After she was married for four years and no children seemed to be coming, my mother did what any good Catholic girl in the 1960s would do: she prayed to the Blessed Mother. She promised if she had a little girl, she’d name her Elizabeth Ann, for Mary’s cousin and mother. She promised she’d name a boy Michael, after the archangel. Then she and my father went to the Angel Guardian Home and applied to adopt.
A few months later, a nun from the adoption agency called and said they had a little girl for my parents, and her name was Elizabeth Ann. A few years after that, the adoption agency called again and said they had a little boy for us named Michael. And in 1998, the story of our names was published in a book called Mary Miraculous: Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary People Touched by Our Lady.
At the moment of my adoption, I was merged into this family abounding with grandmothers, aunts, uncles, first cousins, second cousins, third, and replete with stories—stories that neatly subsumed the existence of my first family. My father told stories about my great-grandparents immigrating to New Orleans and later to New York, and of my grandfather walking over the Brooklyn Bridge every day to his job on the Journal-American newspaper. He told me stories about his own childhood growing up with his three sisters and dozens of cousins on E. 2nd Street in Brooklyn—the same street they brought me home to from the adoption agency, the same cousins running to meet me.
Those stories led up to stories about me and Mike. That a cosmic, God-like force brought us together was explained right there in the book my parents read to us when we were young.
“Then suddenly one day the Lady at the Home called up and said: “We have three fine babies for you to choose from. Will you both come and see them?” So the very next day the Man and his Wife, feeling very excited, hurried to the Home. The Lady told them all about the babies.
“The first baby was a little boy with blue eyes and curly blond hair. He laughed and played with a rattle. The Man and his Wife watched the baby, then they shook their heads and said, ‘This is a beautiful child, but we know it is not our baby.’ And they were taken to see the next.”
Valentina P. Wasson, The Chosen Baby, 1939
What happened, I wondered years later, to the unchosen baby?
There is a freedom—and maybe a bit of paralysis—in not having a hereditary path. I have no genetic path to follow, no ancestors to take after, or reject.
When I am fifty years old, I realize my birth mother, too, is aging, and I hire an adoption investigator to find her. I am grown, mature, my life already in motion, but I am still a little shocked that she exists. When I talk about the things that I love, reading, writing, teaching, and she says, “You didn’t get that from me,” or “Are you sure you’re mine?” I feel a strange sort of pride.
But. I am looking, constantly, always listening, for ways that we—my birth mother, my half-sisters, and my half-brother—are the same.
The sparseness of my eyebrows, and Kerry’s, delights me. That Shannon’s hair goes grey in the same places mine does. That we all started out with the same overbite. I ask who else has my wonky, wavy middle fingernail on each hand.
Who has asthma and who burns but never tans in the sun?
When I first find my birth mother, I feel possibilities narrowing, all my imaginings of her ending. I think at first that this is okay, that wonderful new and true stories are coming, but they don’t. Conversations are shut down. There are things I cannot tell her, about growing up with a mentally ill mother. I cannot tell my birth mother about my frustration that she doesn’t remember anything about my birth father—“I met him at a party. . .we were drinking. . .I never saw him again”—and my adult but childlike hurt that she married so quickly and had five more babies, the first one born just 21 months after I was. There are things she will not tell me.
I become the keeper of secrets, the whitewasher of my past. I tell her only happy things, memories of growing up surrounded by cousins and friends; big, grassy backyards shaded by old oak trees, swing sets and barbecues and collies; playing Manhunt in the woods every summer night; and scaring ourselves silly trying to contact the dead with our Ouija Boards from Toys R Us.
I breeze over the screaming matches in high school and college, the suspicions, the accusations that still happen:
“I know you and your brother talk about me behind my back.”
“I know you love your father more than me.”
“I know you tell your friends bad things about me.”
The bedroom searches for signs of drugs and alcohol and sex, things we aren’t doing yet. My brother and I pitted against each other over and over:
“You are both staying in your rooms until one of you admits you lost the house key/let the cat out/took the Tupperware to school and never brought it back.”
Hours spent in our rooms as punishment for things my mother had done herself.
I say, “My mom and I get along much better when we don’t live together.”
I say, “I had a blast in high school,” and I did.
The mornings I stormed out of the house, slammed the front door, cried on the bus and in the bathroom at school, the knot in my stomach when it was time to go home, just broken parts of the story neatly recessed.
I say, “I know! Ridiculous that I lived on campus during college, five miles from my house. But I loved the dorms!”
I cringe when my birth mother thanks my adoptive mother for raising me.
My birth mother, in turn, keeps from me her relationship with my birth father. She says she doesn’t remember telling the adoption agency anything at all about him. She lets me believe the adoption agency created a detailed story of their relationship and of his life, his family.
I find my birth father’s family, and find out everything my birth mother told the adoption agency at the time was in fact true. We both say, “Wow. Weird,” that the adoption agency says she gave them this information and she doesn’t remember anything about it. I am careful to keep any accusation out of my voice.
She does remember that her roommate’s brother was a priest and that he arranged the adoption. She does not remember that my birth father had blond hair and blue eyes.
She remembers her job at the airline. She does not remember meeting my father at that job. She does not remember that he told her that his parents died when he was young, that he was sending money home to help his aunt raise his sisters, that he was from Ohio, that he enlisted in the Army in May 1966 and went to Germany, just a month after I was conceived.
As narrators of our story, we are both unreliable.
Photo at the top of page, “adoption & child welfare,” is by Suresh Natarajan is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.