April 21, 2019

It was an emotional evening for me watching the movie, “I Am Somebody’s Child:  The Regina Louise Story” about one black girl who suffered through 30 foster homes and years in a psych ward before the age of 18.  By the power vested in authorities, she was denied the right to be adopted by a social worker who loved her.  Why?  Because the social worker was white, and Regina Louise was black.

How could I not be brought back emotionally to my early 20s as a social worker for foster children in the care of the state of Massachusetts?  I had also loved a mixed racial toddler who I was determined to adopt if I could not find a permanent family for him.  In those days when babies were preferred, 3 years old was “over the hill” for adoption, especially when there were so few black or mixed families adopting children.

I did in fact manage to place him in a foster family with a white mother and a black father who, after 4 years, would be allowed to adopt him.  Although I moved away before that time, I kept in touch with the mother until she confirmed that the 4 years had passed and he would be legally adopted.  Whew!  He would not have to suffer through the all too often string of foster homes that foster children, like Regina, had to endure.  I finally was able to say goodbye, and wished the family well.

But I never forgot that beautiful toddler who captured my heart.  So, a few years later, when it came time to become parents,  my husband and I applied to adopt what was then called a “hard to place” child.  We did not specifically request a mixed black child, but these were the majority of the children who were lingering long waiting for an adoptive home.

The quirk of timing put us into a very small window of opportunity when California began transracial adoptions — mostly white families adopting black and mixed black children.  We quickly became parents of a beautiful honey colored 16 month old toddler of our own.

Not too long afterward, the black social workers of California fought transracial black/white adoptions and brought them to an abrupt end.  Why?  The black social workers said that white people were not capable of properly giving black children a black identity.   They compared  it to “genocide.”

Many years later, in yet another quirk of circumstance, I was living in a retirement community in California where I met a black social worker who had been one of the movers of bringing transracial adoptions to an end.  To this day, she insists that it was the right decision because white people are not capable of giving their black adopted children a sense of black identity.

For better or worse, the times and law did change so that transracial adoptions once again became possible.  And, already more than 40 when they found one another again, black Regina Louise was finally legally adopted by the white woman who had never stopped loving her.


May 8, 2015

It was not easy growing up with my mom.  She was not a happy person.  She found a lot of things to criticize in this world, especially her children.  When a child, I somehow grasped that I would never be able to please her.  So, I concentrated on just staying out of her angry way as much as I could.  As an adult, I felt grateful that my mother had inadvertently taught me a very important lesson — not to waste time and energy trying to be a people pleaser.

I fell in love at 13 with a 15 year old boy who made me feel beautiful, loved, and wanted.  Fortunately, my mother approved of him and became close friends with his mother.  Seven years later, she convinced us to get married at the end of my junior year in college rather than waiting until I graduated.  I followed a predictable path as the daughter she expected until, at 25, I told my parents that we had decided to adopt a child instead of having one the old-fashioned biological way.  Depriving them of a “real” grandchild was a severe blow, but the reality of their only grandson being a mixed black toddler was even harsher.  When I asked my mother why I had never known that they were racist against blacks, she admitted that she had known being racist was wrong and hadn’t wanted to pass that on to her children.

Confronted with a situation she couldn’t change, she and my dad made a sincere effort to be grandparents.  Ten years later, I deeply disappointed them when I made the very difficult decision to divorce.  My son chose to stay with his father because he was the more predictable parent.  Not truly knowing where my life would lead at that point, I accepted his decision.  The relationship with my mother continued to deteriorate until I was about to move to Israel as an immigrant.  She couldn’t bear the thought of no contact with me as I wandered the world, so our relationship slowly began to mend with phone calls and letters from exotic places.

My mother didn’t understand my attraction to then-third world China that brought me there time after time.  My parents came to China for their 50th wedding anniversary banquet with my Chinese students and friends.  During that visit, I saw my mother as she had never been before.  She was laughing, happy, oblivious to all the many discomforts of riding overcrowded trains with the wafting odor of urine, bumping along a village road on a tractor to get to my friend’s home, and sleeping on beds without mattresses.  My students instantly fell in love with her, and she with them.  They could never have believed that she was the same grumpy, always complaining woman who had been my mother.  She said it was the best trip of her life.

Years into my own adulthood, I was able to see my mother more clearly.  Her yelling rants and raves were like a child’s temper tantrums.  And the person she was unhappiest with wasn’t me, but herself.  She had been a very bright young woman who graduated Portia Law School at a time when few women even thought of it.  She had her first job working in a law office when World War II interrupted.  She loved my father enough to quit her job, follow him to an army base in Tampa, Florida, where they got  married and he awaited being shipped out to the European front.  Naive about birth control, she became a mother 13 months later.  She never worked again.

When she died, I found a large carton of all my letters to her and my dad carefully laid out chronologically.  On top of the pile was an advertisement for a vanity press.  She had passed on her love of reading and writing to me, and I eventually published two books, “Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird,” and “Out of Step:  A Diary To My Dead Son.”  I am now working on a third book — philosophical science fiction — that I’m sure she would love to discuss with me.

As I pack my suitcase to go back to Boston for my 50th Reunion at Simmons College, I remember something my mother told me after she returned from her reunion.  When asked by a classmate what she had been doing all those years, she had replied, “I have been strictly ornamental.”

I may have been the one who chose my own path in life, to go where wanderlust led me, to indulge in the joy of a multi-faceted, multi-cultural life, to be an independent woman, but I suspect my mother and her unfulfilled life subtly pushed me along that path.

Thanks, Mom.




May 11, 2014

I never met my son’s mother.  But I know a few things about her.  We look very different.  She is tall and slender whereas I am neither.  She has at least 4 other children.  I hope her  Mother’s Day brings them knocking on her door with the grandchildren.

I don’t know whether or not she is still married, but her husband is not the father of our son.  She was white, and he was black.  Their relationship was brief during a time when she separated from her husband.  Her husband was willing to take her back with their four children, but not our son.  She had been raised Catholic, and her priest advised her to give up the brown baby and reconcile with her husband.

I know one more fact about my son’s mother.  She had been adopted.  Since she agreed to give up our son, I can hopefully assume that her adoption had been a good one with loving parents.  She gave him up from birth.  Did she ever see him?  Did she ever touch him?  Was she glad she gave him up?  Did she ever regret giving him up?  Would she have seen things in our son as he grew up that reminded her of herself or his father?  I can only imagine.

Giving up a child must be a heartrending experience that continues through the rest of one’s life.  Although our son once mentioned wanting to find his half-siblings, he never expressed any interest in finding her, his birth mother.  She had had her chance to be his mother, and had chosen not to be.

Since I know so little about his mother, I must imagine the rest.  Does she think about him on Mother’s Day, or any other day of the year?  Does she wonder what he looks like in middle-age?  Does she ever think about what career he chose?   Would she be surprised to know that he was gay?  Do his half-siblings ever wonder about him? What would she have thought about the kind of mother I was?  Did she ever try to find him?

I am sad that she never knew him as he grew up handsome and strong, and made his choices in the world.  I am glad she can continue whatever fantasy she has woven in her mind about him.  But I am the mother who is all too aware that our son’s ashes have been resting heavily in a container on my closet shelf for over a decade.

He had been too dead for 8 years!  Was there any way to repair their damaged relationship now?  His mother longed to make him come more alive to her.  But how?

She begins a diary to her dead son.  There were so many unsaid, unfinished conversations to be had.  Although most of their relationship ended by the time he was 12, she tries to think of him as an adult, and tell him more of who she has become.  She wants to tell him about her life after the divorce that he hadn’t wanted to hear about.  She talks to him as she might if he were still alive, telling him what’s happening in the world, and attempting to understand him better.  Slowly, subtly, she feels a shift in her emotions.

It is a diary that weaves interracial adoption in the 1970s, divorce, guilt and abandonment, homosexuality, HIV-AIDS, one mother-son relationship, dying and grieving much as it happened.

OUT OF STEP:  A DIARY TO MY DEAD SON is now available as an e-book.

October 9, 2012

I sent a birthday card to my granddaughter.  The envelope said that extra postage was required in the U.S.  Since it was not an odd shape or large, I couldn’t understand why extra postage would be needed.  I put on one first class stamp.  It came back to me saying more postage was needed.  So, I asked the postman why.  He didn’t know why, but thought that the fact that the envelope had told me from the beginning that extra postage was needed was explanation enough.  I re-sent it in another envelope that was larger, but not too large.  However, the “why” of it kept bothering me.  What I finally decided was that the envelope required more money because it was neither too large, nor too odd-shaped, but was smaller than standard.

Life, in general, emphasizes that what is standard rules.  Go outside of standard at your own risk.  And yet that is what I have done many times in my own life.  What is not standard became more or less my standard.  At a time when it was odd, I got married in my senior year of college instead of after graduation.  I was moved by the logic of Zero Population Growth and my experience as a social worker with foster children to choose adoption over creating a baby.  In the short-lived experiment in the 1970s of allowing white parents to adopt black foster children, we became a mixed-racial family.  A decade later, Meryl Streep as Mrs. Cramer in the groundbreaking movie, “Cramer vs. Cramer,” and I were among the very small minority of  American women who divorced and left their children with their fathers.

I certainly didn’t match the average world traveler that wandered the planet for almost two decades.  I was solidly middle-aged and rather poor with a pack on my back when I made my own challenges and learned how to face them within a variety of cultures, especially in Asia.  I wasn’t an explorer who discovered places for the first time (although I was the first foreigner that some Chinese villagers had ever seen), but neither was I  following well-trodden paths.  I learned that I could avoid crowds by not following the crowd.  In my own style, I thrived even in cultures where following the standard way was considered the only, the most important, the best way to live.

Now I live in a retirement community.  I buck the tide by not making medical care my major concern.  I don’t take the standard medications and standard tests that the majority of seniors take.  And I get my 8 hours of sleep at a very non-standard time.

Yes, there are risks.  And there are losses that accompany not adhering to the standard.  I don’t have enough money to be considered eccentric.  And I’m not quite strange enough to be considered crazy.  I am, well, odd.

I feel a certain kinship to people like Izhar Gafni of Israel who has invented a 95% cardboard and 100% recyclable bicycle.  People told him it couldn’t be done.  It is cheap.  It is light.  It is practical.  It is odd.  But it works well.

Comments?? E-mail Suellen at ZimaTravels.com

I was 14 when Elizabeth and Hazel were 15 years old.  I lived in Massachusetts and they lived in Little Rock, Arkansas.  But just about everyone in the U.S. got to know Elizabeth and Hazel through a black and white photo by Will Counts that became iconic.  Little Rock was being forced by the federal government to integrate Central High School in 1957.  Nine selected black students tried to go to school that day.

The photo branded Elizabeth and Hazel — black Elizabeth as stoic and strong, white Hazel as the ugly personification of racial hatred.   It was a shameful day in American history that has not been forgotten even 50 years later.  The National Guard prevented the nine black students from attending school that day, but Elizabeth’s camera-caught “mix of hesitancy and resolve”  lasted a lifetime.

Elizabeth had wanted the advantages of a white high school over a black high school.  In reality, along with the other eight black students, that year was mostly a nightmare of being subjected to daily humiliations dealt by their white classmates.  There were a few exceptions to that, but far too few.  Hazel, although not identified by name in the photo, didn’t return to Central.  After suffering through a year, Elizabeth dropped out.

A newly published book by David Margolik, “Elizabeth and Hazel:  Two Women of Little Rock,” documents the rest of the story of these two women about to enter their 70s.  Their stories follow lives that diverged and intersected.  Elizabeth fought depression and suicidal thoughts.  Hazel could not forget the image of her face contorted in rage and hatred in that picture.  About five years later, after having married young and having a couple of children, Hazel called Elizabeth and apologized.  She then embarked on a “life of self-discovery and activism, much of it in the black community.”  She atoned for her prejudice any way she could.

In 1997, Hazel reached out to Elizabeth again.  As they drew closer and became friends and confidantes, they provided a much needed “source of hope and inspiration to a community intent on moving beyond its troubled history.”  They posed for newspaper pictures, made joint speaking engagements, and enrolled in a seminar on racial healing.  Even Oprah invited them to appear together on her tv show.  Elizabeth gained strength from her relationship with Hazel, got a job she loved, and set her life on a smoother course.

Far from being forgotten, the Little Rock nine were often honored.  There were many news stories about them, especially on anniversaries of that 1957 attempt at desegregation.  One of Elizabeth’s proudest moments in 1998 was hugging President Clinton after he presented her (and the other eight) with the Congressional Medal of Honor.

After a few years, in little ways, Elizabeth began to sour on reconciliation with Hazel.  By 2000, “quietly, unceremoniously, their great experiment in racial rapprochement was over.”  And herein lies the crux of the story.  “As Margolick charts the labyrinthine turns of this complex relationship, and acknowledges the pain that persists between the two women, the fissures and misunderstandings that continue to divide the races are laid bare.”

I didn’t learn that my parents were prejudiced until my husband and I adopted a black child.  When I asked my mother why I hadn’t known she was prejudiced, she said, “Because I knew it was wrong and I didn’t want to pass it on to you and your brother.”  When black speakers came to talk to our group of white parents who had adopted black children, almost all of them tried to convince us that, as whites, we had to face the fact that we were prejudiced against our black children.  And, in the mid-70s, black social workers in California stopped trans-racial adoptions dead.  They said that white people were not capable of raising black children.

It’s very complicated.

Comments?? E-mail Suellen at ZimaTravels.com

When we adopted a mixed black toddler in 1970, we attracted very little attention. New trends in the U.S. move from west to east, so the number of black/white transracial adoptions didn’t have much time to grow before black social workers stopped such adoptions dead in 1972, claiming that white parents could not adequately prepare a black child for life in America. There the matter lay for years during the intense era of black power and civil rights.
Between then and now, adoptions of black children by white parents resumed, and international adoptions hopped, skipped, and jumped all over the world, bringing children from Korea, China, Russia, Haiti, and just about everywhere else to waiting white arms in America. Many transracially adopted kids grew up. The high media attention to Sandra Bullock’s adoption of a New Orleans black baby has intensified the conversation once again about transracial adoption.
In the 1970s, there were heated debates in multicultural circles about whether it was better for all cultures in America to merge into a tasty soup, or maintain certain characteristics as in a stew where a carrot remains identifiably a carrot, a potato stays a potato, etc. Which was better for America? For the individual? For the ethnic group?
I was in my mid-20s working as a foster care social worker when I was influenced by the tragic plight of foster children. I was also touched by the dire predictions of Zero Population Growth. So, I told my husband I wanted to adopt a child that already existed and needed a home rather than have a biological child. He agreed, and we applied for a “hard to place” child.
We were told that black/white mixed “older” children (then meaning past infancy) were the largest category needing parents. Could we accept a mixed black child?
We had no problem saying “yes” even though my only personal knowledge of blacks had come from innocently walking into an all-black ghetto to tutor when I was a college student. My relationship with my student and her family lasted several years.
Within three months of applying, we had our very own honey-colored toddler. Our parents didn’t share our enthusiasm. This surprised me since I had grown up without any inkling that my parents were prejudiced against blacks. When I asked my mother why I hadn’t suspected, she sighed and answered, “I knew it was wrong to be prejudiced, so I didn’t want to pass it on to you and your brother.” But, faced with our actual beautiful son, my parents did try to be loving grandparents.
Our little family joined F.A.I.R. (Families Adopting Inter-Racially) where we could simply be mixed families (almost all of them had several biological white kids too) with black, Mexican, American Indian, Korean, and later Black Vietnamese kids. Besides just having fun with our kids, we white adults were instructed on how to, for example, take care of kinky hair and ashy skin. Some speakers sought to assure us that ALL whites had prejudice to some degree and we had to face our prejudices. I particularly remember one woman who made an eloquent plea that the mixed racial children were neither black nor white, but represented their own race.
I looked, and found, creative ways to educate myself about Black American culture. Time passed. The children grew. The slowdown in transracial adoptions made sure our F.A.I.R. group remained small and unique in American society. Mixed marriages became more prevalent and acceptable in American society at the same time that our generation divorced one another in large numbers. Most of the original parents in our small, unusual group got divorced. My husband and I were among them.
Research studies I’ve read say that transracial adoptions are generally as “successful” as same race adoptions. That said, there are still gut-wrenching, very disturbing books about how international adoptees particularly agonize over identity issues. Some go back to their original homelands to search out answers and compromises to help them find a place to fit in.
Black kids from the U.S. adopted by white parents don’t have any other country to go to. Their life experiences have most likely been influenced to the degree that they have had to face society’s prejudices. For example, my friend’s biological mixed black child had to choose white or black on a license application in the state where he lived. He asked the clerk, “Which parent do I deny? My white mother or my black father?”
And which box would an adopted mixed black child with white parents check?

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