Ava Bekelech knows her letters now, or at least most of them. This means that we go nowhere without her stopping to cry out hello to the letter A! or the Big, Big B! etched into the sidewalk, an R! or an H! up on a road sign, or a P! and an E! on the computer keyboard. Every time she hollers out a letter my heart swells. To me, they are the answer to and purpose of everything. Letters add up to words which add up to ideas and stories. And now I have the pleasure of watching my young person see letters all around her, which means her world is getting ready to crack open wide. W!
This girl doesn't miss or forget a thing. Funny as all get out. Not funny like she says paghetti instead of spaghetti. Funny as in sophisticated imitations of people and spot-on comedic timing. She sees all, remembers all, questions all. So I keep waiting for her to point to her skin and point to mine and ask, without judgment, "What the heck?" I do ooh over her curls so much that she once assured me that perhaps when I am bigger and older I could have curly hair like her too.
Maybe the fact that we look so different doesn't seem worth mentioning because she sees families like hers fairly often. One of her Grandmas is black. Her best friend next door is a pale brown, with a white mom and an Indian father. But all the kids in her little pre-school class were white. (There was one other black boy, a foster child, who abruptly disappeared from her class one week. Seven months later Ava laid between Tim and I in a hotel bed, murmuring to herself before she fell asleep. "Darren went to a new school. That's okay. Darren went to a new school." Fucking A, life is hard.)
If we are on the precipice of words and reading, we are also edging up to the bigger and knottier conversations of our adoptive family. We talk about Ethiopia all the time, and she loves hearing about the morning we first met, and she seems to take in stride when I say that one day we hope to all go see her uncle again and her brothers and sisters too. I get lots wrong though. I mean shamefully wrong. I'm so clumsy in my attempts to talk about her birth parents. I remember reading recently about Angelina Jolie's comments about birth parents at a press conference for Kung Fu Panda 2. And yes, I acknowledge that everything about that sentence is ridiculous. Birth parents are happy words in her household, she said. Ooooooh-kay, as Ava would say, imitating my go-to response for her more outlandish pronouncements.
I'm still heartbroken that her first parents are dead. And conflicted about my joy at lucking into being her mother. I guess I blame that pain on not talking more about her first Mommy and Daddy. I know Angelina, I'm gross. The other day her little friend was over, lying on the coffee table, moaning that she needed a doctor because she was pregnant. Ava seemed happy enough to play along but I kept wondering, oh God, is this the time she will ask me about what it means to be pregnant? The more questions I ask the more I realize that while I am a lover of letters and words, I'm terrified of the day my daughter puts these big concepts together. Terrified more that I'm letting her down with my nervous hand-wringing about what to say, when, and how.
Last night I was struck by the light on Ava's skin and marveled aloud "My Gosh Ava, you have the most beautiful brown skin in the world." She said thank you. And then I just plundered in like an ox. "And Mommy has peachy, freckly skin." She gave me a no duh look. I tried some more—I'm sorry child that your mother is such a dork—until I said "Isn't that funny?" She didn't seem to particularly think so and finally Tim, who was cooking dinner in the same room, worried that maybe I was leading this conversation in a way that wasn't useful for an almost 3-year-old. To which I gave him a no duh look.
At dinner Ava announced that it was her turn to talk so I asked her what she wanted to talk about. She looked at me and said, in kind of a lame, sing song voice, which is apparently how I sound when trying to talk about adoption, "The color of skin." Oh! Alright, let's do this. I can totally handle this and be a grown up about it too. Psych! "Let's talk about purple nurples," she said. And she promptly gave one to the both of us.
My first try at twists. (This also marked the first time in two years I felt darn near cocky after doing Ava's hair.) They're real, and they're spectacular.