Families Earth-toned tile mosaic in the shape of a (loosely) Native American kachina figure

Published on June 23rd, 2021 | by Cheryl Klein


Mosaic: Things Lost, Found, and Taken

“Can I interest you in an immersion blender?” my aunt asked. “A floor mirror? Would Dash like a wild pig skull?”

She was kidding, sort of, but I would leave my grandma’s house that afternoon with the skull wrapped in a towel, plus a portrait of a peacock on decorative tile, a carved wooden chair, and several unopened packages of Ziploc bags.

When I pulled up to the house where I spent most of my childhood holidays, blue trash bags were piled three high on the sidewalk. Otherwise, Grandma Pete’s house looked the same as it always had: dark olive green stucco, surrounded by the cactus garden she’d installed long before anyone used the phrase “drought resistant landscaping.” The door was framed by a mezuzah, even though she wasn’t Jewish, and a metal plaque that said On this site in 1897, nothing happened. 

I thought of the Kizh people who were the first inhabitants of Los Angeles. But by 1897, my grandmother’s mother was already born and living in the area. Perhaps my grandma had it on reasonably good authority that nothing happened here on this quiet hillside. 

All my biological grandparents were dead by the time I was four, but Grandma Pete was everyone’s mom and everyone’s grandma. She was loud and funny and generous, and also judgmental and stubborn at times. She regularly threw parties for dozens of people. She unofficially adopted us, but she was hard to know one on one, and I didn’t always try. 

Her only daughter, my Aunt Cass, had flown out from Michigan to care for Pete in hospice. And when Pete had died mid-visit—at 91, in her sleep, her dog curled next to her—Cass had stayed to sort through things at the house, which were…numerous.

I took the day off from work to help, but it was immediately clear that I’d be chipping a snow cone off an iceberg. Mostly I was there to see Cass, who was as funny and warm as Pete, but more pragmatic, with four grown children, six grandchildren, and a 12-step program deep in her past.

“My mom had five vacuum cleaners,” Cass said. I followed her into the small dark office, where my cousins and I had retreated on holiday afternoons to watch TV. “There was something she didn’t like about each one, so she kept getting new ones.”

From one of the bookshelves, the pig skull stared with its empty eye sockets, surrounded by other skulls, books about Native American art, and actual Native American art.

Cass’s father, my grandma’s first husband, had been…an archeologist? An artist? Both? I’d never known much about him, but I got up the courage to ask Cass how old she’d been when her parents divorced.

“They separated when I was nineteen or twenty,” she said. “I would go to your parents’ house and cry and cry. I wasn’t upset that they were splitting up, because I didn’t like my dad. But I was worried my mom would take him back.”

The family stories hovered like the clouds of dust that were inflaming Cass’ sinuses. Like dust, they’d been there forever, and I never quite saw them.

In the kitchen, I snapped a picture of the tile mosaic above the long counter where we’d lined up for holiday buffets. It was a kachina figure made of pottery shards, the central image of Pete’s artful house and the one thing no one could pack up and take home.

Maybe that’s as it should be. The pottery was from her ex-husband’s digs, and it was never theirs to take in the first place. The dream catchers and painted ceramic bells in the guest room might have had problematic provenances as well, or they might have been purchased directly from Native artists, or from Big Lots! That was where she’d gotten the five sets of flimsy-looking steak knives we found in the patio cupboard, and dozens of the bunnies in her Easter collection.

“She could never just buy one of something,” Cass sighed. 

The enclosed patio was where Pete did most of her entertaining. It was where little kids hit their heads on the corners of her long stone tables, where we tentatively dunked Fritos into bowls of mysterious dips from Big Lots!

Now the tables were piled high with blue bags and stacks of plastic dishes. I began to add miscellanea to the trash bag Cass held open.

“Oh, let’s set those aside,” Cass said when I picked up a pair of blue and white maracas. “They might be worth something. They’re from a business trip my grandparents took to Cuba years ago.”

I knew a handful of people who’d rushed to Cuba as soon as restrictions were loosened, trying to visually collect a way of life before capitalism rushed in, before all those 1950s cars were replaced by Hondas. It took me a minute to realize what “years ago” really meant: the other side of a revolution. The before that came before the current before.

“My grandfather was walking down the street still wearing his nametag from the convention,” Cass said. “This Black man stops him and says ‘Is that your name? Antoine Bernard?’ He said, ‘Yes…why?’ And the Black man said, ‘That’s my name too.’”

“Wow,” I said. “I guess the French got around.”

“Maybe they were distant relatives. You never know. All this DNA testing may humble a few people. Prejudiced people might find out they’re part Black.”

“I want to do Sawyer’s DNA for him,” Cass continued. Sawyer was the youngest of her four kids. Two biological, two adopted. I’m an adoptive parent too, and Cass is a big reason why adoption always seemed both appealing and uneventful to me. 

“His mom has red hair and freckles, and is really tiny,” Cass said of Sawyer’s birthmom. Sawyer was 6’2” with dark curly hair. “The story is that she’d go back to school every time she got out of the psych ward. We think his dad may have been one of her professors, and he might have been Greek.”

This was what I’d come for: some kind of synthesis of all the fragments of stories I’d accumulated as a child, sitting at the grownups’ table while my cousins clomped around the rocky hillside.

“Did I tell you Elodie’s mom found her?” Cass said. I liked that she was one of those adoptive parents who was not threatened by using the word “mom” to describe her children’s birthmothers. And, also, that she was not one of those adoptive moms who righteously and carefully said “first mom.” Just “mom” was fine. You could never have too many.

“No! Wow!” I said. Elodie was adopted from South Korea in the mid-eighties. No one had expected a reunion. 

“Her mom wrote her a letter that was supposed to be given to her when she turned 18,” Cass said. “The agency we used didn’t do anything with it, but then the agency changed hands, and the second agency found us.”

“What did it say?”

“Mostly what we already knew—that her mom was really poor. Elodie was prenatally malnourished, so her mom was probably malnourished too.”

“How does Elodie feel about all of it?” 

I stood very still. I thought of Palimpsest, the graphic memoir I’d read by Lisa Wool-Rim Sjoblom, who’d been adopted from Korea into a Swedish family, under possibly shady circumstances. I followed the author on Instagram, where she frequently posted about the ways in which many adoptions fell somewhere between opportunism and kidnapping. Intellectually and ethically, I was glad she was saying the things she was saying. 

Emotionally, stories of problematic adoptions (which is to say so many adoptions) made me feel like a kidnapper. Even though I could remind myself that I was there when Erica handed Dash to us. Even though I knew firsthand that she was not malnourished or coerced. 

“Elodie has mixed feelings,” Cass says. “She hasn’t written back yet. She’s a little worried that her mom might see their relationship as a ticket to the United States. But I told her she doesn’t have to agree to anything. And what if she has siblings? Elodie’s been having all these auto-immune issues lately, and maybe her siblings have been diagnosed with something.”

“She could just write back and say ‘I’m doing well,’” I said. “That’s probably the main thing her mother wants to know.”

“Right,” said Cass. “Just that she wasn’t adopted by horrible child molesters or something.”

I tapped all of this new information into the Notes app on my phone that afternoon in my car, before pulling away. These were the heirlooms I was here to collect, of course: the stories. Like the pottery shards forming the angular earth-toned kachina, some of them weren’t legitimately acquired, exactly. 

I know what I am: a hoarder of stories. They’re easier to store than objects. They can live in the figurative and technological cloud, while various talismans anchor them to the earth: the maracas, the mid-century lamps, the inflatable Goodyear blimp in the office, the dishes with the delicate purple flowers that belonged to my great grandmother and were made in occupied Japan. 

The latter were going to Elodie, who might not have landed in the family she did if Japan hadn’t gone on an imperial rampage through Korea, and if the U.S. hadn’t gone on an imperial rampage just about everywhere else.

Stories are lost in the cracks between adoptions, generations, and wars. I want to hear it all, know it all, and tell it all, weaving connections like cobwebs. Like any compulsion, it’s an animal trait—the need to understand, the need to line my nest—that can go a little haywire. 

I asked Cass why Pete shopped and kept things the way she did. “Was it a growing-up-during-the-Depression thing?”

“I don’t think so, because her family was fairly affluent during the Depression. Her dad had a leather tooling business, and they gave away the scraps to their friends and neighbors, anyone who needed them. Her dad eventually did take a second job, though, driving a Helms bakery truck on Saturdays.”

I didn’t want to be greedy. I didn’t want to make my relationship with Pete into something sentimental after the fact, when I’d only phoned her once during the entire pandemic. But I wanted to hold onto the feeling of all those holidays at her house, my cousins and I plunking out made-up songs on her piano. 

I chose a small wooden chair, its narrow back carved with a shape that looked like an abstract sunflower. It had been part of the landscape of her living room for as long as I could remember, along with the church pew couch and the brass tic tac toe set. 

Cass pointed out the leather seat on the chair. “She tooled it herself, to match the design of the wood,” she said. I’d never noticed it before.

*Names have been changed.

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About the Author

Cheryl Klein’s column, “Hold it Lightly,” appears monthly(ish) in MUTHA. She is the author of Crybaby (out in 2022 from Brown Paper Press), a memoir about wanting a baby and getting cancer instead. She also wrote a story collection, The Commuters (City Works Press) and a novel, Lilac Mines (Manic D Press). Her stories and essays have appeared in Blunderbuss, The Normal School, Razorcake, Literary Mama, and several anthologies. Her work has been honored by the MacDowell Colony and the Center for Cultural Innovation. She blogs about the intersection of art, life and carbohydrates at breadandbread.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter: @cherylekleinla.

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