Lori Jakiela is the author of two memoirs – The Bridge to Take When Things Get Serious (C&R Press 2013) and Miss New York Has Everything (Hatchette 2006) – as well as a poetry collection, Spot the Terrorist! (Turning Point 2012). Her essays have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Brevity, Hobart, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and more. She teaches in the writing programs at Pitt-Greensburg and Chatham University.
My mother organizes a family photo shoot at the duck pond in Turtle Creek, a gift for my grandmother’s 70th birthday. The duck pond is in the Catholic cemetery. It’s pretty, a prime spot for wedding and family portraits, but the angle has to be right to keep tombstones out of the shots.
I’m 14 and think this is funny. The photographer, George -- 50-something, gap-toothed, tatty blazer -- does not. George says, “Jiminy Christmas.” George says, “Come on, people, work with me.”
George sucks air through his teeth when he’s frustrated. Today he sucks a lot of air. Hands on hips, bent over, George looks like he’s between steps in step aerobics. From behind, George looks like one of those cutouts sad housewives prop next to their garden gnomes. The cutouts look like mushrooms, but look close and they’re fat women bent over, all petticoats and butt cheeks.
“Now that’s creative!” my mother said when she first saw one for mail order in the back of Family Circle magazine.
George looks like he’d rather do lingerie shots of sad housewives dressed as mushrooms than deal with this. George says, “We’ll get this sucker yet,” like our family photo is something stubborn and painful, a splinter in his toe.
It might be the tombstones, it might be the lighting, but I’m deep into puberty and I loathe myself even more than I loathe George. I’m gawky, blonde, too tall. I’m wearing a cream-colored dress and everybody else is navy and grey. There’s a mole the size of a pencil eraser on my cheek and the tingle of a new zit in my eyebrow.
Everyone else here looks the same -- symmetrical, olive-toned, second-generation Italian immigrant shrubs.
Which of these things is not what it seems -- mushroom or fat lady?
Which of these things doesn’t belong? Apple, apple, horse, apple.
“You,” George says to me. “Let’s try you over here.”
George moves me to the back row, far right.
Everyone else fits.
“And you,” he says to my cousin Geri. “Over here.” George claps his hands and corrals Geri, a year older than me and just as self-conscious, to the back row, left. She shifts side to side, like she has to pee.
“Better,” George says, and squints into his camera, then makes his dying balloon sound.
In the final shot, Geri and I look like we’ve crashed some other family’s photo session. We look like mismatched bookends holding up some other family’s story.
George tells my mother, “It’s a wonderful thing to preserve one’s family for posterity.”
George says, “I think the recipient will be delighted.”
George says, “Will you be ordering keychains?”
Like me, my cousin Geri was adopted. Different orphanage, different lineage. When she sees me, she says, “Hey stranger.” She says, “You and me, we’re strangers around here,” then adds “thank god.”
Geri’s bi-racial. She knows it, I know it, but the rest of the family pretends it’s not true. When my aunt and uncle adopted her, the agency told them Geri was Italian, with maybe a little Greek thrown in. Italian and Greek in a family where men were prone to Italian Stallion tattoos was fine. A Caucasian/African American mix, not fine. It’s a horrible truth, but this was 1960s working-class Pittsburgh, and the money was in healthy white babies. The social workers at the agency knew this and Geri was such a sweet thing, never cried, never fussed.
“Highly adoptable,” was the phrase social workers used. I read that somewhere.
I was not highly adoptable. I was born crippled, two clubbed feet, and needed many surgeries. The only reason my parents ended up with me is because they were too old to qualify for a healthy white baby girl.
“We loved you from the moment we saw you,” my father says and I believe him.
“We chose you,” my mother says, and I know she has made herself believe she always had a choice.
My uncle, Geri’s adopted dad, is a cop. My aunt cleans houses. They love Geri, too, but they grew up with segregation. They believed in segregation. They loved segregation. They still won’t go into a swimming pool if black people are in there first. They call the fancy nuts they serve at Christmas nigger toes.
My aunt has tried for years to straighten my cousin’s hair.
She tries to keep her daughter out of the sun.
She says, “What’s wrong with you? Why do you get so dark?”
She says, “You look like you stuck your finger in a socket.”
She says, “You get any darker, they’ll ship you to Africa.”
She says, “Do you want to be shipped to Africa?”
When our other cousins, two cruel boys who push our faces in the dirt and try to make us lick their feet, watch the Lakers on TV, they point to Magic Johnson, then to Geri.
They say, “Smile, Ger.”
They size up Magic on the screen and say, “He looks just like you.”
They say much worse than that.
But Geri is funny. She tells good jokes. She is often the brunt of her own jokes, so as orphans go, the family likes her better than me.
Years from now, when I go away to college, my aunts will say, “You can’t hide forever. Someday you’re going to have to get a real job.” When I go to graduate school, they will say, “What do you want to be? An educated bum?”
When Geri goes into the Army, my aunts will say how proud they are. They will show pictures of Geri playing basketball in Germany. They will show pictures of her lounging on a beach in Crete. In those pictures she’ll be smiling. She’ll be very beautiful and very dark. She’ll be wearing shorts and tank tops the color of the Mediterranean. Her teeth will be white sand.
“I tell her,” my aunt, her mother, will say. “She should stay out of the sun. People will get ideas. But look how happy she is. She’s finally getting to see the world. My Geri baby.”
When she becomes a cop like her father before her, my aunts will say what a good cop she’ll be because she always has been so kind and good. She’s been that way since the day she was picked up from that orphanage. Everyone will agreed. Geri has been grateful from the start. She has always said thank you. She has always said please.
Those may have been my cousin’s first words, to hear my aunts tell it over glasses of red wine and pasta.
Geri always had a good temperament, they will say.
Then they’ll look at me and sigh.
I am not a model orphan.
I am moody and outspoken. I lack gratitude, especially for a born cripple.
I feel guilty about this.
Guilt doesn’t change anything.
“Smile,” George the photographer says, “Smile like you mean it, not like you’re going to bite somebody.”
I give George what feels like a real smile. I try to think of something happy. I think of a song I like by “Boston.” I go through the lyrics in my head. I get stuck on a line and forget about smiling.
“Teenagers,” George says. Everything about him is helium.
It is no small thing to confess sins to Father Ackerman. He is a nasty hairy-eared man with breath like a sweatsock. It is an easier and better punishment to be gnawed by squirrels. But the guilt gets to me, and every once in a while, when I’ve done something awful, I ask my mother to take me to confession.
“Father Ackerman,” my mother says, “doesn’t pussyfoot around.”
Every Sunday, I endure Father Ackerman’s long sermons about Jesus and the cripples. My mother elbows me to pay attention to the parts she is sure are meant especially for me.
“See what you learn if you listen instead of running your mouth all the time?” my father said after a mass where Father Ackerman encouraged parents to beat gratitude into children who seem immune to it. Father Ackerman suggested parents use their hands for beatings, so children would feel that physical connection.
“So,” my father said. “Who wants doughnuts?”
Sometimes I feel God is talking right to me, through Father Ackerman, his creepy, hairless hands pressing down on my shoulders like cement weights. I’d come to my parents through Catholic Charities. My cousin had come to her parents through another branch of Catholic Charities. This God, Father Ackerman’s God, must have had something to do with our adoption miracles.
Still, when Father Ackerman waits at his farewell spot by the baptismal font after every mass, when he admonishes us to “Go with God,” he sounds more like a mafia boss making death threats than any messenger of Christ.
“You never see the good in people,” my mother says. “You never say anything nice,” she says, and turns her mouth upside down.
Maybe she’s right, but St. Regis still isn’t much of a church. It’s a school basement and the confessional booth is a repurposed janitor’s closet. The kneeler creaks and is uneven, so sinners have to balance on it like a seesaw. The light outside, which is supposed to turn from green to red when you kneel down, doesn’t always turn and people often walk in on each other mid-confession. It’s like catching someone in the bathroom. The confessional smells like old-lady powder and worms after rain. It smells like damp wood. It smells, I think, like a coffin once the undertaker closes the lid and locks a body in.
Father Ackerman sits behind the yellowed plastic privacy screen, his greased-up breath oozing through the pinholes. He cocks a hairy ear. I tell him I do not honor my father and mother. I tell him I am an ungrateful child.
He says, “Didn’t your parents take you out of that orphanage?”
About my sins, he asks, “How many times?”
The Catholic Church is big on counting things. Sins need to be tallied so the proper number of Hail Marys and Our Fathers can be dished as penance.
I don’t tell Father Ackerman my sins are uncountable, an ongoing problem, something genetic, and, probably, incurable.
“Ten,” I say, a good number, a round number, perfect as Bo Derek in cornrows.
Father Ackerman gives me the prescription to make me blameless. He makes the sign of the cross, his wax-museum hand a shadow behind the screen.
He tells me all is forgiven.
He calls me his child.
He tells me to go and sin no more.
I balance my weight on the kneeler. I try not to creak.
We are having our usual Sunday dinner at my grandmother’s house when my aunts mention my cousin’s good temperament one too many times. I am the worst kind of teenager – a seether.
“You mean smart ass,” my father says.
“It’s in you to always look at the worst in things,” my mother says.
“She’s been that way from the moment you picked her up,” my aunts say.
“You never can tell what you’ll get,” my grandmother says, like adoption is a grab-bag sale.
I sit and seethe. Then I cover my plate with my napkin. I push my chair from the table. I walk to my grandmother’s sewing machine. My grandmother keeps a huge stack of old “Pennysavers” piled on top of the machine, which hasn’t worked for years. My grandmother is over 250 pounds and a keeper of things she does not use. My grandmother has a great passion for food – a minute ago she took a half-eaten pork chop from my plate, chewed it down to marrow, then sucked the marrow dry.
I think I love my grandmother, but I am angry.
I am almost always angry.
I pull a couple dusty “Pennysavers” from the pile, and open the Adoptable Pets sections.
Then I read the ads out loud.
Mixed breed. Cockapoo. Bull terrier named Butch, free to loving home.
The phrase good temperament shows up in nearly every one.
When I’m done, I fold the “Pennysavers” and put them back onto my grandmother’s about-to-topple pile. I look at my cousin, who looks past me at the crucifix above my head. The crucifix is a fire hazard. Jesus is lost in a jungle of desiccated palm fronds.
“We’ve had our shots, too,” I say.
Everyone stops chewing. My mother points her fork like she would stab me. My Uncle Bus drinks his Budweiser from a can. He crushes the can, drops it into the pail next to him, and pops his standby. My Uncle Tony stares at the Steelers game on mute on the TV. The stereo my grandmother keeps on all day every Sunday keeps cranking out polkas, all that happy music, barrels of fun. The aunts click their tongues.
My grandmother says, “You will have manners in my house, young lady,” then she digs into her ravioli before it gets cold.
Back home I’ll be grounded, but it’s worth the laugh Geri and I share out on my grandmother’s side porch where we’ll dangle from clothesline poles and consider whether or not we’re housebroken, have had all our shots, or how we could ever be good with children.
Sometimes our mothers encourage us to find our birth mothers.
“Maybe she’d know what to make of you,” my aunt says to Geri.
“Maybe it would help you feel more settled,” my mother says to me.
I know my birth name -- Amelia. I know my birth mother’s name.
It would be easy enough.
“It would be good for you to find out,” my mother says.
Other times, the idea frightens her.
“Some rocks are better left alone,” she says. “Let sleeping snakes lie.”
“You mean dogs,” I say.
“You probably get your smart mouth from her,” my mother says. “Someday you’re going to choke on all those smart words of yours.”
Then my mother goes and dusts something.
My mother thinks scientists should come up with a way to match adoptive kids’ personalities with the personalities of the families interested in adopting them. One day she tells me this.
“That way they’d get a good match,” she says. “Like things with like things. It would be better for everybody.” We’ve been fighting -- chores, homework. There’s always something between us.
My mother’s face when she says this, though, is flat as a card deck. It isn’t something she says out of anger. It’s something she’s been considering for a long time.
“Matchmaker, matchmaker make me a match,” George, the photographer at the cemetery, sang as he shuffled my cousin and me, trying to find a spot where we fit.
He didn’t mean anything. He was the kind of guy who’d like musicals. He was the kind of guy who’d have “Fiddler on the Roof” on tape.
“Like things with like things” is just an expression, I think.
“I don’t know where you came from,” my mother says when she disapproves of something -- my crushed-blue-velvet-button-fly-hip-hugger jeans or the expensive perfume with real pheromones I douse myself in. The perfume smells like shoe polish and the fake deer pee hunters in our neighborhood spritz on to make themselves invisible to prey. The hip-huggers give me a terrible case of camel toe. I don’t know this. All I know is it’s important to spend hours rolling my blonde bangs into two vertical sausages.
All I know is I hate my mother.
“Me either,” I say.
It doesn’t help that I’m clumsy and my mother likes things neat. “You’re a mistake waiting to happen,” she says.
That’s just an expression, too, I think.
Mistakes are not blood things. Or maybe they are. It depends on what you watch on TV, Oprah or Maury Povich. It depends on which magazine cover you stop for at the grocery store.
One tells you you’ve made the life you own.
The other believes in paternity tests, unveiled before a studio audience, with body guards pillared at four corners of the stage.
“Tell the audience how you’re feeling right now,” Maury Povich always says, right after he makes his big reveal. He pushes his microphone in close and the camera comes in and there’s a pause, a moment when there’s just a mouth, open, slack, no words coming out, because really, what can anyone say at a moment like that?
“Smile,” George the photographer said, and Geri smiled big. She wanted to please.
“Not every day’s a funeral, you know,” George said to me.
I tried. I did. I do.
“I think it looks nice,” my aunt said when she saw the family photo. She ran her thumb over the spot where Geri stood, like something was there, a spot, a speck. She rubbed at the image of her daughter, like she could blur it out and make it blend.
This is years before Photoshop, when regular people in pictures look the way they look in real life.
Looking back, if such things as genetic personality matching had been possible, neither I nor Geri would have ended up in our family.
“And that would have been a bad thing how?” Geri would want to know.
Geri didn’t know for sure she was bi-racial until she found her birth family. We were both in our 30s by then. Geri’s birth mother’s white. Her dad’s black. She had full brothers and sisters. It was a timing thing, them giving her up.
Geri said, “Now I know where I get my sense of humor.”
She said, “It’s good to know some things.”
She said, “I look a lot like my dad.”
My cousin didn’t stay in contact with her birth family or have a relationship with them. I don’t know why. She wouldn’t say. My aunt, her mother, started rumors, though.
The birth family asked for money. They’d asked for favors. Cops can do things. Those people wanted those things. That’s what my aunt called them. Those people.
“You know how those people are,” my aunt told everyone.
When my aunt went on blaming black people for destroying Braddock, when she said things like “those welfare jiggaboos let their babies run around without diapers and they piss on everything,” my cousin still visited her every other day. She took her to the doctors and brought her groceries and took her to church and stayed with her during the service when her mother needed her to do that, even though my cousin’s not much for church.
What I know -- my cousin still hasn’t shut her mother out of her life.
What I don’t know is why.
“You’re a good person,” I tell Geri. We’re talking about something else. She’s been telling a story about the time she went to arrest a guy and was worried she hurt him because there was some blood. She was upset until she realized the blood was hers. The guy had stabbed her in the thigh and she didn’t feel it.
“Good? Hell no, I punched him in the head after that,” she says.
“I mean your heart’s good,” I say, and she looks at me like I’ve said something ridiculous, like I’ve told her she has a good temperament. “I mean you’re not like most cops,” I say, “the way they get hard. The way they stop feeling things.”
She nods, and I nod back, but I don’t mean cops really.
I mean people. I mean me.
Once on the South Side of Pittsburgh, my friend Trish and I met two cops in a bar. We were talking, playing a trivia game. It was an electronic tabletop game. I was winning. The category was literature or maybe rock ‘n’ roll. Those are my favorites. I like bar trivia games. I like any game that lets me think a bit while I drink to keep myself from thinking too much.
One of the cops took my friend Trish out back to do some blow. The other cop sat with me at the bar, a little sad because I was less fun than Trish. I didn’t want to sleep with him. I didn’t want to do what he said were the very primo drugs he’d snagged in a traffic stop from a real dirt bag. A real dirt bag with very primo blow.
The cop had a bad mustache. It was a sad mustache, or maybe it was a disappointed mustache. Maybe the mustache was disappointed because I’d disappointed the cop and on better days the mustache may have looked better, perkier, more alive. Right then, though, it sat on the cop’s lip like old lettuce. I stared at the mustache when I talked and felt bad about it.
I said, “My cousin’s a cop.”
He said, “Oh yeah. Which precinct?”
I told him.
He said, “Really? What’s her name?”
I told him that, too.
He said, “Oh yeah. I know her. Good cop. Good kid. She was a foster kid or adopted or some shit. She has problems with her family. Trouble with her mother. Racist or some fucked up thing. You know how those old-time families are. I think her real family was fucked up, too. It’s a real mess.”
He said, “You sure you don’t want any blow?”
Sometimes I think I know my cousin and I think she knows me.
Other times I think she’s right to call us strangers.
“You,” George the photographer snapped his fingers at Geri, at me. “And you. What’s your name again?”
My cousin never told me if she ever learned her birth name.
The cop in the bar, when he said Geri found her real family -- I didn’t ask what he meant by that.
My cousin never told me which of her own names, if she knew and could choose, would feel most natural. She never said which life, if she could choose, she’d consider most real.
“Real is the mother who raised you,” my mother says. I believe that. There’s always more to it, of course.
Lately Geri has been taking in orphans – crack babies, mostly – and stays up nights to rock them and sing to them and try to stop their crying. Some of the babies have names, some don’t. Nearly all of them cry and go on crying and my cousin has to give them back to a system that might one day give them back to mothers who won’t care if their babies go on crying or not.
“Some people should never have children,” she says.
She says, “The important thing is not to get too attached.”
She says, “There’s not a whole lot anyone can do really.”
She says, “I’ve never been good with kids.”
Pretty soon, she will give up orphans and get a dog instead. She’ll work the K-9 unit. More than once a dog will save her life, vice versa.
“You can really trust dogs,” she'll say.