Shawna is a Pushcart nominee and has taught writing workshops for both adults and children. She is a member of Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, where she recently graduated from the Book Project, a two-year intensive mentoring program. She is working on a memoir about her experience in foster care and adopting two kids from South Korea. Recent publications include poetry in Forge, and prose in Moon City Review, Willow Review, Existere, The Delmarva Review, The Diverse Arts Project, and Sliver of Stone.
Tobacco and Grace
“I want pink and red and purple,” Grace said, pushing the nail polish toward me. “Pink on this hand, red on this one, purple on this foot.” She lifted her other foot and paused as she realized she needed another color. She whipped around to the bathroom closet and rummaged through a plastic tub, turned around and pushed a bottle at me—pink with glitter—and ran to the rug in the living room, our designated nail-painting spot. She flopped to a sit and held out her fingers for me.
“That will look great.” I followed her, clutching the four bottles. She was four and had officially been a part of our family for two years, after we’d finalized her adoption from South Korea. She seemed in a rush, wanting her nails to be painted new colors before we ran errands so if someone commented she could act coy and bask in the beauty she still believed was inherent and enjoyed showing off. She wanted to grow up, to go to kindergarten. I wanted to wait. I saw her stumble often, her body well ahead of what her mind told her limbs to do. I saw how much she relied on me even as she sighed and told me that she knew, that she could do it herself. It felt like too soon to send her into a world that was large enough that I might lose her—that she might lose me. The registration deadline was a week away.
I had told everyone I knew, adamantly, that I was going to hold her back because of her late birthday and the short time she had been a part of our family. She struggled socially in preschool, and seemed to lag academically. Holding her back had been the plan since she’d joined our family, something my husband and I agreed on, something I reiterated often in case he forgot or changed his mind.
“Maddie had her nails painted today. I want mine too. Mine are going to be beautifuler.” She said it like it began with “boo.” I pulled the colors over her nails while she talked, stopped and started according to her fidgeting.
“Maddie has new boots too. Pink cowboy boots. I want some too. Luke brought chips for lunch. Can I?” She grinned, batted her eyelashes.
“What was the letter of the week?” I looked up, rolled my eyes playfully at her attempt to get what she wanted, and took her next hand.
“Did you learn a letter this week?”
“I don’t know. Miss Brittany is going to have a baby. It’s in her tummy. It’s a girl.”
I lifted her fingers near my lips and blew the nail polish dry as she talked, then painted her toenails. She rattled off stories of which kids had new clothes or coats after Christmas, which girls had worn the most sparkle that day, who would be having a birthday soon and if she thought she would be invited to the party, who was the calendar helper or line leader, what she played with and with whom, if they got to play outside. She didn’t seem interested in letters or numbers, in what I hoped she would learn. I chalked up her lack of attention to numbers and letters as another excuse to hold her back and spend one more year twirling before the mirror, shopping for lip gloss, making faces in the mirror, and going to music or tumbling classes with her.
With her toenails dry, she stood up, ran to her room, and put on a skirt that twirled. She ran back into the living room, tripping over her feet. She spread her arms out and spun fast in a circle. I wanted to reach out and stop the motion, to stop her from leaving.
I didn’t let myself call Grace my daughter until almost a year after she joined our family, when we went to court to finalize her adoption and make her a United States citizen. It wasn’t until after I touched my finger to the dried seal on the nondescript adoption decree, folded it carefully and double-checked it was safe in its manila folder, and held it tight under my arm that I let myself believe she was really ours, whisper the word daughter under my breath.
When we finalized her adoption, it had been more than two years—twenty-seven months, to be exact—since my husband and I first saw her photo. We were guarded that morning, having had to decline another referral a few months before when we learned the baby had a serious illness we didn’t feel equipped to handle. I knew better than to let myself love before I was granted permission, before a court or embassy or foreign government told me it was time, that I had done everything right.
In her referral photos, Grace was standing propped up on a changing table at the adoption agency in Seoul, two hands behind her. At six months, her hair stuck up from her head in short tufts. She wore a red onesie, flowered pants that came up high on her belly, a red hoodie that hung to her knees. She looked directly at the camera with confidence, something we would later say signaled her propensity for performing.
After we learned she was healthy and we overnighted a mound of paperwork to our adoption agency, I made a photo album, and shoved it in front of anyone I thought might want to know. “Want to see photos of my baby?” My husband and I had adopted our son from South Korea two years before. I knew the process and what to expect, began to plan a shower and her first birthday party, bought little dresses and bows for her hair, changed the blue crib sheets to pink.
There were glitches. Immigration paperwork with original Korean documents sent to the wrong address and destroyed, Korea reaching its adoption emigration quota, a new director of Korean adoptions stopping adoptions to audit its partnering U.S. agencies, the sudden closing of our Denver agency, misfiled court paperwork, and court dates that fell through. I watched Grace grow up, get teeth, learn to crawl and walk, learn to talk, via photos and videos. Each time I dared to hope Grace would be part of our family, there was another obstacle in our way.
I returned one size of clothes and another, her birthday gifts, stopped talking about Grace, and withdrew knowing that pain and loss needed to be kept private, a lesson I’d learned as a young girl. We received another update. The adoption agency had had a birthday party for all of the August babies. In the official Korean ceremony, Grace had chosen the brush, meaning she’d be a scholar. She was walking well and running. She didn’t like to be held, the report said.
When she joined our family, Grace had been angry. She had been taken from the foster family that had had her from within hours of her birth, the home where she learned to sit up and crawl, got her first tooth, was held and pampered by her foster mom, cared for by a large extended family. She resisted my touch, cowered when she caught a whiff of America on me; I left my arms by my sides for months until she was ready and reached for my hand.
I was afraid. Exhausted by ups and downs, hoping, then giving up, I didn’t want to believe she might stay with us, that I might be able to love her and be her mom, until I knew for sure. Each time we went to a museum or park, I memorized every movement, snapped dozens of photos in case it was the last time we were together. I prepared for the goodbye I thought would be inevitable, held back to save for each of us what we might need to give to another mother or daughter.
At her finalization, I posed with her on my hip for a photo next to the magistrate. She wanted down. The magistrate laughed, his face flushed. Having watched her break free and run around the courtroom during her hearing, he joked that we should have added “Evil Knievel” to her name. In the photo, she pushed against my shoulder, trying to wriggle free from my hold, the other arm bent as if in the middle of a race, her mouth open wide in laughter at the game she had created. In the next frame I bent forward, Grace like a football under my arm, her head reaching for the floor. She was finally mine to hold—and she wanted to run.
“I don’t think she’s ready,” I said to my husband after dinner. He busied himself with dirty dishes, my anxiety missed.
“We’ll see.” He scrubbed at something stuck to a plate, his lips pursing in frustration.
“The deadline is next week.” I whined subtly, hoping he would hear my confusion over what was best for her and for me, that it was really me I was afraid of losing.
“I know.” He sloshed a plate under the water and dropped it into the dishwasher. “I made a checklist of the paperwork we need. I can get it together after she’s asleep.”
“I can do that.” My voice rose. I wanted it to be my choice how and when it got done.
“I know. I want to help. I think she’ll be fine.” He rinsed a turquoise plastic plate decorated with Anna and Elsa from Frozen, and dodged my look.
I was taken aback by his refusal to discuss what he thought he already knew. “She’s young, she hasn’t been here that long, she’s still adjusting to us, she might have a better chance at scholarships if she is older, if we wait she’ll be the first to drive and vote rather than the last. She won’t be left behind if we wait. She will lead.” My words ran over each other, my voice high. I shifted my weight from foot to foot, my toes crinkling in my shoes.
He continued rinsing dishes, not looking toward me. “I think she’ll be fine.”
Grace stopped spinning and looked for me, her eyes not focusing.
“I’m dizzy,” she giggled. She wobbled to her left and right, reached for my hand, took it, and used it to find her way to me. I held her up.
I remembered myself at four and five, the way tights scratched my legs under Gunne Sax skirts, the way those skirts lifted when I spun, the air whooshing through lace ruffles, the skirt spinning past me, then resting softly after I stopped, my eyes searching for someone to hold me up.
It’s my grandpa I remember holding me when I was a little girl. After my brother was born when I was nearly three, my grandpa was charged with respite, something he gladly took on. He lived across the street from Elitch Gardens, a garden and amusement park in Denver. He towered over my too-small body with his five-foot-four frame, his authority calm.
In contrast to the distance and discipline I had at home, my parents believing I was the type of child that needed my will beat out of me, at my grandpa’s I found freedom to make choices, even to choose the types of cereal that turned the milk pink or brown, which I couldn’t have had at home. We ate together at his 1950s-style kitchen table and he let me stand on his pink toilet lid as he swished his dentures in greenish-blue cleaner.
“Don’t smoke,” he said. “Don’t smoke like me.”
I nodded, not yet understanding what he meant, what smoking would cost him, and me.
After a walk or another adventure, we returned to his apartment to rest. He sat in his dark brown armchair, his arms relaxed on the arms. I climbed onto his lap, smelling the combination of tobacco and mint, rested my head against the soft spot under his shoulder, and listened to the ba-thump, ba-thump of his heart, the sound of his breathing as he dozed off.
It was a welcome contrast to the insecurity and increasing arguments between my parents at home, my mom’s body hitting walls, dishes shattering, the sounds of my mom’s whimpering after my dad’s temper subsided, the bruises that peeked from under her sleeves or collars, exhaustion and fear in the dark spots under her eyes, how she said less and less. On my grandpa’s lap, in his apartment, on walks with him, I was safe and protected, known.
I couldn’t have known at four or five that the heart I enjoyed hearing through his button-down shirts would stop beating a few weeks before I turned six, and that everything I associated with his apartment and time with him would be over. I didn’t understand then what it meant when someone died, how to understand why he left me or where he went. In my mom’s silence, her cavernous grief for her dad, I felt her slipping farther and farther away from me, or me from her, the mom I needed all but vanishing.
The independence and confidence I had developed the first few weeks of kindergarten felt more like isolation. I walked the two blocks to and from school by myself, taking extra time to dip my sneakers into the irrigation water that flooded the gutters near my house each afternoon. I sat on the curb and waited for the water to recede, to see the swirls of oil like rainbows float by. Slowly, I made my way home to a snack of fruit slices, urgings to let my brother sleep or to share, to help, to do better. My needs were silenced until I stopped asking, my hope a casualty of her loss.
At school, I was also largely alone. Being one of the oldest in the class—I’d missed the age cutoff by fifteen days—and enjoying learning about words and letters, I was often sent to sit behind a gray partition to do something different from the rest of the class. While I filled in blanks in a workbook about a pig that did a jig or a cat that sat on a mat, I heard the rest of the class buzz or complain, ask for the green or blue crayons, their competition and collaboration sounding rich and elusive from my exile. Already lost where I was sure no one could find me, I traded my spunk for compliant quiet and gave up hope of being heard, of an adult ever keeping me safe like my grandpa had done.
“Can you tell me what you think?” I tentatively begged a kindergarten teacher a few days before the registration deadline. I held Grace by the shoulders in front of me like an offering. “I’m on the fence. I don’t know if I should register her or not. I don’t know what to do.” I spoke fast, not wanting to say that I came seeking evidence to prove my husband wrong, or me right.
She cringed with unwelcome responsibility. “It’s really up to you.”
“I know. I just want to hear what you think. Some days I think she’s ready, and other days I don’t.” I was rambling, my voice high like it had been set to the wrong speed. “Do you have any time to spend with her, even a few minutes?” I wanted someone else to tell me what the right decision was.
She bent down, and Grace moved close to her. “Can you tell me what any of those colors are?” The teacher pointed to a row of laminated crayons along the bottom of a whiteboard.
“Red, green, orange, yellow. Pink and purple! My favorites!” Grace clapped.
“Mine too. You have good taste.” The teacher turned and paused as if listening to something only she and Grace could understand.
“There’s brown and black and white and gray!” Grace hopped up and down, her black shoulder-length hair flying to the side.
“What about the letters? Do you see any letters you know up there?” The teacher stretched her arm to point to a letter train at the top corner of the room, flipping her auburn and blond hair behind her shoulders.
“G! I see G! For Grace!” Grace dove into the teacher’s arms.
The teacher fell backward with the force of the hug, her hair flying over her shoulders. Her eyes creased in laughter. “Wow! You’re a great hugger!”
They stood up, Grace following the teacher to a different part of the room. I stood back, not wanting to impede the evaluation.
The teacher handed Grace a roll of stickers.
“You can have one.”
“Just one?” Grace batted her eyes and counted off five stickers.
The teacher raised her eyebrows, impressed. I didn’t know she knew that, I said back with a look. Grace decorated her shirt and arms, then took the last sticker and placed it on the teacher’s shirt. The teacher knelt by Grace and they talked about the routine of the kindergarten day, what happened in the different parts of the room, what she would get to learn.
I felt a pang for the parts of me I couldn’t retrieve, for the reminders Grace provided of who I had been before my grandpa died. She and the teacher jostled with hope and belonging, a type of connection that was no longer intuitive to me. Grace would not be forgotten or exiled. Kindergarten would signal not an end of the innocence of childhood, but a continuation and an opportunity to discover more of who she always had been. She would not be lost.
“We’d better go, Grace.” I walked toward the classroom door.
“I would love to have you in my class next year. Do you want that?” The teacher bent forward to speak to Grace, serious.
Grace nodded as if committing to the relationship more than to the class. She turned to look at me. “Can I, Mom? Please?”
I nodded, knowing I was making a promise I would need to keep. Grace bounded out of the classroom, down the hall, and out of the building. She was not only ready for kindergarten, but eager to learn. I had felt the same way the summer before kindergarten, the anticipation to see the new pencils and crayons, where I would sit, to carry my backpack for the first time in August. She was ready. I could be too.
A few days after I filled out the paperwork and delivered it to the school, Grace climbed onto the counter and pulled a bottle out of a cabinet. We had saved it for when she needed to recoup some of what she hadn’t had with me.
“Ga ga.” She held the bottle toward me and I filled it with milk, walked to the couch, and sat looking out the large window to where snow covered the grass.
“Do you need to be a baby?”
She nodded and climbed into my lap, her elbows and knees bumping into my stomach and legs. I cringed and flinched.
I rested her head on the arm of the couch, looked into her eyes, and held the bottle. Bubbles rose as she drank. I imagined her foster mom feeding her as an infant, what it must have felt like to meet such basic and overwhelming needs, to know exactly what to do. Grace curled her knees up, wanting to be small.
“Will you always be my mommy?” She pulled away from the bottle as she asked for another promise.
“Always. I’m your forever mommy.”
“You’ll always love me?”
“Always. Lots and lots.” I tickled her lightly on her tummy.
She folded into a ball. “Don’t.” She opened her mouth to take the bottle. She burrowed into the soft spot between my chest and shoulder, where I’d rested on my grandpa. I closed my eyes, felt the safety of being held, hoped she felt it too. I knew she could hear my heart and wanted to promise her it was strong, that it would keep her safe, always, that I wished she could have met my grandpa, sat next to him, and smelled the tobacco I associated with safety and love. I wanted to tell her how I knew how to hold her, that I longed to be able to promise that I’d always be there for her, that I wouldn’t leave before she was ready, that I’d guard her ability to trust.
I said nothing, but rested my chin in her hair, letting it tickle my face, and wrapped my arms around her and squeezed. For both of us.