The first time I met my daughter’s mother, she wept in my arms. It was nine years ago, in the Ethiopian city of Hosanna. My husband, Nick, and I had spent an hour with Marta, whose 14-month-old daughter, Denbele, was about to become ours. Through a series of interpreters—one to translate from Kambaata, the language Marta spoke, to Amharic, and another to translate to English—we asked tentatively: Where did Denbele get the scar on her forehead? What was her temperament like? And though we knew the reason why Marta was giving her up—her birth was out of wedlock, which is taboo in Ethiopia—I wanted to know why Marta had waited so long. Had something happened?
Marta told us that Denbele had been easygoing even as a baby and that her scar had come from a fall. Marta had known since the day Denbele was born that she could not keep her.
When it was time to say goodbye, we gave Marta a frame with two photographs: one of us with our older (biological) daughter, Willa, and the other of Denbele. We handed her a laminated map of the United States, with a sticker denoting the city Denbele would soon call home. Before we climbed into the van, Marta collapsed into my arms and sobbed, “Raise her to be self-reliant.”
Storytelling is a human imperative. When confronted with the mysteries of the universe, we tell stories to explain the unknown. When we’re faced with a tragedy, we create a story to extract meaning. Since adoption usually begins with such a tragedy (a mother gives up her child) and is embedded with mystery (why did she give up her child?), the temptation to frame it as a fairy tale, complete with a happily-ever-after ending, is very strong. Maybe this is why orphan stories have been such a potent part of our cultural imagination: Little Orphan Annie and Harry Potter are just two examples of wayward orphans who found their family and their way.
In fact, before we brought Denbele home, a social worker had encouraged us to frame her story as a fairy tale. It would simplify something complex in a way that a child could understand.
When Denbele was young, we told her that Marta loved her so much but could not take care of her, so she wanted us to love and care for her. As she got older, Denbele gleaned additional information, like how she’d been so malnourished as a baby that she ate everything she could—other kids’ playground snacks, rocks, dirt, and a freshly puked pile of cat barf. She also internalized well-meaning comments from strangers who’d stop us on the street and say how lucky she was. (Please don’t say this to an adopted child. It makes her feel beholden to, rather than entitled to, her family.) From those threads, she wove her own story of survival, a fairy tale fit for Disney: a child on death’s door whose mother relinquished her to save her life. “If my mother didn’t give me up,” Denbele tells people, “I would’ve died.”
Since we’re talking about fairy tales, I’ll fess up. Our decision to adopt a second child was not one of necessity but of choice. My husband and I had always wanted to give a loving home to a child who might otherwise not have one. Our rescue fantasy was also a kind of fairy tale.
But it imploded that day Marta wept in my arms. In its place, I constructed a darker story. Like Denbele, I took the crumbs of what I knew about Marta—she was young, poor, responsible for her ailing father, and living in a paternalistic society. I made some snap judgments (in pictures, her father looked stern) and took a giant narrative leap based on her plea to raise a self-reliant child and on the age at which Denbele had been given up. Fourteen months, I conjectured, was when a nursing child required more than breast milk, when an immobile child began to toddle, when even the most easygoing baby became a drain on resources. Marta’s father, Denbele’s grandfather, I decided, must have been the one who forced Marta to give up Denbele. It was indeed a classic fairy tale, complete with a damsel in distress and a villain.
Over the years, I did what I could to keep Marta present in our lives, adding Marta as Denbele’s legal middle name, hanging a photo of her over Denbele’s bed, and calling her Denbele’s “other mother” (which in our progressive Brooklyn neighborhood led to some amusing misunderstandings). I mailed yearly update letters to the adoption agency, which promised they would be translated and made available for Marta to read.
In my letters, I described a gregarious goofball who loved silly jokes. A musical kid who was always wearing earbuds, singing in the shower, or dancing. A creative soul who woke up early each morning to read graphic novels or paint her blingy nails. A beloved sibling who played and fought with her big sister. A charismatic charmer whose preschool teachers nicknamed “The Ambassador” and whose grandmother described as someone who “never meets a stranger.”
If I didn’t mention some of Denbele’s struggles, about being a brown child in a white family or being adopted, it was because I didn’t want to worry Marta or contradict the narrative I was spinning: Her daughter had a good life, a life worth sacrificing for.
Last summer, our family decided to return to Ethiopia, as part of a five-week adventure. In the months before the trip, I reestablished direct communication with Marta. I sent her a picture book and some questions and paid a courier to translate and deliver her replies. She was still taking care of her father, still unmarried, and had no other children. She said she would welcome a visit.
I desperately wanted her to see the feisty, fun-loving, empathetic, and self-reliant child I was raising. Denbele, now 10, was more reluctant. After discussion with her therapist, an adoptee herself, and other adoptive families, we decided that our first trip back to Ethiopia should be low stakes: We would simply be tourists this time, and we’d return to visit Marta when Denbele was older.
On our last day in the country, we met with a man named Elsae, who acts as an intermediary between adoptive and birth families. Denbele wrote a letter for him to take to Marta, with a list of questions. Her most urgent concern was: Do you know the music of Beyoncé? Other questions included: What does my name mean? Who do you talk to when you’re sad? Do you like to sing?
After four months, a letter finally arrived in a thin brown envelope with stamps bearing rhinos and wildebeests. No, Marta did not know Beyoncé. Denbele was born after a fruitful harvest, so her name roughly translated to “bounty.” And the person who’d named her this was her grandfather. “He took care of you more than me and my mother. He is the person who loves you so much and you loved him when you were little,” Marta said in the letter. “Now he is sick and becoming old and he wants to see you in life. I am happy if you meet him before he dies.”
Her grandfather had loved her? He’d been the one who’d taken care of her? But he was the villain! And so, another fairy tale bit the dust.
Two months later, we were on our way back to Ethiopia for a quick four-day trip. Any lingering misgivings I had about meeting her birth family were overruled by the sense that we had to go, the way you know you have to visit a sick relative before it’s too late. I invited my 80-year-old father to come with us because I wanted Denbele to be with both of her grandfathers while they were still alive.
I wasn’t sure how Denbele would react when she first learned how much her grandfather had loved her and that he was sick. But she was excited to go. “He’s going to sing me a song he used to sing to me and I’ll remember him,” she said. “It’s going to be like a movie.” Fairy tales, you see, are a tough habit to break.
The first thing that happened after we landed in Addis Ababa was that Denbele threw up in the airport bathroom. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. An elderly attendant put cold compresses against her neck and murmured, “Ayzosh.” I knew that it meant “It’s okay” in Amharic because it was the same phrase I’d repeated like a mantra to a terrified Denbele nine years before. I began to wonder if maybe the way things aren’t supposed to go is the way they are meant to go.
She recovered quickly, and the next day we were bumping down the highway, weaving between cows, goats, and donkey carts, on our way to meet Marta and Elsae at our hotel. From there, we would travel together to the village where Denbele was born. Having been anxious about meeting her birth mother, Denbele was now a 10-year-old Zen master. “I’m just going to let the moments happen,” she told me on the drive down.
And then the moment happened, with no hoopla at all.
Denbele and I were sitting on the hotel patio, but we weren’t expecting Marta for another half hour. “I think she’s here,” Denbele casually said. “I recognize her from the pictures.”
There was Marta, small, nervous, smiling—looking like “someone I’ve always known,” Denbele later said. We stood. I nudged Denbele forward to her other mother, and Marta pulled her into a hug. I started to step back to give them their space, but Marta pulled me into the embrace.
As Marta and I held each other and our daughter—our daughter—all of the fairy tales crumbled, including the deep, dark version that I’d quietly harbored in which it wasn’t Denbele’s grandfather who was the villain. It was the wicked witch who had taken the child from her true mother. It was me.
But there was no villain in this story. Just two mothers, hugging the daughter they shared. And so, nine years after Marta wept in my arms, I wept in hers.
As it turned out, the visit was strangely anticlimactic.
There were the big moments. Arriving at the round, straw-and-mud hut amid singing and dancing. There was the moment I met Denbele’s grandmother, who embraced me several times before I gestured to the star of the show, who was standing shyly behind me. Her grandmother screamed with joy, as if she’d been expecting a toddler and here was a grown girl instead. There was the moment when the villagers, seeing the prodigal child and her white relatives return, came out in such numbers that Marta literally had to chase them away with a stick. There was the call home at the hotel when Denbele told Nick and Willa via video chat, “I’m sitting on my birth mother’s lap,” and he burst into tears from 7,000 miles away.
But when Denbele was reunited with her grandfather, there was no jogging of primal memory or singing songs. He was clearly in the throes of dementia. My father and I sat with him on a bench outside the hut, and we held his hand. Denbele kept busy with her cousins, but when she came close, he said, “Konjo konjo” to her, which happened to be the one other Amharic phrase I’d learned. It means “beautiful.”
Fairy tales are not life. This is life. It is Denbele playing soccer with her baby cousin, Baby. It is Denbele holding hands with her cousin Bareket. It is Denbele getting her hair braided by her aunt Belenesh. It is Denbele and her cousins (and aunts and uncles) silently coloring pages from the geometric coloring book we’d brought for the kids, only to find the adults wanted in on the action too.
It is the aunties whooping with laughter when I get the fire going in the hearth in the middle of the hut. It is Marta gently teasing me about trying to speak Kambaata, and showing me where Denbele’s irrepressible sense of humor came from. It is Marta and other relatives holding on to my father when he walked around the yard, making sure that he didn’t stumble. It is Marta, catching my eye across the room, a little nod between us. Yes, she is ours. Yes, she is beautiful. We are family.
But perhaps my favorite moment was when we first drove from Hosanna to the village. Denbele sat in the back on Marta’s lap, with Marta holding tight as the car jolted along the rutted roads (“African massage,” our driver called it). Denbele fell asleep, and Marta clung to her napping daughter with an expression of love, pride, joy, and ferocity. It was a look I recognized. The look of a mother.
Gayle Forman is the author of eight novels including If I Stay and I Have Lost My Way.
This story originally appeared in Parents magazine as "Families and Fairy Tales"