Stefan Lins via Flickr
Savannah Poitras fought her way across the jammed airport, trying to find the departure lounge. Finally, she dodged through the sea of blue wool suits, and sank down beside her mother.
Mrs. Poitras was sitting gingerly on the edge of a plastic airport seat. She looked rigidly calm, but she was applying and re-applying her lipstick clumsily. Picking up a dog-eared Canadian Art magazine, Savannah skimmed through it uneasily, and then tossed it back on the rack. She picked up another and repeated the process.
“Well, did they give any reasons for the delay?” her mother asked impatiently.
“No,” Savannah responded without enthusiasm. “They said the plane should be ready to board in about half an hour.”
Mrs. Poitras shut the pocket mirror she was using to touch up her dark mascara.
“What you said wasn’t true, you know,” she said slowly, looking directly at Savannah. “I don’t want to replace you; I just want to make our family complete again.”
Complete again? Their family had never been complete! Savannah closed her eyes, fighting the barrage of memories from the past few months. But they came flooding back with her mother’s words.
~ ~ ~
Exams were looming, and Savannah was cramming frantically. She chewed on the end of her pencil, scowling resentfully at the stack of textbooks beside her bed. To make matters worse, it was a bright, sunny day, which made doing anything indoors seem twice as irksome.
The sound of the back door banging shut and stilettos clicking on the tiled hall announced her mother’s return from work.
“Savannah, I’m home!” Mrs. Poitras called up the stairs.
“Hey,” Savannah responded unenthusiastically, shoving a half-finished sketch of a bird into a drawer. She began to write studiously.
But Mrs. Poitras didn’t come up immediately. Savannah got up to get a Coke, but stopped at the top of the stairs. Mrs. Poitras was standing in the kitchen below with her back to her, fiddling with the flower arrangement on the counter. She looked as though she were trying to stall.
“Mom? What’s going on?” Savannah asked suspiciously.
Mrs. Poitras started and turned around quickly, running a hand through her perfect hair. Savannah could tell that she had just had her blonde highlights redone.
“Could you come down, please?”
“I have to do homework,” Savannah muttered. She hated it when her mother tried to have “mother/daughter talks.” She knew it made her mom feel like she was doing a good job – being a better parent. But as far as Savannah was concerned, her mother had failed at that long ago.
“Savannah, I need to talk to you,” Mrs. Poitras said firmly. She had taken a step towards the foot of the stairs, and stood there, twisting her hands self-consciously.
“I don’t want to.”
Mrs. Poitras sighed slightly. “I know, Savannah, but this is something you need to hear. I –”
“Acting like you care when you really don’t!” Savannah was shouting now. “If you really cared, you’d look at my drawings. If you really cared, you’d let me take art lessons!”
As always, Mrs. Poitras maintained an infuriatingly low voice. “I do care, sweetie. That’s why – ”
“Don’t call me sweetie! Honestly mom, I’m fifteen years old!” Savannah flung at her, storming into her room and slamming the door.
Savannah stood with her back against the door for several moments, breathing heavily. She half expected that her mother would come up and demand that Savannah apologize for talking back, but she never appeared. When Savannah went downstairs an hour later Mrs. Poitras had gone out. There was a note on the table:
Gone out for a late staff meeting – be back around 9:00. Will talk to you then.
Savannah scowled. Her mom was always at one meeting or another. Weekends were no exception. She stuck a frozen dinner in the microwave and slumped onto the sofa. Pulling a flimsy dollar-store sketchbook from her knapsack she started drawing rapidly. The picture that took shape under her pencil was a fantastical fairy garden full of twisting vines, tendrils, and magical flowers. To escape from the real world into an imaginary one seemed to be the only solace she could find.
Savannah was still there sprawled out on the plaid couch when Mrs. Poitras arrived home. She sat down on the edge of a chair opposite Savannah, looking very stiff in her white blazer and tight black skirt. Her expression clearly indicated her disapproval of Savannah’s sweatpants, hoodie, and unhealthy posture.
With an exaggerated sigh, Savannah amended her position slightly and crossed her arms.
“I don’t want this conversation to go like it did this afternoon, but that all depends on you. Understood?” Mrs. Poitras began sternly.
“And would you put those scribbles away? I told you that your grades should always come first. You need to focus on things that will be useful for your future. Such as your business studies,” Mrs. Poitras prompted, frowning.
Savannah didn’t reply, so her mother continued. “I’ve been thinking a lot about us, Savannah. I feel as though we need a change.”
“What, like fostering a litter of Pug puppies? That’d be a change,” Savannah suggested sarcastically.
“Not quite that drastic,” Mrs. Poitras replied, just as sarcastically. “I was thinking of adopting a girl from China.”
The Pug puppies would have been less of a shock. Savannah sat straight up.
“Please tell me you’re joking!”
When her mother did not respond, Savannah sank back in her chair, feeling dizzy.
“Your serious,” she stated incredulously. “How long have you been thinking about this?”
“Several months, actually,” Mrs. Poitras responded evenly.
“And it never occurred to you that I might be interested in hearing about it?” Savannah demanded, suddenly angry. “Mom: consider. You are at your office almost twenty-four seven. And I refuse to baby-sit your kid when I get home from school. How exactly were you planning on making this work?”
Mrs. Poitras said stiffly, “I do not work twenty-four seven.”
“I said almost. Anyway, it’s no secret that I’m a disappointment to you, but if this is you trying to replace me, couldn’t you at least wait until I’m out of the house?”
“Watch your tongue, young lady! I want this for both of us,” Mrs. Poitras answered, with barely restrained anger.
“Don’t try to sugar-coat it, Mom. You’ve always wanted the perfect little girl—someone who could be just like you!” Savannah choked, as hot, resentful tears spilled down her cheeks. She got up and made blindly for the door, but her mother’s words arrested her.
“I sent my application in months ago. I just got the letter yesterday – it was accepted.”
The casual way in which her mother uttered those words made Savannah feel as though she’d just been kicked in the stomach. She stood rooted in place, trembling with disbelief. She felt betrayed.
~ ~ ~
Savannah opened her eyes, aware once more of the clamour and bustle of the airport. She shook her head, trying to blot out the unwelcome memories, which were still far too raw. She knew she had behaved like a spoiled child, but that did not ease the hurt she felt over her mother’s failure to include her in the decision. That was the biggest thorn in the whole affair, and the real reason why she couldn’t reconcile herself to the situation. She had refused to see a picture of the baby, or to even know her name. She just couldn’t bring herself to look at this little girl, who was to be her replacement.
Still, she could not deny the fact that the whole process had at least forced her and her mother to talk. They were very different: Savannah impatient, rebellious, passionate, and a little over-dramatic; Mrs. Poitras, cool, precise, punctual and outwardly dispassionate. But they had somehow found ways to breach their differences as Savannah reluctantly succumbed to the charm of tiny baby slippers and little pink sweaters. Over the small garments, she and her mother had at last found topics of conversation.
~ ~ ~
“I remember doing this for you too, Savannah.” Mrs. Poitras spoke thoughtfully, fingering the lacy edge of a small yellow dress. It must have been the sixth department store they had visited in search of baby clothes. “My first child. I was so thrilled!”
Savannah smiled, feeling suddenly happy. “I never thought you wanted to have me.” As soon as she said the words, she stopped. She hadn’t meant them to be, but they sounded accusing.
Mrs. Poitras did not meet Savannah’s gaze. “Yes…that’s probably the impression I gave you. But the truth was I couldn’t have been more delighted to have a baby. I really wanted a girl. But your father wasn’t ready for children. I didn’t have anyone to share my joy. After you were born he started spending less and less time at home. He never liked children; it had nothing to do with you – it was just the way he was. My dreams didn’t come true. I found that having a baby was a lot more work than I’d anticipated – especially when I was doing it alone. I was angry and embittered because my fairytale hadn’t happened….” She trailed off, looking a little uncomfortable, and busied herself with adjusting her armful of purchases.
~ ~ ~
“Mom, why didn’t you tell me? Why did you just do it?” Savannah finally asked, her reproach sounding louder than she intended. They were still waiting in the airport; their flight had been delayed further.
Mrs. Poitras had just hung up from a phone call with one of her colleagues. She turned to Savannah, who was slouched over her sketchbook.
“Sit up, Savannah, you’ll damage your spine,” she ordered severely, adding after a moment. “I wanted to tell you…I even tried a few times, but you never wanted to talk. I had seen a picture of this baby girl – oh, she was so sweet. I knew I wanted her to be the one. But I delayed, thinking I should talk to you first.”
“You should have.”
Mrs. Poitras sighed. “I got a call saying that someone else was interested, and that I had to send in my application immediately, or else it would be too late. It all happened so fast. I know I should have told you, but I knew you’d fight the idea, and I really wanted to do this…for both of us.”
Savannah didn’t respond. She wanted to say it was all right, that she forgave her mother, but she couldn’t. She didn’t forgive her.
“All passengers for flight 107 to Shenyang, China, please go to gate 6. Passengers boarding flight 107, go to gate 6,” the announcer declared over the PA system.
Mrs. Poitras gathered her purse and carry-on bag and they headed for the departure gate. As they hurried along the hallway, Savannah glanced out the giant floor-to-ceiling windows on her right. The sky was a surly grey with drizzling rain that blurred the lights of the waiting plane, and turned the air-traffic man’s signal flags into disfigured red smears. Savannah pulled on her light denim jacket, suddenly dreading the thirteen-hour flight ahead of her.
Once on the plane, Savannah tried to get comfortable in her economy seat while her mother buried herself in the pages of the government project she was working on. Savannah dozed or watched movies for most of the trip. Whenever she drifted back to consciousness it seemed as though her mother was in exactly the same position. She never even looked up.
Finally, Savannah interrupted with the question that had been haunting her for the past couple months. “Mom, what made you want to adopt?”
Mrs. Poitras sighed and removed her plastic-rimmed reading glasses. She massaged the bridge of her nose. “I told you. I wanted to have a complete family again.”
“But that’s not all of it, is it?” Savannah pursued.
Mrs. Poitras shook her head and stared out the window at the darkness. After a moment she picked up her papers again and assumed an expression that forbade further conversation.
Savannah glared at her. “You never tell me anything,” she muttered.
Mrs. Poitras raised an eyebrow warningly, but said nothing. Angrily, Savannah stuck her headphones in and drowned out the world. She had almost drifted off when she heard her mother’s voice.
“Savannah, are you awake?”
She kept her eyes shut and didn’t move.
Mrs. Poitras continued talking anyway. “You asked me why I wanted to adopt. Well, I’ll tell you. I mentioned earlier that my dreams of motherhood were sorely disappointed. I was furious with your father and felt like he’d cheated me of two of life’s greatest joys: love and the pleasures of parenting. I determined to forget my misguided hopes, and move on. When your father left, it only got worse. Seeing you brought back my grief and bitterness, so I sent you to daycare and immersed myself in work…” she stopped, sounding tired and disheartened – nothing like the strong, self-possessed woman Savannah knew. “I turned something off inside of me, so I’d stop hurting. It wasn’t until recently that I woke up and realized that I wanted to give my dreams another try. I knew it wouldn’t be a fairytale, but I wanted to regain what I had lost when I gave you up. And I wanted you to share in the experience. Most of all, I wanted you to understand, so that you would never, never make the mistake I did. I knew that I should have talked to you. But I was afraid. I didn’t know what to say…I, I just hoped that when you saw the baby, everything would be all right.”
Savannah opened her eyes. Mrs. Poitras was gazing at her, her eyes reliving the pain she had tried so hard to forget. Savannah was surprised to find a lump in her own throat.
They arrived in the crowded, colourful city of Shenyang at noon the next day. Savannah was so exhausted she could barely stand in the line-up waiting to go through customs. Thankfully their interview with the Civil Affairs Bureau was scheduled for the following day, so they had time to sleep off their jetlag in the hotel room they had booked. The room was beige with cream coloured accents, ugly gold patterned bedspreads and a noisy heater. Not a particularly welcoming setting, but it served its purpose.
Savannah awoke many hours later, and lay staring at a swirling Chinese abstract on the opposite wall. She didn’t have the energy to move her head, but she heard her mother clicking away on her laptop on the hotel room’s other single bed.
“How do you do it, Mom? I’m totally dead,” she groaned, half in admiration, half in resentment.
“I’ve gotten used to travel,” Mrs. Poitras replied briskly. “Now why don’t you get up and have a shower – I want to take you out to dinner tonight.”
“So it takes coming to China to get you take me out to dinner?”
“Yes, and you should be thanking me right now,” Mrs. Poitras retorted without looking up.
Savannah rolled her eyes. Suddenly, a thought struck her, and she spoke without thinking. “Mom, can I see the photo?”
Mrs. Poitras looked up this time, trying to evaluate whether or not Savannah was serious. “Are you sure?”
Mrs. Poitras made no further comment, but dug through her purse. Pulling out a small brown envelope, she handed it to Savannah.
With trembling fingers Savannah took it. But she couldn’t open it. She just stood there, staring dully at the envelope. Suddenly she threw it viciously back at her mother.
“If you truly loved me, we wouldn’t be here!” she cried bitterly, turning away.
“This way, please,” the smartly dressed nurse directed, leading them down a gleaming white hallway. They followed the woman through a door into a small receiving room.
Savannah sat down, but Mrs. Poitras remained standing. Neither spoke. The tension between them could be seen as well as felt. After what seemed like an eternity, the door opened again, and the nurse returned with a small bundle in her arms. Wordlessly, she handed it to Mrs. Poitras.
“Oh look, Savannah – look!” Mrs. Poitras spoke in a voice barely above a whisper.
Savannah was still sitting, clutching the arms of her chair. She realized she was trembling all over.
Slowly, Savannah got up and moved towards her mother. She was immediately mesmerized by a pair of soft ebony eyes that gazed up at her from the miniature face. She could not tear herself away from those eyes.
“She’s smiling, Mom,” Savannah breathed. “Oh, she’s perfect.”
Looking at that precious baby, Savannah could not believe she had been so against adopting her. Slowly she reached out and let the baby grasp her finger. And then, almost without knowing it, mother and daughter found themselves sitting, heads bent close together, crooning tenderly and stroking the baby’s fuzzy head.
“What is her name?” Savannah asked suddenly.
“Lijuan Ai,” Mrs. Poitras responded softly. “ ‘Lijuan’ means beautiful, and ‘Ai’ means loving. It’s a pretty name. Of course,” she added hesitantly, “we can always change the name once we have officially adopted her.”
“Lijuan Ai,” Savannah repeated. “I like it. It suits her.”
“I like it too,” Mrs. Poitras agreed.
The baby made a sound, something like sigh, and lifted an impossibly tiny hand to touch Mrs. Poitras’ chin. But Mrs. Poitras was no longer looking at the baby. She was looking at Savannah.
Savannah noticed something different about her – something so subtle it could not be easily defined. Her hair was still immaculately styled, her carefully applied makeup and red lipstick remained unchanged…but there was something softer about her eyes…something gentler about the curve that eased the firm lines of her mouth.
“You are not a disappointment to me, Savannah,” she murmured. “I just never took the time to enjoy you. I never told you that I appreciated your drawings, or how much I liked your beautiful smile. I’m sorry.” She continued to cradle the baby, but her gaze was fixed on her daughter. “I love you, Savannah,” Mrs. Poitras whispered softly. “I love you.”
~ Ilana Reimer