For reasons that are unclear to me today, when Elizabeth was little I was very sensitive to questions about whether she was adopted. It was silly really, one look at us and it was obvious that she was too cute to be my kin.
But let’s give me the benefit of the doubt and assume I was being a protective Dad. I was interested in parenting advice and I had religiously listened to a show on NPR about parenting which came on Saturday mornings at 4:00 am, which I considered brilliant scheduling because the only people up and listening to NPR Saturday at 4:00 am are parents with rooster-like children, shaking you awake to go greet the dawn.
A listener had asked the moderator how to deal with intrusive questions about their children from strangers. The guest psychologist suggested responding to the question with a question, “Why do you ask?” I took it as a way to stop nosey people in their tracks and couldn’t wait to use it.
One day when we were living in Honduras and visiting the ruins at Copan, Rebecka the Anthropologist was carrying a young Iliana as she climbed over the ruins and I was sitting on the steps of a temple watching Elizabeth ran in circles around tress. A woman in her 50s sat down next to me, an American.
“Is that your daughter?
“Is she adopted?”
This was the moment I had been waiting for! “Why do you ask?”
“Well, 22 years ago I adopted my daughter in Guatemala. She is a Mayan Indian from the Highlands and your daughter looks like she could be her sister.”
Remembering that moment brings tears to my eyes today. We had a lovely chat, I saw a collection of pictures suggesting how Elizabeth will change as she grows up, and I am reminded of the second reason for the question, “Why do you ask?” Because it helps you identify people with a damned good reason for asking.
One day when Elizabeth was around 6 or 7 we were at a playground in Maryland and she was playing in a sandbox with a little Asian girl. They did not know each other, but kids bond so easily. You are sitting in the sand. Another kid sits in the sand. Friendship established. After about a half an hour a non-Asian woman walked to the edge of the sandbox.
“Mona, we have to go in 5 minutes.”
Elizabeth glanced up at the woman, then at the girl.
“You adopted?” Elizabeth asked.
“Me, too. Do you want to play with my car before you go?”
When Elizabeth was in high school she liked to spend a month each summer in Honduras with our friend Alba who worked as a travel agent in La Ceiba, on the Caribbean coast, and they would spend the weekend in the little village where Alba grew up, Naranjal, which means “The Orange Tree.”
Elizabeth was in heaven on those dirt roads, speaking Spanish, playing soccer and going for long runs while the other kids rode bikes. Elizabeth once asked Alba why she wouldn’t let her run alone, always making the other kids ride bikes, even when no one wanted to go with her and Alba had to yell at them to shoo them out the door.
Alba replied, “So you don’t get kidnapped, you may brown, but you are obviously a gringa.”
I was showing the pictures of Naranjal to an intern once wondering out loud why Elizabeth enjoyed being in such a poor village, no TV, no electronics, and the person pointed to this picture.
“Look at them, same hair, same height, she is at home with her people.”
After we moved to Maryland we happened to end up smack dab in a neighborhood in the middle of some of the best schools, in the best school district in the country, and as you might expect, very white. When Elizabeth started kindergarten at Garrett Park Elementary, I would meet her as school day ended and she always wanted to spend a few minutes on the playground.
Her favorite thing was what I called the horizontal ladder, but she called the Monkey Bar. She was too short to reach the bars from the ladder so I had to lift her up and, she would start swinging from bar by bar to the far end where I would have to lift her down.
“Hurry, Daddy. Hurry!”
A little girl waiting her turn called out, “He can’t be your daddy, you have brown skin.”
“I don’t have brown skin,” Elizabeth said, continuing to progress across the bars, “I have beautiful brown skin.”
Which reminds me of this,
When I entered the U.S. Army in July 1971 in Fort Polk, LA my lack of upper body strength combined with a big belly, spelled my doom on the same horizontal ladder which Elizabeth loved. There was one of these contraptions outside the Mess Hall and we were required to cross the ladder to get in to eat.
That was a bridge too far for me. I would grab the first rung with my left hand, reach out with my right band for the second rung, launch myself, and slowly come to rest hanging there. Drill Sergeant Roy Burchfield would be expecting me and he would stand with his nose inches from mine, venting his rage as spittle flew in my face. “You goddamned pussy! You’re hanging there like the pendulum of Great Grandma Edith’s grandfather clock. That sumbitch hasn’t swung in years either!. Get you ass on the ground and give me ten push-ups, you worthless hippie!” While in the push-up position he enjoyed resting his foot on my back and pinning me down while he predicting to the rest of my platoon that we would never win the war in Vietnam unless I improved my upper body strength. He was right.
And finally, Iliana’s first word
During the visit to Copan where I met the other adoptive mother, Iliana said her first word. We had been concerned because she was getting a little old to remain cheerfully mute. It reminds me of a joke my Dad used to tell. A 6 year boy had not said a word and his parents had taken him to doctors and therapists, nothing. The kid just wouldn’t talk. Then one day at dinner he pipes up.
“These goddamned potatoes are burned.”
His parents can’t believe it.
“Son, why haven’t you spoken before?”
“Well, up to now I’ve had no complaints.”
But I digress, back to Iliana’s first word.
We were sitting by the hotel swimming pool and suddenly Iliana said, “umbrella.” Well, actually she started chanting, “UM brelllll a, UM brelllll a, UM brelllll a.”
Apparently, she had heard someone ask to have an umbrella adjusted.
We tried to coax another word out of her without success.
Back at Rebecka’s office in Tegucigalpa Ruth, Patty and Xiomara asked what umbrella meant, then went to work teaching Iliana to say it in Spanish. For a while they were successful and she would say, “Sombrilla, sombrilla, sombrilla” But soon Iliana changed it to “Sombrella, sombrella” and that is how Spanglish evolves.