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Jennifer Handford

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A Family Tree Grows Branches

Posted: 05/04/2012 12:53 pm

When my 10-year-old daughter comes home from school armed with a family tree project, she wants to know all about where our people emigrated from. I tell her what I know. She is excited to hear that she has a great-great-great grandmother from Holland. Perfect for Immigration Day, she says, and then wonders aloud where she will find a pair of wooden clogs.

While she sketches out branches, I consider the situation. My daughter is fractional shares of English and Irish and Dutch and Russian and German. But she's also Chinese. We adopted her when she was 1. Now, 10 years later, I wonder if perhaps we have done too good of a job. We have insinuated her so thoroughly into our lives that it hasn't occurred to her to ask about her Chinese heritage. My daughter, with her porcelain cheeks and rosebud lips and hair as shiny as black lacquer, has claimed our ancestry as her own. I feel pride, but I also feel shame because she should know about her roots. But there is little to know. Beyond my daughter, her branch breaks.

This is what I do know. About the time I filled out my first piece of adoption paperwork, my daughter's biological mother was already pregnant. She lived a rural life. The region that bore her was remote, a village reachable only by a four-hour car ride outside of an industrial hub in central China. My daughter was abandoned on the road leading up to the orphanage. She was found on her second day of life. She weighed four pounds.

This is what I can assume. I can assume that her mother hoped for a boy because, in rural China especially, boys trump girls. The person who is able to carry the most weight is most valuable, most able to provide for the elders.

There is much that I'll never know, moments in time that will never be mine. I'll never know about the day my daughter was born, whether her mother was an adult or still just a child. Whether the father was a man her mother knew or didn't know -- a boy she loved, or maybe hated -- a husband she chose willingly or perhaps was forced to marry.

I will also never know how her mother felt at the moment of separation, when she placed her newborn -- swaddled tightly in a blanket in a box -- on the side of the road leading up to the orphanage. Surely she knew the realities of her life -- that a daughter couldn't be kept. But still. She must have suffered. She must have grieved. I grant her that.

In the States, 7,000 miles away from where our daughter's branch was breaking -- her family tree uprooted -- my husband and I were doing what we could to grow a branch for a daughter we had never met. We baby-proofed. We became CPR certified. We installed car seats, assembled cribs and wrestled with strollers. And then we waited.

We did what we could to pass the time. We worked harder, longer hours. We occupied our every waking minute. Occasionally, we'd give in and treat ourselves to a shopping spree: a diaper bag, a baby carrier, a stack of OshKosh. We stowed them in the baby's room and then closed the door. We believed that we had a baby on the way. But in a way, we still didn't believe. There was no evidence. No swollen belly. Just stuff.

The months passed, and as the excitement built, so did the anxiety. In the stores, restaurants and at the mall, we would spy a mother nursing a newborn, a father bouncing a baby on his knee. We stared enviously at these parents who could procreate and thought nothing of it, parents who would never know the subculture of us "infertile-to-adoption" types who would move heaven and earth to get a baby. All we had was our box full of paperwork and there was nothing warm and cuddly about it.

Now, a miracle and 10 years later, I sit across from my daughter and help her sketch branches on her family tree. We flip through photo albums and I tell stories. Then I retrieve my scrapbook of the adoption trip and we journey back to China, back to my daughter's homeland.

Later that night, as I tuck her into bed, I mention to her that dressing up as a Dutch girl sounds great, but instead, maybe she would like to wear her Chinese dress hanging in her closet. My daughter nods enthusiastically, and that's when I know that she has already had the same thought. Being Chinese was her first choice, too.

Visit Amazon.com to purchase my book, Daughters for a Time. You can also visit me at www.jenniferhandford.com.

 
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