My Family, A Symphony: A Memoir of Global Adoptionby Aaron Eske
Before Madonna and Angelina Jolie made international adoption fashionable, Aaron Eske grew up in rural Nebraska with four siblings his parents adopted from around the globe. Each one arrived with severe health issues: Meredith was born without toes and was never supposed to walk; Jamie weighed two pounds and had cerebral palsy; and Jordan had his first heart… See more details below
Before Madonna and Angelina Jolie made international adoption fashionable, Aaron Eske grew up in rural Nebraska with four siblings his parents adopted from around the globe. Each one arrived with severe health issues: Meredith was born without toes and was never supposed to walk; Jamie weighed two pounds and had cerebral palsy; and Jordan had his first heart catheter when he was five. His sister Michelle had suffered abuse in India and experienced trauma as a teenager.
As an adult, trying to make sense of how his global family came to be, Eske bought a round-the-world plane ticket and journeyed in search of his siblings' origins. He visited the orphanages where they had lived, met the people who had cared for them, and immersed himself in the the world of international adoption with visits to a slum school in India, the landmine-loaded North Korean border, and a tribal prom in an Ethiopian rainforest. The result is a harrowing, complex, and ultimately triumphant story of international adoption that highlights the issues surrounding this increasingly popular parenting option.
A wry, forthright look at a Lincoln, Neb., family who embraced international adoption despite the daunting obstacles.
Eske was an only child when his parents gradually took on four more children from around the world. When the author was six, a nine-month-old girl from India, Meredith, came to live with them. The daughter of a 15-year-old dwarf, she had a maimed left leg and two attached fingertips. Several years later, two older Indian siblings were adopted—Michelle and Jordan, born to a desperately poor mother of the untouchable caste who begged for a living and prostituted her daughter. In 1996, another girl arrived, Yoo Jung, who was from South Korea and was diagnosed early with cerebral palsy. As Eske grew and went off to college, he began to regret how he had grown apart emotionally from his siblings, who each suffered ramifications from a traumatic birth. So the author decided to trek to India and South Korea to visit the orphanages from which his siblings came. In Pune, India, he found the Bharatiya Samaj Seva Kendra (BSSK) orphanage and learned how the rise of the Indian middle class has wrought positive change on domestic adoption. A similar situation was beginning to develop in South Korea, while North Korea was "living in what Charles Dickens would have labeled its 'winter of despair.' " In an orphanage in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Eske hoped to find other examples of the "belonging" he craved and missed. The author also considers how do-gooding can go terribly wrong, most recently in the cases of Zoe's Ark, attempting to save children from Darfur in 2007, and the Baptist zealots from Idaho who tried to bring children from earthquake-ravaged Haiti in 2010. The narrative is a somewhat convoluted but sympathetic and engaging journey into emotional enlightenment.
An honest exploration of the impact of international adoption on families and children alike.
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My Family, A Symphony
A Memoir of Global Adoption
By Aaron Eske
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2010 Aaron Eske
All rights reserved.
Lenore wore a tiara to her eightieth birthday party. It crowned her angelic white hair. The wife of a gregarious minister and the mother of two, she played the role of the lovely wallflower at most of life's celebrations, but this day was her blooming day. If her husband, my grandfather, had been there, he would have said something about what it was like to grow shorter together, but Alzheimer's stole his voice, mind, and life before they had the chance to find out. Now it was her turn to do the talking to the full room of relatives, former bridesmaids, and her new eighty-eight-year-old boyfriend.
"I'm a lucky lady," she said. "Terrific family, terrific friends, a new hip." She popped it sideways to show it off. "I have a beautiful life."
Whenever I went to my grandmother's house at Eastmont Towers Retirement Community in Lincoln, I looked at that beautiful life, neatly chronicled in fourteen photo albums labeled "A" to "N" and displayed within easy reach on her bookshelf. The sticky pages traced her black-and-white beginnings in Great Depression Omaha, her two-year stint on an air force base in reconstruction Korea, and onward to the Boeing homecomings of her colorful grandchildren from three Asian countries.
Grandmother Lenore's albums told the story of the century. And as interesting as Albums "A" to "J" of the 1900s were, Album "K" was still my biased favorite. Bound in furry brown velvet, K's pages were the storyboard of my life growing up with four adopted siblings. We were best friends then—before I fled them and lost touch.
You could guess the year each photo in Album K was taken by which house was in the background. With every new child in my family came a new house with another bedroom until at last all five of us were home. The album's first picture was dated 1983, but the clues in the photograph said more than the caption ever could. Mom's blond hair was crimped and long like Bon Jovi's without the bangs. A black Groucho Marx moustache sat on Dad's less stiff upper lip. They were holding me, their first and only biological child, whom they'd made the old-fashioned way.
I was an only child when we lived on B Street in a tannish fixer-upper in Lincoln, Nebraska—a quaint city in the heart of the Heartland. At the time, a street map of Lincoln showed a tall rectangular grid much like that of Manhattan, but that was about the only thing the two places had in common. From the top of the three tallest buildings in the city, you didn't have to squint to see the flat and forever prairie in the near distance stretching beyond the city limits. The good people of Lincoln would say they were just that—"real good people"—who worked hard but not too hard, enjoyed a medium-well-done steak a few times a week, and aimed to live life simple and right. Weekends were for worship—Sunday to Jesus and Saturday to the Cornhusker football team. Meanwhile, I liked spending my weekend mornings eating Coco-Puffs and watching Rainbow Brite and the Smurfs light up our 13-channel TV set.
Around the time I slung my Bert and Ernie backpack over my shoulder for my first day of school, Mom and Dad had the urge to have another child, and they didn't care where that child came from—as long as it wasn't from Mom's uterus. Pregnancy and childbirth were on Mom's list of never-doing-that-agains right below riding a motorcycle and living in Texas. They all resulted in too much pain. When their application for adoption was approved, my parents told me I would be getting a new sister, but the news didn't faze me. They might as well have said, "Aaron, we ordered a V-neck sweater from the Lands' End catalog and it should arrive in the next few weeks." I was too young to understand what it meant to add a family member, let alone care which country's seal was stamped on her passport cover.
The day after my family moved to our next house, on Marilynn Avenue, my parents painted the walls an avant-garde navy in contrast to the Motel 6ish floral wallpaper that draped our neighbors' bedrooms. A few weeks after the paint dried, the metal United Airlines stork delivered us Meredith Leslie—a nine-month-old girl from India named after her two grandfathers. I was six.
When Meredith arrived on our doorstep, her left leg looked like a gnawed turkey drumstick you might eat at the state fair, and two of her fingertips were attached to each other, as if by superglue. The birthmarks were nothing that half the doctors in Nebraska couldn't try to fix, though.
Hooked on adoption, my parents called the adoption agency a year later, and our family brought home two older children from India, Michelle and Jordan. They were biological siblings with invented birthdays and trauma beyond their unknown years. Crowded again, we all migrated to the southern tip of town into a Pepto-Bismol-pink house on Elk Ridge Road. Every other house on the street was taupe, but Mom and Dad didn't mind. It may have been a Barbie mansion, but it had five bedrooms and a laundry room on the same level. Dad practiced law full-time, and when Mom wasn't at work directing the state's Department of Health and Human Services, she was at home directing ours. They needed every shortcut they could get to manage four children under the age of ten. Being able to load towels in the dryer and shout out bedtime stories at the same time was a priceless amenity.
For the first few years in the pink house, a sweet family of heifers and their trusty steer we called "Butch and the Babes" grazed behind our backyard in an open field. But Lincoln's grid was growing and cows weren't part of the development plan. About the time the bulldozers rolled onto Butch's turf and unearthed four decades of manure that smelled so strong you could taste the shit on your spit, we added baby Jamie to our herd. She was a fourteen-month-old Korean girl named after her father, James. Since our lodging was over capacity again and life smelled like a stockyard, we moved to Water Tower Court (the street had its own water tower) just outside Lincoln, where cornstalks twice my height grew adjacent to our new homestead.
The 6,000-square-foot home (1,000 for each of us kids) with its Taj Mahal architecture and Romeo and Juliet balconies was as dramatic as the memories it would house. At Water Tower, what had been a family sitcom swerved toward soap opera, and we lost our way. For reasons no one could comprehend at the time, Michelle was the first to flare up. Then Jordan. Then Meredith. No matter how much love and energy she poured over the flames, Mom couldn't contain my family's destruction. And I couldn't understand the causes and didn't want to try. As soon as I escaped the state, and Michelle ran away from home, and Jordan was shipped off to the army, and Meredith started then stopped college, Mom put down the hose, surrendered, and retreated. My parents phoned Chet's Movers, enrolled Jamie in a new middle school, and began life anew in a cookie-cutter house with three bedrooms and an unlisted phone number on a gated street an hour away from my new hometown of Omaha.
The final photo in Album K was taken at the house on Water Tower. It was Christmas Day 2004, the last time I could remember us five in the same room together. In the Christmas picture's background, you could see the polytheistic shrine of the Water Tower house hovering behind our heads. There was Pope John Paul II's framed autograph, a candleless menorah, and a white marble statuette of the Hindu Sai Baba. Clearly Mom and Dad embraced multiculturalism in every area of life—even home decor. Secular Christianity was the clear winner of the day though, as the five of us "kids," whose ages ranged from ten to twenty-one, gathered beside the star-topped, present-bottomed tree like most families in America.
In the picture, I am wearing my collegiate black-frame glasses. I was five months away from graduating from the University of Nebraska. My snowy December skin looks pale and flavorless compared to my siblings' Hershey-brown tones. A seventeen-year-old Jordan stands to my right. His smile is pursed, naughtily. The girls, all with faces prime for Vogue but not the long legs for runway, hunch low in front. Looking at our pose you might wonder what perverted reality TV producer had brought these five adolescents together on Christmas morning. But when I looked back at us, because it was another normally abnormal scene in my life, I just wondered which one of us got the best presents that year.
After I graduated from the University of Nebraska, I moved to Washington, D.C., for work and then to London for school, putting more and more miles between my family and myself. I never consciously chose to move farther away. Honestly, I never even considered the distance. It didn't matter to me at the time. I was fine on my own.
Flash forward to Omaha 2008, a different era, when a black man was running for president of the United States of America, China was hosting the Olympics, and my siblings and I were all together again for our grandmother, who was hoisting a glass of chardonnay above her head on her birthday. "So thank you for traveling across the country, well around the world actually," grandmother Lenore and I locked eyes, "to be here with me today."
* * *
When I flew back for my grandmother's birthday party, I didn't just fly to Nebraska in eight hours direct from England. For one thing, that wouldn't make much of a story. But I also couldn't have found my way home that way, not the way I wanted to. Instead, I bought a round-the-world ticket to trace the orphan origins of my family.
I didn't speak to any of my siblings before I boarded that first airplane bound for their home countries. I never called my sister to say, "I'm about to meet the woman who changed your diapers." I had fallen out of touch with all four of them, and I wanted back in.
The party room at the French Café in Omaha's gentrified slaughterhouse district gargled up an off-key "Happy Birthday" chorus, and I heard someone whistle and guessed it was my sister Michelle. Public outings were always spectacles in our family—which was why we reserved our own space in the back. Thankfully, the rest of the restaurant was also empty. Apparently not many people in Nebraska go for French food at five o'clock on a Saturday. There was probably a football game on.
The party mingling recommenced, and my siblings and I slinked into a corner of the brick-walled room and huddled beneath a life-size portrait of a nude woman sitting on a pile of white pillows. A soft pink flower was shoved behind her painted ear. The air conditioning blasted to combat the August heat.
A second cousin came around to take our picture, and we posed just as we had the last time we were all together, on that Christmas morning four years before. This time though, my cheeks, neck, ribs, and wrists were gaunt from circumnavigating the globe. I had lost twenty-five pounds on the journey and weight-wise was only five-sixths of the already small person I had been before. To my right was Jordan, twenty-one, whose biceps (unlike mine) had grown in proportion to his years. The army did a body good. His teeth shone. My sisters posed down in front, still stunning but just as genetically gifted in a game of limbo as they had always been. They wore the beaded necklaces I'd bought for them from a jewelry patua I'd met in monsoon Mumbai the month before.
Once the amateur photo shoot ended and it was just us again, I opened my bag and pulled out the used tea box wrapped in packing tape.
"I know it's not your eightieth birthday, but this is for you guys. From Mrs. Joshi."
"What is it?"
"No idea. I've carried it around the world and all I know is it's heavy."
Michelle took the box and looked up at me. "So why are you doing this anyway? Why go to India and Korea and Japan and China and Ethi-, Ethiapulous?"
"Yeah, why go all those places?"
Before boarding my flight from London to Delhi and launching a twenty-three-city world tour, I wouldn't have been sure how to answer her. Had I actually picked up the phone and had a conversation with my sister at the time, the best response I could have given her would have sounded something like, "I guess I'm bored" or "I'm sick of ordering take-out Chinese and want to taste the real thing." But of course there was something deeper that drove me to fly 24,901 miles. I had to rediscover what connected us all those years ago. I remembered the details of being each other's best friends. In the morning we'd rinse our tiny toothbrushes under the same faucet and after school we'd all walk home single file through the sewage tunnels that snaked through our neighborhood. But because of what had happened to us, the memories no longer felt real. They were nothing more than a 4 × 6 glossy stuck in an album named "K." Mere artifacts like the contents of the moving boxes stored in our parents' new basement. I was twenty-four and my relationship with my family was already collecting dust.
To know what ... no, to feel what I was missing, I couldn't simply return to Nebraska. You may think it's inside-out that to get closer to my family I traveled even farther away. Now that I have written the words down, it looks more foolish than ever. But I knew in my heart that I had to start my journey where theirs had begun twenty years earlier and come full circle. To regain the family I once had with the four most influential people in my life, I needed to figure out our separate and common past.CHAPTER 2
The first orphan train, bound for Dowagiac, Michigan, carried forty-six orphans, waifs, and street urchins who had scarcely seen an open field in their lives when the locomotive pulled out of the New York City train depot in 1854. Its ten- to twelve-year-old passengers came from the city's children's asylums, newsboys' lodging houses, jails, and downtown doorways. At the time, 30,000 abandoned and orphaned children slept in these living tombs, temporarily at least. Half of them died before their fifth birthday. The contaminated and teeming city was drowning in the tide of immigration, and there was simply too little for too many. Then came the orphan trains and the start of the first humanitarian migration of children to be cared for by their adoptive families in the United States.
But before exploring what it was like in the 1800s for orphans to relocate to states across America such as Nebraska, allow me to introduce you to a young brown-bearded seminary graduate from the class of 1849. Charles Loring Brace at first hoped to reform the ills of New York City through the ministry, but he found his true calling away from the pulpit, in the extreme squalor of the city's streets. After working in the dense shade of disease, prostitution, and murder in Manhattan's Five Points slum, Brace realized that his real mission was not to cleanse the sin but to evacuate the innocent so they might be spared.
One of those innocents was Ann "Mabel" Harrison, who, at the time I met her, was ninety-nine years old. She lived in my eighty-year-old grandmother Lenore's retirement community in Lincoln—ninety-seven years after she rode an orphan train across Nebraska to Colorado to a new life. The skin around her eye sockets was a clean pink and her face was nearly lineless except for a comb-like row of wrinkles on her upper lip that disappeared when she smiled. When recalling a high-heeled 1936 walk down New York City's Lexington Avenue, she touched her temple with her manicured fingertips, charging her memory. Mabel, a redhead who went by her confirmation name of Ann, had been pursuing an opera career in the city in 1936.
"I was simply walking down Lexington Avenue there," she said, "and looked up and saw it was St. Vincent Ferrer Church and I remember that my father once said that's where I was baptized." She never wondered why a girl from Colorado Springs, Colorado, would be baptized in New York, New York, because, "Well, I was brought up to never ask questions."
At age twenty-seven, she entered the church to start asking questions. When the priest returned from looking for Ann's baptismal certificate, he told her, "We have no record of you," and directed her to the New York Foundling Hospital two blocks away.
"Oh yes, you were here," the sister at the Foundling Hospital said. Ann Harrison was born Mabel Cohen to an unmarried Jennie Rubin, a nineteen-year-old Russian immigrant, and Moe Cohen, twenty-one, of 604 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. They delivered her into the care of the New York Foundling Hospital when she was nine days old; she was one of ten children handed over that day. Her adoptive parents managed to keep the adoption a secret, as was common then. It would have been difficult to conceal Ann's adoption from her had they stayed in Colorado very long. But Ann's mother was battling tuberculosis, and the family kept migrating south to warmer and drier climates to subdue the symptoms. The disease consumed her mother when Ann was eleven. Her adoptive father would die two years after Ann discovered the truth about her adopted life. She never spoke to him about her walk down Lexington Avenue, however. She didn't feel she needed to.
"Afterwards, I looked at my reflection in a window of a store and said, 'Hmm, don't look any different,' and sort of just laughed about it." She laughed about it again, seventy-two years later, and the comb-ish row of wrinkles stretched into absence. At her last count, Ann personally knew of two other surviving orphan train riders—the historical ancestors of today's international adoptees in America.
Charles Loring Brace's actions, which gave New York's struggling street children a new chance at survival, personified a theory that Charles Darwin was brewing at the exact same time an ocean away. In his On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, Darwin wrote,
Owing to this struggle for life, any variation, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species, in its infinitely complex relations to other organic beings and to external nature, will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring. The offspring, also, will thus have a better chance of surviving, for, of the many individuals of any species which are periodically born, but a small number can survive. I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection, in order to mark its relation to man's power of selection.
Excerpted from My Family, A Symphony by Aaron Eske. Copyright © 2010 Aaron Eske. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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