Friday, June 25, 2010

Adoption and Trees

During my bike rides in early June, I was able to observe so many ordinary things as wonderful, among them the leaves on the trees at this time of year. The show of the flowering trees (Forsythia, apple, crab, cherry, pear, redbud, dogwood, etc.) was long over, but I’d never before really noticed the effect of all the green leaves, newly mature. Not only were they dark, full-sized, and numerous, but they were so precisely stacked and distributed, fresh recruits at the beginning of the season’s long labor of photosynthesis. Their shapes were so perfect, not yet exposed to the munching of insects or the battering of repeated storms.

I love trees for the sheltering, architectural living things they are, whose cutting down can hurt like the loss of a friend. One of my earliest memories, or maybe it was just a family story that became a memory, was of my father and his friends cutting down the trees (probably weedy Alanthus) in the back yard of our "new" house and my displeasure about it. And when we lost our American Elm trees in the front, my proposal to plant an apple tree in their place was rejected.

I love trees for the way they evoke the human figure, even the face. They are among my favorite things to draw or just to gaze at and “read:” arms, fingers, legs, torsos, in conflict, affection, supplication, passion, protection.
They are dancers. They are people in yoga poses: backbends, twists, and, especially, inversions, leafy legs in the air. (The Sanskrit word for handstand—Adho Mukha Vrksasana—actually translates literally as “downward facing tree.”)

I know I am far from alone in this love of trees; there even have been cultures who saw them as objects of worship. More abstractly, the idea of a tree has been used as a metaphor for a wide variety of concepts, e.g., the tree of life, the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the tree of yoga, and of course, the family tree. As a new adoptive parent, I had read about the ubiquity of the assignment to construct a family tree in elementary school and how it could be difficult for adopted children. I was prepared to draw creative trees with my kids, the roots representing their birth families and the branches representing our adoptive family. As luck would have it, however, my children (who both are already out of elementary school) happen to have been spared, or perhaps deprived of, the dreaded Family Tree Assignment. They didn’t have to feel uncomfortable and different about showing their family tree to the class, but neither did we have this particular opportunity to sit down and work through how they belong, in different ways, to our adoptive family and to their birth families. The tree they might have drawn would not have been quite the kind of thing one could find in nature, but it would have been a way to describe their reality.

Actually, the tree as a model for family relationships has its limitations, even for biological families. Where the tree “originates” is necessarily arbitrary, and information about the origins of members who marry into the family generally are not included. Describing remarriage after death or divorce also requires some creativity to portray. In fact, only if we reproduced by splitting in two like amoebae would a tree truly be an accurate description of family relationships.

The family of adoption often has been portrayed as a grafted tree, as in the collection of poems, Perspectives on a Grafted Tree, edited by Patricia Irwin Johnston. Sherri Eldridge, in her “Twenty Things” books (e.g., Twenty Things Adopted Children Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew, Twenty Things Adoptive Parents Need to Succeed) often refers to adoption in terms of a grafted tree. This metaphor has some glaring limitations, e.g., apple trees are grafted in order to propagate apples with as little variation as possible, which doesn't sound like what we are trying to do with our children. But the process of grafting is a graphic illustration of the loss and healing that happens in adoption. Adoptees are cut off from their genetic past, adoptive parents from their genetic future. While this doesn't replicate a non-grafted tree, when they are bound together, love, like water and sap, flows between the two parts. The roots provide the graft with water, minerals, and a secure connection to the earth; the graft then produces leaves for photosynthesis to nourish the whole tree and, ultimately, flowers and fruit. I love this image of intimacy and draw comfort and encouragement from it when the storms of the teen years rumble.

Sometimes I wish my kids hadn’t gotten out of the family tree assignment. One or the other may have worked through the complex tree idea, or, for the sake of getting it over with, and to not stick out among classmates, may have opted to use a tree that only included the family with whom they live. If it was I in their position, I might have wanted to change the focus of the assignment and offer a picture of the sawtooth oak in front of out house as our family tree, which we planted in cooperation with our city’s public works department. Besides being an example of how sometimes you really can do what you want when you grow up and have your own house, it does mirror some things about our family. This tree started its life somewhere else and was dug up and transplanted to our yard, where we love it, behold it change and grow, care for it as we can, and release it to elements we can’t control. Already it’s lost branches to ice storms, and who knows what pests lurk out there to threaten its integrity? But, mostly, each day’s disasters and triumphs don’t make or break it. And I think this year we will have a good crop of acorns.

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