Jane Fonda's Adopted Daughter Reconnects with Her Birth Family
Even something as seemingly simple as dinnertime was fraught. I had to prepare myself each night for my confrontation with "white people food"-some of it good (baked Alaska), some not so good (artichokes). And I was shocked to learn that people could disagree or dislike one another and still be civil. In January 1989, Jane and I traveled to Atlanta to attend the Martin Luther King Jr. Day services at Ebenezer Baptist Church-she made it clear from the beginning that although I was now part of a white family, she would keep me connected to my African-American heritage (once she even called up Diahann Carroll to get a recommendation for a good hairstylist). I was surprised to learn, after the fact, that Tom's failure to join us in Atlanta signaled the end of their marriage-nothing about the way they behaved had prepared me for that.
A year later, a magnetic force pulled us all from the sun-drenched streets of Los Angeles to the wide-open spaces of Montana, the Spanish moss-laden forests of northern Florida, and the humid city center of Atlanta. After a whirlwind courtship with Jane, Ted Turner became my dad.
As a child of the Black Power movement, I never imagined I'd be having Thanksgiving dinner in an antebellum mansion on a former slave plantation with two celebrity icons, five new step-siblings, and dogs. Lots of dogs-hunting and companion hounds pleading for table scraps with their big dark eyes. We spent Christmas at Ted's Avalon Plantation in Florida, and summer breaks at his Flying D Ranch in Montana. We flew in Ted's private plane, and fly-fished, shot skeet, rode horses and ATVs-and sat above home plate at Atlanta Braves games. We were rich before, but after my mom married Ted I learned the true meaning of stinking, funky, don't-make-no-goddamn-sense rich. I also came to understand that wealth can be a tool to do good in the world. Years later, I saw Ted's face on the cover of Newsweek after he donated a third of his wealth to the United Nations. When I gave up most of my material possessions six years ago to embrace simplicity and environmental stewardship, it was partly because of his example.
In her Facebook photo, Neome Banks still closely resembles the young girl I knew. I click on "Add as friend," and, across space and time, she accepts my friendship. Again.
Through our correspondence I learn that Neome is still in touch with one of my birth sisters, Teresa, who is also on Facebook. And so, after typing in Teresa's name and seeing her picture pop up, I friend my sister, too. Just like that, we close the void.
After high school, Teresa went on to college and graduate school to become a teacher. When our family suffered a crisis in 1993, Teresa really stepped up: Our older sister, Deborah, who struggled with crack addition and homelessness, was doing drugs in the hallway of an apartment building when a tenant, wielding a kitchen knife, chased her out onto the street and stabbed her repeatedly while 15 bystanders looked on. Deborah died curled over a storm drain. Afterward, Teresa, while working and raising a daughter of her own, shared custody, along with our mother, of two of Deborah's children.
At the time of Deborah's death, I had been in Morocco interning with the United Nations. I was home with Jane for a short break when I learned the news. I went to the funeral and spoke briefly with my birth mother but left soon after. I saw Teresa there but didn't talk to her, and I hadn't seen her since the funeral.
Teresa and I begin sending each other Facebook messages and e-mails: She tells me she's recently divorced but happy, and lives alone in a modest apartment by the sea; her daughter is now a tall young woman with long black hair and severe bangs. Then we reminisce about our family-a great-aunt who covered her sofas in thick plastic and displayed a candy dish full of mock sweets, another aunt whose house always smelled of chitterlings, and our mother's father, "China," who resembled the Buddha. She tells me our mother has stopped drinking, and that they take cruises together. She e-mails a photo of them on the deck of a cruise ship. Our mother is plump, dressed in a purple pantsuit paired with a loose pink blouse, sitting on a red mobility scooter. Her close-cropped hair is now gray, but her face is unlined. Though she doesn't smile, she looks fiercely happy sitting there in the sun on the deck of a ship headed for Mexico. My sister kneels next to her smiling a smile not unlike my own. Her hand rests on our mother's arm.
Seeing this picture makes me weep. My mother looks vulnerable, but regal, so different from the woman I remember. I fantasize about forging a new relationship with her and Teresa. We could travel together. We could recapture the good times before our family fell apart.
I want to visit, I tell my sister. Considering the lives they have now, and how they appear so unlike the childhood snapshots in my head, I open my mind to a new possibility: What if my mother's decision to let me go was a gift? I was 14 years old and a minor when I went to live with Jane. She could have revoked and legally challenged the situation at any time. But she didn't. As a child, I both feared the day she'd drag me back and resented her for not staking a claim on me. I had grown up thinking she didn't care. But now I wonder: What if, seeing her other daughters struggle with drugs, teen pregnancy, and abusive relationships, my mother was relieved that her youngest had happened upon a way out? What if the woman who had given me life had also given me a shot at a better life?
After I accepted Teresa's offer of a place to stay, we had a heated e-mail exchange. Defiantly, she withdrew her invitation. She wrote that she was angry with me for turning my back on our family. The night I left, I sent her one last e-mail, letting her know the dates of my trip and giving her my cell phone number in case she changed her mind.