Being adopted is part of “who I am” and has been part of my identity for as long as I can remember. My parents told me that my dad had picked me out special. I was the youngest, and the story I remember is that by the time I came along he already had a daughter – a brunette with blue eyes; and a son – a redhead with green eyes; so he didn’t care whether I was a girl or a boy, but picked me because I was a blonde with brown eyes.
I grew up thinking I had been picked from a donut case at the grocery store. I imagined one of those huge glass cases big enough for every kind of donut ever made lining the back wall of the store. Instead of donuts, this case was filled with babies, and I was the one with the blonde hair and brown eyes. I could see the baker, behind the glass, waiting for my dad to order while my mother, purse draped over her arm and gloves in hand, looked at her watch and tapped her foot impatiently. I could see my dad leaning in, carefully inspecting all of the babies, and then pointing at ME…tapping the glass case, “That one”, he’d say, “I’ll take THAT one.”
I always find it a bit weird that my adoptive mother plays only a supporting role in this story.
My Mother, My Mother, and ME
I fantasized about my birth mother often, making up grand stories that ranged from “famous actress” to “Viennese princess”. However to me my “real” mother is the woman that adopted me, and today is her birthday. I haven’t spoken to her in over 5 years, and haven’t spent any significant time in the same room with her in almost 20. I started this post thinking I would write something good about her, because there WERE good things about her.
Unfortunately, I still find it hard to talk about her for any length of time without the damage she did taking over the narrative. That becomes confusing when I miss her. I wonder to myself, “How can I miss someone that was so cruel?” I do, though. There is so much she did over the years that created SO much damage – really amazingly hurtful and awful things. Things that only a person who is broken inside COULD have done to a child.
On the other hand, she made my brother and I hot cocoa when we came in from the cold, and always baked our favorite cake for our birthdays. She would skip in the parking lot with me, just to embarrass my sister. She loved animals, rescued greyhounds, and got together with her friends to cross stitch and gossip, like everybody else’s mom.
Yet, I always knew that I was just an animal that she got from the pound. She had 3 dogs, all rescued from the shelter; 3 cats, all rescued from the shelter; and 3 kids…all rescued from the shelter.
What Happens When The Dogs Outrank The Kids?
My mother structured her life very carefully, as if following a rule book written by an evil cabal made up of Ann Landers, Miss Manners, Betty Crocker and that British woman that said “WALKIIIEEEEESSS” to train dogs. I can’t remember her name, but I sure remember my mom yelling “WALKIEEEEEEEES” to the dogs. Our house had a clear “pecking order”, it went: My Mother, The Dogs, My Father, The Kids According to Age.
She LOVED those dogs. They were at the top of the food chain in my house. One of the dogs got sick and attacked each of us kids multiple times before he died of his illness. He was a Doberman Pinscher named “Soos”. As he got older and sicker, he also became so attached to my mom that he began attacking anyone that went near her.
My brother and sister got their face bites first…and then it was my turn – twice! For my brother and me, the bites on the face were because my mother MADE us put our face where the dog could bite it. I don’t remember what happened with my sister, but I’m pretty sure it was a similar story. We were required to kiss my mother good night each night, a polite kiss on the cheek…maybe the lips – it’s funny, I can’t really remember now.
Impending Doom – AKA “Bedtime”
I knew it was coming. It was bedtime, and there she was…sitting on the couch, dog draped across her lap, eyeing me. I said good night and tried to just walk by, but she caught my arm. Looked at me. Offered her cheek. Oh – yeah – so it must have been a respectful kiss on the cheek.
Anyway, there was Soos, having now lifted his head and shifted so he was laying on his elbows. He had started a very low growl – barely perceptible. I looked at my mom and she was just staring at me. Not even staring, come to think of it…just looking, with a kind of bland but expectant look on her face…no real expression in her eyes.
We both knew what was about to happen. After all, it had happened before. I had the choice of accepting the dog bite on my face, or accepting the consequences of making her angry. Easy choice. I bent, face extended, heading in to kiss that cheek – and BAM. Soos struck, leaving a gash in my cheek from which I still have a scar. Another one – to match the one under the eye on the other side, from the same scenario weeks before.
Is Campho-Phenique Still a Thing?
I don’t remember my mom moving much when Soos bit me. I think she might have shoved him off her lap, but I honestly don’t remember. I guess even when you’re expecting it, having a doberman take a chunk out of your cheek might make you go blank for a moment.
The next thing I remember I’m in the bathroom by myself, washing my face. I put on some “Campho-phenique”, which was the antiseptic of choice in our house. I liked how it smelled, but it sure stung! I had to use it a lot, so I guess it’s good that I liked something about it.
All three of us kids suffered further attacks from that dog, and all of us mourned his passing when he died over the Christmas holiday soon after that.
Sounds like the end, I know…but wait, there’s more. The “coups de gras”, the event that was the beginning of the end of my relationship with my mother.
When History Repeats Itself
It’s approximately 20 – 25 years later. My child is not quite 3 years old. We are visiting my mother and father on Super Bowl Sunday, 1999. My mother’s latest generation of dogs, a rescued greyhound and an American Terrier mix, are lolling about the house.
I didn’t know at the time that Ozzie (the terrier mix) had already attacked two of my sister’s kids…so I was blissfully comfortable letting my toddler be on the floor with the dogs. Kidlet was sitting between them, and leaned to the right, kissed the greyhound, and then leaned to the left to kiss Ozzie.
Ozzie attacked, ripping a gash across kidlet’s eye that went from the inside of the eyebrow, across the lid, across the temple, down to the BONE, and into the hairline. There was an additional puncture just below the eye, from his bottom teeth. Blood started gushing down my baby’s face as I sprang to swing em up off the floor and into my arms. The dog had continued to attack, and kidlet had tried to run.
I set my child on the kitchen counter as blood poured down their face and soaked their clothes. My parents lived almost an hour away from any hospital, so my dad drove while I cradled my baby’s bleeding face against me in the back seat and my husband sat stoic and silent next to me. We didn’t know whether the eye was still intact, and there was SO much blood.
My mother chose to stay at home…and take care of the dog.
Football Shaped Jellies and Waiting in the ER
When we arrived at the hospital, my shirt front was completely saturated with blood. For 5 hours we waited in the ER for a plastic surgeon to arrive – finding one was a challenge on Super Bowl Sunday. Kidlet was good – there were little football shaped jello thingy’s being passed out and my happy little bundle was running around stealing them from trays and enjoying getting some attention from the nurses.
But the doctor told me I had to keep the wound OPEN until the surgeon could get there, so I would have to stop the happiness every 10 or 15 minutes and wipe the wound hard enough to make it start bleeding again. THIS part was not so much fun!
21 stitches later, my little hero was just fine. In fact, over time, kidlet would complain that the scar was healing too much! That scar was an important visual aid when telling the story to friends, and it really needed to be a bit more horrifying.
My mother never drove the 45 minutes to come visit while kidlet was recovering, nor after the stitches were removed…or ever again after that. Never engaged, nor apologized. Barely asked how her grandchild was doing, despite the 21 stitches and near loss of one eye.
Dogs Still Outrank Children
Three months passed, and I finally caved in and asked my father if we could come up to the mountains to visit. My father had promised that he would “take care” of having the dog, who had now attacked 3 of his grandchildren, put down humanely. That didn’t happen, and the dog was still living. Since no invitation had been forthcoming, I asked about a visit and whether the dog could be put in its kennel while we were there.
The answer was “No, this is the dog’s home.” Just to paint a really clear picture here, that dog had its own luxury condo on a full acre of my parents 5 acre “estate” . It had shade, a LARGE doghouse, water and plenty of room to run. It was spring, and spending a couple of hours outside would NOT have been a hardship.
To my mother, putting the dog outside for 2 hours was not acceptable, and that was more important than seeing the grandchild that she had not seen in the three months since her dog had ripped a hole in said grandchild’s face. I sound bitter because I am; but more to the point, this showed me something SO clearly, something that I had not let myself fully acknowledge up to this point.
If You Can’t Love MY Child, That’s Your Problem
My mother – this woman who had rescued me from the pound – was broken in some way I didn’t understand, and she always had been. She had always been distant and cold, although she could put on a good face for the neighbors. She had been cruel and vicious to me when I was a child – to all three of us kids, really. Yet, somehow I had explained that away.
It wasn’t until I saw the lack of connection she had with my child that I really got it. I mean, my kid was friggin’ irresistible – ask ANYONE with whom we came in contact. Kidlet was pure, unadulterated joy and spread love and happiness wherever they went. I couldn’t understand any grandparent not choosing their grandchild, but especially THIS grandchild. (I am completely unbiased, of course, and can provide a long list of references to prove my point.)
My mother’s inability to bond with my kid made me so sad at first…but then it was a strange relief. I was adopted, and I spent my entire life up to that point trying to EARN my place. I believed in my mom’s version of reality, and so I believed that I was unlovable, not good enough, and hadn’t DONE enough to earn their sacrifice and generosity in giving me a home.
I knew I didn’t feel loved, but I thought that was MY problem. I didn’t realize until I had a child of my own what love truly felt like. Not only did I feel a love for my baby that I knew would NEVER allow me to treat them as I had been treated, but I was loved by this incredible being. This beacon of light and joy and laughter loved ME. So maybe it wasn’t ME that was the problem all along!