Our African Mother
I was raised
in the great state of Wisconsin in a Scot-Irish-German family that didn’t do hugs. Every emotion was delivered verbally. As such, I can recall moments of great love and great pain, but always in the form of words. I lived this existence until the age of 20, when I met the love of my life who’s still my wife—28 years later.
The hug that changed everything for me was delivered on June 22, 1982. There was my life before that moment and my life since. I will never go back.
I was living in Madison, Wisconsin, following my sophomore year in college there. I had a job cooking pizza at the university’s premier Italian restaurant, called Paisan’s. After 20 years of pretty much always sleeping with somebody else in the room (I was the sixth of seven brothers), I suddenly found myself living—and sleeping—alone for the first time in my life in an efficiency sublet from my brother James.
I was beyond free in this arrangement: traveling by Sear’s Free Spirit 10-speed, I worked monster hours, partied to no end, and actively plotted to seduce women in my newfound man cave. It was my personal summer of love.
Then I met Vonne, an oddly personable waitress at Paisan’s. She was this gorgeous work of art, with a mind so nimble that I eventually cleaned up my act simply to keep up with her. She was intense. A lot of cooks at the restaurant fantasized about her but nobody—including me—could figure how to approach her. In the end, she approached me.
I was sitting in a circle with friends at my sister Maggie’s legendary annual birthday bash in mid-June. It was the quiet time after midnight but before the cops showed up, and we were talking movies. Vonne was on the far side but actively sought out my opinions. Later, she asked me to walk her to her bike. On the way there, I realized I could easily marry her.
A week later I summoned up the courage to do something I had never actually done before—successfully. I asked her out on a date. We saw “Blade Runner” on our mutual day off, and then spent that evening riding around Madtown, she on her racey Motebecane and me on my Free Spirit, struggling to keep pace. We made it to my lair around midnight, and I figured I was in like Flynn.
Instead, we sat on my bed and talked all night. I realized what I was getting into: she wanted the whole shebang but just didn’t know how to ask for it because life hadn’t led her to believe it was possible, especially with someone of my respectful—when it comes to women, that is—demeanor.
At dawn Vonne said she needed to head to her place to catch some zzz’s before her shift. I walked Vonne out to her chained bike, and after I pulled off the lock, she suddenly grabbed me and gave me the most intense, heartfelt, soul-transmitting embrace of my life. I can still recall it in all its heart-pounding glory, it was so shocking in its openness, its longing, and its strength. I had nothing to say in reply—a first for this Mad’s-snappy-answers-to-stupid-questions maestro. I just watched Vonne ride off, knowing in my heart that I would love her forever.
I have never felt that crushing emotion since. I’ve been happily married to Vonne since 1986, fortunate to have married the person I respect most on this planet, so don’t get me wrong: I don’t recall the moment as an instance of lost youth or anything like that. It was my own personal “great awakening,” and I’ve been a committed evonnegelical ever since.
So it wasn’t just that I never expected to experience something like that ever again; I simply didn’t want to. That saddened me some, because there’s nothing like falling in love for the first time. Hell, it’s why I’ll watch every and any romantic comedy ever made. We all want to go back to that virginal moment of glorious revelation, to which nothing in this world compares.
fifty pounds and an emerging bald spot later, I’ve finally repeated the experienced with a small, thin and incredibly beautiful farm widow from southern Ethiopia, 18 years my junior. It’s not a midlife crisis and it’s not a pathetic reach for past glory.
Instead, it’s the collision of tragedy and hope that is an international, transracial adoption. This widowed farm mother of four has put up her two younger children, girls aged 3 and 4, for adoption by American families through a local orphanage. Three years after her second husband died from pneumonia just weeks following the birth of her youngest child, this 30-year-old has decided they deserve a better life than she can provide them, given the reality of competing responsibilities (the older kids by a previous husband) and enduring hardship (managing her small hardscrabble farm of banana trees and corn fields). She’s not looking to marry again; she simply wants them to have more opportunity than she did—and to find those opportunities in America.
Vonne and I had three “biologicals” (Emily, 18, Kevin, 15, and Jerome, 10) before adopting Vonne Mei Ling Barnett from the interior of rural China in 2004. Having grown up in a farm town myself, whereas Vonne grew up on a working farm in Ohio, we felt a natural kinship with this small-village babe of a mere nine months.
But our little brown-eyed girl was an anomaly in our white-on-white family, and so we sought, in this allegedly “post-American world,” to make our tribe truly post-Caucasian—a perfectly American quest.
Ruled out from returning to China for a host of unchangeable reasons, we tried Taiwan (too corrupt), Kyrgyzstan (too unstable) and Kazakhstan (too many fetal-alcohol Russians) before finally realizing that our long-imagined ace-in-the-hole, Ethiopia, had silently risen to the top of the pile. Many American families with Chinese adoptees had already turned in this direction, much like the Middle Kingdom itself is now “invading” Africa with all manner of immigrants, investments and long-term commodity contracts.
As an expert on globalization, the idea of pulling this trigger was highly appealing: in this era, China is globalization’s primary engine and Africa is its emerging target of intense integration. What better way to experience this world-transforming phenomenon than to raise glorious daughters of both great civilizations?
And so we applied yet again, submitting our fingerprints and background checks and home visits by prying social workers. And we waited six months until those frightened eyes stared back at us from the photo, holding their names written in a foreign tongue.
Bob-tailed Metsewat and shaved-skull Abebu, estimated at four and three years of age, respectively, had been offered to an American family who had requested one or more pre-school children. When presented with the reality of sibling girls, the parents realized they couldn’t handle the full scope of the challenge and passed.
Next in line, we got the call in late March, at around 5pm. Minutes later the email arrived with the photo. We saw the tension and anxiety in the girls’ faces. They were mere hours past being dropped off by their loving but heartsick mother, and suddenly found themselves among strangers in a major city.
We decided yes two hours later, but waited 48 hours until the formal medical review by an international adoption specialist working remotely out of Seattle came through. After 60 minutes with him on the phone, we called our agency, WACAP (World Association for Children and Parents), and accepted the referral.
Approximately two months later
Vonne and I are sitting in a reception room at the Ajuuja orphanage in the city of Awassa, capital of Ethiopia’s southern-most Sidamo region—famous solely for its coffee exports. After brief remarks in English by the trilingual director, I spot a beaming Metsewat ambling around the corner of the walled-in courtyard, looking expectantly for her “white mother and father,” as she subsequently described us to her birth mom. Minutes later my youngest child, fuzzy-headed Abebu, is sitting on the floor with me, playing catch with a rubber ball.
But we are not yet the parents of six. We have traveled the many hours south by vehicle to meet the girls, but still need to return to Addis Ababa for the court adoption proceedings three days later. Thanks to new rules, we are the first adopting parents to be required to meet the children prior to the hearing and to attend the hearing in person. Amazingly enough, previous adopting parents had the option of skipping the court date and arriving weeks later for the follow-on US embassy immigrant visa drill, having already been made the child’s (or children’s) legal parents in abstentia. Due to the cost of two somewhat lengthy stays (not to mention all those airfares), most adopting parents previously took the irreversible plunge without ever laying eyes on their new children.
Vonne and I had welcomed the rule change, because we were going to show up for the court date anyway, figuring it was the best possibility of meeting the birth mother—however emotionally charged that moment might be. Since grandparents were helping out, the new rules justified the extra costs involved—not that grandmas are especially tough when prospective granddaughters are involved.
So, bidding our new daughters good-bye, we headed back to Addis and prepared for court. Given preview of likely questions to be posed by the judge, Vonne and I wrote out our answers on stick-em notes and committed them to memory. Having done this previously, both in Chinese and American courts, we knew emotions would run high and we didn’t want to stammer or seem hesitant in our declarations. As far as we were concerned, the occasion could not have been more solemn, especially with birth relatives in the room alongside us.
We had little expectation that the mother would appear. Typically, an older adult relative—a grandfather or uncle—does the deed, especially when great distances are involved. But we were wrong in this instance.
It's a cool, cloudy morning
on 30 June 2010 and I’m sitting in the off-white waiting room of the Addis district family court, located on the third floor of a non-descript government office building. Vonne is beside me and we’re both wearing black. Somebody’s dreams are dying today, and we aim to respect that.
My elbows on my knees, I’m hunched over studying my stick-em notes, slightly annoyed by a fellow adoptive parent’s nervous chatter. I glance up at Vonne sitting erect beside me, and notice the tears welling up in her eyes. I’m about to say something rude about that chattering mom when a sudden chill runs up my spine and I straighten up instinctively. Vonne knows the birth mother is in the room.
I slowly and surreptitiously scan the square room’s walls, going over the couple of dozen black faces attached to lined chairs. As my gaze terminates on my hard right, I realize she’s maybe 36 inches to my kitty-corner, sitting alongside a slightly older woman and man. I wonder, are these her relatives or other birth parents in the same boat?.
I steal a quick glance at the young woman and immediately recognize her from the stunning photo presented to us by the Ajuuja orphanage director two days earlier. She is as strikingly beautiful as her daughters, though I need to see her smile for complete confirmation.
But naturally, none is forthcoming. Arms and legs crossed, she looks tense and coiled and ready to get this painful event over.
I am humbled by her choice of sacrifice, and go back to staring at my shoes, unsure what to do next.
But long-range planner that I am, I quickly imagine my adult African daughters begging me with all earnestness to divulge any memory I can muster of their birth mother, whom I may never see again once she leaves this room. I can plan for otherwise but I can assume nothing.
And so my inner journalist kicks in. I know what to do because I’ve been in these rooms before. You record everything: every sound, every smell, every color, every everything. I turn over my stick-em notes and begin scribbling every impression and detail I can assemble. When they’re full, I pull out some blank envelopes from my backpack, and when the outside flaps are covered in words, I split them open and do the same with their interiors. I pursue this effort for 30 minutes, stealing sideways glances at her now and then, grasping for the atmospherics surrounding her emotional turmoil—and my own.
At 1015 a.m., a stern woman emerges from the judge’s chambers and announces, “Ajuuja.”
Our birth mother is up like a shot and strides hurriedly into the room, only to be immediately escorted out by the court official. It’s not yet her time. Our eyes lock as she passes by en route to her corner seat.
After the first of three American couples exits into the judge’s chambers, our birth mom realizes that one of the two remaining couples will come to represent her hopes for a better life for her girls. I can feel her gaze shifting back and forth like a laser beam.
Five minutes later the first couple emerges and the second couple is beckoned to enter. I slowly turn to face the mother and see the look of recognition in her eyes.
Now we’re both staring at our feet.
Five minutes more and we three are called in, with our various legal and procedural handlers. Vonne and I sit to the judge’s right, and the birth mother sits opposite the simple desk that serves as judicial bench. All eyes are on the judge, who is out of central casting. A tall, imperious-looking Muslim woman, she is covered from head to toe in black robes, with only her face and hands showing. She is quite beautiful, as well as intimidating in the way that only judges can be.
Papers are shuffled and the judge looks up with all seriousness to begin questioning the birth mother, who speaks Sidamo but not Amharic, so the Ajuuja orphanage director translates.
It’s all Greek to Vonne and I, but the questions are easy enough to guess. The first ones are short, and fall into the category of “Do you understand that this proceeding is . . .?”
The mother answers in mono-syllables, looking the judge in the eye but seeing only her daughters’ future.
The judge’s questions grow longer, and the mother’s answers expand in complexity. After a total of ten or so queries, the exchange is finished and the judge turns to Vonne and I in concise English.
“Can you supply your passports?"
“What are the ages of your current children?”
By previous agreement, Vonne answers with suitable precision, matching the judge’s calm and deliberate tone.
“Why are you adopting from Ethiopia?”
My turn, and I explain our desire that our Chinese daughter not remain an anomaly within our family. I also state that we had always planned to eventually come to Africa, because, as European-descent Americans with an Asian child, Africa was all that remained to complete our microcosm of the global village. The world now comes to Africa, and we want to be part of that process, helping where we can.
“What preparations have you made for a transracial adoption?”
Vonne describes our training, both mandated and self-directed.
“What have you told your children about this adoption, and how have they responded?”
We both answer, emphasizing our past experience with Vonne Mei and our kids welcoming spirit.
“What have you told your family and how have they responded?”
More of the same from us, noting that we already have African-American relatives.
I sense the judge’s questions are completed. As she prepares to make a signature, the judge turns with some surprise toward Vonne and asks, “Why are you crying?”
Vonne wipes her eyes and replies, “Because I am so very happy and”—turning to the birth mother and looking her straight in the face—“so very sad.”
Our newest relation stands up quickly and takes several steps toward Vonne, who matches her urgency step for step. They lock in fierce embrace in the middle of the room, gasping in short bursts as they shower each other’s neck in kisses.
For two minutes, the room responded with respectful silence.
I recognized the power
of Vonne’s hug immediately. What I didn’t anticipate was that, for the first time since that fateful June morning in 1982, I would feel that intense emotional release yet again, but this time from a wiry but strong Ethiopian farm widow in Addis Ababa.
And just like last time, when it was my turn to embrace our mother, I fell in love all over again—to my utter amazement. I entered that same place, where words have no meaning and love has no boundaries. In that flash, I felt my life divide yet again between “before” and “after.”
Our mother’s strength was such that she almost pulled me off balance. As I felt myself tip into her, only to have her stop my momentum with her feral grip, I was whatever she needed me to be. Our hearts now intertwined, her fears were now my own—her love our shared asset.
As I remained lost in our mother’s arms, Vonne turned to the judge, extending her hand with the words, "Thank you, your honor."
The judge, who later admitted to our WACAP handler that she was deeply moved by our collective show of emotion—for Ethiopians tend toward stoicism in all things, replied with utter conviction, “It is my honor.”
The next hour was a blur: constant physical contact, more hugs and embraces, an awkward elevator ride and a giddy stroll down the street. Then, over coffee, a heartfelt conversation of stunning openness: fears expressed, pain exposed, dreams revealed, promises made.
When our mother smiled, I could see everything that defined Metsewat and Abebu: the sweetness, the determination, the vast capacity for love. No boasting was required, nor frankly any translation; we gave our pledges through our hugs, our tears, and our kisses.
As we pulled away from the café around noon, I shot repeated photos through the van’s window of our mother’s wave, her smile, her absolute sense of relief and deliverance.
I have not been to get that hug out of my mind since. The experience is permanently fused into my circuitry—for only the second time in my life. I never dreamed I would ever repeat that sensation or that personal connection, but I will remain eternally grateful to that woman for letting me fall in love once more on this Earth.
And I will spend
the rest of my days paying her back for that privilege.