Jin came to Susanne and Bruce on a flight into Seattle accompanied by an agency escort. Not unlike a birth, the moment they took him up from his car seat and held him, their lives changed forever. In her meditative and lyrical
memoir Make Me a Mother, Bellingham poet and memoirst Susanne Antonetta-Paola traces the map of Jin’s adoption, from her decision at an early age to be a mother, to the moments she and Bruce sculpted their lives around their son:
Korean-born, but ever-so-much theirs.
As is characteristic of her, Susanne dips deeply into history and science, and places the story of adopting Jin into the greater constellation of adoption practices from Hammurabi’s Code in ancient Egypt to the “nursing pillars” in ancient Rome at the bottom of which Roman babies were left for anyone to pick up and carry home. She traces the feelings of parental absence and abandonment in her own life, and expands the meaning of the word “adoption” to mean neighbors, friends, the friends of our children, and family members.
She connects her early interest in NOW and the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s with seeing, for the first
time, not just the timing of motherhood as a choice, but also (thanks to the emergence of the birth control pill) the fact of it.
But what makes her memoir so powerful is the universality of her experience. As Jin comes into her life and grows into her family with Bruce, so, too, do biological children grow into their families. The connection between her experience with an adoptive child is so firmly rooted in the nature and force of parenthood itself, that the “artifice” of adoption falls away. And yet, always, like a pulse, it is there, in the features of his face, in the tone of his skin. She writes, “As I fell more and more in love with him the wonder of not-me lit the way: the eyes that came so distinctly from someone else, the muscles he inherited from a set of genes that had also built the frame of a body very different from Bruce’s and mine…It is a beautiful part of adoption that we create a love based, partially, on difference.”
As Jin grows, he becomes more and more focused and aware on his adoption, casually calling his birth mother his “real” mother, and fixating on his Korean culture. To learn Korean, to give Jin exposure to Korean culture, Bruce and Susanne attend a Korean church. Susanne’s warm recounting of the community, their difficulty with the language, and their attempt at connecting with a community with whom they share only a handful of words is both humorous and touching. Susanne also writes movingly about their family trip to Korea, about Jin’s love for his native country, his appreciation of the food and the dense throngs, and their reunion with his foster mother, Mrs. Choi. Mrs. Choi, it happens, has fond memories of Jin as a baby. When they return, Jin is less a haunted, shut down teenager and more present.
Another thread that weaves through this story of family is the deep affection and connection Bellingham brings to Susanne’s family. She recounts a story about Jin’s friends when they were about five years old. One of his friends says about another friend, “He’s adopted.” And Jin replies, “I’m adopted.” The boy says, “You are?” with great surprise. Susanne writes, “We simply were in his world, part of the unquestioned nature of things, and this is part of why we have never moved from here.” Susanne and her husband are now well ensconced at Western Washington University.