- Cynthia Landesberg
“I think, maybe, we should talk about starting a family,” my husband said one day, as we sat on the back porch of a winery north of our home. Just a few days prior, we had received news of the passing of Aunt Nancy, a woman with an outsized personality, big laugh, and gravelly voice. She was our favorite of his extended family, and, personally, the only one who never made me feel like a Korean Jewish interloper in a white Christian family. Her death was unexpected, one at odds with her age, the kind that accelerates the normal steady crumble of childhood invincibility, our own mortality becoming prematurely salient. It is in this context that my husband and I sat, sipping our favorite red, pondering the question that could change our lives.
When I was a child, I played a lot by myself. My adoptive sister, six years older, left me behind as soon as she became a teenager. I often crept into her room and took an artifact of our time together, a doll named Becca. My aunt made the doll for my sister as a gift to commemorate my adoption from Korea. Recalling that doll now, I remember her porcelain-colored face, black yarn hair, and true blue eyes, a seemingly impossible representation of a Korean child. Then again, memory is funny and it would be as likely that my aunt would make a Korean doll with blue eyes as my mind would conjure that image, a reflection of how I saw myself in my Jewish family. In any case, Becca joined Kira, a floppy doll with peach skin and very pink hair, and a more plausible Korean baby named Jae, as my children. In every situation the dolls would start out as friends, but then Kira would start excluding Becca and stuffing Jae in the closet. The white doll was the last one left standing every time, the play ending with her superiority, and, me, the mother, helpless even in her own imagination.
“You want to start a family?” I asked, pouring myself another glass. My husband and I never spoke about having a family before marrying. We just kind of left it open, like a window cracked on the first nice day of spring, remembering it occasionally as we walked by but never bothering to close it.
“Yeah. I’ve been thinking about it for a while now, and with Aunt Nancy…I just realized our kids will never get to know her. How will she be remembered?”
My mind reels back to my ninth grade history teacher, Mr. Torrence. One day, at the start of class, we found him sitting on his desk with a framed picture of his father and a CD player. He told us about his dad, a soldier who lost his life in the Vietnam War, an example of the real costs of war. Then he played his father’s favorite song, Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” As Louis’s voice warbled with rich, joyful truths, my teacher wept in front of a room full of high school freshmen. When the song ended, he looked up at us, eyes red, tears reflecting the fluorescent lights of the classroom, and walked out.
I had never seen a man cry before that day. The vulnerability he showed demonstrated a type of self-assuredness that inspired me. It burrowed beneath the armor I had wrapped around myself, seeding the possibility of living an awesomely authentic life, something I had never considered before. In the years after, I thought of Mr. Torrence often. I thought about how he demonstrated how to endure loss honestly and without shame. I thought about how he inspired me to pursue teaching in college, but also inspired me to abandon the idea, the bar he set out of my reach at the time. I thought about him, now, as he breezed through the window we had left open.
“How will she be remembered?” I echoed, remembering Mr. Torrence’s fluorescent tears. “By the generations that follow,” I concluded.
Parenthood is complicated for adoptees, severed from our first family; and for international adoptees, our first language and first country. We are handed an entirely new life like a gift, but when unwrapped, we realize it is more like a witness protection program alias where our birthrights are smothered under expectations of gratitude and silence. Becoming a parent would require the deconstruction of the immersive theater production called my life, risking my emotional safety to travel backwards, back to my adoptive family, to Korea, and to my birth family. It would require vulnerability and bravery, two things I had avoided until this moment.
But then, overtaken by the soul-stirring sunlit vineyard and the unexpected wave of urgency to live after Aunt Nancy’s death, I said, “Yes, let’s do it.” Immediately, I felt like I had pushed a button that catapulted me into the hands of the future, byway of the past, a circuitous explosion of a route that I am still riding now. As I think about the path we have taken, four times across the world to Korea to adopt our sons, and one time across town to birth our daughter during a pandemic, I smile. I smile at the fact that I have three kids, much like those dolls, two Korean sons and one biracial daughter who, though she does not have pink hair, looks a lot like her white father, life imitating play. I smile at my dreams of being a teacher as I pack away the homeschool books we used this morning. I am a teacher after all. I smile about the cracked window that now is flung wide open, with all its beauty, pain, and unpredictability. Out of loss erupted hope.