Chapter no 16

Little Fires Everywhere

Mia was right: by the time the custody hearing began, there had been a series of news stories—in print and on television—on Bebe Chow and her fitness to be a mother. Some of them

portrayed her as a hardworking immigrant who had come in search of opportunity and had been overcome—temporarily, her supporters insisted— by the obstacles and the odds. Others were less kind: she was unstable, unreliable, an example of the worst kind of mother. The last week of March, as the hearing began, the steps to the courthouse were crowded with journalists and tabloid reporters alike, all rabid for scraps of anything that emerged in the testimony.

Because the hearing was kept private, like all proceedings in family court, the news stories could continue to be sensational and simplistic, easy arguments for one side or the other. Only those in the hearing room—the McCulloughs, their lawyer, Mr. Richardson, Ed Lim, Bebe, and the judge himself—heard about all that had happened, in all its messy complexity.

And it was complicated, what had happened. It was a terribly awkward, agonizingly slow, painfully intimate story that unfolded over the course of that week, back and forth between Mr. Richardson and Ed Lim: one of them making a point for his client, the other expertly picking it up and turning it neatly on its head.



When the baby was found, she had been undernourished. Her fontanel was sunken in, a telltale sign of dehydration, and her ribs and the small bones of her spine had been visible under her skin, like a string of beads. At two months old, she had weighed only eight pounds.

(But the baby had refused to latch. Bebe had tried and tried until her nipples cracked and bled. She had cried, her breasts hard with milk she could not feed her child, the infant screaming on her lap, furiously turning her little face away, and at the sound of the baby’s cries pink milk had gushed from her breasts and trickled down into her lap. After two weeks of this, Bebe’s milk had dried up. She had spent her last seven dollars on formula and then her wallet was empty, except for a fake million-dollar bill someone had given her at work, for good luck.)

Severe diaper rash on the baby indicated that she had sat in soiled diapers for hours—if not days—on end.

(But Bebe had had no money for diapers. Remember that she had spent her last seven dollars on formula. She had done her best. She had taken the soiled diapers off, scraped them as clean as she could, refastened them around her daughter’s waist. She had smeared Vaseline—the only thing she had—onto the angry red patches that blossomed on her daughter’s buttocks.)

Neighbors had heard the baby squalling for hours on end. “All day, all night,” the neighbor from 3B had said. “Screaming when I left for work in the morning. Screaming when I came home at night.” He had thought about calling the police, but didn’t want to interfere. “I keep to my own business.”

(But Bebe had cried, too. Yes, she had lain and sobbed, sometimes with the baby across her chest, frantically stroking her back and hair, sometimes alone, on the floor beside the dresser drawer she had used as a cradle, while the baby wailed alongside her, their voices floating to the roof in painful harmony.)

In her month and a half of turbulent motherhood, Bebe did not once seek help from a psychologist or a doctor.

(She should have, it is true. But she had no idea where to turn. Her English was middling at best; her reading comprehension minimal. She did not know how to find the social workers who might have helped her; she did not even know they existed. She did not know how to file for welfare. She did not know that welfare was a possibility. When she looked down, she saw no safety net, only a forest of skyscrapers stabbing upward like needles upon which she would be impaled. Could you blame her for tucking her daughter onto a safe ledge while she herself plummeted?)

Bebe had left her baby early in the morning on January 5, 1997, at the fire station on Kinsman Road. That night the temperature had dipped to

thirty-one degrees. With windchill, it was seventeen. At two thirty A.M., when the firemen opened the door and discovered the baby, lying in a cardboard box, it had just begun to snow, and everything was covered with a silvery, crystalline dusting.

(Although it had indeed been quite cold when Bebe placed her baby on the steps of the fire station, the baby had been wearing three shirts and two pairs of pants and had been swaddled in four blankets—every baby item Bebe had owned. Her little hands had been tucked inside to keep them warm and a fold of blanket had been drawn over her head to shield it from the wind. By everyone’s best estimates, she had been outside for approximately twenty minutes when the fire chief opened the door, and in the snow for perhaps two. Only a little of the snow had begun to stick to the blankets, making her look as if she had been sugared, or dipped in diamonds.)

Bebe had been in the country only two years by the time her baby was born, and in Cleveland for barely one. She had held three apartments in the time she’d been in Cleveland, had broken the lease on one and had been chronically late and short on rent on another, and had never held a job that paid more than minimum wage.

(She had been embarrassed, every month, about being behind. One month she had paid in full and then hadn’t had enough money for groceries and electricity: what a thing, to choose between hunger and darkness. After that, she had decided to pay what she could, and on days when she got good tips she would write her name on a piece of paper, fold a twenty inside, and slide it under her landlord’s door. She kept track of the balance on an old envelope that was always out on the kitchen counter. The balance ran like this:

Sept $100 short 9/8 paid $20 9/13 paid $20 9/18 paid $20

Oct $80 short so now $120 short

10/3 paid $20 10/14 paid $20 10/26 paid $20

Nov $70 short so now $130 short

Once she was behind, how could she catch up? And what other kind of job could she get, speaking little English, having not even the equivalent of a GED?)

During her pregnancy, and until shortly before she had left her baby, Bebe had worked at a restaurant where one of the cooks had been arrested for dealing heroin. Prior to that time, several of the other staff members had suspected something between the two of them. There had been flirting. On at least one occasion, the cook in question had given Bebe a ride home at the end of the night. Was it not probable that Bebe, with such dubious associates, had also been involved in something illicit?

(The cook, Vinny, had indeed been dealing heroin. This cannot be denied. But his interest in Bebe had been purely platonic. He had pitied her, watching her belly swell, knowing that her rat of a boyfriend had taken off and left her high and dry. Ten months earlier, his sister had been in the same boat and every night, when he came home to the apartment they shared with their mother, Teresa looked grayer, the baby squalling across her lap or slumped on her shoulder like a little old man, the two of them there on the couch looking elderly and exhausted. Is it any wonder that every morning, when he saw Bebe, his heart would feel bruised? Was it wrong for him to joke with her, trying to make her smile as he could no longer make his sister smile, to give her a ride home when he saw her feet swelling until the laces of her shoes nearly split?

As for Bebe: she had found Vinny attractive, it is true. But her attraction came largely from his kindness to her, and the thought of a man—any man

—touching her as the baby drummed her heels within filled her with repulsion. When Vinny was picked up by the cops, Bebe had felt a deep sadness for him, as if he had been a brother she would never see again.)

Bebe’s current job as a waitress paid her the state minimum for tipped employees: $2.35 per hour. At fifty hours per week plus tips, her average take-home pay each month was $317.50. Could she reasonably hope to support a child, and provide all its necessities, on that income? Would she not be forced to seek welfare, and food stamps, and school lunches, would she and her child not become a drain on the community’s resources?

(But there would be love, too, so much love. With that, you could get by with so little. It was enough for the basics: rent, food, clothes. How did you weigh a mother’s love against the cost of raising a child?)

Mark and Linda McCullough, it was quite clear, had all the necessary resources for raising a child. Mr. McCullough had a steady, well-paying job; Mrs. McCullough had, for the past fourteen months, been a full-time mother to the baby and planned to be so indefinitely. They owned their own home in a safe, affluent neighborhood. Overall they were in the ninety-sixth percentile financially. While in their care, the baby had been well clothed, well fed, and well cared for. She had had regular medical checkups, plenty of socialization, and plenty of enrichment: library storytime, infant swim, mommy-and-me music classes. The McCullough home had been rigorously checked and certified as lead free.

Furthermore, the McCulloughs had shown themselves to be exceptionally devoted to raising a child. Records showed that they had tried to conceive children of their own for ten years, and had been waiting to adopt for another four. They had sought the advice of every medical expert in the greater Cleveland area—including the best fertility doctors at the Cleveland Clinic—and then engaged the most reputable adoption agency in the state. Did this not suggest that they would give the baby the most loving possible care, along with every opportunity?

(But the baby already had a mother. Whose blood flowed in her veins.

Who had carried her in her womb for months, who had felt her kicking and flipping within, who had labored for twenty-one hours as she made her way faceup and screaming into the bright light of the delivery room, who had burst into ecstatic tears at hearing her child’s voice for the first time, who had—even before the nurses had wiped the baby clean, even before they had cut the cord—touched every part of her child, her tiny flaring nostrils and the faint shadows of her eyebrows and the womb-slicked soles of her feet, making certain she was wholly present, learning her by heart.)

Should custody be returned to Bebe, she would, of course, be raising her child as a single, working mother. Who would care for her child while she was at work? Would not the child be better off in a home with two parents

—one of whom did not work and would be home raising her full time— rather than in a day care for the majority of the day? And would not the child be better off in a home with a mother and a father, studies showing the importance of a strong male figure in a child’s life?

(It came, over and over, down to this: What made someone a mother?

Was it biology alone, or was it love?)



Back in the courtroom, Mr. Richardson was grateful that no one heard the last day, when Mrs. McCullough had been called to speak. She had come to the front—in family court, there was no witness box, just a chair, set to the side of the judge—and sat down, and he could see how nervous she was by the way she crossed and uncrossed her ankles, by the way she could not decide where to place her hands, on the arms of the chair or in the soft hammock of her skirt. It had not struck him before that the witness box in court, for all its formality and imposingness, hid you from the waist down: that at least the world would not see your feet fidgeting, that as much as you might be judged, at least your legs would not.

Ed Lim took his time in rising to question her. He was a tall man, especially for an Asian: six feet, lean and rangy, with the build of a basketball player—and indeed, he had played starting forward for Shaker’s varsity team back in the sixties. He and Mrs. McCullough had been only three years apart at school, lifelong Shaker residents and graduates, and before this case he had remembered her only as a shy, slightly plump freshman with long golden-brown hair. He’d been one of just two Asians in his class—the other had been Susie Chang; kids had teased that they would grow up and marry each other. They hadn’t, of course; Susie had gone off to Oregon right after graduation, but in the end Ed had indeed met and married a nice Chinese girl in college, a first-generation kid like him. Mrs.

McCullough, however, remembered none of this, not even Susie Chang, who’d been a cheerleader for a year alongside her.

“Now, Mrs. McCullough,” Ed Lim said, setting his pen down at his table. “You’ve spent all your life here in Shaker, is that right?”

Mrs. McCullough acknowledged that it was.

“Shaker Heights High School, class of 1971. Did you go to Shaker schools all the way up?”

“From kindergarten. At Boulevard, back when it was still K to eight.

And then the high school, of course.”

“And then you attended Ohio University?” “Yes. Class of 1975.”

“And after that you moved back to Shaker Heights. Directly?”

“Yes, I’d been offered a job here, and my husband—my fiancé at the time—and I knew we wanted to raise a family here.” She shot Mr.

Richardson a quick glance at his table, and he gave her the merest nod. They’d talked about this in prep: the focus was to remind the judge, whenever possible, of how much she and Mr. McCullough wanted this baby, how family focused they were, how devoted they were to little Mirabelle.

“So you’ve really lived in Ohio your entire life.” Ed Lim seated himself on the arm of his chair. “May Ling’s parents, as we all know by now, came from Guangdong. Or perhaps you know it as Canton? Have you ever been there?”

Mrs. McCullough shifted in her seat. “Of course we plan to take Mirabelle there on a heritage trip. When she’s a bit older.”

“Do you speak Cantonese?”

Mrs. McCullough shook her head.

“Mandarin? Shanghainese? Toisan? Any dialect of Chinese?”

Mr. Richardson clicked his pen irritably. Ed Lim was just showing off now, he thought.

“Have you studied Chinese culture at all?” Ed Lim asked. “Chinese history?”

“Of course we’re going to learn all about that,” Mrs. McCullough said. “It’s very important to us that Mirabelle stay connected to her birth culture. But we think the most important thing is that she has a loving home, with two loving parents.” She glanced at Mr. Richardson again, pleased that she had managed to work this in. There are two of you, he had said; that might be a big advantage over a single mother.

“You and Mr. McCullough are clearly very loving. I don’t think anyone has any doubts about that.” Ed Lim smiled at Mrs. McCullough, and Mr.

Richardson stiffened in his seat. He knew enough about lawyers to know when they were about to snap the trap shut. “Now, what exactly will you do to keep May Ling ‘connected to her birth culture,’ as you put it?”

There was a long pause.

“Maybe that’s too big of a question. Let’s back up. May Ling has been with you for fourteen months now? What have you done, in the time she’s been with you, to connect her to her Chinese culture?”

“Well.” Another pause, a very long one this time. Mr. Richardson willed Mrs. McCullough to say something, anything. “Pearl of the Orient is one of

our very favorite restaurants. We try to take her there once a month. I think it’s good for her to hear some Chinese, to get it into her ears. To grow up feeling this is natural. And of course I’m sure she’ll love the food once she’s older.” Yawning silence in the courtroom. Mrs. McCullough felt the need to fill it. “Perhaps we could take a Chinese cooking class at the rec center and learn together. When she’s older.”

Ed Lim said nothing, and Mrs. McCullough prattled nervously on. “We try to be very sensitive to these issues wherever we can.” Inspiration arrived. “Like for her first birthday, we wanted to get her a teddy bear. One she could keep as an heirloom. There was a brown bear, a polar bear, and a panda, and we thought about it and decided on the panda. We thought perhaps she’d feel more of a connection to it.”

“Does May Ling have any dolls?” Ed Lim asked.

“Of course. Too many.” Mrs. McCullough giggled. “She loves them. Just like every little girl. We buy her dolls, and my sisters buy her dolls, and our friends buy her dolls—” She giggled again, and Mr. Richardson’s jaw tensed. “She must have a dozen or more.”

“And what do they look like, these dolls?” Ed Lim persisted.

“What do they look like?” Mrs. McCullough’s brow crinkled. “They’re

—they’re dolls. Some are babies, and some are little girls—” It was clear she didn’t understand the question. “Some of them take bottles, and some of them, you can change their dresses, and one of them closes her eyes when you lay her down, and most of them, you can style their hair—”

“And what color hair do they have?”

Mrs. McCullough thought for a moment. “Well—blond, most of them.

One has brown hair. Maybe two.”

“How about the doll that closes her eyes? What color are her eyes?” “Blue.” Mrs. McCullough crossed her legs, then uncrossed them again.

“But that doesn’t mean anything. You look at the toy aisle—most dolls are blond with blue eyes. I mean, that’s just the default.”

“The default,” Ed Lim repeated, and Mrs. McCullough had the feeling of being caught out, though she wasn’t sure why.

“It’s not anything racist,” she insisted. “They just want to make a generic little girl. You know, one that will appeal to everyone.”

“But it doesn’t look like everyone, does it? It doesn’t look like May Ling.” Ed Lim stood up, suddenly towering over the courtroom. “Does May Ling have any Asian dolls—that is, any dolls that look like her?”

“No—but when she gets older, and she’s ready, we can buy her a Chinese Barbie.”

“Have you ever seen a Chinese Barbie?” Ed Lim asked.

Mrs. McCullough flushed. “Well—I’ve never gone looking for one. Yet.

But there must be one.”

“There isn’t one. Mattel doesn’t make one.” Ed Lim’s daughter, Monique, was a junior now, but as she’d grown up, he and his wife had noticed with dismay that there were no dolls that looked like her. At ten, Monique had begun poring over a mail-order doll catalog as if it were a book—expensive dolls, with names and stories and historical outfits, absurdly detailed and even more absurdly expensive. “Jenny Cohen has this one,” she’d told them, her finger tracing the outline of a blond doll that did indeed resemble Jenny Cohen: sweet faced with heavy bangs, slightly stocky. “And they just made a new one with red hair. Her mom’s getting it for her sister Sarah for Hanukkah.” Sarah Cohen had flaming red hair, the color of a penny in the summer sun. But there was no doll with black hair, let alone a face that looked anything like Monique’s. Ed Lim had gone to four different toy stores searching for a Chinese doll; he would have bought it for his daughter, whatever the price, but no such thing existed.

He’d gone so far as to write to Mattel, asking them if there was a Chinese Barbie doll, and they’d replied that yes, they offered “Oriental Barbie” and sent him a pamphlet. He had looked at that pamphlet for a long time, at the Barbie’s strange mishmash of a costume, all red and gold satin and like nothing he’d ever seen on a Chinese or Japanese or Korean woman, at her waist-length black hair and slanted eyes. I am from Hong Kong, the pamphlet ran. It is in the Orient, or Far East. Throughout the Orient, people shop at outdoor marketplaces where goods such as fish, vegetables, silk, and spices are openly displayed. The year before, he and his wife and Monique had gone on a trip to Hong Kong, which struck him, mostly, as a pincushion of gleaming skyscrapers. In a giant, glassed-in shopping mall, he’d bought a dove-gray cashmere sweater that he wore under his suit jacket on chilly days. Come visit the Orient. I know you will find it exotic and interesting.

In the end, he’d thrown the pamphlet away. He’d heard, from friends with younger children, that the expensive doll line now had one Asian doll for sale—and a few black ones, too—but he’d never seen it. Monique was seventeen now, and had long outgrown dolls.

Now, back in the courtroom, Ed Lim paced a few steps. “How about books? What kind of books do you read with May Ling?”

“Well.” Mrs. McCullough began to think. “We read her a lot of classics. Goodnight Moon, of course. And Pat the Bunny—she loves that. Madeline. Eloise. Blueberries for Sal. I’ve saved all my favorites from when I was a child, and it’s very special to get to share them with Mirabelle.”

“Do you have any books that feature Chinese characters?”

Mrs. McCullough was ready for this one. “Yes, in fact, we do. We have The Five Chinese Brothers—it’s a beautiful retelling of a famous Chinese folktale.”

“I know that book.” Ed Lim smiled again, and Mr. Richardson’s shoulders grew tight. Whenever Ed Lim smiled, he was learning, you had to watch out. You just can’t tell what he’s really thinking, Mr. Richardson thought, and then, instantly chagrined, What a terrible thing to think. He flushed. “What do those five Chinese brothers in the book look like?” Ed Lim was asking.

“They’re—they’re drawings. They all look alike—I mean, a lot like each other, they’re brothers, that’s part of the story, no one can tell them apart—” Mrs. McCullough fumbled.

“They have pigtails, don’t they? And little coolie hats? Slanty eyes?” Ed Lim didn’t wait for Mrs. McCullough to respond. His daughter had seen this book in the school library in second grade and returned home deeply troubled. Daddy, do my eyes look like that? “Not exactly the image of Chinese people I’d want May Ling to have in 1998. What about you?”

“It’s a very old story,” Mrs. McCullough insisted. “They’re wearing traditional costume.”

“How about other books, Mrs. McCullough? Any other books with Chinese characters?”

Mrs. McCullough bit her lip. “I haven’t really looked for them,” she admitted. “I hadn’t thought about it.”

“I can save you some time,” said Ed Lim. “There really aren’t very many. So May Ling has no dolls that look like her, and no books with pictures of people that look like her.” Ed Lim paced a few more steps. Nearly two decades later, others would raise this question, would talk about books as mirrors and windows, and Ed Lim, tired by then, would find himself as frustrated as he was grateful. We’ve always known, he would think; what took you so long?

Now, in the courtroom, Ed Lim stopped in front of Mrs. McCullough’s chair. “You and your husband don’t speak Chinese or know much about Chinese culture or history. You haven’t, by your own testimony, even thought about that entire aspect of May Ling’s identity. Isn’t it fair to say that if May Ling stays with you and Mr. McCullough, she will effectively be divorced from her birth culture?”

At this point, Mrs. McCullough burst into tears. In those early weeks she had fed Mirabelle every four hours, held her every time she cried, and watched her grow until her heels stretched her newborn rompers almost to the breaking point. It was she who had checked Mirabelle’s weight regularly, who steamed peas and sweet potatoes and fresh spinach and pureed them and fed them to Mirabelle in doll-sized spoonfuls. When Mirabelle spiked a fever, it was she who spread a cold washcloth on her forehead, who pressed her lips to that little brow to test the heat. And when an ear infection turned out to be the culprit, it was she who fed antibiotic syrup drop by drop into Mirabelle’s small pink mouth and let her lap it up like a kitten. She could not, she had thought as she bent to kiss the baby’s flushed cheek, have loved this child more if it had come from her own flesh. All night—because feverish Mirabelle would not sleep except in motion—she cradled Mirabelle in her arms and paced the length of the room. By morning she had walked nearly four miles. It was she who, after breakfast, before bath time, and at bed, nuzzled Mirabelle’s soft belly until the baby gurgled with laughter. She was the one who had caught Mirabelle in her arms as she stumbled to stand upright; she was the one to whom Mirabelle stretched out her own arms when she was in pain, or afraid, or lonely. She would know Mirabelle in pitch dark by one cry of her voice— no, one touch of her hand. No, one breath of her smell.

“It’s not a requirement,” she insisted now. “It’s not a requirement that we be experts in Chinese culture. The only requirement is that we love Mirabelle. And we do. We want to give her a better life.” She continued to cry, and the judge dismissed her.

“It’s all right,” Mr. Richardson said as she took her place beside him. “You did just fine.” Inside, however, even he was beginning to feel a faint tremor of doubt. Of course Mirabelle would have a good life with Mark and Linda. There was no question about that. But would there be something— something—missing from her life if she were to grow up with them? Mr.

Richardson was suddenly keenly conscious of Mirabelle, of the immense weight of the complicated world on this one tiny, vulnerable person.

On the courthouse steps, when the reporters stopped them, he made a brief, anodyne statement about having faith in the process. “I have complete confidence in Judge Rheinbeck, that he’ll weigh all the issues and make a fair decision,” he said.

The McCulloughs did not appear to notice this subtle shift in his tone— in earlier statements he’d spoken with some force about how clear it was that they should receive custody, how obvious it was they would raise her best, how completely evident it was that Mirabelle belonged with the McCulloughs (she is a McCullough, he’d insisted). Nor did the newspapers, which ran stories titled LAWYER FOR ADOPTIVE PARENTS CERTAIN OF WIN. Mr.

Richardson, however, was far less certain than the news stories made it sound.

At dinner that evening, when Mrs. Richardson asked how the day’s hearing had gone, he said little. “Linda testified today,” he said. “Ed Lim was pretty hard on her. It didn’t look good.” He meant for Mrs.

McCullough, but as the words left his mouth an idea occurred to him, a way to spin this, and later that evening he would call his contacts at the paper.

The following morning, the Plain Dealer would publish a story mentioning Ed Lim’s “aggressive” tactics, how he had badgered poor Mrs. McCullough to the point of tears. Men like him, the article would suggest, weren’t supposed to lose their cool—though it was never specified whether “like him” meant lawyers or something else entirely. But the truth was—as Mr.

Richardson recognized—that an angry Asian man didn’t fit the public’s expectations, and was therefore unnerving. Asian men could be socially inept and incompetent and ridiculous, like a Long Duk Dong, or at best unthreatening and slightly buffoonish, like a Jackie Chan. They were not allowed to be angry and articulate and powerful. And possibly right, Mr. Richardson thought uneasily. Once the article came out, a number of people who had been neutral threw their support behind the McCulloughs; some who had been on Bebe’s side found their passions cooling.

For now, the idea still forming in his mind, he said only, “We’ll see how things shake out.”

“I feel bad for her,” Lexie said suddenly from the far end of the table. “Bebe, I mean. She must feel so awful.”

“I’m sorry,” said Izzy, “is this the same Bebe that you referred to last month as a negligent mother?”

Lexie flushed. “She should’ve taken better care of the baby,” she admitted. “But I dunno. I wonder if she just got in over her head. If she didn’t know what she was getting into.”

“And that’s why pregnancy is not something to be taken lightly,” Mrs. Richardson cut in. “You hear me, Alexandra Grace? Isabelle Marie?” She lifted the dish of green beans and helped herself to an almond-sprinkled spoonful. “Of course having a baby is difficult. It’s life changing. Clearly Bebe wasn’t ready for it, practically or emotionally. And that might be the best argument for giving the baby to Linda and Mark.”

“So one mistake, and that’s it?” Lexie said. “I’m not ready to have a baby. But if I—” She hesitated. “If I got pregnant, you’d make me give it up, too?”

“Lexie, that would never happen. We raised you to have more sense than that.” Her mother set the dish back in the center of the table and speared a green bean with her fork.

“Well, somebody’s heart grew three sizes today,” Izzy said to Lexie. “What’s with you?”

“Nothing,” Lexie said. “I’m just saying. It’s a complicated situation, that’s all.” She cleared her throat. “Brian was saying that even his parents don’t agree about it.”

Moody rolled his eyes. “The case that tore families all over Cleveland apart.”

“John and Deborah are entitled to their own opinions,” Mr. Richardson said. “As is everyone at this table.” His gaze swept around the room. “Trip, what’s this I hear about a hat trick in yesterday’s game?”

After dinner, however, Mr. Richardson’s thoughts were still clouded. “Do you think,” he asked Mrs. Richardson as they cleared the table, “that Mark and Linda really know how to raise a Chinese child?”

Mrs. Richardson stared at him. “It’s just like raising any other child, I should think,” she said stiffly, stacking the plates in the dishwasher. “Why on earth would it be any different?”

Mr. Richardson scraped the remnants of egg noodles from the next plate into the disposal and handed it over. “Of course everything important is the same,” he conceded. “But I mean, when that little girl gets older, she’s going to have a lot of questions. About who she is, where she came from.

She’s going to want to know about her heritage. Will they be able to teach her that?”

“There are resources out there.” Mrs. Richardson waved a dismissive hand, inadvertently flicking a few drops of stroganoff onto the counter. “I don’t see why they can’t learn it alongside her. Wouldn’t that bond them all closer, learning about Chinese culture together?” She had vivid childhood memories of Linda swaddling her Raggedy Ann in an old kerchief and gently putting it to bed. More than anyone, she knew how fiercely Linda McCullough had always wanted a baby, how deep that longing to be a mother—that magical, marvelous, terrifying role—ran in her friend. Mia, she thought, ought to understand that better than anyone: Hadn’t she seen that in the Ryans? Hadn’t she, maybe, even felt it herself, hadn’t that been why she’d run away with Pearl? She swabbed at the counter with her thumb, smudging the granite. “Honestly, I think this is a tremendous thing for Mirabelle. She’ll be raised in a home that truly doesn’t see race. That doesn’t care, not one infinitesimal bit, what she looks like. What could be better than that? Sometimes I think,” she said fiercely, “that we’d all be better off that way. Maybe at birth everyone should be given to a family of another race to be raised. Maybe that would solve racism once and for all.”

She shut the dishwasher with a clang and left the room, the dishes inside still rattling in her wake. Mr. Richardson took a sponge and wiped the sticky counter clean. He should have known better than to bring it up, he realized: it was too personal for her; she couldn’t see clearly; she was so close that she didn’t even realize how unclearly she was seeing. For her it was simple: Bebe Chow had been a poor mother; Linda McCullough had been a good one. One had followed the rules, and one had not. But the problem with rules, he reflected, was that they implied a right way and a wrong way to do things. When, in fact, most of the time there were simply ways, none of them quite wrong or quite right, and nothing to tell you for sure which side of the line you stood on. He had always admired his wife’s idealism, her belief that the world could be made better, could be made orderly, could perhaps even be made perfect. For the first time, he wondered if the same held true for him.

You'll Also Like