Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Secrets and lies

I just couldn't help myself. I had to watch.

For the past four days, Oprah Winfrey has been teasing us with her commercials, telling us that today she would reveal a jaw-dropping, heart-stopping family secret. And she did.

She has a sister. A half-sister.

Good for her. I have three. Half-sisters. I have always known about mine, however. Although, thanks to the invention of Facebook I am only just now really getting to know them.

Oprah did not know that she had this sister. It seems their mother had given up this sister at birth, put her up for adoption. Unfortunately, it took this little baby girl born in 1963 seven years to be adopted. And it wasn't always roses and candy.

And her mother never told anyone.

Now, all these years later, this woman has figured out who she is and who she belongs to. The secret is out. And today, Oprah introduced the world to this sister she never knew she had, this daughter she never knew her mother had.

And I -- and probably millions of others -- watched, tears streaming down my face as this family was reunited on (taped) television.

But, because I had to take my own daughter to her singing lesson, I had to dry my tears and hit the record button on the DVR so I could watch the rest later.

Then I had to explain to my 9-year old daughter why this was such a story.

My 9-year-old adopted daughter.

I had to tell her that there was a time when adoption was not a word said out loud. That there was a time when it was whispered behind palms -- so much so that most of the time the adopted child himself did not know. People hid the truth out of shame, and tried to pretend there was no secret to hide.

But somebody always knows.

In Oprah's case, it was Cousin Alice who knew.

In my family's case, it was my grandmother. And me.

My grandmother knew that my little cousin was (hand over mouth, voice lowered to a whisper) adopted. And, because they so often forgot that I was just a little kid sitting there, I knew too. We weren't supposed to say anything, though, because she didn't know. My cousin that is. Or maybe she did...

One day, when we were about 7 or 8 years old, I asked her.

"Do you know that you are adopted?"

Um. No.

I'm sorry, cuz, for letting that cat out of the bag. If I owe you money for therapy, just let me know.

But it was a lesson learned.

When my husband and I adopted our little baby girl 10 years ago, I was determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past. She may not have known what it meant, but she has always known that she was adopted. And it was a word never whispered in our house, but spoken. Accepted.

And, despite the protestations and wringing of hands by the elders in our family, Lora Leigh has always known where she came from. And from whom.

Lora was just a few weeks old when I dressed her up in her little pink watermelon outfit, strapped her into her car seat and drove her home. And with heart thumping with love and gratitude -- not fear -- I placed OUR little baby in her arms. And when the visit was over, she gave her back to me.

Lora will never have to wonder who she looks like or where she came from, if she has a sister (yes!) or a brother (no!) or any cousins who have this crazy curly hair she has (yes! several!). She will grow up knowing them, and they her.

In fact, it has become an annual ritual. Every Good Friday, they cook more crawfish and corn (and crabs for me!) than one human family can possibly eat in one afternoon, and we make the trek down the bayou to share. Lora quickly warms up and finds her sister or someone her age to hang out with and, sometimes, doesn't want to leave.

Sometimes I might catch a quizzical look from someone, wondering who in the heck we are and who is this little girl running around. But, after the first year or two, everyone pretty much had it figured out.

It works.

I know it doesn't work for everyone. I know that some adoptive parents would rather go to Russia or China to adopt so they never have to deal with birth parents -- or secrets.

I know we are very lucky. In many, many ways.

And so is my daughter.

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