Jennifer Chaney

Embracing the Riff

One of my nearest and dearest adopted a baby girl a year back. Her name is Zellie and by all measures, she is perfect. My friend is in heaven watching Zellie unfold. “I don’t know who this girl is, but so far, all I can tell you is that she knows how to get what she wants,” my friend said, referring to the unmistakable communication Zellie has come up with to indicate that her binky has fallen out. (Zellie uses a certain screech that I believe many of us know.) But there was something about the way she said, “I don’t know who this girl is” that struck me as downright respectful, like she wouldn’t dream of rushing to judgment on this girl, like she was going to sit back and watch Zellie reveal her nature, lest she deconstruct and define her child prematurely (and inaccurately).

I think this wait, watch and listen thing may be a real advantage for a kid.

My daughter wasn’t finished her first day before we started ascribing her features and behaviors to various family members. In the maternity ward, the declarations about “her mother’s brown eyes” and “her father’s long toes” were a predictable and innocent part of the euphoria, even if they drew the conversation away from the eight-pound mystery before us.

We were laying claim to this person we made, owning her. She was ours, and every bit of her was a possible reference to someone in our tribe, as if letting her remain a mystery for one more minute was to endure a state of intolerable suspense.

But when my friend held Zellie in her arms, she said something like, “Hi. It’s an honor to meet you. I’m going to take care of you now.” Unlike women who become mothers over the course of nine months, my friend had not rubbed her belly a thousand times, imagining, anticipating and foreseeing her child. Instead, my friend got a call one Sunday afternoon and 90 minutes later she was alone in the maternity ward, dripping tears onto a day-old baby girl, shaking her head in disbelief and wonder and the very same gratitude any mother feels when she holds her baby against her chest for the first time.

On the long ride home from Zellie’s house, I was thinking about her good fortune and listening to an interview on NPR with Bela Fleck, of Bela Fleck and The Flecktones. Bela Fleck, if you aren’t an indie music kinda person, is an inventive musician who is currently experimenting with the electric banjo. Bela Fleck is one of those people that defies definition. The interviewer struggled to label him—jazz? pop? bluegrass? Though it was clear the interviewer was begging Bela to jump in, Bela hung back, way back.

Then it got to the part of the interview where callers are asked to join the conversation. The first call was from an upbeat guy named Joe, a big fan of the Flecktones, a jazz musician himself, and a new dad. Joe had a 13 month-old named Miles who was “already banging away at the piano!” Miles’ apparent interest in his father’s vocation was “a dream come true” for his dad, who was actually calling to ask how best to further encourage his son’s interest. I got the feeling, from Bela’s chuckle, that he thought Joe might be over interpreting his son’s banging.

My own reaction was empathetic recognition. I know how easy and comforting it is to see yourself—your interests, your talents, your hang ups—in your child. It makes things so tidy. It makes the family match.

Diversity might have worked for the Village People and the Spice Girls, but in families, it disturbs. It confounds.

You can bet I’m saving every little story my girls pen as proof that writing “runs in the family.”

Beyond just habits and hobbies, there is the giant matter of heredity. Genetic destiny is a persuasive idea that has made headlines and bestseller lists for years. It is the thing that makes women put off mammograms, because breast cancer is not in their families. It is the thing that undermines dieters who quietly assume that if their parents are chronically overweight, their body-fate is sealed. It is the thing that subverts ambition in kids of unemployed parents and keeps cycles of all types in tact. But lately, I’ve noticed that some researchers think that the idea of genetic destiny is about as reliable as a horoscope, which is liberating news for all of us.

The NPR interview ended with a long discussion of Bela Fleck’s tendency towards improvisational jams. He said rather than sticking to a planned structure, he much prefers to riff off his band mates, just kind of spontaneously respond to who they are at that moment, and what they're doing with their instruments that day. He said he thought playing a carefully rehearsed and predefined set of songs they laid out long ago would sell everyone short. “The joy is in the mystery. You gotta go with the mystery.”

Right. Of course. Play on, Eliza. We’re listening.

Thanks to Edward Lichty

    thoughts from the neighborhood project

    Written by

    essays by Kelly Corrigan, editor-at-large of the neighborhood project and bestselling author of The Middle Place, Glitter and Glue and Tell Me More.

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