I want to tell you a love story. Simple, yet multi-layered–woven of many threads over twenty-four years–and true.
We are standing at a playground alongside the creek carrying clear snow melt through the arteries of my small town. I watch my seven-year-old grandniece, Sarah*, struggle to puzzle out what I am telling her about the four women standing in front of her: two she’s known her whole life and two she’s just met.
One of the four, my adopted daughter Ellie, is standing between two women who bear a striking resemblance to her. I’m the fourth woman—short, blonde, and fair, while the other three share the same rich olive skin tones, dark, full, wavy hair, broad shoulders, and impossibly long lashes gracing their large, striking eyes. But even more than these physical characteristics, there is something intangible floating in the air that unites them. Invisible, yet undeniable. It shows itself in how they laugh, how they move, their very “essence.”
It’s a confusing constellation for Sarah because she only knows Ellie as my daughter. Which is true, but not the complete story. So, I stoop down, draw her in close, and try to clear things up.
“This is Jennifer,” I say, pointing to the fifty-year-old woman with green eyes and a shy smile. “Jennifer’s oldest daughter is Alyssa, and Ellie is Jennifer’s youngest daughter. But Ellie’s also my daughter.” Sarah’s eyebrows rise and her mouth opens as she scans the four of us. I explain, “Ellie has two moms. She lived with Steve and me since she was a tiny baby, but she grew in Jennifer’s tummy. That’s why she looks so much like Jennifer and Alyssa.”
Silence, except for the babbling creek. I watch her face as this bright little girl puzzles out an entirely new view of Ellie and me, a new sense of our family.
Open adoption has required a degree of flexibility and adaptation of all of us: Jennifer (and her parents, as well as her other daughters); Steve’s and my families; and Ellie. Especially Ellie. She’s the one who orchestrated this visit, bringing her half-sister and children together with her two mothers to visit for a few days at my house. Like the hub of a wheel, Ellie stands to gain from the love pouring in toward her from all these different directions. But her central position also demands much of her. And we expect our nontraditional family structure will continue to require creative navigation as we move through the seasons of life.
When Ellie was sending out invites to her college commencement ceremonies, she asked Jennifer and her mother, Marceta, to come too. I remember sitting at a table in a packed breakfast place on graduation morning with Jennifer, Marceta, and my sister, Pamela. We were chatting as we recovered from our mega-breakfasts, when I got a panicked call from Ellie.
“Mom, I need help! My dress came in the mail and it’s all wrinkled and I don’t know how to steam it!”
“I’m afraid I don’t know how to steam either, but maybe we can figure it out.” Then Marceta piped up (sounding as excited as I’d ever heard her) with, “I know how! I used to work in a bridal shop!” So we paid the bill and zipped over to Ellie’s apartment—a grandma, an aunt, and two mothers—to save the damsel in distress.
The image that most stands out in my mind is Ellie sitting on the bed observing while Jennifer carefully held the pink satin dress up by the hanger and Marceta pulled the fabric taught, sweeping the steamer back and forth. Together, with great care, they transformed a wrinkled dress, fresh from its mailing pouch, into a sophisticated gown worthy of our graduate. It’s not so much what they did that sticks with me, but how they did it.
This past Sunday our pastor reminded us that we are not just a gathering of people who share the same beliefs, not just a “community,” but rather, we are family and should love each other as such. Since God has adopted all of us, we are now brothers and sisters in Christ.
And when it comes to the complex tapestry that is my family, it’s love that weaves us together as well. My hope is that, when people are trying to figure us out (as Sarah did that day in the park), they will be able to see the most important thing: The thread that winds its way from Jennifer, to Ellie, to me, then back again to Ellie, is love.
*Some names have been changed