my sister before I knew her
The first time I saw the man was in my mother’s living room.
[And here is where the qualifiers begin.]
The first time I saw the man was in my birth-mother’s living room, not the living room where I spent hundreds of Saturday mornings watching cartoons, or where I practiced piano for one hour every day. This was a living room that was only vaguely more familiar to me than it was to him in the autumn of 2005, when we met. I was twenty-two years old. If he hadn’t been so uncomfortable that day, I don’t think he would have left an impression on me at all.
But it was clear from the way he adjusted his glasses. How he remained standing when everyone else sat. His laugh so tight that it could have been a cough. He was uncomfortable. And his discomfort became graver when his daughter who was also my sister smiled into the pages of an old photo album, seeing for the first time her features displayed on the faces of her ancestors. Something her adoptive father could never give her. Where once he had gained a daughter when I lost a sister, the poles of that event were now reversed. At twenty-two years old I lacked the capacity to appreciate the similarities of our situations. I couldn’t believe that an adult might be just as confused as I was by the way adoption can spin your emotional compass.
Growing up in Oklahoma, I was one of the palest faces in any crowd. In high school my skin tone became an appropriate topic of conversation for strangers. From kids at the lake saying “Damn girl get a tan” to teachers commenting about not seating me to close to windows lest I singe (or disintegrate b/c anyone as fair-skinned as I am must be a vampire). Even as an adult, a client once complained to one of my superiors by calling me “an evil china-doll.” The only thing to do those cases is laugh.
Because, wow, people can be insensitive.
Skin is one the largest signifiers that we are Different. That maybe we don’t “belong” wherever we are. So I am really intrigued by the cover story from the current issue of Gazillion Voices. They are celebrating their first anniversary of their publication by asking exploring the question “Do adoptees feel comfortable in their skin?” There is also an accompanying exhibit in Minnesota that I would for sure be checking out if I was there.
I am not a transracial adoptee. I don’t know entirely what it is like to be raised in a country or a family where few if any people share your physical traits. But I do have some sense of what it is like to feel that something as visible and unchangeable as your own skin can become something that sets you apart.
For the past nineteen years, my sister Becca has told this story every time she introduces me to her friends. I guess to show them what our relationship is like. The take away as far as I can tell is that I am a person who backs up my words with action (so watch out), and—I hate to say it, but it’s true—sometimes Becca doesn’t know when to shut her mouth.
It was a summer afternoon. Becca was twelve and I was thirteen. Old enough to know better but not yet capable of controlling the surges of hormones and terror that allow an adolescent girl to do things she never imagined she would be capable of.
In the above ground pool in the backyard, Becca and I had run in circles long enough to create a whirlpool and were now slung around flotation devices, letting the current tug us around the sides, under the ladder. The sun was setting and all we had to look forward to once we got out of the water were the indignities of piano practice and washing dishes.
Then out of nowhere Becca started hollering about this boy I liked—Mary Loves Paul Agostini!—and my stomach jumped into my throat. She was just guessing at the name of my crush, but once she saw the look on my face, she knew she’d got me.
So she kept going.
Mary Loves Paul—
Her voice echoed down the street. Anyone could hear her. People on their front lawns. Neighbors grilling dinner. Drivers passing by with their windows open.
Stop it— I said.
I disentangled from my Fun Noodle and tried to cross the pool to dunk Becca’s head under the water, but the current tugged me off course and all I could do was splash her. She was two inches taller than I was, anyway. No previous dunking attempts—even without a whirlpool—had ever been successful.
MARY LOVES PAUL.
Shut UP, I said.
MARY WANTS TO SEE HIS PENIS–
I DO NOT
Her mouth was the problem. If only there was a way to stitch her lips together…and suddenly I heard my voice say:
If you don’t SHUT UP, I’m gonna SPIT….IN. YOUR. MOUTH.
from my journal, October 1998
I kept journals from middle school until after I finished college. I say ‘Kept’ because more than simply writing in them, I retained them through moves to central New York, to Chicago, to Los Angeles. I left boxes of yearbooks in my parents’ attic, but these books went everywhere with me. Destroying them would be like cutting off my hand, but they were too precious to leave them where someone else might find them.
Among the usual teenage angst-ridden entries there were moments of purposeful remembrance; a faithful reproduction of things I knew I didn’t want to forget. Things I knew I would need for the day that I eventually told my story. Because even at the age of sixteen, it was clear that it was not a question of if, but merely when. Continue reading
I got the email from my editor’s assistant two weeks ago.
Can you send us a portrait (that will be used for every book with your name on it ever?) two weeks from today?
Ok, I am paraphrasing, but that is what it felt like the email said. I knew this day was coming, eventually, but I didn’t think it would come so soon.
I’ve never taken an Official Portrait before. I’d seen them on book jackets, sure. The desks, cigarettes, tweedy jackets. Or the sweater sets, or the ironical photos of writers playing frisbee. I eagerly began googling “Great Author photos” and “How to take a good Author portrait.” And you know what? I couldn’t find many good tips on this process at all.
Probably because it feels nauseatingly ego-centric to write a piece claiming to know how to take a good photo. But luckily I live in Los Angeles, the great land of self-promotion, so I was able to glean advice from the various actors/speakers/reality stars/ real estate agents who sit for headshots every day.
So, I thought I might take a moment to share what I learned in my photographic adventure.
Tips after the jump….