From Letters with Candy: An Excerpt

Several years ago on a trip to DC I had the privilege of reconnecting with a childhood friend. We talked for hours, and he was even funnier than I remembered. In so many ways, our stories are the same: we grew up in the same neighborhoods, walked the same school hallways, we shared friends and teachers; we both went away to school and found our way to marriage and family and fulfilling work. And in so many ways our stories are different. To know someone you have to listen to their stories, and I’m grateful to still be listening to Brett as he weaves together the strands of this story about family.

re:create recess #4: Brett West

I was nearly 30 years old when I learned I was part Mexican. For years, I was the tan kid with the sun-bleached hair elbowing my parents in the ribs about being switched at birth. You see, the first photos of me portrayed a chubby infant with dark hair and eyes. “I’m so clearly a Mexican baby. Unless …unless these pictures are of some other baby,” I’d tease.

But here I was nearing 30, having accomplished next to nothing of all the things someone in their 20’s is supposed to own in the realm of experience. I hadn’t reached upper management, nor even middle management. I’d not yet scratched the surface on world domination. The foundation of a rock star career was built, but had no wheels or wings – had never even left the hangar. I’d spent years reading and writing material so other people could look wiser and more confident than they already were.

But I’d at least accomplished Mexican-ness.

How? Well, that’s a good question, and I’m glad you asked. I’m adopted. My sister is adopted. There was always the possibility that we might be something other than the White Anglo Saxon Protestant progeny we were raised to be. And with my proficiency in wild emotion, which was – and often still is – so foreign to my parents and the way we were raised, certainly it made better sense that perhaps I was the apple from a tree in another orchard.

My birthmother’s name was Candy. She’d spent years and years trying to find me. And she made contact during the spring of 1999. It was a time when I’d spent the three previous years not speaking much with my parents, and not seeing them at all, resulting from my coming out as gay. Now the mythical creature from the past we’d always known of, but had never known, was in our present.

She assured me she wasn’t looking for her long-lost son, or even a spare kidney. Ah, we share a sense of humor. Her reason for finding me came from a sense of responsibility. She yearned to be convinced without a shadow of doubt that the advice had been sound that she’d received and had taken as an unwed teenaged girl with a biscuit in the oven in the early months of 1969. In her words, she’d lived her life wondering everyday if she’d done the right thing.

Being reached out of the blue had a profound effect on my sense of anonymity, and even incited a little paranoia. Had I met her before? Was the woman I’d recently met at the dog park who insisted on talking with me actually this person from another world trying for face time with me? Was a reality TV production crew suddenly going to ambush me on my way home from work to ask how it feels to be found?

And it also had a profound effect on my parents who felt betrayed that my genealogical past could somehow break the steel door on vaulted information.

But I could not imagine having to live with such a question, such a heaviness in my soul without more than a prayer for the answer. So, I accepted her invitation, and we began writing letters.

After assuring her that she’d made an excellent life decision for me worthy of no regrets, we waded slowly into a friendship. The mythical biomom – birth mother for the politically correct – was perfectly lovely. And not unlike me, her relationship with her parents had its challenges. We talked about her false starts in life, that it had taken her a long time to grow comfortable in her own skin to make wise decisions. After being a mediocre student, and failing at relationships, she’d taken root back in her home town, had become a teacher and school administrator of some acclaim at the school where she’d merely been a passing student. She had even fallen in love, was married and had kids. She’d learned to love her parents and overlook their expectations in contrast with her perceived shortcomings. In fact, she simply loved and accepted her parents in a manner that suggested to me she understood the fault may never have been with her, but with them. She loved them like one loves one’s child – without conditions. And it was a love she was capable of, that perhaps they were not.

And yes, she is where I get my Mexican heritage, which stretches back to when California was a Spanish colony. There are fascinating epics telling of the Duckworth’s who fled the Old World, and the Figueroa’s who settled in and defended places like Monterey and Sonoma. There are tales of orphans who were taken in by aunts and uncles, and even a famous governor of the State of California under Mexico.

And as we tip-toed into a friendship, we decided to meet face-to-face. Popular culture leads many to believe there is an instant bond between a child and his birth parents. Not true. The moment Candy walked off the plane, I recognized her from photos we’d traded. But there was nothing familiar about her. Don’t misread me – she was completely lovely. But we didn’t have much shared history aside from gestation. Bonds are created by shared moments. And before meeting, we didn’t share much – didn’t look much alike, either.

On the heels of my first meeting with Candy, I had dinner with my then-partner and our friends. It was a nice opportunity to sit down outside over a bottle of wine and recap all that I had experienced. I remember with clarity like it happened five minutes ago when my friend Mary Beth offering a sage insight. “The thing to remember is: family is not made up of where we come from or from big events, but all the bits and pieces of minutiae that are usually as inane as they are mundane. That’s where you find family.”

In the following months, I began taking on the responsibility of reaching my parents more frequently. I made plans to travel across the country to see them. And we, too, tip-toed back into familiar territory with one another. We needed to. There was much ground work to lay if there was to be a future for us that was as meaningful as the past.

Conversations in our journey back to familiarity started with big occasions or monumental road trips. “Remember the 1984 Olympics when we road tripped out to Minnesota instead of to LA in a cramped car where the air conditioning worked only when we were going uphill, and we watched each night from motel rooms along the way? And how about making the snowmen in Tehran? The heartache when Nannie passed away? Granddad rolling silver dollars down the hill for us to find?”

Once back on common ground, we found ourselves able to tackle the friction points between us. “Yes, I’m getting married and yes we’re both men. But we want you there, only if you want to be there. And if you choose not to be there, that’s a choice we must all respect and live with forever.” And “Yes, we’re going to be to fathers. And your granddaughter is going to love to bits without ever wondering why, but she might also think you’re weird if you’re not okay with us …and that’s something I’m not okay with.”

And in time, joy came back to our relationship and stiff formality disappeared. In a mysterious way, all the little dots of activity – these teeny-tiny pixels of color – started to assemble, illustrating the big picture of our life together.

With tremendous pride, I look back at how these conversations set the table for expectations, much in the same way my parents set the table for their expectations of me. My parents showed up to our church wedding and were the toast of all our friends. They were part of our daughter’s Baptism. We vacation together. But most importantly, we are woven tightly.

There is a joke in our family about how no one can change my father from the ways in which he is so deeply set. I disagree. I’ve seen both of my parents travel light years from their comfortable groove to where they stand today – right at my side.

Most of us go through life growing up in a family defined to us by law if not by tradition. I’m not saying that because I was adopted, I encountered fissures in my sense of belonging. But there have been a series of events surrounding my adoption that sewed shut any potential fissure. I experienced the perfect storm. When I felt my sense of family was threatened by the possibility that I may end up shunned for life or that I may somehow become disowned by my parents, my mythical biomom entered my life. And that threw my parents off balance, while also opening my eyes to what an adult relationship can be between child and parents. From letters with Candy, I learned to increase my capacity for loving my parents. And what resulted is that I recognize now that my family belongs to me as much as I belong to my family. Our experiences together can never be taken away – not by law, not by stroke of pen, not by anything else in the world. They are worth loving, and they are worth fighting for. And I am so glad I learned to.

 

With 22 years inside the corporate communications machine, Brett West created a career of rewriting the future of his clients through influence and persuasion. Domestic and international issues required breaking down into bits and pieces more easily digestible by news media and the American public. Throughout his career path, he began applying principles that guided him to professional success to bring about personal success and fulfillment. He has written largely unpublished works including And I Laugh a Little Too Much, Short Tall Tales of a Last Grandparent, and From Letters with Candy. In 2007, West made a mid-life career change aimed at creating a larger impact on the personal lives of his clients as a Realtor with McEnearney Associates. He lives in Washington, DC with his husband, daughter and two collies.

Happy Leap Day!

For most of us, today probably feels like an ordinary Monday. I’m doing my normal Monday routine – working from home, an extra load of laundry spinning as I type. But this Monday is a once-every-four-years event and for some reason this year I feel a particular urge to celebrate.

Probably because Leap Day only arrives every four years, it doesn’t have as many time-honored traditions, no special foods or colors or parties. At one time, culture encouraged women to turn the tables on gender roles and propose to their man on Leap Day, but times have changed and now women can take the relational lead any day of the year. As the New York Times declared on February 28, 1976, “In these liberated times, every day is Leap Day.”

When Teen was in kindergarten, he asked for Froggy Cupcakes to share with his class for his December birthday. If I still had littles, I might feel motivated to make dessert. Maybe we’d even play Leap Frog. But as I have adolescents, probably not on both counts.frog cupcakes

Instead, we’re trying something else. Like New Year’s but better, Leap Day give us an opportunity to consider: Who am I becoming? Who do I want to be in four years? More than What do I want to be doing?, be(coming) is the operative verb. Tonight after dinner I’ll pass out blank cards and envelopes and each of us will write a letter to our 2020 self.

Yes, this trick has been done so many times before. But in less than four years, Teen will be in college and Tween in high school. As a family we are in a highly transitional lifestage and it seems timely to think about who we want to be and how best to achieve those goals. Not this or that college, or straight A’s, or even Man of the Match, although some of that will surely happen along the way. Instead, thinking ahead to what we will be doing in four years, who do I want to be as I engage in those activities? Kind, brave, creative, thoughtful, a good friend… And what can I do to become those attributes, starting now?

The real trick for this disorganized mama will be: where will I put the letters so I can easily find them again in four years? Hmm…maybe one of my becoming goals should have to do with organization?

How about you? How will you celebrate the gift of an extra 24 hours, and more importantly, how will that contribute to who you are becoming?

Rituals: Cation House

Cation House

Writ large on the walls of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Pablo Neruda’s words strike a chord in my soul: “I spin on the circle of wave upon wave of the sea.”

My life has felt like constant spinning, waves of joy and laughter, wash of chaos and drama, waves of peaceful beauty. My parents’ lives spun on disorder and turmoil until they spun into each other and, quickly, marriage. They attempted to overcome the tidal pull of established patterns; they did their best to remain upright in swirling waters. Still, my Airline Captain father flew in and out of our lives on air currents rather than water.

While I attended college my parents purchased a Time Share blocks from a NorCal beach (we lived a short drive from SoCal beaches). Recently I asked my mom, “Why?”
“To create family memories, to have a place we could come back to year after year.”

My parents, siblings and I never spent a week there as a family. My family, however – my mom and nephew, my husband and sons – has spent a week there every summer since Teen was two years old. We call it the “Cation House.”

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Friends! The rest of today’s post appears on the blog of a dear one, Cara Meredith, aka Be.Mama.Be. I can’t wait for you to finish this story, so significant to my life, AND meet Cara – energetic, amazing, So Much Fun with the Best Laugh Ever! We laughed ourselves silly through The Great Snowpocalypse of 2010 following the National Prayer Breakfast. We prayed together and then got stranded together in the gorgeous hip-deep snow we waded through to enjoy DC monuments and distract ourselves from Where We Were Supposed To BE. Good times, y’all!CaraMac

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Happy Day! Put on your hats. Work together to solve the clues. Split the pot o' gold. Luck o' the Blarney Stone be with you!

“Happy Day! Put on your hats. Work together to solve the clues. Split the pot o’ gold. Luck of the Blarney Stone to you!”

The leprechauns stopped by to lead the boys on their annual treasure hunt. Our leprechauns don’t come in the wee hours, and we have never tried to trap them. Their only mischief is to create silly clues that have the kids running from side-to-side of the house, laughing all the way.

We started this tradition when Teen was in 1st grade and Tween a toddler. Teen’s school had a book fair, and we decided we could justify buying more books if they were gifts for an occasion. The next holiday on the calendar was St. Patrick’s Day, which worked for us, especially as both of our kids have Irish names. We bought a few books for each boy, wrapped them in different paper, created a series of pictographs, and send the kids on a hunt working together.

The tradition stuck, but over the years the gifts have changed. One year Teen got a crepe pan and Tween got music for his iPod. This year they both got new boxers. They always get chocolate coins, because of course!

See if you can solve the clues: Cat Tree Harry Potter Roomba

See if you can solve the clues:
Cat Tree (an easy one)
Harry Potter (kids checked all the potted plants, especially the hairy ones)
Roomba (kids thought this was Tree House)

Practical items can make funny gifts but need a little sweetness.

Practical items can make funny gifts but require a little sweetness alongside.

The treasure hunt ended with a veggie shepherd’s pie, with Irish soda bread for dessert.

Nonstick vegetable oil spray
1 1/4 c white whole wheat flour
3/4 c whole wheat flour
1/4 c+ organic sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
3/4 tsp baking soda
3 Tbsp vegan butter (Earth Balance)
1 c non-dairy milk + 1 Tbsp lemon juice – combine and set aside
2/3 c raisins, craisins, or dark chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 375. Spray 8-inch diameter cake pan. Whisk flour, 1/4 c sugar, baking powder, salt, and baking soda in large bowl to blend. Add butter. Using fingertips (or tines of a fork) combine until coarse meal forms. Make well in center of flour mixture and add milk/lemon juice. Gradually stir to combine (batter will be thick). Mix in final ingredient of choice.

Transfer dough to prepared pan and flatten slightly (I use fork tines and it makes an interesting pattern – Tween says, “Like birds’ feet!”). If desired, sprinkle dough lightly with additional sugar (I find about 1 tsp sufficiently covers the dough).

Bake until lightly browned, about 40 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature, and preferably with a spread of vegan butter or jam.

This recipe comes together so quickly that I made two loaves, one with chocolate chips and the other with craisins. I sprinkled the craisin loaf with sugar and left the chocolate loaf plain. Both turned out delicious.

An Old Irish Blessing
May love and laughter light your days,
and warm your heart and home.
May good and faithful friends be yours,
wherever you may roam.
May peace and plenty bless your world
with joy that long endures.
May all life’s passing seasons
bring the best to you and yours!

 

Hope of the World

Have you felt it, too, that rapid, sometimes painful limping toward this day?

It’s Christmas Eve. In my world that means Christmas has arrived.

Traditionally, today we rest and enjoy togetherness. We make pine cone-peanut butter-birdseed ornaments; we take them to the local reservoir, where we walk the dogs, the kids, ourselves, for an hour, making our way round to the tree where the locals leave ornaments. We’ve taken this walk every NorCal year except one, when the rain prohibited a long walk with littles.

Then we lunch, or really, snack, while we make dinner for this evening and prep ingredients for tomorrow’s meal.

We will clean up and dress up, put the presents under the tree, and make our way to church to solidly put our focus on the One who is the Hope of the world. We will embrace friends and extend good wishes and revel in gratitude for this good life God has given. We will pray for those who hurt, who are cold or lonely, who need an infusion of the hope only He can provide.

We will have dinner together, a simple meal of soup and salad, before the kids get two presents. Two, because one present is always cozy Christmas pj’s they will wear tonight and wake up wearing tomorrow. Tomorrow I will take pictures of kids in Christmas pj’s, holding their Christmas stockings under the Christmas tree. It’s a tradition.

The Pastor will return to church for the later services as the kids go to bed. I will enjoy my hours of elf-dom, listening to Christmas carols (quietly singing along, of course), making gingerbread cake for breakfast, and stuffing stockings, with breaks to snuggle the cats who will sleep by the fire. I will leave a sign for the kids:

“Christmas morning will NOT begin until:
7:30am and coffee is made.”

And yes, this year I will anticipate that they will be up and make the coffee before 7:30am in order to wake us the moment the clock strikes…

This year, however, this day will not be as restful. Presents aren’t wrapped. Grocery shopping fell to the wayside of other activity. And how did this happen? We ran out of Christmas cards! We still have too many of last year’s cards, but no, I will not mail out last year’s card a second time (I did think about it. Would anyone notice? Oh, well, maybe they’d notice the gold embossed “2013”).

It’s not how I like to do this day, but things haven’t gone according to plan. Teen, who woke at 5am and rode his bike across town to go fishing, just wished us a “Merry Christmas!” He is happy, and that’s something.

Emmanuel, God with us, comes to make His home with us in this sometimes chaotic life. He will be our light, our joy, our hope, today and forever. Merry Christmas!

Read Scripture: John 1:1-14

Candle lighting: Light all the candles.

Read: Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” The first candle represents the hope of Israel. The second candle represents the hope of heaven. The third candle represents the hope of His coming. The fourth candle represents the hope of salvation. The center candle represents the hope of the world, God’s gift of His Son, Jesus Christ.

Jesus, the Word of God and the light of the world, was with God in the beginning. Through Him, God created everything we see and experience. True life, true light that stamps out the darkness, is found only in Him. God sent His one and only Son to us, for our salvation, to be the hope of the world. Jesus our Savior made His home among us so that we can be at home with Him forever.

Pray: Dear God, thank you for the gift of your Son, Jesus Christ. Open our eyes to see His light. Open our hearts to receive Him. In the name of Jesus we hope and pray, Amen.