Our daughter Franny is here, visiting us in California, a timely reminder that life does actually go on, even in families as disaster-prone as mine. Her sophomore year is over, her summer internship back in New York has yet to begin and for the last few weeks she has been back in our apartment in Brooklyn, acting much as she did throughout high school: complaining, partying, getting herself locked out of the house.
What I have seen here, though, is the bright spirit we met when we adopted her 19 years ago. At the farmer's market in Palo Alto, she greedily tasted all the fresh fruit being foisted on us and we had a particularly amusing encounter with an earnest young farmer. We had stopped to buy eggs when he opened a dozen that contained one large white egg with eleven brown. A duck egg, he explained. How did that get in there, she wanted to know?
"I have about 300 chickens and three ducks," he said. He was a serious foodie with overalls and a wispy beard.
"So the ducks just hang out with the chickens?" I said.
He frowned, taking the question seriously. "Well, I wouldn't say they hang out."
We laughed about him the rest of the day. My younger brother and his family came by for lunch; the overcast skies kept it from being the pool party we had hoped for, but we sat outside, digesting the small feast we had prepared. I brought an envelope of photographs I had taken from my sister Pat's house a few weeks before. Some she had bequeathed to me, others I had taken from photo albums — mostly pictures of her when she was happy. There were some of us as children, the family intact, as our father read stories and we mugged for the Kodak our mother held.
"What is that on your head?" Franny wanted to know, and I had to explain the ritual of wearing a Davy Crockett coonskin cap while watching "Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier." She took pictures of our old family pictures, using her iPhone; she likes to place herself in this mess, a family fortunate to have her, finding her place as she goes.
She was the one who insisted on the dozen with the duck egg that morning. She knows what it's like to stand out; being from South America, she is sort of in the opposite position in most family photos — the little brown one among the lily white clan — but I think the sense of being different has diminished for her over time. It's tragic that she may never know her birth family, but tragic in a different way to be born into family and never feel that you belong.
My sister Pat and my father both killed themselves, victims of depression, isolation and (in my father's case) alcoholism. In that context, choosing life is not just a slogan, something I thought of when we had been talking the night before about a friend of Franny's who was pregnant and keeping the baby. My wife had misgivings; we had known this girl since kindergarten and she did not seem the most likely candidate for motherhood. Her antics in high school made Franny's seem tame.
But our daughter defended her friend's choice as, well, her choice. Where would she be, she must wonder, if her own mother, probably not much older than her friend when she'd had her, had chosen not to give her baby up for adoption?
I remembered a story my wife told me about watching a movie with Franny and her grandparents when she was a toddler. "Fly Away Home" is the true story of a girl who uses a glider to lead a flock of orphaned geese on the path of migration. In one scene, a wounded gosling is being left behind and my wife turned to see a giant tear rolling down our daughter's face.
It was all right in the end, of course. And I think Franny has come to understand that here, God willing, no one gets left behind.