unlike the other aunts I have no children of my own, I'm the one Julia chose six years ago as her fall-back mother when Janet was first diagnosed with cancer. Uncle James - well, he was already a father figure to her. And she had always been close to James' only child, a daughter who then lived most of the time with her mother.
Beyond her affection for her uncle and cousin, Julia must have divined something about me that no one knew but James: when I was married, I came very close to adopting a seven-year-old girl from Vietnam. My marriage was close to over when the agency called about the child; I didn't have Janet's determination to do this on my own. Perhaps Julia alone could see the invisible tattoo on my forehead: WILL ADOPT ASIAN GIRL, NO PROBLEM.
Janet defied every prediction and lived in relative good health - if you count years of maintenance chemo - for more than five years. Part of my goal for the drive to Ikea - the most time Julia and I had ever spent alone together - was to talk as openly as we could about what was to come, about the elephant in the room. The surprise was that she had roughly the same idea.
"Ikea is a good place for bonding," Julia announced cheerily as we set off. After hours of talking, laughing, shopping and schlepping, we came to the home stretch. Standing in the check-out line, she made another pronouncement: "This has been some good aunt-niece bonding, and you know, you are my aunt."
She is notably resilient and not inclined to heavy introspection. "I'm the opposite of my mother," she told me that day. She's not nervous, fearful, or hyper-analytical. "I don't let anything get to me. I just let it roll off my back." So it was especially moving that she made this claim, that she knew exactly what she needed from our shopping expedition: a dresser and the start of a whole new relationship with me. I know I said something that closed the deal, but I was too touched to say much.
Four months later, I pick her up at the airport in Boston. It's the day before her mother's memorial service, an elaborate occasion in the works since she died two months before. We'll honor her work as a philosophy professor and early feminist, and her gumption in adopting Julia even before agencies were helping families navigate the Chinese bureaucracy. In the car, apropos of nothing significant, Julia tells me that she doesn't want children. I tell her that my feelings about that have changed a lot over the years. I tell her that when I was married, before she knew me, I came very close to adopting a girl from Vietnam.
"Really?" she says, as though she can't believe the turn this conversation has taken, this piece of my heart suddenly revealed. We have talked a lot in the last four months, but this has never come up.
A second or two goes by. "You can adopt me," she says in a very matter-of-fact voice, as though the thrust of her intention is to help me out in my longtime ambition. But of course it is more complicated and much sweeter for both of us than that.
How is it that these moments happen without so much as a flicker of warning? I reach over and tousle her hair, but only for an instant, so she won't think I am about to become another nervous, fearful, clingy mother now that we've come to this bittersweet arrangement. We are the two happy misfits in the family, unconnected by blood or official documents, and connected in our certainty that family is more than either. I don't have to think about what to say because these words leap out of my mouth: "I already have."
That's all either of us says, and all we need to say.
- Elizabeth Benedict is the author of five novels and editor of the anthology, Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives, just published by Free Press/S&S.