An Unexpected Visitor

In the fall of 1972, I met BJ Lifton, spoke with Emma May Vilardi and began searching for Virginia Peters. Already a beacon in the adoption universe, BJ invited me to a rap group at her Central Park West apartment. Effusive and ever-smiling, she welcomed me like we had known each other for years. In one sense, we had. Hair framed her face like a crescent moon, and she spoke in rapid metaphors, one on top of another. It was as if she were taking me into her confidence, speaking with me as a co-conspirator. I liked her instantly.

As opposed to the ALMA session, only adoptees attended BJ’s rap group, most of whom had recently started searching for their birthmothers. Birthfathers were not mentioned. That night there were 4 or 5 other participants. The mood was different from the ALMA meeting. Here there were solely adoptees talking about being adopted. I explained my background, at least what I knew of it, and my trip to Dedham. Just the facts, man. I wasn’t  quite ready to unravel the feelings that were resurfacing, but I was fascinated to hear the feelings and stories of the others. A guy in his mid 20’s, soft-spoken, linked his feelings as an adoptee to his life as a gay man. In a brief homophobic moment, I silently pleaded with myself to confirm I was not gay. I found myself listening to the stories and experiences of the others as a means of somehow trying to figure out who I was. As each adoptee spoke, parts of their stories resonated with me. Each story was like trying on a different hat. One fit well, another a little too large, though never one that was exactly right. Is that me? Does that fit? Is that the person I am? Could someone please explain it to me, or was I destined to be like Robert Dupea (Jack Nicholson) in Five Easy Pieces, out-of-place everywhere, stopped even from getting a few slices of wheat toast with my omelet (www.brightlightsfilm.com/57/jack.html) .  

 I was struck by a white female adoptee, about 30, who talked about her difficulty getting pregnant. Talking with a New Jersey twang, she sat immediately to my left, explaining that she tried unsuccessfully to get pregnant for a number of years. She and her husband went for tests. There was nothing physically wrong. She knew nothing of the circumstances of her birth, only that she was adopted. And then she explained that she had a recurring nightmare that if she were to become pregnant, their baby would be black. The liberal product of an eastern college liberal arts education (though Brown had its own brushes with slavery and racism), my first instinct was ¨what’s wrong with a black baby?¨ That, of course, was not the point. Her fear seemed to make no sense, and yet, somehow it did – if she did not know where she came from, how could she know what she would produce? While, logically, what her mind feared seemed bizarre, I was beginning to see that the experience of adoption could lead down some pretty crooked roads. This particular woman eventually turned to adoption (something my sister did as well). And then, after the woman successfully adopted a baby,  she became pregnant. (p.s. the baby was white). Though not with the racial twist, I had heard of this experience before – an adopted woman, not able to conceive, adopting a baby and then becoming pregnant. It is as if the act of adoption removed a block, some inner fear that prevented an earlier pregnancy. It got me thinking about the power of the unconscious mind to suppress trauma, pain and fear.

After the meeting at BJ’s I began to think about sex and adoption – the ability, and the inability, to have children, and the sexual issues of growing up in a family that could not produce biological children of its own. It also got me thinking about some long repressed incidents personal to me. First, obviously, adopted or not, it took a sexual act for each of us to get here – just like everyone else (at least as of 1972). But there seemed to be something mysterious about the sexual peccadilloes of someone adopted – someone who, by their adoption, was cut off from their genetic past. Adoption, historically, erased the road map that detailed the journey behind. In its place was a new map (the chosen baby story), carefully crafted to meet the needs of the adopting family. In my case, the map was abbreviated. The past was symbolized by burning clothes. For my mother, perhaps, she was trying to comfort me, to let me know that they were going to take care of me, save me, get me better clothes – all of which, by the way, they did. But all I saw was burning clothes. If you lose your way, if you can’t retrace your steps, it is that much more difficult to move forward. Sometimes, maybe, the map from the past is not pretty, but it is not always about being pretty.

After the meeting, so many thoughts were swirling about as I walked down Central Park West alone. The air was crisp, and there were few people on the sidewalk. In that moment I wasn’t even thinking about finding my mother. Something unexpected took center stage, set off by the New Jersey adoptee, something I had not thought about in years. My own sexual history was confused – though not about being gay. I know more than a few gay men who were adopted and who believe issues surrounding their adoption were wrapped up in their gayness. That was not the issue for me, of that much I was sure. By the same token, my sexuality was all very confusing.

My parents were not physically close with one another – a kiss on the cheek at the end of the day was about it. They slept in the same room but in separate beds – for years. Many children have difficulty believing their parents have sex. I not only believed it, I was (and am) as sure of it as anything in life that I do not directly know from my own knowledge. Over the years there were muted incidents that raised questions about my father’s sexual orientation. There were also family secrets about my maternal grandparents, Oscar and Margaret. Both from Needham as well, Oscar was in the first graduating class of M.I.T. (and, coincidentally, a member of the cross country team). He had a successful landscaping business in Needham, adjacent to where Howard Johnson’s restaurant was for years. He was also a member of the Coast Guard. Word is that Oscar liked the ladies. One night Oscar and Margaret, who had 5 children between them, went to a local party – perhaps in the 1930’s or 1940’s. I don’t know exactly. Oscar was enjoying himself, Margaret less so. Eventually Margaret announced she wanted to go home and asked Oscar to accompany her. Oscar, still enjoying himself, suggested Margaret go on ahead, and he would join her later. She did. When Oscar finally arrived home, Margaret had locked him out of their bedroom – not just for the night, but for the rest of their lives. Oscar, being no slouch, took a mistress (perhaps he already had one). One did not get divorced in those days, at least that was the common sentiment. Oscar lived on his Coast Guard boat during the week, coming home for weekends with the family. When he passed away (in the late 1950’s, I believe), he died a la Nelson Rockefeller, in the arms of his mistress and apparently in the midst of a particularly enjoyable moment. Margaret continued to live alone, ultimately ending up in a nursing home in the last years of her long life. Towards the end, one day I visited her and asked the nurses how she was doing. Fine, they replied, except that each morning she jumped up and down on her bed and stripped off all her clothes. One can draw one’s own conclusions for that behavior, but perhaps Margaret should have been a bit less hasty in locking Oscar out of their bedroom for so many years.

Whatever the reasons,the simple fact is that my parents were not amorous with each other. They were also married for 53 years. Near the end of her life, one kidney totally failed my mother. She was told the other might last another month. She was in Huggins Hospital in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, near year’s end, 1988. I convinced my father we needed to do something, that Glover Hospital, as good as it was for many things, was not equipped to deal with severe kidney failure. That day we had her transferred to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. My father was not well himself at the time. I drove down to Boston to meet the ambulance, and in the following days my mother had vascular surgery. The doctor used a vein from my mother’s leg to construct a new path to her remaining kidney – truly amazing, at the time and considering my mother’s already weak heart, a treacherous but necessary procedure. When she came out of the operating room, I saw her briefly as they wheeled her into ICU. It did not look promising. My father (by this point, my dad) was brought down to Boston. I went to meet him at the hospital entrance. He needed a wheel chair to get to her room, where she had just been transferred from ICU. I wheeled him into her hospital room, and then witnessed the most beautiful moment I ever saw them share. Once the wheelchair was directly in front of her hospital bed and locked in place, my father stood up, holding onto the rail of the wheelchair, then the metal rail of the hospital bed. She was barely conscious but knew he was there. I stood off his left shoulder, feeling as if I were intruding on their private moment. He struggled with the rail, but leaned all the way down, with all his energy. They shared the sweetest kiss I have ever seen between any two people  – so full of concern, love, and fear. I guess 53 years together will do that. In all, between 3 women, I was married 26 years (if you add them all together). I used to joke that, for my 25th wedding anniversary, I would invite all 3 and we could celebrate together. To tell the truth, the only one worth inviting is the first one.

Whatever sexual issues my adoptive parents may have had is none of my business. It is not for me to figure out, except to the extent it had an effect on me. There were not many physical displays of emotion in our family. My parents, so good in many ways, were still from the ¨children should be seen and not heard¨ school of parenting. There were not a lot of hugs or kisses., but there was a certain respect, a fidelity to family. My parents accepted me for who I was, even if I was not so confident myself of the answer. They loved me. There is no doubt in my mind.

In the winter of 1977, my wife and I drove up to Needham from New York to visit my parents, in the middle of a snowstorm – not my brightest move, because my wife was about 7 months pregnant with my first son, David. North of Providence, the storm was so bad we could barely see through the windshield. I had taken that route, reasoning the snowfall would be less severe along the coast. I was wrong. Route 95 was barely passable, one snow-covered lane. I plowed on, finally arriving at my parents home about 11 p.m. They were living temporarily in an apartment in Needham Heights, and shortly would retire to their home in New Hampshire. Snow was drifting in the parking lot, and I rammed the car into a snow bank and left it there, a tribute to both my persistence in overcoming nature and my stupidity (okay, mostly my stupidity). The next morning the storm had passed. After the parking lot was ploughed, my mother wanted me to drive her to downtown Needham for some errands. We left the apartment, a garden style unit in Needham Heights not far from the property my father always referred to as the ¨Sacco and Vanzetti house.¨ As we left the apartment, the neighbor across the hall opened her door. My mother introduced me as her son, to which the neighbor replied…. ¨the apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree.¨ I smiled. My mother smiled. We all smiled. As soon as the woman shut her door, my mother turned to me and said in a gloriously conspiratorial tone not unlike when BJ first spoke with me: ¨I just love it when they say that.¨

My own sexual beginnings were complicated by more than my parents physical aloofness. They were also forced upon me, by my sister, and this is what I was thinking that night after the rap group, as I walked down towards the subway station. The incidents happened when I was very young. It was on Paul Revere Road. There were 2 instances. So far as I know, there were not others. There was a tree house in the rear left corner of the backyard, a little enclosed space you reached by climbing up and crawling through an open doorway – not that high off the ground, but high enough for me. It was dark inside. I was maybe 6 or 7 (I’m not certain), which would have made my sister 12 or 13. It was the early 1950’s. One day she yelled out to me from the tree house. She told me to climb up. I did. She had a friend there, a girl, and I sat between them. My sister touched me where she should not have touched me, while the friend just watched. I knew it was wrong, taboo, dirty. I was also too young to do anything about it. It was forced, in front of the friend. I squirmed, tried to get loose, felt helpless. I didn’t like it, but I remember nothing else from that day. For many years I submerged it, as if it did not happen. Then, when it floated to the surface, I questioned it. Could I have imagined it? Was it a dream? No. It happened – brief, sexual, wrong. I was sad, withdrawn, and – later – angry. I never told anyone. Now, in 1972, fresh from my first true adoption rap session, it was all coming back to me, again.

There was another time. Later, though I don’t know by how much. I was still young, about the same age. It was in the Paul Revere Road house, in the basement. At the bottom of the stairs, the family room was to the left. For Sunday supper, we would have popovers on fold-up TV tables, or sometimes Welsh Rarebit – the traditional Sunday night save-a-penny supper (after a formal Sunday dinner in mid-afternoon). The other half of the basement was unfinished. In it was the furnace, storage and maybe a door to the back yard. It was also very dark, even in daytime. I am not sure if it was day or night, but she grabbed and forced my face, my mouth to touch her bared breast. I squirmed, but she was bigger and stronger. She held me there. It was awkward, even now it turns my stomach. It was also just a few moments in time, arousing nothing in me except fear. Again, afraid of her, I said nothing.

Those images are with me still. I never spoke about them with her, with my parents, with anyone. When they finally resurfaced (years ago), I questioned myself over and over. Did they really occur? Did I make it up? Were they dreams I had? In the end, I am sure of what happened. I was too young to dream that, too young to even think about it. When I was in 7th grade, probably 4 or 5 years later, one day I was walking through the Carter-Avery school yard (by the monkey bars) with a buddy, Gordon Bahr, now long since dead. A friend, Carla, was there, and she was light years beyond me sexually. She used a slang word to describe a lower part of her anatomy. In that pre-Internet time, when television itself was still relatively new, I was flabbergasted. I had never heard anything remotely approximating the word (a far cry from many kids today).  It was not only the starkness of the word that shocked me. It was the sexuality of it, the fact that girls were  different. What happened with my sister, for me, was not sexual. It was something entirely different. I never confronted her. I am sure she would deny it. I also know she is not a monster. She is, in fact, very talented. My father told me, shortly before he died, that he was sad because he felt, once he was gone, Carol and I would drift apart. He was right. We did not drift apart because of these 2 incidents, seemingly brief moments in time that she may have immediately dismissed as insignificant. But on my first trip to BJ’s, expecting to talk about my adoption and how to go about finding my past, a part of my past came calling  – just not the part that I expected.

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