We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Do you remember spring days when the warm air buzzes with possibility and you are only 13, waiting for it to happen?

Valerie and her sister Kimberly are sitting in the District’s Vital Records office, the old one where you had to wait around for hours while the clerks shuffled papers in a file drawer and wrote everything out by hand. Valerie and Kimberly are here to pick up birth certificates, which you needed in those days to get a summer job. They are joking about boys and clothes. In a seat next to Valerie a young woman of about 18 laughs as she listens to one of their stories, and the three girls get friendly. The young woman says her name is Debbie. She is about to start a job as a nursing attendant, for which she also needs a birth certificate. Valerie looks up admiringly at Debbie, who is lucky enough to be 18, and to be something real, a nurse.

Finally, a clerk calls out, “K. Brown, V. Brown, D. Brown. People with the last name of Brown.”

Valerie and her sister jump up and go to the window. So does Debbie. “Are you a Brown, too?” Valerie asks, wide-eyed.

“Uh-huh.” Debbie is first at the window, and she signs a form and picks up her certificate. She walks a few steps away and studies it.

Valerie and her sister crowd up together and eagerly look at their birth certificates, the first time they have seen them. Valerie is muttering the words as she moves her finger down the paper. She reads her father’s name out loud, and Debbie, who is standing nearby, jerks her head up and says, “What did you say? What is your father’s name?”

Valerie reads it again. It’s a new name to her, because her mother and father split up their partnership long ago. She and Kimberly don’t know their father. But they know his name.

Debbie says sharply, “That can’t be right. That’s my father’s name. The clerk must have made a mistake.” She whirls around and goes back to the window, fully the 18-year-old in charge. Debbie says sharply to the clerk, “You made a mistake here. All of our birth certificates have my father’s name on them.”

The clerk looks coolly at the three girls, and beckons Valerie and Kimberly to the window. She lays out the certificates side by side. “You all are related. That man is the father of all of you. And that woman…”—here she points out something that each of them now notice for the first time—”is the mother of you all.” The name of Valerie and Kimberly’s mother is also on Debbie’s certificate.

Debbie is stunned. She walks over to a table and grips it, thinking hard.

And Valerie? When you’re 13, one thing is not more amazing than another. Today she finds a sister. Tomorrow she may have a summer job. Someday she too may be a nurse. “We’re sisters!” she says joyously.

Debbie, still shaken, says, “Come here.” Valerie and Kimberly push over to the table and Debbie pulls out a creased, clearly well-studied picture from an envelope stuffed with personal papers.

“Is that your mother?” she asks Valerie and


“Uh-huh. That’s Mama. Where did you get a picture of our mama?”

“My Uncle Junior gave it to me several years ago,” says Debbie.

“Uncle Junior? We got an Uncle Junior, too! He must of grabbed it from Mama’s picture album. Who you live with?” asks Valerie.

“My daddy and my brother,” Debbie replies.

“Your daddy? This man?” Valerie points to the name on her birth certificate. “We never met

our daddy.”

“I never met my mama,” Debbie says shyly. “Not that I can remember.”

“You want to meet her now?” Valerie says simply. “Let’s go home together.”

Nothing magic has happened since. In fact, even the rest of that day was painful, with nobody leaping and laughing the way Valerie imagined they would. And growing out of 13 was not glorious, and she did not become a nurse. She was frightened by men, shed pails and pots of tears over her children, and lost days numbing the pain. When she looks around her in the hallway of the Arthur C. Capper housing project where she lives in Southwest, at the holes in the wall, the blood stain on the floor, and her door smashed in around the lock, she can say there has been very little pleasure. The scales in her life should tip way down on the side of pain and be way light on the side of joy.

And yet. And yet the scales weigh out about even, and here’s why: Once when Valerie was 13 there was a moment when everything came together, even though looking at it with cold eyes you would say that could never happen. And the fact that it did happen opened a door on possibility for the rest of Valerie’s life. And that possibility of magic weighs on the side of joy.

It could happen again. CP