My Menagerie

The Christmas of my twelfth year, I received a wonderful baby spider monkey, whom I named Jupo. After I opened her crate and let Julie VonZerneck_Page_09her out, she immediately climbed our Christmas tree and wrenched away most of our beautiful family ornaments. A floor-to-ceiling wire enclosure had to be erected in my bedroom, but she cried when I put her in it at night. Also, it was so cold that winter that all the blankets in the world wouldn’t have kept her warm enough, because she would just toss them off. She even ripped off the little doll-sized, red-striped pajamas I’d put her in. So, in the end, she slept with me, inside my nightgown, stretched out across my chest, where she could hear the sound of my heartbeat under her own. Jupo only loved me and would cling to me, her arms around my neck, all day long. She kept my life exciting with all of her antics for five wonderful years. And then it was time for her to find a mate, which she did—Butch, a strapping young spider monkey, who lived at the Norristown Zoo in New Jersey.

Julie von Zerneck in formal wear w- squirrel monkey, MachoWe had a cheetah named Rani who lay out on my bed some afternoons and slept ‘till it was her feeding time.  And of course we also had the American bald eagle, Aguila. We had Otty, the otter, who liked to attack me in the pond and nibble my toes and make me scream bloody murder when I was swimming; and Coy, the coyote. We also had several ocelots, a bunch of skunks, vampire bats, a tarantula that we used a toothbrush to clean, six peacocks and pea hens that cried heeeelp, heeeelp when anyone drove up our quarter-mile drive; eight falcons, an unattractive hyrax, a fox named Tod, whom my father wrote about in one of his children’s books, foxdpmThe Fox and The Hound; and many other animals, including dozens and dozens of various snakes, some very poisonous, that came and went through the years. We also raised rats and rabbits to feed these animals. And then there was the roadkill that we found along the country roads. Our icebox in the shed was filled to the brim with not only the usual chicken and lamb chops, but with square enamel trays of dead furry things that had wandered too close to Route 401 just off Bacton Hill.

When I was little and still living at my grandmother’s house, it was actually safer keeping me inside a cage because so many of the animals my parents brought back had free range; my playpen had a top cover and was made of metal mesh. As a young child, I was not encouraged to have friends, but later, when I was a teenager, school friends would flock to our house because they were utterly and completely captivated BabyJulie-wSkunkby what they and their parents referred to as “the eccentric Mannix family and their menagerie”.

At least once a month there was an article in one of the Philadelphia newspapers about adventurers Jule and Dan Mannix returning from Kenya, or leaving for India, or acquiring a pair of kinkajous, or having just written a new book. I hated when my friends brought cameras when they came to visit and had me take pictures of them with Rani licking their hands.rani


[excerpted from Secret Storms]

The Tree

In Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, Andrew Solomon introduces the intensely intimate and complex stories to follow, by defining two terms. Vertical identity: “Attributes and values [that] are passed down from parent to child across theapple tree generations not only through strands of DNA, but also through shared cultural norms.” Horizontal identity: [When] “someone has an inherent or acquired trait that is foreign to his or her parents…”  This is a book that brings together the divergent stories of families with biological children whose horizontal identities fell…well, very far from the tree. The whole business of being human is a messy endeavor. But it’s noteworthy that if you tease out the concept of identity from the larger concept of humanness, identity is what is ultimately defined in direct or indirect relation to family. Some parts of who we are exist because of who loves us and how, and other parts exist despite who loves us… and how.

This is why I’ve always been deeply curious about adoption. Not because I’m confused by how a parent can love a child who isn’t biologically related, but because I’m fascinated by how the soup of identity is molded when there is no biologically shared, common language (an absence of vertical identity). I’m using very broad strokes here, of course, but this curiosity is somewhat akin to trying to figure out whether what you’re drinking is the water or the wave. It’s more complicated than nature or nurture (because it’s nature and nurture) and less easily definable. In my travels through the peripheries of communities of adoptees, I have informally gathered that an overwhelming majority of people who were adopted were perfectly “fine” until they discovered their true origins. With the knowledge that they were adopted, usually gained around the start of adolescence, their entire concept of identity is rattled (and, in most cases, shattered).  Of course, the obvious familytreereason is that when even one of the  truths–previously thought to be inalienable– that are the foundation of identity, is threatened, the whole thing comes crashing down. And yet. Is it really that fragile, I wonder. What is it that compels adoptees who have had idyllic childhoods to nonetheless go in search of birth parents? All things being equal, why does not knowing the body through which you passed in order to enter this world feel like a “missing piece in [your] soul”?  I suspect that to answer by simply using the known tenets of biology is the same as defining love as “a powerful neurological condition”. It’s true… but it doesn’t feel like the whole truth.

This is where community comes in, I suppose. It is such a singular experience, being an adoptee, that to find oneself in a community of people who share that horizontal identity, is often a source of great relief and joy for many. Humans’ chief complaint in life is loneliness. Despite  the great value we place on individuality, we’re always seeking others who are like us.  Whatever it is that happens to identity when the rug of where-I-come-from is pulled from under it, it seems to find solace in company.

Secret Storms is a book written by two people who were able to heal. Who, for reasons no one can fully know, were among the lucky (very) few who reunited, worked hard on a relationship that depended a great deal on forgiveness and empathy, and have a beautiful heritageconnection to this day. This is rare. What isn’t rare is that their story is out there to inspire relief and joy in others. Because I’ve yet to read both sides of the story of a failed reunion, or a story about the fruitless search for a birth family or child who was given up for adoption, I suspect there is a great need for them. Many people search their whole lives and find nothing, while many more find what they search for and are deeply disappointed. Because whatever it is that happens to identity at the moment of learning the truth, one can only imagine what happens to it when the truth turns out to be a tragedy. This is why The Adoption Reunion Stories Facebook page, and many networks like it,  are so important. They are forums, virtual communities, where thousands of people get to share their truth, a lot of which is the kind not found in inspiring books…and find solace in company.


Both Ends Burning

While Secret Storms is a story about a great deal more than just adoption, at bottom, it’s concerned primarily with family. And family is perhaps one of the broadest, most all-encompassing terms in our language. Its definitions are as many and varied as the people who define it.

In a world spinning maddeningly quickly toward ever more malaise and widespread strife, where problems are being identified at dizzying speeds, while their solutions and the resources required to implement them are always a step or two behind, it’s hard to blame anyone for being so overwhelmed as to throw up both hands and give up. And this is where wisdom steps in.

Wisdom (or a cliché, depending on your view) tells us that every journey begins with one step. That rather than take on the impossible task of envisioning an entire future, whatever that may mean, one should instead focus on a single tomorrow. That when you look out the window to your garden and see it has been trampled and left devastated, you bring it back to life one flower at a time. That when anxiety and pain overtake you and you find it hard to breathe, you concentrate only on the next breath. And then the next. And the next. Wisdom tells us to find the source. The lowest common denominator. The thing which you can hold in your hand and nurture and breathe life into, so that maybe one day that thing will grow and do the same for another. That “thing” is a child.

That “thing” is a family. That “thing” is loving in such a way that love becomes the meaning of one’s life. And when it is the meaning of one life, it can only spread to a second. Then to a third. And, eventually, one day, to billions. And what is “the world” if not the collective reality of  those who live here?  There are few nobler things humans were pc_candle_both_endsgifted with, than the ability to give a child a home. The ability to create a family. The ability to be what is often the only source of goodness, safety, and love, in a world otherwise occupied.

So today we’d like to highlight the work being done by Both Ends Burning, the makers of the documentary “Stuck”, an organization “dedicated to defending every child’s human right to a permanent loving family.” Theirs is a mission worth learning a little about. Because even a little knowledge is a step forward. And whether it is simple and short or harrowing and labyrinthine, with no end in sight… every journey begins with one step forward.



-Aida Raphael, Editor

We Learn to Teach

We’re very pleased to feature a guest post from Amanda Hatfield Anderson , Kathy’s daughter, who is a staff writer at The Hometown News in Brevard County, Florida .


With the recent passing of Father’s Day, I found myself reflecting on the past, as well as looking toward the future.

Growing up, I was raised alongside my mom’s father, Frank Wisler. Pop-Pop, as I called him, was one of the most influential male figures in my life for 10 years, always guiding me and pushing me to think outside the box. I truly cannot recall him ever speaking to me as if to a child—I think Pop-Pop always knew I could engage with adults on a more intellectual level, even at a very young age.

From going to daily Mass, as often as I could, followed by trips to nursing homes, where I watched Pop-Pop give out Communion to those who could not make it to church, as well as visits to the local convent, where I would chat with the nuns while Pop-Pop marked graves for those who had recently passed, I spent more time with my grandfather in the first 10 years of my life than most grandchildren ever get to do in their entire lives.

Nearly every day we spent together, Pop-Pop and I would stop at our favorite restaurant for lunch—Ryan’s Steakhouse—where I would feast on the establishment’s delicious macaroni and cheese, followed by a helping of soft serve. There, we would talk about God and what was discussed in church that day, as well as the newest Disney movie I wanted to see.

Pop-Pop was my best friend, and I was his.


I have been without my Pop-Pop for 15 years this summer. While his passing is still something that I struggle with, I have been given the ultimate gift, courtesy of my best friend and angel above.

In November 2007, my biological grandparents magically came into my life. I will never forget the moment we received the call at home.

These past seven years have brought so much more clarity to life, especially when it comes to who I am and where I come from. Many of these lessons have been learned by spending time with my grandfather, Frank von Zerneck.

Grandpa has been an essential piece to my life’s puzzle. While we are catching up on roughly 18 years without one another, he is teaching me so much about hard work, loyalty and unconditional love.

One of my favorite attributes of Grandpa is his unbelievably high work ethic. Past the age of the average retired American male, Grandpa continues to work hard in his job as an executive producer, never shying away from his latest project. He is the epitome of the American dream—work hard and you will achieve great things. Grandpa is a self-made man, and I have nothing but respect for all he has accomplished in his life.

The love Grandpa has for my Granny, Julie, knows no bounds. When I try to describe just how intense their bond is, I tell people it’s a lot like puppy love on steroids—just a lot healthier. Grandpa could have easily walked away from Granny when she was whisked away from the theatre that one summer so many years ago, but he persevered, attempting to contact her in every way imaginable. When Granny informed him about my mother and where she had been the past several months, he easily could have turned away, but he stayed. Granny and Grandpa have faced their fair share of trials and tribulations, but the unconditional love and loyalty they have for one another burns brighter than the sun.

In Grandpa, I see a lot of myself. He loves to take care of those he feels deeply toward. Each visit, when I wake up in the morning, there is a full spread of breakfast foods—cereals, fruit, bagels and much more. Once he learns how you take your tea or coffee, a fresh, hot cup is waiting for you as soon as he hears you walking down the stairs. Breakfast is always served with an extra helping of love. Mornings in the von Zerneck house are my favorite mornings of all.


Grandpa is also as fearless of public speaking as I am. When my husband and I were married last April, he made the most lovely speech in front of our family and friends about how excited and proud he was to be a part of my life and how much he adored Jeremy. You could tell his speech was not rehearsed—it was sweet, genuine and off-the-cuff, a true show of his emotional state. Grandpa’s words commanded attention, much like the way Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other great orators have. His audience was held happily captivated.

Now, as the next generation gestates within me, I have already put a great deal of thought into how I am going to teach my son or daughter about his or her great-grandfathers; of how gentle, passionate, driven and pure each man was and is. I can only hope that my child will follow in the footsteps of his or her elders, with just as much vigor for life.

Cut from the Same Cloth

This piece originally appeared over at the excellent Bookish Libraria

John Stamos and Danielle von Zerneck, courtesy of General Hospital

I’ll admit it; I’m vain. Upon discovering that I had a full-blooded sister, whom I had never met, my very first thought was, does she look like me? As an adopted child, I had spent my entire life wishing I looked like someone in my family, wishing I had my mother’s eyes or my father’s thick hair, wishing that –for once– someone would say you look just like your mother (or father, or brother, or cousin…). Five years ago, that wish came true. At the age of 44, I reunited with my birth mother, who eventually married my birth father and went on to have two more children: my brother and my sister. I had grown up with only brothers, and was completely enthralled with the idea of having a sister, who –quite possibly– would look just like me.

As it turned out, I had known my sister for decades. Watched her on TV in the 1980s. Scheduled my college classes around the soap opera on which she appeared daily. For two years, she played the role of Lou Swenson, the love interest of John Stamos’s character, on the wildly popular General Hospital. And for two years, I had no idea she was my sister. Now, on this side of the adoption reunion, I can’t believe I didn’t see it: we don’t just look like one another, we also share the same laugh, the same intonation of voice, the same sideways tilt of the head when we speak in earnest. And after spending time with her, I have also realized the semblance resonating on a much deeper level. I saw it when she spoke about politics, about literature, about her daughters; I saw a passion, a fire in her belly, a glimpse of what made her tick– and understood it immediately. We, though strangers, had been cut from the same cloth– and I felt the same thing that other biological siblings must feel– an unspoken connection.

Kathy, 18 years old, in Indialantic, FL and Danielle, 18 years old, in Los Angeles, CA

But is that all it takes to be siblings? Shared features, shared mannerisms, shared passions? Can a sharing of chromosomes supersede years of playing catch in the backyard and fighting over who gets to ride in the front seat? I had assumed that our genetic bond was the only requisite to being sisters, but I was wrong; we will never have the shared memories of childhood, which are the links in the chain that fasten us to our families. Yet, what remains is my greatest hope: that we may come to realize that sisterhood is not a destination, but a journey to be shared and enjoyed. And maybe someday, we too will come to form our own memories in common and redeem what could have been our past.



I can hear Hudson’s little toenails tic-tic-ticking as she races up the stairs with great momentum, afraid she might fall back down if she stops. She has a thick white body, perky pointed ears and a smashed-in face, and she has come to join me as I write. You could say she is my writing companion. She likes the silence and coolness of my office and I think she knows that without her I get very lonely. When she is in the safety of our home Hudson is very out-going. Sometimes she does little leaps, flinging herself into the air and twisting around like a pretty ballerina. Other times, she rolls onto her back, sticks her small legs into the air and groans so happily and so loudly you can hear her all over the house. But the second she steps over the threshold to go outside for her daily walk she becomes painfully bashful, pulling away when we meet someone on the street and hiding her head between her front legs. I love her for that. I love her for this eccentricity of hers. One day, a lady with purple bangs and a silver post embedded into the tip of her tongue, walking something that looked like a hairless rat, said to me, “Oh my, she’s a handful, isn’t she?” I was so angry I wanted to accidentally step on her rat. But instead, I just moved on.


Writing can be lonely. There are so many better things I could be doing with my time. When I’m in New York City, where we have an apartment, I walk in Central Park for hours, even in the rain, especially in the snow, and do things like watch the old man who feeds the squirrels and shares his bag of nuts with passing children, or tourists, or me. I always walk towards the music in Central Park. There’s always someone playing something, day or night. Once, I came across a bunch of people waltzing wildly under the stars to music from an accordion. I spend a lot of time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, too, going on the hour-long tour, where I learn something new each time. I also get a kick out of shopping till I drop and buying nothing. Most of the independent bookstores are closed uptown now, so I take the R downtown to some of the great bookstores there. When you buy too many books at one time, however, which I have a tendency to do, you have to have a husband to help carry them all home.
My husband is a New Yorker. I am from Pennsylvania. He didn’t used to like NY, but we moved away to LA in the 70s, and now he does. When he’s not working, he likes to take the subway to Coney Island and walk on the beach.  He went to the High School of Performing Arts when it was located near Broadway. Sometimes he would skip classes and go to see Vaudeville shows. They all closed down just after his freshman year though, so he made it just in time. It cost him a dollar. That’s all.
Hudson is looking up at me now. Her dark shiny eyes are telling me that it’s time for her dinner. She eats at five. Right on the dot. Outside in the back garden.  It’s a hot day. The sun is still blazing strong. I’d better put on my baseball cap. I have to stand there while she and Gracie eat, so maybe I’ll take a nice cold gin and tonic with me. And my cell phone. My extremely handsome husband from the Bronx is off on one of his road trips. I think he’s in Cheyenne by now. It’s two hours later there. Maybe I can catch him before he goes to dinner. I’d better hurry.

the legs of a stranger

A short piece, written for Frisky. com

481972_342189362547438_300774006_nI was 12 when I found out. My stepsister hurled it at me during a fight: “At least I’m not adopted,” she retorted after I called her a four-eyed idiot. My real mother died when I was six, and the fact that I now had a stepmother didn’t mean I was adopted.

“You really are a blockhead,” I laughed “if you think I’m going to fall for that one.”

However, I soon learned the four-eyed idiot was right. I was indeed adopted. I had been given up as an infant. And worse, no one had ever told me.

“I thought your mother told you,” my father responded when I asked him if it was true.

The news left me feeling vulnerable and reminded me of a time when I was four, shopping with my mother at JC Penney’s. She was looking for a dress.I ducked under a waterfall of polka dots and paisleys and hid in the center of the circular rack – only to become frightened and reemerged, grabbing on to the familiarity of my mother’s legs — except they weren’t her legs; they were the legs of a stranger, but for a few seconds I was betrayed by a false sense of reality.  Here I was again, hugging onto the legs of a stranger—completely unaware —  and deceived for nearly 12 years by the same false sense of reality.

Click HERE to continue reading.


Two Peas in a Pod

I am feeling a little sad.

My new granddaughter, whose mother was the daughter I was forced to give away 49 years ago and who found me just five years ago, has just left after a visit of four days.

I can’t believe Amanda flew all the way here to Los Angeles from Florida, just to see her grandfather, Frank and me; and on her own dime, too.

She’s just a kid, really. Twenty-four.

And the thing is… she is so much like me. It’s rather scary how alike we are. Not just the way we look, but also the way our minds work. Like me and like her mother, she is a writer, as well. She told me yesterday as we were cleaning up together after breakfast, “I just don’t have a filter like most people do. I say whatever comes to mind and don’t even realize ‘til later that I gave away too much information about myself. Sometimes people are afraid of me.”

Amanda and the NYT

I stopped scrubbing the sink and looked up at her. “Me too,” I said happily. “I used to be like that too,” I told her. “I would talk about things like our family cheetah scratching me accidentally and having to be taken to the hospital for 20 stitches and people would look afraid of me and turn away and I never understood why. Now I just write about that stuff because I have learned that what is unrelatable to the face is remarkable on the page.”

“We are like two peas in a pod,” she said and laughed. “It’s so nice to finally have someone I can really relate to.”

“It’s nice for me too,” I told her. “Thank God your Mom went and found me. I would have missed out if I had never gotten to know you. I only wish I had gotten to watch you grow up.”

Yeah, though I am feeling a little sad, I am mighty grateful, too. On the way to the airport Amanda told me she was going to stop off at her Aunt Danielle’s–my second daughter, the daughter I did get to keep–and say goodbye to her cousins, the granddaughters whom I did get to watch grow up.

She’s a good spirit, Amanda is. She is my blood.