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May 08, 2006

Learning to Riff

Kelly Corrigan’s column, GRAIN OF SALT, appears with permission from The Hills Newspapers and was first published on May 5, 2006.

One of my nearest and dearest friends adopted a baby girl late last year. Her name is Eliza and by all measures, she is perfect. My friend is in heaven watching Eliza unfold. “I don’t know who this girl is, but so far, all I can tell you is that she knows how to get what she wants,” my friend said, referring to the unmistakable communication Eliza has come up with to indicate that her binky has fallen out. (Eliza uses a certain screech that I believe many of us know.) But there was something about the way she said, “I don’t know who this girl is” that struck me as downright respectful, like she wouldn’t dream of rushing to judgment on this girl, like a mother’s job was to sit back and watch her child reveal her nature, lest a mother deconstruct and define her child prematurely (and inaccurately).

I think this wait, watch and listen thing may be a real advantage for adopted kids.

My daughter wasn’t finished her first day before we started ascribing her features and behaviors to various family members. In the maternity ward, the declarations about her having her mother’s eyes and her father’s long toes were a predictable and innocent part of the euphoria, even if they drew the conversation away from the eight-pound mystery before us. We were laying claim to this person we made. We were owning her. She was ours, and every bit of her was a possible reference to someone in our tribe, as if letting her remain a mystery for one more minute was to endure a state of intolerable suspense.

But when my friend held Eliza in her arms, she said something like, “Hi there. It’s an honor to meet you. I’m going to take care of you now.” Unlike women who become mothers over the course of nine months, my friend had not rubbed her belly a thousand times, imagining, anticipating and foreseeing her child. Instead, my friend got a call one Sunday afternoon and 90 minutes later she was alone in the maternity ward, dripping tears onto a day-old baby girl, shaking her head in disbelief and wonder and the very same gratitude any mother feels when she holds her baby against her chest for the first time.

On the long ride home from Eliza’s house, I was thinking about Eliza’s good fortune and listening to an interview on NPR with Bela Fleck, of Bela Fleck and The Flecktones. Bela Fleck, if you aren’t an indie music kinda person, is an inventive musician who is currently experimenting with the electric banjo. Bela Fleck is one of those people that defies definition. The interviewer struggled to label him—jazz? pop? bluegrass? Then it got to the part of the interview where callers join the conversation. The first call was from an upbeat guy named Joe, a big fan of the Flecktones, a jazz musician himself, and a new dad. Joe had a 13 month-old named Miles who was “already banging away at the piano!” Miles’ apparent interest in his father’s vocation was “a dream come true” for his dad, who was actually calling to ask how best to encourage his son’s interest. I got the feeling, from Bela’s response, that he thought Joe might be over interpreting his son’s banging.

My own reaction was empathetic recognition. I know how easy and comforting it is to see yourself--your interests, your talents, your hang ups--in your child. It makes things so tidy. It makes the family match. Diversity might have worked for the Village People and the Spice Girls, but when it comes to families, well, you’ve seen golfers at the driving range with their five year-olds and you can bet I am saving every little story my girls pen as proof that writing “runs in the family.”

Beyond just habits and hobbies, there is the giant matter of heredity. Genetic destiny is a persuasive idea that has made headlines and bestseller lists for years. It is the thing that makes women put off mammograms, because breast cancer is not in their families. It is the thing that undermines dieters who quietly assume that if their parents are chronically overweight, their body-fate is sealed. It is the thing that subverts ambition in kids of blue collar workers and keeps cycles of all types in tact. But lately, I’ve noticed that some researchers think that the idea of genetic destiny is about as reliable as a horoscope, which is liberating news for all of us.

The NPR interview ended with a long discussion of Bela Fleck’s tendency towards improvisational jams. He said rather than sticking to a planned structure, he much prefers to rif off his band mates, just kind of spontaneously respond to who they are at that moment, and what they're doing with their instruments that day. He said he thought playing a carefully rehearsed and pre-defined set of songs they laid out long ago would be a lot less fun.

Play on, Eliza.