“Emily, if you don’t object, Father and I want to adopt you.”
I gasped. It was as if cold water had been bucketed over the top of me—the shock hit me in full, and I could not breathe or feel. Every little voice inside my head screamed in alarm and disbelief. Adopt me? No one had ever wanted me. Yet here was a chance of freedom! A chance of living!
A chance to be loved?
Doubts began to hurl themselves at me with such force that brought me back to reality. Gradually, my dizziness was transformed into focus, as I found myself staring at two half-melted ice cubes in the bottom of my empty glass. Jesse’s father was speaking, and I heard him say with a hearty chuckle,
“Well now, Jesse, I’m afraid I’ll be the one doing the adopting.”
“But I will provide moral support, Father,” stated the boy, winking at me. Then he stopped short, laid a hand on his father’s, and looked at me, indicating, it seemed, that they were both awaiting my response. I knew I had to say something—I knew what I wanted. I craved more than anything else the love and companionship that Jesse and his father offered. But my doubts…they pounded away furiously, breaking my resolution; for who would want to adopt me?
I had been snubbed mercilessly by couple after couple, who, after glancing over me once, banished me from their hearts forever. I knew they would never intentionally hurt me in such a way; they might pity me and be sorry for me. But I wanted love, not pity. Perhaps I had only imagined that incredible feeling I thought I had felt just a few moments prior. Could anyone really love me?
“Please,” I stuttered, swallowing the shame and bitterness flowing into my heart. “I am – honored by your offer, but – I – I cannot…” here my words trailed into nothingness. Jesse’s eyes were round and big, sober and worried, hurt almost.
“You…do not want to?” he asked in a low voice, almost a whisper.
“No – no! It's not that!” I cried in desperation. Could they not see? But no! I could not make them understand. “Please do not think me ungrateful! I thank you for your kindness and your pity," I forced myself to say, almost spitting out 'pity'. "But…”
His father regarded me with silent eyes that spoke little. Then he nodded.
“You do not want us to adopt you out of pity,” said he, folding his arms gravely. I stared as if turned to stone, then hung my head.
“I am grateful,” I muttered, feeling wretched as I asked myself how he possibly could have known and understood my feelings.
“We are not accusing you of being ungrateful,” came his gentle voice again. “But you must understand that Jesse and I do not make this decision based on pity alone. If we did,” he added, a smile betraying itself through his words. “You would be perfectly justified in feeling as you do.”
“But it’s not just pity, Emily,” Jesse exclaimed earnestly. “We want you!”
“No one wants me!”
Quietly, Jesse pulled his head back in surprise. I stared at them, shocked at my own boldness, ashamed at having hurt him, yet firm in my resolution to resist.
“Don’t you see?” I pleaded more gently. When he merely looked in response, I bowed my head and began to speak in low tones, so soft, his father bent to hear me. “I am scarred, ugly…awkward. From the very beginning, I have been rejected. They have called me…” Here, I choked. His father took my hand. “Worthless.” My eyes filled, and I was shocked. I had never felt so before—felt my need to be accepted. “Worthless, and nothing at all. I know you cannot want me. Please spare me the pain of your pity. I do not want it.”
“My dear child,” his father began to speak, and I heard such tenderness as rendered me almost breathless. “Do not let your former experiences deceive you. You have been hurt deeply; your humiliation in receiving such attention from us is evident, and if we merely pitied you, I would understand. But Emily, child, could you open your eyes—would you open your eyes, you would see the affectionate love of a father and son who long for your happiness.” He spoke such as a father would to his own child, and I felt all the more at a loss for words.
“Emily,” Jesse spoke next, and his voice was eager and hopeful. “Emily, I have passed by your window for many weeks now, watching as you gazed up at the stars, listening to the lullabies you sing. I have told father about you, and we both agreed that if you would come with us, we would gladly adopt you into our family. Tonight, we had decided, would be the night in which to steal you away and have you make your own choice as to what you truly want.”
“Aye, child. As much as we want you, if you are truly resolved to refuse,” his father sighed, “we will not keep you here longer.”
A whirlwind of emotions spun around my head, leaving me frightened of my own feelings—and of their wish. “I—do not know,” I stammered. Seeing that my answer had disappointed Jesse, I swallowed and tried again. “I do not mean to say…I mean that…I do think—I do believe that I would be very happy with you both. I—” Jesse jumped up.
“Then say you will, Emily!”
I looked up. Jesse’s father nodded. Slowly, I, too, nodded.
Warmth stole into the quietness of the room and into our hearts. I felt as if I should cry, so tired and relieved by all that had passed...but I did not. My tears refused to come, as if they understood that this was a time for happiness. Silently, we sat in the warmth of the firelight together, my first family, my first home.
Strands of hair silently slapped my face as the unseen wind stirred abroad. Familiar sounds of the market hummed in my ears; brisk shouts and loud laughter filled the air, and it seemed that all the world moved around me as I walked in a dream, the noise bouncing off of me as though it could not reach me.
Jesse had smuggled me into the courtyard in the morning, and I had quickly grabbed my basket and headed to the market. It was unnecessary, as I had gone the day before, but I needed to think—and that I could not do at the orphanage. Since I had no money with me, I could not buy anything. But the flowers were out in full force, and I knew that the headmaster’s wife had a weakness for a pretty bouquet. They said it was the flowers the headmaster brought her that in the end induced her to marry him. I did not assign much truth to that rumor. Nevertheless, I made my way past the vendors to the hillside near the park.
A soft canopy of clouds lay above the green grass where I stopped. If you looked long enough, you could see the wind shifting the shape and position of the white fluff up there. It calmed my nerves as I stared up at the sky. And then I felt, as if by instinct, that which I cannot put into words. It was merely a sensation that washed over me, leaving me with the knowledge that life was beautiful—actually beautiful!
Before, my life had been black and white, colorless in the shadow of loneliness. Now, it felt as if I were opening my eyes and for the first time seeing, really seeing life before me, painted with all the colors of the world into one beautiful picture. Life was transformed from dull grey to shining rainbow, and I felt as if I held in my hands a treasure that no one could take from me.
I bent down to smell the grass, to feel the blades between my toes, to snatch up happiness in armfuls of flowers. I believe that’s when happiness became a reality to me, and my soul sang with the bluebirds as they soared above the earth. I was like them: free.
Scarcely realizing the truth of it all, freedom echoed in my heart.
In the next half-hour, I was left to myself, arranging wild-flowers and fern in a way that I knew would please the headmaster’s wife, and then I left for home—no, not home. Home would be with Jesse and his father. I would head to the orphanage, and then it would be only a matter of time till I would be home, truly home.
This thought sustained me through cook's grumblings, through the criticism of the headmaster, through the name-calling of the children. I could bear it all because I knew this was not home anymore.
I remember washing the dishes in hot soapy water, scalding my hands, the steamy liquid dripping lazily down my shabby dress. I remember bowing my head to hide the smile in my face as cook snubbed and mistreated me. I remember mopping the floors...helping the children...placing the picked bouquet in a vase...I remember being seated in my attic, tidying up what few things I owned and singing like lark to the sun and the clouds. And then a knock.
Silently rising in apprehension, tingles traveling up and down my body. Sure as I was that the headmaster’s wife had come for me, I shivered in a slight draft from the window, and watched as the door swung open.
“Child,” her nasally voice sounded harder and thinner than ever. “You’re wanted downstairs. Follow me.”
I had not been to the headmaster’s office for many years, and I found myself trembling with each passing moment. Every step groaned as we descended the rickety stairs, and when the first floor was reached, I was shaking all over…I hoped not visibly.
When we entered the small room, stuffy air seemed to choke me, and for a minute, I could not breathe. The dim lighting there shocked me, and I stood, blinking at dark objects, one thought only taking the shape of a question in my mind: who would want to work in such a dark office?
Then, as eyes began to adjust and breathing became normal, the blurred objects came into focus. Jesse wore a look of amusement and boredom while staring at the headmaster, whose shrewish eyes looked intently down a narrow nose, at a stack of papers on which was printed in bold, ugly letters at the top, "Emily Marie Bronson”. Jesse’s father, sitting directly in front of the headmaster, lifted his gaze as I made my entrance, but other than a scrutinizing squint, I could not tell any sign of recognition in his face. He appeared grave and businesslike and was altogether so different than the father of the night before, I was taken aback.
All throughout the meeting, not a glance betrayed what had passed earlier, and fear began to nibble at my confidence, biting away little by little the hope I had in being free. Not until I was safely pronounced adopted was I assured.
It was only after we had passed through the front gate that he smiled, and it was like sunshine coming out from behind the clouds. Jesse lightly grasped my handbag as his father took my hand, and we walked in a beautiful silence.
On Jesse’s street, as I called it, our eager faces were lifted ahead to see the house. Swishing in the wind, bright blossoms fluttered to the ground as the cherry tree's lacy boughs waved in greeting. Up the steps our feet slowly climbed, until I stood at the large, magnificent door.
Gently, Jesse took my free hand. A new softness lit up his eyes as he whispered to me,
“Welcome home, my sister.”
I could not say anything. I squeezed the rough hand that encompassed mine.
“And welcome home, my daughter.” His father knelt and softly, tenderly kissed my hair.
Overcome, joy spilled out of my heart and into my words as I breathed my gratitude and my love. Quietly, I stumbled over the unfamiliar words:
“My father…my brother…I thank you.”