Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Now A Grandmother. Not a "Birth" Grandmother
Over the past two days I've written about my complicated and sometimes troubling relationship with my surrendered daughter's adoptive parents, as I found my daughter when she was fifteen, and reunited with her in a matter of days. Since she was underage, and living at home, there was no question that if I were to have a relationship with her, that would necessarily include her other parents. My daughter Jane had epilepsy, and a passel of psychological problems that unquestionably were a part of everyone's relationship with Jane, and each other.
In time, Jane married and had a daughter. The marriage broke up after two years, and while Jane kept it together for four more years--more or less--her inability to hold a good job with a decent salary, led her to putting her daughter, Britt, into another household, and for a time, none of the grandparents knew about it. Eventually, Jane's adoptive parents discovered the living situation, and though they had retired, and their other three children (another adopted, two younger biological children) were not living at home, they brought Britt into their household when she was six. I did not know about this until after Britt had moved in. In the section below, taken from my in-progress memoir, Hole in The Heart, I describe how my relationship with the Schmidts changed after Britt was in the picture.
Copyright (c) Lorraine Dusky 2009
Relations with the Schmidts were a puzzlement. Though they invited me to their house and let me take care of Britt when they went on vacations (and I happily complied), one would have had to be deaf not to sense Ann’s (Jane's adoptive mother) increasing chill, the clipped tone in her voice, the rapidity with which she turned the phone over to Gary (Jane's adoptive father) once she ascertained it was me on the line. A typical call went like this:
“Hello, Ann, it’s Lorraine. How is everything?”
“Fine, LORRAINE (loudly so as to alert Gary, I presumed, that that dreadful woman was on the phone).
“Ah, well, how’s Britt?”
“Let me get Gary.” And she was gone.
Britt was way more relaxed speaking to me if Grandma were not at home. Do I stop calling and let her think that I’ve forgotten about her? No. Do I call and incur Ann’s wrath every time I do? Yes. Britt was still a kid and I did not think I ought to leave this decision up to her. I would stay in her life just like a regular grandmother, because, after all, I had pretty much been in her life as much as I would have as a grandmother who lived half a continent away. So I made those calls, every couple of weeks. In between I sent Beanie Babies, which were all the rage back then, and books and whatever else I thought an eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve-year-old would like.
Despite Anns' hostility, the Schmidts asked me to come and take care of Britt when they went on two-week vacations at their time-share. I had heard from Jane—who was more than a tad surprised her parents invited me to take care of Britt the second and third time—that Ann had become progressively more infuriated with me. Mention my name and she would either walk out of the room, or make a nasty remark about "that woman." Yet whenever I sent Britt a small gift—and they were small—Gary would call a few days later and put Britt on the phone to thank me. My Christmas presents, usually purchased at the nearby discount store of T.J. Maxx, were another source of aggravation, as the brand names I sometimes found there were too upscale for Ann's taste. Or the wrong size. Or the wrong color. Or too stylish. The DKNY kids dress I’d sent once was the absolute limit. I probably paid no more than thirty bucks for it. The Barbie dolls that I sent at Christmas were kept in their boxes, pristine behind cellophane, so to be more suitable as a collectible item someday, a concept that was not Britt’s.
You name it, I could do no right. While I had a claim to Jane Ann could understand and accept, and Jane clearly was a problem child, it was impossible not to sense that Ann wanted me out of the picture regarding Britt, particularly since they had taken over her care. And it was impossible for me not to see that Britt was the child that Jane had not been. Not only was she incredibly cute—people used to stare at her on the street, I’m not kidding--Britt was coasting through school with nearly all As. Britt was the smart, normal and adept little girl that Jane had ceased to be once she had her first seizure. Britt told no fantastic lies, she was not accusing anyone connected to the family of molesting her, she was the undamaged child, the good daughter, the one who had been denied Ann.
I was determined Britt should not think I deserted her—as her father had done, as her mother temporarily was doing when she had moved to another city; her paternal grandmother was no where in sight or had ever made any attempt to know Britt. So I braced myself and made those calls every couple of weeks. And despite Ann’s antipathy, photographs of Britt wearing the clothes I sent would arrive, as would pictures of her at school, her school reports and every now and then, one of her art projects, or a handmade card. I knew they came courtesy of Gary, who at least remained neutral when we spoke. I think he understood the difficult position I was in, and while Ann was his wife, he saw some redeeming point in having me be a factor in Britt’s life. I only wanted to insure that I would have a relationship with this granddaughter, that I would not be a stranger; I wanted to normalize our connection as much as possible, I wanted not be a grandmother who did not quite count. Or one who had forgotten her.
When Britt came for here extended summer visits, Tony and I always assured her that if she wanted or needed to live with us, she would always be welcome. Her other grandparents were a few years older than we were, and we were in our Sixties by then, and who knew what could befall any of us at anytime? My father had died of a heart attack at fifty-seven. None of us could count on Jane to be able to provide a stable home. Her difficulty in keeping a job and managing her life was, it seemed, beyond her. Britt, we knew was increasingly aware of her mother’s difficulties, but she kept them close to her heart, only rarely admitting her anger and disappointment, but acknowledging them now and then just the same. No one could blame her.
In truth, I hoped Britt would want to move in with us one day. The summer she was twelve, she said that yes, she wanted to, and we said, Great, but you will have to tell Grandpa and Grandma when you get home, and they are probably not going to like it. But she seemed excited and happy, and kept assuring us that she would be able to tell them. I showed her the school she might go to, and she already had a friend there who would be in her class. We live in the village; Britt was old enough to walk downtown by herself, and she had done that during the summer; the Schmidts live in the country on a lake, mostly surrounded by other retirees, five miles from town. There were no friends nearby she could either walk or bike to. So after we sent her home at the end of the summer, Tony—whom the Schmidts have always quite obviously preferred over me—sent an email explaining what had transpired.
Britt stayed in Wisconsin. On the phone, she told us she wanted to stay there. I think she was torn between the two of us, just as Jane would turn out to be, and wanted to please both sets of grandparents. At the time we discussed her moving to Sag Harbor, I believe she was sincere in her wants, but maybe once she got back to Wisconsin, moving here seemed like more of an upheaval than a girl of twelve was prepared for. Though her mother was not living with her, Jane was at least in the same state as the Schmidts, Wisconsin; and Britt had her friends and a familiar school and her own room and grandparents there who also wanted her, and who had already given her a stable home.
But still I had my visits back there when the Schmidts went on two-week vacations and I took care of Britt and the dog. The three times I was allowed to do that were a gift. Ann was usually unfailingly polite, if reserved, while we maintained a respectful calm in our dealings in person. She told me once she had counseled another family with an adopted child that having an open relationship with the birth mother right from the beginning was a good thing. Given the way I knew she actually felt about me, it might seem odd that we always hugged each other upon meeting—I knew if Jane was around she was mentally rolling her eyes—but that is what we did. There was somewhere, underneath all the rest, underneath her resentment, a shared sensibility in relation to Jane. Being invited to spend time in their house, with our granddaughter felt a bit like being forgiven. The first time I went, Jane was still living away, but came down for a weekend to visit; the next time, she was also living at the house, and the third time, she was living in a small cabin in the woods with the man who would soon marry. The visits were, quite simply, wonderful and amazing, amazing that I could be this close to my granddaughter.
Maybe I was letting go of the guilt myself; maybe I was at last forgiving myself.
But nothing was ever simple. The year Britt was thirteen, she was here again for part of the summer, and going back to Michigan with my brother and his family, which included two nieces around her age. She would spend a couple of weeks there, and fly back to Wisconsin from there. As we were saying goodbye on a crowded Manhattan corner, as the other girls were piling into my brother's car, as I was hugging her and saying Don't forget I love you, as she was turning away, the last words she said to me were: Don't call me.
I've never been able to talk about this with her, because why? But in those three words, she told me all I would ever need to know about the depth of Ann's antipathy towards me, and what happened at the house when I called. Jane would later say that she would get mad at she, Jane, when she was upset with me simply because, and even get angry with Britt. Yes, Irrational, but there it was and I could do nothing about it. While I was tolerable enough as a first mother to her imperfect problem child (and undoubtedly the cause of all the problems), I was unwanted, disdained, abhorred now that she had a good, easy granddaughter to raise who only wanted to please everyone.
Now I look back fondly upon the time when Britt was here with her two nieces and decided that she could be quite simply, a brat. She was pushing the limits of our relationship--talking back, throwing clothes pins into the shed, just being disagreeable to me and Tony--because it is clear to me that she grew up not feeling free to do that. And that broke my heart all over again.
Next: A "Dear Adoptive Parent" letter from fellow blogger and first mother, Jane.