This classic song keeps popping up in my heart every time my little girl smiles, talks, or plays. If you have a daughter you know what I’m talking about. Adriana captured my heart three years ago when she was just four and a student in our colegio’s pre-school. I was teaching English and she seemed to grasp what I was teaching as quickly as any of the six-year olds. She had an angelic smile that frightened you into remembering the “Bad Seed” and how innocent this psychopathic killer looked and acted. Still, out of all the kids in her class I had a wish to have a daughter just like her. It had been a long time since I had a daughter to love and call me daddy.
Little Salvadoran kids are as happy to give their teachers a hug or be picked up as any kids NOT from a paranoido-political culture as that of the United States. So it was not strange for her to accept my hugs along with those of her classmates when I arrived to give my lessons. Hers were no more and perhaps less affectionate than the average hug. I never asked about her family situation. I knew her brother, who was also in the class as a kindergartener, and saw her mother every day when she brought the kids to school. She also picked them up at noon when classes were over. I might get a hug then too.
It never dawned on me that one day her mother would be my wife and Adriana would in fact be my little girl. Since she grew up not ever seeing her father, she really didn’t know how to relate to me. I knew I had to just let her get used to me and my American ways. Most of the time she’d just cling to her mother and either ignore me or be distantly polite. Margarita said Adrianita was jealous of my relationship with her mom. She’d never had to share her mother with anyone other than her two older brothers and sister. I felt bad that she’d go to bed without even saying good-night. In the mornings when we all walked to the colegio, she’d hold her mother’s hand opposite where I would walk. She’d give her teacher a hug and kiss on the cheek and do the same for her mother when we left but not even acknowledge me with any kind of look.
Needless to say, it was a bit painful. I could understand intellectually from all my studies and work with children during my lifetime, but emotionally, it was a problem for me. Margarita and I talked much about how Luís and I were growing to be pals and doing father and son things together but I couldn’t get Adriana to even participate in a three-way catch so we could all do something together.
Yesterday was our 9th mensiversary. Adriana, by the grace of God, has come to accept me to the point where we are more like father and daughter than she yet realizes. I think her first step toward accepting me as someone other than her mother’s husband was when her class made heart-shaped photo frames for Father’s Day and she gave me the one she made. It says in Spanish, “I love you, Dad”. I supposed she had to give it to someone but I didn’t place any sentiment on the gift. When I placed a photo of the two of us in it, she seemed as moved as a six-year old could be. But it still didn’t get her to where she’d hold my hand when we walked down the street.
Adriana has a wonderful sense of humor and has the Salvadoran ability to play word games during conversation. I make mistakes with my Spanish and she began to take off with them and we’d laugh. Still, when we’d line up our plastic chairs to watch TV she’d sit on her mother’s far side from me.
I learned that she was jealous of other girl classmates who enjoyed sitting on my lap and laughing at my silly jokes. At these times she’d coldly ignore me. At the table, she’d sit away from me rather than at her regular position around the corner from me.
When I tried to treat her with the special love I felt for her, her brother Luís would get that ‘orphan child’ look. But when I included him, she’d go to her room. How to divide myself fairly! Solomon I’m not.
Time is a wonderful friend at times. It’s been a long time since I was six. My dad worked a lot and most of my time was spent with my mother. But when he was home, I wanted him to pick me up and play with me. Somehow, Adriana’s resistance to my attention was disappearing. Did she recognize that I really cared for her in a different way from her classmates? Did she connect my walking to and from school and CDI with her as a symbol of my love? Did she see how her mother and I were sharing the parenting duties?
I enjoy finding interesting learning tools for the kids on the computer. Adriana loves to color and I have a couple of programs in my Favorites: Children folder. At first, she’d bring her plastic stool into our room and sit next to me while she colored. As boring as it can be after a half-hour or less watching a child picking colors while I tell her how beautiful her artwork is (and it is), I knew I had to stick it out. This is my child. The daughter I’ve missed for decades in the absence of the four I sired.
Recently, she’s chosen to climb onto my lap to work on the computer. How wonderful it feels. She’s left her mother to help with the cooking at CDI to accompany me to the park to play. She even watches Celtics basketball with me on the computer and now understands why sometimes they wear white and other times green. She knows Ray Allen is number 20. Wow! Sometimes when she’s watching TV she’ll come in and lie down on the bed. She’ll tell me she is not ticklish. That’s my cue for the Tickle Spider to go into action. I’ll remember how I loved it when my dad tickled me and I was unable to tickle him. But once in a while I’ll pretend that I’m ticklish and laugh hysterically when she tickles me.
Today, she has no class. She stayed home to play with me while Margarita walked Luís to school. She even snuggled with me on the bed until a jealous Duke tried to get a space. Her mom went to church this morning and Adriana opted to stay home with me. In a little while, we’re going to give Duke a bath with the hose. She loves to help. In fact, there’s not much that I do that she doesn’t get involved in. I think of my son Joshua who was always at my side as a little boy. We did things together and went places together. I took him to work with me at Rutgers and later to my classes when I taught in Calfornia. He was my bike buddy and we ran some races together. It always felt so good. It feels good again.
But there are little stabs of pain too. The other day at the park we ran into one of her friends, a classmate last year, who knows me as their English teacher. She asked Adriana if I was her papi. She was firm about “no”. I had to remember the culture and that biologically and legally I’m not her papi. In my heart, she is the answer to one more of my impossible prayers.
At CDI, Hermana Chave is working on convincing Adriana that I am her papi. Emotionally, I appreciate her efforts and those of others. I have never been in such a situation before. The children I adopted who came with their mothers into marriage with me in the U.S. were either very young or born while their mother and I were together. Then there’s the cultural thing about apellidos, family names.
Traditionally, you are born with the last name of your father followed by the family name of your mother. I use “family” rather than “maiden” name because so many children are born out of wedlock here. Legally, my daughter is Adriana del Carmen Ramos Olmedo. Mr. Ramos never hung around long enough to ever see the beautiful child he created with Margarita Olmedo. Margarita registered her in school with her own original family names, Olvedo Cevallos. I can’t imagine how a child responds psychologically to that kind of confusing identity adjustment. I’ve been opposed to name changes after divorce, maternal custody, and maternal re-marriage and/or adoption. You are who you are. A rose is a rose is a rose. I’d be honored if Margarita wanted to call her Brown Olmedo but I’d be forced to decline. She is not a Brown genetically, although I love her as much as if she were. It’s a complex issue that is difficult to get a handle on since our cultures are so different. So, I let it go. What is important is our relationship. It is growing.
I get my good-night hugs and occasionally I get a peck on the cheek. She always gets a peck of kisses from me. Mom is protective in her way: “Don’t run, you’ll fall. Come here and give me your hand.” I trust her to help her climb a tree and she trusts me to be right there to answer and S.O.S. if she needs help. I won’t let her go to school wearing the uniform stockings that Duke chewed holes in, so I bought her a new pair. I think she appreciates little things like that. Her mother isn’t used to being able to provide all the simple things kids are required to have for school, need to help them grow, or want because they exist. I’m enjoying providing what I can.
A couple of nights ago, Adriana lost her first tooth. I not only taught her about the tooth fairy and showed her on the computer what the legend is all about, I gave María a dollar to put under Adri’s pillow in exchange for the tooth. In the morning, I heard a loud squeal from the girls’ room as she discovered her treasure. It just gets better.
At this moment, she’s watching TV. Cartoons. But I have PBS’ Children’s web page handy for us to work on her English, her math skills, and another bunch of pages for her Spanish reading. We’ll have fun today…and tomorrow.
I also have a big girl, María. We accompanied Margarita to the dentist yesterday afternoon. We knew we’d be waiting a while so I asked Mari if she’d like to go for ice cream. She jumped at the chance. We had fun laughing and teasing as we walked the block or so to the ice cream shop and back to the waiting room. Mari has a relationship with her natural dad and I wouldn’t expect her to call me papi. But she knows I love her too and enjoy making sure she has what she needs as well as some things she just would love to have. She has much of her mother in her ways and her speech. That makes her even more precious. She’s a beautiful girl in her own right. She loves to tease me as much as I love teasing her. When Mari calls Adriana a little witch, I give Mari a broom and tell her to fly away. She’ll then tell me Keiry (a classmate of hers who has the most beautiful face I’ve ever seen) is a witch. I’ll pretend to swoon at hearing Keiry’s name and Mari will laugh. It’s all in fun. Margarita gets a kick out of the whole oft-repeated conversation. I laugh a lot with my little girls. All three of them.