On Cousins and Quetzals

21 Oct

Photograph by Steve Winter, National Geographic

Children need a sense of community.  They need to feel a part of something far beyond themselves.   So do I really, if I’m being honest.  I’ve known this forever.  It’s why I work in non-profits, and it’s why I write.

My partner and I and our closest friends have been very intentional about building community for our children.  They have a web of cousins and aunties we celebrate holidays with, schedule play dates with and trips, people we call with the biggest news in our lives.

Just this past week, we celebrated the first birthday of Mr. One-derful, the newest addition to our little enclave.  He was born last year while the rest of us were picking apples.  At his birthday party, he ate cake for the first time. He didn’t seem certain at first it was real, it was his, it was for eating, he could have  more.  Amazing!  Cake?  Cake.  For me?  Cake!  How lucky we were to witness this moment, this First Sweet. So many cameras flashed.  Dazzling.  Delicious.  Our boy is one!  I felt a sense of pride.  He is, of course, his mothers’ son – but he is ours, too, and this is amazing, when you consider all four of his grandparents, and an uncle, an aunt, numerous aunties and cousins were all in the room feeling proud.

Family pride comes in all shapes and sizes.

A friend of my daughter’s approached me last week after school, to ask if my daughter and her schoolmate were cousins.  He knows they both have lesbian moms and this has never caused him concern, but he’s pretty sure none of the grownups are sisters, so the cousin thing didn’t make any sense.  While I empathized with his predicament, I had my girls to look out for, too.  “Yes, they are cousins,” I told him. My niece grinned at him broadly, triumphantly perhaps, and my daughter lifted her head briefly to meet her cousin’s eyes, then smiled into the blacktop beneath her feet.

Being cousins is important to our kids, and we’ve never differentiated between these cousins and the cousins in our lives through families defined by our parents  and siblings.  “It’s complicated,” I said to the girls when their friend had stepped away, “explaining how we define family.”  “It is,” my young niece agreed,  but it didn’t seem to bother her. She knows what is and what is not.

But this isn’t the only community our kids need – this community we have created for them, and for ourselves.  They need family.  They need history.  They need ancestors.  They need to see where they belong.

I know for my daughter, what we’ve created is only part of what she needs.

Lately, she has expressed a deep sadness that she doesn’t look like anyone else in her life – not only anyone in her family, but also in her classroom, in  our neighborhood, or in her school.  It isn’t that she doesn’t interact with brown people – she has aunties and peers of many shades – but none of them share her ancestry, or her particular shade of brown, her beautiful bold eyes, her full lips.  She read a bedtime story tonight by Leslea Newman, about a girl born in Guatemala adopted by lesbian moms in the U.S.  She read it over and over again.  “I have black silky hair,” she said, after these words in the book were used to describe the young girl, “and I have big brown eyes!”

Then she asks, “Why do we have to spell my name the Spanish way?”

“Because you’ve had it since you were born and we wanted you to keep it forever,” I tell her.

I have conversations in my head with her, sometimes for years, where I work out what I want to say on complicated topics.  AdoptionQueer families.   Same-sex marriage.  World peace.  Guatemala.   Birthparents.  Poverty.  Some of it sticks, and I get to say in the real world the words I’ve carefully chosen.  Some of it does not, and I’m left fumbling.

We are planning a trip to Guatemala next summer.  Some of the grandparents may come.  It isn’t enough, but it’s a start.  This may give her what she needs.  Or maybe it won’t.  I don’t know.  I can’t know.  But we have to go.  At the very least, we will witness together a beautiful land, a homeland I’m confident she’ll someday be proud of.

I’ve already begun practicing what I might say.  Something about cousins, I think.  Something about poverty and impossible choices.  Something about quetzals.  Maybe I’ll start with quetzals.


2 Responses to “On Cousins and Quetzals”

  1. Beth P November 4, 2011 at 10:10 am #

    I’m catching up…and I love this post. I needed the part about community this morning.

    • rrp69 November 4, 2011 at 11:21 am #

      We all need the part about community, don’t we? Every morning. Thank you for being part of mine. Hugs to you and the family.

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