Sunday, March 12, 2006

A brief note on adoption

In the end, we are all inevitably drawn back to the beginning; the only difference is that I feel myself pulled in more than one direction. To Glengarry County, where my roots still sit, to the building on Wellington Street near Parkdale Market in Ottawa that replaced Ottawa's Grace Hospital but a few years back, and the ache of where that space is; what should be the stories and landscapes of those things I do not yet know. It becomes difficult sometimes to know where it is that I am going if I don't completely understand the complexity and completeness of my points of origin. It feels akin to displacement.

A friend of mine says that Scottishness (in the Canadian sense) is as much a frame of mind as it is anything. I can pretty much attest to that, and the clan system in Scotland even brought in children from other groups, whether abandoned or absconded with, and absorbed them into their own. This historical precedent in the Scottish Highlands is easily transplanted (through less violent means) into the Highlands of Glengarry County. Strip away all the details, and this becomes the question of "where is home" and notions of personal identity. Where and who is here? As Tim Lilburn once asked, how to be here [italics mine]? As he writes in his essay of the same name:

The world is its names plus their cancellations, what we call it and the undermining of our identifications by an ungraspable residue in objects. To see it otherwise, to imagine it caught in our phrases, is to know it without courtesy, and this perhaps is not to know it at all. To see with presumption is only to note the effects of one's bright looks, the glimmering classifications, the metaphors, is merely to watch oneself confidently gazing. The Franciscan John Duns Scotus said individuality was intrinsically intelligible, though perhaps not to us in our present state—in the body, after the Fall. Perhaps never, perhaps to no one. Perhaps individuality is not to be known, only lived with, each haecceitas helping to shape the other by its proximity. The desire to belong to what the deer belongs to, the wildness, the thereness, is mortified but remains true. One cranes forward into the world in appetite and enters it in sorrow knowing that this good desire that casts him out of himself is right and must not be lost but is necessarily and sharply frustrated. (p 163)

As the story goes (told so many ways before), my mother was single, twenty years old and both working and going to school in Ottawa when I was born at the Ottawa Grace Hospital, March 15th, at 8:15 a.m. Since there was no mother’s allowance in 1970, with working/schooling single mother (the possibilities of her being a nursing student and working at the Civic Hospital; the possibilities of my father unaware), I remained in foster care until I was ten months old, when I was adopted by my parents, a childless farming couple near Maxville, Ontario. So, in January 1971, through the Children’s Aid in Cornwall, I went from Duncan Warren Andrew A. (she left me only an initial) to Robert Alan McLennan, son of Douglas and Joanne. Five years later, they adopted again, a baby girl two months old that became my sister.

I've heard stories good and bad of grown children who have found their natural parents. A friend of mine, born in Toronto, paid a private detective in Kingston a few hundred dollars to find her birth mother, who they found working as a nurse in Vancouver. She got lucky, not just through the discovery, but that her mothers had an interest in meeting; she even spent a week or so out in British Columbia, surrounded by aunts, uncles and cousins that knew nothing of her before, but readily accepted her. Through meeting her mother, she discovered an aspect of herself that suddenly made sense, and made her feel less displaced in her own life. If I had the money, I would easily do the same. But who’s to say that my mother, after all of these years, would even be interested; she could easily have moved on, not want reminders of old wounds. She could be married with a new family that don’t even know about me.

Hawai'i writer Susan M. Schultz is one of the few poets I'm aware of writing about adoption from the other end, as adoptive parent as opposed to child. In her collection Memory Cards & Adoption Papers (2001) she referenced some of the foolish comments she got after adopting a child of an ethnic background different than her own.

Auckland, Oakland. Does your baby speak with an accent? Will he when he starts to talk? I failed to comprehend the talk because the speaker's central term was whingeing. In Athens a Greek waiter danced between tables until an Englishman offered up smarmy to my left ear. Iva moved to Cologne speaking 1950s German, asked an optometrist for an eye prophylactic. Our hotel in Phnom Penh promises us information bellows and I think of that barbaric yawp. America is colonial, Murray reminds me, as we compare notes from the linguistic margins. (His house plans include an Arab roof.) Seeing her Korean child in a stroller, the stranger said, but I'm sure she'll want Chinese food when she's older. (p 87)

I remember hearing how fiction writer Lynn Coady was working on a book about her experiences in being adopted, and eventually finding her mother; what happened with that?

To even open up this dialogue isn't to suggest a rejection of adopted parents or an argument between which are "real." Aware of my need for the search, it's a decision I know my parents support, but a conversation we rarely have; it makes them entirely too uncomfortable. I have always been clear about who my parents and family are: the couple that raised me, looked after me, own the house that I grew up in (and still house a little too much of my storage), and grandparent my lovely daughter. That will never change. On the other hand, I have another set of parents out in the world, including a mother who tried hard to keep from making an decision that she's had to live with since.

The waiting lists are taking too long. I want to know if she thinks of me. I want to know if she curses her thick brown curls on muggy days the way my daughter and I do. I want her to know that I don’t blame her. I want her to know that I understand. I would like to have that option.

Works Cited:

Lilburn, Tim. "How to be Here?" Poetry and Knowing: Speculative Essays & Interviews. Ed. Tim Lilburn. Kingston ON: Quarry Press, 1995.
Schultz, Susan M. Memory Cards & Adoption Papers. Bedford MA: Potes&Poets Press, 2001.


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