Where Are You From?

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This simple question is usually meant to start small talk or find out if you have something in common with a stranger, but for many adoptees, including myself, this question is anything but simple.

I grew up in Canada and being a part of a visible minority, it seemed as if people felt they had the right to question your family history. The summer after my first year in college, I was working at a convenience store in the small town that my family had just moved to.

“So, where ya from?” The unblunted words shot out from underneath a dirty baseball hat, as the customer dumped his wares on the counter. I slid the cigarettes and beef jerky over the scanner, praying that if I ignored the question maybe he would forget that he asked. He didn’t and tried another way. “So how many of you guys are there here?”

I didn’t take my eyes off the counter and politely said through a forced smile, “I moved here recently.” And I offered nothing more. He paused, clearly not satisfied with my answer. He then scooped up the cigarettes, shoved the beef jerky in his back pocket, and moved on with his life, the tiny shopkeeper’s bell signaling his departure.

 These instances were not frequent, but it was enough to make me feel on guard around strangers. When someone asked me that question, it didn’t feel like they were asking where I was born or where I grew up. They wanted to know who I was and where I belonged. And after while, after being asked so many times where you belong, you start to feel that you don’t.

Over the years, I’ve come up with some creative ways to answer the question because there is always a follow up question. When strangers find out I’m from Canada, they ask,“But where are you originally from?” And then their line of questioning leads to adoption, my siblings, my family, and if they are feeling really brave they will ask me if I’ve ever met my birth mother. Questions that I don’t feel like answering when I am making minimum wage selling lottery tickets and stale donuts.

At the end of that summer, I transferred down to a small college in Florida. Over the next few years, I finished my degree, met my husband, and started my teaching career. Moving to Florida has made things easier in many ways. I’m no longer a visible minority in my community, and most of the time I can enjoy a certain amount of anonymity.

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It took me awhile to get to this point, but I now know I don’t owe strangers an explanation for my accent, my complexion, or my last name. When I feel like telling “my story”, I do. I am not ashamed of who I am and where I am from, but there are days when I just want to “blend in” with everyone else. And the truth is, telling someone where I’m from is just one part of who I am. If you really want to know me, ask me where I’m going.

 

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Tell Me Your Story: Of a Full House

When the alarm sounds at 6:30 in the morning, Katie rolls over, rubs the sleep out of her eyes, and spends the next few minutes checking Facebook. Then she makes her way into the kitchen to make breakfast for her seven children. Yes, seven children.

Katie and Tony Gonzalez started their adoption journey by adopting through foster care. In 1999, they adopted a 15 month old little girl, and for over ten years, Gabby was an only child and took pleasure in being her parents’ “center of joy.”

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Gabby, Katie & Tony

Katie and Tony always wanted to have a big family, but were cautious about stepping back into the adoption process after Gabby. In 2010, through a “chance conversation”, they learned that three siblings  were in foster care and needed a permanent home. After a year of “forms, medical checks, background checks, and waiting,” Gabby became a big sister to Lydia, Will, and Madi on her 12th birthday. Although the transition from a family of three to a family of six was difficult, Katie is proud of her oldest daughter for showing tremendous maturity and adjusting to her new big family.

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Lydia

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Will

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Madi

 Three years after welcoming Lydia, Will, and Madi, Katie received an email from her agency. She was asked to reach out to first time parents in the process of adopting three siblings from foster care. The parents were “struggling badly and drowning in needs they had not expected.” Katie reached out to the struggling parents, but they made it clear that they were not ready to adopt. Katie felt in her gut that she and her husband were being called to provide a home for the siblings. She brought it up to Tony who was apprehensive. Where would everyone sleep? How would they transport all seven children? Would there be enough to go around?

There didn’t seem to be any easy answers, and even friends and family thought they were getting in over their heads and expressed their concerns. Katie and Tony were receptive and discussed the potential adoption with their families at length. And they prayed. Katie knew that if God was calling her to adopt, He would also walk by her side. Katie and Tony took a leap of faith, confident that things would work out. Today, the three children are living with the Gonzalez family waiting for their adoptions to be finalized.

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Tony, Katie, and their seven children.

Katie and Tony’s seven children range from ages 5 to 16. To keep sane, Katie created a family schedule that would impress a drill sergeant. During the week, she is part of a homeschool co-op and teaches several 10th grade subjects. The oldest four are also homeschooled, while the youngest three attend public school. After the youngest are picked up from school, there is snack time followed by at least an of hour play time. All of Katie’s children see a Play Therapist once a week, and her youngest have an additional session with a Behavioral Skills Therapist.

The family gathers for dinner at six, and everyone pitches in to help clean the kitchen. Bath time begins shortly after dinner, and bedtimes for the six little ones are staggered throughout the evening starting at 7:15 and ending at 9:00. Katie tries to fit in one on one time with Gabby and quiet time with her husband to dicuss their day and read the Bible. This is enough to make anyone’s head spin, but Katie also manages to find time to keep up a family blog.  Although things do not always go as planned, Katie says, “it is her morning prayer that she would have an organized day.”

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Tony, possibly taking a nap?

Katie knows there is a need to foster and adopt, and takes the opportunity to spread awareness whenever she can. On her blog, Katie explains that she once read that adoptive families are not God’s plan A, but His plan A was for the biological family to work. But what happens when Plan A is broken? or fails? Katie says, “Looking around at my messy house, hearing the children laugh and yell,…helping our children cry over wounds they are too young to consciously remember…Yes, I think I am OK with that. Remember this is all Plan B. Plan A was a garden. A garden where foster care, orphans, and pain didn’t exist.”

On any given day there is laundry to be folded, meals to be made, and dishes to be washed. There are also lesson plans, homework, karate, and  band practice. If anyone thinks what Katie and her husband are doing is impossible, they don’t seem the least bit deterred. The name of Katie’s blog is “Seeds of Hope”, and written on the header is Matthew 17:20:“ I tell you the truth, if you can have faith as small as a mustard seed…Nothing will be impossible for you.”

Bedtime Stories

One of my fondest memories growing up was storytime with my mother and younger sister because it was a ritual that brought us together at the end of the day. My mother would settle into the couch, one child on each side and open the book just enough so we would have to squeeze in a little closer to see the pictures. Once she opened the cover of Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, we were in another world.

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In the story, two sisters, Manyara and Nyasha are poor village girls raised by a single father. When it is announced that a young king wants a wife, Mufaro sends both of his daughters on the long journey to the city. On the way, both girls face a series of tests. Manyara reacts with coldness to a young boy who cries out for food. She also scorns the wisdom of an old woman who tells her to hold her tongue when she passes a laughing grove of trees. Finally, she ignores the woman’s advice to be polite to a disfigured old man.

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On her way to the king, Nyasha, the kinder sister, is confronted by the hungry boy and gives him something to eat. And unlike Manyara, she heeds the old woman’s advice and thanks her with a pouch of sunflower seeds. In true fairy tale tradition, Nyasha finally meets the king who reveals that he was the young boy, the old woman, and the disfigured man in disguise. King Nyoka has seen Nyasha’s kindness and inner beauty and asks her to be his wife. Because of her selfishness, Manyara must be content to live as a servant in the royal kingdom.

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As my mother read each page, her voice gave life to each of the characters, bringing us along for the journey. Each time we read the book, my sister and I held our breaths, hearts racing, as King Nyoka revealed himself to the worthy sister. In those moments before bedtime there was nothing else and no one else. It was the three of us caught under a spell. I think my sister and I loved that book so much because the characters looked like us. I remember tracing my fingers over the beautiful brown faces and the braided hair adorned with gold. I needed those few minutes at the end of the day to look in a mirror and affirm my worth. As a little black girl living in a mostly white world, I needed that story to be part of my own.

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I don’t know when we stopped reading the book or even when we stopped having storytime. In the years that followed, I remembered those moments and that book with a fierce tenderness. It reminded me of a time when life seemed so simple, and the problems of the day could be temporarily suspended. Today, my sister and I have carried on the ritual of storytime with our own daughters and sitting on both of our shelves is a copy of Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters.