It's wrong to stand in a store and stare at cart filled with the relaxed bodies of two little girls, and it's even worse that, after staring for several long seconds, I actually took their picture.
Worse still: I had been watching their parents (just out of this frame) debating each other about the merits of different IKEA twin bed frames, in English, but in an accent I could not quite place: Indian? Malaysian? Pakistani? Indonesian? Did not matter exactly, because, in general, so much was packed into this moment it was hard to sort it all out.
In some strange way ... and in a way that has taken me a few days to get a handle on ... these little girls, sisters, from some other country but now here in New York, in the U.S., with their parents, securely together in this IKEA cart, embodied almost everything that I loved and yet, I finally realized, represented just how narrowly anyone or anything so fragile and innocent can survive a world so rife with abuse, corruption, chaos and, yes, evil.
Trying to pinpoint my underlying feeling at that moment and it now appears to have been wonder: How did these little girls come to be sitting in that cart in the Long Island IKEA store? Did these girls, with their parents, leave behind a country where health and well-being would be tenuous and hard won or worse? Maybe none of that was true, but given the roiling realities in some many fractious countries, I wondered.
I doubt that at their ages (maybe 5 and 3) they had any inkling of much beyond being part of this small familial pack. The parents were in the process of making a home more suitable to everyone's needs via their IKEA bed shopping. The parents were excitedly engaged in discussing all the details and dimensions the way parents are when they seek to make life better, in even the smallest ways. The kids, meanwhile, were just parked in the moment. Look at the older sister. She's staring at an iPhone screen, maybe a Disney movie or cartoon, a seductive escape. Look at the littler sister. She has her two middle fingers lodged in her mouth, her eyes cast off into the retail netherworld, seeming very close to falling asleep.
This finger sucking is the exact way my own daughter, now 19 but adopted at 22 months, would comfort herself through her brave and terrified transition from orphan in India to daughter to two eager mothers in Seattle. No matter how gently we'd try and coax those fingers from her mouth, hoping to take the pressure this habit applied to her Anjali's front teeth, she would for months immediately slip them right back in.
Thank goodness for orthodontics, and the Kenyan doctor near us in Seattle whose family was also Indian, who patiently worked through years of braces to bring Anjali's teeth to a straightened alignment suitable for her gorgeous smile. We've since moved to New York, but every year Dr. Zeeny Teja sends a birthday email to Anjali, reminding me of the India-Kenya-Seattle-Dental-Teeth-fixing-confluence that seemed to bring the world closer together. Maybe those times, in Seattle, during the years Barack Obama was president and a pluralistic America was in full stride, are particularly cherished now, and a reminder that maybe many of us were overzealously proud of how America kept moving forward, accepting new citizens and contributors to this great experiment call American democracy.
It's the spring of 2018 now, a time unlike any other in this country -- or so it seems given the divisive mood and fear of immigrants and suspicion towards "other" -- especially people with darker skin -- that has been whipped into a political movement by the person currently residing in the White House.
Soon after he was elected *president, and his nationalist administration via Steve Miller and Steve Bannon issued a travel ban that sent shockwaves through the entire world travel system -- and news about immigration agents stopping travelers on trains looking for documentation -- my little family took a plane trip to Miami.
As parents, as two white women with upper middle class means and never having sensed any real threat, Diane and I were suddenly mortified and fearful that someone, somewhere in the airport security lines would look at our daughter with her dark reddish black hair, deep brown eyes and brown skin and ask for her passport or documentation to prove she truly "belonged" here.
I must also say that, given the plight of girls in countries like India, where female infanticide is so rampant that there is a gross mismatch in the percentage of men to women there now -- fueling more sexual abuse and assault -- it has been difficult not to at least acknowledge friends, family and strangers who've told us that, in adopting Anjali, we probably saved her actual life, if not her likely destiny to be trapped in a caste system of untouchables destined for difficult lives. The idea that any U.S. president or immigration police or system in America would categorize and separate people according to color or gender or race ... it goes against every democratic principle and reality I thought we had in place here.
I'm recalling this Miami airport dread from February 2017, a month after the not-very-well attended D.C. inauguration, not to make some political statement but only to make the point that, as a mother, I was for the first time experiencing fear about the safety of my child, my family, in a way that shook my entire sense of myself as a citizen.
As a "free" American, whose privilege and education afforded me the ability to navigate the international adoption system and U.S. Department of State forms and Immigration and Naturalization issues and the lawyers to finalize Anjali's adoption, it never occurred to me, to us, that by the time our daughter was ready to graduate high school, which is this spring, and to vote in her first election, we'd be living in a country where so much division would be stoked by Americans fearful if not prejudiced and racist.
Perhaps my entire thought process and relationship to being the white mother of an adopted child from a country where most people's skin is darker was naive or dismissive of how her race would impact her. We've been able to use our geography and middle-class means to insulate ourselves in blue-state relative comfort, until, of course, the reality hit home that it's not really economic anxiety that caused Americans to vote for a man who flaunts every democratic norm -- and that's being kind in my assessment of Trump's character and authoritarian rule.
Why am I talking about this when I started out talking about those two adorable little girls in the shopping cart? What was it about seeing them safely nestled in that cart as their parents assessed furniture options for the room the girls' share, and for whom it appeared time to get them new big-girl beds?
My daughter has very few recollections of her time in India, at the orphanage where she lived for the first 22 months of her life. My daughter has no knowledge that, back near the city of Jalna where her mother abandoned her two days after giving birth, that Anjali has a sister, or a half-sister, that according to the social worker reports written after they tracked down Anjali's mother to assure she wanted to relinquish rights to the baby. I have never been able to bring up this bit of Anjali's history, in part because, frankly, she has never expressed any interest. All our early attempts to join Indian-American family groups, or talk about her memories have drawn blank stares or expressed indifference.
Oddly, Anjali's only recollection of her earliest months are memories of the way she and the other babies and toddlers in the orphanage all stayed in cribs, which she calls "cages" because the cribs had a wire mesh top that prevented the children from climbing or falling out of the cribs. Cages, was her term, and true it's a trigger word that caused me concern Ani was repressing memories and feelings that might need vetting. However, she's well adjusted and into her life here as an American teen.
When I traveled to India in August of 2000, those first few days of me being at the orphanage and letting Anjali get to know me, and me her, Anjali's two fingers were jammed deeply into her mouth. She continued this habit, her only measure to cope with the unimaginable fear she must have felt being foisted into my arms and taken from the three-story orphanage with little play area on the open-air top floor into the bustling, huge world to her new life in America. Over the years, as her dynamic personality flourished, that habit of finger sucking ended.
Likewise, I had a difference of recall when it came to the cribs. According to my memory of being at the orphanage to pick up my hard-won child, the cribs looked not like a cage, but more like a shopping cart. It safely held in it the most promising of life.
I used to write politics, news and sports for newspapers in cities like Albany NY, Seattle, Baltimore and Harrisburg PA. Now I take a lot of Instagram photos, check Facebook, swim, read about T$$$p and cook dinner for people I really like. New York native, living in Port Washington and Greenfield Center (that's near Saratoga Springs FYI).