The Day My Whole Life—and Past—Changed
But this particular date in 2001, here I am, back at the very same agency where I was put up for adoption, waiting for Amy-the-social-worker to tell me what she's found. I'm not an unhappy adult adoptee longing for clues to my past, dipping my toes into the searchable waters in hopes that a magical current will carry me "home." I already have a home and parents who have always loved me well, and with abandon. Knowing I was adopted—that I could have had some other life with some other family in some other place—only made me love and appreciate my parents more.
Now happily married with two children of my own, a career in journalism that I love and too many blessings to count, I'm nonetheless anxious about a small list of health concerns, including joint pain in my knees and hips, that have been recurring for years. My misgivings peak every time a new specialist quizzes me about my parents' and grandparents' health. So does my frustration. Virtually every question they ask yields the same tired response: "I'm adopted. I don't know."
My November call to the agency to ask what I had to do to obtain a medical history had been rote. Per simple instructions, I sent in a notarized request, and in mid-January, Amy Burke called back with news. Apparently, my birth mother had lived under the agency's care for several months and, as a result, my records were more extensive than most. While information that could identify her or my birth father remained sealed, the agency was at liberty to share nonidentifying medical and personal details. But here's the catch: I would have to go get them in person.
Amy cautioned me to make the appointment for a time when I'd be unencumbered afterward. I work. I have two kids. I'm never unencumbered.
"People are sometimes distracted after these meetings," she explained, her voice brimming with concern.
Unfazed, I ignored her advice. What could she possibly tell me that would throw my whole day? But now, sitting in the lobby of this place where my life essentially began, I feel uneasy. Before long, I'm ushered into a small room with high ceilings, bare windows, linoleum floors and two mismatched chairs, left over from another era, facing each other. I've never been in an interrogation room, but something about this place makes me think of one.
Amy, on the other hand, is a pleasant surprise. Prim and professional, her face melts into a warm smile when she reaches out to shake my hand. The fact that, like me, she's African American and maybe just a few years my senior, helps.This process feels so alien; she is at least somewhat familiar.
She sits, I sit and, mercifully, she seems ready to forgo the formalities. "I just want to ask one more time if there's anything specific you were hoping to learn today or if you have any concerns or expectations I should be aware of before we start."
"Nope, I'm good," I say, attempting to seem relaxed. The worst possibilities—that my birth mother was raped or was a junkie or had abandoned me or all of the above—had already occurred to me long ago. In an attempt to reassure us both, I start talking. "I'm realistic. I don't expect much. I don't expect anything, really. I just...I'm ready," I say, consciously pressing my mouth shut.
She smiles politely. "I pulled together whatever I thought you might find of interest," she says, seeming oddly excited, as if she's about to give me a gift, or get one. "Of course, you'll get to take a copy of this report home with you. Feel free to stop me at any time."
Stop her? I almost gasp when she says it. How can I stop her when she has yet to begin? I lean forward in my seat.
"She was 5 foot 3 inches and 118 pounds, with large brown eyes, a small upturned nose and a wide, large face with high cheekbones," Amy reads.
It's the first description I've ever had, and it enables me to picture her: petite with big, dark eyes in a moon-shaped face. It's surprising to learn that she's 4 inches shorter than I am—I'd always imagined us as the same.
"She also was adopted."
My brain jams...
"She was 3 years old when her own mother died of tuberculosis. She told her social worker that she remembered going to the hospital to visit each day. She would stand on the lawn, her mother would appear at the window and they would wave to one another," Amy reads.
I envision a tiny brown girl with chubby legs and a short dress, her braided hair tied with ribbons, standing alone on a vast lawn, waving up at the shrunken figure of her dying mother, sequestered and untouchable, in an asylum. I want to cry, but don't.
"Not long after her mother died, her father killed himself, leaving her an orphan. Her aunt—her mother's sister—and uncle adopted her."
The report is dense with disjointed information including observations made by my birth mother's caseworker regarding her upbringing ("strict...privileged"), demeanor ("articulate and refined"), personality ("colorful...dramatic...and moody"), and popularity (as "a leading figure with the other residents"), as well as her relationship with my biological father (a "very bright" student with a "great deal of potential" who was nonetheless "too immature to assume responsibility" for the two of us).
I don't know what to feel. I don't want to feel any different from how I always have felt. I don't even understand exactly what is happening. Whatever it is, though, I'm hungry for more; at the same time, it's all too much.
I felt sorry for my birth mother. Her own biological mother died and her adopted mother may have loved her, but based on what I was hearing, she didn't love her well. I thought of my parents and felt a pang of intense gratitude for them, fused with guilt. What was I doing here?
My birth mother's father adored her; she cast their relationship as "loving and close." The report put him at 45 years old in 1964 and a trim 180 pounds at 6 foot 1 inch tall. It said he was a college-educated "show-business professional" with a deep brown complexion, brown eyes and black hair. The family lived on the West Coast (Los Angeles, I presumed, given the show-biz connection) but traveled often, not just throughout the States, but also around the world. When her parents were away (which my birth mother stated was often), the children were raised by "the household staff," said to include multiple nannies as well as a chauffeur.
The report described the family's four other children at the time of my birth. There was a "brilliant and musically gifted" 15-year-old daughter; a son of around 6, who was also adopted; and a set of twin girls, back then considered late-in-life babies, who were giddily celebrating their third Christmas as I was taking my first breath. It's clear that they lived well—extremely well.
"Yes, I have a question," I venture. "Do you have any way of verifying this story? It sounds pretty far-fetched, don't you think? These are black people. In 1964. Maids, mansions, chauffeurs, prep schools and debutante balls...what are the chances that this is all true? I mean, how many white people even lived like that back then? And, if they had all that money, why would I have been given up?"
My mind and my heart are both racing. I'm furious with myself for getting drawn into this story only to discover halfway through that it's false, pieced together.
"Everything I'm sharing with you is true," she says, eyeing me with a calm intensity that commands my attention, if not my trust. "Your birth mother spent many hours being interviewed by her social worker. I understand why you feel the way you do, but..."
I stare back at her with my teeth clenched and lips sealed. I've shut down. My parents had made me feel cherished all my life, and now, for the first time, I felt unwanted.
"Before leaving, your birth mother expressed the wish that you would lead a full and happy life," Amy reads. "Your birth mother was unable to say good-bye to her social worker, stating she 'hated good-byes.'"
The room is finally silent. She's done. Abruptly, I gather my bag and coat and stand to leave. As I reach the door, Amy jumps up and thrusts a fresh copy of her report at me, blank sheet on top. "This is yours to keep," she offers.
"Thanks," I say, curtly. Then, softening, "Really, thank you." It's not her fault. The elevator reaches the lobby and I bolt out of it, past the receptionist and through the heavy doors that lead to the street. I move in quick, purposeful strides toward where my car is parked and climb in, close my eyes and place both hands on the steering wheel, appreciating how solid it is, how dependable and familiar.
"Okay," I whisper to myself. "My life is still intact, nothing has changed."
But it's a lie, and I know it. I turn the ignition and let the car idle while I call my office to say I'm taking the rest of the day off. Then I call Leeba, our nanny, to let her know I'm coming home and I'll pick Carter up from his playdate on the way. She will have gotten Veronica off the school bus by the time we arrive.
I pull into the flow of traffic, drive two blocks and stop at a light. My mind is cranking. I cannot stop thinking about this family—the patchwork of adopted and biological kids, their skinny, uptight mother and supersuccessful dad. I can't stop trying to picture this prominent black family. I know prominent black families. I married into one. My husband, Johnny, is the bright, hilarious middle son of black business icon Earl Graves, Sr.
How hard could it be to figure out who these people are? Given a few snippets of key information, a decent search engine and enough time, everyone is findable. Not that it would even require much. With black folks, forget six degrees of separation; we're down to about two on a bad day.
As I turn east at 96th Street, Ebony magazine springs to mind. I'll search its archives, I decide, as famous faces of the era start scrolling through my head. Duke Ellington...Lena Horne...Ella Fitzgerald. The report said her father was tall (not Sammy Davis, Jr.) and brown skinned (not Harry Belafonte), and his wife was black (not Sidney Poitier). Her mother was a singer. Maybe she was the big moneymaker and he managed her career. Dorothy Dandridge was married to that tap-dancing brother...what was his name? Nichols? Nicholas?
Suddenly, I catch myself. What am I doing?
Seriously? Am I seriously entertaining being related to any of these people? These stars? I feel like a fool. But as I drive toward home, I can't let it go: the glamorous mother, the musically gifted sister, the big gap between the first child—my birth mother—and the twins, who were so close in age to me. My mouth goes dry and tears flood my eyes.
I pull the car to the curb. "No!" I yell. "No-no-no!" I cup my hands over my mouth to stifle my cries as I struggle to fit the pieces together and, simultaneously, push them away.
I can't be right. This can't be true...this can't be happening.
Timolin. Timolin. Timolin. The name of my old college friend rings over and over again in my head. It's her family. I know this family.
To find out what happened next—and yep, it will both surprise and move you—pick up Postcards from Cookie (from which this excerpt was adapted).