“No Biking in the House Without a Helmet”
By Melissa Fay Greene. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 354 pages.
When I was a teenager growing up in Connecticut, family friends with two young sons took in a little girl of seven or eight from troubled circumstances. She came over once, a pretty, demure, quiet child amid two rambunctious brothers. A short while later, our friends sent her back to whomever they had gotten her from.
It was hard to believe this shy child had created enormous conflict in her new family, but the mother explained that she’d been left so emotionally disturbed by her parents’ abusive relationship, ending with her father killing her mother, that she was acting out in ways that were damaging the adoptive family.
Therapists compare the family to a mobile whose “delicate balance” can be severely disrupted by the addition of a new child, writes Melissa Fay Greene, a distinguished Atlanta journalist and the author of the best-selling “Praying for Sheetrock,” who has added five adopted children to the four she gave birth to. “No Biking in the House Without a Helmet” is a warm, wonderful account of the comedy that erupts when she and her defense attorney husband Donny, well settled into middle age, keep the enterprise of a big happy family going by bringing children from foreign cultures into the fold. In the process, Greene examines the deep human yearning for family — especially a mother — which makes it possible to fashion one among children of different races who are old enough to bring with them the ghosts and memories of past lives.
In 1999, four-year-old Jesse, a Romani (Gypsy) boy from Bulgaria, joins the family as Greene’s eldest natural child approaches college age. Having reckoned with the Internet’s bewildering abundance of children available for adoption, traveled to the child’s remote orphanage overseas and contended with a false alarm about developmental delays, Greene brings Jesse home only to face the greater challenge of attachment. The sparkly-eyed pre-schooler presses himself to her, bursting with need and love. Yet she, an apparently doting mother of her biological children, holds him at bay emotionally.
Is it out of loyalty to her four natural children that Greene initially resists loving this stranger? Is it a symptom of a condition called post-adoption depression, as she proposes? She already has four offspring planted in her heart, and that has to make a difference. “It’s an awful thing we adoptive parents ask ourselves. Do I love him yet? Do I love her yet?,” she confesses, without ever crossing into the more dangerous territory of examining feelings for biological children versus adoptive ones.
Soon enough, little Jesse’s adoration of Mama — including a touching habit of selecting her earrings for her when she goes out — melts Greene’s heart. The family feels encouraged to adopt for a second time. Helen arrives as a five-year-old AIDS orphan from Ethiopia, surprising Greene with her intellectual skills. She can write better than most American children her age, researches language in her Amharic-English dictionary, and questions Greene about vocabulary she picks up from her American siblings. “What this means: ‘butt’?,” she asks one night.
Greene then publishes a book about Ethiopian AIDS orphans, “There Is No Me Without You,” and over a five-year period adopts three more children from that country. All are boys, including a pair of brothers. The Ethiopian kids’ talent as runners — in a Jewish-American family of lackluster athletes — brings sudden pride to the household. Gold medal after gold medal is won in Fernbank Elementary School races. “We owned the Fernbank Fun Run,” Greene writes with gleeful mock gloating.
One of the Ethiopian boys, Fisseha, can spear flying Frisbees. A goat herd from the countryside, he also fashions bullwhips, slingshots and fishing poles out of backyard sticks and tree bark, making him the hero of the fourth grade. While Greene milks the humor of these incidents — and there is a certain amount of condescension in such writing no matter how well-meaning the writer — she is ever-sensitive to connecting her adoptive children to their home cultures and the remnants of their families. Little Helen, who tells Greene that “I’m getting you and my first mother mixed up,” is given pictures of her deceased parents in a frame. Helen devotedly carries the cumbersome frame with her everywhere until, with relief, she hands it over to Greene, who offers to safeguard it.
As self-deprecating and witty as Greene can be, she seems to write from a place of genuine distress when recalling the family’s darkest moment. Violent fights break out between two of the adopted sons, both seventh-graders. The protracted power struggle, with its seething hostilities and frigid silences, infects the household. Greene worries that the very fabric of her lovely family is being ripped apart. It’s perhaps telling that, after the first adoption, she does not ask herself whether she yet loves the child she has taken in. Time seems to speed up in the narrative as more children are added. Love is perhaps too complicated a question to ask herself about any more.
All she wishes for during that desperate time is for the warring boys to act like brothers, even if they don’t yet feel like brothers. “I wanted a basic level of kindness to prevail,” she writes. That simple principle is perhaps what makes all happy families possible.