My mission is to find a photograph of all seven of us; my six siblings and myself, alone. Well; alone, together. My publisher thinks this would make a great frontispiece for my debut memoir, also known as the story of why my biological siblings and I were split up as children and how we found one another again as adults. I know, even as I respond to this request with a number of exclamation points, that this will be tricky. But I want a photo of the seven us to exist to to prove I am real, to give us authority. I want these people who are publishing my book to have such an artifact.
I rest my forehead on my dining room table. A tight rat-a-tat giggle—the one that my boyfriend calls my “nervous laugh”—escapes my lips. This is so stupid and so monumentally important. I can tell, already, that this could unravel me.
The story of my older brother, five younger sisters, and me is circuitous and tricky to summarize. The shortest version is to say that for various reasons at various times, we were separated between five different families and grew up apart. My four youngest sisters were adopted by strangers. As the second eldest, I remember our mother’s pregnancies, remember meeting my sisters’ adoptive parents when they were merely prospective, when there was still a chance that fate would deal us a trump card, one that would permit us to remain a family, intact.
Chance, however, was not our friend. None of those hands went our way.
I was sent from New Jersey to Oklahoma live with my mother’s estranged father and step-mother. I had only met this set of grandparents a couple of times, but they had been raising one of my little sisters, Becca, since she was three months old. My grandfather and step-grandmother adopted Becca and me when I was ten years old. My older brother, Jacob, grew up with our biological father.
And so we lived. Apart. Me, reciting my siblings’ names every night as the appendix to my bedtime prayers, and my four youngest sisters unaware that I existed. Until my sophomore year of college when my first long lost sister, Lisa, found me. She was sixteen and I was nineteen. She sent me an email, the first line of which is permanently etched in my mind; You don’t know me but you’ve known about me your entire life.
We met to over Thanksgiving weekend in 2001. She had my face with Becca’s coloring. There were many cameras on hand that day. Becca was going through a photography obsession and so had our father’s fancy camera, the one he reserved for prom dates and graduations. I had a flimsy disposable camera that was so light I kept forgetting I had it in my back jeans pocket.
The photos from that day are dimly lit and taken from artless angles. Lots of headroom, too much flash. They are childish and amateur in a way I actually like. We were all too overwhelmed by the sight of our face on another’s body to care much about framing.
Several of those photos are posted in an album on my birthmother’s Facebook profile. As are the photographs of subsequent reunions. I scroll through them, knowing full well they won’t work for my mission; they only feature four of us.
My next sister, Rebekah, found us when I was twenty-three. I flew from Oklahoma to New Jersey over a Memorial Day weekend to meet her. Jacob and Lisa were there, then, but Becca couldn’t get the time off work.
Meghan was next, when I was twenty-five. It was the week before Christmas, but we celebrated early to avoid conflicting with everyone’s primary family obligations. Jacob, Becca, Lisa, Rebekah, and I were all there. But our youngest sister, Lesley, had yet to search for us. It would be three years before she did.
I met Lesley in 2010 at our brother’s wedding. I was twenty-eight and Lesley was two weeks shy of her twentieth birthday. On that day we were so close—Jacob, me, Becca, Rebekah, Meghan, and Lesley were all present—but Lisa had school obligations and couldn’t make the trip.
But because catalogs of these events all make it to Facebook (and now Twitter and Instagram, hashtagged #tbt) it feels as though we were all present at each one. It feels as if there is a moment in time when we have all been in the same place. It feels as if there is photographic evidence of this. But of course there is not. The limitations of geography, of the budgets of students and recent college graduates, of deference to our primary families have all intervened at one time or another to prevent us from all being together, even once.
Facebook is where our relationship is most real. Which for a group of adult siblings living in cities from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, is not entirely uncommon. So that is where I went first; if a photo of us existed, even a photo of my siblings together without me, it would be on Facebook. But as fate would have it, the photos from Facebook are compressed to point that they are garbage for my needs in this case.
The Facebook album deep dive becomes more to identify what photos I should attempt to track down. Because I will need to get a signed release from whomever clicked the shutter; that’s the person who owns the rights. I don’t need to get releases from everyone in the photo, apparently; I only need the person who took the photo to sign a release. These could be my brother’s ex-wife (asking her would perhaps be more trouble than it is worth), our biological mother’s foster parents (not impossible), my adoptive father (also not impossible, but emotionally fraught), or a deceased distant aunt (impossible). These are the people who own the images of my family. Though they are photos of me, photos of my brother, my sisters, our mother, someone else owns them. If I want to use the photo of my sisters and me from my brother’s rehearsal dinner, I would have to get a release from his ex-wife. I have, in the golden age of social media, where photos are taken and shared and re-tweeted and re-blogged and pinned with abandon, forgotten that images have authors. I suddenly feel self-consciously Millenial.
The adopted kid in me wants to litigate this principle. How could anyone own a piece of me without my explicit approval? How could anyone tell me what parts of me I am allowed to use, permitted to share? I bristle. I mount a soapbox. Because of course this is about adoption in a microcosm, adoption diluted to a point that I feel safe griping about it.
In the middle of this phase I have a phone call with my birthmom. She is digging through boxes of photos that she hasn’t looked at for decades. Photos from the time when she and my biological father were married and we were still a family. I get sassy and soapboxy about the fact that I will have to ask anyone to use a photo of myself, of my own family.
“I could say I took the photo.” She offers in her soft Jersey accent. “Then you can ask me and you know I’ll say yes.”
This humble proposal of subterfuge touches me. The woman always knows when I am asking her to prove that she loves me. And she always has the right answer. Her plan won’t work for any photos she is actually in, but it is not a bad back up.
My sister Megh finds a photo of my six siblings sharing a toast without me. “It’s riddled with exes, though.” She texts, apologetically. She’s right. Mixed in with my siblings are Megh’s ex-boyfriend, Becca’s ex-wife, Lesley’s ex-boyfriend. They are sprinkled in randomly, un-edit-out-able.
I judge my past self and my past siblings, past all-of-us for being overly-inclusive, coaxing these guests to get in the picture, have a seat, grab a drink, make yourself at home. It was short-sighted of us then, and now we are paying the price. My own partner of ten years has not met half of my siblings. He has not met them, not because he is not important to me, but because I am selfish about my time with my siblings. I don’t want to be bothered with anyone else’s comfort when my sisters, my brother and I are staying up all night to share stories of childhood injuries, compare favorite books and bands, or marvel over the fact that four of us own the same sweater, three of us have the same phone, all of us have the same laugh.
The photo fiasco continues when I reach out to my siblings to schedule our google hangout toast for Thanksgiving. This involves a group text to settle on a day that works best for everyone, then another to pick a time in Eastern Standard Time, then translate and reconfirm the appointed time into Central time and Pacific Standard time, so it doesn’t end up like Saint Patrick’s Day 2012 when only three of us got the right time.
I decide that a photo of all seven us together at the beginning of the book gives away the mystery. I re-focus on locating a photograph of my brother and myself before our sisters went away.
I find one usable photo from my birthmom—one of her, my brother Jacob, and me at Christmas in 1983—but the digital copy is too small and my mother’s scanner too low resolution. She has a hard copy of the photo, though. So, with the help of my sister Megh, I mail the only extant copy of the photo to my publisher—knowing now how precious, how rare an object it is—so they can scan it on their high resolution scanner. I remind Megh an embarrassing number of times to send the photo with a self-addressed stamped envelope so it can be returned safely to our mother.
Every day I anxiously await an email from my editor’s assistant saying she is sorry but the photo became a victim of an unbalanced water bottle, an errant paper cutter, an exploding pen.
No such email comes, thank god.
My mother gets the release signed by her foster mother who took the photo. It goes smoothly. It is settled before the proper holidays begin.
I receive the advance copy of the book the first week of November, and I turn immediately to the frontispiece. There it is, a black and white scan of me and my brother, the Christmas after our first sister was sent away. Our mother kneels on the floor behind us, her bangs falling into her face. “Santa” gifted me a roll of stickers that Christmas and I promptly covered every available inch of my brother’s overalls and my sweater with them. We are off center and my brother’s feet are out of frame. There is too much headroom and the angle is artless.
That is what I like best about it.
My siblings and I settle on the Sunday before Thanksgiving for our virtual toast. It is a day free of family obligations, a day when we can each carve out an hour without upsetting the balance of the rest of our lives. Because on the major holidays—the Thanksgivings, the Christmases and the New Years’ Eves—there are others, the adoptive parents, in-laws, cousins and grandparents to whom we are an inconvenience. Our obsession with our virtual toast allows the mashed potatoes and turkey to go cold. These others’ feelings must be considered before our own, long shadows of others that bookend our every interaction, that lead us to say “your mother” and “my father” when we must, though after fourteen years we have gotten well versed in avoiding those terms whenever possible. We make meals of crumbs.
So when the alert rings at the appointed hour for our celebratory shot of whiskey or whatever is close at hand, I jump at the chance to have my brother and sisters all to myself.
Between ribbing Lesley for signing on late, and interrogating Megh about her love life, waving at Lisa’s children as they pop into the frame, I snap screenshots of my siblings and myself. They know I am doing this. We are all doing this. The photo fiasco has reminded us of the lack of our photographic record. The resulting jpegs are grainy. Most of us are thumbnails. It is useless for anything, but it is mine. I own it. And for this moment, the virtual is real. In seven living rooms across America, we are alone, together.