I didn't know until my father died that he and his mother exchanged letters every week. They didn't always have an easy relationship, but they always wrote to each other. My dad and I didn't write to each other every week, but his letters meant a lot to me and I saved all of them. I have other family letters that I have saved over the years. Letters from my mom, my grandmother, my aunts, and my sisters. It's a lot of paper to haul around every time we move, but each one is a tiny time capsule preserving those distinctive voices, that familiar handwriting, and those nuggets of family news. I keep them because I like being able to hold bits and pieces of my people in my hands.
Camille will be turning nine later this week and that means that I will soon be mailing a letter that is never easy for me to write. I like writing letters just as much as I like receiving them, but this particular letter always causes me to stumble and stammer. It's the annual birthday letter I send to Camille's maternal birth family in Taiwan. I never really like what I write because it feels too superficial, this accounting of her recent activities and her current interests. It makes me sad to think of how painful it must be for her family to open these letters highlighting all of the milestones and happy moments they have missed with her. And yet what I really want to say feels far too intimate. We share a strange family connection, but we don't really know each other.
Last year, Camille received a birthday card from her birth mother. It was very brief, but it was the first and only piece of mail she has ever received from her Taiwanese family.That pop-up card with penguins bursting forth to share birthday wishes brought an unexpected jolt of reality to our lives. After the many years of one way communication, here was written proof that they wanted to reach out to her. Those cute little penguins didn't just bring an envelope full of wishes with them, they also brought an envelope of questions and intense, conflicted feelings.
Today while I was writing the letter to her family, I suggested several times that she might want to send her own letter or drawing to them. She said she didn't know what to say. I tossed a couple of ideas in her direction, but she didn't latch on to any of them and I have to admit that if I was in her shoes I would feel a bit stymied by it, too. How do you write a letter to a mother you don't remember meeting?
One of the reasons we adopted from Taiwan was that we liked the idea of an open international adoption. We welcomed the access to family and medical histories. We liked imagining how nice it would be for her to embrace both her Taiwanese roots and her Jewish American identity. And we really did enjoy meeting her family during our two trips to Taipei. But this current state feels awkward and full of unknowns. It doesn't feel right to force Camille to write letters, but how else will a connection be formed? It doesn't feel right to send superficial listings of accomplishments, but how else will they know that we are taking good care of her and that she is thriving? It doesn't feel natural to write these family letters and yet I will keep doing it.