Leaving the Package Store

I didn’t find my birthmother that day. After  speaking with my sister and my father’s lawyer, I called New England Telephone (the ¨we’re the one for you¨ company).  A friendly voice answered: ¨How may I help you?¨ Well, I thought, just give me the phone number for my birthmother, and we´ll be all set.  I asked for a listing for Virginia M. Peters, adding I was not sure of the address or community. She looked through each directory – North, East, South and West – announcing, one by one, there was no such listing. Strike one. No matter – my sails were still billowing. Hanging up the phone, I walked the few feet to the car, got in, and threw the black book on the empty passenger seat. I considered my options. There was not enough time to drive back into Boston, and so I acknowledged – to no one in particular – that it was going to take a few more days to find Virginia. I snuck back out of Massachusetts, not stopping in Needham (I couldn’t face my parents right then). I drove by the Dedham package store where we used to go as teenagers to try to buy beer, usually Narragansett (¨Hi neighbor…. have a ‘Gansett¨) – the official beer of the Boston Red Sox. Needham was (and is) a dry town, the sale of alcoholic beverages strictly prohibited. No matter what your age, when you wanted to buy liquor, you had to drive to a package store in a neighboring community, usually Dedham or Newton. They were called package stores because the booze you purchased had to leave the store in a sealed wrapper or paper bag, as in let’s cover up what you are really doing. You could still go home and get drunk, but maybe when you walked down the street on the way to your house, people would think you just bought a book. There is a joke there someplace – this adoptee walks into a package store ….

When we were in high school, about age 17 or so, 3 of us rode over to the package store in Dedham I was now passing. We parked outside the store and convinced John, the biggest and oldest looking among us, to go in and try to buy a six-pack of Narragansett. John’s size was exceeded only by his good-natured and generally law-abiding personality, the product of soft-spoken, law-abiding parents. He was somewhat hesitant to leave the car. ¨C’mon man, it’ll be a snap!¨ Off he went. Before we had even missed him, John came back, empty-handed. ¨What happened?¨ He said that, when he asked for a six-pack of Gansett and a bag of pretzels, the owner asked for some identification. John’s reply? ¨Better make it pretzels,¨ in what was perhaps the Boston area’s quickest denial of an alcohol related sale to a minor – kudos to the store. We then drove into Boston, along Huntington Avenue, looking for a wino outside a more forgiving package store, a tribute to both the ingenuity and stupidity of youth. On this day in 1972, I was leaving Dedham once again without a six-pack and bag of pretzels (I didn’t like beer anyways), though I had beside me a tracing of a woman’s signature that looked frighteningly similar to my own childlike handwriting.

I drove west over the green, rolling hills of the Massachusetts Turnpike, turning south just past Worcester to head down through Hartford and the Merritt Parkway (when it still had toll booths – 10 cents) to Westport. Three hours after leaving Dedham, I got off the Parkway just beyond No Man’s Land, that affectionately named stretch of the Merritt, between Fairfield and Westport, where there is no exit for more than 5 miles. There should have been an Exit 43, but when the Parkway was built, the local residents refused to allow an off ramp – how nice to see people stand up to government; and how nice for Exit 43, which existed solely on maps, plans and permissions for the construction of the Parkway, to know the story – however brief – of its existence.(www.06880darwoog.com/2009/04/21/the-road-taken).

The next few days were important as much for what I do not remember as for what I do. I don’t remember speaking with my wife, though obviously I did (she was never anything other than totally supportive). In fact, I don’t remember talking with anyone, family or friend, about what I had done or discovered. While I was taking swigs from my adoption ¨bottle of booze¨, I kept it mostly capped and out of view – in the bag. But the effect of simply opening the bottle and sneaking sips started to spread. The night following my return, we went to dinner at the house of my in-laws on Partrick Road. My wife’s parents, her younger sister and brother, as well as a couple visiting from California, were there. After dinner, my wife and I sat outside the kitchen on a step at the edge of the living room. Across the white carpet my mother in law sat in a chair, talking in hushed tones to the California guests sitting together on the couch. Every few moments she turned to look at me. It was not so much that she was talking in secret – I could hear most of what she said – rather, she was imparting information pseudo-confidentially, which happened to be about me and what I had just done. I was not part of the conversation, solely its subject. Since everyone there could pretty much understand everything she was saying, her muted tone seemed designed to keep the outside world at bay. After all, we were only screened in by the front door. For the second time in as many days, I experienced two feelings at once. For a guy who was triumphal in distancing himself from feelings, this was an epidemic.  I used to describe myself as a castle, impenetrable, surrounded by a moat – as if that were a good thing.  As far as I was concerned, feelings were on the other side of the ice blue water. You could only get so close to me – look out for the monsters in the water; if they don’t get you, you’ll find there is no entrance to the castle.

But now, on the edge of the living room, I listened carefully to my wife´s mother telling my story, trying to hear everything. At the same time, I leaned back, feigning disinterest. My head was closer to the kitchen, where my father-in-law was washing the dinner dishes. I was pleased they found my story interesting, fascinated they were talking about it, and out of joint they were excluding me. Like the day before at Probate Court, I was more pleased than hurt, and maybe what bothered me was that someone seemed to be stealing my thunder (www.trivia-library.com/b/origins-of-sayings-steal-my-thunder.htm).

In the ensuing days I did two things. First, I contacted Florence Fisher, the head of ALMA and subject of the New York Times article. I am not sure now if I wrote or called, but whatever I did, Florence called me immediately. She could not have been more welcoming, more helpful. She also knew, with ALMA, she was on to something. It was the first time in my life I had spoken with another adoptee about wanting to find my birthmother (okay, not counting Monday’s call to Carol). Florence invited me to an ALMA meeting that was held on a Saturday at the New York Presbyterian Church on Fifth Avenue at 55th Street. Other adoptees would be there, and they were going to talk about what it felt like to be adopted. Felt like? I was interested, but I was mostly interested in finding Virginia. There were also going to be people there to help with individual searches. I wasn’t sure I ¨felt like¨ anything, but the opportunity to get help with my search was intoxicating. In just a few days I had gone from knowing nothing other than the script my parents recited, to searching for my birthmother.

I also investigated hiring a detective agency in Boston. As a second year law student supported by my wife’s teaching job in Armonk, NY, I was not exactly rolling in spare cash. I looked in the yellow pages and found a listing for the Simmons Detective Agency. I called and spoke to Mr. Simmons, explaining what I had done and who I was looking for. He said he could help but would need a retainer of $125.00. I hesitated (about 3 seconds) and then said I would send it to him that week. For $125.00, admittedly more than I could afford (what if he needed more?), someone would find  my birthmother for me! I wouldn´t have to do anything (except wait) and could just focus on meeting her. I felt pretty smug. I was going to beat the system (even though the system was the one that gave me the information to beat it).

While I was waiting for the Simmons Detective Agency to locate Virginia M. Peters, I started thinking what she would be like. What would I say to her? More importantly, what would she do? Would she be happy to see me? Of course I would be cool, follow her lead. I was just there to get information, right? I just wanted to know what happened to me, right? I have heard the stories of many adoptees and am always fascinated to hear many thought constantly of their mother and had fantasies about meeting her, what she did, and what happened. I had none of that – just a vague sense of coming from Boston. I never consciously imagined my mother, and I didn’t know why for many years; up until July 24, 1972 I had placed all that stuff on the outside of the castle, far on the other side of the moat.


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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. every adoptee has a moat ….

  2. also, i’m one of the few Gen Xer’s to call the Package store a Packy, because that’s what it was called when I was growing up in CT. Born 5/16/1971

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