Hadassah’s founder Henrietta Szold had no children and gave birth to a nation by caring for its children. I might have done it a bit differently. I gave birth to one and got two in the bargain. I have a son, Jason, by my first marriage. My second husband had a daughter, Danielle, by his first. I suppose it was destiny or the ‘Brady Bunch’ that made us realize that we would be a wonderful loving blended family to our children. But that was a long and often disheartening road.
There were clues that we shut our eyes and ears to when Dani came to visit. I met her when she was almost three and her dad and I went to pick her up after school one day. We had Jay, my son, in the car with us. Out she runs and ignores us. Straight to Jay she goes. “Who’s that boy?” she asked all aglow. “I like him. I’m going to marry him.” Of course, Jay, at seven, was a little less sure of this possibility, but he got out of the car and hugged her. For the first three or so years, this was the continuous parade, to the school,- to her babysitter, and then back again – that was the plot. But Dani was changing. She’d become more and more sullen. In time her grades and affect would dip. She became silent and withdrawn. Buttoned up.
At home, we would incorporate her into all our family activities: dinners, board games, walks, tv time, homework. Free time. Reading, stories, conversations about our day or friends, family, trips or any plans. Something should trigger a response other than a refusal. She couldn’t/wouldn’t participate. We found out in time why.
We had visitation the Solomon’s Law way: every other week from Thursday to Monday. Just split the kid in two. I began to hear her mention her stepdad and his three children – one exactly her age but much smaller in physique (this mattered because Dani was bigger and couldn’t share her wardrobe-maybe she should stop eating – or – those parents could just stop feeding her) and very vocal when she wasn’t sucking on a pacifier. Dani’s stepsister, Tina, also had exceptionally low grades – as did her two siblings. Dani was an all-star who was criticized and severely punished for not being a team player. “There’s one too many smart Jews in this house. You’re a showoff. No one needs to know that you can do these things.” That kind of emotional drag left her speechless, underperforming, and only thinking and comparing herself to her poor stepsister. She went about her day trying to not be seen or heard or praised. After all, that must be what a team player does. Sacrifice self. I sat down with her but to no avail. I sat down with her father who just said it was nothing. Leave it. It turns out I’m not that type. In I go. I ask, I play, I come up with the phrase of ‘magic questions’ so she might feel comfortable about disclosing any tidbit. I know stepmoms have a bad name for doing this snooping but my little girl, who could be as bright as a new penny, was hurting and I knew it. I come up with the phrase of ‘magic questions’ so she might feel comfortable about disclosing any tidbit.
One of my cousins was an attorney at the time, specializing in children’s rights and advocacy. It turns out that she really knew magic questions. One Thanksgiving while we’re all gathered downstairs in the living room, Maxine decides to take Dani upstairs and spend some time with her. About an hour later she explained we had to get her out of that other house and into some sort of mental care. Long story short, we did. But it took four years of court appearances, psychiatric consultations of all the parents and Dani, and a ballsy call to the Z abuse line by Dani herself. She had found her voice.
A parade of social workers and new shrinks and an aggressive attorney and pots of money later, we had a ward of the court living with us. She could visit or talk to her biological mother whenever she wished, but she was to live with us. Dani never looked back. Her relationship with her biological mother ceased.
I once asked her to call me by my name, never pushing her to address me as Mom. I was all too aware there was a true mom lurking in Harbor City and one Dani might return to should she want that. I explained whenever she asked if her mother loved her, that, yes, she did. But maybe she didn’t know how to protect her or care for her. That conversation and those ideas take years to settle in gracefully and fully. You walk a tightrope. And Don, her dad, was in law school – about as remote from overt involvement or emotional support as I could want. He loved his little girl to pieces and fought hard for her, but at home he was studying or still working full time. I was also working full time as a teacher. But one afternoon, I drive up to the house about 3:30, and two heads are peering out of Jason’s bedroom window greeting me. I know they are thick as thieves and enjoy each other. Real sibling relationship there. As usual Jay says, “Hi Mom.” and lo and behold, right behind him in a great smile, Dani repeats, “Hi Mom.” I just about collapsed from joy right there and then. After parking the car, I ran in and greeted both my children knowing that I had made a real family. Real love. Real Bond. And we would sustain.
Of course, so many more life cycle events follow. But that was seminal. It’s not where the story ends, however. Let me share a few highlights to underscore how Mother’s Day is a perpetual gift. Jay is about to be a Bar Mitzvah. So, son, what do you want for this birthday? I want to be adopted so I have a real Dad. Plotz. Kvell. Followed by concern about the real possibility of this. We hire a specialist attorney who deals in these situations. He sends out newspaper and social security searches. He does so many things it takes almost forever. However, luckily, we cannot find his biological father and must continue as if he is deceased. Ok with me – and ok with the rest of us. So, Jay becomes a real Gerber. The ceremony was low key but impressive and moving and stately in the judge’s chamber as Jason is asked and then we are asked if this is what we truly wish. Does this make us happy? We are all there. Me, Don, and Danielle. Jay pipes up, “Of course. He’s my Dad!” And so, the papers are signed.
A few years later it’s about to be Dani’s Sweet Sixteen. She opted for this instead of a Bat Mitzvah. She gets the same question: What would you like for this big birthday? The response was joyous and troublesome. She wants me to adopt her. Jay was adopted by Don, it’s only right and fair that she be adopted by me. Here’s the rub. She has a living parent who, though not in the picture at all, has legal rights. And besides, she is already a Gerber. Being the bright and practical child she has always aimed to be, Dani responds, “Then I’ll adopt you.” Again, this can’t happen. Unless…we wait until she is 18 and wishes to adopt me as an adult-to-adult adoption. Go know there is such a thing. And Dani doesn’t forget. At eighteen, in we go to the judge’s chamber. All petitions and investigations are complete and satisfactory. And I become adopted. She is mine and I am hers. It can’t get better. I kid her that from this day forward she is responsible for my love and care. No matter what. “Oh Mom, I always was.”
She graduates from law school. At the ceremony she is receiving plaudits for being in the National Honor Society for all her school years. Came her wedding – we- Mom and Dad – walk her down the aisle. Her two daughters bear Hebrew names in honor of my mother.
She is mine. I am hers. Hadassah had Henrietta’s living legacy of Hadassah Medical Organization in Jerusalem – all the children she cared for. I have Danielle and all the love my two children can possibly give me – Mother’s Day, Any Day. And I love them more!