What’s the First Thing You Remember?

That’s the question I asked the 13-year-old, Ukrainian boy we had adopted three months earlier.

The Ukrainian judge had just announced that the adoption was final. Andry was now our son. From left to right: Ron, Andry, Olya, Pippa and our translator

Andry acted terrible sometimes. His reactions didn’t make sense to me or Ron or even Olya, his biological, little sister. We would wonder why he was moody or upset for no apparent reason but we couldn’t ask him. Even though he was almost fourteen and just a few inches shorter than me, conversations with him, because of his limited vocabulary, were the kind you would have with a toddler, just basic statements, questions and directions like “It’s cold,” “Are you hungry?” or “Let’s go now.” I was slowly learning a few things about him. He didn’t like peanut butter, loved to ride bikes and always wanted to arm wrestle but he hadn’t yet been been able to discuss thoughts or feelings. Fortunately, he was learning English faster than we had imagined possible.

I had just finished making cornbread dressing, my grandmother’s recipe with chopped scallions and chicken broth, when Ron came in to start preparing oyster dressing from his family’s recipe. (The next day was Thanksgiving and Ron and I always filled the table with our favorite dishes we had eaten when we were growing up. For the last 18 years we had spent Thanksgiving at our vacation house, a turn of the century farm house we had bought and restored right after we had gotten married. We always invited lots of people for the holiday, my parents, Ron’s grown children and their families, students and friends. Between the people and the dogs, cats, horses, donkeys and ducks there was a lot going on.) Even though Andry often acted angry I knew he liked us because he would seek out our company. While I had been cooking he had brought his computer into the kitchen and sat at the table near me to play video games calling me over to see when he was successful at killing the alien or squashing the tomato. As Ron washed his hands getting ready for his turn in the kitchen he asked Andry, “Want to help me cook?” Ron had learned how to cook from his father and thought it would be something special to share with his new son. When Andry got up to mix together the corn, oysters and bread crumbs, I took his seat at the table. I sat thinking and watching the two of them together. I wondered what Andry had been like as a little boy. What people and life experiences had shaped him?

As Andry helped Ron put the dressing and apples in the turkey I asked him, “What’s the first thing you remember?” I didn’t know if Andry would understand my question or if he would have enough words to express himself but the moment seemed right. Andry started to talk. After only a few sentences I knew I had to save his words. The way they fell out of his memory was unexpected and amazing. I spun his computer around and started transcribing the story he was telling us about hopelessness and stealing his best friend’s scooter in the middle of the night. When Andry finished I showed him what I had typed. He smiled. It was clear he had liked telling us about his life. He had liked the attention. I asked, “Do you want to tell me another story tomorrow?”

That’s how this memoir started.

My adopted son, Andry, and I wrote most of these stories at a coffee shop on Saturday mornings. He titled the collection MY LIFE BEFORE: a Memoir of a Family Created Through Adoption.

Here is a little more of our story:

Forward: I Felt the Infant’s Sharp Teeth Dig Into My Shoulder

Chapter 1: What’s the First Thing You Remember?

Chapter 2: I Stole His Scooter One Winter Night

Chapter 3: My Last Walk to School

Chapter 4: Giving Birth to a Child Would Have Taken the Same Amount of Time

Chapter 5: How Were We Going to Pick a Daughter to Adopt Based on a Little Photo and a Few Facts?

Chapter 6: What Do You Do When You’re Six and Find a Dead Body?

More of the story coming soon.