The morning after I met my birth family for the first time, my phone sang out series of notifications. My new Aunt Linda, who had squeezed my shoulders yesterday and told me that I’d never be without family again, had initiated a group text thread. Welcome to the family! So excited to meet you! You are a miracle! They were all there: My mom, my Uncle Frankie, Aunt Laura, Cousin Diana (not to be confused with Aunt Diana). My hands skidded across the keypad to save them to my contacts before they disappeared. Until today, that was the only kind of family I knew: the kind that went missing.
As a young girl, I had been buckled into the passenger’s seat of my mother’s Buick when she pressed the gas pedal to the floor and ran over my father. His hands gripped the windshield wipers until she hit the brakes, propelling him into a cluster of bushes. When I rushed out of the car to help him, he stood up as if nothing happened and wiped the tears from my face. I’m okay, Munchkin, he said and smiled, not at me, but at my mother. In that moment, I knew that theirs was a dangerous kind of love, a pattern I’d see repeated with other family members throughout my life.
The fact that I had come from another set of parents wasn’t shocking to me. Still, I loved my adoptive parents. So I tried to learn their ways, commit their foreign language of living to memory. But my words always came out broken, and I lost every battle.
For years, I wondered what my birth parents looked like, what their passions and life experiences were. I imagined that my mother was audacious and creative while my father worked with his hands and had kind eyes. I began searching in my early 20s, but with my birth records sealed and little information provided by my adoptive parents, finding my birth parents was like trying to wrap my arms around a cloud. I pressed on with the help of a close friend who became my search angel. For 18 years, we built online family trees, read hundreds of birth records and obituaries, and pored through thousands of social media profile pages for clues that would hopefully lead us to my mother.
Our shared DNA is what ultimately connected me to my Aunt Diana, who had sent a sample of hers away to learn more about her family’s ancestral roots. In her matches, I was a surprise, a secret my mother didn’t share with any of her seven brothers and sisters until later in life. Many of them live less than two hours from my hometown, but our lives never intersected until last July. I learned that my mother had named me Willow while I was growing in her womb — and that giving me up wasn’t easy for her, but felt like the best thing to do for me at the time.
When I met my mom, my aunts, and my uncles, and they touched my face in disbelief, I knew that these were my people — but they were also strangers. As an adult, how would I renegotiate my identity and find my place with new family? What if, after all these years of searching, I failed at connecting with them?
Six months later, I packed my suitcases, filled with gifts and trepidation, to celebrate my very first Christmas with the Mayo family — my birth family. But it wasn’t just the gifts I would show up with that concerned me; I was also afraid of how they’d perceive me. Was I interesting and kind enough? Funny and loud — but not too loud? I had to make sure it was clear I was like them — so that they would want to keep me.
On Christmas Eve, we gathered at my Uncle Roland’s house; he gave me a pink rose he had purchased on his way home from work. I held it like a child and thought of what book I’d press it in to save it forever. After dessert, we sang John Lennon’s “So This is Christmas (War is Over)” and “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac accompanied by an acoustic guitar played by a family member. The night was beautifully uncomplicated and joyful. My uncle held my hands in his and said it broke his heart to think of all the time we’ve been separated. I fought back the fear that one day soon, my newness would fade and I wouldn’t be so special anymore.
The next morning, I heard two of my aunts giggling in kitchen the way I imagined they often did growing up together. I had woken up with a full-blown flu and could barely lift my head off the pillow. But my family brought me tea and blankets and elixirs and told me to rest. There was no rush, no expectations, no emergency. As my fever swelled, my anxiety began to dissipate. I didn’t need to learn how to be a different kind of daughter, niece or cousin; I just had to trust that they loved me as I am. I once read that fog is responsible for the invention of the compass, a reminder that challenges help us see and create in new ways. My challenge was to have faith, to see through the fog, the way my grandfather must have done as a merchant marine. Now, I wear the compass necklace my Aunt Laura gave me as a reminder to trust my innate ability to guide myself in the right direction.
Back in Los Angeles, clear across the country from the blue eyes that look like mine, I am sounding out my consonants and vowels, slow to return texts and phone calls, unsure of how to begin conversations. But my new family assures me that this is okay. I am learning that building relationships with your family takes time, as does maintaining them. Even apart, and sometimes without words, I have arrived safely at home.
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