My husband and I adopted Annabelle from China in 2005, when she was 11 months old. Three years earlier, our five-year-old daughter, Grace, had died suddenly from a virulent form of strep. From the minute the Chinese-government official put Annabelle in my arms, there was no doubt that my heart could open big and wide again and love another child. What I worried about was whether I could allow Annabelle to be herself. Grace and her big brother, Sam, both loved swimming and putting on backyard plays. They liked the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel, Oliver! and Fiddler on the Roof. But by the time we brought Annabelle home, Sam was in middle school, off on his own path with friends and after-school activities. That left me at home to get to know Annabelle.
From the start, she made it clear that she had no interest in the music or movies Grace and Sam had been so fond of. It was almost as if she understood that she had to carve out her own path. Although I never could bring myself to say it out loud, I worried that I might make unfair comparisons between my two daughters. When you lose a child, that child stays frozen in time. Grace would forever be my quirky, funny five-year-old daughter. Easy-going and independent, she never threw a tantrum or argued. Annabelle exhibited frustration and stubbornness early, testing my patience.
Then Annabelle turned six, and both of us entered new territory. Indeed, Annabelle was growing into a sweet-natured little girl, full of energy and opinions. She whistled as she moved through the house, making paper crowns for her stuffed animals and weaving friendship bracelets and pot holders for us. There were no comparisons to be made, I realized. I had the good fortune of being mother to two very different daughters. When I held Annabelle close, gratitude always flooded me. What a strange broken path had brought the two of us together, I thought. Her mother in China abandoning her on an early September morning. Grace dying too soon. And here we were, finding our way together.
The sewing kit arrived, a bright-orange box filled with all the things that made me shudder: straight pins, needles with tiny eyes that needed to be threaded, patterns of a cat and an elephant and a dog, fabric and buttons. But Annabelle surprised me by tackling everything with gusto. All I had to do was sit nearby and cut around the curvy parts or vote on which color buttons each animal should have for eyes. In no time, we had three small pillows sewn together with straight, even stitches.
But before I could sigh with relief, Annabelle had a new plan: sewing lessons. “We can learn to use sewing machines!” she announced with so much enthusiasm that I couldn’t say no.
On our way to the first lesson, I told Annabelle about my experience in ninth-grade home economics. “So you see,” I concluded, “Mommy doesn’t have very good memories of sewing.”
She patted my hand. “Don’t worry, Mama,” she said. “You’ll have fun.”
By the time we walked into our sewing class, my hands had already started to sweat. Somehow the teacher convinced us that we could sew little birds and then attach them to a branch; she brought out a selection of twigs and fabric to prove her point. Annabelle happily made her choices, and before I had even picked out the flowered material, she was tracing and cutting and pinning her first bird.
Annabelle took to the sewing machine easily, her small fingers guiding the fabric as the needle worked its magic.
“Wow!” the teacher said, clearly impressed. “She is good at this!”
I looked up from my misshapen bird and grunted. My hands stung from all the pin pokes, and the heap of sloppily cut material in front of me made my eyes hurt.
When it was finally time for me to work on the sewing machine, Annabelle positioned my fabric just so and rethreaded the needle each time the thread snapped.
“Isn’t this fun?” she asked me, and she looked so happy that I didn’t have the heart to tell her how miserable I was.
At the end of that first lesson, Annabelle’s three perfect birds sat on their branch. The two I’d managed to finish had stuffing popping out from my uneven stitches and heads somehow too small for their bodies.