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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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.

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.

Entering Deadham

Dedham, Massachusetts is immediately southwest of Boston. It´s also right next to Needham, where I spent my childhood – or at least that part of  it I then knew about. The oldest surviving timber frame house in America (the Fairbanks House, dating to 1637) is located in Dedham, at 511 East Street. In part, I think, because my personal history was truncated, I have always been fascinated by really old things. My mother once took me to see the Fairbanks house (really cool), though I don´t remember Jason Fairbanks, one of the family members, being mentioned. Jason, born with a crippled arm and in frail health, was accused, and later convicted, of murdering his sweetheart, Betsey Fales in 1801. He was 21 and subsequently hung in Dedham´s Town Common, before a crowd of 10,000. While he may well have been guilty, a review of the reports of the trial cause one to wonder about the administration of justice in Dedham, the County seat of Norfolk County. (http://tarlton.law.utexas.edu/lpop/etext/lsf/cohen17.htm).

Dedham was also the location, years later, of the infamous Sacco and Vanzetti trial, which didn´t really turn out that well for those guys, who were electrocuted at Charlestown State Prison in 1927.  (www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/saccov/saccov.htm). If the sensationalism of the Fairbanks and Sacco and Vanzetti trials are attributed to being a misguided product of the times in which they lived, is sealing adoption records and denying personal histories to otherwise innocent people simply a misguided product of our times?

I wasn´t accused of anything, other than being an adoptee, an adult one at that (another pet peeve, by the way! I’m an adult – what if I don´t want to be an adoptee anymore?). But I am getting ahead of myself.. . . . .  Having parked the Volvo (legally this time, though I would have been happy to collect another ticket), I entered the Norfolk Probate Court around 3 o´clock that afternoon, set to do battle for my adoption records. At that time, the Probate Court was located at 649 High Street in the same building as the Norfolk County Registry of Deeds, a place I had been to several times with my father when he had to look up a deed or file papers. In none of those trips did he ever mention to me that this was also the place where I was formally adopted. Maybe he didn´t think of it, though many years later, long after I had completed my search, he added a few details to My Chosen Baby Story. What I sensed all along became apparent – my Chosen Baby Story was based mostly on what my parents, however well-meaning, Chose to tell me. Chosen had more than one meaning.

I had the black book of Massachusetts statutes under my arm. I also had the photocopy of the law permitting access to my records, along with the certified copy of my (adopted) birth certificate. At the top of the stairs I found the entrance to the Probate Clerk´s office and opened them to a prior life – not just my prior life. Walking into the Clerk´s office was like walking in to 1946, or even earlier, though 1946 would do for me. There was a lot of wood, oak mostly. Along the right side was a row of offices – cubicles really – constructed from metal partitions, painted green. From the waist up was glass, and all the cubicles lacked ceilings. You could see the clerks working, indeed hear snippets of their conversations, typewriters clacking, but their spaces were otherwise private.

In front of the entrance was a large oak table, with 4 or 6 oak chairs. It was empty, and no one was sitting there. To the left of the entrance, right beside the oak table, was a photocopy machine. On the left side of the room, opposite the cubicles, was a long counter, behind which were stacks of file cabinets. A young clerk (younger than me and I was just 26) was manning the desk. I had previously decided that my first foray would simply be to requisition my file and see what happened. The clerk seemed friendly enough. One thing you can petty much count on in New England, even more so near Boston, is to commiserate about the Red Sox, at that time in their 54th year of suffering without winning a World Series (it continued for another 32 miserable years until 2004). On top of that, the Sox had lost the day before at Fenway to the Oakland Athletics, 6-3.

How you doin? Watcha need?

Good man, but I´d be doin better if the Sox hadn´t dropped 2 of 3 to the A’s.

Yeah, can you believe it? Well, yeah, I guess we can – gettin to be that time of year for their annual August swoon. What can I do you for?

Need to requisition a file.

Sure no problem, just fill out that slip.

And just like that I was on my way. I filled out the information and handed it to the clerk. He promised he´d be right back, and I watched him disappear toward the back of the stacks.

A few minutes later he reappeared with a file in his hands. He was done speaking to me. In fact he was done looking at me. He took the file into the office of one of the clerks, a large middle-aged woman. She stood up to receive the file. I noticed two things. Her breasts were gargantuan, and the file was very thin. She shut her door.

The young clerk went back behind his counter, saying nothing (why?). I was left, somewhat unceremoniously, outside  looking in. I was able to watch everything she did. She returned to her desk, sat down and opened my file. She did not look at or acknowledge me, but she looked at the file intently. She studied everything. I flushed red, quietly telling myself to keep my cool. She did not smile, neither at the papers nor me.

After what seemed like 2 years, she got up and walked to the door of her cubicle, my file cradled to her breasts with the full weight of her being. I have never been so uninterested in a pair of breasts in my life. She opened the door, still clutching the file. Acknowledging me, she asked what I wanted (as if she didn´t know).

¨My file. I have my birth certificate. It´s certified, and I have the statute.¨

I was prepared for anything. More than anything else (I kept reminding myself), I only wanted to be successful. I only wanted what she held in her hands. A few moments passed. She seemed to consider what to do. She did not invite me into her cubicle, though there was a chair facing her desk. A few moments passed. Finally, she said to me ¨You know, don´t ever ne hurt by what you read.¨

I thought to myself: ¨She´s telling me I am illegitimate¨. I brushed off its significance. Not knowing what else to say and sensing she was about to give me the papers anyways, I mustered an ¨Okay¨.

Just like that, she handed it to me and motioned to the oak table. I walked over, sat down alone, and opened the file. What I found made me realize, in time, that the woman – in telling me not to be hurt by anything I read – may have meant something entirely different from I had thought.

Mi Historia de Bebe Elegida – para mis amigos que dicen Español

Desde que tengo memoria Yo sabía que era adoptado. Desde que tenía 2 años, yo crecí en Needham, Massachusetts, 12 millas al oeste de Boston. Mis padres adoptivos (mamá y papá a mí, a veces Ruth y Gorham) había un guión preparado para mí cada vez que le pregunté. Le pregunté a un lote. La historia es como sigue

Un día el Dr. Donohue, nuestro médico de cabecera, nos dijeron que era un niño pequeño, listo para ser aprobado, que era casi 2 años de edad y vivía en Boston (que yo). Nos metimos en el coche (un Studebaker de 1940) y se dirigió a Boston. Fuimos a una casa adosada en Dorchester o Quincy, y una señora nos hizo pasar a la sala (“¿Era mi madre?” – Le pregunté a cada vez que llegamos a este punto). No, no lo fue Donny (que siempre me llamó Donny). No fue tu madre y todo estaba sucio. La señora le trajo desde otra habitación. Usted llevaba una chaqueta de bombardero sucio marrón (en la casa?) Y sucios había pelo rubio y rizado. Lo primero que hizo fue padre de un puñetazo en la nariz (resulta que puede haber sido genética). Decidimos en ese mismo momento para llevarte a casa, y nos dirigimos al regresar a la casa (123 Paul Revere Road). Tu hermana Carol entró, echó un vistazo, y se fue corriendo por la calle. Papá dijo que “lo que hemos hecho ahora?” Carol estaba tan emocionada que quería decirles a todos que ella tenía un hermano recién nacido (se ponía menos entusiasmado después). Usted estaba tan sucio que quemaron toda la ropa. Y se procedió a tener todas las enfermedades en la parotiditis libros, sarampión, varicela – lo que sea. Una tras otra. Usted no hablar o llorar por 6 meses y un día, mientras estaba arriba, le pidió un vaso de agua. (Donny se reincorpora al mundo).

No importa cuántas maneras diferentes pregunté (y he intentado todo – escuchando con atención, esperando cada palabra, cada matiz), la secuencia de comandos siempre fueron las mismas, hasta muchos años después. Tenía los puntos esenciales de un clásico de historia escogida Bebé – me detuvieron, me quería. No fue el viaje a Boston, el puñetazo en la nariz, la ropa sucia. Grabación de la ropa fue un vuelco de la trama que fue tal vez un poco por encima, que yo no acababa de entender hasta muchos años después.

A veces me preguntó por mi madre biológica, aunque se cuidó de no hacerlo demasiado, de alguna manera consciente de que era sensible territorio – no sólo la pregunta pero la respuesta. Mi búsqueda de la respuesta es lo que este blog es sobre – una búsqueda de 12 años que me llevó de Boston, a Nueva York, Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, de vuelta a Boston de nuevo y finalmente a Michigan. Pero en cuanto a la pregunta sobre mi madre biológica, me acuerdo de mamá, con un delantal de dientes de león amarillo, apoyado en sus rodillas para bajar a mi nivel del ojo, justo al lado de la mesa del desayuno rincón negro donde me escondí un sándwich de ensalada de huevo en la parte baja de madera cajón, en lugar de tener que comer. · Tu mamá te quería mucho Donny. Ella no podía cuidar de ti. ¨ De todos los recuerdos de mi madre-un producto post-victoriano del 1950’s-No puedo pensar en cualquier cosa que ella nunca me dijo con más sentimiento.

My Chosen Baby Story

For as long as I can remember I knew I was adopted. From the time I was 2 years old, I grew up in Needham, Massachusetts, 12 miles west of Boston. My adoptive parents (mom and dad to me, sometimes Ruth and Gorham) had a prepared script for me each time I asked what happened. I asked a lot.  The story goes like this:

One day Dr. Donohue, our family doctor, told us there was a little boy, ready to be adopted, who was almost 2 years old and lived in Boston (that would be me). We got in the car (a 1940´s Studebaker) and drove to Boston. We went to a row house in Dorchester or Quincy, and a lady showed us into the parlour (‘Was it my mother?’- I asked every time we reached this point). No it wasn´t Donny (they always called me Donny). It wasn´t your mother and everything was filthy. The lady brought you in from another room. You wore a dirty brown bomber jacket (in the house?) and had dirty curly blond hair. The first thing you did was punch your father in the nose (turns out that may have been genetic). We decided right then and there to bring you home, and we drove back with you to the house (123 Paul Revere Road). Your sister Carol came in, took one look, and ran off down the street. Your father said ‘what have we done now?’ Carol was just so excited she wanted to tell everyone she had a new baby brother (she´d get less excited later). You were so dirty we burned all your clothes. And you proceeded to have every disease in the books mumps, measles, chicken pox –  you name it. One right after another. You didn´t talk or cry for 6 months and then one day, while you were upstairs,  you asked for a glass of water. (Donny rejoins the world).

No matter how many different ways I asked (and I tried everything – listening intently, hanging on every word, every nuance), the script always remained the same until, many years later, a few more important facts were added. It had the essential points of a classic Chosen Baby Story – I was picked, I was wanted. There was the trip to Boston, the punch in the nose, the dirty clothes. Burning the clothes was a plot twist that was maybe a little over the top, one I didn´t fully understand until 1980.

Sometimes I asked about my birthmother, though I was careful not to do it too much, somehow aware it was sensitive territory – not just the question but the answer. My search for the answer  is what this blog is about – a 12 year search that took me from Boston, to New York, Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, back to Boston again and finally to Michigan. But as to the question about my birthmother, I remember my mother, wearing an apron full of yellow dandelions, leaning on her knees to get down to my eye level, right beside the black breakfast nook table – where a few weeks before I hid an egg salad sandwich in the small wooden drawer, rather than have to eat it. ¨Your mother loved you very much Donny. She just couldn´t take care of you.¨ Of all the memories of my adoptive mother-a post-Victorian product of the 1950´s- I can´t think of anything she ever said to me with more feeling.