I have a wonderful hobby in which my friends share stories and views, and I create a book from them each year. Here is what George sent to me in 1997:
The search for my own roots
I grew up vaguely aware of apparent differences between me (freckled, less swarthy) and three younger brothers. But, in those days it was not customary to tell children they were adopted. My father was a strict, Catholic authoritarian, the son of a potato famine, displaced immigrant from county Mayo. He didn’t talk much, just acted. If you erred, a belt to the “arse” with a switch was only slightly more desirable than a slap to the head. I recall my moment of instinctive verification as to genetic lineage, about age 13. I had accidentally knocked over a cabinet he was building. His quick temper flared. “You G.D. Ethiopian,” affirming my suspicions, even though I had no idea what an Ethiopian was. And it was clearly an inappropriate, even risky moment to ask.
The years went by and I ignored the parentage questions. It really didn’t make any difference. My brothers were treated in largely the same strict, authoritarian manner as I. Early adulthood found me healthy, childless and thus never prompted to question my heritage. But in the 1970s, as I married and fathered three daughters (a blonde, a brunette and a redhead) I found my self repeatedly required to plead ignorance when asked about their potential susceptibility to certain inherited heath risks.
During one of my vacations I found the courage to raise the subject with my mother. The timing turned out to be critical, just a few weeks before she suffered a stroke which robbed her of the ability to speak. During that visit she gave me her only knowledge, the married name of my birth mother, as she recalled it from 40-plus years earlier. Fortunately it was an uncommon name.
A year later, my employer suggested I attend a two-week management course at Harvard. I determined to use the nights and weekends to search for my roots, to find my birth mother, less out of personal curiosity than a sense of obligation to my daughters.
I went to my home town and began calling people of the same surname. Only a handful were listed in the phone directory. I was consciously careful to provide an opportunity to evade an answer if the conversation became embarrassing. I’d simply say, “ I was born and adopted in November, 1933. I’m given to understand that a Nellie ***** knows something of the circumstances of my birth. I’m trying to find her so I can visit about it. Do you know and can you direct me to Nellie?”, hopefully avoiding any mention of a direct link.
The first call was, to put it mildly, disappointing. The call was answered by a lady who identified herself as Mrs. *****. She said the previous Mrs. ***** had died of cancer two years earlier. My childbirth mother had died? My search in vain?
I went on to my class at Harvard. But my mind wouldn’t let go. Finally, I reasoned, perhaps one of the other *****s listed in the phone directory would be sympathetic to my quest and volunteer some information. So I headed back to Brockton and resumed calling. Nothing. Between “no answer” and “no knowledge,” I concluded, were it not for bad luck I’d have no luck at all.
Two days before I was to fly back to the Midwest, I drove to the residence listed for a Mrs. ***** in a nearby small town. My knock was answered by a woman who spoke no English and my faded memory of three years of high school Spanish a quarter-century prior, was hopelessly inadequate. Would that I studied, not just survived, my foreign language requirement.
But, again, fate stopped in for a rescue. As I left, the mailman arrived. I asked him about a Mrs. *****, who had lived there. He readily volunteered that Mrs. ***** had moved to an elderly housing project but a few blocks away. Up the roller coaster, to a dizzying new height, I examined the registry in the project lobby and found her name. I anxiously went to the apartment. Knocked. No answer. No telephone listing. I drove back and forth a half dozen times in those two days only to be met by the same unanswered echo.
It was Sunday. I was staying with a brother in Brockton and due to leave Monday morning. I shared what I was doing with him. “Well,” he responded, “there’s a Buddy ***** who works with me at the post office.” Buddy was retired Navy and about our age. I called, reciting the now familiar refrain: “I’m looking for Nellie *****… she might know… etc. “You may be looking for my mother,” he said. “She’s out of town, visiting friends in Providence. “I’ll get their phone number for you.” I told him of that first phone call in which I was told the former Mrs. **** had died of cancer. “Oh, that was his second wife, “ Buddy responded.
Anticipation shared space with trepidation as I called Providence. I was aware it might be a last opportunity. I identified myself to the person who answered and asked if Mrs. **** was there. “What do you want of her?” came the foreboding response. Back to the routine. There was a long hesitation. Finally he relented and called Mrs. **** to the phone. Tense and apprehensive, I started once again. A tentative reply: a noncommittal “yes”… the kind of “yes” that says continue. It had to be now or never. “I think you’re my birth mother,” I stammered. Silence! A few seconds seemed like hours. Then, a soft, acquiescent “Yes.”
I told her again who I was and where I lived. I shared a little information about my family. I told her I was leaving in the morning but would like to talk with her more. She offered me her home phone number and suggested that I call the following week. She was clearly uncomfortable extending the conversation in front of her hosts. I could have flown back to Dubuque without United’s help.
A week later we talked. I learned that she did not know who had adopted me. The courts in those days were very secretive about such things. Then she asked about my name, wanting to know if I was related to her childhood friends, Mildred and Theresa Lipper. They were my father’s older sisters. Our relationship grew warmer, more friendly, and a few years later she warily accepted my suggestion that I bring my family for a visit the following summer; but only if we met at a park and that no other member of her family know about it. I agreed. The reunion was cheerful and congenial. It led to continuing conversation, with the promise that I would not disclose my existence to other members of her family.
I was, she told me, born at home, the consequence of a relationship between her and a kind sewing machine repairman who had helped her feed and clothe her other children during the depression. She described her former husband, Mr. *****, as “a mean person, a heavy drinker.” But in those days of religious authoritarianism, the stigma attached to divorce was, for a good Catholic woman, even worse than having a child out of wedlock. Even though I had a half-brother and a half-sister, who would have been 10 and 12 years old at the time of my birth, Nellie was convinced, they were unaware of it. Perhaps it was convenience self-deception. Regardless, I kept the promise.
We maintained contact until Nellie passed away about ten years ago. I received a copy of the death notice and funeral memorial announcement from a member of her family. She had, after all, it appears, shared my existence with at least one of the children. I wrote a thank-you note back; but heard nothing more.
Nellie shared with me the name of my birth father. She volunteered that he had died of a heart attack years earlier. I tried to make contact with a brother, but was rebuffed with “Some things are better left alone.”
The experience was uplifting and enriching. Nellie was a warm and loving person. She cared. She became “Nana” to my children. Surely, no God, not even a strict, authoritarian Catholic God, would have chosen any course but to take her home.
I occasionally reflect on my good fortune: a name to work with before my mother suffered a speech-defying stroke: a postman walking up the sidewalk at the same moment I was leaving, clueless; a half-brother who just happened to be home and happened to know the phone number where his mother was visiting; and some inexplicable sixth sense that commanded the utterance “I think you’re my mother.”