Despite the conventional wisdom that "blood is thicker than water," I had always believed that family is something you create rather than something you are born into. "Never forget for a single minute,/You didn't grow under my heart -- but in it," read part of a poem my mother clipped from a "Dear Abby" column and pasted into the inside cover of my baby book.
One fall afternoon, soon before my sixth birthday, I snuggled close to Grandma on her stiff twin bed at the nursing home where she spent the last year of her life. By today's standards, she was relatively young at seventy-one, but at the time, she seemed ancient. Calmly, she cupped my tiny hand in her bony one as we sat there in silence for what felt like an eternity. Although we didn't exchange words, her eyes said good-bye.
Since my mother didn't have biological children and my aunt never married or had children, my grandmother's genes would die with my mother and her sister. Still, I am certain that my grandma never felt any less connected to me because I wasn't her genetic descendant.
Now, as an adult, I'm back in Brooklyn, not far from where my mother was born and raised and my grandfather owned a kosher butcher shop. But, along with my grandmother, the rest of my mother's family has long since died or moved South. "You're moving to Brooklyn?" my mom asked incredulously when I informed her of our plans to move to Park Slope. For her, the suburbs were the Promised Land. Why would we want to settle in the place she had worked so hard to leave?
ELYSE: Six months after I wrote to the adoption registry, I received the only information about my birth mother I ever expected to have. The registry wrote me that they had contacted Louise Wise Services, the adoption agency I knew had handled my case, and re- quested that they send nonidentifying information to me. As a consolation prize, they enclosed a form listing my birth mother's various attributes, of which only nationality (American) and age (28) are filled in.
I quickly calculated the years: my birth mother would now be in her mid-sixties rather than in her early fifties. I had envisioned her in my mind's eye as a pregnant teenager living on the fringes of New York's subterranean society when she'd given me up. So I could safely eliminate the majority of my fantasy birth mother candidates: She wasn't Edie Sedgwick, who was rumored to have had a fling with Bob Dylan at the Factory in 1967... a possibility that had always left me wondering. And since, at age twenty-eight, my birth mother would presumably have been old enough to raise a child, extraordinary circumstances must have caused her to give me up.
Returning to America after a three-year stint as a film student in Prague, I myself had experienced the first pangs of nature's call to procreate, at the age of twenty-eight. Before then, I had convinced myself that as an artist, I was required to choose between family and film. I chose the illusory world of film. In the fairy-tale city of Prague my dream to turn colored lights into images finally came true. I had been selected to study in the international program at the prestigious film school FAMU. I packed my bags convinced that there was no return.