The subtitle of Melissa Faye Greene’s memoir, out in paperback this week, breezily summarizes the plot. But the narrative slows down into a story that is filled with the joy, the pathos, and the frenzy that comes with a big family bound together by loving-kindness.
Greene has nine children—four of whom are biological and five of whom are adopted. With the exception of the first child that Greene and her husband, Donny Samuel adopted, four out of their five adopted children were born in Ethiopia. But it’s Jesse’s adoption from Bulgaria that builds the scaffolding of Greene’s enchanting memoir No Biking in the House Without a Helmet.
My husband Ken and I talked about adopting several years ago after close friends adopted two sons from Ethiopia. I watched the tapes sent to our friends from the orphanage in Addis Ababa. Each time a new child was introduced on film, I was terrified and excited all over again. Who would my friends choose? At the time these children were the ages of my young kids—beautiful, innocent, sweet—and they broke my heart over and over again.
I can’t give you a good reason why we didn’t adopt. I can give you a million reasons why we should have. We had a lot of love to give and compared to most of the world, an abundance of resources to bestow on a child. And I felt I was getting better at this parenting thing. As my kids grew older, I could see the bigger picture. I knew that I wasn’t stuck with diapered, runny-nosed, colicky babies forever.
I thought about adoption anew when I interviewed Greene five years ago about her fourth book, the award-winning There Is No Me Without You—a compassionate, vivid account of an orphanage in Addis Ababa and the remarkable foster mother who founded, grew and ruled the place.
In No Biking, Greene begins the book with the hard-won wisdom that expanding her family was not solely about filling an empty nest. Adoption for the Greene-Samuel family was about loving a child, reconfiguring the family to integrate that child into the family, and reveling in a new group dynamic.
Greene writes about four-year old Jesse’s early rages—he was a madman on the flights from Sofia to London to Atlanta. At home he horded food. And if anyone came near his food he threw an earth-quaking tantrum. His language was as mangled as his behavior. Jesse suffered the physical and mental deprivation common in children languishing in run-down Eastern European and Russian orphanages. Greene waited for Jesse to come around, and more poignantly, waited to have an affirmative answer to the question that haunts many adoptive parents: Do I love him yet?
Jesse blossomed into a charming if mischievous little boy. And within his new family, he took the lead in welcoming his sister Helen, who was the first to be adopted from Ethiopia. Greene and her husband are committed Jews who are aware that Jewish identities were never one-size-fits-all for their children. Rather the potential and the desire to be Jews were nurtured in each of them. In the case of Jesse and Helen, early on brother and sister bonded when Jesse served as Helen’s impromptu mikveh guide.
Greene writes that with the exception of his circumcision under anesthesia, Jesse had loved converting to Judaism. “Now in the backseat of the car, he excitedly prepared Helen for her visit to the mikveh. ‘The blue-green water will cover all your body and make you Jewish,’ he enthused.”
Soon after Solomon and then biological brothers Daniel and Yosef were also adopted from Ethiopia. The question of conversion was trickier for Daniel and Yosef who were eight and eleven and had been raised as Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. But the boys eventually came into their own as Jews and chose to be bar mitzvahed.
My urge to adopt was recently reawakened as I wandered around the mall and came upon a gallery of photographs of kids waiting to be adopted. The pictures were captioned with just a first name and a biographical line like: “I draw exceptionally well. I want to be a superhero.” One girl with the lovely, hopeful, yet somehow fragile name of Destiny wanted to be a teacher.
That day in the mall I wanted to take every one of those kids home with me. But as Greene so wisely observes, adoption is not a good response to a humanitarian crisis. “Adoption is the appropriate response to only one situation: the need of a child for a new family, combined with a family’s desire for a new child.”
As difficult as it is to contemplate, I think I have my answer to why we never adopted a child. But I’m in awe of families like my friends’ and Melissa Fay Greene’s who truly forge bonds, never falling into the trap of serving as a way station or a group home or becoming one of those families who “collect” orphans.
And I pray that Destiny and her cohort soon meet the loving parents they deserve to have.