In 1976, my parents were twenty-five, had been married five years, and wanted a baby. Three summers in a row, they had visited the Wallowa Mountains, home of my first mother’s family, home of my Indigenous ancestors. My parents didn’t know it was the origin place of their future daughter. They fished, hiked, drank spring water mixed with Tang, gathered wild onions, cooked over a campfire, and slept under the stars. I’m convinced my ancestors were watching, trying to figure out if this young couple could be trusted with their grandchild. I imagine the ghosts of my relatives standing unseen on a ridge above the trail, whispering to each other.
Grandma says, “Well, what do you think? Are they the ones?”
“The ones to parent our girl?” Grandpa asks.
“You know any other grandbabies who need a home?”
“She will grow up in the country, and I like that.”
“And it is a big family—all those aunties and uncles and cousins.”
“They will love her.”
“And they will tell her the truth.”
“She’ll be able to find her way back to us.”
“And that’s what we want.”
My ancestors are funny, sassy, tender, tough, and don’t mess around. After all, we were created from river water and the blood of a monster.
There was a huge monster that came up from the ocean. He came as far as he could until he could go no further. He would open his huge mouth and inhale anything that was in his path. He had soon consumed all the salmon, sturgeon, and eels, and because he was so huge he began taking in the deer and all the food animals of the forest. He began on the fruits and bushes and trees like the huckleberries, chokecherries, and wild plants. He ate all the roots and everything in the ground and on the ground. Soon there was nothing left.*
I learned the story of my birth when I was twenty-seven years old, in the second letter I received from my first mother. She said it was hard for her to write down, that she cried as she wrote because she had never told anyone and she was afraid it would cause me pain. But she had also promised to tell me the truth.
I was born on a Wednesday. My first mother was fifteen, and her dad and stepmother had sent her to a home for pregnant teen girls in Portland. She told me it was one of the best times in her life because people there cared about her and what she had to say.
She went into labor on a cold, rainy night in January. It was late, and the on-duty counselor stayed up with her until two in the morning. They talked about her future, and they counted the minutes between labor pains. When it was time to go to the hospital, she asked if she could call her dad, but the counselor said she already had—he was working and would not come. This fifteen-year-old girl, my first mother, thought she must be a horrible person if God and her family had turned their backs on her. The counselor sent her to the hospital, alone and scared, in a taxi.
It was a long, hard delivery. She was in labor for thirty-eight hours. The nurses had her walking the hospital halls because, they said, the baby would not drop into the birth canal. She told me, “I think you knew what was coming, that we would be separated, and you didn’t want to come out.” After thirty-six hours, they broke her water. Then they pushed on her belly, trying to force me into the world.
They took me away as soon as I was born and didn’t tell her if she’d had a boy or a girl. She said, “I was screaming and crying because I wanted to see you, but they gave me a bunch of drugs. Later my dad said I was having a nervous breakdown—the drugs were for my own good—but he hadn’t been there. It was only us.”
Seven days after I was born, the hospital staff told her she could see me if she calmed down, but she had to sign the adoption papers first. They said if she didn’t, the state would take me from her anyway. They said that no one would help her, that she was too young to receive any government assistance. So two days later she signed. I feel an ache in my gut when I imagine her taking up the pen, knowing what it meant for both of us.
They took her to a small nursery on the other side of the hospital where a guard stood outside the door. The nurse gave her a bottle and diaper and told her she had half an hour before her dad would be there to pick her up. Then they put me in her arms and left us alone.
“You were the prettiest little thing I had ever seen. You had thick black hair and dark skin and dark eyes, and I couldn’t believe this little innocent person had come from me. I changed your diaper and found out I had a girl. I rocked you and fed you and talked to you. I told you how much I loved you and how much I wanted to keep you. I prayed that you would have loving new parents and that you would grow up not hating me or feeling that I had abandoned you or thrown you away. You held on to my finger as I talked to you and you never cried, until I had to give you back to the nurse."
She never told anyone the story of my birth because, she said, “You are the only one who has shared the deep pain and loss of this separation with me.”
I wish I had the capacity to remember this. To remember the sound of her voice, the weight of my body in her arms, the look in her eyes, the smell of her. We had so few moments together that I wish I remembered them all.
When she returned home, womb and arms empty, she was haunted by my cries and would wake up in the middle of the night hearing me. She would scream and yell at God and ask why this had to happen to us. She wondered what she had done that was so wrong that she wasn’t given the chance to raise me. She never told anyone the story of my birth because, she said, “You are the only one who has shared the deep pain and loss of this separation with me.”
Coyote was building a fish trap on the river when he heard that a great monster was eating all the fish and animals and plants and roots. He decided to see what he could do.
On the way, he took a bath and dressed up to make himself tasty to the monster. He covered himself in clay to be invisible in the grass. Climbing up the ridges, he looked out over the river and saw a huge head. Way off in the distance toward the horizon, he saw an enormous body. He’d never seen anything this large.
Coyote tied himself to three mountains and hid in the grass.
Growing up, the story of my adoption went like this: My parents had tried to get pregnant, but they’d already had one miscarriage. My mom went to see a specialist who told her they could perform an operation to change the shape of her uterus. But before she committed to surgery they decided to stop at an adoption agency to learn more. They had a good feeling and had support from friends who had also adopted children. From there, the process began. That was in July of 1976, after returning from the Wallowas. They made a small donation to the adoption agency, filled out some forms, got three references to write letters of recommendation, and completed a home visit in October. My mom told me the social worker didn’t even look through the house, didn’t go through the rooms. She said they stayed about an hour, asked some questions, then left.
It had been cold and rainy the week they got the call. The social worker from the adoption agency said, “We have a baby for you to look at. She’s part Indian. You don’t have to take her—you can just come look.”
To this, my mom always says, “Can you imagine? There are people who don’t want a baby because it has red hair or because it looks different than them. Of course we wanted you. You were already our daughter.
They weren’t exactly ready, though; it had all happened faster than they anticipated. They went to Penney’s and picked up a crib, some baby clothes, bedding, diapers, formula, and nightshirts. Two days later, they had their old green Pinto loaded up with supplies.
They were on their way out of town, crossing over the railroad tracks before the highway entrance, when Mom turned to Dad and asked, “What do you think of the name Melissa?”
When I think about what would come later in my first mother’s life, when she gave birth to her second daughter and named her Melissa, I believe this was an inspired moment. That Mama God and the ancestors dropped that name into both of my mothers’ minds and out of their mouths.
They arrived at the adoption agency, and a social worker brought me to them wrapped in a pink blanket. The first photo of my life was taken here. I had lots of black hair, big round cheeks, tiny pursed lips, and I was asleep. My mom says, “As soon as they put you in my arms, I knew you were mine.”
This is where my parents’ story of my adoption ends. Each time I hear it, I wonder if they thought about my first mother in that moment. If they wondered who she was or how she was, because each time I hear the story I feel her loss in their joy.
Coyote yelled at the monster, “We are going to inhale each other!”
The big eyes of the monster searched for the voice but could not see where it was coming from.
“Monster! We are going to inhale each other,” Coyote shouted once again. He shook the grass and took a huge, deep, and powerful breath. The monster only swayed.
Coyote said, “Inhale me! You have already swallowed all the animals and plants. Swallow me next so I won’t be lonely!” He called the monster a shameful name.
The monster did not know Coyote carried with him five stone knives, some pitch, and flint for making a fire. The monster inhaled like a mighty wind. The wind was so strong Coyote was sucked into the monster’s mouth.
I’ve heard the story of my adoption from my mom a hundred times. And my first mother wrote my birth story in a letter that I’ve now read a hundred times. No matter how many times this story makes its way into my mind, I still find it very difficult to connect to the baby. I can picture it all happening: the pain and exhaustion of labor, the feelings of abandonment, the separation of daughter from mother, the tears, the bond and brief reunion, another separation, then meeting my parents, being held, fed, loved. But it feels like watching a movie. No matter how hard I try, my body does not understand that this infant was me.
Part of me is always missing. I was born into a world that was cold. The smells and sounds I knew in the womb were gone. The first nine days of my life, nothing was familiar, and when the hospital finally allowed my first mother and me to be together it was only for a few minutes. Once I was home, my mom said I was a “good sleeper.” She said the first week I would sleep for five hours, wake up for an hour to be fed, then sleep another four. I must have been exhausted. I began life disconnected from my senses.
As a child, I had an imaginary friend. Our house had a wall of 1970s mirrors at the end of the hallway—the mirrored tiles with gold flecks running through. There was a small closet next to the mirrors where Mom kept cleaning supplies. I used to pretend that my reflection was my sister, also named Melissa, who lived on the other side of the wall. I would knock on the closet door and step inside to talk with her. I didn’t know I had a younger sister named Melissa until I was twenty-seven years old. Maybe it was the ancestors who clued me in early.
I asked questions about my first mother throughout my life: Why did she give me away, what tribe is she from, how old was she when I was born? I asked these questions over and over, even though the answers were always the same: She gave you up because she loved you, she is Umatilla, she was fifteen. I read stories of birth mothers seeking their children in Seventeen magazine; I cried over adoption reunion episodes on Montel and Oprah; I wept any time a character on a favorite TV show had a baby. My parents told me they would support me if I ever wanted to try to find my birth mother. I believed one day I would. I always held on to that hope.
It was the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation that made the reunion possible. We kept in contact for five years as they tried to locate my first mother. They reached out to relatives, but no one knew where she was or how to find her. There are many ways Native women go missing. It took longer than anyone expected, but one day she walked into the office with her sister, my auntie. The woman at the tribal office, who I had been talking to for years, said to her, “We’ve been looking for you! What does the date January 5 mean to you?”
And my first mom fell down and cried, “You found my daughter.”
Coyote began walking down the throat of the monster. He saw the plants and animals that the monster had consumed. Coyote reached the heart of the monster and cut slabs of fat from it to feed the animals. He then built a fire and the smoke drifted up through the monster’s eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. With his stone knives, Coyote began cutting out the monster’s heart. One by one the knives were breaking, but Coyote wouldn’t give up. He kept cutting until the last knife broke. At that point, Coyote grabbed the heart with his bare hands and tore it loose.
When I got the call, I knew the time had finally arrived.
“Are you sitting down?”
“Yes.” I could feel my body holding its breath. I was vibrating with anxiety, my stomach clenched.
The person at the tribal office told me my mother’s name, my grandmother’s name, my great-grandmother’s name. She told me I had a sister with my name. She listed the tribes of my ancestors: Umatilla, Nimiipuu, Sac and Fox, Odawa, Potawatomi. I wrote it all down on a pink Post-it note. She told me she had the phone numbers for my mother and auntie, but before she shared them, I should take the weekend to think about it. I didn’t need to; I’d been thinking about this moment for twenty-seven years.
I was overwhelmed with feeling. It was like sitting in the sand at the beach with wave after wave washing over me, knocking me down. I couldn’t move. I sat on the edge of my bed for hours. The decades of longing for connection, for answers, for reunion, for origin came loose. The institution of separation no longer had a hold. I knew their names. My women had come back to me, and I was back with them.
As soon as the heart came loose, the great monster died, and Coyote was able to throw all the animals and plants and fish and roots out through the openings in the monster, out to where they would do the most good.
Finally, Coyote untied his ropes and freed himself from the monster. The animals helped Coyote carve the monster into large pieces. Coyote threw the pieces outward in every direction. Where they landed, nations of people sprang up. Coyote named the people the Cayuse, the Blackfeet, the Coeur d’Alene, and the Yakama.
The first time we met in person was at the Oregon Zoo. We’d been writing letters and talking on the phone for nearly a year. I spotted her at the entrance of the zoo from across the parking lot. My whole body lurched forward in my seat.
We were both in tears by the time I reached her, and we hugged and cried into each other’s big curly hair for a long time. She looked at me and laughed and said, “You got your father’s nose.”
I laughed and said, “That was going to be my first question! Where did I get this nose?”
“You were doomed either way, honey,” she said. “I had a nose like that too, but they shaved it down when I had skin cancer. I went in with skin cancer and came out with a new nose.” And we laughed and cried again.
We knew each other for three years before she died.
I sat beside her the last day of her life. She’d had a cancer diagnosis for only ten days. I remember thinking, Here we are again, back in the hospital together, only this time in reverse. It wasn’t fair. I watched her sleep all day. The nurses had given her morphine for the pain in her lungs. I studied her hands that were the same shape as mine. I saw that her shoulders sloped the same way mine did and that we had the same round arms. She had a little Aries tattoo between her thumb and forefinger. At one point tears began to fall from her eyes, and my aunt said, “She learned to cry silently like the rest of us.”
My aunts and uncle and sister came in and out of the room while I stayed beside her, holding her hand. I was grateful to them for inviting me here, for giving me these last moments with the woman who brought me into this world with so much grief and so much love. I didn’t want to let her go. A lifetime of questions still existed between us. I had just turned thirty, and she was only three days shy of her forty-sixth birthday. We thought we would have time; instead we were in a hospital room at the end of our story—a story of two lives braided together by love, loss, and pain.
After Coyote dismembered the river monster and scattered his body parts to the four directions to make different tribes, Fox said, “What about us? You’ve given away everything and have left us with nothing.”
Coyote looked at his hands covered in the monster’s blood and said, “Bring me water from the river.” He washed his hands and sprinkled the bloody water around the place where he stood, and the Nimiipuu, the people, were born. Coyote told us, “You will be little, but you will be strong.”
*“Coyote and the River Monster” is part of a Umatilla and Nez Perce creation story. The version written here is compiled from the websites of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (as told by Esther Motanic Lewis, the author’s great-grandmother), the Nez Perce National Historical Park, and the National Park Service.
6 comments have been posted.
My brilliant friend. Thank you for sharing your stories. I’m grateful for you and your families and your continued radiance in the world!
Quinn <3 | April 2023 | Olympia
This piece filled me with an indescribable sense of love and wonder. I absolutely enjoyed every part. I cried and rejoiced several times while reading this beautiful story. I loved the weaving of mystery- the ancestors observing your second mother and father n the Wallowa mountains, the imaginary sister named Melissa. The juxtaposition of the two creation stories side by side was so powerful. I hope this story is told many times and spread far and wide. Thank you Melissa for sharing this deeply personal part or yourself.
Chenae Garcia | April 2023 | Oregon
Melissa, bless you for searching, finding and healing some wounds of the hidden past. Washing your hands with these narratives elevates us all out of dark practices and carries us a bit closer to the light and new life.
Joan M | April 2023 | Philadelphia, PA
What a beautiful and heart-wrenching story. I am so glad that your furst mother told you the story. What absolute love ❤
Melissa | April 2023 |
Exquisite. I cried for the first mother. For the first mother’s body, separated from first baby. I cried for first baby, who was supposed to have arms, a breast and a heart to deliver the message, “Welcome and you are loved.” The creation story, alongside the creation story, was compelling and was the score for the 2nd creation story. Thank you for your vulnerability, your strength and for your wondrous survival. And thank you to your parents who adopted you. Wow. 🙏🏽🤎🪶
Angelina Sáenz | April 2023 | Los Angeles, CA
Beautiful story! So glad you were able to reunite with your birth mother and share happy moments prior to her passing. Do Native Americans believe that you will see each other again in the afterlife (not sure how to refer to it from your perspective).
Elaine S | April 2023 | Virginia
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