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Family Patterns

A cry in the night reminds one mother how much families have changed and how much love stays the same By Laura Shaine Cunningham



Some mornings, in those gray moments between dreaming and waking, I confuse the past with the present. I hear a small girl cry for her mother and, for an instant, think it's me crying, "Mommy!" But no, these cries come from my own small daughters, and I am the one who must rush to offer comfort and love.

I hit the floorboards running. In the predawn dimness, I stagger, half-blind without my contact lenses, into the fuzzed atmosphere of childish fear. In this haze, the alarm sounds in my subconscious. It is easy to remember another household, another time, another call for help. My daughters are six and eight years old. When I was eight, my nightmare was real. My mother died.

In the shadows that surround us now, I am mentally returned to that earlier home, the apartment in the Bronx that I shared with my mother. Later, after her death, I lived there with her brothers, my two uncles, who stayed with me for the next eight years.

This was a major move for my uncles: They had long lived separate, if similar, solitary existences in different boroughs of New York City. Both my uncles were regarded as eccentric, if not insane, by the women of the neighborhood.

Into this household soon stepped a fourth member, my grandmother Etka from Minsk. She was 80 when she moved into our tiny apartment. I was eight, but we shared a bedroom that we called the Girls' Room. We also shared our night terrors. Etka, too often, woke confused by phantoms, crying out for help. Some nights, my grandmother-a veteran of five home births-imagined that she had given birth to a baby, and that the baby was lost in her bedding. My uncles, pajama-clad, would run rush to comfort her.

Cries in the night

Today, if my daughters cry loudly enough, they will wake one of those same uncles, Uncle Len, now 84, who lives with us. He will call out, "Is everything all right?" And the very sound of his voice, the same voice that reassured me during my childish nightmares, now soothes us all.

My life today not only repeats but also reworks the family patterns that are woven through our family history. The key difference may be that what was odd in the late '50s has become less unusual now. At the time I was born, families created by deliberately single women were almost unknown in the middle class. Ahead of the trend, my mother, Rosie, was a 35-year-old "career girl" when she had me on her own. In that more traditional time, Rosie was obliged to weave a tapestry of white lies to cover any embarrassment or scandal.

She invented the legend of my namesake father, Larry, a "war hero" who had died overseas. He was the handsomest, bravest, blondest soldier. When she died, she left me his legend, and his photograph: a snapshot so overexposed that it hinted at its own fading truth, that my father was so unknowable, even his image could not be retained. Now I am not even certain the man is related to me. He may have been a handsome stand-in, someone tangible whom my mother could present to me. Nevertheless, I cherish the picture and would be stricken should I ever lose it.

The same, but different

What's different for my daughters? They, too, are adopted; they, too, may have been born out of wedlock. Like me, they are officially orphans. But they are not orphans in the same sense that I was. There was no parent who suddenly disappeared into the hospital, and then the cemetery. My girls were both orphans due to political situations in their separate birth countries. In our circle of friends and acquaintances there are many other adopted children, some from similar circumstances. Perhaps we are the new "typical" family: single mother with adopted daughters of different ancestries.

My older daughter, Sasha, was born and left for adoption in the aftermath of the revolution in Romania. The dictator who ruled Romania outlawed all forms of birth control and abortion. The result was thousands of unwanted pregnancies, babies born and then put up for adoption. My younger daughter, Jasmine, is one of the more than 300,000 Chinese baby girls given over to Chinese orphanages, a member of a sad sorority of sorts: 300,000 girls abandoned each year under China's population control policies.

I became a mother at 43, the same age at which my own mother died. The timing was exact. Was I hoping to exchange life for death? I don't know. It seemed to be fate-as did the fact that although my marriage lasted 27 years it ended soon ofter their adoptions. Now I find myself, as Rosie had been, an unmarried mother.

The divorce came as suddenly as accidental death, and sometimes I cannot fathom all the reasons why. Was it personal? Partly, of course. But were we also part of a greater phenomenon-the explosion of the nuclear family? What reconciles me to my own shattered history is that the combined efforts of my husband and myself rescued two baby girls from melodramas far more grave than the one we unintentionally subjected them to-our not-very-amicable divorce. I trust our "broken" home is still better than any orphanage. Certainly, it is the best shelter that I can provide. The girls sleep together in a queen-size bed, guarded by button-eyed stuffed bears. Most nights, they snuggle undisturbed in their cuddlesome world. But I know firsthand from my own childhood, when I lost a mother who was dancing one week and dead the next, that all safety is an illusion and only luck, fragile as a membrane, separates us at every second from disaster.

Our very own hero

As I stumble into each day, gather up my daughters, console them, and rush through the rituals of morning, "Hurry, brush your teeth; here are your panties. No, you can't wear two different shoes....Oh, well, maybe you can," I am aware that some distance down the hall, my Uncle Len is also waking. So the girls and I have our hero on the home front after all, as legendary as my father.

Uncle Len seems happy to be drafted into active uncle duty again. At 84, he will still somehow manage to move quickly if a small girl cries for him. He gives my daughters what he always gave me: unlimited love and approval. His stream of consciousness is a running commentary of praise for the duo he has dubbed "the Adorables." They are the brightest, the prettiest, the most gifted. They paint like Picassos, sing like opera stars. They have Uncle Len bewitched. "Has anyone told you yet," he asks every morning, "how adorable you are?"

"Not yet," is Sasha's ritual reply. He laughs. She laughs.

Every family is a culture unto itself. Ours has its own language of love, customs, songs. Here, a "mickey" means a blanket, a "bissy" is a sister. But the purpose of family remains constant-the protection of the children, the inclusion of the past generation, the need we have for one another. And so we proceed with our lives: singing, painting, decorating our walls with personal designs. Under our roof, three generations reside, another reprise of my original home.

Although my grandmother behaved more like an aged kid sister-she swiped my costume jewelry and even my clothes-she also taught me how to say "I love you" in Russian (Ya Iyublyu tebya) and we quote her every day. I think of those words as I run to my daughters' room. I run fast, to outrace their fears, to provide the only comfort that I can, the eternal comfort of every mother in every time:

"Don't cry. Mama's here."

Laura Shaine Cunningham's new book, A Place in the Country, was published by Riverhead Books in July. She is also the author of the much-acclaimed memoir Sleeping Arrangements. She lives with her daughters and uncle in upstate New York.

2000 Adoptive Families Magazine. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

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