ABANDONMENT Appreciating Juan and Crystel

Saturday morning on a Meet Up hike a woman told me, “Your kids are so lucky to have you.”

I told her, “Jody and I are infinitely richer with Juan and Crystel in our lives. We are a Family.” We talked about adoption and I told her about a book I’m reading, The PRIMAL WOUND Understanding the Adopted Child.

The premise of the book is the very moment a birth mother relinquishes her infant to a stranger there is a wound that an adopted child will never recover from. I believe this. How does a child reconcile with the fact that their birth mother gave them up?

She then told me her story. Her Chinese mother named her Peter. She would have aborted her if she knew that she was carrying a girl. Her mother tried to give her away many times. No one wanted a girl. She spent her life trying to prove to her mother that she was worth keeping. Her mother died of dementia, never believing in her daughter’s worth. She came to believe in her own worth. Peter changed her name to Jennifer.

When we first adopted Juan and Crystel, we acted instinctively to strengthen their connections to their birthplace and birth families. Their first return trip to Guatemala was when they were age 7, often called the age of reason. Riding horses through remote villages, eying cornstalk houses with plastic roofs, children bathing outside, dirt lawns, scrawny dogs, and laundry being done in a creek imprinted the unspoken reason for their mother’s abandonment.

Juan and Crystel met each of their birth mothers on our 2nd trip when they were 9. They were able to ask each mother, “Why did you give me up?”

We planned three more family trips when they were ages 11,13, and 15.

Jody and I encouraged Juan and Crystel, “Be proud of where you have come from. Be proud to be Guatemalan.”

I personally know the deep pain of primal wound. When I was 9, I told my mother about my brothers sexually abusing me and her reaction was to punish me. My biggest fear growing up in my family, if I complained again, that my mother would send me to a foster home. That would have killed me. It would have been proof that she didn’t want me. Instead, I stayed in our home and endured years of sexual abuse.

My family was all I had.

I had an abortion when I was 14. I had a baby less than a month after I turned 17. I didn’t say a word, wouldn’t even admit it to myself until later, that the pregnancies were the result of sexual abuse in my family.

The primal wound is real. It’s what adopted kids and adopted adults live with. How do you reconcile being abandoned by your birth mother?

You don’t. You live with it.

I told Juan and Crystel I was reading The PRIMAL WOUND Understanding the Adopted Child. “I’m thinking of buying you the book. I can see you in the pages,” I said. I could also see myself and anyone who has lost their mother through death, neglect, or abandonment. They both immediately responded, “No, that’s alright.”

At lunch with Crystel the other day, I told her the premise of the book was that there is a wound from the moment that a birth mother gave their child up for adoption. A wound that is not resolved. “That’s about right,” she said.

Even though the kids don’t want their own book, I can talk with them, and recognize the pain they carry and will always carry. You do not reconcile with the fact that your birth mother gave you away to a stranger.

Jennifer will live with her wound as my kids will and as I will. It doesn’t stop us from who we are or who we will become.

I honor my children, myself, and others in honoring the pain of abandonment.

mi casa es su casa

No persons of any race other than the Caucasian race shall use or occupy any building or any lot.

A covenant is a provision, or promise, contained in a deed to land.

I prayed it wasn’t true.

I had often been proud of living in Richfield with its diversity. Student population at Richfield Senior High is 43% Hispanic, 26.8% White, 17.6% African American, 7.1% Two or more races and 4.9% Asian.

With their Guatemalan origin Juan and Crystel fit right in. This was important to Jody and me. Already they were unusual for having two moms and being adopted. Let them blend in on occasion. Get a break from being special.

Jody and I have owned our home for over 25 years. We welcomed Juan and Crystel into our home when they were infants. In one month, they will be graduating from Richfield High School. Yet this covenant is on our property deed.

I had read about the Just Deeds Project on our Richfield Community Facebook page. To find out if our home had a discriminatory deed I simply needed to type in our address on the interactive map. I was sure our home didn’t have one.

I’ve experienced the scorn and contempt of others for being different. Wouldn’t I inherently know discrimination? And, wasn’t it our family that always had the play dates, the school parties, and the block parties at our house to show everyone we were just like them? That we weren’t a family to be afraid of.

Instantly, I felt ill.

I did have a covenant on my home. Jody’s home. Juan and Crystel’s home. In 1968, Congress passed the Fair Housing Act, making covenants and other discriminatory housing practices illegal across the nation. Still, our house is marked. There is a pox on it.

Real estate developers began writing racial covenants – race-based property ownership restrictions – into property deeds in 1910. They were banned by the Minnesota state legislature in 1953 but not before a racial covenant was written on our property on November 29, 1946.

Richfield is home to 3,714 of these covenants.

No persons of any race other than the Caucasian race shall use or occupy any building or any lot.

How do I tell Juan and Crystel that a deed on our house states that no persons of any race other than the Caucasian race is welcomed in our home?

I can still be proud of Richfield. On Tuesday, April 13, the Richfield City Council took action to support the Just Deeds project. Starting May 1, 2021 Richfield homeowners can discharge the racial covenant on their property records. I immediately submitted an online Just Deeds Request form to start the process.

I want the next owner of our home to understand that I disagree with any type of racial covenant on our home. I want the owners to know that we made an effort to remove the mark, the pox, the stain on our house.

I can easily see one of our children owning our home and if not them a family that is not Caucasian. In fact, I would welcome that. Mi casa es su casa.

Jumping into the Unknown

Ziplining to some would be the ultimate adrenaline rush, whooshing from point to point above the treeline attached to a cable.

Zach, Crystel, and Antonio on the launch

Zach was officially our guide on our zipline adventure at the Atitlan Nature Reserve. The 14-year-old and our two nine-year-olds had become comfortable with each other. They were bonded by the mutual experience of being adopted and meeting their birthmoms. During our launch from Santa Cruz la Laguna to the shore of Panajachel where we would start our trek through the jungle to the zipline, they talked about their visit.

Zach showed the necklace he received from his birthmom, Crystel showed her earrings, and Antonio described the weavings he received. All these gifts were very important to the children – a connection to their Guatemalan family.

The start of our trek

Just as their life is complicated, a crooked tree marked where our path started. We walked upwards on an ancient trail, stepped lightly over hanging bridges, and kept our eyes and ears open for spider monkeys.

The Ziptrek tour covers close to 35 acres of land. For 1 ½ hours we rode a total of eight ziplines ranging from 295 ft. to 1050 ft. along waterfalls, canyons, the valley and a coffee grove forest.

Zach, Antonio, Jody Crystel, Beth – ready to zipline

Ziplining took my breath away. Especially the first time that I let go and zipped above the valley, above the top of trees. If the cable breaks, it is a long ways down. A mother thinks of these things, even if she is just thinking of herself. True, after the first zipline it got less and less scary and I was more able to enjoy the view. Still, I was breathless.

Jumping off the cliff at San Marcos had been a warm-up for this. You take a leap into space without being hooked to a cable. You couldn’t see the water below before sprinting off of the platform. You had to assume the water was there to catch you.

Crystel on the zipline

After our zipline adventure Antonio was brave enough to ask the staff in Spanish to order us a tuk tuk to take us into the town of Panajachel.

Later, I asked Antonio and Crystel what was scariest, jumping off the cliff at San Marcos, ziplining, or meeting their birthmom? Without hesitation they both said meeting their birthmom. Ziplining came third.

For Antonio and Crystel, meeting their birthmom was jumping into the unknown. Will she like me? Will I like her? What will it be like to look into the eyes of the woman who gave me life? The mom who hasn’t raised me? Who hasn’t grown up with me? Who opened her arms and gave me to someone else?

Antonio loving the tuk tuk he ordered

Jody and I were there to catch our children if meeting their birthmom went awry. Yet, we couldn’t take that first step for them. They had to take that leap into the unknown all by themselves and trust that they could weather what came.