Happy Thanksgiving! Please Don’t Pass the Canned Cranberries.

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CranberrieseditedGrowing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I must have been one of the few children seated at the cousins’ table who didn’t mind eating jellied cranberry sauce from the familiar white, blue and red can. I have fond memories of my mother opening it with her handheld can opener, inserting a knife around the inside to loosen the gelatinous concoction, and the whoosh with which it slid out, shimmering and ridged, onto the plate. My mother was a terrific cook, and I must have reasoned that the least I could do was permit her this one convenience, especially when she stuffed and roasted the turkey at our home in Elyria, and then struggled to secure it in a box to keep warm while my father drove us to my grandmother’s house in Lorain.

Ironically, it was at my grandmother’s—one of the greatest cooks to come to America from Sicily—where I suffered through what I believe to be the most disgusting side dish known to any holiday table: ambrosia, prepared and served with great fanfare by my mother’s sister, who, it must be said, did not inherit the cooking gene. Aunt Helen’s ambrosia looked pretty enough, with its own bright red Jell-O shimmer, but its other ingredient was cottage cheese, something I’ve never liked. I could barely force the stuff down. As I think about it, the canned cranberry sauce was a winner by sheer comparison.

With the passing years, my palate grew more sophisticated. And although I never learned to appreciate my aunt’s culinary effort (the only recipe, actually, that she ever mastered), my disdain for canned cranberry sauce, with its heavy-handed tartness and slightly tinny flavor, finally blossomed into something like hatred.

Give me a dish with layered flavors! Give me subtlety and nuance! Give me, if you will, Ginger Cranberry Sauce. I clipped the recipe from an old Parade magazine article back when the late Sheila Lukins of Silver Palate fame was the food editor. I don’t remember how long ago the recipe was published; but I can no longer remember a Thanksgiving when I didn’t make it. In a line-up of labor-intensive holiday recipes, this is the easiest thing in the world to put together, and it can be made weeks ahead of time. I hope you enjoy it, and I wish you and yours a very Happy Thanksgiving!

GINGER CRANBERRY SAUCE

—Serves 12

1 pound (about 4 cups) fresh cranberries, picked over and rinsed
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
Finely grated zest of 1 orange
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
2 tablespoons finely minced fresh ginger

1. Combine all of the ingredients in a saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the cranberries pop open, about 10 minutes. (Don’t overcook them.)

2. Skim any foam from the surface with a metal spoon. Let cool. Refrigerate, covered, for up to 2 months. Freezes well.

On Creative Writing and Curated Wisdom, Part II

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CuratedWisdomIn August, I traveled to Provincetown, Massachusetts, at the very tip of Cape Cod, to attend a fiction and memoir workshop at the Fine Arts Work Center with my literary idol, Dani Shapiro. It was an intense week of work, discovery, and joy, a week in which I learned many new things and relearned a few others, not the least of which is the importance of keeping a writing journal.

Shapiro, like the most insightful physician you’ve ever encountered, honed in on our individual manuscripts, but only after each of us chimed in with our notes and comments, questions and praise. She always went last, offering keen observations from her vast experience as a writer and teacher, and reading choice excerpts—carefully chosen to apply to the work at hand—from her small notebook, what she calls her book of “curated wisdom.” For example:

Read the rest of this essay on Boomeon

…and read Part I here.

 

Yes, I’m Still Writing—and You Can Read Me on Boomeon

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BE-BloggerBadgeI’m pleased to announce that I’m contributing to a nifty website for Baby Boomers, Midlifers, People-of-a-Certain-Age, what have you. Boomeon is a new-ish online community for Baby Boomers and beyond. The site’s marketing director, Natalie Dewhirst, says that Boomeon wanted to create a supportive and safe environment where people can be student and teacher, author and reader, adventurer and observer. Boomeon has created a new section on creativity, and I’m thrilled to write the inaugural essay.

“On Creative Writing and Curated Wisdom” was inspired by my recent stay in Provincetown, where I took a workshop with novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro. Part II of the essay will appear on Boomeon in a couple of weeks. If you want to be sure not to miss it, please visit my profile page and click “Follow” at the bottom.

I hope to see you there! And I’ll still check in here from time to time, although (as you might have noticed) I’m blogging less and writing more. That book’s not going to write itself, now is it?

As always, thank you for your support…and for reading me!

Dani Shapiro's wonderful book, Still Writing, is always near my side.

Dani Shapiro’s wonderful book, Still Writing (far left on my shelf), is always close at hand.

 

 

Where I’ve Been … Where I’m Going

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It’s been too long, readers. Far too long. And for that I apologize. I never intended to take such an extended hiatus. But life has a way of telling you that things aren’t as they should be. For the past 10 months, Life-With-a-Capital L has literally shoved me down and sat on top of me in an attempt to get my attention. (And I can say literally with complete impunity, because I fell in November, broke a bone in my foot, and it was the end of March before I was in a full and upright position.)

Turns out there was a reason for the delicacy of my metatarsal. I had primary hyperparathyroid disease, rendering me hypercalcemic. Lots of medical jargon, I know. Let me put it more simply: my excellent endocrine surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic removed two-and-one-half of my parathyroid glands during an operation on July 2 because there were tumors on them. (Thankfully, they were benign.) When bad things happen to good parathyroids, all hell breaks loose. Think of those tiny, rice-shaped glands as the traffic cops for the calcium in your body. When they break bad, they blow their little traffic-cop whistles to tell your system it needs more calcium, resulting in a widespread evacuation from your bones and a flood in your bloodstream, wreaking widespread havoc.

The extraordinary result of my surgery was evident in about a week. I soon had more energy than I knew what to do with. My aches and pains subsided. I could sit at my desk and concentrate, which is a good thing, because a writing deadline loomed. Which brings me to where I’m going.

MorgueFile Image

MorgueFile Image

When Life Hands You Lemons, Write.
I began writing in earnest while stuck in bed with my fracture, which seems like an excellent use of my situation. I started what I thought would be a memoir, but at some point during the process my reliable instincts told me that what I was really doing was writing fiction. I was also reading Dani Shapiro’s beautiful and wise memoir about the creative process, Still Writing, at the time. My instincts, like Life, had shoved me down (without breaking anything) and sat on top of me to get my attention. I listened, and then checked to see whether I could find a space in one of her workshops.

Shapiro’s fiction and memoir workshop at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, was the one that I wanted—”Transforming Chaos into Art.” The class was full. I was first on the wait-list.

And then, in March, I got the phone call I was hoping for: a spot opened up for me. I was in! I secured my registration and located a place to stay. And then, in May, I discovered how sick I really was.

For weeks I worried about whether I’d be well enough to travel, and whether I’d have the energy to do the writing I needed to do.

And so, the surgery. And hence, during my recovery, the writing.

You can see why I wasn’t blogging.

I still won’t post as frequently as you’ve become accustomed to, but I hope you’ll understand that I’ve taken on a whale of a project, and I need to keep working away at my manuscript. I will check in when I can.

I leave early Saturday morning for Boston. A bus will take me to Hyannis, where a good friend will pick me up and take me to her home in Harwich for a visit. The next morning, she’ll drive me to Provincetown, at the very tip of Cape Cod. That will be my home for a week. And there, at the beautiful Fine Arts Work Center, I’ll be sitting in a classroom for the first time in 23 years.

Given where I’ve been, I’m looking forward to where I’m going.

 

 

 

 

 

Dancing with my Father

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DancingwithDad“We only ever danced at weddings …” That’s a line from a poem I wrote nearly 25 years ago about my father. I was a 33-year-old creative writing student at Oberlin College then, still working through the 20-year-old grief of losing my father soon after I turned 13. In the 1960s, my father and I had several opportunities to dance together—three of my cousins were married in elaborate celebrations of love, with opulent receptions in Cleveland hotel ballrooms. The remnants of these memories reveal snapshot scenes: a fountain flowing with champagne, my glamorous cousins in gowns, relatives and strangers linked in the dabke, a traditional Lebanese folk dance accompanied by drums. But like so much of what passed for happiness in the 1960s, these moments were evanescent. Even the hotels are gone.

That’s why I’m so grateful to have this picture of my dad. There aren’t many of them; he was always the one taking the pictures. One of my cousins found an undeveloped roll of film in her late mother’s apartment, took it to a photography store in Cleveland, and surprised me with this print.

As Father’s Day approaches, my dad feels closer to me than ever. I’m sorting through old photos of him (courtesy of my cousin), reading his war letters home, and working on a memoir in which he has the starring role. I’m also sorting through some of my old photo albums, and came across this picture, which symbolizes so much for me.

MarciDabke copy

The author performing the dabke at an international festival.

After my father died, my Sicilian-American mother wanted to keep his heritage alive for me. She joined the local Lebanese social club, and I was enlisted to dance with other young people at the Lorain International Festival. This would have been around 1972. In this photo, I’m performing the dabke, the dance I learned as a child, watching my relatives at those glamorous weddings.

Two years later, I would represent my culture as the Lebanese-Syrian Princess at this same festival. But that’s another story.

All my life, I thought I was participating in these activities to please my mother and honor my father’s memory. It’s only now that I realize the dancing was as much for me as it was for him, keeping the rhythm of love and family alive in my heart.

 

Life By a Thousand Cuts: Why I Welcome my 11th Surgery

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I was flat on my back on this machine for half an hour in April for some early diagnostic tests, including a CT-scan, in the Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Nuclear Medicine. This was a piece of cake compared to the three hours I was on my back for the parathyroid venous sampling. To paraphrase Rita Rudner, I don’t even want to do anything that feels good for three hours.

I’ve put off writing this as long as I could, partly because it’s difficult for me to write when I’m worried, partly because I’ve been in a state of limbo, and partly because the primary hyperparathyroid disease that’s wreaking havoc on my body not only exhausts me, it also makes me a little fuzzy-headed at times. (The other day, while driving, I nearly sailed through a red light, so there’s that.) It does help to be able to think clearly when trying to take life’s chaos and shape it into something resembling art—or at least a readable blog post. But if I’ve learned one thing from the 10 operations I’ve had in my 58 years on earth, it’s this: my next operation will have something to teach me, too.

Oh yes. There will be an 11th operation, and soon.

Two weeks ago, I had what is known in the health biz as a parathyroid venous sampling at the Cleveland Clinic. For the uninitiated, it’s like the cardiac catheter given to heart patients, but instead of inserting a wire into the heart, the wire meanders up the vein from the groin to the neck, picking up choice morsels of blood as it goes and testing each sample for readings of PTH (the parathyroid hormone). Although I received the results a few days later, my endocrine surgeon was out of town and it was not until yesterday, when she telephoned me, that I got her analysis, and the benefit of a meeting she had with some other Clinic doctors. I can tell you that the numbers scared me. Each sampling was considerably higher than the limit—some more than twice as high as the outside range. I’ve been in limbo for the last two weeks, not knowing if I was a candidate for surgery, or if I’d have to wait another year for everything to get worse—meaning the numbers to rocket even higher—because the previous diagnostic tests were inconclusive. Accuracy—knowing precisely where to make the incision—is critical because I’ve already had one neck surgery (a thyroidectomy in 2006), and it’s not easy to operate around existing scar tissue.

The doctors are now confident they’ve located the lesion—the culprit is on my lower right parathyroid gland. I expect that once this trouble maker is out, I’ll begin feeling much better. The scheduler will call me today with details, but I think we’re looking at July 2 for the operation, which will take place at the Cleveland Clinic hospital with (barring any complications) one overnight stay.

How bad does a person have to feel to welcome surgery? Let me tell you. Extreme fatigue. Aches and pains. Fuzzy thinking, a compromised attention span, and difficulty concentrating. (The other day I nearly drove through a red light.)* Digestive trouble. Excessive thirst, and consequently, a need to visit the little room countless times a day. Also weakened bones, evidenced by my fracture in November. All of this a result of having too much calcium in the blood.

There is a genetic factor, as well. My mother had surgery for the same problem. And since I did have thyroid cancer, I probably won’t exhale until I get a clear pathology report on the lesion, despite my running joke that thyroid cancer is the hangnail of cancers, since it’s so treatable.

I’ve also joked on occasion that my survival story is one of life by a thousand cuts; I’ve had 10 operations—some major, some minor—since turning 21. Several of them were at the Cleveland Clinic, including my thyroidectomy. I’m confident that I’m in good hands; the Cleveland Clinic’s Endocrinology and Metabolism Institute is ranked second in the country. I’m also confident that I’ve learned something from each surgery, and if I were thinking more clearly right now I’d write a post about those lessons.

So in more ways than one, consider this post as one to be continued …

*Just noticed that I’d already written this in the first paragraph. See what I mean? Fuzzy-headed. Sigh.

 

 

On the 70th Anniversary of D-Day, a Reminder of What They Fought For

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AuBonMarcheAllied1The news is filled with reminders that 70 years ago today, the tide turned on the beaches of Normandy, France, when the United States led Allied Forces in an offensive that changed the course of World War II, leading to victory on the European front, or V-E Day, on May 8, 1945. My father served in that war, although he was stationed with the U.S. Army in the Persian Gulf. And while his brother served with the Army in the war’s European theater, I’m not sure if my Uncle Norman was part of the charge on D-Day. As I think about this historic anniversary, I’m reminded of how difficult it must have been for my grandparents to have two of their three sons in harm’s way.

I’m also reminded of something else—something that lies at the heart of civilization: Love. I’ve been reading the letters that my father wrote home during the war, and recently found a trove of other memorabilia. Just this afternoon—on the anniversary of D-Day—I opened a folded brochure that serves as the illustration to this post—a “shopping guide for allied soldiers in the French department stores.” The famed Au Bon Marché (known today as Le Bon Marché) made this guide to the metro available “with heartiest greetings,” as the publication proudly declares. The French, the ne plus ultra of all things civilized and cultured, knew that even far from home, a soldier would have someone to shop for.

AuBonMarcheAllied2The guide includes some helpful translations, as you can see in the first image. I think this one’s my favorite:

What kind of ladie’s [sic] lingerie have you?
Quel genre de lingerie pour dame avez-vou?
Kel janr de’r linsh’ree poor dahm away voo?

In all seriousness, the French knew that they and their allies were fighting not only for freedom from oppression, tyranny, and injustice—they were fighting for the preservation of the very thing that makes the world go ’round.

Vive l’amour!

 

Gearing up for War: A Soldier’s Letters Home

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MRich_WWIIlettersThey date from June 1942 to June 1945—three years of a life interrupted by the Second World War. They’ve held up surprisingly well, given they are more than 70 years old. They’ve survived scorching summers and frigid winters in various attics, as well as several moves, but they did not survive their author, my father. His letters home to his parents, who owned a small grocery store in Elyria, Ohio, begin and end in June, which would also be the month that he died, in 1969, when I was 13. I’m 58 now, and it has taken me 14 years—ever since I found them in my mother’s attic after her death—to get around to reading them. Filled with bravado and fear, boredom and enthusiasm, pride in his country but a keen longing for home, they are, other than photographs, the only tangible artifacts that I have of my father’s voice and personality; very few people who remember him are still alive. I’m finally getting around to reading these letters because I’m writing a memoir inspired by my father’s absence, and by his interrupted influence on my life.

You might say that I’m finally getting to know him.

Private First Class George G. Abookire was stationed in the Middle East with the U.S. Army’s Persian Gulf Command—a stroke of more than good luck. His posting was a deliberate tack by his commanding officers, since my father could speak Arabic fluently. A first-generation American born in Elyria, where his parents eventually settled, his father was born in Beit El Dine, Mount Lebanon, an area of Syria that would, after the First World War, become what is now known as Lebanon. His mother was born in the neighboring village of Deir El Amar. Both villages were located near the cities of Zahle and Beirut, and when I was growing up my grandparents defined themselves as coming from Zahle. (Rather like people from Elyria saying that they’re from Cleveland.) That I have this information at all is the result of much diligent work and research by several of my father’s first cousins, and—surprisingly enough—his Polish nephew-in-law, who has an abiding interest in genealogy.

The letters begin as my father, 21, is en route to his first training camp at Camp Barkeley, Texas, following his induction in Ohio. He graduated from Elyria High School in 1939, but didn’t enroll in college. It’s clear from this letter that he hasn’t traveled all that much:

In the beautiful hills of East Tennessee…

….It’s really beautiful here, Ma. The people and everything is [sic] so simple but yet they seem that they’re not doing enough for you. Ray’s mother-in-law is swell and his sisters are simply be a u t i f u l to look at in fact all the Southern girls are. …

Try and not work too hard Ma as I don’t want you to. I’d like to see you & Pa on a vacation this year & if its up to me you’re going to have it. Life here is simply grand & wonderful to be in. I can’t find words for it Ma. You’ll have to see it yourself. It’s a different world all together here and I just about wished I were born here….

Your loving boy, George

By the time he reaches Texas, the bloom has come off the rose, but his training as a medic clearly has engaged him:

I didn’t intend to write today as I just don’t know what to do with myself lately. The Captain had my explanation on the history of my chest pains, as the other day one of the Corporals here said I was just a slacker & no good to the army. After telling the Capt. I passed navy & air corps he sort of pricked his ears up. Outside of that I’m a 100% buddy around here to all the boys.…

The studying is terrific. You really have to study to keep up with the awful large amounts of work they give you. Anatomy, Physiology, Pharmacy & bacterial media. It’s fun though….

********

Tuesday night…just got off kitchen duty. I had 11-1/2 hours of it & we just scrubbed every thing after each meal.

I’m in the tent now writing by flashlite [sic] smoking a R.G.Dun that you sent me.

Truthfully Dad the army was tough over where we were at but somehow I managed to overcome it but this out here on the edge of the camp is something else to swallow. We have no toilets. Just a wooden shed & room for 10 or 12 & you can smell it way over on this side of the road as our tent is the last one on the end from Headquarters.

As I told Ma we had a miniature hurricane here Sat. while we moved. Our raincoats saved us but our feet & hands froze & we had to set up new living quarters (tents) kitchens & dig ditches & all in all that rain. One fellow in our Co. caught pneumonia & died yesterday. This life here is so tragic & unbearable I don’t see how I’ll take it. 2 of the boys here went A.W.O.L. Sunday. I went to the show & walked around about 6 miles in camp.…We have no lights … we’re not even to go to the toilet at night. We shower in cold water & then we only have 3 faucets for over 300 men.

I could go on telling you about this but what’s the use of it. My studies are terribly hard Pa but I’ll get it.…Drill study – Drill – classes & then sleep & all over again. I wouldn’t know what to do if I could be home with all of you now. It’s like looking for an actuality but you know your [sic] living on borrowed time. Well I’ll just have to swallow it.…

The experiences at Camp Barkeley, where my father is a member of Company A, 62nd M.R.T.C., underscore not only how challenging all of this soldiering will be, but also how the Army is still building from scratch. His reference to “living on borrowed time” suggests a familiarity with the real horror of the unknown. Reading these letters with the benefit of history and hindsight—we know how the war will end, and I know that my father will survive it—emphasizes their in-the-moment nature. He doesn’t know his fate, nor do his “buddies” in the camp.

I never thought of that before. On past Memorial Days, when I’ve thought of my father as an army veteran—a member of Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation”—I thought of him in his uniform, thrilled by the adventure of it all, proud to do his part for what he calls, in a subsequent letter, “the good ol’ U.S. of A,” and visiting family in Lebanon while stationed in Iran. It never occurred to me to consider what had to come before the neatness and the pride and the adventure: hard, back-breaking work in the constant rain, and the fear of an unsettled life.

My father in uniform during the Second World War. The photo in the rear, to the left, shows him as a young boy holding his baby sister.

My father in uniform during the Second World War. The photo in the rear, to the left, shows him as a young boy holding his baby sister. Included in the photo of his letters (above) is a picture of him in football gear with two of his buddies from the medics. He’s in the center.

 

Portraits of the Artist: Actress Linda Lavin and ‘A Short History of Decay’

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Award-winning actress Linda Lavin in a scene from "A Short History of Decay"

Award-winning actress Linda Lavin in A Short History of Decay

There’s a remarkable scene in A Short History of Decay, the début film by writer/director Michael Maren, that will be familiar to anyone whose life has ever been touched by illness—which is to say all of us. Sandy Fisher, played with exquisite nuance by award-winning actress Linda Lavin, is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and aware that she’s losing her lucidity. Sandy has just had a brave, candid conversation about the reality of her illness with her son, Nathan, a writer played by Bryan Greenberg. She reveals how scared her husband (Harris Yulin)—is by the prospect of losing her—he’s in poor health himself, having suffering a stroke. The ostensible subject of the conversation is Sandy’s need to move into an assisted-living center, but the subtext is mortality, and Lavin’s performance is a master class in acting. It is during their embrace, when her son cannot see her eyes, that she reveals the fear and terror she’s kept at bay.

Linda & Bryan Hug

I’ve kept my eye on this beautiful film throughout its development. My mother had Alzheimer’s. Unlike Lavin’s character, however, my mother was not aware of what was happening to her—her version of the disease announced itself suddenly, with episodes of paranoid delusions. Having lived through her nightmare, I can’t say I would have preferred a gradual declension of the sort embodied by Sandy Fisher—the “short history of decay” that would have allowed for time to accept and adjust and plan. Knowing my mother as I did, I think that living with an awareness of what was happening to her mind would have horrified her.

My focus on this scene, and my interest in the Alzheimer’s arc of the film, should in no way mislead you into thinking that A Short History of Decay is depressing. Far, far from it. The film’s triumph is the hope that plays like a horizon note throughout its patient, careful storytelling. That, and its moments of pure grace and humor. Maren, whose mother has Alzheimer’s, drew from his own life in writing the film, which he has called “a darkish comedy.” Critics such as Marshall Fine of the Huffington Post are praising Maren for managing “the nifty tonal trick of telling a tragic tale and somehow making you feel hopeful about its characters.”

I had the chance to interview Linda Lavin by phone during the run-up to the film’s release; it opens in New York City at the Village East Cinemas on May 16. I asked what she looks for in a script or screenplay, and what, in particular, drew her to Maren’s film.

“I look for a script that makes me laugh and cry while I’m reading it,” she says. “Michael’s screenplay felt comic, tragic, real, funny, and sad.”

How did Lavin prepare for the role of a woman afflicted with Alzheimer’s?

“I didn’t prepare,” she says. “I just showed up. I used my imagination, and what was in the script—what Michael had written. This is a personal story for him, so we would ask him questions. He was a very gentle guide as a director.”

But enough telling. Let me show you the trailer for the film:

Alice Doesn’t Work Here Anymore
Lavin’s portrayal of Sandy Fisher might surprise audiences who know her only as the iconic and beloved waitress Alice Hyatt from the hit CBS series Alice, a role which earned her two back-to-back Golden Globe awards. So, for those who haven’t kept up with her career, here’s a quick primer: Two years after Alice ended its nine-year run in 1985, Lavin won a Tony Award for her performance as Neil Simon’s mother in Broadway Bound, a role for which she also won Drama Desk, Outer Critics’ Circle, and Helen Hayes awards.

All in all, Lavin has earned six Tony nominations—for The Last of the Red Hot Lovers, The Diary of Anne Frank (where, as Mrs. Van Daan, she was first paired as Harris Yulin’s wife), The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, Collected Stories, and The Lyons.

At 77, Lavin is as busy as ever. In addition to the release of A Short History of Decay, she stars in a new play at the Vineyard Theatre in Manhattan. Nicky Silver, who wrote The Lyons, created the part of Audrey Langham in Too Much Sun for Lavin.

“I’m excited to be playing this character—a successful American actress having one spiritual awakening after another,” she says.

When I asked her what life experience had the most significant effect on her art and on her career, her answer was that of a woman intimately familiar with spiritual awakenings:

“Life is about evolving. I can’t say I would point to one experience. I believe everybody and everything that’s ever happened to me has gotten me this far. I have more to learn, more to do. Each experience leads me to a place of knowledge and surrender and truth, and the ability to accept things as they are and the courage to change the things I can.”

 

 

 

An Adoptive Mother’s Thoughts on ‘Philomena’

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Philomena_TheMidlifeSecondWife

Even if you haven’t seen Philomena, the acclaimed 2013 film directed by Stephen Frears, and starring Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, the media attention surrounding it has possibly made you aware of the fraught issue of closed adoption—especially those adoptions arranged and sanctioned by the Catholic Church in Ireland. The heart-wrenching tale of an unwed girl’s loss of her child in 1950’s Ireland, when the nuns at the abbey that took her in adopted him out to an American couple, received many critical accolades and awards—four Academy Award nominations among them, including a Best Picture nod and a seventh Best Actress nomination for Dench. Based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, by Martin Sixsmith, the British journalist who helped Philomena in her search for her son—50 years after his birth—the film is now available on DVD and Blu-ray, VOD, and Pay-Per-View. If you missed it during its theatrical release, I urge you to see it now—especially if you are an adoptive parent, as I am.

My son is now nearly 33 years old. Because his story overlaps with mine (as each of our narratives intersect with those of others), I asked M if he would be comfortable with my telling my part of our shared story. He assured me he would. (He hasn’t yet seen the film, although he’ll be coming over soon to watch it with me.)

Before I get too far ahead of myself, take a look at the trailer, and note the unexpected moments of humor in this beautifully crafted film:

I’m glad that I was alone when I watched Philomena. Although I was aware of the story and how it develops (I’ll not provide spoilers here, so continue reading without concern)* I viewed it privately not to shield my son from my reactions to the film, but rather to give myself space to have those reactions, and to reflect on what this courageous woman’s story meant to me.

That’s Philomena’s Story. Here’s Mine.
If you’ve read the serialized medical memoir on my blog, you already know the circumstances that led my first husband and me to adopt a child. We don’t get much from Philomena’s story about the way adoption changed and fulfilled the lives of her son’s adoptive parents. (The adoption of three-year-old Anthony Lee, later known as Michael Hess, was almost an afterthought; he was paired at the last-minute with a younger girl whom the St. Louis couple had traveled to adopt.)

So let me tell you, from my experience and perspective, what it felt like the first time M was placed in my arms:

I was overwhelmed by love. I was ridiculously happy to have him in my arms.

M was four-and-a-half months old and crying when we first met him in the agency office. (We discovered, once we got him home, that he had a terrible case of diaper rash.) The first thing I noticed was his full head of beautiful, dark blond hair. When your ability to bear a child is taken from you as emphatically as was mine, you are unquestioningly grateful when you are fortunate to adopt. As thrilled as we were to have an infant, I would not realize until later how much it would have meant—to M and to me—to be able to hold him in the moments after his birth. Did he have an uncanny infant-awareness that a difference existed in the warmth and scent of the body holding him now, compared to that of the foster parent who cared for him in the months since his birth? This was not a thought I articulated then. Then, all I could think to say to him, instinctively and repeatedly, was this: It’s Mommy. You’re home now. It’s mommy. I love you and you’re home now.

Among the charming items we decorated M’s yellow nursery with was a framed poem that I would sometimes read aloud to him:

Not flesh of my flesh,
Nor bone of my bone,
but still miraculously my own.
Never forget for a single minute;
You didn’t grow under my heart
but in it.

It would be a while before my delicious feelings of motherhood could allow room for the fact that there had been someone before me. But as my son grew older, it became clear that if ever in his life he felt he wanted to know his origins, I would move mountains to help him in his search. I did not know—I still do not know—anything about the woman who gave birth to my son other than the fact that she had hay fever and (if memory serves), was of Italian and Irish ancestry. We might have been told that she attended college, but I’m not even sure of that. I know I took notes when we got the call, but those are stored in a box in my first husband’s home. I’m relying on pure, faulty memory here. But I can tell you this with certainty: Whatever powerful reason compelled her to make her decision, I thanked her every day. And each year, on M’s birthday, I say a silent prayer for her.

The heartbreaking difference in Philomena’s situation is that she was not given a choice; Anthony was abruptly taken from her after she had three years—such as they were—with him. (The young girls worked long hours in the laundry at the abbey, permitted only one hour each day with their children). I would like to think that the adoptive parents of Michael Hess, who was born Anthony Lee, said a similar prayer for Philomena.

Open Versus Closed Adoption
Because my first husband and I were Catholic, and because we had heard that the wait time was not as long as with the non-religious affiliated agency in town, the Catholic Charities organization in our local diocese arranged our adoption, which was legalized through our county’s probate court. As far as I know, closed adoption was the only process through which a couple in Ohio could adopt a child in 1981. That’s since changed, of course; today, open adoption is becoming the norm, with birth and adoptive parents often meeting one another and exchanging helpful information.

Lori Holden is a blogger and writer from Colorado whom I met at a blogging conference a couple of years ago. She is also an adoptive parent. With her daughter’s birth mother, Holden co-authored a book called The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption. I interviewed her via e-mail, and she confirmed that much has changed since our closed adoption in 1981. Holden shared with me statistics from the Donaldson Adoption Institute:

“Prior to 1990,” she wrote, “fewer than 5% of domestic infant adoptions were open. In 2012, 90% or more of adoption agencies are recommending open adoption.”

According to Holden, “there is no set definition” to what open adoption means; she writes that it is not necessarily the case that birth parents meet the adoptive parents, for example. Open adoption might simply mean an exchange of information; for others, it could entail some agreement about contact or integration between the families. To others it could mean access to original birth records, or some combination of all these factors.

“For years, adoption agencies have been telling adopting parents why to do open adoption,” says Holden. There was, however, often no support or guidance in exactly how to go about doing so. The book she wrote with her daughter’s birth mother is, she says, “the girlfriend’s guide I wished had been available at the start of my journey into adoptive parenting. For all the shame and pain caused by secretive adoptions for women like Philomena and her son, Anthony, openness could have been the antidote. Readers say our book helps heal the split that is created at the moment of placement between a child’s biology—the story he’s born with down to his DNA, and his biography—the life that’s written thereafter.”

The Times They are A-Changin’
In Ohio, where I live and where my son’s adoption took place, Governor John Kasich signed into law a bill that will eventually allow adoptees, upon attaining legal age, access to their birth records. According to reporting by Robert Higgs of the Northeast Ohio Media Group, “the law applies to an estimated 400,000 Ohioans adopted between Jan. 1, 1964, and Sept. 18, 1996.” This would include my son; he was born in June 1981.

According to Holden, many states are beginning “to unseal what was once sealed.” In fact, the day she responded to my e-mail, her own state of Colorado put two bills through the legislature. She shared with me a link to a map, created by the White Oak Foundation, illustrating U.S. adoption statutes.

I’m grateful for this new law in Ohio. If and when my son decides to take the next step and conduct a search, his path will be cleared of many obstructions.

What I realized, watching Philomena, was how excruciatingly painful that separation from Anthony was for her. Even as an adoptive parent, I wanted to reach through the screen and prevent that hopeful St. Louis couple from realizing their dream—I wanted to intervene on Philomena’s behalf, so strongly did I identify with her. In experiencing the joy of raising my son and watching him grow into an accomplished young man, I understand the power of a mother’s love.

I look forward to watching Philomena with him.

 

Postscript
Philomena Lee has become an advocate for adoption rights in Ireland, founding The Philomena Project in conjunction with that country’s  Adoption Rights Alliance. The organization calls upon the Irish government to implement adoption information and tracing legislation. Philomena Lee is taking her fight all the way to the Irish Supreme Court.

The shame and pain that Holden referred to earlier was such that in Ireland, at the abbey where Philomena was sent, the nuns insisted that the girls’ identity be kept hidden—a fact not included in the film. Anne Midgette, writing in the Washington Post, reported that “the girls in the convent were forced to use other names—Philomena went by “Marcella”—and never knew each others’ true identities.”

When I read this, I had to stop and read it again, and then a third time, to make sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing. Philomena went by ‘Marcella.’

My name is Mari-Marcelle.

* The following articles do contain spoilers, but I provide them for those who would like to explore the story further:

“Searching for Philomena’s Real Son,” by Jacob Bernstein in The New York Times

“Philomena Namesake Doesn’t Blame Catholic Church for her Ordeal,” by Nicole Winfield in The Huffington Post

“The Real Philomena Lee finds Hollywood Ending to Adoption Story,” by Anne Midgette in The Washington Post

Lori Holden blogs at LavenderLuz.com and contributes to the Huffington Post. Her book with Crystal Hass, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption, is available at Amazon.com.