Hurt By What I Read

I sat at the oak table in the seat furthest from the lady and closest to the door. I took a deep breath. The file was barely that, a little sliver of history. I opened it. Two documents fell out. One was folded in thirds, similar to how deeds and other legal documents used to be presented (before lawyers started drowning in their own words). The other was not folded. The photocopy machine was barely 3 feet away, a handwritten sign taped on the cover announcing that copies cost 10 cents.  

Other than glancing over to make sure the lady was not watching (she wasn´t), I shut out the rest of the world. I heard nothing, saw nothing, did nothing except look at the folded piece of paper. The title  made no sense. It said ¨Kenneth James Peters¨, underneath that the word ¨to¨, and underneath that ¨Donald Edward Humphrey¨. Other than recognizing my name, Donald Edward Humphrey, I was in a fog. Under my breath, I swore – ¨They screwed up my file.¨ All right, I said worse than that, but you get the idea. I fidgeted in the wood chair, feeling the beginnings of frustration that I had come all this way to find my file confused with someone else.

It hit me all at once. I was someone else. I was Kenneth James Peters. Soon to enter my second year of law school, at the age of 26,  it had never occurred to me – at least consciously – that I had another name. ¨Holy xxxx¨, I exclaimed, a little bit louder now but not enough for anyone to hear. That was me!. When I opened the document, it confirmed what I was beginning to comprehend. It was the Final Order of Adoption, naming my parents, Ruth and Gorham Humphrey, as my legal parents, and changing my entire name from Kenneth James Peters to Donald Edward Humphrey.

I had never once considered what I was called before I came to Paul Revere Road. I suppose, if someone had asked, I would have answered ¨Donny¨. I never imagined that I was known by any other name and saw that unexplained 2 year period at the start of my life as an empty forest. It seems silly now, in retrospect. Of course they had to call me something. When I left the hospital, I had to have a name – the law required it – and I was still almost 2 years short of meeting the people who would become my adoptive parents. I obviously did not have the name of people who did not then even know me. Perhaps typical for an adoptee, my first reaction was how stupid it was of me not to recognize I had another name.

My eyes were practically jumping out of my head. I had a name! Someone named me. I was something before I was this something. I had a history, and these two pieces of paper, these two saved morsels, were the door to that past. I had trouble sitting still but was also worried about being watched. I was worried that, at any moment – for any reason – the lady would swoop down and take the papers from me.

The other information in the Final Order of Adoption, which I quickly scanned, was not a surprise  – that my parents, Ruth and Gorham, were henceforth to be my legal parents. I already knew, from my birth certificate, that I was born at Kenmore Hospital – that fact was not changed. I kept staring at the heading of the Order – adopting , in effect, that complete change-of-name tidbit back into my life. The name, Kenneth – or Kenny – meant nothing to me. There was not a stir of recognition. It seemed totally foreign. I didn´t identify with it or, in fact, like it much more than Donny. Neither name rang true, but the fact that someone had taken the effort to name me was significant, meant something  – whether or not I liked the name.

I put down the Order and picked up the other piece of paper. It was a bit longer, two-sided. I looked through it until I saw a typewritten name – on the back side – Virginia M. Peters. My original mother. My birthmother. My mother. Above that was her handwritten signature, almost as disjointed and childlike as mine. The paper was the Consent for Adoption, and I soon realized that, by her signature, my mother was signing away her legal rights to me. She was giving me away. There was no stated reason, no fill in the blanks from which to choose. There was also no mention of a father – solely her signature saying, basically: ¨ go ahead, it’s okay with me¨.

I will always remember that moment, that speck of time in my life, as a time when I experienced two feelings together. Not just two feelings – two overwhelming , competing and – at the same instant – shared reactions. I sat up in the chair. I wanted to shout. This is it. This is it. A connection to my past. I was somebody. I came from someplace. I had a name. I had a mother. I know it. I can do something about it. Today! I can find her. And, at the very same time, part of me slumped in the chair, uncomfortable, a deep dull ache. It was true. I was adopted. I am adopted. I was given away. Somebody left me. It was right there with her signature. She did that.

I competed with myself, but I knew – at once – which feeling was going to win. I chose the connection. I already knew about the rejection. I didn´t know why, but I knew it happened because my parents always told me I was adopted. What I didn´t know was my name – that I had a name. What I didn´t know was my birthmother´s name. Now I did. I also had an address. 116 Washington Street in Boston. I had an address for my mother, though I recognized right away that it was an address from the Combat Zone, Boston´s Red Light District. No matter. I had a starting point.

What to do. I kept looking at her signature, looking for an explanation, a wobble in the lines, a lack of conviction. I also looked at the photocopy machine. 10 cents a copy. I had the change, but I was worried if I got up to make copies, the lady would come and snatch the file,  take it all away. Instead, I got out 2 pieces of blank, ruled notebook paper. I had brought them with me, along with a Bic pen. Blue ink. I placed my paper over the signature of my mother, over the signature of Virginia M. Peters. I traced it as best I could. Every curve, each dot. I tried to be exact, duplicating for myself what she had done a little more than 24 years before. I kept peeking to satisfy myself the lady was not looking. If she was, I didn´t see it.

After I signed my mother´s name, traced it for myself, I made sure I had all of the information from both pieces of paper. In truth, there was not much more. Her Combat Zone address, yes. Also, the name of a lawyer, Martin J. Fay. I noted the Consent for Adoption, the one signed by Virginia Peters, was dated shortly before my parents first brought me to Paul Revere Road. The Final Order of Adoption, signed only by the Probate Court Judge, was dated some 6 months later. There was no indication my birthmother was involved at that stage, after the fact.

I kept looking at the photocopy machine. I froze. I could not do it. I had the information. I did not make a copy. I don´t know that the lady would have stopped me. Probably not. I am not even sure she was the reason I didn´t do it. Maybe having the information was better than having to look again at my mother’s signature. Maybe seeing that once was enough. I also was sensitive about hurting my adoptive parents, the ones who raised me. While nothing was going to stop me from searching, I wanted to do it in a way that would shield them from any pain – much like they may have felt in tiptoeing through My Chosen Baby Story.

I got up from the table, returned the file to the young clerk. He said nothing, nor I to him. Leaving, I felt his disapproval. I remember nothing else of the lady, nothing else of the Clerk´s office. My life skipped briefly forward to the granite steps outside the Norfolk County Probate Court, over which I found myself happily descending white steps under green leaves of summer and a blue sky. There was a pay phone on the sidewalk calling to me.


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