The Other Mother
"Oh God, yes! Look, I am calling for flights the second we hang up. Please, please tell them not to give her to anyone else!" Shaky marriage or not, I, who grew up in an all-girl family, ached to have a daughter.
I'd wanted to call her Joanne; my husband thought a final a added a lilt. So the fair, velvet-headed baby who slept halfway across the country in my arms became Joanna. Only later, when adoption papers arrived, did we learn that her birth mother's name was Joanne. I say coincidence—not that I haven't wondered....
Now Jo is telling me that Joanne, long divorced from birth father Bill, has gone through more men and marriages than I have—and has another daughter, five years older than Jo, by an early husband. Detail by detail, the shadow is taking solid shape and taking my breath away with her realness. She is happily remarried to Merrel, a retired navy man. They live (for which my heart offers thanks) clear across the country. They are archers; they fish. Her passion is quilting. As Joanna continues, I cannot help but feel the joy of a woman out in Oregon as she receives her miracle via e-mail, "Were you, by any chance, living or passing through San Francisco in August 1962?" and runs to her husband shouting, "I've found my daughter!"
My daughter: on the brink of exploring her native land, left at birth to come to mine. For the first time in a long while, I feel deep regret that I couldn't originate my children. But here's the thing: The children I have in mind are the ones I've got. And through no feat of medical science could I have born this Richard, this Joanna.
My daughter has blonde shampoo-commercial hair, Scottish blue eyes, and a temperament of measured emotion. My hair is dark and willfully curly, eyes hazel, disposition Mediterranean mercurial. We are opposites in talents and tastes. Joanna, who grew up on Central Park West, has never been a city girl, while I, a suburban kid, couldn't wait to get to New York. She loves crafts, wilderness camping, science (fact and fiction), any flying ship. She would have loved to be an astronaut, spent a few postcollege years in the air force before she married. I'm an actress turned entrepreneur, a theater and art hound, zestful downtown shopper. I neither sew nor knit. I strap into an airplane seat with white knuckles—and let's not even discuss camping.
No surprise that we were often at loggerheads. We're both stubborn: Jo's weapon is silence, mine overarguing. But our bond is stubborn, too—and precious despite snags and scars. I mostly stopped urging her to use "a little gloss and blush at least," while she began enjoying the odd browsing and lunch date with me. And it was Joanna who, with great patience, launched me on a computer to write my first novel.
Since she found Joanne, Jo and I talk almost daily. She senses how badly I need to be her partner in this; she's letting me in. Does it serve her need, too? I hope but can't swear. Friends advise me to step back, remind me it's not my search, how I'm likely to get hurt. I admit they may be right, but for me the worst pain would be exclusion. Highlight or disaster, I'm too heart-bound to sit this out.
Forwarded e-mails provide factoids that crisscross Joanne's family landscape: Crohn's disease, which could be related to Jo's own skittish stomach; foot problems, which already make Jo miserable in anything more restrictive than sneakers. More serious, the older half-sister has multiple sclerosis—in remission, but still.... When Joanne's photo lands in my in-box and clicks onto my screen, the fair, blue-eyed face of my daughter in special-effects age makeup brings tears to my eyes and triggers another flashback: