Thursday, July 24, 2014

Oh, The Things People Say When Your Child Looks Nothing Like You

My oldest son joined the swim team this summer, which has made for daily back-and-forth trips to the pool, countless loads of towels in the laundry, and the faint smell of chlorine permeating our house, cars, and general lives.

With so much time in the sun and the water, his skin has turned a deep golden brown (aside from the parts covered by his suit and swim top), and his sun kissed hair now has the kind of radiant blond highlights women rip out of magazines and pay big bucks for their hairdressers to reproduce.

That's right, my son is blond. BLOND. While blond hair is certainly not an oddity in my lovely neighborhood of manicured lawns and pedicured toes, located in a city which according to the latest census data is 94 percent Caucasian, let me assure you this is extremely odd in a half-Egyptian child. 

As you might expect from someone with a full set of Middle Eastern DNA, I have olive skin and an overabundance of dark, coarse, thick, curly hair (and believe me, I wish I was just referring to the stuff on my head). It requires a significant investment of time, money, styling products, and raw upper body strength to be tamed into submission, and God forbid the humidity rises or an unexpected rain shower moves through, as it could easily double in size, horizontally speaking. 

For better or for worse, I always assumed my children would inherit my coloring and hair type due to the obvious dominance of our genetic pool. After all, my peeps have several gazillion years of history going for us. We built the pyramids. We carved a half-man, half-cat out of rock. We staged the largest protest in the history of mankind to overthrow a ruthless dictator, and then staged an even bigger one to overthrow the jerk who came after him. We are EGYPT.

When I married my sweet, pale, Caucasian mutt of a husband, it honestly never occurred to me that our children would look anything but Egyptian. Sure, maybe their skin would be a bit more fair, or their eyes on the lighter side of brown, but that's it. I just assumed that in the genetic World Cup, Egypt would kick the pants off of Team Scotland-Ireland-Germany-Maybe Sweden But We're Not Quite Sure About Great Grandma's Side.

And then came baby, who of course looked like every baby out there: squishy and wrinkled, kind of like a diminutive Yasser Arafat after  a clean shave. Score one for the brown folk!

But within a matter of days he began to lose that dark (familiar) hair and it was quickly replaced with (what the WHAT?) fine blond strands. The slate grey eyes I was certain were going to turn brown instead became huge baby blues (and have since morphed into baby greens).

By his first birthday, he was officially the Golden Child.

During the course of that first year, I began to field some interesting questions when we were out in public together. Turns out people say a lot of funny things when your child doesn't look anything like you. The first time I recall my maternity being called into question, I was at the park pushing Blondie on the swing, when a little girl sidled over and asked, "So where'd that baby come from?"

In my confused state, I stifled my first impulse, which was to blurt out a sarcastic " uterus?" and wondered briefly if I needed to launch into "Well, when a man loves a woman...," but finally settled on "What do you mean?"

"Well, he's not your baby because you're all brown and he's not," she explained, "Are you the babysitter?" 

And that's what many people, even today, take me to be: The Hired Help. "So how long have you been taking care of him?" they'll ask. 

"Let's see, he just turned seven in July, then add in the 40 gestational weeks.. no, make that 42 because he was so stubborn, so that brings us to..." 

Occasionally, people tap dance around the idea that he might have been adopted (without actually daring to say the word, because somehow that would be uncouth), and because I find it so entertaining, I just stare blankly at them and let it all unfold. 

"Sooooo.... how was the whole, you" 
"Was it... difficult? Expensive?"
"Do you have an"

One woman at a local coffee shop praised my generous spirit and offered to connect me with her niece who had "also rescued a child from poverty." I didn't have the heart to tell her that economic conditions in Royal Oak, Michigan, his birthplace, were actually quite stable. 

Oddly enough, we receive no such inquiries when my husband, he of the Mighty DNA who will henceforth be known as The Gene-ius, is around, since our oldest is his virtual clone. 
Mark Shand, age 2
Noah Shand, age 2

But it doesn't bother me a bit. Though we might not look a bit alike, each morning when I watch those big green eyes flutter open, I can see what others might easily miss: the best pieces of myself reflected back. 

I see it in his quest for knowledge, his sweet, almost too sensitive demeanor, his goofy and somewhat sarcastic sense of humor. His love for animals, the water, and music. The way he gets lost in his favorite books. The temper tantrums he uses to cover up hurt feelings. 

Trust me- that boy is mine. 

That's why every night, I run my fingers through that fluffy blond hair and count my blessings.  

Because I've been lucky enough to discover that sometimes, if you take the rough, coarse parts of yourself and mix them with a whole lot of love and way more luck than any one person deserves, they come out soft, fine, and smooth. 

Like they've been kissed by the sun. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Picking Up The Pieces When Life Feels Like A Game of Dominoes

It's Celebration Season at our house: 5 weeks containing 4 birthdays, 1 anniversary, dozens of cupcakes, gallons of frosting, oodles of cheer, and presents everywhere you look. By the end of it all, we are stumbling around in a sugar-induced fugue state, reflexively singing the birthday song with every flick of the light switch, unsure of who or what we are celebrating, salivating like Pavlov's dogs each time the oven reaches 350 degrees. The adults in the house have raw fingers from the wrapping paper rolls, the recycling bin runneth over, and the toys.... oh, the toys.

There are toys that beep and toys that buzz. Toys that glitter and toys that shine. Learning toys, cuddly toys, active toys, e-toys, gender neutral toys, dress-up toys. Toys from friends, and toys from family. Toys made in China and toys made in...other parts of China.

And in order to make room for the semi-annual influx of new toys, we set aside a few hours to go through the current stash of toys for those no longer working and no longer wanted. And in addition to those our birthday tradition states that each child is required to find the same number of toys as his/her age to give away.

In the midst of this process, we typically uncover some treasures of birthdays/Christmases past buried in the bins or relegated to the far reaches of the toy chest (aka The Island of Banned Toys):

"Ooh, Mommy! Remember this dollie that really pees and poops when you feed her??? I wonder how she got stuffed in the bottom of this box!"

"Mom- remember how you said you'd help me put together this 4000 piece 3-D light-up, musical mosaic tile puzzle?"


But occasionally, as my just turned five-year-old daughter and I discovered on a rainy day while eating someone's leftover birthday cake, there are some pleasant surprises.

That was the day she came across a box of dominoes. Good, old fashioned, low-tech, dominoes. I'm not sure whose gift it once was, but the unassuming box hadn't even been opened. And so we happily passed the afternoon together, carefully constructing squiggly lines all across the playroom floor, until that inevitable moment when one slip of her hand set off the familiar clink-clink-clink-clink chain reaction and one by one, end-to-end, they all tumbled over.

"NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!! She wailed. "They can't FALL DOWN!!!! Everything is RUINED!!!!!!!!"

"But it isn't," I assured her with a comforting hug as we surveyed the damage. "Just look: nothing is ruined, and all the pieces are still there. It's different, but it's still beautiful."

She walked away, turning her attention to another one of the Ghosts of Birthdays Past, and I was left holding one lone domino in my hand, trying to convince myself that what I told her really was true.

Because lately I've found myself feeling like I'm trying to hold everything up and it's all falling down around me. Piece by piece, one little clink at a time. Because when a loved one is ill, and when you can't fix it, it's hard to make any of the pieces stand up. It's hard to enjoy the the things you once loved when you know that something...or someone... is missing.

But something about that domino in my hand helped me realize that there is beauty in change, even the most difficult kind. There is peace to be found in shared memories, and there is joy in passing them on.

So I put that domino in my pocket, scooped up my little girl and took her over to the couch. I pulled out a weathered, dog-eared copy of a much beloved book my dad must have read to me at least 200 times. I showed her where he'd helped me write my name in the inside cover, a crooked, five-year-old's scrawl using 3 lower case letters and one upper case.

We got out a crayon, and right below it, almost close enough to touch, I helped her write her own.

It was a lot of sweet and a little bit sad all at once: the spot where past and present stood side-by-side. End-to-end.

And so it seems that's the way life will be. A lot of sweet and little bit sad all at once.

So instead of dwelling on what isn't, and on what has been lost, I will do my best to focus on what still is, and what will never end.

And I will take my memories in one hand and my future in the other and place them next to each other.

There they will stand together, almost touching, end-to-end.

And if it starts to feel like everything is falling down, I'll remember: all the pieces are still there.

It may be different, but it's still beautiful.