In 1997, Annie came to us, when she was thirteen months old, from China.
Like Annie’s family, those who adopt often have the sense that the match was meant to be.
Letters to Annie is for Annie first of all, for her mother Jamia, and for all adoptive parents and children who find their way home to each other.
March 16, 1998
This is your second birthday and your first in America. Last year on March 16, you were in a Chinese orphanage and your mom was waiting anxiously to travel to get you. She loved you even then. She loved you when she saw pictures of the orphanages, children tied to beds, some left without hugs or touch. Indeed, when you first came home to us, you would only lift your little hand to be kissed; you knew only this brief acknowledgement of the caregivers who hurriedly passed your crib–and the cribs of many other babies.
Your mom, my friend Jamia, taught you to hug. Her unending patience through your adjustment here, your sleepless nights, your seldom-ending colds has amazed me. No parent I know has loved or could love a child more. All of us were prepared to witness the emotional gifts that Jamia would give to you. What we were unprepared for was the magnitude of what you would give to us.
Your intelligence and charm have changed not only your mother’s life, but the lives of her close friends and family as well. Your physical dexterity, your emotional depth, your amazing mental quickness fascinate us all. Yes, you came to us with much of that, but the books, the toys, the time, the love your mother has given you has caused you to blossom before us. Your smile, your laugh, your sense of humor have unfolded under Jamia’s hours of patience, admiration, and respect for you as a little human miracle. Your entering a room, your laughter, all of your tentative first words have elicited shrieks of joy from all who know you.
I am thinking ahead to the time you will be a teenager, prone to find fault with your mother and other adults. If you ever find yourself in that place, pull down this letter and remember this: I have watched your mother on shopping trips (her own clothes old and faded, her shoes sometimes hand-me-downs) reach for pretty clothes for Annie, another Barney tape, only Stride-Rite shoes for Annie, a beautifully illustrated book. I do not say this to inspire guilt, because all we do for children we love, we also do for ourselves, taking joy in doing. I say this so you will know every decision she had made for you has been weighed with such knowledge, love, and care.
You are a delicate, sensitive child, prone to bury your face in your hands when your little heart is broken by a friend’s leaving; likely to gently touch your nose to a rose at the slightest provocation; given to brushing your fingers across the faces of friends in photographs, standing pensive as if you remember the good times the photographs record.
This first year in America, your mother has offered you the waves and sand of the beach, boat rides at the lake, a Tigger suit on Halloween, Krispy Kreme donuts, so many McDonald’s trips, a Christmas none of us will ever forget, authors, alphabets, tea parties, roller blades, tricycles, dogs, cats, wind, leaves, laughter, love, hugs, kisses, patience, respect, honor, and all the confidence a beautiful girl will need as she grows into an independent woman.
Your mother is a hero and a saint in my eyes, and you are a gifted, miraculous, marvelous addition to her life and to ours. If there is a God who dips His/Her hand into human affairs, I believe He has gently placed one hand on your mother’s back and pushed her across the sea while using the other to lift you off of a board-bed in a faraway orphanage. He has slowly closed His two hands together and raised the two of you up as a family, divinely blessed and joyful. For this, we are all humbled and touched with deep thankfulness. Happy Birthday, Annie.
I love you,
April 6, 1999
It has been two years since you came to live with us in America…three years since you were born.
I watch you running on the Florida gulf beach, a kite tied to you wrist, squealing in perfect joy, and I want to tell everyone who has ever loved you–everyone who thinks of you in the night–that you are safe, encouraged, nurtured.
Your mother cares for your every need with patience; she gives you so many experiences to help you become whole and joyful, and you seem bonded with her in perfect love.
You glance back to see the tracks your bare feet make in the white sand, a brief recognition of where you have been, and then you are running ahead, laughing up into the yellow sun, your kite flying ahead of you like a dancing, guiding angel-star. Surely you are blessed and marked for happiness. Surely we are, too.
I have been looking for the reason
for this Blessing
So sage and soothing
…this sand dancer
and sifter of seashells
who sprinkles joy
all along our way…
I’ve been grateful for the wonder
of her gift.
My Little Annie Girl,
My Girls-Day-Out Best Friend,
Thank you for this year…
–for making me laugh at all the funny, witty things you say (“I’m not showing up in this thing!)
–for reminding me to live and take chances (“Did I scare ya’, Julia, huh?”)
–for surprising me over and over with your brilliance and wonder for life (“Wow, this looks like Central Park!)
–for needing me more when my own little boy needed me less
–for loving me as he’s leaving me.
I love you, too.
2002 and 2003
For these two years, I made you books–one of photos and one a story of a pumpkin patch. I was grateful for your allowing me to help you pick out your halloween costumes (since my own little Zach once loved that, too). The difference between the two of you was that you always wanted to hold on to the costume you wore the previous year (a Tigger, a Ninja, a ghost), and he wanted new, bloody accoutrements (a hatchet, a sickle, a sword). Loving you while he was far away in New York at college was a life-saver, a blessing, a joy.
Annie, being eight was one of my favorite times on earth.
I hope it will be for you, too. Here is your birthday
poem for 2004.
Wisteria climbs fences
and yellow jasmine blooms
across the banisters
of beach houses
lining clay and sand roads.
Azaleas (slightly spent)
rest against dogwoods not yet open
in ancient live-oak groves
of palmetto and magnolia.
bucket in hand
in the yellow and blue promise
of the last week in March
and hop hopefully
over oyster shells
out to the beach
that stretches white and turquoise
all ahead of you
in infinite promise…
My beautiful Annie,
I used to twirl you in the air and sing:
I’ve got a girl
She’s really fine
Her name is Annie
And she’s not nine…
…but now you are nine! You’ve grown to be the kind of friend who cries when you win a game and someone you love loses. You are always hoping this can be a world in which everyone wins.
I believe we have a treasure box somewhere in the part of our brain that is our heart, and we hoard moments and memories that touch us deeply and beautifully. Tonight, I am lifting out those moments and holding them up to the light, and you are in so many of them: painting with watercolors at Annie’s Place; walking in the dirt paths that lead to the beach; waiting for Flat Stanley to arrive in the mail from New York; eating Girl Scout cookies; giving thumbs-up to previews at the movie theater.
Our precious gift from China…How much we have learned from the treasure you bring. You are a wise and gentle soul who creates art and laughter wherever you go, and in your presence, no one loses.
Happy tenth birthday!
For ten years you have been on a long road trip–
(…just like our bicycle trip yesterday along Highway 30-A:
good friends, good food and good adventure,
–tiring but wonder-full).
In these ten years you’ve traveled from China to Evansville
to Seaside to the Grand Canyon to Mexico to New York
and beyond. But your greatest journey has been internal—inside yourself.
You have learned about your frustration limits and your need
to consider all things carefully.
You’ve learned how rare and valuable true friends are.
You’ve learned that making all A’s is laborious but possible,
that reading can be a joy or a burden,
that kindness helps soothe all hurt feelings,
and that it is wise to extend friendship to those who are sensitive—like yourself.
You’ve learned that you are a natural athlete, a joy in the classroom,
an unconditionally treasured friend and daughter,
a “big sister” to Kaitlyn and an attentive mother to Kiwi.
(Sam the cat? Fugettaboutit!)
You are learning to claim your personal time and space, to be a genuine help to
your mother and grandparents, and to care about your world
through recycling, giving, thinking and standing up for what you believe.
I hope the next ten years are just as happily eventful on this awe-inspiring
learning journey. Know—always—you are loved and supported.
Onward and upward; keep pedaling!
Ten years ago you arrived, your clipped hair lifted by April wind. I watched from the airport window. Over the years I’ve wondered exactly what you left behind and who mourned for you.
This January I met Guan Chunmei, a visiting professor from China, and I asked what I most wanted to know: How could anyone, even under China’s one-child policy, have let this beautiful baby go?
“It is possible her birth mother isn’t even alive,” Guan Chunmei answered. She paused and seemed to resist looking backward. She added then that the beautiful baby, you (11 years old this birthday), will have “a bright future in America for having a job – more wealth, global awareness, individualism and self-reliance. Her spirit and values will be American.”
And so they have become. You have a Wii and a PlayStation 2. You’re an ace on the basketball court and the soccer field. Your bedroom is red, white and blue, and you love Starbucks and Krispy Kreme.
But you also love rice and egg-drop soup, care passionately about saving face and maintaining honor, are often linear and literal in your thinking, as well as obedient and submissive to authority. Your Chinese culture shows like filtered light through the screen of all you have known here.
“Will she have disadvantages?” I asked Guan Chunmei.
“Sometimes she will feel alien to other Americans and have some conflicts in her inner heart. But she will grow here to become a strong-willed girl.”
And that is what I wish for you and the thousands of other Chinese girls who’ve come to live and be loved in America–a strong will, strength to stand up to loss, self-direction and independence, a full spirit that takes joy in life.
Ten years ago you came to your mother and, by extension, to all of us who know and love you.
Nine years ago you learned to love the beach and to dance with your hand sweeping the spring air.
At age 4 you learned to ask if we were “joking you.”
At 5 you could read, and by 10 you could play tennis, make all A’s, and brighten the light in a room just by walking in.
Figuratively, I bow in respect to women in the Chinese culture who have done what they had to do, offering up the children of their country to strangers who wrapped them in blankets and shuttled them into new hearts and homes. Through this process, both parents and children have reached across the globe as ambassadors, one culture to another.
For the new mothers and fathers of these children, I acknowledge the sacrifices and celebrate, too, the joys of receiving a child that, perhaps in some cosmic sense, belonged here with you.
Annie, on this 10-year anniversary, I wish you and every other child in our country and in our world a place to come home–and a parent who believes the world is so changed by that one child’s presence that any sacrifice seems minor in the face of of such amazing joy.
At first light
she comes in cotton,
is black silk on skin
tinged pink and gold
(an early morning watercolor).
She doesn’t see the shell
the water carries sand away
and leaves the gift
white, and wafer-thin
a consecrated offering
for a sun-brown
seeker of treasures.
You stand silhouetted against the blue of the gulf in the last light of day. Your legs have grown so strong and tall, and this perfect moment stops my breath. You enclose the water and the sunset within your camera lens, and I, too, capture all of this–you by the sea in the dusk–a snapshot of a snapshot.
The warm air of coastal June lifts your hair only slightly, and I am taken back to the moment I first saw you, your head on your mother’s shoulder.
Blowing soft and high, an April wind lifted your hair in just this same way–a touch, a blessing. From the airport window, I saw you sleeping. Did I know then that I would love you? I do not think I did.
We are separated by decades of age, and yet you’ve come to be my friend. Sitting with me in a house by the sea with shells on the window and books by the bed, we are good companions. Sometimes we talk, and those are cherished times. But when we are silent, still I know you are on my side.
March 14, 2009
Loving wishes on launching out into your teenage years…
Navigating through middle and high school is, as you know, a wild adventure. I wish for you many days of smooth, sunny sailing with lots of laughs and loyal friends. Remember that love matters most and who you are is more important than anything you accomplish.
You’re far from the typical teen stereotype. You’re not petty, fussy, boy-crazy, or gossipy. You’re a genuine friend, a conscientious student, a party girl in the healthiest possible way, and an unselfish gift-giver.
The glass Christmas ball you gave me is a treasure I’ll always keep. Even more precious is your Valentine card that reminded me I am a good mother who teaches love. I needed that.
I love you in the deepest possible way because you remind me of all the good the world has to offer. You remind me that families can be whole and happy and that love can be unconditional.
I still can’t accept the idea that you’ll be going to Florida without me, but in these boxes are Florida gifts so you can take a bit of me along. The $25 is for Seaside so you can make your traditional ceramic Easter egg for your mom. Be careful not to smash the frog choirs all along the roads. Do everything I would do—find shells, drink baby cokes, eat oysters, bicycle in the sun and give daily hugs to those around you. My heart will be there with you in all the places we treasure.
Shells on the windowsill
Coffee in a cup
Krispy Kremes in boxes
and, of course, a book…
Confederate jasmine holding hands
with banisters on a porch
that circles us and wraps us up
in Annie’s Place,
For the first year since knowing you, I could not write on your birthday. Looking at you across the table at Hard Rock in Key West touched my heart to tears, but I couldn’t put into words my birthday wish for you.
This has been an accelerated growing-up year for you, which means a “separation year” in many ways. You have taken your own stands, drawn careful boundaries and settled on firm, quiet preferences.
Your mother and all her friends have loved the beach and taken you there every year of your life, and suddenly the beach is “too hot.” You might like to go to college in Colorado, in the mountains. We begin to look at college campuses. “So, just what is on the SAT?” you ask.
This is the year you have made all A’s at a very difficult high school. Your golf swing is the talk of the town. You will have every choice imaginable for college and for life. All of us who love you remind you that you can do anything, go anywhere.
Remember as you are reaching up and out that you don’t have to be perfect; you just have to be you. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out exactly what that means, but listen to your inner voice and follow your passion. My wish for you is that you know what passion is and have the courage to be yourself authentically and find your star.
When you turned 15, unsure of what to say, I kept your letter to myself. You had grown so confident and strong; what observations could possibly be relevant or worthy? I don’t know if you missed the birthday letter or not.
By birthday 16, I was immobilized by uncertainty and wrote no letter at all. So this letter comes six months late, at the beginning of your junior year in high school, with the September sky so perfect and your laughter bouncing across the warm air and my heart so full of hope for you.
My dear Annie:
Laugh more. Be less critical—of your city, of your family, of your car, and of your so-called life. Worry less about what others think of you and try every day to become the person you yourself will be proud of being.
Embrace learning. Find your passion. Try hard in every class, but pay special attention to those things that warm your heart and make you come alive. Follow your enthusiasm.
When you make mistakes, lift the lesson out and put the rest behind you.
Realize that soulmates are rare. If you find people who share your interests and who are loyal, disregard how they dress, how much they weigh, or the shade of their skin or hair. They are treasures. Spend your energy on them and with them.
Everyone who is sixteen is beautiful. Recognize and embrace all that is best about your physical, mental, and emotional self. When you are discouraged, encourage others. Do something for someone else, and life will flow back to you.
Everyone who is sixteen has deep resentment against authority and control. Breathe. You will be free enough soon enough.
Don’t drink and drive or text and drive. So many people love you.
Earn money; save money; spend money on yourself and on others. Give money away. It, too, will flow back to you.
Don’t hold on too tightly to anything. Try not to be afraid because when people are afraid, they tend to lash out, like trapped animals.
Be a team player. Be happy for the success of others. When you don’t feel worthy, do one action that makes you proud of yourself. (Do I say all these things to you or to myself?)
You are entering a new year with new pens and dreams (yes, that is “zeugma”), and as Ralph Waldo Emerson explained, you have your own unique place in the whole, and imitation is suicide. Find your gifts and let them rise, and compare yourself to no one.
Annie Dillard wrote that the way we spend our days is, of course, the way we spend our lives. You will never be 16 again. There are only four yellow Septembers of high school life. Savor them all, and all the months that follow.
We are up before the sun, sleepily pouring water into the Keurig for coffee. By dog-walking time, the rising August sun backlights jets of water from lawn sprinklers set to burst open at dawn.
After a summer of working in 90-degree heat for tuition money, you are ready to travel to DePauw University; today is the day.
This morning, all of your heated summer sacrifice seems a distant past. We travel down I-69 as the climbing sun shoots down rays like splayed fingers through the clouds and across soybean fields. Mists rest atop corn in Amish pastures, plowed last spring by horses. We pass barns and Queen Anne’s lace in our SUV loaded with a fridge, microwave, TV, desk lamp, camera, pillows, plates, socks, backpack, toolbox, shower caddy, golf clubs, clothes, hangers, laptop, and anticipation.
I am aware of the privilege of college education, especially in light of increasing cost. (Only about 6.7 percent of the world has a college degree.) Those who remain in American colleges until graduation face an average debt of $30,000 (Institute for College Access and Success), but will make about two-thirds more money annually than non-college grads (Pew Research). America’s college debt is unmatched anywhere in the world (US News & World Report).
Still, 69 percent of high school graduates in America will try college. Statistics vary on how many of them will graduate in 4-to-6 years, some suggesting that a third will drop out. America is sixteenth in number of college graduates worldwide, down from twelfth.
All of this makes me deeply grateful for the opportunity of college, not only for you, but for my own son and for myself and for those I teach–because college is about so much more that career preparation or job security. It is a broadening of connections, refinement, knowledge, understanding, and awareness. I want this for you, Annie, and for every student who wants it for himself; I want to live in a country that values and prioritizes post-secondary education.
Because despite the sacrifice of loans, despite the work and commitment on the part of students and parents and relatives, the college experience makes a person stronger and broader and therefore creates a country that is stronger and broader and wiser.
So after the car has been unloaded, the futon laboriously assembled, the hugs given and the tears hidden, I am happy to watch you walk away from us down a sidewalk edged in hanging pots and brick dormitories. I watch you as far as I can see until you turn a corner that is both literal and figurative.
and so the air is lighter
on this evening
outside the coffee shop.
When the wind lifts her hair
I think we both might float away
with the joy
of simple habits:
a task and a latte: She does work, and I grade.
We do best with coffee and goals.
It’s been this way for years…
Still, I had to be reminded by cinnamon scents on the coming autumn air,
of the peace and consolation of
since now she splits her time between
our hearts and a college campus
that seems so far away…
Graduation from college, 2017
Gliding in from China
When Whatever Is In Charge
(The Light? Spirit Guides? Energy of God?)
reached both hands across the world
to bring Annie to us (as planned),
The Light brought Left Hand to meet Right,
and held her aloft
until she floated from the sky
on a windy April day,
on an airplane
right into our hearts…
Did the Divine know
that she would be a
salve for our hurts &
our best hope for joy
across all the coming years
that none of us could see?
I like to imagine this:
God explaining in a way we can understand:
“I was simply giving this Old Soul back to you
for another round.
She has been with you forever,
in this dimension
on and on out into The Light
forever and ever…”