My Driving Wheel

To say that Emma May Vilardi had a gravely voice is not to have known her. For years I only knew her by telephone, along with a steady stream of lined, 3 x 5 inch, orange note cards. The note cards contained search suggestions she mailed to me, all patiently hand-written in blue ink. Each one gently prodded me forward.  A professional genealogist, Emma became interested in helping those disconnected by adoption while seeking answers for her own medical issues. She was stymied by the fact of her mother’s adoption.  Not for long. Those fighting for sealed adoption records got more than they bargained for with Emma May Vilardi. She was unstoppable. That she also knew what she was doing was a huge resource for many adoptees, like myself, who did not yet have a clue about how to proceed.

After attending the rap session at BJ’s apartment, it was clear the next move was up to me. Good news or bad, Virginia Peters was not going to appear on my doorstep. Unearthing her was going to take some digging. I had mixed feelings about it. It was both something I wanted to do and something that gave me fear. I never spoke about the fear. In 1972, there were not a lot of other male adoptees armed with their sword and sandals. At that time, there were just 4 states that allowed adult adoptees access to their birth records. In the wake of the Baby Lenore case, fearful that adoptees might (God forbid) actually exercise their rights, legislatures throughout the country quickly bequeathed the Tupperware treatment to adoption records, once again sealing them airtight.  The records that I saw at the Dedham Probate Court in July, 1972 were sealed not long after I was there. Even though I know all of the information in the file, the law now prohibits me from seeing them again (¨Look Donny, Kenny if you must, run along now on your stick pony. There`s nothing for you here¨). Whoever said what you can’t see won’t hurt you was clearly not adopted, plus they probably didn’t watch Jaws.

The reason often cited for ensuring the sealing of adoption records was that mothers relinquishing their children for adoption had been promised confidentiality. Allowing adult adoptees access to those records (so the argument goes) would breach that promise (ah, okay – we get it. So it’s a question of morality – you’re just being good guys – honoring your word, so to speak). In truth, it was a promise rarely given. And, as Pam Hasegawa pointed out in her succinct testimony before the New Jersey Assembly on June 14, 2010 (in support of the NJ Adoptees‘ Rights Bill), it is a bogus excuse. Pam researched the legislative intent behind various NJ Sealed Records laws dating back to 1940 and found the real reason: the records were sealed so that birthparents would not later show up and make things difficult. Later, it was said the reason for the laws was not to protect natural parents from being contacted by a child, but to protect them from making rash or abrupt decisions regarding relinquishing their child for adoption. In fact, Pam went on to document that years ago, once an adoption was formalized, many adoptive parents received both the child’s birthname and the name of the birthmother. (www.vimeo.com/16277015). Let’s face it. The records were sealed because they (whoever they are) believed that open records would be a deal breaker for people looking to adopt, as in we’ll have so many little orphans running around we won’t know what to do with them. It took a while to perfect the spin to justify the secrecy, but in the end that is what it was – an excuse. If, in the Baby Lenore case, the media coined the phrase ¨torn from the only parents she has ever known,¨ they also seem to have hopped on the bandwagon with ¨we have to keep our promise to the birthmother.¨ Adoption by sound bite.

My sister, who ratted me out to our parents after I saw my adoption records (¨you’ll never guess what that ingrate Donny did¨), never got to see her own. It was as if the adoption gods were somehow punishing her for her lousy betrayal. But they didn’t punish her for long (okay, maybe for another 15 years or so). Carol never searched, but in one of those quirky twists of fate, her mother appeared on her doorstep, or – more accurately – the milkman did. When we lived on Paul Revere Road, fresh milk was delivered to our back door several times a week. The milkman, it turns out, was Carol’s birth uncle. You can’t make this stuff up. Carol came from Needham. Her mother lived with her parents near town. The parents rented a room to a young guy (whoops). The young guy, from Poland, took a fancy to Carol’s mother, who soon enough became pregnant with Carol. The mother was very young. A private adoption was arranged to a Needham family. The family took Carol shortly after birth (I wonder if they changed her name?), but things did not work out. Carol was returned. In isolated moments not quite approaching brotherly love, I have conjured up explanations for why my sister was returned to sender. No amount of sibling rivalry, though, could wish that on anyone. It must have been excruciatingly difficult, even for an infant – maybe especially so. I read recently about some adoptive parents who were not happy with their Russian adoptee. They felt they were misled, like they had a warranty or something. The child was put on a plane, alone, and air mailed back to the Russian adoption agency. A note was attached. He didn’t just get left in a grocery store – he was also returned, like spoiled milk.

Carol wasn’t air-mailed and she was just an infant. Her return was surely due to the inability of the first adoptive parents to care for any baby, let alone my sister. It would have been nice if they first figured out it’s not really cool to take babies for a test drive. After that failed adoption, Carol was adopted again, this time by our parents. This all happened in 1941, almost 6 years before I was born and 8 years before I showed up on Paul Revere Road with only the clothes on my back. Apparently, my mother and father knew not only the family of Carol’s mother, but also the first pair of adoptive parents. They all lived in Needham. What must it have been like for my mother to walk into Rimmele’s Market in downtown Needham with Carol by her side, while the mother or the mother’s mother were shopping there as well, not to mention the mother for a moment who gave Carol back? It was never mentioned in our house. So far as I know, Carol did not know. I certainly didn’t. Whatever chosen baby story my parents told Carol, they did not choose to share with me.

Both ALMA’s and BJ’s rap groups were predominantly female. There was one other guy at each meeting, but I did not connect with either. Not much had been written yet about adoptees searching for their roots. Florence Fisher’s book, The Search for Anna Fisher, would be published the following year. BJ’s perceptive and important additions to the adoption dialogue (Twice Born; Lost and Found; Journey of the Adopted Self) were still a few years away from making their mark. At home, my wife was supportive, though we were not able to discuss much beyond the facts – what I had discovered and what I needed to discover. Our non-commmunication had more to do with the fortress I had constructed for myself than anything else – my Nueschwanstein (Mad Ludwig apparently had a few birth issues of his own, taken to referring to his mother as ¨my predecessor’s consort¨). I was barely peeking out from one of the turrets. The drawbridge was still firmly slammed shut. Heck, I didn’t even know there was a drawbridge.

A few days after my evening at BJ’s, I called Emma May Vilardi. Sitting on the same love seat where I read the report of the Simmons Detective Agency, in our second floor apartment in New Rochelle, I was watching a Red Sox game – the black and white television propped on top of a wood crate, our early 70’s decor. The prior October, just a few weeks before D. B. Cooper went sky-diving, Boston traded away Jim Lonborg (Gentleman Jim), Ken Brett (George’s brother), Billy Conigliaro (Tony’s brother), Joe Lahoud (whose grandfather played in the Negro Leagues), Don Pavletich (nobody’s brother that I know of) and George Scott (the Boomer) – all to the Milwaukee Brewers, pretty much decimating the remnants of the Impossible Dream Team of 1967 (save Yaz, Rico and Reggie). I spent the summer of 1967 at Fenway Park, going to most games with my Needham friend, Jimmy. In that Spring we made a bet about who would make it to Fenway the most during the season. Known for always bargaining for strokes on the golf course (and for loudly whispering ¨trouble¨ whenever one of us hit an errant shot), Jimmy lamely fished for a Fenway concession. Admittedly, it was a lot easier for me to blow off school and drive up to Boston from Providence to catch a game, than it was for him to travel all the way down from White River Junction. ¨Life ain’t fair buddy – are you a fan or are you going to keep moaning about Crankin’ Dan Osinski giving up a few more shots over the Green Monster?¨ One day, I was sitting in our usual location in the right field bleachers ($1 ticket to sit on an aluminum bench), enjoying the afternoon sun when  Jimmy came chugging up the steps out of breath, mumbling (he was a professional mumbler) that his mid-week trek to Boston was only going to get him a draw for the day. We sat about 15 rows below where Ted Williams hit his 502-foot home run (knocking the straw hat off Joe Boucher, a Yankee fan) on June 9, 1946 (spurring my mother into labor and ushering me into the world). Now the spot where the home run landed is commemorated by a seat painted red. Back then, we only knew it was somewhere behind us, way ¨up there.¨ The Splendid Splinter’s home run was declared  the ¨longest measurable home run in Fenway Park history¨ – which, over the years, I have taken to mean if someone hits one anywhere near as far, they don’t bother to measure. I once saw the Boomer hit a home run so far, the packed Fenway crowd seemed as if it were on tape delay, collectively silent as the ball soared, and then clanged among empty aluminum rows far away from home plate. I didn’t see anyone running for a tape measure.

Listening through the black earpiece, Emma instantly put me at ease. It took a bit to get used to her voice, which sounded as if it were coming to me from a room where oxygen had been replaced by smoke. She immediately offered to help, and I explained to her what I had done so far. We agreed it made sense, for now, to concentrate our (not just me!) search efforts in New York, chasing after Edward Yedlin in the hopes of landing Virginia. I told Emma I did not want to let on to anyone else what I was doing. I felt protective of both of my mothers, the one I knew and the one who left me in the store. Emma understood. Apparently I was not the first adoptee to float that boat of hope and fear. She had heard it before. Emma suggested I start my search at the New York City Public Library on Fifth Avenue, just a few blocks from Grand Central Terminal. The library, she explained, had a genealogy room on the first floor, to the right, reached by walking through a massive reading room. There were records of New York City births (Edward Yedlin?) and old telephone directories on microfilm. Emma cautioned that I should keep to myself the reasons for my search because we were still in an age where secrecy trumped genealogy. Other adoptees had run into problems when they asked for assistance. I could start looking for the Yedlin family. Maybe my mother was living in New York, though I sensed she was still in Boston. It turns out I was wrong on both counts.

Emma also asked me to send her a copy of the report from the detective agency. Ensconced in the era before fax machines, computers and cell phones, we would communicate by letter and telephone. I thanked her and asked if I could send her some money (she declined). Reenergized, I hung up the phone  – both because the Red Sox were winning, and I had done something to get moving. Without realizing it, I had been feeling down since my rap sessions, like (courtesy of Tom Rush) some old engine that lost its drivin’ wheel (www.cowboylyrics.com/tabs/rush-tom/drivin-wheel-2243.html. But in one phone call, my little ¨I Think I Can¨ freight train chugged into second gear. I promised myself a trip to the library the following week and went off to mail a copy of the Simmons report to Emma. Once again the fantasy tugged at me that Virginia (maybe spurred on by my crackshot genealogist) would somehow come back for me, as if she had merely forgotten to pay her grocery bill.

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