Vermont Arts Council

Searching for Community in Words

Emily Bernard, writer, professor of English and ALANA U.S. Ethnic Studies at the University of Vermont—and mother—received a Creation Grant to support research for “Black is the Body: Essays.” The essays explore what it means to be  at home in one’s skin as well in a society in which racial disparities continue to divide us. The following is an excerpt from “Mother on Earth.”

6. Bounty

Perhaps because of the adoption stories I grew up with, our daughters have known that they were adopted from the  moment they were capable of knowing anything. Some stories about adoption emphasize poverty or lack; a child unwanted or abandoned, a lost history. The stories we tell the girls are about bounty. You are adored on two continents, I tell them. You have two worlds, two countries, two languages, and two stories to tell about how you came to be. So far, this strategy seems to be working. One of their favorite babysitters did  not know they were adopted until the girls told her. The  babysitter reported to me that in response to this news she had said, “Ohhhh,” in a high pitch and put on a sympathetic face. Giulia knew the look. “Well, it’s not sad,” she explained.

holding hands with daughters
“There is one story that is unequivocally true, and that true story goes like this: I am their mother on Earth, their here and now.”

For as many Ethiopians as there are in Vermont, exponentially more live in Washington, D. C. When the girls were two years old, we traveled to D. C. to meet our Ethiopian adoption  liaison for dinner. It was his first visit to the United States.  He had spent the day playing tourist, visiting monuments and museums. “Americans,” he said, “you know how to preserve your stories.”

We all met up at Queen of Sheba, one of the many Ethiopian restaurants in Washington. When I took Isabella to the  bathroom, Giulia accompanied us but agreed to stay behind with the waitress, a beautiful young woman in traditional dress, who knelt and held Giulia’s hands.
“Twins?” asked the waitress when Isabella and I emerged from the bathroom. I nodded.

She asked me what part of Ethiopia they were from.

“Tigray,” I said.

I knelt with Isabella while the waitress began to speak to Giulia in Tigrinya. Giulia nodded and shook her head.

Then, Giulia looked at me and put her arm around my neck. She pulled me closer as her conversation with the waitress seemed to pull her deeper and deeper into memory. You belong to me, said her fierce two-year old grip. I leaned  in until our bodies made a bridge between the present and  the past. With all of my might, I assured her through my skin, And you belong to me.

We do belong to each other, but Giulia, along with her sister Isabella, also belongs to something and somewhere else.  They belong to a history preserved in the recesses of their minds and hearts; in their bodies, too, perhaps down to  the level of the cell. Where the girls’ identities reside in the worlds between past and present, there and here—that is  a story that they will make up on their own.

There is one story that is unequivocally true, and that true story goes like this: I am their mother on Earth, their here and now. The one who prepares them for spelling quizzes, smells their breath to make sure they’ve brushed their teeth, and nags them to tidy their room—that’s me. I am the present and, with any luck, the future, too. As they grow  older, questions about their past will not be the only ones  I will not be able to answer. They will come upon other  mysteries in their lives to unravel, and I will encourage  them to view life’s mysteries as vitalizing and not crippling.  But like everyone else who resides on Earth, they will have  to go there to know there and, ultimately, find out about  living for themselves.

Top left image: Emily Bernard with her children Isabella (l) and Giulia

This story taken from the Vermont Arts Council’s FY2015 Annual Report