Susan Silverman grew up surrounded by a loving family and devoted parents. But she learned early on in life that this wasn’t the case for every child, here or abroad. She made it her mission to even the odds when it came to the children who needed homes versus those who were given one. In her memoir, Casting Lots (Da Capo Press, 2016), Silverman chronicles her journey from child to mother to adopter and, eventually, founder of the nonprofit JustAdopt. Her book is one on belonging, on faith, and on finding an identity and a home.
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I have always wanted to adopt, even when I was a child with a penchant for writing poetry instead of going out for recess.
She looked to the stars / And wondered / Someday / Will I find my mother?
“Who is the little girl in your poem?” asked Miss Loros as I hovered beside her desk, where she was focused on correcting a pile of math quizzes.
“She’s an orphan,” I said. “Someday I want to be the mother of orphans.”
“Then you’d be dead,” she pointed out, not taking her eyes off her flow of check and X marks.
At the end of fourth grade, while my mother was drying a wooden salad bowl with a dishtowel, I made an announcement. “Mommy, when I grow up I’m going to adopt a hundred children, one from every country.” Two long, straight braids framed my face, and my orange gauze shirt was embroidered with flowers dotted with tiny silver mirrors.
“That’s a wonderful idea,” my mom said. She turned and placed her cool, still damp fingers under my chin. “Even adopting one child would be a beautiful thing.”
That was two years after I had said good-bye to Rose.
Rose was my sister. Or, she felt like one. She was a child from the foster care system who lived with us for a year, and who left us as suddenly as she had arrived.
When I was six, Laura was three, and Sarah was not yet even a glimmer, my parents announced that we were to have a new sister: Rose Rollins, aged nine. This was right, because she was three years older than I, just the way I was three years older than Laura, and someone coming into our family was the opposite of my fears.
“Where are her mommy and daddy?” I asked.
“She doesn’t live with them anymore,” said my mother. “They have very sad problems, so they can’t take care of Rose or her brothers and sisters.”
In my heart I had made her my sister so quickly I was even a little jealous that I might have to share her with those other siblings — “six of them, I think,” said my mother — each of whom had been parceled out among different families. I pictured a husband and wife standing on a farmhouse porch, sadly waving good-bye as their seven hungry children were driven off in a dogcatcher’s van.
Laura had a different reaction. “I don’t want her.”
Instinctively, my parents wanted all the children of the world to have a warm family and the companionship of siblings. “Our friend Selma works for Children’s Services and she told them we would be a good family for a child who needs one,” my mother explained. “Rose needs love and we have plenty of it.” My father had been berated by his father and never protected by his mother. His brother sailed under the radar by obeying and succeeding at home and in school, but Donald smoked cigarettes, failed his classes, and broke his leg trying to ride the garage door. Meanwhile, my mother and her sister, Martha, fell asleep each night holding hands between their two single beds, a force united against their mother’s constant criticism and their father’s helplessness in the face of it.
Rose arrived within the week. She was pretty and a bit plump, with black hair and blue eyes. We took her to see where she would sleep, a former guest room whose twin beds were covered in white lacy bedspreads.
“Ooh, this is so pretty,” she cooed. She placed her clothes neatly in the dresser. Then she turned and considered me. “You know, if you tucked your shirt in, you’d look like a teenager.” She repositioned my IZOD shirt, and I could already imagine her sticking up for me in the playground (not that this had been a problem) and helping me with homework (not that I did any).
At the dinner table that first night, Rose sat between Laura in her booster seat and my father in his jacket and loosened tie. “Mom, would you please pass the pork chops?” she said. “Dad, would you like some broccoli?” My parents froze mid-bite, but Rose continued to eat — fast and a lot.
After dinner, Laura and I huddled in the tub at bath time as our mother shampooed our heads. Rose was big enough to shower by herself.
“She eats a lot,” Laura said.
My mother made sure the hallway was clear before explaining to us that Rose had spent years competing with six brothers and sisters for not enough food.
I looked for proof that Rose was mine, and found it where I could. In Miss Abbott’s first-grade class, on the white lined paper reserved for our best penmanship, I carefully wrote the names of the people in my family, oldest to youngest — Daddy, Mom, Rose, Susie, Laura. To fight the nagging sense that this new sister wasn’t real, I took pleasure in nestling “Rose” safely in the middle.
She and I both loved horses, and when my father included her in the family pass he bought to the annual Deerfield Fair, that seemed to clinch it. My father was a stickler for fairness and wouldn’t have included Rose if she weren’t part of the family! Rose and I rode over and over, getting off at the end of three trots around the ring and running straight back to stand in line again. Laura threw baseballs into holes like a pro. I got off the Tilt-A-Whirl dizzy and pretended to be drunk: “Hey lady, how d’ya get your eyes to spin in your head like that!” We all shot at rubber ducks in booths, hesitantly fed the goats, and doggedly ate fried dough. After our baths that night, Rose and I sat on the end of her bed with the door closed. She pulled a hard, sticky candied apple from her purse and carefully peeled off the clear plastic wrap. I liked the candy coating, and Rose liked the apple, so she suggested I nibble off the outside and she’d eat the rest.
If she ate an apple that I had bitten all over, that was proof that we were a family.
Mom brought us to Concord to have lunch with Nana who worked part-time in the store, as she had for twenty-five years. After lunch, Nana took us to the toy store next door and had us each choose what we wanted. I helped Laura find a coloring book before hitting the games section: Candy Land, check. Monopoly, check. Chutes and Ladders, check. Operation, check. What didn’t I already have? Rose followed sheepishly, and Nana had to insist that she get something for herself.
“Maybe she doesn’t want anything,” I whispered to my Nana.
“You know, Susie,” Nana said in a quiet voice, “when I was a girl my uncle was left with two little boys when his wife died. He married a woman with two children of her own. That woman was the only mother those little boys had, but she never loved them. She gave her own children money on Hanukkah, but not those poor boys, and I remember telling myself that I would never be like her.”
One Saturday morning, nearly a year after Rose came to us, I was sitting on the den floor surrounded by colorful construction paper where I had been attempting to draw a frog on a lily pad. Rose was on the couch eating a bowl of cereal and watching cartoons. She was wearing new pajamas from Daddy’s store — yellow babydolls with a white fringe. The bottoms were long and stretched tightly around one knee where it was folded beneath her. Her other leg dangled off the edge of the couch, her pink polish from Kmart peeling on her toenails.
Mom came and sat beside her, putting her hand on Rose’s knee and nodding at me to leave the room.
My mother had told me what would happen, but I didn’t really believe it. It didn’t seem possible. “It’s better for her to be near her brothers and sisters,” she had said early that morning as we sat on her bed, her hand on my knee the way it rested on Rose’s now. But what was I? Was I not her sister too? I lurked outside the door, catching glimpse of Rose’s face falling as the news registered. She didn’t look at the woman she had called Mom for almost a year, and neither of us could have known at the time that my mother was pregnant again. Choices had to be made. As I walked away, toward my bedroom, I heard the cartoon on the TV beep and trill in the background. That’s all, folks!
My family was strangely quiet for the next few days, speechless. A godlike voice of rebuke silently filled the house. I didn’t know where Rose was going the morning that my father loaded three huge, brand new suitcases into my mother’s car. A luggage set seemed like such an odd gift for a nine-year-old. I was afraid to ask if she was going to live with one of her sisters at Webster House, a foster residence on a busy Manchester street across from a gas station, next to a superette that sold cigarettes, magazines covered in darkened plastic, and single cans of beer. Webster House was for children with no one to take care of them. Every time we drove past, I stared out the rear window to catch a glimpse of any child who lived there. I wondered what bedtime was like. Did children cry out in the night for their mothers? Did the grown-ups who worked there yell at them to shut up and go to sleep?
I took in the smell of gasoline that dripped from beneath my mother’s car. Usually that smell, coupled with suitcases, meant a trip, maybe even Disney World, but today it smelled like drifting and desolation.
My father arranged the luggage in the back seat so Rose would have enough room. As long as that ride lasted, she would have a secure place in the world. When she walked past me out of the house, her head down, I wanted to hug her, but she held her arms close to her sides and seemed embarrassed — as if the music had stopped in a game of musical chairs and someone had pulled the seat out from under her.
She sat in the back seat of the car with a big plastic bag in her lap — bright yellow with a big orange poppy, the insignia of Daddy’s store. I waved until the car was out of sight, as if offering a blessing, but she didn’t look back.
Excerpted from Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World by Susan Silverman. Copyright ©2016. Available from Da Capo Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.