by: Jill Jepson1
“My parents. My poor parents. So earnest. So simple. Blundering their way through life, even so much as to being persuaded into raising and loving a kid who turned out nothing like they expected or could even imagine. A kid who wasn’t even the right race.”
When I was twelve, I lost my parents in a mall outside of Sioux Falls. We were on vacation and miles from home. We’d come to the mall to buy my dad, Stanley, some shoes. He’d accidentally left the tennis shoes he’d bought for the trip in a motel room in Boise, Idaho. He needed tennis shoes for our birding walks. My parents’ idea of a vacation was going birding in different states. We lived in Delaware, and birding in the Western states was a big adventure.
We were standing by the map to the mall just inside one of its entrances, my parents trying to locate a store my dad could get the kind of shoes he wanted, when I saw some crimson plastic beads in a store window that caught my eye and I walked over to look at them. They were bright and tacky, and I liked them, plus the violet ones hanging next to them. I must admit, I became lost for a few moments in those red and violet plastic beads.
When I turned around, my parents were gone. It seemed as if they had vanished into thin air. I stared around at the crowd, turned this way and that, walked around, and then went back over to the map. I searched the map as if I might find an arrow showing me where I was in relation to my parents. They were nowhere. Or else, I was.
I walked back over to the bead store’s window. I stood there mesmerized. I was two thousand miles from home and did not know a single soul. Crowds of people rushed past me as they went about their ways. They held each other’s arms with furtive expressions. They carried shopping bags and pushed baby carriages. They jerked their hands into the air as they talked. They argued and laughed. Their eyes were down, watching the floor, but they glanced up from time to time to stare at some store’s gleaming display.
No one saw me. No one made eye contact or even looked my way. I realized that, when nobody knows you, you are invisible. I found it hard to believe that no one noticed the large, dark-skinned girl with the black braids standing in front of an array of rainbow-colored beads. I imagined that if I stood perfectly still, someone would try to walk right through me, and that when they looked at me, all they saw was an empty space.
All around me, a river of humanity streamed, eddying in front of store windows, then rushing on. I was like a boulder on the bank of a river. I wasn’t part of the flow, but outside it. The crowd coursed past me, and effortlessly around me, not even aware I was there.
Then my eye caught a movement that seemed vaguely familiar. Two pale, thin people were emerging from the sea of faces, hurrying through the crowd, their lips pressed taut with worry. I thought they seemed like someone I might have dreamed about or read about once. I wondered what they were worried about. When they saw me, their faces blossomed with relief. They were my parents, of course. I realized it just as they were running to me.
The next minute, they were hugging me and babbling about how frightened they had been when they had turned around and I wasn’t there. How they’d thought I was right behind them, and how if they didn’t find me back at the entrance they were going straight to the mall security.
“Oh, sweetheart, you must have been terrified!” Mom said.
“Well, she’s all right now,” said Stanley. “You’re all right, aren’t you, baby?”
I told them I was fine, but they kept asking over and over as we went off to buy my dad his tennis shoes – how I must have been terrified.
I never told them I wasn’t afraid at all. That standing in that sea of strangers by myself was numbingly familiar. That being anonymous and alone was nothing new. I felt like I’d been doing it all my life. I never told them that, at first, when they were rushing towards me I didn’t know who they were.
I can’t say for sure how my parents came to adopt me – as I wasn’t witness to its unfolding – but I can imagine well enough. I know my parents. Mom, with her whispered talk and sympathetic heart for unwanted children. Dad, with his way of nodding when he watches refuges on the television. Not that I’m not happy they adopted me. They’ve been good parents. They’re my parents.
They got the idea of adopting a child from a magazine article about a family who adopted fifteen kids. They’d amassed a diverse collection of children from all backgrounds, from Black to White, Asian to Hispanic, deaf to paralyzed from the neck down and developmentally disabled to sick with AIDS. Mom must have stuck a scrap of paper in the magazine for a bookmark and left it on the coffee table. “Read this when you’ve got the chance,” she’d have said. “It’s positively amazing, Stan.” That’s my Mom. Things are never good or great. They’re positively amazing.
Dad was most likely reading a book he thought he should have already read, James Joyce maybe, but whatever it may have been, rest assured he found it agonizingly boring. I can picture it clear as day, him closing his book and reaching for the magazine. While he reads the article, his glasses slide slowly down his nose. Mom would be sitting across the room in the recliner, her skinny white legs sticking out of her shorts with her legs stretched out in front of her. She would be gripping both arms of the chair and watching Stanley while he reads. His eyes would scan the page. Once in awhile he’d let out a long whistle. He’d whisper, “Imagine that.” Mom would watch. Finally, he would close the page and let the magazine drop onto the coffee table. “Really something,” he must have said.
“Why is it?” Mom would wonder aloud. “Why is it that some people contribute so much to the world and others so little. Others like us, ordinary people, not evil, not bad people, but not able to rise above the materialism and self-interest of twenty-first century America?”
Dad would shake his head, already picking up Joyce’s Ulysses again, hoping it had transformed itself into an Ian Fleming novel in the five minutes since he had put it down. In my mental reconstruction, Mom would wait three days before she brought the subject up again. One night, days later, they’d be sitting up in bed, propped against pillows, Mom’s hands would be folded in front of her, resting on the pink flowered quilt. Dad would still be trying to read Ulysses, struggling to get past page four.
“I’ve been thinking about that article,” Mom would say. “The one about the family with all those kids?”
“Um hmm,” Dad replied.
“It’s got me to thinking, Stan.”
Dad would keep pretending to read. He wouldn’t want to start talking about that article, because he would have a pretty good idea of what was coming. Even the chance to put down Ulysses wasn’t worth getting started on the conversation Mom wanted to have. I imagine Dad would have felt like a snow ball coming down a mountain, gathering snow, weight and speed. An idea that would not be denied.
“I think about it all the time,” Mom said.
Dad knew he couldn’t keep it from coming. He felt like an avalanche was roaring down a mountain right at him. Yet, he kept his eyes glued to that page.
Mom said, “I think we should adopt a child.”
And Dad would’ve gasped for breath knowing full well once Mom gave voice to her whims, she had already decided. Ahead of him dad would’ve seen mountains of diapers, debts, and sleepless nights. I’m sure he was excited, too, but also really scared.
Mom was the one to do the research, of course. She would make calls and read books. Two people in her Unitarian fellowship group had adopted foreign children and Mom talked with them. She beamed over their children and ultimately she decided to adopt through her church, and before Dad knew it, they were meeting with a social worker and filling out forms.
Unlike getting pregnant, there are a lot of decisions to make when you adopt. One evening, my parents sat at the kitchen table with a stack of forms. They had to answer all sorts of questions about themselves, but they also had to answer questions about their child-to-be. They had to check boxes. Did they want an infant? Would they consider an older child? If so, how old? What about sex? Dad was thinking that he really wanted a boy but if he said that, he’d have to listen to weeks of lectures about sexism and male privilege from Mom.
Then, they came to the box for race. They looked at each other. For a second, each of them thought what they wouldn’t say: that they always dreamed of having children who looked like them. That a child mixing Mom’s blondish hair and Dad’s handsome, if slightly effeminate, features would be attractive. But there was no way these two liberals were going to say they’d prefer a white kid. They’d never be able to live with themselves if they checked that box. Their hands trembled a little, but they put their check, big and bold, in the box marked “No preference.” If ever asked, they would both deny ever feeling for one flickering second that they would be uncomfortable raising a brown-skinned child.
And the fact was, my parents knew something else. That no matter what, they were going to love this kid. This was the truth.
I know much of this because I was told the story. Of how Mom would joke how it took nine months to adopt me, just like having a baby, but that she “didn’t have to worry about morning sickness.”
“But the anticipation was all there,” Dad added.
It was the longest nine months of their lives. They made it through it by keeping busy. I have never known my parents not to be “keeping busy.” They are advocates of it, experts even. My mother could be on a desert island with a single palm tree and still keep busy. So she did her volunteer work at the food bank while Dad led Sierra Club hikes. They took their annual trip to Medford, Oregon for the Shakespeare festival, and they went to the Grand Canyon when Stanley had spring break from the private high school where he taught literature.
They made plans for the summer, hoping they wouldn’t be able to keep them. Hoping they’d have a kid by then. As it turned out, they did. On July 3rd, they received a call that changed everything.
Their social worker was a short, round woman named Mary Gonzalez. She had come to the house twice before, and Mom liked her and saw her as an ally. Her voice was as stout as her body. When Mom realized it was Mary on the phone, her eyes misted over. She said, “Yes. Yes?” excitedly into the receiver. She covered up the mouthpiece with her hand. “Oh, Stan!” she cried. “They have a child. A girl. A month old. An Indian.”
A few days later, my parents recieved a picture in the mail of this little kid. Mom said my eyes were “the color of extra dark French roast.” She tended to use beverage metaphors when describing my coloring. I’ve seen the picture, and I agree I was a pretty cute, pudgy faced and grinning child.
That night, my parents lay in bed, holding each other and making plans.
One of the things they talked about over the next few weeks before I arrived was that they wanted me to be in touch with my culture. That was Mom’s idea. My parents decided in those first days, when all they had was this out of focus little photograph, that they would raise me to know about, participate in and treasure my heritage. Their little Indian kid would be blessed by a shaman, given a secret Indian name, undergo the ancient rituals and even learn the language. She’d learn to do the sun dance, bead, make baskets, canoe and soften leather with her teeth. She’d also go to regular schools, of course, and to an Ivy League college, or the University of Chicago.
Neither one of them was going to admit that they don’t know a thing about Indians. They’d only use the term Native Americans, of course. They had no idea how Indians live or think, but they would learn. They were already checking books out of the library and they talked about visiting a reservation. One night, Dad put down the book he was reading on contemporary Indian life. “They have an awful lot of alcoholism,” he said plainly. Mom looked up from her book on Indian mythology. “Oh, but Stan, it isn’t their fault. It’s because of the poverty. And, you know, Little Big Horn.”
There was, of course, the matter of a name. I had to have an Indian name. How could an Ashley or Montgomery – the names my mother had been going with before she discovered her new kid was going to be a Native American – give any sense of heritage?
“Names are essential to our sense of ourselves, don’t you think?” Mom asked Dad over breakfast. “I mean, do you think a boy named something like Herbert would generally do as well in life as one named, say, Jonathan?”
“I wouldn’t think so,” Dad said. “No, not at all.”
“A name is like an arrow,” said Mom. “It points right to our hearts. To what we are.”
While Dad was listening to NPR one day, Mom sat at the kitchen table with a pad and pencil and started listing all of the Indian women’s names she could think of. She came up with three: Pocahontas, Sacajawea, and Nokomis. That night, she presented her list to Dad, who was sitting in bed, cupping his chin as he waited for the twenty or so other Indian women’s names he was sure Mom had come up with. Once he realized that was all she had, he frowned.
Sacajawea was a bit of a mouthful, they decided. Especially with the last name of Showalter. And Pocahontas was a bit too Disney those days. “It has lost authenticity,” Mom said. That left Nokomis, but Stanley couldn’t think of that name without thinking in trochaic tetrameter – DAUGHT ter of the MOON No KO mis.
Apparently deciding that these were the only three Indian women’s names that ever existed, they started fishing for other Indian-related things they could name me. The ideas come fast and furious. Names of places such as Yosemite, Seattle, Minnesota, and Penobscot were considered, and of articles such as moccasin, wigwam, and hogan.
“That’s it!” Mom exclaimed as inspiration struck. “The name of a tribe!” The choices were bountiful: Navajo, Hopi, Sioux, Arapaho, Mohawk, Ojibwa, Chippewa, Salish, Havasupai, Cherokee, Omaha, Paiute, Yakima, Bella Coola, Chinook, Shawnee, Pawnee, Modoc, and Cree. Some of these they discarded right away. Mohawk, for example, and Havasupai. Mom mulled over Bella Coola for a while, but in the end thought it didn’t really sound Indian enough. It sounded too much like Belladonna. They discussed Cheyenne, but the problem was Marlon Brando had already used it. Mom went to the library to look at maps. She made lists, crossed things off and circled the best ones. This went on for days.
One day Dad was sitting on the couch trying to read Dante’s Inferno while Mom was poring over her lists. Suddenly she looked up with an expression like she had just seen the last passenger pigeon in America. She bolted up from her seat, rushed over to Dad, and knelt in front of him. She took his hands in hers and looked into his eyes. Her greenish-gray eyes misted over and she was almost too choked up to speak. “Oh, Stan. Oh, Stan.” She took a deep breath. “Oh, Stan. We’ll call her Shoshone.”
Shoshone it was, and Shawlene was chosen for my middle name, after Mom’s favorite aunt. Mom also secretly thought that would give me something to fall back on in case I didn’t like being named after a tribe.
And so, when Mary Gonzalez handed my parents a chubby-faced kid with black hair and big round eyes, Mom held me and looked up into Dad’s eyes and back down into mine and whispered, “Shoshone Showalter.”
My parents. My poor parents. So earnest. So simple. Blundering their way through life, even so much as to being persuaded into raising and loving a kid who turned out nothing like they expected or could even imagine. A kid who wasn’t even the right race.
Like I said, I wasn’t a witness, but I know my parents well enough to picture the scenes. Two months later, they had this baby they loved more than anything in the world, and they were thinking that nothing else mattered but that.
Mary Gonzalez visited soon after I was adopted and my parents had that frantic, glassy-eyed, in-love look characteristic of new parents. Mary Gonzalez knew almost immediately that it was going to be a successful adoption, but she stayed for the full, required hour for her visit, asking all the necessary questions and looking around at the state of the house. It was just when she was standing at the door, ready to go, briefcase in hand, looking at her appointment book, that Mom came hurrying in from the back room where she was putting me in my crib and said. “Just one thing.”
“We’d like to know something,” Mom said. “I know we aren’t allowed much information about the parents. But it would help if, I mean, for Shoshone’s education, of course. For her heritage. So maybe you could tell us…which tribe were her parents? Or tribes? Or at least tell us the area they came from, so we would have some idea. She is going to want to know someday.”
Mary Gonzalez was staring at my mother vacantly, somewhat perplexed. Mom had that little-girl pleading look to her, a look she has retained even to this day, at fifty-five. Mary Gonzalez looked at Dad, who put his arm around Mom’s shoulder and smiled expectantly.
“If you don’t mind. If it’s legal to tell us, of course,” he said.
“Where they’re from,” Mom explained again.
Mary Gonzalez looked from Mom to Dad one final time before speaking. “Hyderabad,” she then said.
“Oh.” Mom replied, looked at her uncertainly. “Hyderabad. Isn’t that a city in…” She looked up at Dad. Her eyes were wide with surprise. “Oh, Stan. It’s a city in India.”
Jill Jepson is the author of seventy-six published short stories, essays, and articles, and three books, including Writing as a Sacred Path (Ten Speed Press, 2008). Her blog publishes advice and guidance for writers. She is also the former editor of the online literary journal, The Whirlwind Review, and a professor of linguistics and writing at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota.
- Header photograph by Dylan Goldby. [↩]