On a cold December night in 1985, two strangers lock gazes across a bar. The man is handsome; a young Freddie Mercury (plus the mustache, minus the unitard). The woman, barely old enough to be considered one, is pretending to have already grown out of her awkward teens for the sake of the bouncer. She’s wearing contacts tonight to show off her green eyes. The music’s loud. He buys her a drink. They dance. His head bobs over hers and she likes that, a luxury in her lanky life. He takes her to his dorm room. His roommate’s already gone home for Christmas break so they have the rare college luxury of privacy. She steps around piles of clothes, the wooden floor chilling her feet. She doesn’t remember which college she’s at. I’m conceived.
I always knew I was adopted. People tell of their adoptive parents’ dramatic revelations, the ensuing identity crisis and abandonment issues. I never had any of that. As an unaware child I made other kids feel uncomfortable when they teased their younger siblings about being adopted until they cried, and through their tears I’d chime
oblivious smile plastered to my face.
I accepted my adoption like a child accepts the fact that they have blue eyes or ten toes: unconsciously. But as I grew, so did my curiosity about where I’d come from. I already understood that questions of this nature made my parents uncomfortable, especially my mom. The day I was assigned to make a family tree for a fifth grade school project I asked my mom what my nationality was. She responded
Well, your dad’s Italian, and I’m Swedish, so that’s what you are.
I wondered who she was trying to fool. Did she think nationalities were contagious? Spend enough time around someone, and their blood becomes yours? I asked her what my real nationality was. She gave me a mumbled answer including the phrases
maybe German and
can’t really remember.
When I asked if she could find out, she vaguely told me she had papers somewhere, but that she didn’t know where they were. My child ears heard a “no” that resounded through my teens. But the wondering burned.
I became acutely aware of differences between me and my family members, looking for clues. They all have very different personalities, none of which are anything like mine. This normal variation in any family became a false breadcrumb trail for me to follow.
My mom grounded me once when I was five. I stomped to my room, took a book out, and my anger dissolved into a reading coma for the next two hours. She never grounded me again, but grounding did work on my little sister, eliciting the more natural reaction of tears and shouts. A clue.
My gregarious sister’s free time included: Going to concerts, peacocking with her friends, dressed in sequined dresses and high heels and wigs at 13. Kissing boys behind the stage of the theater she painted sets for. Willingly being laughed at by her peers while performing on the improv team. My free time included: Reading my psychology textbook in its entirety that first sunny August day of class. Spending quiet nights crying on the phone to my math whiz friend, begging for help with pre-calc. Failing on the track team, running slow, jumping low, and remaining friendless. Lying on our hammock in the summer until my arched back ached, reading book after book on my steamy front porch.
On the way to church youth group one day, I told my mom I didn’t want to go because I didn’t like anyone there. Popularity was currency there, just like anywhere when you’re 15. She said she found all the kids there perfectly nice, so it must be a problem with me. I wondered if she was right. Years later I asked her why she made me go to something I so obviously loathed, something that made my high school career significantly more miserable. She said she figured I was lonely. Breadcrumbs.
For my mother, religion is as instinctual as breathing. So is talking. Both of these traits meant I spent a lot of time in the car after church waiting for her to stop talking to her friends, Bible nestled in the crook of her arm. For someone who readily shares so much, privacy wasn’t observed in our house. My sister and I shared a room and our bedroom door didn’t even close all the way, slatted like an immodest dressing room door. She rifled through my diaries and eavesdropped on my basement phone calls, kindling a quiet rebellion in me. I liked to imagine somebody blood-related to me would see the value of a door that closes.
Both of my parents still live less than 50 miles from where they were born and raised. I went to the same high school as my mom, and my classmates were the children of her old high school classmates, an important determiner of who I comingled with. My parents feel satisfied and fulfilled in small-town Indiana, or at least they pretend to. They have their family to bicker with, their friends to go out to eat with, and Chicago just an hour away, if they ever need to get away, which they don’t really. They don’t empathize with my desire to dangle my legs over an Irish cliff, or eat Thai food, or burn my feet in foreign sand.
I left for college at 17, and haven’t gone back but for short stints during a few summers. Instead, I traveled. I started small: working at a diner for a summer in Philadelphia, doing sleep research in Providence, tutoring dropouts in Dayton. I found a family in France to work as an AuPair for and flew across an ocean to work for those strangers. I briefly returned to the US for grad school in South Carolina, then worked a year in Spain, two in Brazil, ending up (for now) in Arizona just because. The last person in my family to see South America was my Italian grandfather, back in the 30s when he worked construction in Venezuela before coming to America and never speaking Italian again.
At 19, I became impatient. I was a sophomore in college, studying psychology and growing into myself; I was flourishing, gaining confidence. I liked to pretend I wasn’t afraid of my parents anymore. I finally asked my mom what she knew about my birthmother. Via email. She said she’d send me everything she had about her. I knew there’d have to be a future conversation with her about things that to me were obvious, filled with
of course, you’re my real mom
no, I don’t see you any differently,
but that could wait. I had a package on the way.
It was winter, and I headed from the post office to my speck of a dorm room, eager to get back to my cozy haven. I headed past my living room wall plastered with magazine pages and headed to my bed, the bottom of a bunk surrounded by a navy blue sheet that kept the light out. I called it the cave.
I opened my package there in faux privacy, fingers shaking. In it contained the answers to questions I’d had for more than a decade. I opened birthday cards from my first, fourth, seventh birthdays, drawn by my birthmother’s hand, who obviously shared my affinity for cats and doodles, as they adorned the covers. I read a letter she’d written me in 1988, should I ever want to find her. Her name is Shirley. The letter was written in pink ink, her only being in her early 20s at the time, our neat handwriting eerily similar. I pulled out a picture of her taken in the early 80s: same awkward frame as I had in high school, same green eyes, dirty blonde hair, long arms and braces. I found another one from the early 90s, foreshadowing what I would look like a few years from then. There was even a cassette with a recording of my in-utero heartbeat. I scrounged around my dorm floor for a cassette player and listened, trying to connect the sound I was hearing with what was beating inside my own chest.
The package also contained a letter from my birth-grandmother, as loving and detailed as the one from Shirley. She had sent mementos and letters to me and my parents over the years, of which I had been clueless about until that moment. I felt relieved to finally know something about her, angry at my parents for choosing to keep these things from me, touched by the unknown people who cared about me, and overwhelmed by these revelations.
I contacted Shirley through the agency I was adopted through. She was overjoyed that I had decided to contact her, and we met on my college campus one Saturday in May. I waited on the couch in my dorm lobby, thinking and sweating. I wondered if I would even recognize her from her pictures twenty years before. When she walked through the door, that thought evaporated. It felt like watching yourself on video, unaware until you’re watching that you walk with that particular gait, or swing your arms just so, or hold your face in that neutral expression that disappears the second you look in the mirror. Corporally, she was my twin from twenty years in the future. I studied her face—same chin I’ve always hated, same steely green eyes, same dark eyebrows. Anyone would be able to tell we were related, a new idea to me.
We hugged and talked and talked some more, getting to know each other outside of letters. She had brought with her a scrapbook filled with me that she had been keeping since before I was born. I saw pictures of her pregnant with me bloating her tiny frame. I saw pictures of newborn me, ugly, fat, and pink. She had the ID bracelet I’d worn in the hospital, and pictures my parents had sent of me growing up.
Shirley also shared a letter my mom had written her when I was two. There were teardrops of gratefulness dried on the page. It was powerful to see how overjoyed my mom was to have me, her first child. After seeing that, I mostly forgave my parents for keeping their sporadic contact with my birthmom from me. I think they were just afraid to lose me.
Shirley started telling me in her soft-spoken way the story surrounding my beginning. She was in love with her high school boyfriend, John. They had been dating for a year when his missionary parents hauled him off to Papua New Guinea for his senior year of high school. They chose to put their relationship on hold until he returned. Shirley was devastated. She began drinking to forget, hanging out at a local bar with a wild new friend she’d made. They devised a contest: first person to have sex with ten guys wins. For this reason, Shirley had no idea who my birthfather was, her being both a beautiful and competitive woman. By her estimate, six guys could have potentially been my biological father.
The upside to her brief bout of promiscuity was that to keep track of her conquests, she’d written down most of their first and last names, phone numbers, and addresses. Since she had this information, the adoption agency asked her for the names of all the guys she’d had sex with between two dates, based on how far along she was in her pregnancy. The total was four, and she gave the information to them so they could write these men, telling them they had potentially impregnated a woman who wanted to give her baby up for adoption, and asking them to formally relinquish their paternal rights, should they so choose. They all chose.
Shirley also shared with me that she’d had an abortion before she got pregnant with me, and that that decision made her choose to carry me to term and give me up for adoption. I get the impression that her abortion experience is a burden that still weighs on her today. I’m grateful to my unborn older sibling for making my life a possibility in Shirley’s mind. She sacrificed a lot to have me: her parents kicked her out of her house; she had no job. She knew she’d have to be an overworked single mother or be on welfare if she kept me.
I thought her nothing but brave by the time she finished telling me her story. I couldn’t help but think if I were in her same position, that unborn child might not have been so lucky. At the least, I would have been a panic-stricken wreck. It gives me great compassion for anyone who finds herself unintentionally pregnant. She ended up being taken in by a family who worked with the adoption agency by fostering pregnant girls who needed help. She was deeply affected by their love towards one another and her, and the blessing that their big family was. She told me that experience was what made her want to have a large family one day.
When John came back from Papua New Guinea, he wouldn’t even hug Shirley hello. She was eight months pregnant with another man’s child. She thought she’d ruined everything. A year and a half later they were happily married and ended up having seven children together, my half siblings.
Shirley and I lived a few hours apart, but we continued to talk through email or by phone, meeting up when we could, continuing to get to know each other. I learned I was mostly German and Irish on her side. Some of my siblings have strawberry-blonde hair or bunches of freckles. She and I are exactly the same height and have the same rare shoe size, 10.5 narrow. I learned I’m susceptible to spider veins and that webbed digits run in my family, something I luckily dodged (the jury’s still out on the spider veins).
I’ve never thought of Shirley as a mother; more as a cool aunt or older sister, a mentor I can ask the tough things of. I appreciated her presence in my life, adding to the already great family I have. But over time, my curiosity flared up again. I knew one half of where my genes came from; what about the other half? Why did I love school, becoming the most educated person in my family, while my biological half siblings suffered through their SATs? Where did my assertiveness and ambition come from? And where did I get these big teeth?? Were they all just uniquely me, or was there another genetic breadcrumb trail to follow?
The search for my biological father began when I was in graduate school. Five years later, during the summer break between the two years of my master’s program, my curiosity culminated into me asking Shirley for all four potential birthfathers’ information, last known in 1985. She gladly gave it and agreed that if I could find current phone numbers for these now forty-somethings, she would make first contact. I accepted and set about researching, a.k.a. cyber-stalking. If you ever thought you had a scrap of privacy, think again. I easily found the current addresses, phone numbers, and birth dates of three of the potential fathers. Shirley called them to verify they were the right men, then I called them to get some further information and ask for pictures. They were all equally surprised, though remembered signing away any potential paternal rights. They were also all more or less cooperative, but I didn’t feel that any of them were the right guy.
I had a dream after talking to those three men that I met the fourth man at his cold, snowy home in Wisconsin. He was in his early twenties, the age he was when Shirley met him, and I knew immediately that he was my birthfather by the loud way he swallowed when drinking water, something I’ve always been made fun of for. He was paranoid and hiding out in his home because people were looking for him. Shirley called me later that week, saying that she had initially spelled the fourth guy’s last name wrong, and when she searched under a different spelling and called the number beside it, Todd answered.
The first time Todd called me I was sitting at the pool. Shirley had given me his number, and my heart started pounding in a horrible pre-interview way when I saw it on my phone. She had asked Todd to do a paternity test based on his, his daughter’s, and my similarly toothy smiles we’d compared on Facebook, and he’d agreed. He was the right guy. I gathered my nerve and answered the phone, and we talked for two hours. He’s the ying to Shirley’s yang. He seemed to have no qualms talking to his long-lost surprise bastard daughter.
He told me about his life. He started two construction companies after getting his degree in architecture. Getting ahold of him is difficult because of the long hours he works. He’s brash, sharing with me how he told off his son’s teacher for scolding him for wiping his nose on his shirt, which is gross but I guess sometimes necessary. He thought that he couldn’t be “the father” all those years ago when he got that letter because he remembered that Shirley was on her period when they had sex, and he thought it was impossible for her to get pregnant. First of all, TMI, and second of all, FYI, it’s possible.
He told me I’m Native American and Swedish, and that his daughter (my half sister) went to college free for it, something I wish I’d known before paying $60,000 to go to school, though it would seem like a bit of a cop-out. She was studying speech pathology, a major similar to my field in graduate school, and had aspirations to study abroad.
He also made some unbelievable and unnecessary promises, like swearing he wanted to meet me and that he’d fly me up to his home to meet his family. Years later, they still don’t know I exist. I told him the first time I talked to him that I wasn’t looking for a relationship, just to find out more about myself and where I come from, so I was only disappointed by his flakiness because I think it’s a despicable quality to have. And maybe because I see some of it in myself.
I’ve never regretted finding out this flood of information, only not having the courage to ask sooner. But maybe my nineteenth year was just the right time in my life to find everything out. Perhaps I had to become comfortable enough with myself to be able to be in the right frame of mind to find out so many new things. It wasn’t quite the shock that Harry Potter had, but it is an entire history I never knew I had, which could shake even the stablest of people from their mental foundation.
Now I know that I shouldn’t be surprised if my potential future children end up with a couple missing permanent teeth or webbed toes (…though let’s hope not). I can also rest assured that no deadly disease runs rampant on either side of my biological family, so if I die of one it will just be shit luck. I could have gone my whole life without knowing my biological background, but I feel more whole with that knowledge. Normally incredibly hard on myself, I’m now a little more patient when my bad traits rear their heads, knowing that these are inherited and shared with others, who are fighting daily with the same ugliness too. Everybody’s a little bit ugly. And a little bit beautiful. And sometimes our parents are to thank, and sometimes we are, and sometimes something else entirely is.
Growing up, I wondered all kinds of things about where I came from, and to have my bountiful questions answered is more than many adoptees can hope for. Having studied psychology, I couldn’t help but weigh the old question of which was more of an influence on me: nature or nurture? And the answer, as always, is both. Though an astounding amount of my personality traits, both positive and negative, are visible in my biological parents, how they’ve been cultured has everything to do with the years of care and guidance my adoptive parents have given me. And what I choose to make of it all has everything to do with me.