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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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.

What’s in a Name?

I sometimes wonder if my adoptive parents wondered about changing my name. Did it occur to them it might not be such a smashing idea? It’s not like I was just coming home all cute and fluffy from Kenmore Hospital. I’d been around for almost 2 years. I was Kenny. . . ??? Come to think of it, I hope I wasn’t named after Kenmore Hospital??? ¨Oh, look at the sign! Why don’t I just call him Kenny?¨ If that’s what happened, thank God my birthmother wasn’t thinking about naming me as she was passing through Kenmore Square.

After I learned, in 1972, that I was not called Donald right from the beginning, I thought about those first 6 months with my new family on Paul Revere Road, when I didn’t speak or cry. Of course I didn’t – you were calling me by the wrong name! I know that whatever issues I faced, they were more complicated than simply dealing with a different name. Like Frank Shorter said on entering the Olympic Stadium in Munich, give me a break. There’s an imposter adrift. I already had a name. Lately, things had not been going that well for me. A little stability would be nice, thank you. By the way, whatever happened to that bomber’s jacket? You know,  the dirty one. I don’t want to seem ungrateful (a thankless word designed to make an adoptee’s skin crawl)….., but when you stopped by to get me, did they happen to mention my name to you? It’s Kenny!

Many years ago I used to describe to friends, acquaintances (basically anyone who would listen) what it felt like to be adopted, as if I alone had the answer. Mustering a telling ¨I’ve Been There¨ look, I began by asking a question. Do you remember getting lost in the grocery store when you were young? Of course you do. Running up and down the aisles playing, you suddenly turn around. Your mother is not there, not anywhere to be seen. You look in the next aisle, and she’s not there either. A little panic begins to set in. You know you should not have wandered off by yourself. Maybe she even told you to stay close. You try to calm yourself. It will be okay, but pretty soon you are running up and down the aisles, quietly terrified. You only want one thing – your mother. Where is she? And then, just as nearly complete panic is about to overtake you, there she is, reaching for a box of Cheerios for you. Whew! – a great sense of relief,  a promise not to do that again. At exactly this point in the story I would pause, all-knowing-like, look my friend in the eye and say: it’s like that when you get adopted. You’re lost in the grocery store. A little panic sets in. Your mom is gone. You run up and down the aisles, but she has vanished. The only difference is, when you get adopted, your my mother never comes back. She’s not reaching for Cheerios. She’s out in the parking lot, reaching for the keys to the car. Now that I am older and supposedly a bit wiser, that explanation all sounds a bit melodramatic, a little over the top. But one day my mother did leave, not when I was all sparkling and cuddly in Kenmore Hospital (devastating enough), but after almost 2 years. Maybe not in the grocery store. Worse, really. One day she was there, and then the next moment she was gone. And a short while later, while I was still terrified – still looking, expecting my mother to come waltzing in – these other people I did not know put me in a car and started calling me Donny. I don’t remember any of it, but I also want to say I somehow remember all of it. It’s presumptuous to say that is what it feels like to be adopted, but when my kids were young and ran off in the grocery store, I didn’t like the feeling.

I have to admit, absolutely nothing registered that day in Dedham, when I first saw my original name, Kenneth James Peters – no sense of recognition, no warm fuzzy feeling, not anything. I thought only one thing – the good State of Massachusetts screwed up my adoption records. No wonder they wanted to keep them sealed. They couldn’t even get my name straight. Later, when it finally dawned on me (okay, terrible pun) I started checking out the name. Kenneth is considered derived primarily from Scotland, and a Gaelic version of it is translated as the ¨handsome one¨ (I like that one). Another interpretation is ¨fire-head¨ or ¨born of fire,¨ seemingly appropriate for the kid later destined to set the Needham Heights community record for consecutively struck Diamond Safety matches.

After I saw the Probate Court records, occasionally I would look in a mirror and think Kenneth, Kenny, Kenneth James, Kenneth James Peters. I looked at the guy looking back at me, who was the same guy at whom I was looking – the man in the mirror. Try as I might, the names did not resonate. They still don’t. Kenneth is a name now that I associate more with Dan Rather, a guy I admired from his early days reporting from Dallas in the aftermath of  President Kennedy’s assassination until, in later years, he seemed to go a little weird on us. He was subjected to a beating near his home on Park Avenue in 1986 by 2 guys chanting ¨Kenneth, what is the frequency?¨ I wondered if he was adopted? Did Dan Rather have another name? Him too? Empathetic, I was beginning to understand why Dan got a little funky.  Though we (wink wink) thought Dan was maybe up to something a little kinky,  it later appeared that maybe he was just mugged by two media obsessed lunatics. And from there the media took over, morphing the phrase into, practically, the only Kenneth we have ever known. It spawned songs, plays, novels, movies, and even a stint on The Late Show with David Letterman, and ultimately passed into our lexicon as a term describing a dazed or clueless person. I did not take offense.

Kenneth was also a principal character in Sir Walter Scott‘s The Talisman. An ill King Richard the Lionheart is cured through the magic power of a talisman, provided by a mysterious Saracen emir (actually Saladin, whose conquest of Palestine was the basis for the Third Crusade in the first place). Later, Kenneth is charged one night with protecting the banner of England. He is lured away by the King’s devious wife, Queen Berengaria, to receive an urgent message from his amor, Edith Plantagenet (the royal cousin). While Kenneth is gone the banner gets torn down and his trusty hound wounded. A loose noose from being hung, Kenneth was spared execution when the kind emir offered to take him as his slave. Later Ken sneaks back into the English camp, disguised as a mute attendant (no talking, no crying!) to King Richard. Too smart for all that, the King sees through the ruse, but gives our boy Kenneth the chance to find out who ripped down the banner and wounded the dog. The banner back in place, Kenneth’s hound knocks the Conrad of Montserrat (Montferrat actually, but who cares, it’s just a name) off his horse. A duel follows between Kenneth and the Conrad. Kenneth wins, after which Sir Kenneth is revealed to be. . . . Prince David (huh?)- It turns Kenneth was never Kenneth to begin with, though his newly discovered royal status allows (Prince David) to hook up with his love, Edith. Plus he gets a cool talisman as a wedding present. (www.walterscott.lib.ed.ac.uk/works/novels/talisman.html).

The name Donald, on the other hand, as some of my friends were wont to point out during my childhood, was made famous by a flat-footed, color-blind animated duck.

I admit it bothered me that they changed my entire name. Still does. I get the bit about last name, but not the first. I admit it bothered me that they threw away my clothes. Still does. And it bothered me, of course, the fact that my parents did not just get rid of the few things I had, which happened to be clothes, but burned them. Still does. It made quite an impression. I doubt my parents thought much about what feelings I might have had about those things. I was a little kid, a little kid that was not even talking. There was a reason, not a good one, why they changed my first name. They kept it from me for years, and it was not until 1994 when my father, for the first time, told me  he remembered my name was Ken. He waited over 40 years to tell me, long after my mother had passed away. No guilt, no I am sorry for that. Just a matter of fact explanation. Even after fall these years, it did not occur to him that it could possibly have made any difference to me. When my oldest son, David, was 5 years old, his mother and I had been separated for more than 6 months. We were waiting for the divorce papers to be finalized. I had a girlfriend, who lived in New York City. One night David and I stayed over. That afternoon I bought David some new sneakers. He was really happy with them. The next morning we were rushing to leave the apartment to make it to preschool and work. As we left the apartment, I took David’s old sneakers with me. David trailed behind. Briefcase in one hand, I opened the trash chute and threw in the old sneakers with the other. We were on the 6th floor. The trash bin for the building was in the basement. ¨My sneakers, my sneakers!¨ David ran to the shoot, crying. I had not even thought he might want them. They were probably as ratty as my bomber jacket.

I have heard, from time to time, of adoptees who have changed their names – sometimes the last name, sometimes the first. In England it is a simple affair. You can even do it online. It is not that complicated in the United States either. I never considered doing so and have not ever wanted to return to Kenny, a name which does not move mountains for me – any more than Donald. If I were to change my name, maybe I would do what that bloke in England did. He changed his name to Mr. None of the Above. I wonder if he was adopted.

Settling In

In early June, 1948 I went to New Hampshire with my new parents and new sister in the family Studebaker. The welcome note is right there in the family guest log for Windleblo Road, June 2, 1948: ¨Donny´s first trip.¨ I wonder what Kenny felt about that.  In 1979, when my oldest boy, David, was two years old, I used to watch him play with his Star Wars Millennium Falcon Spaceship on the floor of our den. I thought to myself: ¨What if, poof, we changed your name to, say, Han Solo, or maybe Chewbacca.¨ It was inconceivable, of course. I had no idea why my parents chose to change my name just before my second birthday, and I did not ask them until years later. There was an aura in my house that the chosen baby story (punched-your-father-in-the nose-then-we-burned-your-dirty-clothes) was the sum total of all the information about my past, that there was nothing more to tell (though there was). Whatever the reason  (I know now), one morning I woke up as Kenny from Boston and by the afternoon I was Donny from Needham. In many ways I was better off, but that somehow misses the mark. I once got (can’t bring myself to say adopted) a beautiful black Lab from the dog pound. About a year old, his name was Max. Once a Max, always a Max. No way I was changing his pedigree, however limited.

In 1948, the car ride from Paul Revere Road to Wolfeboro, New Hampshire took substantially longer than the 2 1/2 hours it takes today. It took more than 12 hours in 1912 (the year the Titanic sank), when my father was 2. By 1948 the Everett Turnpike did not yet exist. On the Massachusetts/New Hampshire border, at Tyngsboro (the ¨Gateway to the White Mountains¨), we  turned off Route 3, blasting through a gigantic granite outcropping (for years littered in red graffiti announcing the latest amorous proclivities of the local teenage population). Slicing over to the Daniel Webster Highway (which in New Hampshire’s unique way of doing things, was also Route 3), we sometimes stopped at the Greenridge Turkey Farm for dinner, though there was no evidence of either a green ridge or a turkey farm. My father’s stomach always growled when he ate turkey, but the Greenridge apparently made a mean Manhattan.

In 1948, of course, I was just along for the ride. According to my parents I neither spoke nor cried for the ensuing 6 months. Shortly before Christmas I asked for a glass of water, like the Australian koalas in January, 2010, pleading their plight with humans in 120 degree heat: ¨Listen, I know this is a bit out of the norm, but could you spare a little water, mate?¨ (www.hornbill-hornbill.blogspot.com/2010/01/koalas-asking-for-waterin-victoria.html). I have some ideas about why I was not talking or crying. Each of my 4 boys was blabbering by the time they reached age 2. In trying to reconstruct what was happening with me, what I was feeling, I use whatever I can – old family photos (the one of me standing in a playpen, outside alone in the yard on Paul Revere Road, curly blond hair, holding onto the rail; the one of my sister and me on a homemade pine-seat swing in New Hampshire, our parents behind – a family shot with the rope descending from someplace out of view); family stories (you didn’t talk or cry); the family mood (sedate, not touchy feely – polite, with a cocktail); what was going on in the world at the time (music, movies, news). You can read too much into a photo, a story, an event, but it also offers an image, a feeling, a fantasy, that becomes your truth, like watching the mimes play an imaginary game of tennis in Michelangelo Antonioni‘s Blow-Up (one of my favorite movies) while hearing the sound of the nonexistent ball smacked back and forth (www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blowup).

The hot movie in 1948 was Treasure of the Sierra Madre (we don’t need no badges), but my parents were not movie people. In January of that year a plane crash at Los Gatos, California killed 4 named U.S. citizens and 29 unnamed deportees, leading to Woody Guthrie‘s commemorative song  (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos) – but Woody Guthrie’s music did not strike a chord for my parents. In January, Mahatma Gandhi began his fast-unto-death, and then was assassinated by Nathuram Godse on January 30. If my parents knew of Gandhi, we never discussed it. The Hell’s Angels were founded in California, surely not news of interest in my house (maybe for my Harley-riding sister). The Summer Olympics, the first since Hitler’s 1936 Games, got underway in London (the Austerity Games). American Bob Mathias (decathlon)  became the youngest ever gold medalist, and Fanny Blankers-Koen, a 30-year-old mother of 2 (the ¨Flying Housewife¨) won 4 gold medals.  My parents were not sports people, at least not my father. And in August, the House of Representatives Committee on Unamerican Activities held its first televised hearings, called Confrontation Day (between Alger Hiss and Whitaker Chambers). I don’t know for certain, but I imagine my parents watched. If they did not watch, they at least knew of it. Both were card-carrying Republicans. Like many people then, they trusted their government. In the fall of 1948, Truman defeated Dewey, no matter what the Chicago Tribune thought. That news could not have made my parents happy, who had cocktail parties on election nights to cheer on the local and national Republican candidates. I remember listening from my bed, in 1956, to the clatter of cocktail glasses and the clink of ice as radio reports, in the background, broadcast Eisenhower’s defeat of Stevenson. Radio was preferred to television because it did not get in the way of the party. When Watergate leaked in 1972, it led to the only real fight I ever had with my father. We had disagreements before and after, but nothing like the screaming, bourbon-induced invectives he threw my way for questioning President Nixon. He felt H. R. Haldeman, Nixon’s flat-topped Chief of Staff, and John D. Erlichman, the White House Counsel called the ¨Berlin Wall¨ by staffers, were the guilty ones for not protecting ¨their boss.¨ Nevermind the boss was a crook. My father stormed from the New Hampshire lake house on Barber Pole Road. My mother hugged me in an ¨I’m sorry¨ sort of way. The fight and the hug were both unusual, and we all learned from that. Times were changing, as Dylan already noted. We needed to find a way to get along, as Rodney King would later note. And I also learned not to start an argument with my father after he’d had a few Manhattans, something which I should have already known. It never happened again, the fight or the hug, at least not that one.

Each year, once school was out, my mother would drive Carol and me up to the ¨camp¨ on Windleblo Road for the summer. My father commuted back and forth from Needham on weekends. The camp was on Tuftonboro Neck, which jutted out onto the main portion of Lake Winnipesaukee. In a tongue-in-cheek display of New Hampshire-speak, this widest expanse of the lake is called ¨the broads.¨ The camp was a small 2 bedroom cottage, stained brown with midnight blue shutters. The land, ravaged by the Hurricane of ’38 (the Great New England Hurricane, the worst storm since 1869 and the costliest and deadliest in New England history), was given to my father by his uncle. My parents used the downed pine trees to build the camp – at least that’s how the story goes. I wasn’t around, biologically or otherwise. We got our water from a well, the casing stained brown and the pump painted blue to match the camp. The living room had a floor to ceiling stone fireplace (shaped like a chimney and in which we used a black metal tin popper to roast popcorn). The living room opened onto a large screened porch overlooking a granite covered hill which was smothered with 80 foot tall pine trees. The lake was several hundred yards below, down a brown needle path. At times I hopped from granite rock to granite rock, avoiding any contact with the ground. When I was older, I sometimes slept on the porch. To fall asleep, instead of sheep I counted the empty bottles of exotic liquors my father displayed in the porch rafters.

My father, born in Portland, Maine and raised in Needham, began going to Wolfeboro himself when he was 2 years old, visiting the uncle (Gorham B. Humphrey) after which he was named, the same uncle that gave him the Windleblo Road land. Uncle Gorham, who had a few bucks, owned a beautiful Victorian house called Grey Rock in Winter Harbor (on land now owned by Piping Rock Lodges). When my wife was pregnant with David, one day my father took me aside. In a lowered voice, he intoned: ¨I only have one request (about David’s name). Please don’t name him Gorham.¨ It was never under consideration, but in that moment I felt for him. He always wanted to change his name. I did not yet realize he had already changed mine. David does share my father’s middle name, and my youngest, Ryan (born after the death of mother and just before my father’s), shares my original  birth-middle name. My father spent a good part of his life in New Hampshire and retired there in the mid-1970’s (as much as you could ever say he retired). He was always the first to say he would never be considered more than an outsider in Wolfeboro. Which got me to thinking….. if his coming to Wolfeboro at age 2 meant he would never truly be considered a member of the community, what did my coming to the family at age 2 mean? Neither he nor my mother felt that way. I am sure of it. Since I was, in  effect, the outsider, what is important is how I felt. The answer, maybe,  is much like my father’s ¨outsider¨ feelings about Wolfeboro and New Hampshire. After my adoptive mother passed away, in 1989, the following winter friends invited my father to Tampa, Florida to visit. He went, reluctantly. There is a priceless photo of him standing in the Florida sunshine, looking like a duck out of water, maybe a Lake Winnipesaukee loon. He could not wait to get back to his New Hampshire, where he truly belonged, no matter what the natives said or did.

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.

Delatado

No hubo grandes consecuencias resultantes de Carol diciendo a nuestros padres lo que había hecho en la obtención de registros de adopción de mi original – no se ve de desaprobación, comentarios de reproche de mi madre o el padre. Se suscribió el ¨ usted es un adulto ahora ¨ y el ¨ no queremos ser una molestia ¨ Escuela de padres. Fiel a sus raíces Inglés, ni una palabra se mencionó en esto por meses, aunque ella ° ° fue demasiado trascendental para escapar de un evento comentario completo. La colcha de retazos de la tela de la familia había sido amenazada (con Carol brevemente tratando de usurpar mi trono como el adoptado buenas – cuidado donde pisas hermana!). Si nada más, mis padres debe haber sido muy curioso sobre lo que estaba haciendo y lo que yo había descubierto.

El comentario se produjo, finalmente, de mi madre. Ni siquiera era que me ha dirigido. Después de incubar durante varios meses antes de llegar, finalmente nacidos justo después de la cena de Gracias de 1972, cuando todo el mundo estaba lleno, relativamente feliz, y mi padre se había retirado al sofá de la sala con su cóctel Manhattan (obligatorio y no sólo durante las vacaciones) para ver un partido de fútbol que él no entendía ni disfrutado. Era, simplemente, lo que hiciste en el día del pavo. corredor de bienes raíces que era, mi padre era más feliz leyendo los obituarios. Sólo conozco un libro que haya leído en toda su vida, The American Way of Death por Jessica Mitford (www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/10/16/061016crb0_books17currentPage=all). Mitford escribió uno exponga tórrida del negocio de las funerarias, lo que causó tal impresión en mi padre que, años más tarde, cuando mi madre falleció en 1989, compró dos de todo – el pago por adelantado, también, para su propio funeral (que no llegaría por otros 6 años), determina que ¨ los ladrones ¨ No se va a conseguir lo mejor de él. Cuando mi padre, en su ataúd de prepago, se puso en el coche fúnebre después de su servicio en 1995, dejó el coche fúnebre al cementerio, mientras la gente aún se encontraban dentro de la iglesia – una señal segura de que mi padre era simplemente asegurar que los proveedores funeral no va a ser capaz de facturar por horas extraordinarias.

Ese día de Acción de Gracias en 1972 mi padre estaba viendo los Leones de Detroit juegan los Jets de Nueva York, su cóctel de descanso precariamente sobre su pecho, un ojo cerrado. Me senté junto a él, su compañero de ala, teniendo la satisfacción de los Jets de conseguir paliza (37-20), un poco de calma para la paliza de la que pronto se Delfines perfecta impuesto a mi Patriots apenas dos semanas antes (52-0). Mi madre, en la cocina, estaba hablando con mi esposa. No he oído una cosa, y mi búsqueda de mi madre biológica no estaba en mi mente. Más tarde, mi esposa me habló de su conversación, de ¨ mi madre interés ¨ en lo que estaba haciendo. El mensaje transmitido fue ¨ No le digas a tu padre, estaría muy dolido ¨ Yo estaba interesado en el mensaje y, por supuesto, cumpliremos con ella. Se envalentonó a que me vaya a la cocina y hablar con mi madre, mientras ella estaba terminando los restos del pavo. Le dije que sólo quería saber qué pasó, nada más. Puede que no han sido completamente próxima, pero fue suficiente para decir – una tranquilidad apacible que yo no estaba tratando de cubrir su ausencia. Yo no lo era. Parecía tener su lugar, y, así, la conversación estaba detrás de nosotros. Nunca se volvió a mencionar, hasta 8 años más tarde. No es de extrañar el Imperio Inglés fue hace tanto tiempo.

En cuanto a mi hermana, que era, al principio, decepcionado con ella (todos los derechos, enojado), hasta que pensé un poco más al respecto. ¿Qué estaba pensando? Yo estaba pidiendo un adoptado para mantener un secreto. Si realmente quería guardar un secreto, ¿por qué le digo? Lo mismo puede ser pedido a mi padre para dejar de leer los obituarios. ¿Por qué una persona adoptada desea guardar un secreto, especialmente uno que no los beneficia directamente? Ellos (nosotros) odio secretos. ¿Y quién puede culparnos? Hemos sido fuertes con armas en la custodia de secretos para la mayoría de nuestras vidas, algunas más extravagantes que otras. Se nos ha pedido a aceptar nuestro ¨ elegido cuentos bebé ¨ para lo que son, con la prestidigitación de la misma mano, sacando la leche y galletas en el hogar de Santa Claus, todos envueltos para regalo y el muérdago. Más vale que tenga cuidado, que mejor no se nota. Sé bueno. Sé, también, agradecido. A veces es difícil sentirse agradecidos (por mucho que usted cree que debería ser) cuando se les pide que lo hagan, directa o indirectamente – cuando se trata con una etiqueta de precio.

Sé de una persona adoptada que es un gemelo idéntico, criados por separado de su hermano. Él y su esposa adoptaron a un bebé al mismo tiempo que la hermana de la esposa también adoptó a un bebé. En una de esas tragedias capricho de la vida, tanto la hermana y su esposo murió a los pocos meses de diferencia. Mi amigo y su esposa, por supuesto, aprobada bebé de la hermana. Desde entonces su familia se componía de dos (por separado), los bebés adoptados que estaban en una edad parecida, les dijeron, y el mundo, que eran gemelas! Un niño y una niña sin vínculos genéticos alguno se adelante a ser conocido como los gemelos, porque los padres (incluyendo por supuesto a mi amigo adoptó doble) pensé que sería más fácil para que el mundo vea a los niños como gemelos. Y ¿qué pasa con lo que los chicos a ver? El niño adoptado fue un mérito adicional – le fue bien en la escuela, era atlético, socializado con facilidad, mientras que la niña adoptada era todo lo contrario – académicamente lento, sin atlético, socialmente inhibido. Cualquiera que sea problemas de desarrollo de la niña pudo haber estado experimentando fueron sin duda exacerbada por la mentira de los padres, no importa cuán bien intencionados su intención. Para crédito de mi amigo, que finalmente llegó limpia con sus hijos y les dijo la verdad. Nunca es demasiado tarde para eso.

Mi hermana no se aprobó hasta un padre adoptivo, pero también. Ella también era mi hermana, y aprobó o no, un miembro de pleno derecho de nuestra rivalidad entre hermanos en curso. Después me convertí en abogado, mi hermana se convirtió en un oficial de policía en Nueva Hampshire. Una de las fantasías de su vida (estoy seguro de esto) era coger mi exceso de velocidad y me emita una violación de tráfico. Uno de los fantasmas en mi vida (estoy seguro de esto) era para mi hermana, en su motocicleta Harley Davidson negro (bueno, tal vez eso no es problema de la policía, pero es mi fantasía), a exceso de velocidad y me coge tema me una violación de tráfico, que me gustaría aceptar de buena gana – y, posteriormente, ir a la corte y hablar el juez desestima en todo. Al salir del Tribunal, ofrezco mi hermana un ascensor.

Si bien una parte de mí trazan formas de vengarse de Carol por violar mi confianza, otra parte de mí se lo agradeciste por dejar que el gato fuera de la bolsa. No fue delatado, por lo tanto como un · · Fuera gateaba – un gato genial, así, que era hacer algo que se merecía y necesitaba hacer. A pesar de mi preocupación, mi madre parecía dar muy bien, y – en honor a su petición – No dije nada a mi padre, que se quedó dormido en el sofá en el tercer trimestre, su cóctel todavía perfectamente equilibrada, moviéndose rítmicamente al compás de su corazón, sin una gota desperdiciada.

Can of Worms

The payphone was calling to me from just beyond the Courthouse steps, as if placed there specifically at my disposal by a meddling prop-man. At the same moment, my head felt like it contained a pinball (polished, silver) in perpetual motion. What should I do? Who first to call? Where is she right now? I had to tell somebody. It couldn´t wait another second. I wanted to meet her. That day. That afternoon. Virginia Peters. Virginia M. Peters, of Boston. My mother – the one who gave birth to me, and then gave me away.

Nothing would stop me from finding her. It´s not that I wanted to change my life or exchange it for whatever I had before. I didn´t. I was pretty happy and aware enough to realize I had things I would never have had were I not adopted. I may not have known where I came from, at least the specifics, but I knew where I was – or at least I thought I did. I felt strong enough to take a look, even convinced myself I just wanted to know what happened. Where did I live those first two years? Did she keep me? When did she let me go? Why was I in that house in Dorchester with that other woman? Why did my mother give me away? The fact that people were making it difficult to find out made me more determined.

But first I wanted to tell someone what I had just done. I had cleared a hurdle – not just a hurdle; I had climbed a wall. I had a name. Obviously, I could not have had my adoptive name prior to my adoptive parents taking me home. Since I was almost 2 when they did so, I must have been called by something for those first two years. The fact that it had never once occurred to me in the intervening 22 years was, if nothing else, a testament to how deeply buried those feelings were. But now, I was going to find her. She was, after all, from Boston. How hard could it be?  I just came from Boston an hour before, from Scollay Square (www.bambinomusical.com/Scollay/History.html). The Combat Zone was barely a lap dance removed from the Old Howard Theater (www.bambinomusical.com/Scollay/Howard.html). (www.universalhub.com/glossary/combat_zone_the.html) . The address my birthmother gave when she signed the Consent for Adoption was on Washington Street, smack in the middle of the Combat Zone (www.wbur.org.com/2010/02/19/combat-zone; She was probably not still there, but how far could she have gone?

The Combat Zone (some say its colorful name is derived from when the military police patrolled the area) was Boston´s adult entertainment answer to the urban renewal of Scollay Square. The City collectively worried that the closing of the Old Howard burlesque house, along with the demolition of Scollay Square, would lead to the proliferation of that sort of entertainment into other, more upscale Boston neighborhoods. The Puritans liked everything in its proper place. And so the politicians progressively begat the Combat Zone – a two block area along Washington Street, next to Chinatown (sweet and sour sex!) – bars where nobody knew your name and everyone wanted to keep it that way.(www.wbur.org/2010/02/19/combat-zone) We teenagers who missed out on the Old Howard (for want of a few years’ growth), on seeing the likes of Ann Corio (www.anncorio.com) or Irma the Body (www.thecrimson.com/article/1953/10/30/police-may-close-old-howard-after/) applauded the City elders in their infinite legislative wisdom. I wonder, by the way, if the legislators consulted Wilbur Mills, the infamous power broker and Chairman of the  U.S. House of Representative´s Ways and Means Committee? He was still a few years away from that splendid night at the Tidal Basin, culminating in his own Waterloo at the Pilgrim Burlesque Theatre in the Combat Zone. In November, 1974 Mills walked onstage during the performance of Fanne Foxe, aka The Argentine Firecracker (his Tidal Basin playmate), (www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,911535,00.html). Later that night, he became the only member of the House of Representatives to give a press conference in the dressing room of a stripper (Fanne´s), perhaps not what the City elders had in mind when they created the Combat Zone. Alas, not even the legislative wisdom of Puritanical Boston could save Wilbur. He resigned his Ways and Means Committee chairmanship, only to go on to become Of Counsel to one of the most powerful law firms in the country. I am sure Wilbur, in a sober moment, would have preferred that news of his burlesque cameo not see the light of day. If something like that can become so public, why is it that my own past is sealed from me and the world?

The Combat Zone was around for 15 years or so, petering out in the mid 1980’s. Now it´s called the Ladder District, because the street grid there looks like the rungs of a ladder. When my mother used that Washington Street address in 1948, it was a different area, though by no means upscale. For me, in 1972, at least it was a start, a place to begin looking. It was way more information than I had an hour before. Without knowing why, it also all seemed to fit, like one of O.J.’s gloves. 

I continued to debate silently who to call to share my discovery. This was, however, 1972. Pre cell phone. I could not whip out a Smartphone and simultaneously send a text message to all my contacts. The New England Telephone pay phone was standing by itself  in the open air, under a green maple – I hoped it wasn´t the same tree they used for Jason Fairbanks.  He wasn´t making any phone calls in 1801, but he knew enough, after his murder conviction, to convince his brother to help him escape from the Dedham Jail. Unfortunately for Jason, he was soon captured, followed by a life shortening ceremony on the Dedham Town Common. In the 1920’s, Sacco and Vanzetti probably weren´t making many phone calls either, but they did have half the country up in arms about their trial and, later, execution. As opposed to those Dedham visitors, I was a free man, and the State of Massachusetts had given me what it promised – not a lot, but what it had promised, maybe even with a little empathy thrown in by the ¨don´t be hurt by what you read¨ lady, the matronly looking clerk of the Dedham Probate Court.

I didn´t call my wife, though she was the obvious choice. I am not sure why; maybe it was the payphone/long distance thing. I might not have known her work number. She only had a summer job. She may not have even had a telephone. For some reason, I am not sure why, I was going to wait until I got home to tell her – I think because I never told her I was going in the first place. Secrecy in adoption comes in all shapes and sizes.

There was no way I was telling my mother or father. Not then. Maybe not ever. It was important to me to avoid causing them any needless hurt. I had a right to know what happened to me – something I suddenly felt more strongly about now that I had a little information. But I did not have a right, let alone a desire, to unnecessarily disrupt the lives of other people. Just let me do my thing, find out the scoop, and I´ll be on the road again, thank you very much.

In 1972 I was 8 years removed from Needham High School, just down the road. Those friends (who remain friends now) were scattered. Some of them did not even know I was adopted. Like a lot of early childhood friendships, as strong as they are, months, sometimes years could go by with little or no contact. That left one person  to tell – my sister, Carol. Six years older, adopted herself (separately), we weren´t what you would call close. Still aren´t – a person of enormous talent, matched by what seemed an equal amount of stress, even anger. I was a pleaser, many times to my detriment. Carol seemed mostly pissed off. But, hey…. who would relate more than her? I convinced myself she needed to know because she might want to do the same thing herself. What if they closed the records (which is exactly what happened), and I had not told her about her right to see her own file? But the real reason I was calling had only to do with me. I wanted to tell somebody what I had done, what I had accomplished. I wanted to shout it to the world – but I also felt constrained, a little bit guilty – maybe – to be so excited about wanting to know something that so many people seemed to wish I would just sweep under a carpet.

I picked up the black phone, deposited 10 cents, and dialed my sister´s number in Needham Heights. She answered. I told her I wanted to tell her something but I first wanted her to promise me that she would not tell our parents – a co-conspiracy of my making. She agreed, and I spilled the beans. As I was telling her what I had done and what I had discovered, she did not seem all that excited. Nothing more than one word answers. Distant, common for Carol. I mentioned she might want to go look herself. No, she didn´t. It was not a long conversation, nor a pleasant one, but I was on such a high, I was not going to let her spoil the party. As I hung up the phone, perplexed but undeterred, it occurred to me that Carol was not only an adoptee, but an adoptive mother as well – something I conveniently neglected to consider before calling her. She did not want to look herself, and if she was happy for me she did a good job of hiding her enthusiasm.

Now what? Not wanting to endure the disapproval of someone else, I decided to defer my self-congratulatory calls. What could I do to find my birthmother quickly, without alerting my adoptive parents? It was tricky, and it seemed I would have to coordinate the search myself, in secrecy. My father had a local lawyer for many years, Hector Skull (how Dickensian!). Hector (never Mr. Skull) lived and maintained his law practice in Needham. I thought maybe he knew something of my adoption. I don´t know that I had spoken two words to him in my life, but a moment later I was calling directory assistance for his office number. I was soon speaking directly with him, and, like the conversation with Carol, asked if I could discuss something him that he would not mention to my parents. A short, balding man, Hector spoke in gruff, staccato sound bites. I hesitated, aware I was taking a chance (the first of many), but pushed forward. Did he know anything of the circumstances of my adoption? I told him what I had done, the information I had received. Cordial, though not impressed, Hector said he knew nothing (whether or not he did, I have no idea). He then offered some advice:  ¨Donny (they all called me Donny), my advice is to leave it alone. You are just going to open a can of worms. Inside my head, the whirling pinball tilted. No smooth sailing. This was going to be a choppy ride. Choppy or not, nothing was going to stop me, not even a few days later when I learned my sister had told our parents everything.

Earliest Memories

What were yours? At times I try to recall mine. For awhile I thought it was when I was about 6, playing in the backyard at Paul Revere Road. My parents had gone to Michigan by car, and the lady who babysat for the week let us stay out late – way past dark. I don´t remember what I was doing except that night had fallen and I was running happy. I was also a little worried that my mother and father would find out when they returned a week later. If they did, they never said anything.

But then I remember one Christmas Eve, when I was much younger. I was crying, balling – about what, I have no idea. I was in the dining room, between the white clothed table already set for Christmas dinner and the credenza topped with glass bowls of peppermint candies and cashews. Through my wet eyes in the candlelight, I watched my mother and sister lean down and sing to me: ¨You better watch out, you better not shout. Santa Claus is coming to town.¨ They were so happy, and they were just trying to make me feel better. But they were so exaggerated and looked so goofy – goofy enough I stopped crying.

One day I got lost. My parents could not find me. They were frantic. The  fire department was called. Everyone joined in searching the neighborhood for me. No one knew where I was. Finally, after several hours, they found me asleep by the coal bin in the storage shed below the second floor porch. The dirt floor shed (the same size as the porch above it) was framed in dark green lattice. The door wobbled when opened. I don´t remember going in. I don´t remember being found, but I have a vague sense of lying there asleep, neither happy nor sad.

One day, when I was a bit older, my mother caught me playing with matches. She was worried and asked the Chief of the Needham Fire Department what she should do. He suggested that she sit me down on a stool in the kitchen and make me light match after match after match. So that´s what I did, sitting near the breakfast nook in the middle of the kitchen with a large rectangular red, white and blue box of Diamond wooden safety matches. I couldn´t believe my luck. What fun! And this was supposed to be punishment? My mother got tired before I did. I can´t say whether her plan worked or not. I don´t remember what caused her concern in the first place, though I now know the famous Coconut Grove fire earlier in the 1940´s may have started when a busboy, Stanley Tomaszewski, lit a wooden safety match to illuminate an electrical socket into which he was trying to screw a lightbulb. Nightclubs, I later discovered, are an intrinsic part of my heritage. Other than roasting marshmallows, I never had a further fixation with fire, at least the ones you can see. But I still have fond memories of that day in the kitchen striking safety matches while sitting on a red topped stool, and trying not to smile.

123 Calle de Paul Revere

Ahora sé que, en muchos sentidos, yo mucha suerte pasar de una casa adosada en Dorchester a un suburbio de Boston. Llegué a Needham el 7 de mayo de 1948, apenas un mes antes de mi segundo cumpleaños. No me siento afortunado. No estoy seguro de que sabía lo que sentía. Si me preguntaran hoy para describir lo que sentía entonces (bueno, le estoy pidiendo), yo diría que estaba tratando de sentir una falta de sentimiento. Lo hice, sin embargo, pedir a mis padres con frecuencia para decirme lo que pasó, y su respuesta (sobre todo de mi madre) – con paciencia dado – seguido siempre el mismo guión. Era un baile de parejas desiguales-una búsqueda de información, por otra, poner limitarlo.
Paul Revere 123 Road (lo que una excelente!) Estaba en la sección de Tower Hill Needham Heights, y vivimos allí hasta que yo estaba en el 4 º grado en la cercana Escuela de Mitchell. El barrio fue coronada por una empinada colina en la parte superior de la Torre Hill Road, lo que hizo para la gran trineo en invierno. La ciudad utiliza para cerrar el Steet en días de nieve de la escuela, y todos los niños del vecindario corrió por el cerro blanco en sus volantes flexibles (lo que, resulta, no eran realmente tan flexible).
Mi padre lo hizo bien, muy trabajador. Tenía que salir de Centre College en Danville, Kentucky después de su primer año, a finales de 1920, porque su padre murió. Volvió a Needham a trabajar en una gasolinera y el apoyo de su madre (la abuela Humphrey vivido con nosotros desde mucho antes de que me uní a la familia hasta su muerte en la víspera de Navidad en 1959). Después de un tiempo mi padre se convirtió en un administrador de la estación. Más tarde, compró su propia estación de servicio de Needham-Humphrey, en Highland Esquinas-que todavía era conocido con ese nombre hasta bien entrada la década de 1980, mucho después de su venta.
Mi padre se convirtió en un agente local de bienes raíces en la década de 1950, finalmente, abrir su propia oficina-Humphrey Asociados-que dirigió con éxito durante años. Como insignia de la compañía, que eligió un canguro con un bebé en su bolsa. Algunas veces, para poner a un acuerdo en conjunto, un cliente podría decir que les gustó la casa en que vivía, y lo siguiente que supimos que se estaban moviendo por el camino-aunque siempre en Needham. Desde que se casó con mi madre (que se graduó de la High School secundaria de Needham juntos) hasta que se retiró en la década de 1970, mis padres vivían en 13 casas diferentes, todas en la misma ciudad. Tenía alrededor de 5 de ellos. La casa de Paul Revere fue un centro colonial de salón, amarillo y negro con persianas de un grande, redondo tallado paso piedra de molino en la entrada principal. No era una casa grande, pero es el que yo más recuerdo, tal vez porque fue allí donde hice la transición de lo que la vida que tenía antes en Boston.
Teníamos una mujer de la limpieza, Mabel, una grande y redonda Aunt Jemima que tomaron el tren desde Boston, todos los miércoles (Día Príncipe espaguetis!) Para limpiar la casa. Yo la amaba. Recuerdo un día jugando en el patio de frente por la acera cuando Mabel salió, llevando un gran delantal blanco con bolsillos amplios y profundos. Con una gran sonrisa y una voz más grande me dijo: ¨ Usted es tan lindo, un día me va a cosas que en mi bolsillo y llevarlo a casa ¨.
Me gustó la idea. Boston fue de dónde venía. Que ella quería llevarme a casa me hizo sentir bien, y me hizo pensar-aunque supongo que sabía que no era realmente va a hacer. Me pregunté si el bolsillo lo suficientemente grande. Pensé en viajar en el tren a Boston. Más tarde le dije a mi madre, feliz de que yo le gustaba Mabel. Nunca vi a Mabel de nuevo. Unas semanas más tarde, le pregunté a mi madre dónde estaba. Mi madre se inclinó hacia abajo (no llevaba un delantal): ¨ Donny, tuvimos que dejarla ir. Nos llamó la barriendo el polvo debajo de la alfombra. ¨

123 Paul Revere Road

I know now, in many ways, I lucked out moving from a row house in Dorchester to a Boston suburb. I arrived in Needham on May 7, 1948, barely a month before my second birthday. I didn´t feel lucky. I am not sure I knew what I felt. If I were asked today to describe what I was feeling then (okay, I´m asking), I would say I was trying hard to feel an absence of feeling. I did, though, ask my parents frequently to tell me what happened, and their response (mostly from my mother) – patiently given – always followed the same script. It was a dance of mismatched partners- one seeking information, the other seeking to limit it.

123 Paul Revere Road (what a great address!) was in the Tower Hill section of Needham Heights, and we lived there until I was in the 4th grade at nearby Mitchell School. The neighborhood was capped by a steep hill at the top of Tower Hill Road, which made for great sledding in winter. The town used to close off the steet on school snow days, and all the neighborhood kids raced down the white hill on their Flexible Flyers (which,  it turns out, weren´t really that flexible).

My father did well, a hard worker. He had to leave Centre College in Danville, Kentucky after his first year, in the late 1920´s, because his father died. He came back to Needham to work in a gas station and support his mother (Grandma Humphrey lived with us from well before I joined the family until her death on Christmas Eve morning in 1959). After a while my father became a station manager. Later, he bought his own station in Needham- Humphrey´s Service, at Highland Corners- it was still known by that name well into the 1980´s, long after it was sold.

My father became a local real estate broker in the 1950´s, finally opening his own office- Humphrey Associates- which he ran successfully for years. As a company logo, he chose a kangaroo with a little baby in its pouch. Some times, to put a deal together, a client would say they liked the house we were living in, and the next thing we knew we were moving on down the road- though always in Needham. From the time he married my mother (they graduated from Needham High School together) until they retired in the 1970´s, my parents lived in 13 different homes, all in the same town. I was around for 6 of them. The Paul Revere house was a center hall colonial, yellow with black shutters and a large, round carved millstone step at the front entrance. It was not a big house, but it is the one I most remember, maybe because it was there that I made the transition from whatever life I had before in Boston.

We had a cleaning woman, Mabel, a big round Aunt Jemima who took the train out from Boston every Wednesday (Prince Spaghetti Day!) to clean the house. I loved her. I remember one day playing in the front yard, out where we burned Fall leaves by the curb, when Mabel came out. She was wearing a big white apron with  wide and deep pockets. With a big smile and a bigger voice she said: ¨You is so cute, one day I am gonna stuff you in my pocket and take you home.¨

I liked the idea. Boston was where I came from. That she wanted to take me home made me feel good, and it made me wonder- even though I guess I knew she wasn´t really going to do it. I wondered if her pocket was big enough. I thought about riding the train to Boston. Later I told my mother,  happy that Mabel liked me. I never saw Mabel again. A few weeks later, I asked my mother where she was. My mother leaned down (she wasn´t wearing an apron): ¨Donny, we had to let her go. We caught her sweeping dust under the carpet.¨