I remember their insistence that I come into the living room and sit down and how the dark room seemed suddenly threatening, how I stood in the kitchen doorway holding a jelly doughnut and how I never eat jelly doughnuts.
I remember not knowing; first thinking something was very wrong, assuming it was death—someone had died.
And then I remember knowing.
Christmas 1992, I go home to Washington, D.C., to visit my family. The night I arrive, just after dinner, my mother says, “Come into the living room. Sit down. We have something to tell you.” Her tone makes me nervous. My parents are not formal people—no one sits in the living room. I am standing in the kitchen. The dog is looking up at me.
“Come into the living room. Sit down,” my mother says.
“There's something we need to talk to you about.”
“Come and we'll tell you.”
“Tell me now, from here.”
“Come and we'll tell you.”
“Tell me now, from here.”
“Come,” she says, patting the cushion next to her.
“Who died?” I say, terrified.
“No one died. Everyone's fine.”
“Then what is it?”
They are silent.
“Is it about me?”
“Yes, it's you. We've had a phone call. Someone is looking for you.”
After a lifetime spent in a virtual witness-protection program, I've been exposed. I get up knowing one thing about myself: I am the mistress's daughter. My birth mother was young and unmarried, my father older and married, with a family of his own. When I was born, in December of 1961, a lawyer called my adoptive parents and said, “Your package has arrived and it's wrapped in pink ribbons.”
My mother starts to cry. “You don't have to do anything about it, you can just let it go,” she says, trying to relieve me of the burden. “But the lawyer said he'd be happy to talk with you. He couldn't have been nicer.”
“Tell me again—what happened?”
Details, minutiae, as though the facts, the call-and-response of questions asked and answered, will make sense of it, will give it order, shape, and the thing it lacks most—logic.
“About two weeks ago we got a phone call. It was Stanley Frosh, the lawyer who took care of the adoption, calling to say that he'd gotten a call from a woman who told him that if you wanted to contact her, she'd be willing to hear from you.”
“What does that mean, ‘willing to hear from you’? Does she want to talk to me?”
“I don't know,” my mother says.
“What did Frosh say?”
“He couldn't have been nicer. He said that he'd had this call—the day before your birthday—and he wasn't sure what we would want to do with the information, but he thought we should have it. Would you like to know her name?”
“No,” I say.
“We debated about whether or not to even tell you,” my father says.
“You debated? How could you not tell me? It's not your information. What if you hadn't told me and something happened to you and then I found out later?”
“But we are telling you,” my mother says. “Mr. Frosh says you can call him at any time.” She offers Frosh as though talking to him will do something—like fix it.
“This happened two weeks ago and you're just telling me now?”
“We wanted to wait until you were home.”
“Why did Frosh call you? Why didn't he call me directly?” I was thirty-one years old, an adult, and still they were treating me like an infant who needed protection.
“Damn her,” my mother says. “It's a lot of nerve.”
This was my mother's nightmare; she'd always been afraid that someone would come and take me away. I'd grown up knowing that was her fear, knowing in part it had nothing to do with my being taken away, but with her first child, her son, having died just before I was born. I grew up feeling that on some very basic level my mother would never let herself get attached again. I grew up with the sensation of being kept at a distance. I grew up furious. I feared that there was something about me, some defect of birth that made me repulsive, unlovable.
My mother came to me. She wanted to hug me. She wanted me to comfort her.
I didn't want to hug her. I didn't want to touch anyone. “Is Frosh sure she is who she says she is?”
“What do you mean?” my father asked.
“Is he sure she's the right woman?”
“I think he's fairly certain it's her,” my father said.
The fragile, fragmented narrative, the thin line of story, the plot of my life, has been abruptly recast. I am dealing with the divide between sociology and biology: the chemical necklace of DNA that wraps around the neck sometimes like a beautiful ornament—our birthright, our history—and other times like a choke chain.
I have often felt the difference between who I arrived as and who I've become; layer upon layer piling up until it feels as though I am coated with a bad veneer, the cheap paneling of a suburban recreation room.
As a child, I was obsessed by the World Book Encyclopedia, the acetate anatomy pages, where you could build a person, folding in the skeleton, the veins, the muscles, layer upon layer, until it all came together.
For thirty-one years I have known that I came from somewhere else, started as someone else. There have been times when I have been relieved by the fact that I am not of my parents, that I am freed from their biology; and that is followed by an enormous sensation of otherness, the pain of how alone I feel.
“We told Jon,” my father says. Jon, my older brother, their son.
“Why did you tell him? It wasn't yours to tell.”
“We're not telling Grandma,” my mother says.
This is the first important thing they've elected not to tell her—she is too old, too confused to be of help to them. She might do something with it in her head, conflate the information with other information, make it into something entirely different.
“Think of how I feel,” my mother says. “I can't even tell my own mother. I can't get any comfort from her. It's awful.”
My mother and I sit in silence.
“Should we not have told you?” my mother asks.
“No,” I say, resigned. “You had to tell me. It wasn't a choice. It's my life, I have to deal with it.”
“Mr. Frosh says you can call him anytime,” she repeats.
“Where does she live?”
In my dreams, my birth mother is a goddess, the queen of queens, the CEO, the CFO, and the COO. Movie-star beautiful, incredibly competent, she can take care of anyone and anything. She has made a fabulous life for herself, as ruler of the world, except for one missing link—me.
I say good night and drift off into the spin of the story, the myth of my beginning.
My adoptive mother and father didn't marry until my father was forty. My mother, eight years younger, had a son, Bruce, from a previous marriage who had been born with severe kidney problems. He lived to be nine and died six months before I was born. Together my mother and father had Jon—during his birth my mother's uterus ruptured, and both she and Jon nearly died. An emergency hysterectomy was performed and my mother was unable to have more children.
“It was lucky any of us survived,” she said. “We always wanted more. We wanted three children. We wanted a little girl.”
When I was young and used to ask where I came from, my mother would tell me that I was from the Jewish Social Service Agency. When I was a teenager, my therapist often asked me, “Don't you think it's odd that an agency would give a baby to a family where another child had died just six months before—to a family still in mourning?” I shrugged. It seemed like both a good idea and a really bad one. I always felt that my role in the family was to heal things, to make everything all right—to replace a dead boy. I grew up doused in grief. From day one, on a cellular level, I was perpetually in mourning.
There is folklore, there are the myths, there are facts, and there are the questions that go unanswered.
If my parents wanted more children, why did they build a house with only three bedrooms—who was going to share? I assumed that they knew Bruce was going to die. They may have wanted three children, but they planned for two.
When I asked my mother why an agency would give them an infant so soon after a child had died, she said nothing. And then when I was twenty, on a cold winter afternoon, I pressed her for more information, details. I would do this at weak moments, special occasions such as Bruce's birthday, the anniversary of his death, or my birthday—times when she seemed vulnerable, when I sensed a crack in the surface. Where did I come from? Not from an agency, but through a lawyer; it was a private adoption.
“We put our name on agency lists but there were no babies available. We were told that the best thing to do was ask around, to let people know that we were looking for a baby.”
Each earthquake of identity, each shift in the architecture of the precarious frame that I'd built for myself, threw me. How much was still being kept from me and how much had been forgotten, or lost with the subtle erasure, the natural revision of time?
I asked again. “Where did I come from?”
“We told everyone that we were looking for a baby and then one day we heard of a baby that was going to be born, and that was you.”
“How did you hear about me?”
“Through a friend. Remember my friend Lorraine?” She mentioned the name of someone I met once, long ago. Lorraine knew another couple that also wanted to adopt a baby, but it turned out that in a roundabout way they knew who the mother was—this was told to me as though it explained something, as though knowing who the mother was made everything null and void, not because there was something wrong with the mother, but because there was something wrong with knowing.
As an adult I asked my mother if she would call Lorraine, if she would ask Lorraine to call the people who in a roundabout way knew who my mother was and ask them, who was she? My mother said no. She said, what if the couple has other children that don't know they're adopted?
What does that have to do with me? And how incredibly screwed up that someone wouldn't have told their children that they were adopted.
My mother finally called Lorraine—who said, “Let it go.” She claimed to know nothing. Who was she protecting? What was she hiding?
My mother remembered something about real estate, something about a name, but she didn't remember enough. Why didn't she remember? It would seem like the kind of thing you wouldn't forget.
“I didn't want to remember. I didn't want to know anything. I felt I had to protect you. The less I knew, the better. I was afraid she would come back and try to take you away.”
“Okay, back to the beginning—you heard of a baby who was going to be born, and then what?”
“And then PopPop's lawyer was able to get in touch with the woman and they met and he called us and said, she's wonderful, she's healthy, except for some problems with her teeth—I think she hadn't had good dental care. We set up a post office box and some letters were exchanged, and then we waited for you to be born.”
“What did the letters say?”
“I don't remember.” Everything is prefaced with “I don't remember.”
I lean in and the subtle pressure causes some slight discharge of information. “Just some basic information about her background, about her health, about how the pregnancy was going. She was young, she wasn't married. I think that the father was married. One of them was Jewish; the other, I think, may have been Catholic. She cared about you very much, she wanted what was best for you and knew she couldn't take care of you herself. She wanted you to go to a very special home—a Jewish home. It was important to her to know that you went somewhere where you'd be loved. She wanted you to have all the opportunity in the world. I think she may have been living in northern Virginia.”
“What happened to the letters?” I imagine a precious short stack of delicate letters tied in a ribbon and buried at the back of a drawer deep in my mother's dresser.
My mother pauses, looks up and off to the side, as if searching her memory. “I think there was even another letter after you were born.”
“Where are the letters?”
“I think they were destroyed,” my mother says.
“Didn't it occur to you that I might want them, that they might be all I ever had?”
“We were told to be very careful. I didn't save anything. We were told not to. No evidence, no reminders.”
“Who told you?”
I didn't believe her. It was her choice. My mother didn't want me to be adopted. She wanted me to be hers. She was afraid of anything that challenged that.
“And then what?”
“We waited. And on December 18, 1961, we got a phone call from the lawyer saying, ‘Your package has arrived, it’s wrapped in pink ribbons and it has ten fingers and ten toes.’ We called Dr. Ross, our pediatrician, and he went down to the hospital, took a look at you, and called us. ‘She's perfect,’ he said.”
“Three days later we went to pick you up.”
I met my parents for the first time in a car parked around the corner from the hospital. They sat parked on a street in downtown Washington in the middle of a snowstorm, waiting for me to be delivered to them. They brought clothing to dress me, to disguise me, to begin to make me their own. This undercover pickup and delivery was made by a friend who purposely dressed in ratty old clothes—her costume designed not to attract attention, not to give information; this is another detail I didn't know until I was in my twenties. My parents sat in the car, worrying, while the neighbor went into the hospital to collect me. This was a secret mission, something could go wrong. She—the mother—could change her mind. They sat waiting, and then the neighbor was there walking through the snow with a bundle in her arms. She handed me to my mother, and my parents brought me home, mission accomplished.
I have only the home movie version in my head. A big old-fashioned 1961 car. Downtown Washington. Snow. Nervousness. Excitement.
The story goes that my brother, Jon, so proud, so thrilled that the new baby was coming home, stood out in the driveway with a sign that he and my grandmother had made—“Welcome Home Baby Sister.” My arrival has always been described as if it were some magical moment, as if a fairy had waved a wand that pronounced the household cured, leaving me there, like a token, a good luck charm to fix everything, to lift a mother and father from their grief.
I was carried down the hall and laid out on the big bed in my parents' room. Neighbors, the aunts and uncles, all came to look at me; a prize—the most beautiful baby they'd ever seen. My hair was thick and black and stood up like a rocket ship, my eyes were bright blue. “Your cheeks were luscious and pink—we ate you up. You were perfect.”
Think of the differences in anticipation; with a nonadopted baby, members of the family would have visited the hospital. They would have seen me with my mother, or visited me in the nursery, picking me out from the police lineup of bassinets.
But here it begins with a phone call: Your package has arrived and is wrapped in pink ribbons. The trusted pediatrician dispatched to the hospital to make an evaluation of the merchandise—think of movies where the drug dealer samples the stuff before turning over the cash. There is something inescapably sordid about the way the story unfolds. I was adopted, purchased, ordered, and picked up like a cake from a bakery.
When I was twenty my mother confessed that the “friend” who collected me was the next-door neighbor. I couldn’t believe that all these years, I had lived next door to someone who had seen my mother, who had actually met her face-to-face.
I dialed the neighbor's house. “So?” I said. “You saw my mother?” The neighbor was cautious. “I hope you're not going to do something about this,” she said. “I hope you're not going to pursue it.” It amazed me that this was the reaction. What was her fear? That I would disrupt my family, the woman's family, that I would wreak havoc? What about me, my life, the deep chaos that had been my existence?
“What did she look like?”
“She was beautiful. She had on a tweed suit and I couldn't believe that she had just had a baby. She didn't look pregnant at all. She was thin. And her hair was up in a bun.”
I pictured Audrey Hepburn.
“Did she look like me?”
I can't remember what the neighbor said. I was suffering the deafness that comes in moments of great importance.
“I wore bad clothing,” the neighbor was telling me. “I disguised myself. I didn't want her to know anything. And she too was very concerned about anyone knowing who she was.”
The amount of mystery that surrounded the proceedings was enormous, everything was subtext and secrecy. Beneath the intrigue was the element of shame that no one ever talked about.
“ ‘If you ever see me, don't acknowledge me,’ the woman said. Meaning that if I ever saw her at a party or around town, I should pretend that I didn't know her,” the neighbor told me.
“Did you ever see her again?”
“No, I never saw her again.”
“If you ever see me, don't acknowledge me.” The one line of dialogue, the only direct quote.
In the morning my mother comes into my room with a scrap of paper; she sits at the edge of my bed and asks me again, “Do you want the name?”
I don't answer. Even if I want it, I can't say so—it feels like a betrayal.
“It's the same name as a friend of yours,” she says, as if she were trying to warm it up, to detoxify it, to make it somehow more palatable. “I think she has a brother, a lawyer who lives in the area—Frosh recognized the name.”
“You can just leave it on the desk,” I say. Her name is Ellen. Ellen Ballman. It sounds like a fake name. Ball-man. What is she like? What does she do? Is she smart?
I once met an adopted woman whose mother had come back and found her. The mother was a photographer who traveled a lot. She was lovely, warm, respectful. She said, “I just want you to know I'm here if you need me.”
Ellen has a brother who lives in the area, my mother had said. I look up the brother's address. I go for a ride. I am trying it on—the concept of biological family. His house is on my regular route. As a habit, I drive to think, I drive the way other people jog. I have a regular routine, landmarks. I have been riding up and down this road for years, fixated on the roll of the hills, the long driveways—how strange that my uncle's house is just a left turn away.
White brick, lots of cars, a basketball hoop in the driveway—a sore point. As a kid the thing I wanted most was a hoop. A hundred times a year I asked for one—and my parents, entirely unathletic, would say no. A hoop would ruin the aesthetic integrity of the house. I played next door, I played up the street, I played until inevitably someone would stick their head out a window and suggest I go home for dinner.
I park outside the uncle's house; this is the first time I've been within feet of someone biologically connected to me. I sit and imagine them inside, the uncle and his sons, my cousins. The Christmas decorations are up. I see their tree through the window. I imagine this as a joyous, prosperous place. I imagine they are somehow better than me—I drive away.
I call a private investigator, the friend of a friend—also adopted. I give her what little information I have.
“Give me a couple of hours,” she says.
I am a spy, a hunter, hot on the trail. I have no idea what I'm doing except that I want information, something to go on before I proceed. I don't want any more surprises.
The P.I. calls me back.
“The woman you're looking for doesn't have a phone listed in her name in New Jersey. And she doesn't have a local driver's license, but she does own a home in the Washington area.”
The P.I. gives me the address. I get back in the car. It's nearby, very nearby. Did she really live that close? Has she lived there all along? Might I have seen her somewhere without knowing it—in a shopping mall, or a restaurant? I circle the house. It looks empty. I park, knock on a neighbor's door—asking questions, talking to strangers. What is a stranger? Who is a stranger? She could well be my mother.
“Do you know what happened to the folks next door? Moved? Any idea where to?” Dead end.
I go to the library of my childhood, of book reports and science projects. I look things up. I am always looking things up. I get a map of the town in New Jersey where she lives, I find her street. I look in phone books, call information. Nothing. Why is she not listed? Does she live with someone? Does she have another name? Is she a liar? An outlaw?
* * *
I call Frosh, the lawyer. “A letter. I'd like a letter,” I say. “I want information—where she grew up, how educated she is, what she does for a living, what the family medical history is, and what the circumstances of my adoption were.”
I am asking for the story of my life. There is an urgency to my request; I feel as if I should hurry and ask everything I want to know. As suddenly as she has arrived, she could be gone again.
As soon as I hang up, I start waiting for the letter.
Ten days later, her letter arrives with no fanfare. The postman doesn't come running down the street, screaming, “It's here, it's here! Your identity has arrived.” It comes in an envelope from the lawyer's office with a scrawled note from the lawyer apologizing for not having got it to me sooner. It's clear that the letter has been opened, presumably read. Why? Is nothing private? I am annoyed but don't say anything. I don't feel I have the right. It's one of the pathological complications of adoption—adoptees don't really have rights, their lives are about supporting the secrets, the needs and desires of others.
The letter is typed on her stationery, simple small gray sheets of paper, her name embossed across the top. Her language is oddly formal, less than artful, grammatically flawed. I read it simultaneously fast and slow, wanting to take it in, unable to take it in. I read it and then read it again. What is she telling me?
Excerpted from The Mistress's Daughter © Copyright 2012 by A.M. Homes. Reprinted with permission by Penguin. All rights reserved.