2000 April 8

Elliot Thomas Grant: An Autobiography

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Elliot in his beloved Rock Creek Park

Edited slightly from a narrative written for our case worker during our first adoption process

Thirty-five years ago my mother, Sharon Diane Marie Sforzini, married her high school steady, Steven Alan Grant, having spent the previous three years at three different colleges that were progressively closer to his alma mater.

That was August 1965, and they were just about to begin their senior years. Nine months later and armed with bachelor’s degrees in history (Steven) and education (Sharon), my parents embarked on what they probably believed—being unable to see 17 years ahead—was the most radical change in domestic environment they would ever experience. Steven had been accepted to Harvard’s graduate history program, and the two born-and-bred West Coasters drove 2,700 miles away from family and friends to carve out a new life on the East Coast.

While Steven worked toward his master’s and doctoral degrees in Russian history, Sharon began teaching grade-schoolers in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Money was tight, but with help from both their parents, they decided after a few years they could afford a child. From my mother’s point of view, the proper word was “children”—her closest friends throughout childhood had always been her sister and their numerous cousins. Like perhaps all teachers, she loved being surrounded by youngsters and anticipated raising five or six of her own.

After one miscarriage, my story began on May 25, 1970. Not wanting to saddle me with a history, my parents gave me names not held by any family members: Elliot Thomas. Mom stopped teaching to stay at home and raise me.

Unsurprisingly, I remember almost nothing of the first two years of my life. From pictures I know I had a small but close group of playmates, the children of other grad students. We lived in a small (“cozy”) apartment, part of Harvard’s student housing.

Given the academic nature of both parents’ pursuits, it’s also not surprising that I began reading at an early age. As long as I can recall, I have loved losing myself in the other worlds of books. Any time I was by myself, you would probably find a book in my hand. I certainly never missed siblings—a good thing, since my parents stopped trying to have more children following a second miscarriage. Mom redirected her desire for a large family into being a devoted mother and (after returning to work when I was three) a deeply caring educator.

Which is not to say I was spoiled. (Perhaps I’m not the best judge of that!) A short digression here: Though I was never wanting for anything I truly needed, I was not automatically given everything I asked for—an important distinction. I received a regular allowance that was neither the largest nor the smallest I knew of and, after opening a savings account, was encouraged to save birthday and Christmas money so I could learn some fiscal responsibility.

When I was two years old, Dad got his Ph.D. and was hired as a professor of Russian history at George Washington University. We packed up and headed south to the region I will always call home: the Washington, DC, metropolitan area.

We moved into a 3-bedroom apartment at the corner of Rickenbacher and Van Dorn Streets in Alexandria, VA. Mom began teaching again at a Catholic school called Mt. Calvary in Forestville, MD. As the child of Spanish and Italian immigrants, she had strong ties to the Catholic Church, and we attended fairly regularly on Sunday mornings. The years in Cambridge had strongly affected her previously insular worldview, however, and the small-town California girl had grown into a ’60s hippie who marched against the Vietnam War while 8 months pregnant. As a result, we spurned the traditional Latin mass in favor of the folk mass in the church basement. Songs from Godspell and John Denver punctuated the liturgy, and the pastor—Father Just—wandered among the parishioners with a microphone during his sermon. Dad also had one Italian parent, but his Swedish and nominally Lutheran father passed on his agnosticism to both his sons. Nonetheless, Dad was with us on those Sunday mornings.

If I’ve focused more on Mom than Dad, it’s because I was far closer to Mom when very young. We had the same schedule, so I spent most of my nonschool time with her; Dad would be home for dinner and the hours before bedtime. Their differing natures also made it easier for me as a young child to relate to Mom. She is a highly empathetic person, instantly responsive to the moods and needs of anyone around her. Dad, on the other hand, is very rational and usually unemotional. Their strong marriage has endured these 35 years because of their shared intellectual curiosity and sense of fun.

Which is not to say they never argued. At times, the rational and the empathetic clashed disastrously. I quickly realized that their worst arguments always stemmed from the same problems of communication. For Dad, the arguments were always about finding a logical response to a given situation; for Mom, they were always about feeling attacked and trying to deal with emotional reactions. Dad didn’t mean to hurt, but he never bothered to phrase his arguments in ways that recognized emotions. I always felt I could resolve every argument peacefully by simply “translating” Dad’s side into less emotionally threatening words while simultaneously finding logical ways of expressing Mom’s emotions. I never did step in, though.

Over the years, I think both my parents have approached this realization about the nature of their disputes. Since I’m not living with them anymore, it’s hard to say, but I think they argue less often and less vehemently. The rational/emotional clash still exists, but each is quicker to recognize the other’s problem. (And these days, I do step in if I’m around when an argument starts to build.)

The most important lesson I learned from listening to my parents argue is that almost no one argues just to be difficult. Each side in a fight has some valid viewpoint they feel strongly about. This isn’t earth-shattering, but it’s something I remind myself every time I feel a conflict arising. Instead of getting defensive and shouting down my opponent, I try to stop and fully understand both what the other person is saying and why it is so important to them. Sometimes I find that there really is no dispute—just differences in expression. Or if there is a genuine conflict, I try to phrase my arguments in ways that address the other person’s viewpoint rather than my own—after all, I already understand myself.

Anyway, fights between my parents were rare. They saw eye-to-eye on most important issues, including money (live comfortably but frugally; save more than spend) and discipline. Neither parent ever laid a hand on me no matter what I had done (well, technically my Mom says she spanked me once when I was a baby—and she’s felt terrible about it ever since). Bookworm that I was, I didn’t get into much trouble, but when I did I could count on a harrowing ordeal. Typically, I’d be hauled before both parents and asked to explain what I had done, why I had done it, whether I knew it was wrong, why it was wrong in fact, how I planned to correct my misdeed if possible, and what punishment I felt would be appropriate. Usually book, TV, and/or friend-visiting privileges would be suspended for some length of time. Above all, my parents stressed the importance of honesty and responsibility: No matter what I had done, the worst thing would be lying about it.

As much as I hated those sessions at the time, I feel they absolutely achieved their purpose in the best possible way—and I definitely plan on using the same strategy with my own child(ren). My parents have always been role models and probably the strongest influences in my life; I have consciously tried to create a persona that draws on the best qualities of each parent. From my father, strength of purpose, rigorous and incisive thought, and self-reliance. From my mother, compassion, patience, and charity. These days, the former qualities are easier for me. I’ve said I was closer to Mom when young, but as I’ve grown, I’ve found myself much more similar to Dad.

I never minded going to school and sometimes found it fun, as when I got to read a short biography I had written over the PA system or skip out of my 3rd grade reading class to read to kindergartners. But my academic life really took off in 4th grade. Patrick Henry Elementary had recently inaugurated an “Academically Talented Program,” and the two teachers I had for ATP classes in grades 4–6 are among the best I have ever had. I loved Language Arts, for which we had to write a short story every week, and didn’t even mind math and science (not my strongest areas) because Mr. Pelenberg was so much fun.

I also made new friends with similar interests—typically science fiction/fantasy books and Dungeons & Dragons (a game that fosters imagination, teamwork, and problem-solving, NOT antisocial hooliganism). At home, my parents were another set of friends. We played Scrabble and Boggle, canasta and a mystery-puzzle game called 221B Baker Street (and many other games). Dad got a VCR and we built a collection of classic movies from the ’30s and ’40s that we all loved. From time to time, we’d catch live theater at Wolf Trap or a local Gilbert and Sullivan production. When I was 8, we moved into our first house, just a few miles from the apartment and one house from school. I never had to take a bus to school!

Though nearly all my relatives were still in California, I saw them at least once a year. We’d usually head west for Christmas or during the summer, and sometimes I be shipped off to one set of grandparents while Mom and Dad took an extended vacation (once a busman’s holiday to Eastern Europe and once to Israel and Egypt). I actually got to join their third trip, to England and Scotland, which was thrilling to anyone who loved castles and legends as much as I did (do).

So I wasn’t totally unprepared when my world turned upside-down in 7th grade. After being denied tenure at GWU, Dad had done some freelance research for the Smithsonian and finally accepted a job with the United States Information Agency’s office of research for the USSR/Eastern Europe. Now the embassy in Moscow wanted a USIA employee with a Russian background for a two-year stint in the Press & Culture division. Dad jumped at the chance, and Mom—a small-town girl no longer—was equally excited. I think I was consulted, and perhaps if I had really, really objected strongly, we wouldn’t have gone. Perhaps.

But I trusted them, and soon we were installed in a 4-bedroom apartment that would normally have been two Soviet apartments for five to six people each. Mom and I entered the Anglo-American school as teacher and student, and Dad worked on building liaisons between the US and the USSR.

During the three years we lived in Moscow (1982–85; we extended for a third year voluntarily), four different men ruled the Soviet Union. The seeds of glasnost were sown even while President Reagan called the USSR an “evil empire.” After the first year, I entered a Soviet school, where I learned nearly nothing of academic value (botany in Russian? Principles of Soviet Government and Law?) and everything about the differences and similarities between cultures worldwide. I don’t see many of my Russian schoolfriends anymore (except one who is graduating with a Ph.D. from Rice University this week), but they have left an indelible stamp on my perspective.

From the center of Eurasia, it was easy to further our world exploration. We visited Finland twice a year to deliver Embassy mail and traveled through Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, and France, as well as the Baltic states, Ukraine, and Central Asia. In a life that has been blessed in so many ways, these opportunities are among those I cherish most.

A few things did fall by the wayside. Boy Scouts was no longer an option, and we stopped going to church. We might have stopped attending even had we been Stateside, for by this time Mom was having greater difficulties reconciling her liberal attitudes with Catholic doctrine. Never a strong believer (and preferring to sleep in on Sunday!), I didn’t miss the church. By the time we returned to the US in 1985, my views had diverged so sharply from those of official Catholicism that I chose not to be confirmed. Since that time I have considered myself an agnostic—unable to prove or disprove any sort of God, I try to remain open to the possibilities of a deistic or a godless universe.

Upon returning to the States, we moved around the Beltway from Alexandria, VA, to Chevy Chase, MD. I began my sophomore year at Bethesda–Chevy Chase High School and made a bevy of new friends by joining the Drama Club. Over the next three years, in fact, theater productions grew to dominate my high school experience. I acted, built sets, stage managed, and directed. I took theater electives and hung out with the other drama folks. When I began looking at colleges as a senior, I realized that I was planning on majoring in theater—instead of English, as I’d always assumed.

I was accepted to Yale University (my first choice) in 1988. My only regret was leaving behind my current girlfriend, who was just beginning her junior year at B-CC. Not a particularly outgoing person, I had still somehow dated (and usually been dumped by) one girl each year of high school. My feelings for Amber were far stronger than any I’d had before, and I hoped we could pull off the impossible. It didn’t happen. By the middle of my freshman year, Amber had broken up with me, and I spent the next few years getting over it. I did ask a few women out at Yale, but they all pled to existing relationships or lack of time for a social life. A sign on a dormitory door summed it all up for me: “Love is like ice cream. It comes in many flavors, but you won’t find the one you want in Yale dining halls.” I coped by playing sad songs on my guitar, reading, and pursuing various art projects (writing or calligraphy, a hobby of mine since childhood).

In general, I didn’t make the same friends at college as I had in high school. I found the theater majors pretentious and cliquey. Also to my disappointment, after starring in a number of plays at B-CC I discovered that my acting talents were not commensurate with those of many of my peers. I turned to directing and writing plays in order to focus on my strengths.

Besides theater, the classes I enjoyed most in college were philosophy courses. I loved the exuberance of trying to understand the entire cosmos as well as the rigorous thought behind each thinker’s development of principles. As I began exploring my own thoughts about right and wrong behavior, I tried to shape my behavior to match my conception of a moral person. While this ideal has evolved over the past ten years or so, I am still guided by my belief that a moral person strives for creativity rather than destruction, love rather than hate, and freedom rather than oppression.

In 1992 I graduated with a BA in Theater Studies and Philosophy. Some of my best friends from high school agreed with me that the best place to kick off our careers (none of us were interested in graduate studies) was New York City. So we moved into an apartment on the Upper West Side and started sending out résumés.

And like so many others, we were rejected time and time again. Juilliard declined to offer me a directing internship; a prominent literary agency decided not offer me a job as an editor. I reminded myself that the best artists are never recognized in their lifetimes (never short on ego, that’s me). I directed and produced a short piece I had written for a small festival of one-act plays and called every sizeable theater until I wrangled a production internship with the off-Broadway Circle Repertory Company’s experimental theater lab.

The Lab was exciting in that it staged a new play in development every week. Unfortunately, producing plays is the only part of theater I hate. I don’t enjoy calling people and networking or cajoling for help (the Lab had very little money) and resources. As a reward for a season of perseverance, though, I got to direct a short show and had another short play of mine produced by the Lab and the other interns. Both efforts were well-received and are probably the personal achievements of which I am most proud.

To keep costs down, my roommates and I had relocated to Park Slope in Brooklyn, and the other production intern at Circle had soon followed suit with her roommates. Jackie Cohen was great to work with, as she was full of energy and a real love of the theater. Since we were now living down the street from each other, she thought perhaps she could set up one of her roommates with one of mine. Had she revealed her real plans, I could have told her Jacob (my roommate) was already seeing someone; but she didn’t, and the four of us met for dinner and a movie. This was the first time I met Jackie’s roommate Anne.

Since Jacob and Jackie are exuberant types who tend to dominate conversations, and since Anne and I are fairly introverted, I didn’t learn much about Anne at that meeting. The next few get-togethers were similar; during one dinner party, for example, Anne spent most of her time cooking. So I didn’t really get to know Anne Pouliot until she asked me out in January of 1993.

That was the most comfortable date I’d ever been on, perhaps because I didn’t know it was a date. Anne had called my apartment asking if “anyone there wanted to see a movie.” I didn’t consider that a date even though I was the only one who agreed to go. Since I wasn’t thinking “date,” I suggested what I felt was likely to be the best movie playing: Reservoir Dogs. What was I thinking?

Before the movie, we had a pizza dinner during which I discovered that Anne was an intelligent and sympathetic woman who was totally lacking in all the qualities I dislike in people. I had a great time, and by the end of the evening it really was a date.

The “neverending date,” as our roommates called it. Jackie got tired of finding me constantly over at her apartment after having worked with me during the day, but if that’s where Anne was, that’s where I was. Being with Anne was the most natural relationship I’d ever been in. I never got tired of being near her, I missed her when she was away, everything was more fun with her, I loved talking with her, I loved cooking and eating with her, I loved seeing shows with her. I loved her.

By August 1993, we’d had enough of shuttling between two different apartments and moved into the two lower floors of a charming Victorian brownstone in Park Slope. A year later, we married.

People often asked me if things changed after marriage. I’ve always happily answered, “not a thing.” We got married exactly because after living together for nine months, we knew that we’d both found what we’d been looking for and didn’t want anything to change.

Of course, that’s an exaggeration. Life is change, and after three or four years in New York City, both of us felt we wanted greener spaces. Armed with her newly earned master’s in Criminal Justice, Anne also was seeking a new job. I had wrangled a temp position into a job as copy editor with PC Magazine but felt confident of finding another editorial position almost anywhere.

Wanting to stay in the mid-Atlantic/Northeast region, we eventually settled on settling in DC. I’ve always liked the combination of city resources (theaters, restaurants, etc.) with suburbs and rural areas close by. I also had a built-in network of friends from high school who had returned to the nest and, of course, my parents.

Some wives might have been uncomfortable moving closer to their in-laws, but Anne and I have been extremely fortunate in our spouse/in-law relations. It’s a mutual lovefest, actually; my parents adore Anne, who loves them, and I love Anne’s mom, who professes a high regard for me. In fact, after Anne’s sister moved to Richmond, we convinced her mom to come down to Alexandria from Rhode Island. Now we see her and/or my parents just about every week. I don’t know Anne’s father as well—he divorced Anne’s mom years before I met Anne—but I’ve always gotten along with him the few times we’ve been together.

Both of us temped at first, eventually landing jobs with a nonprofit research agency for police chiefs (Anne) and an educational outreach company (Elliot). After a year, we bought our first house, in Burtonsville, MD. We finally had our own yard, with trees and a picnic table!

We had disagreed somewhat about the location of the house. Anne wanted an older house far removed from the city (Frederick and even West Virginia were contenders). I hated the thought of a long commute and preferred a house with modern amenities. Usually we can compromise on our disagreements, but there wasn’t much middle ground here. In the end, Anne graciously agreed to stay within Montgomery County in a newer house—partly, I think, recognizing the difficulties of a lengthy commute and partly because I was being particularly stubborn.

I’ve tried to be extra flexible in other areas to compensate. For example, I revoked my vow of never having a pet when Anne decided she wanted a dog. We fenced up the back yard and got a purebred Labrador Retriever (named Genevieve) because they’re good with children. This was important because we had also decided to have a child.

Neither of us had much experience with children—just some babysitting for neighbors at my end. But we both wanted to share our lives and our experiences with a new, growing person. After three years of marriage (and wanting to be young parents), we felt the time was ripe to add to our family.

A year and a half later, we began discussing infertility options with Anne’s gynecologist. Testing was inconclusive and nonaggressive treatments ineffective. We went to a fertility clinic and spent a progressively frustrating year going through ever more invasive procedures. When hormone injections proved unsuccessful in late 1999, we’d had enough. We stopped all fertility treatment and spent the next few months considering alternatives—the foremost of which was adoption.

Anne was more open to adoption. I was concerned that without passing on our own genes, we’d have nothing in common with the child. But as I explored my feelings, I recognized that all humans are 99.9% genetically identical and that what mattered was how we raised the child—any child.

Not wanting to wait another two to three years, we decided to pursue an international adoption. Anne initially felt drawn toward adopting from Russia, as we could offer some cultural continuity. But we both felt that a healthy baby was the most important factor for our first child. Just dealing with the demands of parenting will be challenging enough! My only other criterion was that the baby be as young as possible so we could begin bonding and stimulating activities early. Given its experience in international adoptions and extensive care system for orphans, Korea seemed a natural fit for us.

Neither of us knew much about Korea, but we’ve raided the libraries to learn more about its history and culture. We hope to create a healthy balance by raising an American child who nonetheless knows his or her roots in the world. After all, our own ancestors were immigrants as well. Both our families are uniformly supportive of our decision and can’t wait to welcome our baby to a new home. (This is not the first transracial adoption in my family; my aunt and uncle adopted two African-American children in the 1970s.)

Back about the time we entered the fertility clinic, I decided I’d developed as much as possible in the ten-person company where I worked. I also felt creatively stifled and wanted some time to pursue writing projects that had been on hold for the last few years. By that time, we were financially stable, and we felt we could afford for me to take some time off—with an eye toward making the arrangement permanent once a child arrived. Anne is by nature a bit of a workaholic, while I’ve only ever viewed work as a means of support. Given those differences, plus the fact that Anne was earning more than me, we tentatively decided that (after the first three to four months) I would be the full-time stay-at-home parent.

Since that time, I’ve been completing some writing projects (short stories, a screenplay) and pushing seriously ahead on two larger efforts, whose completion is probably my main goal in life at the moment. I’ve also been building a freelance graphic design/desktop publishing/editorial business to supplement Anne’s earnings. The editorial and desktop publishing skills I acquired through my previous jobs, while my background in graphic design comes from all my calligraphy projects. Since I can set my own hours and work from home (which I love; I’m not social enough to miss coworkers), I hope to continue working even after the baby arrives (though I know I’ll have far fewer hours available!).

And I’ll still make time for bridge—I play in a club game once a week and hit some monthly tournaments. Anne didn’t grow up playing games and doesn’t enjoy cut-throat competition like I do, but Jacob (who was also the best man at our wedding and who followed us back to DC) is my regular bridge partner. I try to fit in tennis once a week, as I can’t stand fitness activities unless they’re competitive. (Anne runs and does a weekly cardiovascular workout with a trainer.)

But most of all, we’re eager to center our lives around raising a child. The third bedroom in our house has been for guests up to now; soon we’ll be adding a crib and bassinet. The bookshelves are already stocked with offerings for a young reader, and I’m sure more will be coming. Eventually, we may need to move to a bigger house to be sure our child has room to thrive, but for now our three-level home (three bedrooms, one of which is a den; 2 1⁄2 baths; eat-in kitchen; living and dining room; unfinished basement) is plenty. Tanglewood, our community, has lots of children of all ages, and the homeowners’ association sponsors numerous activities for them each year. In addition, we plan to take advantage of our adoption agency’s gatherings, where we and our child can meet with, and grow with, similar families.

Our child can expect to be spoiled by grandparents and great-grandparents; encouraged, supported, and loved (and disciplined!) by parents; and welcomed by our communities of friends, neighbors, and adoptive families. As good as my life has been, I will strive for an even better life for the baby we await.

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