You take it for granted.
You don’t know you do, but you do. Knowing where you came from, how you came to be in the world, how you came to have that laugh or those eyes. Maybe it doesn’t seem like a big deal to you, you don’t care. But it’s the luxury of not caring about something you have and can discard. For me, and lots of people like me, not knowing how or why you got here — it hurts. Without a backstory, a first act or a prologue, you feel just plopped down in the universe with no tether, no anchor, and no map or North Star to find your way.
It’s lonely being adopted, because you’re all alone with this nagging mystery. Everyone else knows where they came from and dismisses it as unimportant. You alone care, and you’re not only alone in caring, but sometimes punished for it. One day when I was about 13 I was at the eye doctor. He asked if there was a history of glaucoma in the family, and my mother piped up and started to say there was. I added that it actually wasn’t relevant for my medical history since I was adopted. I didn’t make a big deal about it, I just understood why he was asking. Later, when we got out to the parking lot my mother slapped my face, snarling, “Why do you always have to remember that? I don’t, why do you have to?” Now as an adult I can feel for my poor mother’s fragility around the issue. Still, I wish back then someone could have been sensitive to mine.
I’ve always longed to know how I got here, and the day before Thanksgiving last year, I finally found out:
Many improbable and hare-brained things are hatched in our nation’s capital, and turns out I was one of them.
A half century ago, a Washington DC bigwig was driving his secretary home late one night. As wigs go he was one of the biggest (and his brother was even a bigger wig). The secretary was an average woman who’d left home on the farm at 16 and come to town 2 decades earlier with the influx of workers needed when World War II erupted. The two had a professional relationship, and if anything the secretary was irritated by the wigs’ size and its accompanying know-it-all-ness. After all, she’d been in government 20 years and she though this Phi Beta Kappa upstart was a little too big for his britches.
It’s hard to get a handle on just what happened that night. Only a few things are certain: Doris had sex for the second time in her life; she had sex for the first and only time her boss; and 9 months later the world got 10 more fingers and 10 more toes foisted upon it.
Eight months earlier a doctor had given poor Doris the bad news, but told her he could get the problem fixed. She would have gone that route, but she’d heard of girls dying in back-alley abortions and the prospect of bleeding to death on some dirty mattress somewhere was too daunting. She couldn’t get married because she “didn’t like any of the fellas I was going with enough to get married.”
Doris told the big wig boss about her situation but other than a check he cut for $300 (“I don’t know what that was supposed to be for”) it seems the matter was closed. So about 3 months later she got on a bus to Miami Beach – she’d always wanted to see Miami Beach – and when she arrived she got a room in a small inexpensive hotel and began leafing through the phone book to find a doctor. So there she waited for the inevitable — me.
I was born April 17th. The next day Doris sent in her letter of resignation. A woman she’d met in the hospital lobby 2 days earlier brought her a baby present; Doris doesn’t remember what she did with it.
She went back to Washington DC to get pack some things. She says the big wig contacted her saying he would marry her and they’d raise the baby together, to which she replied, “Too late, Sonny Jim.” (When I asked Doris how he might marry her when he was already married, she shrugged.) She moved back to Missouri.
A year later “Mr. Wig” was giving a speech in Chicago and contacted Doris and asked to take her for dinner. She didn’t want to go –“I didn’t like his personality much” – but she relented because “I wanted to hear his excuses.” (I asked what she meant by that but she couldn’t elaborate.)
I asked what was said about, well, me, at that awkward dinner. “Neither one of us brought it up,” she explained.
Fast-forward a half a century later — Doris is eighty-eight years old and living in a sort of nursing home in Florida. She never married, never had any other children, but she hears from her nieces and nephews every once in awhile. The day before Thanksgiving poor Doris gets a phone call. “Hello, my name is Sarah,” says the tentative voice on the line, “I was born April 17th 1962 in Miami Beach…may I speak to you for a few minutes?” A long pause. “Um, do you understand who I am?” asks the voice. Another even longer pause. “Yes,” says Doris in her high, child-like voice.
Well, I really didn’t know much to say after that. I thanked her for the gift of life, asked how she was doing, if she needed anything, and I told her I was a girl. I asked who my father was, and after some reluctance she did. His name was not on my birth certificate, he being so big wiggy and all, and so Doris is the only one who could tell me. That afternoon I Googled my birth father, and my uncle, and ordered their books on Amazon.
I later learned that Doris had never told a living soul about what happened. She hadn’t confided in a single family member, not one girlfriend. She’d held this secret for over 50 years, and she continued to. She told me not to tell anyone who I was. Was it shame, a sense of privacy? As someone who as very little of either, it was hard for me to understand, but of course I respected her wishes. Still, it seems unimaginable to have gone through what she did completely alone. While she seems completely stoic and unemotional about it, I don’t know at what price her sangfroid came.
I asked if I could visit, and Doris hesitatingly said yes. Two weeks later my husband and I flew down to meet her. As we walked down the hall to her room I stopped and told my husband I couldn’t go through with it, but he just took my arm and we kept walking.
There were two women standing in her room and I had no idea which one was my mother. I thought it was the other woman and went to hug her before another voice piped, “I’m Doris.” She introduced my husband and me as friends from New York, Doris’ friend left, and the three of us sat down. I was distracted as she talked about her schedule and administrative difficulties by how much we didn’t look alike. I certainly didn’t expect a doppelganger, but I saw no resemblance whatsoever. If I’d picked 100 women off the street at random I’d bet most of them would look more like me than Doris. Of course it doesn’t matter really, but it’s one of those things you look forward to, maybe one day seeing a face like your own in a world where there’d been none. I was hoping for something to tangibly place me in some sort of biological, historical narrative where my various plebian features – face, hair, ticks –might find familiarity, might find a home. But instead of a kindred face or some telltale curly hair, before me sat a regular Midwestern blonde, blue-eyed woman you might see in Church on Sunday or the beauty parlor on Saturday. A lovely woman, but not the idiosyncratic twin I’d long imagined.
I heard a lot about Doris’s various jobs over the years. She’d worked for the CIA and liked her bosses there very much. I tried to get her to talk about Mr. Wig, and she did, but her stories were often somewhat convoluted and diverted easily. She wanted to show me her job reviews, but I was more interested in a shoebox of photos she’d brought out. She said I could take as many as I wanted, as she had no one else who’d be interested. I selected several pictures of Doris as a child, a young woman in the 40s, and a few snapshots of her in the 70s and 80s. I was ecstatic to get photos of my grandparents, even my great-grandparents, as these were things I never expected I’d ever see or hold. She even gave me a portrait of her nestled between her 2 bronzed baby shoes.
What I remember most about our brief meeting was her telling me about the day I was born. She remembered lifting her head and seeing a tiny head full of black hair. She remembered waking up and seeing two men sitting in her room, waiting with papers for her to sign. She casually mentioned it took a long time to sign the papers and then drifted to another topic. When I asked later why it took so long, were they complicated, were the men confusing her, she shrugged and said, ”Well, I guess I didn’t want to sign them.” I felt so sorry for her at that moment, and yet… I smiled a little inside. Selfish and stupid I know, but that twinkle of an inkling of being wanted felt nice.
After several hours of friendly but superficial chat, I gave my husband the signal it was time to go. Though we’d booked a hotel for 2 nights, it was clear there was a ceiling on what I could take from the day.
Don’t get me wrong – I was and am thrilled to have found my birthmother. Here was something I’d wanted all my life, information to give me answers, closure, solace and maybe even comfort. At fifty I’d pretty much given up hope of ever getting any of that. The one fact I knew about my biological mother was her age, and I knew chances were good that she was no longer alive. I thought at this point the best I might ever get was just a name, Mary Smith or Helga Bagwonivitch, some flimsy ghost upon which I might pin the mystery of my existence. I hadn’t dreamed she’d be still alive, much less that I’d ever meet her, that I’d hold in my hands an old photo of a 19th century relative, that I’d one day sit in an airplane with my mother’s baby shoes on my lap.
Still, as happy and grateful as I am, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little disappointed. No kindred spirit to look me in the eye and say “You’re fine”, no nurturing embrace to stroke my tangled hair or pain. Just a nice woman who’d tamped down both her attachment to, and the fact of, me. Another chance for me to be the person who loves more. Perhaps that imbalance was the most familiar thing about my mother, that lonely recognition of incongruent hearts.
As we walked out the door, I stopped and walked back to hug Doris one more time, and whisper in her ear, “Thank you… I love you, Mother.” I heard her softly mutter “I love you too.”
I’ve learned a lot from this. Life is a roll of the dice, a lottery of happenstance, a genetic gamble like some Cheekybingo.com parlor where our flesh’s destinies are doled out in a flash. Whether the game is meaningful or not, it’s still fascinating to watch. Also, even though they’ve died, thanks to my who my father and my uncle were, I’m able to learn a lot about that side of things. I learned that my grandmother earned degrees in Latin and Greek and got women the vote in Nebraska. I learned I have a half-dozen half-siblings, and even met a much younger half-brother who’s turned out to be sweet, kind and smart and a way in to hear nice stories about Mr. Wig. And again I learned that families are made, not born. Yes, I’m grateful to Doris and Mr. Wig for giving me the gift of life, but I’m most indebted to the people I know and love who make that life worth living.
Doris, Tom, Bob, Peggy, Pearl, Jeff, Jessica, Frank, Ringo, Ben and hundreds of others: from the bottom of my heart, thank you.