Monday, May 11, 2009
Shared Similarities: Family traits not erased by relinquishment or adoption
Lorraine Dusky © 2009
What do amazing coincidences and similarities between birth/first mothers/fathers reunited with children who have been relinquished for adoption mean? They mean we are related. They are the normal similarities that are found between people who share the same DNA. Jane, the daughter I gave up for adoption and I found many similarities throughout the years we knew each other.
What absolutely blew me away were the sandals Jane arrived with that first summer she came to visit. I had the exact a pair of the exact same style and size. Now you might think that doesn’t mean much, but bear with me here. I have hard to fit feet—very narrow with a narrower heel. Though you can’t find this size anywhere anymore—at least where I buy shoes—my shoe size then was a Triple A width with a Five A heel. Really, really elegant, like a ballerina’s foot, I like to think. But all this elegance comes at a price.
It meant that my shoes--made with beautiful leather, impeccably detailed and sewn--never looked like my friend's shoes, which were much more common and could be bought at the local shoe store. This was indeed a trial by the time I was eleven. I wanted the shoes that all my friends had. When my friends were all wearing shoes that resembled white ballerina slippers, I was wearing...something else. A few years later, when everyone else was wearing shoes with "kitten heels," my heels were more stolid and thick, something then known as "Cuban" heels. Yuk, I thought. Another of life's torments just because, I would complain. Life isn't fair, why do I have these stupid feet?
Shoe buying has never been easy for me. But a few weeks before Jane came for her visit, I had found a pair of sandals that fit me fine. Woven leather flat sandals with the strap right across the ankle and a rubber sole. The heel was only a strap that could be adjusted, so I could adjust it to fit my narrow heel. The shoes were Italian made by a company named Famolare. How many pairs of that particular style were sold in the United States that year? I do not know. On the Famolare website today it says that their shoes are made in “very small quantity.”
Jane arrived with the exact same Famolares, size 38 in the European sizing the company used. I was amazed, to put it mildly, and remembered that when Florence Fisher first heard how her mother had painted her apartment--turquoise with lavender trim--she was struck because those were the same colors that she, Florence, had painted her living room.
Florence and her mother's favorite colors, the matching shoes Jane and I had were each one of those coincidences that are either meaningless or meaningful, depending on your point of view. Egads, isn’t this weird? I said to Jane, that you should have the exact same shoe as I have?
Hmmm, she said. She did not sound impressed. I found out later she was doing her teenage best to act un-impressed.
Despite her coolness, we kept discovering how we shared more than shoes. Like me, she had a 24-inch waistline (that was then) and fine oily mousy blonde/brown hair that is truly one of life’s little tragedies. Neither of us could carry a tune for more than two or three notes, or snap our fingers on our left hands. We often laced our language with irony, preferred tailored clothes, especially duds that resembled men’s suiting. In fact, we were extremely comfortable in each other's clothes. In photographs we are often shown standing the same way, one leg crossed at an angle just so in front of the other. She got her big head size from Brian, she had my hazel-green eyes, a combination jaw but not too far off mine, as far as I could tell, his nose (thank god), my eyebrows. If you saw us together, you would assume we were a set: mother and daughter.
One one day that summer, after she had walked up the stairs, my husband Tony remarked to her: “You come up the stairs just like Lorraine.”
"When I heard that, I knew I was home," Jane would tell me years later about Tony's offhand comment.
For what she had heard many times from her adoptive father was, "Jane, can’t you walk quieter?" as she went up or down the stairs at their split level house. Well, no, she really couldn’t without a great deal of effort. Her dad ought to hear my niece clomp up the stairs. We Duskys could be mistook for a herd of small elephants. What is an accepted family trait, not particularly elegant, at my house had been an annoyance to the family she was growing up in.
Family traits. We who have grown up among our own kind can not quite fathom what it’s like to be in a life where shared traits are few and far between. The more social scientists learn about various characteristics, the less they seem to be related to environmental factors.
What traits are hard-wired? They cluster into five basic factors in every culture that has been studied, from Britain to Korea, Ethiopia to Japan, China to the Czech Republic: Extraversion, the extent to which a person is outgoing, adventurous and sociable, or shy, silent, reclusive and cautious; neuroticism, the extent to which a person suffers from anxiety, guilt, worry and resentment; agreeableness, the extent to which a person is good-natured, cooperative and non-judgmental or irritable, suspicious and abrasive; conscientiousness, the extent to which a person is responsible, persevering, self-disciplined, or undependable and quick to give up; and openness to experience, the extent to which a person is curious, imaginative, questioning and creative, or conforming, unimaginative, predictable and uncomfortable with novelty.*
Although this says nothing about favorite colors or same shoes, this sounds like a lot to me. Sounds like a whole personality contained therein. The latest studies do not find a strong correlation between adopted children and those of their adoptive parents; in fact, writes social scientist Carol Tavris, “the correlation is weak to non-existent. This means that when children resemble their parents and grand parents temperamentally, it is because they share genes with these relatives, not experiences.”
Jane and I hadn’t been together, yet we were finding how much alike we were. For me, it was a constant source of amazement and pleasure. How much was evident apparently in my face. A couple of months after I’d met Jane, someone I didn’t know well asked a mutual friend if I’d had a face lift or “something done.” He said I looked “different, younger.” I was 38 at the time. The woman he asked was a birth mother. She knew what was up.
Life was grand, and my daughter was asleep in the room across the hall. Many many years later, Jane would point out to me the ways in which we were alike. Now she was delighted to find them; I had come to take them for granted, and I had not known she was keeping track.
*Carol Tavris, “A new start in life,” Times Literary Supplement, April 18, 2008, p. 27. Tavris goes on to quote sociologist David Nettle who writes in Personality:“The area of environmental influences on personality is a morass of unsupported or poorly tested ideas.” If you grow up, as I did, surrounded by people with whom you share traits, they seem natural and you are more forgiving of those that others might find obnoxious. I think that a lot of the children who end up in some kind of therapy are there not simply because they are troubled in the sense that we think of, but because they are so different from their parents that their parents have difficulty dealing with their difference and idiosyncrasies.