Ratted Out

There were no great consequences resulting from Carol telling our parents what I had done in obtaining my original adoption records – no disapproving looks, no reproachful comments from my mother or father. They subscribed to the ¨you´re an adult now¨ and the ¨we don´t want to be a bother¨ school of parenting. True to their English roots, not a word was mentioned about this for months, though ¨it¨ was too momentous an event to escape comment entirely. The patchwork quilt  of the family fabric had been threatened (with Carol briefly trying to usurp my throne as the good adoptee – careful where you tread sister!). If nothing else, my parents must have been very curious about what I was doing and what I had discovered.

The comment came, finally, from my mother. It was not even addressed to me. After incubating for several months before arriving, it finally hatched right after Thanksgiving dinner, 1972, when everyone was full, relatively happy, and my father had retired to the living room couch with his Manhattan cocktail (obligatory and not just on holidays) to watch a football game he neither understood nor enjoyed. It was, simply, what you did on turkey day. Real estate broker that he was, my father was happier reading the obituaries. I know of only one book that he ever read in his entire life, The American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford (www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/10/16/061016crb0_books17currentPage=all). Mitford wrote a torrid expose of the funeral business, which made such an impression on my father that, years later, when my mother passed away in 1989, he bought two of everything – paying in advance, as well,  for his own funeral (which would not arrive for another 6 years), determined that ¨those crooks¨ were not going to get the best of him. When my father, in his prepaid casket, was put in the hearse after his service in 1995, the hearse left for the cemetery while the people were still inside the church – a sure sign to me that my father was simply insuring that the funeral purveyors were not going to be able to bill for overtime.

On that Thanksgiving Day in 1972 my father was watching the Detroit Lions play the New York Jets, his cocktail resting precariously on his chest, one eye closed. I sat beside him, his wingman, taking satisfaction in the Jets getting thrashed (37-20), small solace for the drubbing the soon to be perfect Dolphins imposed on my Patriots barely 2 weeks before (52-0).  My mother, in the kitchen, was talking with my wife. I didn´t hear a thing, and my search for my birthmother was not on my mind. Later, my wife told me of her conversation, of my mother´s ¨interest¨ in what I was doing. The message conveyed was ¨Don´t tell your father, he´d be very hurt¨ I was interested in the message and, of course, would honor it. It emboldened me to go into the kitchen and speak with my mother, while she was wrapping up the remains of the turkey.  I told her I just wanted to find out what happened, nothing more. That may not have been completely forthcoming, but it was enough to say – a gentle reassurance that I was not trying to replace her. I wasn´t. It seemed to have its place, and, just like that, the conversation was behind us. It was never mentioned again, until 8 years later. Small wonder the English Empire was around for so long.

As for my sister, I was, at first, disappointed with her (all right, angry), until I thought some more about it. What was I thinking? I was asking an adoptee to keep a secret. If I really wanted to keep a secret, why would I tell her? I may as well have asked my father to stop reading the obituaries. Why would an adoptee want to keep a secret, especially one that does not benefit them directly? They (we) hate secrets. And who can blame us? We have been strong-armed into keeping secrets for most of our lives, some more outlandish than others. We have been asked to accept our ¨chosen baby stories¨for what they are, with the same sleight of hand as putting out milk and cookies on the hearth for Santa Claus – all gift-wrapped and mistletoe. You better watch out, you better not shout. Be good. Be, well, grateful. Sometimes it is hard to feel grateful (no matter how much you feel you should be) when you are being asked to do so, directly or indirectly; when it comes with a price tag.

I know of one adoptee who is an identical twin, reared apart from his brother. He and his wife adopted a baby about the same time that the wife´s sister also adopted a baby. In one of those freak tragedies of life, both the sister and her husband died within months of each other. My friend and his wife, of course, adopted the sister´s baby. Since their family then consisted of two (separately) adopted babies who were in close in age, they told them, and the world, they were twins! A boy and a girl with no genetic ties whatsoever were henceforth to be known as twins because the parents (including of course my adopted twin friend) thought it would be easier for the world to see the kids as twins. And what about what the kids would see?The adopted boy was an overachiever – did well in school, was athletic, socialized easily, while the adopted girl was the opposite –  academically slow, un-athletic, socially inhibited. Whatever developmental problems the girl may have been experiencing were surely exacerbated by the parents´ lie, no matter how well-meaning their intention. To my friend´s credit, he ultimately came clean with his kids and told them the truth. It´s never too late for that.

My sister was not only adopted but an adoptive parent as well. She also was my sister, and, adopted or not, a full-fledged member of our ongoing sibling rivalry. After I became a lawyer, my sister became a police officer in New Hampshire. One of the fantasies in her life (I am sure of this) was to catch me speeding and issue me a traffic violation. One of the fantasies in my life (I am sure of this) was for my sister, on her black Harley Davidson motorcycle (okay, maybe that´s not police issue, but it is my fantasy), to catch me speeding and issue me a traffic violation, which I would accept graciously – and thereafter go to Court and talk the judge into dismissing everything. On my way out of Court, I offer my sister a lift.

While part of me plotted ways to get even with Carol for violating my confidence, another part of me thanked her for letting the cat out of the bag. I wasn´t ratted out, so much as ¨catted¨ out – a pretty cool cat, as well, who was doing something that he deserved and needed to do. For all my worry, my mother seemed to take it pretty well, and – honoring her request – I said nothing to my father, who fell asleep on the couch in the third quarter, his cocktail still balanced perfectly, moving rhythmically to the beat of his heart, without one wasted drop.

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