Riding home on the train yesterday, I had a new experience. It was the first time – I think in my whole life (!) – that I rode a train without a ticket. It wasn’t really my fault – neither the machine at the station nor in the train worked, so I had to wait till the fifth stop and its longer stay to get out and buy a ticket. That meant that for those five stops both on the way to the city and the way home again, I was . . . just a . . . hobo hopping trains. Riding the rails. Boxcar Betty. Queen of the Road. A tramp . . .

German speakers call this “Schwarzfahren”. Literally translated, that would be “black riding”. You can find signs in every train car, streetcar or bus warning against it. The most recent campaign imitates warning labels on cigarette packs, listing all the negative health benefits of “Schwarzfahren” – it leads to mood swings and muscle tension, high blood pressure and headaches:

I confess I didn’t suffer any of these consequences, which probably says something less than admirable about me. What is worse, though, is that my daughter accompanied me on my second crime spree. (She has her piano lessons in the city at the same time as my course and we take the train home together.) We met up at the station after our respective gigs and headed toward the train. As we were boarding, an elderly man asked us if we, too, were going to the town in Hungary that was the train’s final destination. I figured he was worried about being on the right one. We all got on, the man turned left, my daughter and I turned right and we took our usual seats.

A few minutes later, the elderly man popped up again. “We seem to be the only people on this train!” he said and then took a seat across the aisle from us. I assured him that we were very early boarders and that more would be coming.

This man was in his 70s I guess and he seemed friendly enough. He took my assurances as an invitation to chat, so in the next 10 minutes we learned all about him. He had been at an art exhibition, but had to leave early to catch this train. It was the last one that would still allow him to catch his connecting train home. He lived in Hungary part time and otherwise in Vienna – where he had many Nigerian friends.  His nationality was Austrian.

He paused while trying to figure out how to formulate his question.

We let him know that I was American and that my daughter had dual citizenship – Austrian American.

“Oh!” he said, clearly surprised. Then followed that up with “That Donald Trump . . . he’s a crazy guy, isn’t he?”

We rolled our eyes and I said “No. No no. We are not going to talk about that man.” And we all sort of half-smiled. There was a short silence as the man looked at my daughter.

He mentioned his Nigerian friends for a second time and was clearly trying to find out the – let’s say “ancestry” – of my brown-skinned daughter. One of us put him out of his misery and said “Ethiopian.”

“I had an Ethiopian girlfriend!” he blurted out excitedly. “For about three years. She was married off very young to a man that her father chose. That’s what those people do. She wanted to stay with me, but eventually she had to go back to her husband.”

I mentioned that Ethiopian customs differed a lot all over the country and then asked a few polite questions to figure out what kind of character we were dealing with here. The “romance” had happened years earlier when he was 57 and she was 25.  And, yes, he had wanted to marry her.

There was a lull in the conversation. He watched my daughter dig around in her backpack for her headphones. He started talking again:

“I saw a documentary once on Ethiopian TV about a young girl who left her family and went to work in a shoe factory. She lived in a tiny, dirty little house and earned just enough to feed herself. I thought, if I knew who she was, I would go save her. She could come live with me. Do some housework. Have a better life. . .”

My daughter piped up: “You know it often seems to us like all poorer people are miserable. But a lot of them know very little about how we live. They don’t have much, but neither do their friends and neighbors. They can still be happy. They don’t want to be saved.”

“Well,” replied the man, “I guess there wouldn’t be enough room here for all of them anyway.”

My daughter and I exchanged glances and then both chose that moment to insert our headphones and start the music (or in my case, podcast). I sat there marveling at my daughter’s grace and composure. She managed to stick up for herself and others confidently without being rude or provoking. She had shut the man down and was now shutting him out.

A new understanding rushed over me of how . . .  simply being in this world must feel to her at times. And then I thought of all those signs again, warning that “Schwarzfahren” can lead to headaches and high blood pressure and mood swings. It occurred to me that the word could also be translated as “Riding While Black” . . .  and the signs would still be true.

On the Mend – (Reunions – Chapter 13)


(Note: This post is part of a longer story. If you are interested in reading it from the beginning onward, use the links at the end of this post.)


Our pediatrician of almost 17 years retired recently. My first thought was to feel sorry for all the soon-to-be new parents around here. Dr. P had provided my daughters – and us (!) – with excellent care and even became something of a friend.

The first time I met him was in his own home on a Sunday. We were about to leave for Ethiopia where Mitzi was waiting for her hopelessly inexperienced new parents. Dr. P had done some research before our arrival and, over breakfast, he gave us all sorts of advice, answered our questions and wrote out prescriptions for medications that might be needed, depending on Mitzi’s state of health. Even more important, though, is that he calmed us down. That was his specialty after decades of dealing with slightly hysterical, young parent-hypochondriacs. We left his house feeling that things would be alright. And they were.

In our second adoption of Lily, our first action on returning home was a trip to Dr. P’s office – and once again, it was a specially arranged appointment outside of his normal practicing hours. He observed Lily as we told him about our trip and how she was recovering from the measles. He did a few quick reflex tests and some physical examination. He checked her responses to different stimuli.

“How old did you say she is?” he asked.

We explained how we had been asked to decide on her birthdate based on pictures and information from police reports. (Which, by the way, is a very strange thing to have to do!) Our guess at the time was that she was about five months old, so we suggested May 5th (the birthday of a dear childhood friend). The answer came back that it was too early, and were we okay with June 2nd? A month later, the trip to Ethiopia behind us, we told Dr. P that she was now five months old. He looked intensely at Lily and tried a few more things.

“This child is much older than 5 months,” he said. “In fact, I’d say she is somewhere between 3 to 6 months older.”

I stared at my new 9 pound baby and tried to imagine her as 11 months old – it didn’t seem possible.

Then Dr. P explained that her motor skills and intellectual capabilities were way beyond what a 5 month old would normally have. He seemed very convinced.

Over the years, I have come halfway around to his opinion. I had learned earlier that the miraculous infant brain will protect its own development by slowing bodily growth if need be while devoting all nutritional resources to itself. So, undernourished babies will often remain very small even as they develop mentally. A specialist once told me that once regular good nutrition is restored, it can still take up to three years before the child catches up to his/her genetically pre-determined height and weight. On the other hand, I have also read that evolution has led to faster infant development in poorer countries. It is said that a two year old Ethiopian child – if abandoned – can survive on its own, finding food and shelter of some sort in the streets. I don’t know if that is true, but it is absolutely unimaginable that an Austrian child of two could do such a thing. And Lily comes from a particularly poor part of Ethiopia where the average life expectancy is less than 50 years. It would make sense that people there, over the centuries, would develop faster and reach reproductive age earlier.

Questions. Questions.

In the end, maybe it doesn’t matter if Lily was born in January or March or June, but I can’t help wondering how it must feel not to know this about oneself? What we do know of her story is extremely low on facts, filled out somewhat by oral reports. The rest is supposition. There is a police report which says she was found “under the cactus tree in A….” The problem here is that “A….” is such a huge area. It is the equivalent of saying something like “under the maple tree in Delaware.” We heard secondhand that she got her name from the policeman who went to get her and took her to the nearest orphanage. The way Lily moved when I held her made me believe that she had been breastfed – so possibly her birth mother fed and cared for her for a while until the day she no longer could. Lily’s delighted reactions to older men with white hair – in stark contrast to the reserve she showed to other people – made me think that there might have been a kind and affectionate grandpa in her earliest months. And finally, it is absolutely clear to us that whoever her biological parents were, they had beauty and intelligence and music in their genes.

These are the things (we think) we know. They are the elements of Lily’s story. In a way, hers is not so different to anyone else’s. Memory is a strange thing – blogging has taught me that. When we tell our own stories, facts tend to get intertwined with rumors, family legends, myths, guesses and details which have morphed over time. And from things others have told me, I believe we all have gaps – little mysteries about ourselves that we may never solve. There’s the woman who spent her childhood fearing she was actually adopted. Another who found out that her father had an entire second wife and family in another town – leading her to meeting her half-siblings for the first time in her thirties. I, myself, often wondered whether I was a planned fifth child or an accidental one. I doubt there is a person on this planet who can truly answer the three most basic existential questions: who am I? where did I come from? and why am I here?

Questions. Questions.

Dr. P may have instigated a mystery that we will never solve, but he did give Lily great care – and a lot of it! There were a lot of after-effects from her bouts of the measles and scabies – an ear infection, stomach troubles, a respiratory infection, rashes, the Epstein-Barr virus . . . It seemed like I was hauling her to Dr. P every week with something new. I spent many an hour worrying in his overcrowded waiting room and often felt that he was hectic and rushing when our turn finally came. I even briefly considered finding a different pediatrician with more time and fewer patients. But then, during a classically speedy appointment, I blurted out how guilty I felt that Lily was sick once again. He stopped what he was doing, sat down, and talked slowly and calmly, taking his time.

“Just look at her and how well she is developing! You may not see it, but she keeps growing and filling out and getting stronger. Her skin has cleared up and started to glow. Each time you come here, it’s like I’m seeing a different baby.”

My guilt subsided and loyalty was restored.

Once we had gotten through all these follow-up illnesses, Lily turned into an eerily healthy child. Her immune system had been massively kick-started, I guess. And now, many years later, with Lily’s 15th birthday just around the corner, those old worries and feelings of helplessness or guilt have faded from memory. Couples adopting internationally are often more worried than biological parents about what illnesses their future children might have. But in some ways, helping my daughters back to good health – seeing how quickly they responded to loving care and how fully they recovered – has become a special and enriching part of my adoption experiences. Thanks, as well, to a little help from a friend.




The back story:
Reunions – The Prologue
Part 1 – The Decision
Part 2 – Nine Months
Part 3 – The 4 o’clock 10 o’clock Man
Part 4- Seeing is Believing
Part 5 – Whirlwind Departure
Part 6 – Out of the Question
Part 7 – Body Language
Part 8 – International Kidnapping
Part 9 – The Well-being of the Child
Part 10 – Poons and Moons
 Part 11 – Oh No, Not Lily
Part 12 – Running On Empty


Bureaucratic Baby Steps

So. The deed is done. My application for US citizenship for my adopted daughters is in the mail. My nearly yearlong odyssey to make this happen is nearing its conclusion. Now it is Wait and See time.

I can’t believe how convoluted this process has been from the very onset. And, of course, there were a few more stumbling blocks set in our path through the second to last stretch. Like the fact that permission from the Austrian government for dual citizenship took over six (!) months, meaning that the time window is now very small. (Although, when I picked up the documents, I saw that they were dated October 10th 2016. Seems like we could have had them five months ago, but no one got around to notifying us . . .)

Then, there was a new version of the application form – now 13 pages long instead of the 8-page one I filled out last summer. If I had sent that one in, it would have been immediately rejected. I only stumbled across the new form through sheer dumb luck.

And then came the dilemma of how to pay the (discouragingly hefty) filing fee from abroad? After reading every square inch of the website and consulting its Avatar “Emma”, who answered each of my questions by directing me back to a webpage, I took the desperate step of trying to call our – in this case, frigging useless  – embassy.

Unfortunately, there are only two telephone numbers listed on the embassy website – one for visa questions and one for dire emergencies. I dialed the visa number and went through an endless series of “Press 1 for lahdeedah. Press 2 for weebeejeebee . . . Press 269 for zippowingo. Hold the line to talk to a human being.”  I held. After what seemed like two days – finally! – a voice of a real person. To keep a short story short, here’s what he told me. He doesn’t know anything about my situation except that he knows that I can’t pay the fee through the embassy and, no, he can’t connect me to anyone else there who might know, and, no, it won’t help to come in person.

So how do I pay this stupid fee? The website makes clear that the application will be rejected if the cash is not forked over upfront and that the money has to come from a US bank.

I was without options.

Time to call Sister Ambassador.

We hatched a plan. I filled out the form for credit card payment that is used for different type of application and then wrote a cover letter saying that if it was the wrong one, my sister would write a check. Here’s all her contact information. Please work it out with her!  And then, in a blind leap of faith, I stacked it all up – my cover letter, my G-1450 form, my G-1145 form, my N-600K application form, my thick folders full of supporting documents (with certified translations!) – and I stuffed it all into a bubble envelope and addressed it to the USCIS. I drove to the post office.

May the fates be merciful.

Best case scenario: The payment is accepted. The application is accepted. We are notified. No more documents are requested. No specialized visa is necessary which would require me to visit the US embassy. We get an interview appointment in the Milwaukee Field Office during the time period I suggested. The interviews go well. My daughters are handed their Certificates of Citizenship. We celebrate.

And then, sometime next fall, my daughters and I go to the embassy and we watch with gratification as they hand over the US passports. A small part of the world has been righted: adopted children DO have all the same rights as biological ones. It just requires some extra paperwork. And a flight or two across an ocean.


Running on Empty – (Reunions – Chapter 12)

Note: This post is part of a longer story. If you are interested in reading it from the beginning onward, use the links at the end of this post.)

Despite the whirlwind of last minute activity before my second trip to Ethiopia, it took every last iota of my energy to keep tamping down my worries. How is Lily doing? Is it really just chicken pox or is it . . . god forbid . . . the measles? Surely Monty would tell me! I had the hour count in my head of how much longer it would be before I had Lily in my arms. As I ticked them off one by one, each hour seemed to be longer than the previous. Time was slowing down. Still, by the time we got to the airport, my count had made it down to a maximum of 15 hours till I would see her, hold her – and with a little luck, maybe 14 or even 13!

My arrival in Addis Ababa for the second time was quite the opposite of the first experience – with one little exception. To begin with, I personally knew Monty who would be there to meet us at the airport in the middle of the night and I was ready when she flung herself at me and began a series of traditional three cheek kisses interspersed with strong hugs. She chattered away and began organizing us all for the drive while simultaneously being introduced to the others and laughing and then coming back to me for yet another hug. Somewhere in there I managed to work in my burning question: “Are the babies okay?”

“Yes yes yes, the babies are good!” she said and then got back to the business of distributing suitcases and passengers into the two cars.

I was surprised to find her husband, (I’ll call him “Daniel”), in attendance too. In contrast to Monty (not to mention the hapless, Mr. T) this man was quiet, reserved, distinguished. I would find out that he was a former Economics professor and an author, now self-employed and working to patiently reform the Ethiopian economy. His English was impeccable. His presence there was meant to honor us and thank us for our help to his son in Austria.

After the initial introductions, we headed to their two cars – neither of which needed any duct tape to hold it together. I ended up riding shotgun with Daniel. As we approached the one large intersection with traffic lights, I remembered how, two years earlier, Mr. T. had simply shot through it obliviously, despite the red light. It surprised me to see this man gunning toward the red light in the same way, with no hint of him even considering using the brakes. After barreling through, I asked him if it was customary there to simply ignore stoplights. He looked at me with a tiny smile. “When no other cars are around?” he responded. He seemed to be questioning me. I liked the twinkle in his eyes.

We got to the Mission we were staying at around 4:00 in the morning. After helping us with our luggage, Monty brought in bag after bag full of food, water, bananas, bread . . . Anything and everything she thought we might need in the next 7 hours before we would meet again. She ordered us to go right to sleep and then to be ready at 11:00 am the next morning, when they would pick us up again.

“And then we will go to the orphanage?” I asked.

“No, no. We will have lunch first. Sister Mariska said Visiting Hours are between 4 and 6 pm. Then we go.”

Monty made her vivacious goodbyes, ordered us to go to sleep once again, hugged and kissed me several times and then handed me a banana and told me to sleep well. And then she was gone.

I was so disappointed. 4 o’clock pm! Twelve more hours! How would I make it that long?!  I was so close to Lily now (or at least I thought) and still had to wait! Life was cruel.

I ate a banana. As ordered. And I went to bed. But I didn’t really sleep.

I waited till it was light and I heard noises of the others – the other adopting couple and my sister-in-law who had come with me. (My husband had stayed at home with our elder daughter.) We whiled away the time as best we could, battling impatience. We wandered around the garden and took strange pictures. Time had slowed almost to a halt. Monty and Daniel’s arrival felt like redemption.running1



Our lunch was wonderful but I could hardly wait for it to be over. It was followed by an almost painfully long traditional coffee ceremony (which begins with roasting the beans). We asked intermittently about the babies, but Monty kept her answers short and quickly changed the subject. Once the coffee had been drunk and cups returned, I assumed we would be off to the orphanage – a bit early, but not by much. Monty had other plans and we proceeded to drive up the mountain Entoto by one of the back roads. We would take in the view of Addis and maybe look at the churches.

running3 running4

Never before and never since have I been so ungrateful for such kindness – but I was wilting inside. It wasn’t even nervous energy keeping me going anymore, it was just the fumes. It was already 4 pm when we entered the second church. My brain was calculating the shortest period of time we could spend pretending to look at it without being rude. That’s when the curator came over and offered us a private guided tour. I thanked him and tried to beg off by explaining how we were on our way to the orphanage, but Monty stopped me. She whispered “This is great honor!” So we traipsed from artefact to artefact as the curator droned on unintelligibly about which king or priest did which historical thing in which year, after which he stopped and waited for me to translate it all for the German speakers while I was dying inside.

It was . . . excruciating.

The other adopting couple – let’s call them Ellen and Ronny – looked at me with something like pain in their eyes. This was their first time in Ethiopia and their first adoption. My nervousness and anxiety were nothing compared to theirs. They both looked like they were about to throw up. So, instead of translating the wonders of the next artefact, I said in German, “I should be telling you what he just said – which I didn’t really understand – but I’ll use this chance to ask you two how you are holding up.” I then added a bit louder: “King Fasilides in the 17th century.” Ronny then asked me in German how much longer this was going to go on and weren’t we going to miss the visiting hours? I told them I would try to get us out of there and then pointed out the pattern on the artefact as if I were explaining it.

As we walked to the next display case, I whispered to Monty that Ellen wasn’t feeling well and needed some air. Monty and the curator then had an intense discussion during which he seemed a bit affronted and she talked a mile a minute. At one point he looked over at us and seemed to soften a bit. We all thanked him profusely and he almost smiled. (I think Monty’s donation to the church helped a bit too.) We were free! We were finally on our way to Lily!


running6To be honest, I have almost no true memories of the next hour. I only have the ones my mind later constructed around the pictures we took. The red couch. The bundle. Lily in my arms, confused, straining away from this stranger and looking around for Monty or Sister Mariska. Those two women were in intense conversation, interrupted occasionally by one of them telling me “On the mend! On the mend!” In the pictures, a black splotch is visible on the corner of Lily’s mouth, but I don’t remember seeing it in those first moments. I do remember realizing suddenly that I had forgotten the Baby Bjorn back at the mission. I kicked myself mentally. I had had Lily for all of ten minutes and had already made my first mistake. I took off my sweater and tied it around my waist to fashion a make-shift baby carrier. It would have to do.

(Years later, Monty told me a story. She said that Daniel had watched me doing this with some fascination and then said, “Now THAT is a mother!”)

Sister Mariska had a lot of work to do, so she kicked us out after a fairly short time. Before I knew it, we were back at the mission and I had a sick baby to take care of. Thinking back on it now, I don’t know what I would have done without Monty and my sister-in-law (– I’ll call her “Sue”). Both of them were experts in childcare. (Despite having a surgeon, two dentists and a gynecologist in the family, it was Sue that we all called when we needed medical advice – and especially when it was for a sick baby.) In those first hours, Monty and Sue prepared the antibiotics for Lily and discussed how and when they should be administered. They helped me bathe Lily in specially prepared water to treat her scabies. It was Sue who sat next to me as I gave Lily her first formula. Sue kept me from panicking when I realized that Lily was too weak to suck it out of the bottle – even after we painstakingly enlarged the nipple hole with a pin. It was Sue’s idea to try spoon-feeding. We began pouring the formula drop by drop onto Lily’s lips and saw that she was taking it in. We kept this up for hours and through much of the next day until Lily was strong enough to use the bottle.

At some point, this longest day of my life had to end. Lily was sleeping (if somewhat fitfully) when I placed her in the crib and then lay down. I listened to her wheezy, rattly breathing and worried. Then the sound stopped and I worried more, so I got up to check her breathing. After the third time, I realized this wasn’t going to work. I had read in a baby book somewhere that it is dangerous to have an infant in your bed, but I saw no other option. I rolled up extra blankets and laid them to the left and right of me. Then I got Lily and laid her on my chest and covered her up. Her breathing quieted, but I could still feel her lungs expanding and contracting. I drifted off and woke hours later in the exact same position.


Between the Baby Bjorn and this sleeping arrangement, Lily spent about 100 of the next 120 hours at my chest. Heart to heart. We were soon both on the mend.


We spent another five days in Ethiopia during which Monty spoilt us rotten with attention. We were chauffeured around to sights and restaurants and visits to families of other children adopted by Austrian friends. We brought presents to people and went shopping for souvenirs. We watched Lily get stronger and stronger. We learned her noises and her ways. Once she seemed out of the woods, I finally maneuvered Monty into a corner. We were in the car on our way somewhere when I told her in no uncertain terms that I wanted to know the truth. “Lily had the measles, not the chicken pox, didn’t she?” I asked. There was a long silence.

“Yes,” Monty finally admitted.

“How bad was it?”

“You do not need to know this.”

We drove on in more silence for a while. And then I said, “Okay. But I want a promise from you. Someday in the future you will tell me the truth.”

She thought about it for a while and then made the promise.


In the absence of facts, theories and stories and, eventually, legends emerged about Lily and her medical history. Sue has come to believe and say that if we had arrived just one day later, Lily would not have made it. I know that she is telling her own truth and that with her expertise, I should believe her, and yet I don’t. Because I can’t. The what if’s are simply too awful to contemplate. And then there is the memory of Sister Mariska’s confidence. Lily was already “On the mend!” when I first held her . . .

And then there was Monty’s version of the truth, which I heard a half year later when she visited us in Austria. She told me that two nights before our arrival, she had visited Lily in the orphanage. Her condition was dire and Monty didn’t think she would survive the night. She recognized that it was in God’s hands now, and that if Lily was still alive the next morning, then everything would be alright. And that was what happened.

I know Monty was telling her own truth. And I should believe her. But I can’t.

Adopted children do not like hearing that their experiences were “meant to be” and I understand fully why that it is so. How could it ever be “meant to be” that a person loses his/her mother or father in infancy? Beginning one’s life in loss can only be bad luck and never destiny.

And yet.

I cannot and will never stop feeling that Lily and Mitzi and Hubby and I belong together for no other reason than there is no alternative. We four are NOT simply the product of a string of decisions and coincidences and timing and luck . . .

We are meant to be. It is my own truth. And I believe it.



The back story:
Reunions – The Prologue
Part 1 – The Decision
Part 2 – Nine Months
Part 3 – The 4 o’clock 10 o’clock Man
Part 4- Seeing is Believing
Part 5 – Whirlwind Departure
Part 6 – Out of the Question
Part 7 – Body Language
Part 8 – International Kidnapping
Part 9 – The Well-being of the Child
Part 10 – Poons and Moons
 Part 11 – Oh No, Not Lily


Monty – (Reunions – Fast Forward)

We got an unexpected phone call a few days ago. Our Ethiopian friend, Monty – the same one I am currently writing about in the next chapter of my adoption story – was in Austria and wanted to know if there was any way we could meet up before she flew home. Of course there was a way. This was, after all, the woman who saved my younger daughter’s life. I will love her till the day I die. My husband saw her two years ago on his school trip to Ethiopia, but it had been six years for my daughters and me. Here’s a shot of that last visit:


So instead of a lazy Sunday, we all jumped in the car and drove for two hours to see her. We sort of crashed a party being given for her by four Viennese families (and ended up monopolizing her a bit) but they were all gracious about it. They had had her for two days and we only had two hours. It was such a wonderful reunion. Just too short.

As we said goodbye, Monty stuttered out, “Miss C., you . . . your lovely family . . . the most . . . all of you . . . my heart . . . you know what I am saying . . .”

I knew.


Oh, No, Not Lily – (Reunions – Chapter 11)

Note: This is part of a longer story. To read the earlier chapters, click on the category “Adoption Stories” (and read from the bottom up!)


The third time I brought up the idea of adopting another child, a loud and reflexive “NO!!” came shooting out of my husband’s mouth. The explosiveness of it was pretty effective in making me drop the subject. The second time I brought it up, though, his response was the opposite. Not only was he immediately open to the idea, but I was pretty sure he had already been thinking about it himself. The first time we had considered adoption, he had literally needed years to come around to yes, so it was something of a shock to realize within seconds that “We are going to do this.”


Where to begin? Since the pioneer work we had done to have Mitzi, the entire adoption landscape in Austria had changed. News had travelled like wildfire that Ethiopian adoptions were possible and couples were networking and sharing information all over the country. Mitzi had been the third Ethiopian child to come to Austria in this wave and since then, dozens and dozens more had already followed. Austria had quietly signed the Hague Convention which allowed agencies to be established and to begin “facilitating” adopting couples. We were even indirectly involved in the creation of one of these. Within a month or two, however, we were already questioning how involved we really wanted to be.

The first priority of this organization was declared to be promoting aid projects and adoption assistance came in a distant second. Generally that was fine with us, but the freshly elected functionaries had a conservative and paternalistic approach to their adoption tasks. One of the first decisions was to set age limits for applying couples – a maximum of 50 years old for the father and 45 for the mother. Up to that point, couples only had to meet the Ethiopian “rule of thumb” requirements that the combined age of the parents should not exceed 100 years. I wondered about the organization’s decision to make it just a little harder for couples. More galling was the fact that they were placing themselves squarely behind Ethiopia in terms of gender equality. What was the point of that 5 year difference between the sexes? It wasn’t a good sign.

My (own and vicarious) experience has been that every adoption brings its own unique troubles. With some couples they began with uncooperative social workers. Other couples created their own problems with unrealistic expectations or arrogant demands (after all, the “customer” is always right, right?). Each time a problem cropped up, the organization created a new blanket rule – a new loop for the next couple to jump through and a new fee to pay. Before long they officiously forbade couples from contacting their representative in Ethiopia directly while instituting a “Don’t call us; we’ll call you” policy. And, of course, the costs started going up and up – including a “mandatory donation” to their current aid project – while the waiting periods got longer and longer. And what did the adopting couples do every time a new rule or requirement was instituted? They did what everyone in this situation does (including us), they shut up, paid up, and did what they were told. Anything not to screw this chance up.

So when we decided to adopt again, we knew we didn’t want to do it via this new agency. But there was a hitch.

Two years earlier, when we had to find a representative for Mitzi’s adoption, two women were suggested to us: a Mrs. Monty and a Mrs. Herewego. Jean and Arthur at the Austrian Embassy in Addis knew “Monty” and highly recommended her. But, unfortunately, she was out of the country for a few months at the time and we were not willing to wait for her return. Herewego it was.

After our experiences with the first adoption, the following couples all hired Monty and had wonderful things to say about her. In the meantime, Monty had many connections to Austria and eventually became the representative for all couples adopting through the new agency. How could we get her and bypass the organization?

Once again, destiny smiled on us.

Monty’s son was going to be studying in Austria and they were trying to decide between universities in Vienna and Graz (where I worked). One evening, an Austrian man – who I will call “Marvin” and who had also adopted an Ethiopian child  – called me out of the blue. He was helping Monty with arrangements for her son and needed to know some things about enrollment in Graz, accommodations, etc. My husband and I immediately offered to help in any way we could (and would have done so in any case), but to be honest, I also saw an opening.

So Monty and I started communicating back and forth and in one of those first conversations, I let her know that we were intending to adopt again. She thought that was wonderful news. Then I admitted that we didn’t really want to go through the agency and she immediately offered to do the work for us privately. Wouldn’t that be a problem for her, I asked? “Nooooo!” she answered, “I do not work exclusively for them!”

We had our representative. Let the paper chase begin!

Having gone through this process before, we were three times faster this time. Some of the documents we could use again and with others we saved ourselves a few “Ka-chings!” by getting originals already in English (so no translation costs were necessary). There were also couples flying regularly to Addis who could deliver files and down payments for us. At the same time, I was preparing the bureaucratic soil at the university for Monty’s son’s enrollment, and becoming friends with Marvin and his family who were officially sponsoring him. Meanwhile Monty was working at processing our adoption file in Ethiopia. In the midst of all this, she came to Austria for a short business trip and squeezed in a visit to us. She and Mitzi hit it off immediately and another lifelong friendship was formed.

The start of the university semester and the son’s arrival were fast approaching, when one evening the telephone rang. It was Monty. And she had news. A group of babies from an orphanage in northern Ethiopia had just been brought to Addis Ababa.

And Mitzi’s new sister was among them. She had seen this baby and was immediately reminded of Mitzi. She knew they were meant to be together.

We had a second daughter.

Oddly enough, my first question was exactly the same as the first time I got “The Call”.

“What is her name?”

Monty had to say it, pronounce it slowly and even spell it out several times. It was not exactly a name that just slipped off your lips. She told me it meant “Princess”.  Princess Lily. I don’t remember everything about the rest of the conversation, but she told me her son would be bringing pictures when he arrived the next week. And that I could probably come and get Lily about two or three weeks after that – she would let me know as soon as she had the court date. She said that another of the northern babies was going to Austria too, and that maybe we two families could come together. Oh yeah, and we should choose a birthday for Lily and let her know what it was.

Suddenly, I couldn’t wait for the son to arrive. It was arranged that Marvin would pick him up from the airport and bring him to Graz. We would get a few details taken care of and then I would take him home with me.

We all met up in a university parking lot and the son’s big toothy smile made me like him immediately. I chatted a bit with Marvin and then noticed an envelope in my hand. “What’s this?” I thought in confusion. And then I realized my daughter was inside. I excused myself and walked about 10 yards away from them. I opened the envelope. I looked.

lily 1 lily 2

I looked again. And again. I quickly found my favorite picture and looked again. She was so beautiful. And so sad.

A year or two later, Marvin’s family was visiting us and we were having a nice dinner in a local wine tavern. We started reminiscing and he said, “I will never forget what you said after you saw those first pictures of Lily.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “What did I say?” (I had no recollection of saying anything.)

He answered. “You said: ‘I have to see this little girl smile.’”

The next three weeks were a whirlwind of getting Monty’s son enrolled and settled, contacting the other adopting family, making decisions and travel arrangements. Mitzi kept a picture of her new “Sister Baby” by her at all times and the emails and phone calls flew back and forth between us and Monty almost daily. Things progressed fast and efficiently without a hitch until one evening about a week before my departure to Addis.

In a phone call, Monty informed me that she was visiting the babies daily now because they were sick. Chicken pox and fevers.

“Lily?” I asked.

“Oh, no! Not Lily.”

Three days before my departure, I gave Monty all our arrival information and then asked how the babies were doing. She said she was monitoring the situation and would be visiting them again the next day.

The next day, the phone rang. It was Monty. I was surprised because our last call had ended with “So . . . see you in Addis!!”

Her English was more convoluted than usual, but I got the message: that she was very worried about some of the babies. She thought I should know. It was the measles now, not chicken pox. She was not sure all of them would make it.

Measles in Ethiopia is bad. Measles, not Malaria, is the Number One Cause of Death for Ethiopian infants.  It’s not like here where most babies are well fed, cared for, have access to doctors and antibiotics and where many are vaccinated so that the disease does not spread like wildfire.

“But . . . not Lily . . .?” I asked.

“Oh, No. Not, Lily.” she answered. And then there was silence.

Her voice was strange. She had said that strangely. And then there was the silence. I didn’t know what to make of it all. A question started to formulate in my mind . . . was she . . . telling me  . . . ? But then I quickly and desperately stifled the thought.

Everything had gone so smoothly so far. This time around, there had been no obstacles, or confusion, or moments of desperation. I had not had to take any blind leap of faith.

I thanked Monty for the call and for letting me know how the other babies were doing. I told her how much I was looking forward to seeing her in just 48 hours. We hung up.

And then I leapt.



There are some words that are simply never uttered in my household. One of them was a “Daily Post – One-word Prompt” (and if you want to know what the word is, you can click on that link to find out.)

If only my daughters could find the answers to their questions so easily – with just a simple click of the mouse. “Who was my birth mother?” Click. “What was her name?” Click. “What did she look like?” Click. “Why didn’t she want me?” Click.

Both of my daughters have heard “their” stories many times. At very young ages, they asked me to tell them the stories again and again. So, my elder knows that she was born in the “Black Lion” Hospital and was brought to Sister Mariska in the Missionaries of Charity on the same day –  after her birth mother disappeared. (Though, at that time, I used the terms “Birth Mama” and “Life Mama”. After a year or two, I realized that my daughter had misheard me and was saying “Earth Mama”. We cleared up the misunderstanding and we both laughed about it. But the term “Earth Mama” was there to stay.)

My younger daughter knows that (according to the police report) she was found “under the cactus tree” in a (huge) northern region of Ethiopia. The policeman who brought her to the nearest orphanage was the one who named her. He called her the Ethiopian word for “little princess”. The name stuck. Later, she also came to Addis Ababa, and to the same Sister Mariska who cared for her till we arrived.

In all of the retellings of these stories, the sentence that never crossed my lips was “You were (Daily Post – One-word Prompt).”

Throughout their early childhoods, my younger daughter had few questions. The older one, on the other hand, was occupied with this topic repeatedly and over many years. She worried about her Earth Mama and wanted to meet her. She cried after hearing that we would try everything we could, but that she should know this might never happen. She articulated her most burning question straight out – “Why didn’t she want me?”

I especially remember one conversation in our kitchen. She was asking many questions again that I still couldn’t answer (and maybe never could). Here is an approximate and cleaned-up version of what I told her – and not for the first time:

“Mitzi – there ARE some things I can tell you about her. She probably looked a lot like you – so she was beautiful. She was probably very young. She probably had nowhere to go and knew she couldn’t take care of you, feed you, on her own. I’m sure that she loved you and that she wanted you to have a better life than the one she could give you. She knew that you were surrounded by doctors and nurses who would take care of you when she left. It was probably the hardest thing she ever did, leaving the hospital, but she did it for you. So that you would have a better life.”

I remember the tears streaming down my daughter’s face as she said:

“You mean . . . my Earth Mama did a good thing, not a bad thing?”

“Yes, honey, she did a very, very hard and good thing.”