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Photo courtesy of Lisa Ruth Photography

A couple of weeks ago I told the story of my son’s adoption through my column in the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle. I’ve told it here on my blog before, where it’s safer. Where there aren’t as many readers. Where I can control the comments.

But now, it’s out there. A sampling of what he went through before he came to live with us. A past that I don’t like to talk about but that he needed to share.

He’s taller now and seems less haunted. Braver. More sure of himself. Happier.



I like that, and I’m adjusting to this new reality, the one where he releases his story and is set free himself.

I should have known it would come to this, that I would again be learning from him. It has been happening all along — for the two years we fought to adopt him and certainly the five years since. That’s why I always cringe when people tell me how lucky Jessie is, how they are glad he is with us. Because the truth? The truth is that we are the lucky ones and we’re happy we have each other.

That’s one of the things I wish people understood about adoption. You shouldn’t go into it expecting to change the world, but you should expect it to change your world.

I hope we’re helping Jessie grow into a wonderful man, but he’ll make his own choices as he grows. I can’t guarantee that he’ll have a fine life now that he’s part of our family. I can guarantee you that he has improved our family, though. We love differently. We make more of an effort to build trust, to learn about each other. We’ve stretched and adapted. We’ve patched each other up — and we’re stronger now, more secure.

And can I tell you something else about adoption?

He’s really my son. I am his real mom.


If the newspaper ever writes about him because he has won the Nobel Prize or because he is being sent to prison, he is my son. Not my adopted son. My son.

I mean it, either way, because that’s what real family is like. And that’s what we are. A real family.



It started innocently enough, this idea to let the boys play with a plastic nativity set. I thought it would be a nice distraction while we read Christmas books and a chance to reinforce the story of Jesus’ birth. But before we made it through the first few pages, there was trouble.

IMG_0489I did the parental nod toward my husband and subtly shifted my eyes over to Colt, our youngest son, who had an angel hanging out of his mouth and was shaking his head from side to side. I tried to not make a big deal out of it since it was family time – a time when we generally try to stay positive. So, we kept reading until our middle son, Benjamin, swiped a donkey and a shepherd from our oldest son.

I barely had time to lecture Benjamin on the need to share before I saw him knocking over the wise men and heading for the baby Jesus to get the other bad guys.

“Let’s not use Jesus for violence,” I said. “That’s not the kind of thing he teaches.”


A few more pages and the book ended. We pulled out the words to The Friendly Beasts, an old Christmas carol that talks about the gifts the animals brought to baby Jesus, and we took out wooden figures that the boys could use to act out the song. Somewhere between the cow offering her manger and the sheep bringing wool for a blanket, I noticed blue swaddling clothes hanging out of Colt’s mouth. I did the infamous finger sweep.

IMG_0520“You can’t chew on Jesus,” I told him while I checked for teeth marks in the wood. Thankfully there were none, so I wiped off Jesus and put him back in the manger.  He was only there for a few seconds before he went missing.

“Great,” I said, less than thrilled. “Where is Jesus?”

Then, I saw him. There, in the middle of the scattered Fisher Price nativity set and the jumbled wooden figures, was our Jesus in blue swaddling clothes.

Right there in the chaos of my little family. Unfazed and solid as ever.

“Can we play again tomorrow?” Benjamin asked.

“Absolutely,” I said. “Absolutely.”


In my tiny Baptist church all the women contributed to potluck dinners and brought baked treats for Vacation Bible School, so I really don’t remember who was responsible for the famous salt cookies.

I was young, probably under 10, and the cookies were set out on the refreshment table with the sugar cookies from other moms. It was just the luck of the draw that I happened to pick up one of the cookies sprinkled with salt and dip it in my red Kool-Aid. It was awful. Even worse than the time my cousin made me eat dirt.

The poor woman who made the cookies just grabbed the wrong canister. Salt and sugar, they look a lot alike but their purpose is very different. I tend to like my iced tea sweet, my strawberries syrupy and my religion nice and polite. Sugar makes things like medicine and injustice and poverty a little less bitter, a little easier to swallow. It hides the bite. Covers the distasteful problem.

And if left alone, sugar invites decay and disease.

I suspect that’s why scripture says people of faith are to be salt and light. Salt brings out the individual flavor of everything it touches. It preserves and, even though it stings, it heals.

I’ve been dipping out of the sugar canister too often, worrying more about how it looks when my teenager rolls his eyes than about bringing healing to his hurts. I’d never pour sugar on his scraped leg, but I’ve scooped it in his hurting heart. Platitudes and syrupy religion rarely help, only salt. Only loving the unique qualities, strengthening them and preserving them.

I’ve read about human trafficking, child abuse and the need for more wells. Still, I take my sweetener and fill my children’s pool twice a week with more clean water than some Africans see in a month.

I talk about getting my finances more in line with my beliefs, about finding more time to volunteer and more ways to speak up for others. But like a short-lived sugar high, I soon crash. I settle for complacency because it’s more comfortable than being the woman who brings salt cookies when everyone expects sugar.



A few weekends ago, I had a rough night of prayer – the kind that has you awake at 3 a.m. straightening rooms and hanging up laundry just because you’re too unsettled to sit still.

For about a week I’d been having dreams where I was arguing with my 13-year-old son. In my dreams, Jessie was angry and challenging me and I was grasping for control. I was lecturing and clamping down on every wrong thing he did. I was all truth and very little mercy.

And I was driving him away. His precious heart was hardening.

Even when I was awake, I wrestled with those dreams and the truth that they might hold. Finally, those thoughts came to a peak one Saturday night. I don’t know what triggered it, but I found myself in tears, crying out to God for help.

Instead of praying for Jessie to have wisdom; for Jessie’s heart to heal from being separated from his biological parents; for Jessie to have courage and strength and joy… I prayed for myself to become the mother that Jessie needs.

That night, everything was on the table with God. If I needed to lay-off on the nagging, I’d do it. If I needed to give Jessie a little more space to make his own mistakes, I’d do it. Whatever it took for Jessie to know – really know – that he was loved unconditionally, I’d do it.

In the next few days, I started noticing more chances to reach out to Jessie, to snag a little fun time together. Things I wanted to teach him began to come up naturally in conversation. No lectures needed. And I was reminded that prayer does change things, especially me.

I love how author and pastor Bill Hybels puts it in his introduction to “Too Busy Not to Pray” ($15, InterVarsity Press). If we all prayed regularly, he writes:

“I believe hearts would soften. Habits would shift. Faith would expand. Love for the poor would increase. Positive, purposeful legacies would be built. And a ravenous hunger would rumble through us all to get usable….”

Now, that’s the power of prayer.


Laurie Moulton knows that life is fleeting – and she knows that she wants her two sons to have a storehouse of family memories. When her oldest son was 18 months old, cancer took her sister-in-law and left four children without the chance to grow up with their mother.

“Now I’m intentional about making great memories,” says Moulton, who lives in Webster, NY, and recently published Let the Adventure Begin! Theme Nights for Families with Young Children:Fun & Easy Family Night Activities ($14.99, Family Theme Night Books). She has released a companion book, Memory Making Meals: Fun & Easy Family Dinners ($12.99).

The Moulton family aims for one family theme night a week, where they might build a pyramid out of toilet paper rolls, walk the plank on pirate night or pretend that Mom and Dad’s bed is the whale that swallows Jonah, a biblical prophet. But usually it’s more like every other week.

“You have to keep it easy or you’re not going to do it,” says Moulton, who included a chapter on faith-themed nights.

Experiences that are out of the ordinary, like eating dinner under the table on backwards night, are more likely to stick with us because the brain stores those situations more permanently than the day-to-day experiences, says Daniel DeMarle, an education specialist who works with families touched by behavioral or developmental challenges.

The making of a spider bread bowl for our "Man vs. Wild" theme night.

Of course, leaving a memorable legacy might not be the real goal, DeMarle adds. What most people, like Moulton, want is a meaningful legacy.

Vacations and theme nights aren’t enough on their own, he says. Loved ones need traditional, or routine, experiences like eating dinner together, too. Sprinkle in some chances to build confidence, like a long hike or building a tree house, and before you know it you’ve got yourself a stockpile of meaningful memories.

"Worms" made of hot dogs and barbecue sauce to go along with our theme of living off the land. (That's a gummy worm in the sippy cup.)

“When my children are grown and look back on their childhood, I don’t want them to only remember that mom was always busy cleaning and doing the dishes,” Moulton writes in Let the Adventure Begin. “I want them to have fond memories of fun times we had together as a family.”

Something tells me she’ll succeed. I hope we all do.

Mmmm... Crumbled up cookies and chocolate pudding look like dirt but taste great!


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