“I remember growing up and not feeling awkward with myself. But when I was around seven years old, it became extremely apparent to me that I was black, that I was black in a white family, and that my family was not normal.”
With grace in her movements and a softness to her words, Cheyenne is 23-years-old, stoic, and beautiful. As she sits with her mother, a white woman in her sixties, it is hard to ignore the evident similarities between the two. They posses the same calm dispositions, the same kind eyes, and the same good-naturedness; but they do not posses the same blood.
“The fact that I was adopted was always somewhere in the forefront of my mind, but my parents never denied that life to me,” says Cheyenne. “There were always multicultural songs and books and CDs in the house, and for that I am very grateful. But I will never forget attending St. Mary’s [private school] and wanting to straighten my hair every day, or how much I had to explain basic things about being black to my peers who didn’t understand it, or getting upset that I didn’t look like a stick in my Easter dress like the other girls because I already had hips in fourth grade. It’s tough, growing up and forever trying to be something you can’t ever be.”
Cheyenne and her birth sister, Sarah, were adopted together at the ages of 1 and 2 by Elizabeth Griffin and her husband in September of 1997.
“Growing up in Irish Catholic community presented a very interesting set of challenges,” says Elizabeth. “When [my husband and] I first started exploring the possibilities of adoption, we made a few calls to the local adoption agencies to find out more about the process. After we completed a 10-week parenting seminar, the agency told us that it would be a long time before they’d be able to match us with a set of kids. But then, six days later, they called to tell us that they had two little girls who were ready to be adopted.”
But the agency wasn’t completely ready to hand these children over to Elizabeth and her husband yet. “When the agency contacted us, they told us that there was one problem. Of course, our minds went to worst-case scenario, and we started to really worry. But the agency called us and said, ‘Well, these two little girls are black,’ and I remember pausing and saying, ‘Okay, so what’s the problem?’”
Adoption agencies often wait until the matching process is finalized before showing pictures of the children to potential parents to prevent preemptive attachment. But Elizabeth and her husband were shown pictures of Cheyenne and Sarah anyway, and the two of them fell in love with the idea of being the parents of these girls.
“It was a non-issue for us that these sisters were African-American, but we were concerned about the predominantly white community we were living in at the time,” said Elizabeth. “We thought that the adoption agency’s ‘problem’ might be a predictor of some of the backlash we might face, and we really wanted to give these girls diversity and safety. So we moved to start a new life someplace else.”
The new family relocated to Salem, Massachusetts, a community that Elizabeth calls, “open and supportive.” Cheyenne even shared that once while she was in DC and told a local that she was from Massachusetts, they replied with, ‘That’s good, they’re pretty nice to us black people up there.’
“The Boston-area provided a great backdrop for us to move forward in as a family,” says Elizabeth. “Here, we can walk down the streets without a stress on what our family looks like, and that’s because Boston is this incredibly accepting and diverse city.”
What Elizabeth and her husband didn’t know when they moved, however, was that they had just brought Cheyenne and Sarah within a 30-mile radius of their birth mother.
“I was never oblivious to the fact that my real family was out there somewhere, but I always carried around some negative preconceived notions about them in my head,” says Cheyenne. “It was just easier to not think of them at all than to think of what kind of people they were.”
Sarah, Cheyenne’s sister, found her birth mother on social media with the limited amount of information they had on her from their adoption documents. But Cheyenne was not as open to getting in contact with her.
“This world, it’s so small,” says Cheyenne quietly, shaking her head. “It took me a year and a few months to even grasp the idea that she was so close, let alone think about meeting her. There was just a lot of resentment there. But I knew it was something I wanted to do, getting in contact with her and my dad.”
When Cheyenne finally summoned up the nerve to contact them via Facebook, she spent hours reading over the messages on her screen. Seeing written confirmation, even virtually, that these were her true birth parents, was more than surreal for her.
“I had opened Pandora’s Box by reaching out to them, and there was no turning back,” says Cheyenne. “I felt like a nervous, insecure child all over again. It was emotional, terrifying and nerve-wrecking. We had set up a date to meet them, but I immediately knew that I had to bring the one person who I trusted more than anyone else with me. I needed to bring my mom with me to meet my birth mom. And I took comfort knowing that, whatever happened with my birth mom, my real mom would be there for me.”
“It was great to be adopted with my birth-sister, because at least the two of us were physically similar to each other,” says Cheyenne. “Growing up with someone else that was black helped a lot, especially as a teenager when you’re figuring out your body and hair and clothes. But I could never prepare myself for what it’d be like to meet the woman who passed down these qualities to me.”
When Cheyenne and her birth mother finally met, Cheyenne says it was like suddenly, the biggest question mark of her life finally dissipated.
“We have the same smile,” Cheyenne says. “It’s so silly to say out loud, but we do. I was so amazed by that.”
“When Cheyenne and Sarah’s mother walked into the cafe we planned to meet at for the first time, I was just kind of like, oh.” Elizabeth says with a laugh. “That sounds so stupid to say, but it was just, everything about her. Her face and her walk and smile, it was like, of course this woman was their mother. And when you see that resemblance, it became obvious that woman was going to be automatic family to us.”
Elizabeth immediately saw the value in her daughters seeking a relationship with their birth mother after that first reunion. “I knew that one day, they might want to reconnect, and I was okay with that. Because no matter how much I gave them, there was always going to be something that only she could give to them, too,” says Elizabeth.
“It was an experience we went through together, because I didn’t want my daughters to grow up with the resentment and unanswered questioned they were holding,” Elizabeth says. “I’m their mother. I will always want to give them the world.”
“If I leave one legacy on this world, I want it to be a charitable one,” says Cheyenne. She is crying now. “I would not be standing here today if charitable people didn’t exist. I grew up with a family that took me in out of the goodness of their heart, and and they love me so much. We owe it to this world to open our hearts up to others in the same way.”