Three Lessons Learned from the Tale of Two Merediths

Have you ever read an article in the paper that you just can’t forget?  I’ve been stuck on the story of these sisters for five years now.

That’s when I read a piece in Newsweek magazine in 2009 called the Power of Two, about the emotional reunion of Chinese fraternal twins who reunited after being adopted by two different American families. Their mother had abandoned them weeks apart in a Chinese park when they were newborns, so no one involved in their adoption knew that  the girls were twins.
Sure, I had an obvious attraction to the story. Both little girls, living states away from one another, had been named Meredith by their adoptive parents. In Illinois, Meredith Grace lives with her family. Meredith Ellen is being raised with her family in Alabama.
(My last name is Meredith, a name I reclaimed when I found my missing father at age 20, and then subsequently named my second daughter Meredith Eleni as my father died. Grace is also a name that runs through my family for generations.)
 But it’s greater than that.
The moral of their story for me is boiled down to three lessons.

1)     The longing for our missing family members is universal.

      Both of these girls individually mentioned either wanting to be a sister, or to be with her sister.  Meredith Ellen had said as a toddler, “I’m so lonely. I wish I had a sister.”  And at three, Meredith Grace told her preschool teacher about her sister in China. A year later, upon hearing her sister’s voice on the phone, said, “I think we were born together.” This, well before their parents had told them of their suspected sisterhood, which DNA tests later confirmed.

2)  Our shared DNA can translate into shared quirks.

These sisters had a distinctive tilt of the head. The tilt of the head led the father of Meredith Grace to recognize that Meredith Ellen was his daughter’s twin as he perused an adoption website online. Though the twins were non-identical, their mannerisms matched them together spot-on.

3)  Connecting with family builds strength.

I know I’ve brought up the benefits of finding missing family members before. And I love The Locator Troy Dunn’s slogan, “You can’t find peace until you find the missing pieces.” But no one has stated this more eloquently than little Meredith Ellen, who at ten, journaled, “I feel close to Sissy because she has been with me since the beginning and when we were put in orphanages I knew that it was sort of hard but I knew that I would find the missing piece in my heart. I found the missing piece.”
 
Do yourself a favor. Read the story from Newsweek. Read updated information about the Tale of Two Meredith’s in Jim Rittenhouse’s online journal. And this week, celebrate your own family connections, however they’re defined.

From Past to Present/Dusting Off My Manuscript to Answer the Real Questions

A few weeks ago She Writes Press announced a cool new contest for memoir writers.

Simply put, women writers can submit a query letter and the first couple of chapters of their memoir and compete for an agent with Serendipity Literary Agency. Check it out on She Writes Press.

I may have mentioned I shelved my memoir about domestic violence and child abduction for many months after a few drafts, more than a few rejections, and much much more than a few hundred dollars spent on editorial services. I was positively sick of it.

Then I listened to a recorded tele-seminar from my National Association of Memoir Writers membership and heard author Linda Watanabe McFerrin give tips on writing memoir. She mentioned that in a memoir, the protagonist has something they want which is the external plot, versus something they truly want,  the internal which has emotion.

And just like that, it made sense. What do I say I want, and what is really driving my actions? That’s what needs to be in the book.

I’ve also been re-reading the artful memoir Swimming with Maya again by Eleanor Vincent, and realized I need to re-write my first book in the first person to experience the emotions long buried.

So here are my first couple of pages. Does it work for you written in present tense?

I’d love to hear your reactions at liza8m@gmail.com. It’s due on August 31st.  And soon, Eleanor Vincent has agreed to be interviewed for the blog. Stay tuned!

Chapter 1

I brush Marianthi’s hair as fast as I can without upsetting her. My oldest daughter, like so many firstborn, seems in tune to my every mood since her birth. Just six years old now, she senses my wave of anxiety about her father’s impending arrival for weekly visitation.

“Are you scared, Mommy?”

Marianthi’s voice sounds like a munchkin from the Wizard of Oz, as small and sweet as she is.

“No, sweetie” I smile. “I just don’t want to keep Daddy waiting. You look beautiful.”

And she does. She’s wearing her blue dress with the floral collar that matches her liquid blue eyes. Her straight brown hair is neatly held back by a barrette. Now I direct her to her coat and boots while I work on getting her little sister ready.

I push Meredith’s plump calf into her boot. She groans. “Point your foot down, baby.” Slowly, the boot slides on. I run my fingers through her baby-fine brown ringlets and inspect her round face for remnants of Rice Krispies.

Meredith is the antithesis of her sister. At two, she lost grasp of her helium balloon, silently watching it float towards the clouds. “God stole my balloon,” she had announced. At three, she told a bald man that he had a baby head. And now at four, Meredith has learned she could belch as loudly as a college boy at a frat party.

My daughters are absurdly cute. I’m not the only one who thinks so; four separate couples have requested the girls be in their upcoming weddings this spring alone.

“Ready just in time,” I tell them as their father Grigorios, Gregory for short, pulls up in his dented, bright blue Jeep Cherokee. A male passenger I don’t recognize is sitting next to him. I try to get a closer look without upsetting Gregory. The passenger catches me, and I avert my eyes immediately. What guy would ride along with Gregory to pick up the girls? And why?

“Momma, will you pick us up tomowoh?” Meredith asks. I dread the day she’s able to pronounce her r’s.

“I’ll pick you up on the tomorrow after tomorrow, remember?” But of course Meredith can’t remember the court- appointed visitation schedule. She’s only four, and her father visits are irregular. She doesn’t know that the court only recently lifted the supervised visitation requirement that has been imposed during a restraining order, or that I pick her and her sister up at the daycare for the express purpose of avoiding unnecessary contact with him. And she shouldn’t have to. Neither of them should have to know of the grim details of their parents’ divorce. They’re still little girls, after all.

I feel like I have spent my entire twenty-nine years of life walking on eggshells. It’s March 13, 1994, and I’m four years out of my violent marriage. But despite the passage of time, my fear of Gregory is as strong as the day in March of 1990 when I got back up off the floor, collected my baby girls and fled in a taxi. The scratches and strangulation marks healed after several days, but his parting threats haunt me: “I would rather kill you than let you leave. That way you’ll die knowing the girls will have no mother and their father will be in jail. Leave and you’ll never see them again–I have nothing to lose.”

That was by no means the first time Gregory had threatened to harm or kill me. Not even close. In our marriage, he’d isolated me from friends, had taken my car, and at the lowest point, limited my access to food while I was pregnant. Eventually, he wrung my neck. And all the while, he delivered the same message, over and over. “You are worthless, stupid, and helpless. I am the only person you have to rely on. Without me, you are nothing.”

But it’s his threat to take the children and disappear to his native home in Greece if I left him that got to me. He knows that I could never live without my children.

I remind myself that our circumstances are different now. Yes, things are still hard, even though four years have passed since our marriage ended. I have no family around to help with the girls or with the house. We live in Alaska, a place where one battles ice and snow and long periods of continual darkness that is followed by short periods of constant light. It’s a place suited best for those with money. Money to buy a four-wheel drive. Money to buy lots of insulation for the house and to buy fancy winter boots and coats, and money to buy airline tickets to leave the state once or twice a year for a warmer climate. All of the things

But on the plus side, our divorce is final now and includes provisions in our custody arrangement to prevent him making good on his threats. I’ve earned my journalism degree. I have a promising job, and I’m determined not to feign independence through remarriage and further dependence. We are out of low-income housing, and off of food stamps. And more importantly, the girls are smart and healthy, and they how to respond if anyone, including their father, attempts to take them away from me. There is no reason to be afraid.

“Don’t forget your blankie, baby,” I remind Meredith. I hand her the paper-thin quilted blanket that she’s loved since birth. Life for everyone around Meredith goes better when she has the comfort of her security blanket. While her sister is the sensitive, pleasing child, Meredith’s attitude is that if she has to suffer, then so should the entire community.

The doorbell rings. I hug the girls and open the door. Gregory is standing there in his hooded blue jacket and baggy khakis. His dirty-brown hair looks even thinner than the last time I saw him, and his cheeks more hollow. Though he’s a half -inch taller than me at 5’8,” I outweigh my former husband by an easy fifteen pounds despite my frequent crash diets. This stupid fact has pissed me off over the years as much as the legitimate reasons I have to hate him. And yet, his gaunt look makes him appear more scary and desperate to me somehow.

Gregory wordlessly takes Meredith’s hand. She in turn grabs Marianthi’s hand. They carefully step over the ice and snow that has yet to melt in the extended Alaskan winter, and Gregory lifts them into his Jeep. They both looked back at me before he shuts the rear passenger door.

“Goodbye! I love you,” I call out.

“Bye Mommy!” they say in unison.

Gregory glares hard at me before getting in the Jeep. I return his gaze and smile brightly, refusing to defer to his intimidation tactics, and then shudder as the Jeep disappears from view. I close the door, chiding myself. I hate being paranoid, but who is that guy with him? None of your business, Liz, I tell myself. Bad things always seem to happen when I question Gregory about anything, and it isn’t illegal for him to have someone I don’t know in the car. Just get over it.

Time to prepare for the day ahead. I plan to take my friend Julie to lunch at a new sushi restaurant for her thirtieth birthday, and will force myself to enjoy the quiet time without the girls.

Somehow, today feels different to me. A palpable feeling of unrest is in the pit of my stomach for no particular reason.

The climate between Gregory and me has cooled again in the last few weeks. I had always hoped we could be on civil terms for the sake of the children, and was occasionally encouraged when time passed without any hint of coarse language or bullying as we exchanged the girls for visitation. But the peace has been short-lived. In general, it seems that the passage of time has only increased their father’s intentions to possess or destroy me, whichever comes first. And although I’m too scared to cross Gregory unless my and the girls’ safety is at stake, the state of Alaska boldly dipped into a legal settlement of his to collect child support a few weeks ago. Gregory is livid. I can’t help but worry about repercussions. He has strong feelings about paying child support.

“If you need diapers, call me,” he told me after the girls and I got settled into low-income housing four years earlier. “If you and the girls run out of food, you have my number. I’ll do what I can. But don’t ever let some government agency tell me how much I need to pay you to support my daughters. I will decide this.”

And true to his word, Gregory has not bowed to the government mandate of paying child support. Instead, I have learned to manage the financial struggles of supporting two little girls on next to nothing. I have learned how to manage his threatening phone calls, and the image of Gregory in my rearview mirror. I have even learned to parlay my fear of being killed by him into an inspiration to live each day with my daughters as if it might be my last. Because it really might be.

Yet I know I can never learn to live without my daughters, and Gregory knows why.

***

What Makes Fifty Nifty?

10550133_10203363962597721_659315099500311649_oToday I turned the big 5-0!

Fifty years old! Yikes! Can you imagine?

What do you think you will be doing on your 50th birthday? Or if you are 50 or older, what did you do on that big day?

Traditionally, I spend birthdays  reflecting on what I’ve accomplished over the past year.

I stayed away from that this year. I’ve let so much of my identity become wrapped up in what I get done on my list that on days where I don’t, I get anxious.

The truth is, we’re not owed any time, and 50 is a respectable age to have survived. And if you’d asked me at 20 what I’d be doing at 50, I’m not so sure I would have thought my 50-year-old self would be doing as well as I am indeed doing.

Would I have known that I’d have two lovely adult daughter who helped break the tradition of my family’s early marriage and no education?

Could I have guessed I would have finished college myself and secured a fulfilling job with people I enjoy working with?

Might I have imagined at 20 that the friends I met in grade school would be with me as I reached the half-decade mark?

Probably not.

Yes, in some ways, my life turned out much better than I dared have hoped.

So yesterday,  I threw myself a fairly impromptu party with my best girlfriends. I grabbed a cake at Costco, and we all met on a Sunday afternoon at 3 at a downtown bungalow.
It was magical. And instead of focusing on what I want to accomplish for the next year, I thought instead about how pleased I am to have solid connections. It’s been my friends who’ve helped raise me so that I was fit for a family.

If I have a hope for the future, it is this: I hope for my daughters that they too can have long-lasting positive friendships.  And I hope for me that I remember to take the bull by the horns and go for the things I want so much.

Like writing. Love. Like travel.

50 is a wonderful milestone. What are your ideas for making fifty nifty?

Three Lessons I Learned from Mike Dominoski/What’s Luck Got to do with it

Some people have all the luck.

403202_304172969624299_581089741_nmikedThat’s what I  thought when I met my friend, Mike Dominoski.

I met him in the dorm cafeteria at Western Washington University in the fall of 1982. You could tell he was fun by how he held himself. Wearing a pinstriped, button up shirt with grey parachute pants and a matching fedora covering his curly brown hair, Mike had a nose that can only be described as a Karl Malden knockoff. (For those of you who are too young to know who Karl Malden is, click the link.) And he seemed so very comfortable in his own skin.

I went to college thanks to decent grades and a decent interest rate on student loans. Born of two high school dropouts, there wasn’t a lot of role- modeling or planning for a higher education.

Mike, on the other hand, seemed to ooze money. After we became friends, he was the first to offer to pay for pizza. Coffee? Mike bought a round for all of us. He must be loaded, I thought.

He explained it simply. “I was born with a lot of health problems, and no one expected me to live, so I’ve inherited a lot of money at different times.”

Score! All I could think was how great it must be to go on vacations. Buy a new car. Go to college perhaps debt-free. (I know none of this to be true about my friend, but these were my youthful assumptions.)

970343_10201224373832400_36313353_nmikesmessageOf course, back then my young mind just processed Mike’s words in relation to what I’d never experienced. I didn’t give much thought to what it would be like to have a life that began with incurable and debilitating medical issues. That all became clear with time.

What I could see was that although Mike’s scoliosis made him look and walk differently, he was never self-conscious. Mike loved performing. He did air band at talent-shows (known as lip-syncing to other people’s music today). Every day, Mike happily escorted my roommate Erin and I to meals, studied with us, and showered us with attention. He went to church with us, and always impressed me with his abiding faith, which was much more about unconditional love and compassion than excluding others who were different or didn’t follow the rules.

When Mike inherited a caboodle of money two years after we met, he asked me to go to Switzerland with him (“I’ll pay!”) to visit a mutual friend attending college there. I said no. I thought he should invest his money for the future, and I wanted no part of the indebtedness I would feel if he gifted me with such a luxury.

Did he invest or save his money? Absolutely not. And within a year, it was all gone.

This worried me endlessly. Where would Mike live? What if he couldn’t work some day? What if bad opportunists took advantage of him? Mike seemed unconcerned, but I worried enough for the both of us.

Given that he was a few years older than me, Mike finished college sooner. We said our tearful goodbyes after I turned twenty, quit school, and found my real dad through a lawyer.I moved back to Alaska. Mike couldn’t find work with his degree in marine biology, and settle for one as an elevator man in Seattle while I married the first man who showed interest in me in Alaska and had two daughters in rapid succession.

It’s funny, the things that you remember later. Most of us in college felt we would definitely meet someone to love us and settle down with. Mike hoped for love, but had no air of entitlement about it. Love wasn’t a definite.

We stayed in sporadic contact. These were the pre-Facebook, pre-cell phone days, after all. The days when a husband bent on controlling his wife’s social interactions were made easy by the absence of technology.

After my husband tried to wring the air out of my neck, Mike let me and the girls stay with him for a few days in Seattle. And then the matters of life separated me from my buddy. I became consumed in legal matters, my daughters’ eventual abduction, and finishing college.

Mike’s issues were at least as critical. After serving as a missionary in Kenya, he landed a teaching job in the Dominican Republic. He suffered many health setbacks and professional disappointments, but he kept pushing forward.

When we communicated by written letter or occasional phone call, I tried not to ask whether or not he’d met a woman. Mike was at times discouraged, but always funny, and always sure of one thing. “I think God has a plan for me,” he would say with conviction. I couldn’t help but believe him.

Mike and Sita and Me/Jan 2012
Mike and Sita and Me/Jan 2012

It was New Years of 2012 when I last saw Mike during a long layover I had in Seattle. We’d connected through Facebook, and he was recently married at fifty years of age. Mike and his bride picked me up in his pick-up truck. One of the doors was smashed in his truck, forcing us to all cram in on one side. Mike was unemployed and looking for work. I would have been crushed at the setbacks. Mike never looked happier. And as always, he was making jokes about his job loss on Facebook.

A beloved teaching  job would come after a forced move across the state. But love had arrived, and Mike and his wife lived out loud, recording their joy in their Facebook posts, taking endless selfies, and making the most of every opportunity to demonstrate love.

Mike passed away when I was out-of-town last weekend. Cancerous tumors had ravaged his already challenged body, but he didn’t die alone. Mike was surrounded by his loving wife, and honored by the many students whose lives he touched. And since he lived keenly aware of his vulnerabilities, Mike may be one of the few people I’ve ever known to celebrate each day, playing practical jokes, savoring a good cup of coffee, and generously offering love to his friends and family.

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What a lucky man he was. He knew from the beginning what most of us learn towards our ending:

  • Life is short, and we are all living on borrowed time, so be brave! Be uninhibited! And be thankful.
  • Faith is an anchor. It should connect us to one another and to God. Not divide us or exclude.
  • Love is a gift, not an entitlement. It is to be celebrated, and even shared.

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Today, the world is a little less funny without my buddy Mike in it. But his is an easy life to celebrate, and he will never be forgotten.