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Family Ties: An Adoption Story

From Russia with love

This infant with the tulip-shaped mouth and huge brown eyes had already amassed a bit of a dossier. By poring over the official paperwork, I started to get a glimpse of my daughter's history.

The records revealed that Anya's birth parents were Alexander, a truck driver, and Yelena, a housewife. They had given Anya up at the maternity hospital, they explained, due to a "difficult situation in the family" that sounded as if it could be financial. "We have four children," the parents wrote. The documents also included an address. I quickly rounded up a friend to translate and within two weeks of my return wrote my first letter to Anya's birth family.

I was thrilled when Alexander responded just a month or so later. "Hello, Mrs. Joan," he wrote in his letter to me. "It's very good that you decided to write us. Having been in Vladimir and generally in Russia, you, as a journalist, I think, understand what a shaky, unstable economic situation exists in our whole country, as well as in every family." Paychecks were hopelessly delayed; assistance checks for children were three to four months late, Alex wrote. Government food handouts for children had come to a dead halt, and daycare had become prohibitively expensive. To make matters worse, a chronic illness had taken its toll on Yelena's health.

The letter did include some sweet reminiscences: "It's too bad that you weren't here in the summer," Alex wrote. "There are so many the summertime I often go to the forest to pick berries and mushrooms." Mostly, though, his first letter and follow-up communiqués were hopeless and sad—snapshots of a family shattered by the crash of the Soviet economy as it moved in fits and starts toward a market system. "I hope you will understand us and not judge us," Alex wrote of his and Yelena's decision to give up their baby. "We are happy that Anya will not see that which her sisters and brother are seeing now."

Of course I didn't judge them. My heart went out to them, my daughter's first family. I only wanted to know about them, learn about their lives. The next year, Alex's sister, Irina, sent photos of Anya's siblings and a cousin; Alex sent birthday wishes for Anya ("We wish her health, happiness, and serenity").

Later, there were hints of improvement in their lives: a job for Yelena, a swimming party at the river, plans to send me a matryoshka doll. But, inexplicably, in 2000 the letters from both Alex and Irina suddenly stopped. I wondered and worried, but was caught up in my day-to-day life with Anya as she grew from a baby to a toddler to a happy little girl headed off to school.