How do you tell your 79-year-old mother that she now has three children–and two more grandchildren—to buy birthday, Christmas, and Chanukah gifts for?
MY SISTER’S STORY
“Congratulations! It’s a girl! You have a lovely new 50-year-old daughter!”
My mother is fond of what sound to me like silly aphorisms. When I’m worried or can’t sleep, I get, “Think of a lovely rose garden.” Nice thought, but die-hard neurotics and insomniacs like me usually need something more, like . . . say . . . pills, not petals.
On August 16, 2009, a lovely summer day, I called my mother and said I’d like to come see her. “What’s wrong!?” True, I usually don’t call to say I want to come over. “I have something to show you.” “What is it?” “A surprise.” “What kind of surprise?” “Let’s just say it’s something old that’s new again.” Later I found out she thought I’d bought a pre-owned car.
After meeting with Vicki Sue the previous day and exchanging papers and photos, I hastily assembled a portfolio for our mom. Searching on the Internet for an appropriate picture to put on the cover, I found the one above. It looked just old-fashioned enough, and just cute enough, to serve my purpose. My husband drove me to my mother’s place that day because I was too nervous, but he planned to go off to the pool and do errands while I went up to do the deed. During the entire trip from NJ, about an hour’s drive, I tried to think of an opening line. I had nothing.
When we arrived, Farok dropped me at the back door to my mother’s apartment complex, where I contemplated how to announce the rebirth of my mother’s third child. The building happens to have quite a lovely pink rosebush beside the door, which reminded me of my mother’s penchant for aphorisms. Then one of her favorites came to me: “You never know when you get up in the morning what’s going to happen to you that day.” Hmmm. I’d lead off with that.
Down she came to let me in. She looked around, noticing I had something in my hands, but she saw no husband and no car. “Where’s your new car?” “What new car?” “The one you came to show me–you just bought a new used car, didn’t you?” “What are you talking about?” “That thing–that thing that was old and is now new again. It’s a new used car, right? And where’s Farok?” OK, I played along for the two minutes it took us to walk upstairs. “Yes. You figured it out. Farok loves the car so much that he decided to tool around in it for a while–he’ll be back later.”
* * *
When we were finally settled on her sofa, she looked at the folder in my hand. “What’s that?” “This is what I’ve come to show you.” She started staring at me a little suspiciously. “You know what you always say to me–‘You never know . . .'” ” . . . when you wake up in the morning . . . yes, so, what happened to you today? And what’s that in your hand?” “I’ll show you in a minute. Just one more thing I have to tell you first.” She’s not a patient woman, and I knew I was about to drop a beautiful bomb on her and didn’t know how to prepare her for it.
“OK. Remember I went to see Matt last week? Well, as I was stepping onto the plane to come home, Emily called me on my cell and said she’d just gotten a weird phone call from a woman named Vicki.” “OK, and . . .” “OK. Well, so, Vicki told Emily she’d been adopted.” Stares. “And that her birth date was September 15, 1959.” Widening eyes. “And that her birth name was Susan Mary.” Eyes bigger than any deer’s in any headlights ever were. My mother put her hand to her heart, and barely forced out a hoarse whisper: “My daughter!? You found my daughter!?”
“Well, she sort of found me. And this is what she looks like.” I showed her one of the photos I’d taken the day before and printed out. “How did you get that?” “I took it with my phone.” “You met her!?” “Yep. Just yesterday.”
Hands shaking, heart pounding, eyes unable not to be as wide as they would open, Mom took the portfolio, and I walked her through it–adoption papers, birth registration, baby pictures, growing-up photos. “And you have two grandsons–and they’ve both been bar mitzvahed.” “Really!?” Pause. “Wait ’til Sandee hears that!” Of course, she already had. And was barely hanging on waiting for me to report back about how my mother took this monumental news.
* * *
Over the next two hours, we looked at the photos, and I told her as much as I knew about VS and her family. Then it was her turn to tell me the whole story of what had happened 50 years ago, which she did. Some of it she had trouble remembering, but not the heart-rending scene in the hospital on the day she left without her baby. This was a privately arranged adoption through family doctors. For some reason, PA law back then required that the birth mother hand over the infant to an agent of the adoptive mother on the steps outside the front door of the hospital. A lawyer was waiting outside; the new mother was in the car.
On the only day in her life the child would almost be in the presence of her two mothers at the same time, a nurse brought in a yellow outfit that the adoptive mother wanted to take her new daughter home in. At first the nurse asked my mother to dress the baby herself, but Mom couldn’t see through her tears to get the job done. So the nurse dressed the little girl and handed her to her mother, who was unable to look into her baby’s eyes. The nurse put a small blanket over the baby’s face momentarily as a gesture of kindness. Then the doctor came in and asked my mother about a name. My mother insisted that her baby girl would not leave the hospital without one. Giving away a nameless child would be like casting away a baby that was unwanted and uncared for. Circumstances, not lack of love, had dictated this adoption. So one of my mother’s favorite names combined with a variant of her own first name (Marie) was put on the registration of birth that we later found in our father’s possession.
My mother walked next to the nurse carrying the child to the front steps of the hospital and, according to law, took her baby, face veiled once again by the blanket, from the nurse and handed her over to her adoptive family’s lawyer. The little girl left the hospital with her birth mother’s chosen name in her adoptive mother’s chosen outfit. “Susan Mary” was on her way to her new home, wearing yellow.
And her birth mother was on her way home to tell her other two children the sad news that their baby sister had just died.
* * *
After we were all talked and cried out that August day (you can guess why my brother and husband didn’t want to be in the middle of this), my mother had a decision to make. Vicki Sue–my mother loved that name!–had said she felt only joy, no sadness or anger, and wanted to leave the decision about when–or whether–to meet to her mom.
“Please call Vicki and tell her I love her . . . that I’ve always loved her, every single day of her life. But I need time to adjust to the shock. Maybe I’ll be ready to talk to her by phone in a week or two, and if that goes all right, maybe I’ll meet her someday soon after that. I just need time.”
The next day, the “new mom” told her friend at the hospital where they both volunteered. That’s when apprehension started turning into excitement. Within days, Mom called her third child on the phone. Vicki didn’t pick up, so my mother left a strained message: “I don’t know how to say this, so I’ll just come out with it: I’m your birth mother, and I’d love to talk with you.” When they finally connected, somehow between sobs and tumbled words they agreed to meet very soon.
That weekend, Wayne and his wife, Anne, invited Vicki Sue and her family–husband Howard, older son Dan, younger son Jason–to their house for dinner, where they also met Wayne and Anne’s daughter, Lindsay, and her husband, Doug. Dan couldn’t stop staring at his uncle Wayne, who responded to this by throwing a fork at his new nephew, saying: “Stop staring! It’s not my fault that we look alike!” And that they do. Laughter ensued. You can imagine that if Vicki Sue and her sons couldn’t stare at my emailed photos hard enough, they certainly had a stare-fest on meeting their new bro/uncle in person. To this day, they seem simply fascinated to find family resemblances.
I had yet to meet my sister’s family. And Mom had yet to meet her daughter.
* * *
But the following week, unable to postpone the inevitable any longer, the new arrival decided it was time to go meet her mother. And her mother agreed, with her whole heart. We all thought it best that they meet on their own, just the two of them, for the Mother-Child Reunion.
Mom went down to the back entrance to let her daughter into her apartment building, but she saw only a delivery truck parked in the lot across from that rose bush. She kept calling, “Vicki! Vicki!” Then a tousled, reddish-brown head peeped from behind the truck, gradually revealing a wide smile as Susan Mary caught her first glimpse of her birth mother, who stared back at her “baby” in awe. The mother-child reunion happened first with the eyes . . . again, those eyes.
Hugging and crying and laughing, they went upstairs. They talked for hours and hours, still crying and laughing, looking at photos, staring at each other. Vicki Sue finally went home later that night with emotions that I dare not try to describe. Maybe she will do that herself someday. But she left behind a very peaceful and happy Mom–who couldn’t stop smiling and crying as she looked at the beautiful roses her “new” daughter had brought her: yellow. Just the color of the last outfit she’d seen her in 50 years before, when she’d thought she’d never see her again.
A week after that, my mother, Farok, and Vicki Sue and family all got together for a happy, question-and-answer-style reunion luncheon at Olive Garden. This was not so much the beginning of a new family as it was the enlargement of a previously invisible family circle.
By that September 2009, the month in which both Vicki Sue’s (15th) and my (24th) birthdays fall, Susan Mary had found her birth family and a part of herself she thought she’d lost forever. What a 50th birthday present–and what a reward for an impulsive telephone call.
* * *
Or maybe it was a case of “spontaneous inspiration”? I have a few more anecdotes and thoughts about that, which I’ll share in tomorrow’s Epilogue.