Image Credit: Daiga Ellaby
Before we met in person, we talked on the telephone, matching alto timbres warm in our ears. This was decades before you could spit in a tube, mail it off to a lab, and go online to claim your kin. We didn’t know what to expect, we hadn’t known each other existed until just a few months prior. We’d traded letters written on yellow legal pad paper, both sides covered with details of our lives: where we lived, what we did for a living, where we liked to travel. We sent blurry snapshots.
The first time we met, we could only see each other in pieces—zooming in on eyes, cheekbones, hair, height, hands, smile. When we pulled back we saw what we shared. Not the same face staring back at the same face, but echoes and imprints: our eye shape and jawlines, thin lips, the taper of long fingers. We reveled in our alikeness, draped ourselves in the delight of being suddenly known to another.
We’d both contacted the agency around the same time, asking them to locate and contact our birth mother. Our mother told the agency yes, she was willing to be found by the children she’d given up decades ago. She met with the social workers and shared non-identifying details. She was married and had four children before us, three girls and a boy. Our sisters were named Deborah, Diane, and Denise, our brother Jeff. Denise, the youngest, died in a car accident when she was just 19. When my mother didn’t bring us home from the hospital after we were born, she told our older siblings the babies had died. She did this twice.
We were excited to finally see our mother, but before the agency could arrange a meeting, she changed her mind and melted back into the anonymity of being unfound. A social worker called each of us soon after, saying there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is your mother has signed an affidavit of non-disclosure. The good news is you have a sister.
Sometimes we wondered what it would have been like to grow up in a house in the town across the river with our other sisters and brother, our other parents, instead of the ones we had. Maybe our lives would’ve been harder. Six kids. Lots of mouths to feed. Maybe our lives would’ve been better. Lots of other kids to love and protect us.
Of course, we compared the lives we’d led before we knew each other: parents, siblings, friends, schools. We quizzed each other eagerly, gently: when were you brought home to your adoptive family? What were you like as a baby? A little girl? We are sisters, tell me everything.
In one family we grew up in, we were adored, photo albums thick with a progression of baby-toddler-girl-teen-young woman snapshots. We were sweet, with long, light brown hair, green eyes, and a full-face smile. We basked and sang, cocooned in unconditional love.
In the other family we grew up in, we were adopted after months in foster care. We were scorned, there were baby and toddler shots from Sears and family church pictures, but no photo albums. We were serious, with long dark brown hair, hazel eyes, and a half-smile. We rocked and hid, waiting out conditional love.
Raised fifteen miles apart,we went to neighboring suburban schools. As teenagers, we were popular and pretty and had lots of friends to go to football games and keggers with. We listened to Elton John and Steely Dan and liked to party, riding in cars and trucks with boys who liked us, sometimes too much.
As teenagers, we were also shy and awkward, but still had a few friends with whom we drank warm beer behind cars in cul-de-sacs after marching band practice. We listened to Prince and David Bowie and worried we liked girls too much, even when an article in Seventeen said it was natural to have crushes on older girls.
After high school, we went to small colleges in the Midwest, where we got degrees in English and Journalism, working our way through as waitresses and clerks. After school, we got corporate jobs, paid off our student debt.
We traveled the world, cupping our hands to bring the world in small. We stayed home, shoveling snow in the flat, frozen landscape. We slept with men: painters, hockey players, bar owners. We slept with women: writers, volleyball players, waitresses.
One after another, we moved out west, near mountains and water. We drifted, trying out different jobs and lovers. We lived in houses in the country. We rented tiny apartments in the city. We dated and fell in love. We married a man. We married a woman.
We had our own children, two boys. We had no children. Over the years, we struggled in our marriages. We separated and divorced, moved back to the Midwest. We hung on and stayed.
Sometimes when we talked on the phone, we still wondered how our lives would’ve been different if our birth mother had kept us. We talked about our sisters and brother who didn’t know we existed. We decided we were our mother’s two biggest secrets. Our mother has had a hard life, we said. She probably doesn’t want to be found, we said. It would hurt too much, and she is old now.
Still, we said, maybe we should try again.
Sandra LeDuc was adopted and raised in Minnesota. Her essays explore belonging, identity, queerness, and the nurture versus nature debate, among other themes. Her work has previously appeared in The Rumpus. She lives in Seattle with her wife, a needy but lovable dog, and two cats.
Abandonment and neglect. Substance abuse. Alcoholism. Suicide ideation. These are subjects which are prominent in child welfare and foster care; on average, foster children remain wards of the state for two years. I asked: Why are these stories uncommon despite its longstanding presence? Why is the adage “education out of the system” the emergent path to adulthood? Why have I not found a safe space for these stories from educators, administrators, foster parents, biological parents, kinship placements, adoptees, and the fostered and unfostered?
There has to be a way to make that happen. That is what I’m looking at for this foster care series. The writings I aim to publish will take a variety of forms, including creative nonfiction, hybrid writing, poetry, fiction, visual and text-based. More importantly, they will come from voices which are undeniably unafraid to speak. If language can do that, I think we can get closer to reinventing our experiences; we’re not so different or alone at the end of the day. Send your writings on foster care to firstname.lastname@example.org. And keep speaking.