Misdirection

When I was a kid, maybe 6 or 7, I used to visit the Burtons, our next door neighbors on Paul Revere Road. Bill and Irene. He worked for New England Telephone, the ¨We’re the One for You¨ company (not that we had a choice). If the Burtons had kids, they were grown. I never saw anyone around except Bill and Irene. There was no fence between our front yards. I used to rustle on over on my Hopalong Cassidy stick pony (Topper), sporting a Hopalong Cassidy Zoomerang gun (it shot ping-pong balls). Though I didn’t know it, Hoppy was a suitable hero for me. Like me, he was also carrying around something from his past, in his case a gimpy leg, the result of a gunshot wound.  In 1971, when Don McLean released American Pie, he thought of Hopalong Cassidy, writing a free verse poem that was included on the inside cover of the original album. McLean paid tribute to the good guy who always wore black and rode a white horse – black and white, a good guy in innocent times, living the cowboy creed, and gone forever, the day the music died. In truth, Hopalong Cassidy was originally a pulp fiction character created by author Clarence E. Mulford in 1904 as a hard-drinking, rough-housing buckaroo, maybe inspired by the exploits of Butch Cassidy shooting his way through South America at the time. Mulford, who wrote the original stories and 28 Hopalong novels (in Fryeburg, Maine), was not too happy with the sanitized, good guy version of Hopalong later portrayed by actor William Boyd. Mulford used to say if the Hopalong of television ever ran into the Hopalong of his novels, one of Hoppy’s sidekicks would have shot him. Notwithstanding Mulford’s annoyance, Hopalong Cassidy went on to such a commercial success (with the help of TV, movies, and the Montgomery Ward Catalog), that the original 28 novels were later rewritten to conform to the new character. Ah, if life were that easy. 

The Burtons braced themselves for my arrival across the great plains of my front yard. Earlier, on a different bright sunny day, I supposedly showed up in their yard with more than just a broomstick between my legs. I had with me one of my mother’s still packaged (I hope) sanitary napkins. I don’t remember that incident any more than I remember the events on which my chosen baby story were based, but Bill and Irene reportedly got a good post-Victorian titter out of my booty. Now, here I was at the Burtons again, my cap gun ready to cold-cock any unsuspecting injuns. This time I had something else on my mind. It was one of those October days leading up to Halloween (I would be a home-made Sir Lancelot, packaged in aluminum foil). My little Hopalong Cassidy pony had a felt-covered head attached to a short pole stuck between my legs.The Burtons were raking dead leaves out to the curb, where they would set them on fire before the spent foliage scattered to the winds – either that, or before the neighborhood kids, knee-high in autumn, rode their bikes through the chestnut colored mounds.

There were days (this was not one of them) when my mother would let me roam on down Paul Revere Road towards Greendale Avenue. Where the road curved left, there was a large rock outcropping onto which someone had spilled red paint. In a stroke of smoke-and-mirror creativity, it was nicknamed Red Rock. We were sure the red came from the spilt blood of redskins. In truth, the only red skin we ever saw was Fred Muzi, the owner of Muzi Motors, who dressed up (including the red paint) as an Indian warrior and rode a white horse in every Needham 4th of July parade. Apparently he is still whooping it up. Recently, some are saying Fred’s ride is disrespectful to Indians, maybe even racist, while two-thirds of Needhamites continue to support the ride as an integral part of Needham tradition. Armed with, perhaps, a somewhat distorted sense of American colonial history, the red Indian on the white pony was my favorite part of the parade. In the cowboy crazed 1950’s, Red Rock was as good a place as any to fight Indians. There are, regrettably, no Indians left to write Bury My Heart at Red Rock. We got them all, a tag team match of Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger and Davy Crockett keeping Paul Revere Road safe for the colonialists. We had cap guns with a red star on the handle (denoting Texas Rangers). The red caps, when fired, gave off little grey puffs of smoke, one each for every shot warrior. The Indians didn’t stand a chance. Years later, when The Gods Must Be Crazy hit the movie theaters, I smiled knowingly at the scene with the bushman and the westerner, the spear and the gun. It turns out that Nehoiden, the Ponkapoag Indian for which a Needham street is named, was actually a pretty nice guy. For my part, I would like to apologize for all the Indians I wiped out with my six-shooter before I realized I was actually trespassing on their land. Red Rock can never be the same.

On this particular Fall day, I was roaming closer to home, sidling over to the Burtons on my fake pony, standing sideways to them (to give Topper a little breathing room). With the stick firmly between my legs I greeted my neighbors. Seemingly out of no place, I laid it on them straight out: ¨You know,¨ I drawled, ¨I am adopted.¨ It was something I had taken to doing, announcing to the world what they might not be able to discern, that I had a unique status. I was different. My name may as well have been ¨Don Humphrey I’m adopted.¨ I did it as much to see the reaction I would get as to impart information, perhaps also hoping for some little nugget of which I was not yet aware. No doubt the Burtons already knew this little tidbit of Humphrey family history. Since I was so young I could not have consciously known for long the fact that I was adopted. I don’t remember when my parents first told me, though it would become one of my talking points: ¨When was it that you first told me I was adopted?¨ The answer was not part of the script. No one seemed to know for sure, but the general consensus was around age 6. While I don’t remember the moment they first told me, on another level, another plane, I always knew. How could I not? I knew in the way that adoptees sense that stuff. While I could have physically passed as my mother’s son, not so for my father. But I was not yet sophisticated enough to be conscious of that. My parents smelled different, especially my father – not bad (except maybe for the cigarettes) but different. It was not a come here and curl up with me on the couch smell.

Speaking of smells, along about 1962, my mother decided she wanted to start a business. Almost precisely at the moment that women were beginning to turn away from purchasing hats, my mother opened a millinery store in downtown Needham, right by the Needham Cinema on Great Plain Avenue. I was in high school. She was a Christian woman, faithfully attending Grace Church Episcopal each Sunday, singing in the choir, partaking in bake and rummage sales, volunteering her time for good causes. She was not a Christian by lip service. She meant to do her best. But she was also a product of her times, having lived in Needham her entire life. Needham, like many bedroom communities in the 1950’s and 1960’s, was predominantly white. I think there was one black family in the entire town. In the 1950’s we went to church each Sunday. I was a choir boy, until my voice (thankfully) changed – I once sang Silent Night as a solo at Trinity Church in Boston, and the congregation is still wondering who scratched the chalkboard. I went to Sunday School, church square dances, became an acolyte, attended youth retreats. I was a long ways from Boston. After church each Sunday we went to visit Grandma Starkweather (Margaret, of Margaret and Oscar). Mandatory. It wasn’t fun, starting with the fact she had a mole on her cheek below her left eye. It was a brown hole that seemed to have no end. Not wanting to find out, I kept my distance. She also smelled funny – so did her house, in part because all the drapes were pulled shut and the windows closed. The only air conditioning was a screen door. I survived the 2 and 3 hour visits by trying to avoid her touching me and by working her jigsaw puzzle on a cardboard table. She was not that happy about me kibitzing, as she called it – but she tolerated it as the cost of having company. Oscar was rarely there. Strike that. Oscar was never  there. I did not yet have any clue why he was absent. Apparently he was a member of another congregation.

To get to my grandmother’s house, we had to drive through the Catholic section of town. My genetic ancestors, including Virginia, were all Irish. My adoptive family was all English. If I looked like anything, I looked like the little Irish kid that I was – red-haired, freckle faced, blue-eyed, skinny, almost an Irish Oliver Twist. Needham, in the 1950’s, was loosely divided into three somewhat amorphous areas, at least to my parents and their friends. There was the Catholic section down near St Bartholomew’s Catholic Church on Greendale Avenue. There also was a Catholic Church, St. Joseph’s, in the center of town on Highland Avenue. My father owned Humphrey’s Service, a full-service gas station (check your oil, wash your windows, flash a smile) across from St. Joseph’s, and I am certain he was happy to fill up anybody on Sunday morning. There was also a Jewish section, in Needham Heights, below the fire station, a self-contained neighborhood within shouting distance of Route 128.

There were some unspoken rules. I could play with Jimmy, John and Greg, who lived nearby, Jimmy especially because his parents also had a place on Lake Winnipesaukee. The Jewish section was strictly off-limits. There were no play dates there. To be honest, it was unlikely I would run into any until at least Junior High School, when kids from the various localized elementary schools all went to Pollard Junior High. There weren’t any play dates in the Catholic section either, not until later, after my parents lost the ability, and probably the desire, to keep track of where I roamed in Needham. Once I reached Junior High School, of course, the family guidelines only caused me to seek out Jewish and Catholic girls. But when I was younger, in the 1950’s, we drove to Grandma Starkweather’s house each Sunday in the family car, a trip my father always seemed to successfully avoid as well. Not only was Oscar never there, but my father always had ¨to work.¨ My grandmother’s house back then was near St. Bartholomew’s, and we drove thorough a Catholic neighborhood to get there. Sitting in the back seat, my mother driving, I watched all the Catholic kids play. Without registering the significance, I noticed that all the kids I was not supposed to play with looked just like me.    

When my mother opened her hat shop, she had a partner, Lucille. Years later, when I got married  in 1971, Lucille sent a wedding gift (the millinery experiment long since abandoned). My wife and I removed the wrapping, were grateful (ah the word fits here) for the photo of a steam iron on the box cover. What a thoughtful gift. Not needing any pressed clothes for the moment, we put the unopened box aside. Later, as were preparing to write thank you notes (okay, as my wife, who hated to write, was doing her best to send thank you notes) we opened the box. Instead of an iron, there was a small plastic flower, suitable for Willy Loman’s breakfast table. Hideous and inexpensive politely describe a gift which must have been, for Lucille, an ode to her not so fond remembrance of the partnership with my mother. My wife still sent a thank you note. We should have enclosed it in an otherwise empty envelope for a  U.S. Treasury Bond.

After a long day in the millinery shop, my mother returned home one evening in 1962. It was a rare day when there were more than a few customers. On this particular day, there were only two and they happened to be black or, as we then said, negro. Two black women shopping for hats. You would have thought the Indians came back looking for more scalps. My mother knew she was honor bound (not to mention legally) to serve the women. She did, helping them try on a variety of styles. The women subsequently left (without buying anything). I wish I could have been there. It would have been more interesting than any American history book I had yet read (or avoided reading). But in the confines of our home, then on Elizabeth Circle, she was mortified. Her face contorted, her body explaining it all, lamenting: ¨I just can’t help it. They smell so different.¨ It wasn’t her finest moment (I’ve had a few of those myself). Ben Harland once said: ¨Race is a pigment of the imagination.¨ My mother was talking about people smelling different, and to that I could relate, more than she knew. She did not have a mean bone in her body, and she believed we are all God`s children. She always said, when she died (in 1989), she wanted everyone to sing ¨When the Saints Go Marching In¨ at her funeral (we did). But in 1962, on Great Plain Avenue she discovered, firsthand,  that the times really were changing. It took her a while to catch up. She wasn’t the only one.

While I may not have been crazy about wrapping my arms around my father or touching my grandmother, I did like the smell of  leaves burning by the curb in front of the Burtons. They were standing on the black tar driveway, leaning on their green-pronged metal rakes. Mr. Bill corralled a few stray oaks with his, the metal lightly scratching the driveway. But it was Mrs. Burton who took charge with me. She put down her rake and walked the few steps to me and Topper. Leaning down, hands on her knees, she looked me eye to eye. I looked right back. ¨Yes, Donny. We know. You are so lucky because you KNOW your parents love you.¨ She emphasized know. Huh? It was not the response I expected, though one I’ve heard many times since. It was a disconnect, really. I was talking about one thing. Mrs. Burton was answering about another. I didn’t say anything about my parents loving me. I was talking about something else. It went unnoticed, like a pebble swept up with dead leaves, only to be strewn aside with the next swish of the rake.

I knew Mrs. Burton had said something important. I didn’t know what was important about it, but there was a finality to it, with just the slightest tinge of a suggestion. I could not tell you one other single thing about the Burtons. Red Rock, Hopalong Cassidy, six shooters, fighting Indians. . . . it is all as if it just happened yesterday. But the only memory I have of Mr. and Mrs. Burton is that one conversation. You know it all, exactly as I do. Maybe what is important is just that, a little cameo in my life. And so it is with adoption. It is a dance, really. We are all dancing around a May pole with blindfolds. No one can know, no one dare say what went before. Hush hush, wink wink. Your parents love you. Rake the leaves. Light the fire.

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