Skin of My Skin, Blood of My Blood
The random banter of a recent car trip. I don't remember whether it was whose hand we'd grab in a tornado, who we'd bring in the bunker when North Korea strikes, or what. I wasn't paying attention until Tian chose my brother—her uncle—before us. In the car with her: mom, dad, sister. I protested. My husband cried, “Come on! You have to choose us first! Skin of your skin, blood of your blood!”
Tian is adopted.
“Your immediate family,” Scott added quickly, “Not, you know, your extended family.” I wondered if the skin expression had registered. I could have asked but would that have been to address something that bugged her or just to bug her?
Tian was two when we first discussed adoption. The books say to mention the birthmother, even if she's unknown. Everybody comes from somebody. Every body comes from some body. Sitting next to Tian, though, the terms felt too adult, too obscure. So I called the birthmother her “first mom” and the foster mother her “second mom.” Simple, chronological. But when I got to me, this approach no longer seemed like clever improvisation but a pernicious ranking system. Third mom? The bronze-medal mom? Also, once you get to three, haven't you created a series, one that could go on and on? What if she wondered whether there'd be a fourth mother, a fifth, a sixth? “After your second mom, there's me.” Pause. “Your mom mom. Your mother mother.” I had thrown disproportionate energy into the first half of each doubling: “Your mom mom. Your mother mother.”
Tian is eight. Early on, I thought that it would be exciting if Tian wanted to find her birthmother. We visit China every few years, we speak some Mandarin, so it would be very difficult but maybe not impossible. An incredible adventure!
It is humbling to reflect on an earlier iteration of one's self and think, What a freaking idiot.
We're going to China this year and Tian says she wants to meet her “second mom,” the foster mother, while there. Is it only a matter of time until she wants to look for the other woman? It is, right? She'll want to see her face, her eyes, her body, and compare it to her own, won't she? I will help her but I will be raging inside, What is blood? What is skin?
--Jennifer Ruth, Portland
What the Flesh Wants
A day before the woman was due, the intrauterine chaos of fetal movement, the preparation for the first caterwaul, stopped. She waited a minute for it to start up again. When it didn't, she prayed. She believed in a kind, just God, in a world beyond the flesh.
The next morning, when she wouldn't speak and wouldn't get out of bed, her husband called her obstetrician and drove her to Good Sisters in downtown Portland, where the wheels of medicine took over. The doctors wasted no time; just before she closed her eyes, she saw silhouettes of heads in hot white halos. A wide smile was cut across her bikini line; they lifted out the lifeless boy and went to work on him.
That was two years ago. I met her a year later, in the crisis assessment and treatment center in Portland, where I worked as a mental health nurse. In that year she had never forgiven herself. She wept easily and fiercely in shame; she was bent in half by guilt and grief. There was no questioning the day her baby died.
Her husband brought her to us because she wasn't eating; her flesh hung in folds over her abdomen; she was exhausted. She didn't want medication. She wanted to die.
During her intake she told me she missed the tight skin, the pain of it, the threat it would split open and there would be her baby. She spoke of her fear that day, of faith as the only path back, of dying.
It's difficult to keep secrets of your own when faced by the very heart of human tragedy. I became pregnant when I was forty in the midst of marital ruin. We decided to stay together and have a child. It was a high-risk pregnancy. I was an elderly prima gravida. I knew the tightness of the skin. I understood that pain and desire. I'd come to enjoy resting my hands on that firm, round signature. When I saw a drop of blood on the bathroom floor in my fifth month, I had an ultrasound. It was a picture of dark sky with smudges of distant light, like nebulae. There was no fetus, only placenta.
We moved on, my husband and I. My skin finally adhered to what was now empty. I could not offer that to my patient, that our flesh wants what it wants.
--Evelyn Sharenov, Portland
My daughter has my hair. Babyfine and afro curly. When people see her and see me, they know we are related. But it is our skin that connects us, two people on the same footing. Our thin skin.
We share stories every week of someone who touched us, someone whose happiness or sadness passed right through our too-thin skin, more like lace than membrane. She tells me about the worries of a child in the kindergarten class she helps out in. I tell her about a neighbor who lost her mother. She tells me about a hike she took and how her companion was so happy just to be outside. I tell her about a new friend at work. Sometimes we talk about the deaths of two boys from her high school, and we cry again. Sometimes we talk about how good walking feels.
Our skin, hers and mine, is fragile. The dermatologist says our skin lacks integrity, although that is not the clinical name for this condition. When my daughter was little and tried to wear the clear plastic sparkly shoes, her skin broke down wherever the shoe rubbed, leaving scars that were visible for years. Labels in shirts are a problem—the edges chafe, if we are lucky, or cut if we aren't. Sores underneath watches, bracelets, seams along pant legs. We have tried olive oil, pure vitamin E, cocoa butter, Vaseline, goat's milk—and everything else we can find. At times one or the other of us has developed an infection starting on the surface of our skin that needed to be healed from the inside out.
Most of the time we talk about the details of our lives and the people we know. But sometimes we talk about our skin. I tell her that I have a new pair of tennis shoes that feel very smooth on the inside. She tells me that her fingers cracked and bled while she was on a rafting trip. It does not feel like an analogy or a metaphor to either of us. It feels like how we are in the world. We are very annoyed that something as basic as skin is insufficient to keep out the world with all its rough edges and hard places. But we are grateful to feel how we are connected to the world and to each other.
--Nan Laurence, Eugene
It has been said that race relations are complicated today, and I fully agree. The backgrounds and behavior of people can no longer be assumed based on the color of their skin. Down the street from my home is an uncommon mixed family: a white lesbian couple with two black children. The family next to them is “blended,” but not in the ordinary sense. The couple is white with two grown children living with them along with two much younger, adopted black children.
Also in the immediate neighborhood are Koreans; Chinese; Vietnamese; native Hawaiians; whites; and our family, white and Iu-Mien (a minority Asian ethnic group). My children's friends are of all ethnic groups but, like my children, many are of mixed heritage and appear racially ambiguous.
This appearance has provided my children with strange experiences. When my oldest boy transferred to a new elementary school, he was placed in an English language learners class. Although he is a native English speaker, the school officials assigned him to the class based on his appearance without checking his records.
A younger son was called racial slurs by an Iu-Mien classmate, in a language only my son and he understood. When my son reported it, the teacher said that since he was white, he could not possibly understand what was meant.
My daughter was put in a reading class where the teacher mistakenly addressed her in Spanish. The teacher assumed she was Hispanic because of her appearance. My daughter reported a similar incident involving a girlfriend who is also of white and Asian heritage. A Hispanic performing group was visiting her school and they brought her on stage to participate. They spoke to her in Spanish during the routine, and she did not know what they were saying. It was very embarrassing!
With mixes like this in our everyday life, how can we see race? The variety of people we experience defies our ability to categorize and stereotype. We have to give up on our preconceptions, because even though they were probably wrong from the beginning, now we do not even know if we are applying them to the right people. We can relate to people only as individuals and as Americans in general. Hopefully, as I have already seen in my children, racial stereotyping will just become something ridiculously useless.
--Scott Richardson, Portland
Waiting for Normal
Every six months, I pulled my sleeve over the four needle holes pierced in my tender skin, hiding my inner wrist. Testing for tuberculosis began as soon as my father received his diagnosis and continued on a regular basis through childhood. We waited three days for the skin to swell, a wave of red rash to rise and expand, but I remained nonreactive. I was the one most likely to become infected, but I never did.
In 1964, when my father found out he was sick, he was immediately admitted to the Oregon Tuberculosis Hospital in Salem. The imposing four-story brick building was secluded on the eastern edge of the valley surrounding Salem.
Twice during his hospitalization, my mother drove my young siblings and me to the hospital. We climbed out of the wood-paneled station wagon and waved while watching him wave back from a second-floor window. Mom was allowed inside to visit him, and on those many days we were harbored at our grandparents' house. We became regulars at the zoo. Grandpa bought peanuts to toss to Packy, the newest elephant.
After a while I began to forget what my father looked like.
When my father finally returned to our Grants Pass home, he carried a painting of a clown on black velvet under his good arm. Under his other arm, he protected a scar that extended like a smile between a spot two inches below his right nipple, along the ribs around to his midback. The bad lung tissue was gone, but he would turn his head away when we were close to his face.
In the evenings, he pulled up his shirt and asked one of us to scratch his back, then directed us to run our fingernails ever so lightly over the rose-colored scars. When it was my turn I would absently move my hand while absorbed in watching TV. The scar was thicker than my finger was wide and stretched twelve inches. Scratching took forever and was something I didn't like to do, but he said the skin itched constantly.
The hospital closed soon afterward when medications alone treated tuberculosis. For years the clown painting hung in my parents' hallway. Placing my fingertip in one corner, I could trace a path diagonally over the soft black velvet and never once touch the vivid oil paint brushstrokes that outlined the grinning face.
--Kelli Grinich, McMinnville
I look white. When I tell people I am Mexican, they say, “You don't look Mexican.” When I tell them I am a Mexican Jew, they say, “I didn't realize there were Mexican Jews.” It happens with educated people, and it strikes me that we have allowed racism to live in the cracks of political correctness which stresses a superficial form of “acceptance,” of “tolerance” rather than a profound respect for other cultures and their contributions to our society.
The way people react to my whiteness when faced with the facts is very telling. This is not about the color of my skin. This is about ignorance. This is about us failing to teach our children that Europeans came to this continent and bred, for centuries! This is about us thinking we need to stress to our children that they must overlook color.
Color of your skin is the least of it. Color blindness is counterproductive if we do not tell the story of who we are and why. I would be no more Mexican if I'd inherited my grandmother's dark skin. I am profoundly Mexican in the way I think, express myself, and interact with others.
I would be no more Jewish if I looked more Sephardic, like my mother. I have a Jewish soul and my code of ethics is a part of me, whether or not I have curly dark hair or my father's Ashkenazi nose.
We need to bring the discussion to the fore, in our schools and in our workplaces, that people of color come in shades of white. And we need to start seeing color as irrelevant, not because ethnicity is irrelevant but precisely because it is the culture of a person that tells her story, not the color of her skin.
--Flora Sussely, Portland
Theology of the Body
He had hot, smooth skin, hairless without blemish. He was my lover. She has dark skin from the Mediterranean. Everyone says she is beautiful. She is my mother. His skin is white and cracked speaking of history and the good times gone by. He is my husband. I have scars on my skin. I am a woman of many scars.
My son has skin that confused everyone in eastern Oregon. Was he Mexican? Was he Indian? I would get angry. “He is Japanese, you morons!” My son got angry at me for getting angry. “It is my skin,” he said. “I get to own the response to the morons. You are white.” They tell me that death is liberation from the body. I'm not convinced separating from the body is such a great thing. We know ourselves by responding to the pain and pleasure of our physical lives. If my soul separated from my earthly vessel I don't think I would even recognize myself.
The priest at church talks about the resurrection of the body. That sounds better then leaving the body altogether. I would rather have a soul in a body than a soul just floating around somewhere. The problem is, which body will I get? I really want my twenty-six-year-old body, not my fifty-six-year-old body.
I was admired for my white skin when I lived in Japan. Dark skin meant work in the fields and poverty. Sometimes strangers pointed at me and called me “gaijin.” It was a cruel teasing. I thought of others who had different skin in different countries. Compassion lit my soul. My body was a teacher to my soul.
A while back I attended my friend's funeral in White Swan. It was in the Shaker church. I remember driving to the church that morning. It was the day that the astronauts had their funeral. The President went to that funeral.
When I arrived at the beautiful white church on the hill I noticed that President Bush wasn't there, only my friend's relatives. The family was poor, so the giveaway consisted of gadgets from the dollar store. My friend who'd died used to describe an empty belly as a kid, working in the forest for a big lumber company from the time he was fourteen. He would give money to his family. He told me of fishing in the Columbia. Members of his tribe asked him to help in healing ceremonies. He didn't go to space, but he deserved the funeral of an astronaut.
Why are some bodies ignored while other bodies are praised and worshipped? I don't know. Perhaps the human race will be granted mercy for its cruelty toward the others with different skin.
Skin creates soul; soul creates skin. I hold the new baby living across the street. I hold tight and try to bind our souls. Deep wisdom of embrace, push us forward.
--Renee Caubisens, Pendleton
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