Meeting the Grandparents

Meeting the Grandparents

Although John and I have taken many short trips together – mostly for music or book events – we’ve never had a proper honeymoon. We spent the day after our wedding with my son and his family. We knew we wanted to do something together – and John was happy to go along with whatever plans we made. Yet it was an interesting process, trying to decide how to spend that day. I cast my vote for the Pink Jeep Tours, an opportunity to go off-road and see the rugged terrain of the Sedona area. However, the majority won, and we wound up visiting the Out of Africa Wildlife Park in Camp Verde, a small town a few miles from Sedona.

Even though we spent it together, Eric largely kept with his parents while John and I sat together during the tour. Bruce was busy with his camera, photographing the wild animals that came up to the window of the bus. I remember a friendly giraffe with a huge tongue, in particular.

After our visit to the park, we went for pizza, and then made our way back to Phoenix. The trip back was a bit of a friendly competition, John and Bruce trading the lead back and forth between them as we drove down the hill from Sedona.

Though my mom had been ill, we decided to stop by the nursing home to see her, so that Eric could meet at least one of his birth-grandparents. My dad had passed away five-and-a-half years earlier, and it remains unlikely Eric will meet Tony’s mom – though I do believe anything is possible. According to my occasional FB research, Tony’s dad died nearly three years ago. What I remember about them was that Dale could be extremely sarcastic, often making his wife, Diane, the butt of his jokes. I would watch her wince at his comments and think to myself that I would not be surprised if one day, after 30 years of marriage, she walked out. As far as I know, that did not happen. It was also a teaching moment for me and Tony, because when he tried to belittle me the same way, I let him have it. Turns out I did have a few boundaries with him.

My mom had been on a progressive decline for the few years prior to going into the nursing home. For years – as long as I can remember, actually – her behavior had been odd. It wasn’t until after the massive stroke that would take her life that Corina and I received an explanation for her strange behavior: the vascular surgeon called in to officially determine that hospice was our only option told us that our mom had indications of severe vascular dementia, the likely result of multiple strokes that had occurred throughout her life. By the time Eric met her, about five months before she passed away, she was already severely incapacitated. Though it’s possible she understood when I introduced her to Eric and his parents, she was unable to say much. But she nodded happily and smiled a lot.

I’ve never spoken with Kathy – or Eric – about that meeting, so I really have no idea what his response was. I do believe he was grateful for the opportunity meet at least one grandparent, though.

My husband was blessed to have known all four of his grandparents – and to have a close relationship with his paternal grandfather and grandmother. His grandpa died nearly 25 years ago; Grandma left us just last June (2017). Though she doted on him, he had a difficult relationship with her, as she was every bit the family matriarch, with high standards, particularly when it came to what others might think … about everything. He was a smoker until almost two years ago – a fact he tried to keep hidden from her. I doubt she could have missed it, though she might have chosen to ignore it, as her sister died of lung cancer and she claimed to abhor smoking – and, by association, people who smoked. He said at one point a couple months after her passing that he wished he’d been able to be more of himself with her. She loved him nonetheless.

It occurs to me as I write this that I don’t know much about Eric’s adoptive grandparents – which ones he might have met or had relationships with. I believe Bruce’s father was still living when Eric was born – but I’m not one hundred percent certain about that. Kathy, again, would certainly have all of those details.

I have few regrets about the adoption, but I do wish Eric and my father had had the chance to meet. I know my dad would be so immeasurably proud of his only grandson. My dad was a college professor, once upon a time – and, if my experience is at all reflective of his teaching skills, perhaps not a very good one. He’d find one way of communicating an instruction – on pretty much any topic – but if you didn’t understand him and asked him for further explanation, he’d say the exact same thing again, just more slowly and with greater volume. No, I would think, it wasn’t that I didn’t hear you – rather that I didn’t understand you. Can you explain it in different words? But he was kind and gentle, and he gave me the gift of compassion. He was a year younger than John’s grandmother – so they were of the same era where etiquette and proper manners mattered greatly.

Unlike John’s grandmother, Mary, my father was a scholar of his faith – knew the Bible inside and out (rare for a Catholic) and understood and accepted every aspect of the church’s dogma, pretty much without question. We had a pretty intense argument when the retired bishop of Phoenix was accused of a hit-and-run accident that left a man dead. My father felt it was unseemly for the bishop to be treated as a common criminal. I insisted that shepherd of the church or not, he’d killed a man and left the scene – it was only right that he pay the same price any other person would pay. Mary had no such highfalutin ideas. She went to church most Sundays, but had a difficult time distinguishing between the holy seasons of Lent (leading up to Easter) and Advent (leading up to Christmas). For her, church was more of an obligation with the benefit of marvelous social interactions.

My mom was pretty much the polar opposite of my dad. She got her GED the same year I graduated from high school. I remember some of the sessions with Mary, my social worker at the adoption agency. As we talked, I would tell her about my parents and she’d scribble furiously on her yellow notepad, taking notes she would give to the Stanfields’ caseworker to share with them (before they knew the adoption would eventually become open). One of the things that most caught her attention was when I told her that although my mom had very little formal education, I thought she would have been a very good student. “What makes you say that?” Mary asked. The fact that she read everything she could get her hands on. She was a slow reader, often vocalizing her words as she read. But she loved books of all sorts. While she was functional, she was curious and loved learning.

She was creative, too. My dad was efficient – my mom resourceful and imaginative. I suspect I blend gifts from both of them in my writing and in building and running my business. I see some of that in Eric already – but he also has a great deal of Tony’s super-analytical mind.

I still have no idea whether Eric even knows about this blog – or is reading it. Still, a part of me writes every post for him. Better still than him reading these words would be the chance to sit and talk about this stuff with him. Maybe someday…

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Laura Orsini is an author, speaker, and consultant who coaches other authors to make and market exceptional books that change the world for the better. She is birthmother to Eric, who is finishing college in Boston this summer. Their adoption has been open for the better part of Eric’s life. She continues to toy with the idea that these posts will one day become a book. In the meantime, you can learn about her novel in progress, Stan Finds Himself on the Other Side of the World.

“Give Them the Opportunity to Surprise You”

“Give Them the Opportunity to Surprise You”

If you have a same-sex sibling, you probably know quite well the experience of comparisons, particularly when it comes to your parents. Every child seems to get a label – I was the smart one while my sister, Corina, was the athlete. I was my dad’s oldest daughter – although we do have a half-sister who’s quite a bit older. Besides being the smart one, I was also the good one. The one who never stepped out of line, misbehaved, or gave my parents any worry.

No wonder my father believed me when I lied and told him Mr. Stokely must have been mistaken – it couldn’t possibly have been me our neighbor saw sneaking out of my bedroom window with my best friend when we were 14. Damn, were we lucky! Nothing terrible ever happened to us – even though we got into cars with boys we didn’t know, went cruising on Central Avenue, smoked pot and drank beer. I actually only smoked pot twice – it made me sleepy both times, and I figured I could do that on my own.

As for beer, who could stand the taste? I have never been drunk in my entire life. I went to a college prep high school and watched as some of the smartest people I’d ever met turned into blithering idiots when they drank, so I had no desire to do that. It only cemented my folks’ belief that I was their good girl when, during my junior year, I came home from a New Year’s Eve party early because by 11 p.m. I was the only sober person there.

Getting pregnant at 27 was a whole new world for me – it was not the thing a good girl did. So even though I lived in New Jersey and my parents were 2,400 miles away in Phoenix, I was petrified at the idea of them finding out about my pregnancy. In part, I think I was afraid they might try to talk me into trying harder to marry Tony or keeping the baby. Thankfully, I had a sketchy record of going home for Christmas, so it wasn’t that unusual for me to decide to stay in New Jersey for the holidays that year.

My sisters both knew, Corina because I trusted her with my life and Ann, our older sister, because she lived in New Jersey and I saw her with some regularity. In fact, Ann was the only member of my family who got to meet Eric when he was just hours old. Corina met him at my wedding; my mom met him a day or two later (she was unable to attend our wedding due to illness); and my dad passed away before he and Eric had the chance to meet.

Now, for as far back as I can remember, things with Ann were always strained. She was my mother’s first daughter, and our half-sister. From the stories I’ve heard, she went through some really difficult episodes growing up alone with my mom. However bad that may have been, suddenly my dad came along and stole Ann’s mother away.

Understandably, Ann envied the relationship Corina and I had, and the fact that we grew up with two parents. What she only came to understand fairly recently, though, was that it wasn’t really a picnic. Our mom had vascular dementia for most of my life, the result of many strokes we didn’t learn about until her death – making her behavior so odd that she wasn’t really able to be a parent to us. What with my dad’s weird obsession with all things Catholic, to say we were overprotected and underexposed to the world would be putting it mildly. Nevertheless, Ann was jealous and it showed in obvious and sometimes terrifying ways.

The point is that I didn’t trust her – especially when it came to keeping my secrets. As much as I feared telling my parents about their grandson, I was more afraid that Ann wouldn’t give me the chance. I was certain that sooner or later, she would “accidentally” let it slip – and all would be revealed.

I remember the exact moment the epiphany struck me: life as I knew it would go on if my parents knew about Eric. I was on the up escalator on my way back from a rare lunch with Tony in the World Financial Center. For reasons of his own, he also was determined never to tell his parents about our son. We were actually talking about it – another rarity – and he was digging in. “Nope – never gonna tell ’em.” And that’s when it hit me. Nothing in my life would really change if they knew. I’d already lived through the hardest part. My parents would have whatever reactions they would have – and the sun would still come up the next day.

So that was the day I made plane reservations to go home to Phoenix for Eric’s first birthday. Even as I write this now, I can feel the anxiety again. The hesitation to go through with it. The worry about what I would say and how they would react. It was my wonderful friend Ken Bolden who gave me the best advice I’ve ever received in my life. We were on the treadmills at the gym in the World Financial Center a few days before my trip. Ken could tell something was bothering me and asked about it. I told him about my plans to finally lift the veil and let my folks know about their grandson, and that I was quite worried about how they’d react.

Ken looked at me with a smile and said, “Give them the opportunity to surprise you.” My mouth gaped open at the thought.

“What do you mean?” I needed some clarification – in case it wasn’t as simple as all that.

“Don’t assume the worst before you get there. Just tell them, and let them react whichever way they’re going to react. But give them the chance to surprise you – maybe it won’t be as bad as you think it will be.”

Damn, if Ken wasn’t right. I chose to tell them separately – first my mom and then my dad. And neither of them flipped out. Neither of them lectured me or scolded me or accused me. They were surprised – and my mom expressed disappointment that I hadn’t trusted her enough to tell her. I get that now, especially when I think back on all she went through to raise my sister alone. My dad had a tear in his eye, but he studied every photo in each of the small photo albums I showed him, among the regular updates I’d been receiving from Kathy. Then he hugged me and told me he loved me.

We had cake that night to celebrate Eric’s first birthday. Then the sun came up the next morning, just as I knew it would, and I got on a plane to return to my life in New Jersey.