By Jessica O’Dwyer
We were 15 months into adopting my now 13-year-old daughter, Olivia, when I quit my job and rented a house to live with her in Antigua, Guatemala. The Guatemalan town was flooded with people like my husband and me, who got to know our hoped-for children over long weekends, eating brunch in hotel dining rooms and playing peek-a-boo on hotel pool decks.
The process wasn’t easy for anyone, most of all Olivia. She’d been placed in a foster home at four months old, so until my husband and I showed up to visit, the Garzas were her family. The first time I held her in my arms, she looked at me with brown eyes filled with fear and puzzlement. And no wonder. My hair was blonde, my skin white, and my basic Spanish incomprehensible. I wasn’t Lupe Garza, the mother Olivia knew. I was a stranger. When Lupe tried to hand her to me, Olivia stiffened her spine. When I gave Olivia her bottle, she turned away her face. By the end of our long weekends, when Olivia finally let me feed her, it was time to return her to the Garza family and fly back to California.
Adoption experts claim a child can transfer attachment from one primary caregiver to another, but as the months passed, Olivia’s attachment to Lupe Garza seemed deep and permanent. How could I ever tear her away? Which is why, fifteen months into it, I quit my job and rented the house in Antigua where we lived together. Olivia was cautious at first, watching me with her intense eyes and screaming with fear if I moved from her sight. But after a few weeks, she let me nuzzle her cheek and hold her hand. She snuggled into me when I read her a book, and smiled when I sang “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.” We began to feel like mother and daughter.
We stayed in touch with the Garzas, who lived an hour away. Foster mother Lupe Garza was a fantastic cook, and during our hotel visits, had often shared with us her country’s specialties—tamales around Christmas, black beans, and the dish most associated with Guatemala, pepian. I loved pepian so much that Lupe insisted on teaching me how to make it. We set a date and the entire Garza family arrived at our house in Antigua mid-morning—Lupe and her husband, the kids and their significant others; this was a big crowd—carrying bags of rice and peppers and onions and chiles, a large sack of pumpkin seeds, and two whole chickens, freshly plucked.
After we said our hellos, the men and boys settled in front of the TV in the living room, while the women and girls commandeered the kitchen. On an old videotape in a closet somewhere I have footage of Lupe Garza carrying Olivia in a sling across her back, wielding a wooden spoon to sauté the onions and roast the pumpkin seeds as she explained to the camera in Spanish the steps for creating the dish. Beside her, Olivia’s foster sisters and the brothers’ girlfriends chopped and sliced and minced and pummeled. They laughed and spoke fast, again in Spanish, words I couldn’t understand.
I hadn’t thought about this particular day for years, until I recently came across a pepian recipe. As I read through the ingredients, the memories of our hours together returned. The morning that became afternoon that became evening. The sharp smell of chiles, and garlic, and oregano. The sizzling of the browning chicken. The scent of pumpkin seeds, toasted. The way Lupe tied Olivia into the sling and carried her across her back. Olivia’s foster brother running out at the last minute to buy tortillas from the seller in front of Pollo Campero. The Garzas seated at my table eating pepian. Olivia sitting on her foster sister’s lap. Everybody hugging at the front door. Olivia waving bye-bye, with a backwards wave, the way Lupe Garza taught her.
Jessica O’Dwyer is the author of Mamalita: An Adoption Memoir (Seal Press) and the adoptive mother to two children born in Guatemala. Her essays have appeared on the New York Times Motherlode blog, and in the San Francisco Chronicle magazine, Adoptive Families, Marin Independent Journal, and the West Marin Review.