A Small Planet, Out of Orbit

May 20, 2009 § 3 Comments

Monday was Camille’s birthday, she turned 23. She was five when I met her, an extraordinarily beautiful little girl with hair sticking out in all directions and falling down socks. She is my husband’s younger daughter, but neither of us have had any contact with her for over three years, and then that was just a note of condolence on the death of my father. June will mark four years since we’ve seen her.

As a little girl she was easily amused, and when lifted out of the shadow of her older sister, shone brightly. One birthday brought the requisite Breyer horse, a battery-powered Japanese “pet,” picture books, and a long long rainbow colored ribbon on a short wooden stick. Camille carried the ribbon stick into the yard and spun with it, the ribbon rippling and floating around her. She spun and dance and rippled through the yard, the rainbow leaping and curling. When she finally stopped, she wobbled drunkenly before collapsing in a dizzy giggling heap.

I knew when I started seeing Elmer that there were children in the picture. I’d first met him when he brought his young daughters to the Public Library where I worked. In one of those strange bits of irony, their mother had worked there before me. Three years before she had taken the two girls, then age four and two-and-a-half, and moved out.

Both of the girls were adopted from Korea, but they are not biological siblings. They’d each been about 6 months old when they’d arrived; first Tai and a little less than two years later, Camille. In a newsletter for the inter-country adoption agency, their mother (who is a twin) wrote unabashedly that they’d sought a second baby because she thought her daughter deserved a sister.

Twenty years ago there was still considerable stigma in Korea to having a baby out of wedlock. Most infants, like Tai, were relinquished at birth. Not Camille. Her biological mother struggled stubbornly to keep her, and lasted four months before delivering tiny Jun Ok to an orphanage. In 1992 while combing the agate type section of the results from the Barcelona Olympics, Elmer found listed a South Korean runner, the same unusual name, the same age; further testimony to the tenacity and grit she passed on to her daughter.

Both girls were lovely children, but in terms of temperament they could not have been more different. Camille was stoic and shy and thoughtful, Tai was impulsive and outgoing and dramatic. Camille was content to amuse herself; Tai sought the spotlight.
Tai needed the attention and she demanded it, further casting Camille in the role of someone’s sister. It’s not much of a life, always riding in the backseat.

After Elmer and I married the girls became the subject of an enormous tug of war with his former wife. She wanted more child support. She wanted total control, she wanted me gone, she wanted, she wanted. I’d been a stepchild myself, but never in the midst of anything like that.

Once when the kids had been with us, I’d gone to get my hair cut. The older one got her hair trimmed, and Camille got her first “professional” haircut—nothing extreme, a long pixie cut that didn’t stick out all over. When we returned the girls to their mother for her four days you think we’d had them tattooed or something. It didn’t matter that the girls were thrilled with their new “hair-dos.” We got a letter from the lawyer, proscribing any further haircuts.

Camille’s first grade teacher wanted to hold her back a year. The argument for retaining a child working happily at or above grade level was unclear. The teacher had made a play for Elmer when he was single, maybe that had something to do with it. Elmer insisted that Camille be moved forward and she was.

At the end of the second grade, the issue of retention came up again, and this time it got so ugly we just gave in. The principal seemed to be mystified by the decision, murmuring cryptically that “still waters run deep.” One of the reasons for retention cited by her teacher and mother was Camille’s “small stature.”

Tai had been identified in kindergarten as “talented and gifted.” We worried what kind of message this would send, to be “red-shirted” for the second grade when your sister was regarded as some kind of wunderkind.

Their mother barred me from any input into educational decisions; never mind that three days each and every week I helped them with homework, fed them dinner, gave them baths, tucked them in, read them stories.

Of course, now no one repeats a grade in grammar school. Experts are in nearly unanimous agreement that the experience is more damaging than it is helpful. If Camille hated repeating the second grade, she never showed it. But then, there was so much she never showed.

It wasn’t all Sturm und Drang. There were ballet lessons, swimming lessons, riding lessons. Family photos show the girls happily hiking in the mountains, in front of waterfalls in Yellowstone Park, in the rodeo parade. There are snapshots of raven-haired children hunting for Easter eggs, visiting ghost towns, crying to be let off of the tiny roller coaster at the fair.

There were trips to Disneyland, weekends in Forest Service cabins, crossing Lake Michigan on the ferry, toasting marshmallows on the beach at Spider Lake. Pictures show them at the Field Museum in the shadow of a dinosaur; or at the Shedd Aquarium, noses pressed to the glass. Here they are at the San Diego zoo; in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. This one’s Seattle, where they’re peering up at the Space Needle.

Leafing through photo albums reveals a veritable parade of kids and dogs: here is Camille hanging around the neck of our gentle giant, Chumley; there’s Tai holding cute little Sadie in their arms, both of them lying on the couch draped over Delia the Foxhound.

There are scores of photos of them with their baby brother.

And Christmas, always too much Christmas. One of my closest friends was with us one Christmas morning and she still recounts how overwhelmed the girls were wading through the packages, so much so that they hardly responded at all to the stacks of gifts.

There are the photos of Camille doing the Macarena in a local production of Aladdin. Here’s one of Camille with a gaggle of girls at her swimming birthday party at Chico Hot Springs. This is Camille lacing on ice skates. And Halloween! Here’s Camille as a black kitty cat, a ladybug, a horse with an enormous papier-mache head.

Camille’s love of horses was legendary. From My Little Pony to My Friend Flicka, she adored them all. If there was a pony ride, she was on it. Breyer model horses lined her bookshelves, interspersed with horse books of every size and shape. She had a horse themed birthday party with a horse-shaped cake, horse-y favors, and many little girls clambering up on our old patient palomino for a walk around the pasture.

One autumn I won a fellowship from the Montana Arts Council, a considerable sum of money. I used most of it to buy what I thought (having been horse-mad once myself) would be the most perfect Christmas present ever for Camille: a Welsh pony. She was very pretty, white with a perfect little Arab-style head, tiny ears, big brown eyes; and she was 11 years old, exactly the same as Camille. She was delivered on Christmas Eve and we hid her away in a box stall in the barn.

On Christmas morning Camille unwrapped a tiny lavender and turquoise halter that wouldn’t have fit anything on the place. She looked baffled.

“Maybe you should see if you can find something it will fit,” I suggested. We all put on coats and hats and tramped through the snow to the barn. I think she was thrilled, but who knows. I had visions of her spending hours brushing and combing the pony, taking long idyllic rides, braiding the pony’s hair.

But those were my memories from my life and it didn’t work out that way. The next day Camille took the pony for a ride. About 100 yards from the barn she fell off when the pony startled and she never rode her again. In the end, she didn’t even look at her.

I’d made a mistake. As a child I had loved horse books, and toy horses and horse pictures as a fill-in for the real thing. Camille just loved toy horses; she wasn’t really interested in having a living, breathing pony of her own.

By this time Camille was coming by herself to spend time with her father. We had come to an impasse with her older sister and insisted that she get therapy. Her mother had not agreed. We said Tai couldn’t come to stay with us until she got the help she needed. That was a mistake, too. We’ve could have done an end-run on the therapy thing, but we were tired of fighting.

In the sixth grade, Camille grew absolutely silent. I’d pick her up from school on Thursday afternoons and the ten-mile ride to the farm often passed without much comment. It went like this:

“How are you?”


“How’s school going?”


“Anything interesting happen today?”

“Not really.”

Maybe it was puberty. Maybe it was some permutation of the attachment disorder that affects so many foreign adoptees. Whatever it was, eventually I just gave up, and we rode in silence.

The many friends she’d had as a child had dropped away one by one. She would still talk with her little brother, but most of the time she withdrew to some other place. One Friday night, her father went into town to pick her up at a middle school dance. She had begged us to let her go. Elmer asked her if she’d had a good time. She was silent. When he asked again, thinking perhaps she hadn’t heard him, she burst into tears.

“It was awful,” she sobbed. Not only had no one asked her to dance, not a single person had spoken to her all night long.

She was still crying when they got home and when I asked what was wrong, Elmer filled me in. But Camille had something to say too, now that she was allowing herself to vent.

“I don’t know why I have to come here every week,” she screamed. “I don’t know why I can’t just live with my mother.” Elmer and I looked at each other.

“Go get your stuff, honey,” I said, “your father will take you home.” And he did. And she never lived with us again. That was probably a mistake too. We probably should have said “Because we love you and because we think it is good for you to have your father in your life.” We should have hung on; instead we let her go because that’s what we thought she wanted.

After she moved out, my mother and I were cleaning out under the bed. We found the usual stuff you might expect under the bed of a 14-year old girl. There were 7-up cans, a book ruined where something got spilled on it, panties stained with menstrual blood, all manner of paper, including some pages that looked like they’d been ripped from a journal. One of them was full of rage and fury, mostly directed at me, and the worst invective she could come up with was “stupid lesbian dyke bitch.” The other entry was how thrilled she was that we were going to Disneyland again.

Through High School we didn’t see much of Camille. We all made a trip to Missoula and I suggested she choose the restaurant for dinner. She chose a Japanese place and although her father and her brother and her sister had to tiptoe around the menu, she and I had a good time.

Her sister knew how to work the system. We could go for months without hearing from either of them, but just before Tai’s birthday, or Christmas, contact would be suddenly renewed. Tai lobbied for a car for her 18th birthday, and she lobbied hard. When the birthday arrived we all went to dinner to celebrate. We gave her a Matchbox car. The next little package she unwrapped contained a key to a 16-year-old Mercedes sitting in the parking lot. I’d snuck out (“Just have to get something out of the car!”) to stick the balloons to the antenna.

We figured we’d give Camille a car too, when she turned 18, but she never learned to drive. She did well in high school, her grades were excellent, she spent a lot of time drawing and painting. One of her pieces was in a show at a local gallery; I used it to accompany a story on the exhibit opening. If she was pleased with that, she never said.

Elmer and I went to Lethbridge, Alberta one weekend. The University there was said to have a strong arts program and it was good value given the difference between the Canadian and American dollars. At 350 miles away it was closer than some in-state schools. Lethbridge has a large Asian community and we thought Camille might feel some sense of connection there, instead of one of just a handful of Asians. Her mother wanted her to go to a Junior College in Powell, Wyoming (180 miles away) and it was to Powell she went.

Graduation came and went without notice or invitation. Father’s Day came and went without a word. Elmer met with her to fill out some paperwork that would allow her to collect a thousand dollar scholarship, a benefit offered by his employer. He took her to dinner at a Mexican restaurant (her choice) and as she did every time she went out to eat from the time she was a little girl, Camille ordered the most expensive thing on the menu.

We didn’t really see her again until her older sister got married in Iowa. Tai had asked her father to walk her down the aisle, so Tai’s mother had declined to attend, and Camille came out to Iowa alone. It was June and hotter than, well, it was hot. The wedding was set for late in the afternoon, (when the day is at its hottest, naturally) and when we drove up from Des Moines, we found the bride fuming in the church kitchen and that the number one bridesmaid (that would be Camille) locked in a tiny bathroom in the church basement. We could hear her sobbing from outside the door.

Tai’s soon-to-be mother-in-law was tapping on the door, talking through it, negotiating.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“We’ve got it under control,” is what she said, but what she meant was “Butt out.”

I almost did. But then I remembered that little girl and her rainbow ribbon. I remembered reading themThe Animal Family, remembered them listening raptly. I remembered them laughing together at Disneyland. I remembered their tenderness with their baby brother.

“Could you move out of the way, please,” I said to the mother-in-law. I wasn’t asking. “Camille, it’s Larkin. Would you let me in please, I just want to talk to you.” She unlocked the door; I stepped in and we locked the door again. She had tossed her John Deere green and yellow satin dress on the floor and was sitting on the john in the most amazing bustier I’d seen.

“Wow,” I said. “That’s a great, um, whatever that is.” Camille grinned through her tears. So we sat there in a bathroom the size of a closet in the stifling heat talking about what a butthead her sister could be.

In the end, she put on her dress, washed her face, put her makeup back on, went and stood next to her sister, actually smiled and had fun for the rest of the weekend. Before we left, I gave Camille a little pendant, a circle of diamond chips and sapphires set in sterling. I told her when I gave it to her that I hoped that she would remember every time she saw it of the continuity of the family circle. I wonder if she still has it.

At Junior College, Camille met a guy who convinced her to drop out and marry him. We weren’t invited or even informed. Tai told us that Camille is angry with us because we didn’t buy her a car (though she never learned to drive) and she is angry with us because we didn’t give her money for her wedding (which we knew nothing about at the time.) Sometimes you can’t win for losing.

Once I had a little money, I thought maybe we should give her some, even up the score with her sister. (Of course I had forgotten about the pony, and the scholarship money and the orthodontia . . . ) But she didn’t return her father’s phone call. And then the money went, as money will, for something else.

Camille doesn’t talk to her sister anymore either. They had a falling out after Camille told Tai that her children will burn in hell because they weren’t baptized in the Baptist church, merely christened in the Methodist church. I guess her fellow is of the speaking-in-tongues, serpent-handling, holy-rolling variety of Baptists.

I don’t understand people who elect to leave their families. My own stepsister had a very fractious relationship with her father, and she would take long sabbaticals, but she always came back, even the one last time to speak at his funeral. I remember my stepfather dancing with Elmer’s little girls at my wedding. He was miserably sick with shingles, but there he was out on the dance floor, one little girl on each hand. Our family stories are interwoven, we become are our own little universe.

Last summer, a birthday card from Camille addressed to her mother’s sister was mis-delivered to our house in Montana. Elmer was furious. It has been years since Camille acknowledged his birthday or mine or her brother’s. But here she was sending a card to her aunt. He was ready to turn his back for good. But you can’t do that to your youngest daughter, I told him, not to the twirler of rainbows, the girl who could write in perfect mirror-writing cursive, the most expensive dinner date ever. You have to hang in there.

So every Christmas and every birthday that come we send her something. Sometimes it isn’t much; there have been some lean years. A little cash, a trinket or watercolor block or a scarf, and a card that says we love her. We don’t know where she is. We heard that she works in a pet store in Billings, Montana. Maybe that’s true. I hope she’s happy wherever she is. We just send it to her in care of her mother.

We did our best. Was it good enough? I don’t know. Did we make mistakes? Of course. People make mistakes. I hope that one day she will choose to come back into the fold. I hope that when that day comes that it won’t be too late.

That little girl, I still keep her in my heart. Twirling in the late afternoon sun, a small planet all her own, spinning, slightly wobbly, out of orbit.


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§ 3 Responses to A Small Planet, Out of Orbit

  • Vivian Shuri says:

    This is beautiful – and beautifully written. Thank you for your openness and your understanding of the imperfect loveliness of being part of a family.

  • Donna says:

    Perhaps you didn’t do anything wrong…perhaps nothing would have changed the final outcome. When I see you next we can talk about my sisters step-children and the wedding that is this coming weekend and all the pain that goes with it. My sister has a masters in education and is now convinced that it matters not where or by whom the child is raised, what is there genetically cannot be undone.

  • […] has haunted me  for a long time. I wrote another piece, a couple of years ago, A Small Planet Out of Orbit, about having a child out there somewhere.  How bewildering it is to break that thread that […]

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