When I arrived at Parents’ Night and met Zoe’s middle school teachers for the first time, they all said, “Well, we can guess whose mother you are!”
The truth is, our faces don’t look all that much alike; her features are more Eastern European whereas mine are more African. But our skin color and hair textures are closely matched, and that is what strangers pick up on most often. Besides, our posture and builds are similar, as are our facial expressions and the shape of our foreheads and chins. In a bad, blurry profile shot, if you took a hurried look, you might mistake one of us for the other. In any case, people easily and readily place Zoe and me together. Unlike most mothers with daughters who resemble them, I don’t take this for granted.
I looked nothing like my mother when I was a child – no one guessed that I was hers unless she was holding me. If my father wasn’t with us, people assumed she had adopted me. Not that there is any shame in joining your family via adoption, it just wasn’t our story. Besides, in those days, there was a movement underway, spearheaded by the National Association of Black Social Workers to prevent the adoption of black children by white parents. Some of the looks my mother got when we went places together being downright accusatory.
Though we had little connection to my father’s few surviving family members, Dad managed to connect me to black culture through stories and artwork and music. It was enough for me to understand the importance of black history and people-hood. It was enough for me to feel proud, even if I didn’t feel a real sense of belonging to the black community. Most of our family friends were white and Jewish, as my mother was. Regardless, I didn’t feel confused about who I was, nor did I want to look any different from how I looked—which was black.
But I did wish, more than anything, for the world to see that my mother was my mother and that I was her child. By the age of five, I was well aware: if I had a white friend over, and my mother took us out somewhere, everyone who saw us would assume that my friend was Mom’s child and that I was the friend. It was a strange and lonely feeling. My best friend Lynn actually looked like my mother, which made me quite jealous – not because I wanted to be white like Lynn and my mother – I would have been just as happy to have my mother brown like me.
I was of her, so much like my mother in so many ways. Though Dad was my hero and model and champion, Mom was the biggest, most important part of my world growing up. She took me everywhere, nurturing my imagination, my love of writing, cheering on my ideas, supporting my every interest. But the world couldn’t tell we belonged together and, for some reason, to me that mattered. It mattered a lot.
Jump ahead about thirty years. Pregnant with Zoe, I wondered how she would look, being just one quarter black. I knew plenty of people of the same racial mix who appeared completely Caucasian. Possibly, the baby would too. Really, I told myself, all that matters is that she’s healthy. But secretly, I hoped that she would be at least a tiny bit brown. I felt guilty and narcissistic for hoping it—but hoped nonetheless. Though I’d long gotten past the feelings about not fitting visually with my mother—though I knew I’d love my baby no matter how she appeared—I couldn’t help thinking how nice it would be not to have to explain to outsiders how I was connected to my child.
And frankly, it is nice. Grounding and, most of all, healing.
One day, a few years ago, I lost Zoe in a Target store and ran, panicked, to customer service.
“I can’t find my daughter. She had pigtails and—” I couldn’t remember what color shirt she had on.
“What does she look like?” said the sales girl.
I hesitated for less than a second. “Me.” I said.