Procrastination

I took a break – a fact some of you (gently) brought to my attention. I’d like to say I was writing something else. I was, in a manner of speaking,  though the words have yet to actually appear on a page. I would be a great writer if I didn’t have to print my words (I’m going to let the joke about eating them move on down the road). I’ve spent 3 months, more, researching the Lizzie Borden murder case of 1892 in Fall River, Massachusetts – the trial transcript and newspaper accounts from all corners of the globe. Growing up in Massachusetts, we skipped rope to the popular rhyme: “Lizzie Borden took an axe, and gave her mother forty whacks, when she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one.” Nevermind that the rhyme is wrong, on at least four counts. We sang it, and we believed it. Lizzie Borden was creepily guilty. We didn’t need to read about it. Who would make up a rhyme like that if it weren’t true? We didn’t learn about it in school (it would have made a great college course). We knew of it solely from the playground, and no one questioned whether or not Lizzie was guilty; no one knew she had been tried and acquitted; no one much cared.

It is generally referred to as the Lizzie Borden case. In fact, the victims were Andrew Borden and his wife, Abby (Lizzie’s father and, alas, stepmother – a distinction which were among the first words to come out of Lizzie’s mouth when the police sought to question her the morning of the murders). It was apparently important to Lizzie that dear Abby (dear Abby?) not be confused with Lizzie’s real mother, the one who counted in Lizzie’s eyes (though her “real” mother died when Lizzie was barely 3 years old; Abby had been around for about 27 years).

The police investigation was slipshod, even given the forensic limitations of the times. Fingerprinting, though dating back to the times of Hammurabi,  was not yet considered reliable. In the same year of the Borden murders, an Argentinian police chief obtained a confession from a mother to the murder of her two sons after he confronted her with evidence of her bloody thumbprint at the murder scene. No attempt was made, though, to obtain fingerprints from the Borden house. The premises were not even formally searched until several days later (there was a more cursory search when the police first arrived on August 4th), while Lizzie and Emma were at the cemetery for internment services. The (remaining) occupants of the household (Lizzie, Emma, the maid, and a visiting uncle) were allowed to come and go as they pleased, though they were closely followed if they left the house. On the Sunday after the murders, Lizzie was seen burning a dress on the kitchen stove, quite possibly the dress worn by her on the morning of the murders. A friend (with raised eyebrows) suggested to Lizzie that perhaps burning the dress was not an appropriate thing to do, particularly when there was a police officer standing sentry in the backyard. Lizzie’s response? She stepped to the right so as to be out of view of the police officer.

With all of the police bumbling, there was still one seemingly inescapable conclusion: the only people in or around the house at the time of the murders (which were committed approximately an hour and a half apart, between 9 and 10:30 a.m. on August 4, 1892) were Lizzie and the maid, Bridgett Sullivan. Suspicion quickly centered on Lizzie. In the following week she was summoned to testify before a private inquest. She was not permitted to have the benefit of her own counsel and was subjected to a lengthy questioning that was more in the nature of a cross-examination – indeed, a badgering. Upon the conclusion of the inquest Lizzie was formally arrested. Rather than incarcerate her with the other women prisoners, Lizzie was permitted to take up residence in the matron’s quarters in the police station, from which she regularly sent out for dinner and other perks to make her stay more enjoyable. She read Charles Dickens, and she entertained visitors. The police themselves seemed conflicted about whether a woman of Lizzie’s social standing (and prior unblemished record), a regular church-goer, could possibly be guilty of such a horrific crime.

The “did she or didn’t she” part doesn’t much interest me (I think she did). For the record, though, it was not 40 whacks, and then 41 for her father. Abby received 18 or 19, while poor Andrew suffered 12 or so. In both cases, more than enough to get the job done. Dead is dead. The fact that it was more than enough (I think), points to the rage of the murderer. While not conclusive, many hackings of that sort are the result of personal relations (many times family members) going woefully adrift. It seems preposterous to suggest an unknown intruder snuck into the house, hacked Abby to death, then hid for an hour and a half, hacked Andrew to death, then made his (her?) escape in broad daylight from a house fronting on one of the busiest streets near the center of town.  Even so, and assuming the culprit was Lizzie, the police were gloriously inadequate in constructing the necessary circumstantial case against her.

There is a new book just published, Parallel Lives, which purports to provide an in-depth look at Lizzie (she changed her name to Lizbeth after the murders) and Fall River in the Gilded Age. The Gilded Age is a term coined  by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in the book they co-authored: The Gilded Age: A Tale of TodayInstead of a Golden Age, Twain and Warner saw the societal excesses (read Newport mansions) brought on by the exponential growth of the modern industrial economy as “gilded,” with all of the ostentatious wealth nothing more than a thin veneer of gold. The same might be said about other periods in American history that spawned McMansions on places like Nantucket Island and the sale of $20 million apartments in Manhattan.

Parallel Lives is 1000 pages – that should keep me busy for another 3 months. I want to read it (and I would if it weren’t so damn expensive). There is something fascinating about the Borden case and the times in which it happened; about the fact that a gruesome double murder became “news” not only across the rapidly expanding United States, but throughout many parts of the world – all without benefit of television, Internet, e-mails, cell phones, fax machines, cars, and for the most part, telephones. It is true that the first official notification of the crime was made (not from the Borden house but a nearby commercial establishment) to the Fall River Central Station Police Headquaters by telephone. But that call resulted only in the police sending a junior officer to investigate, by walking over dirt roads the short distance to the Borden residence at 92 Second Street. Once there, the officer was shown the body of Andrew Borden, hacked to death on a sitting room settee, one eye-ball split in two. It wasn’t pretty. There was no mention, indeed no thought, of Abby, except that she perhaps was out because (according to Lizzie) a note had been received that same morning about someone taking sick. Neither the “note” nor the “sick” friend was ever found. The police officer dutifully walked back to the Central Station to report the murder of Andrew, saying something to the effect: “He’s dead.” Following instructions, he then returned to the house, whereupon the body of Abby was discovered in an upstairs guest room. It also was not pretty. Once again the police officer again walked (well, let’s hope he was at least trotting) back to Central Station to amend his report: “She’s dead too!” And thus begat the most intense of police investigations, seemingly unrivaled (at least to that point in our history) both in thoroughness and incompetence, with a little corruption thrown in for good measure (see the “Trickey Affair”).

Parallel Lives promises to provide us with another, more in-depth, view of Lizzie and the Fall River in which she lived. The authors, members of the Fall River Historical Society, do not try to solve the murder (smart), but promise new documentation of the life and times of Lizzie Borden. Okay, we know she was kind to animals (she left a part of her estate to endow the Fall River Animal Society), and sometimes had sticky fingers in the downtown department stores. Those hawking the book on websites and in other places promise that a reading of Parallel Lives is an “eye-opening” experience – a strange choice of words considering Andrew’s fate. Andrew and Abby have now been dead for close to 110 years; Lizzie and her sister Emma (they died within a week of one another) have been gone for going on 80 years. There is an economic benefit to many for keeping the murders a mystery. I don’t have a problem with that. It got me to read through all the newspaper articles, a fascinating journey. Without the mystery, there’s less to talk about and much less money for those interested in making it. But the idea behind Parallel Lives is a good one. What is most fascinating about the Borden murders and the trial of Lizzie is the times in which it occurred, in the waning moments of the 18th century. Yet it was a criminal case that mesmerized the entire United States, even the world. Crowds of people jostled to read the wall to wall newspaper coverage, as each edition was taped outside the newspaper offices fresh off the printing presses. Something like 55 reporters covered every day of the trial, along with telegraph runners to get each story published at the first moment possible. Sketch artists provided in-depth scenes inside the Court room, and both the Government and Lizzie were represented by the best available lawyers.

If the Borden murders happened today, Lizzie would get her 15 minutes of fame (whacking someone with a blunt instrument will do that). But she would probably not get much more than, say, Edgar Smith got back in 1968, when he wrote his book while on death row (Brief Against Death). Championed by William F. Buckley, Jr., (of all people) Smith argued his murder conviction was all a horrific mistake. I read the book and was convinced. I was on his side, one of the few times I found myself agreeing with Buckley. Edgar finally got a new trial. Just before the trial was about to start, he copped a plea to manslaughter in exchange for time served. Before he was off the Courthouse steps, Smith let everyone know his plea was a fraud, made only to guarantee his release from prison. I nodded approvingly. Who could blame him? We’d all do the same thing. That was all well and good, until Edgar went out and tried to kill another girl in 1976. He was caught almost red-handed. Whoops. It was all a lie, even though – in a brief showing of chutzpah – the now twice accused felon tried to defend the second attempted murder charge by citing the claimed injustices of his first murder conviction. Huh? The result: guilty and life in prison. So far as I know, that is where Smith remains, far from the public view, his 15 minutes on the scrap pile. And yet Lizzie, who was exonerated by a jury of her “peers” (translation: 12 rural male farmers), remains in our consciousness.

When Lizzie Borden confronted her “peers” in June of 1893, it was, perhaps, the first truly great “trial of the century.” That it occurred in a country courthouse in New Bedford, Massachusetts with the windows open (no air conditioning) and a cow mooing in an adjacent pasture did not stop celebrities from attending, usually arriving by train from Boston – the same train that Dr. Edward Stickney Wood, a Harvard University chemistry professor and the prosecution’s expert witness, used to travel back and forth from his Cambridge offices, sometimes with the severed skulls of the victims in a dark valise at his side. There was even a celebrity reporter, Joe Howard, infamous in his own right – an 18th century Dominick Dunne (or maybe it should be the other way around). He signed his columns Howard and provided the world with much of the flavor and atmosphere inside the Courtroom. Reading his articles is a treat.

Nowadays, a trial of the century seems to come along every ten years or so, but the Lizzie Borden case was from a different era. It was a link in the chain between rural America and modern communication. Word of mouth, newspapers, magazines, telegraph – these were the ways in which the news and gossip of that case was devoured by people all over the world. In 1892, people traveled by train and carriage, maybe a horse, or they walked. One day soon after the double murders, a man walked all the way from New Bedford to the  Fall River Central Precinct Police Station to confess to the crimes. He asked to be hanged immediately. It soon became apparent he was a little bit “off” from having served in the War Between the States. On the promise of his family to “look after” him, he was sent home. They were different times indeed.

There are parallels to O.J. Simpson. O.J. lingered in our public consciousness because he was already a star athlete (retired) and celebrity. There was nothing star-studded about Lizzie. In fact, because Lizzie was so “ordinary” – a churchgoing, Victorian spinster living at home with her father and step-mother – it made the accusations against her all the more extraordinary. But even O.J., in time, wore on our patience, to the point where his (incredible) feats on the football field were more an embarrassment than an accomplishment . Both crimes were grisly, and the evidence pointed to the guilt of each accused. In 2004, the public had trouble accepting that a celebrity, a national sports icon, known for leaping through airports in Hertz car rental ads (as a female helpfully implored “run O.J., run!”), could be guilty of such a horrendous crime. Many in the black community thought Simpson was being treated differently solely because he was black, an interesting twist for someone who had seemingly “made it” in white society. Others shook their heads as they watched O.J. hunkered down in the back seat of that white Ford Bronco, ominously followed by all those patrol cars and police helicopters. When we found out he had $10,000 in cash with him and seemed headed for Mexico, the tide of public opinion took a seismic shift towards guilt. Simpson’s days of superstardom were soon to be replaced by a lifetime of super ignominy.

In 1892 the public had trouble accepting that Lizzie, a Victorian single woman living at home (all of 32), could be guilty of splitting open the heads of her father and step-mother. Lizzie was a 9th generation Fall River resident and, yes, even distantly related to the same clan that brought us Borden’s milk. O.J. used a knife. Lizzie was accused of using a hatchet (which was never recovered – it may have been tossed in the slop of a backyard outhouse or the handle may have been burned on the kitchen stove, along with the dress which Lizzie wore the day of the murders). There were seemingly tense family relations in both instances. O.J., it soon became apparent, was insanely jealous and had a history of domestic issues with Nicole, his ex-wife. Lizzie barely spoke to her stepmother, and both she and her sister implored their father to move out of Second Street (which had no indoor plumbing or other modern improvements of the age) to a wealthier section of town. Andrew was a good businessman. He also was cheap. 92 Second Street was a house of locked doors.

Both O.J. and Lizzie had financial resources to pay for the best legal help. Each trial endured questionable judicial decisions and actions. Both trials attracted worldwide attention. The public ultimately came to accept  that both Lizzie and O.J. committed the crimes. Even though both were acquitted, they were convicted in the Court of public opinion. Lizzie went on to a relatively quiet life in the better part of town (motive?), save for a little shop-lifting and a dalliance with a lesbian actress (Nance O’Neill), with whom Lizzie may or may not have had an affair. She was also kind to animals.  O.J. went on to commit other nefarious acts, succeeding in falling even further from grace. In addition, Simpson was held accountable for the murders in a civil lawsuit (requiring a less stringent burden of proof), something unheard of in Lizzie’s day. There also did not appear to be anyone around in Lizzie’s time with either the money or fortitude for such a lawsuit. Lizzie’s sister, Emma (who was out-of-town visiting friends the week of the murders), moved with Lizzie to the house on French Street in the better part of Fall River. They called it Maplecroft. Whether or not Lizzie committed the murders, she and her sister (from whom she subsequently became mysteriously estranged), ended up with what they claimed was lacking when her father and step-mother were alive.

In both cases there was evidence of police incompetence, perhaps worse. The public was ravenous for information. What is fascinating is the manner in which the press met the needs of the feeding frenzy in 1892 and 1893.   One deputized Rhode Island private detective (Edwin D. McHenry) in the Lizzie Borden case sold phony information to the press (the “Trickey Affair”). Henry G. Trickey (Dickens would have liked his name) was a young star reporter for the Boston Globe. He arranged to buy information concerning the police investigation from McHenry, who had been deputized to help with the murder investigation (which had already grown well beyond the capacity of the Fall River Police Department). The information, the $500 payment for which was presumably authorized by Lizzie herself (to find out what the prosecution had up its sleeve), was scandalous. It claimed that, the night before the murders, Andrew discovered Lizzie was pregnant and confronted her, whereupon Lizzie refused to reveal the name of the man who had impregnated her. Andrew essentially threatened to throw Lizzie from the house. Armed with this information and the names of numerous witnesses allegedly prepared to swear to its truth, the Boston Globe rushed into print with a front page story. The case had been broken! Lizzie was pregnant! The only problem was . . . it was all a big fat lie. The story was concocted and Trickey (?) and the Globe were duped. With egg on its printers, the Globe rushed an apology into print and thereafter wrote generally favorable and sympathetic stories about Lizzie throughout the course of the ordeal. Trickey, for his part, took off, first visiting his family in Illinois, then heading to Ontario, Canada to escape indictment (a sealed indictment was handed down at the same time as the formal indictment for Lizzie). Once in Canada, he registered in a hotel, using the name Henry Meltzar. On December 3, 1892, Trickey attempted to board a moving westbound train in a Canadian depot when he lost his footing and fell to his death. The whole Trickey affair paid dividends for Lizzie in the court of public opinion, where a debate raged as to the true meaning of innocent until proven guilty.

You could say, concerning Back Bay Baby (oh yeah, the adoption story….), that I have been procrastinating. Guilty. I think anyone who has undertaken a search for their personal history, especially those who were in any sense abandoned, will understand. It is interesting to me that I chose this point in Back Bay Baby to take a break.  With the success in getting access to my birth records came both excitement and fear. The fear part had to do with having to accept what I already knew – somebody gave me away. Looking at the signature of my mother, Virginia, on the Petition for Adoption, somehow made things different. It was no longer what someone was telling me, following a script that even I recognized concealed as much as informed. Was that a good thing? One can say, and it would be right, that my adoptive parents did not wish any further harm to come to me. In time, I would come to see there was more to it than that.  But after that day at the Dedham Probate Court came the limited success of the Simmons Detective Agency, interspersed with my foray into the adoption reform movement.  The rap groups were filled with sharing and with pain. I felt for the others, but I also withdrew. I told myself I just wanted to find my mother, just wanted to know what happened to me. I was very lawyerly about it, removed almost, as if I were my own client. As Abe Lincoln pointed out, that is not usually a good thing.

In the Fall of 1972, after speaking with Emma May Vilardi, I took personal control of my search, with her help. It became quickly obvious this was not a search that was going to be completed overnight. That had, perhaps, as much to do with me as with the circumstances. I think adoptees, in general, search in relation to their emotional well-being. It’s no secret that many adoptees begin looking shortly after they get married, or around the time they have a child. While I began searching about a year after I got married, it was more a matter of coincidence because that was when I discovered I could see my adoption records. If I had found out earlier, I would have started earlier. But the pace with which I undertook the search was tied to my emotional well-being – there were plenty of times when, for whatever reason, I crawled back into the rabbit hole and hung out, my “search” suspended.  There were any number of ready excuses. In a pre-Internet age, access to records and public information was decentralized, more difficult. Further, I was in my second year of law school in New York City. I was commuting back and forth to classes, a half hour drive each way. And I also got a job clerking at a labor law firm in Manhattan. The firm was a short walk from the New York City Public Library, which runs along Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets.

While the idea for the Library came out of the Gilded Age, the cornerstone was not laid until 1902. The building was not opened until 1911, a year after my adoptive father and mother were born and a year before the greatest ship ever built met an iceberg built better. The library building, facing Fifth Avenue, is graced by 2 enormous stone lions, originally named Leo Astor and Leo Lenox, after the  founders. Later the lions’ names were changed to Lady Astor and Lord Lenox, a nice touch which ignored the fact the lions were both male. Finally, in the 1930’s Mayor Fiorello La Guardia nicknamed them “Patience” (the one to the south)  and “Fortitude,” qualities he felt New Yorkers would need to survive the Great Depression. LaGuardia, considered one of history’s best big city Mayors, used to sit as a Judge in New York City Municipal Court while he was Mayor. He once presided over a misdemeanor case against a woman accused of stealing a loaf of bread. She said she stole it to feed her family. LaGuardia insisted on fining her $10, then announced he was fining everyone in the Courtroom 50 cents for living in a city where a woman needs to steal a loaf of bread to feed her family. With her fine paid, the woman left the Courtroom with close to $50.00. Not a bad guy.

In late 1972 I walked between Patience and Fortitude for the first time, turned right to walk through the great reading room (worth the trip in itself) and made it to the Genealogy Department. I was told to keep things quiet, not because it was a library but rather because I was looking for information to which some people thought I might not be entitled. All I was going to do was search the birth and microfilm records for any mention of Virginia Peters or Edward Yedlin. I searched birth records, telephone records, voter registration lists, starting in the 1920’s for birth records and in the mid 1940’s for telephone and voter registrations. There were adoptees searching there for their own information, sitting at large wood tables and pouring over birth record books.

Like almost all other states New York sealed its records upon an adoption, but hospitals were required to report births within 15 days. Those records were compiled in Birth Record books, copies of which were kept in the Library. Later, once adopted, the information from the original birth certificate would be “amended,” with the adoptive parents added and the original parent/parents deleted. All other information remained the same, including the birth certificate number. No attempt was made to amend the birth record indexes. Thus, if you were born in New York City, you could use the identifying number on your amended birth certificate to search through all the birth record books for the year in which you were born. It was like beating the system, a little known (at that time) fact that genealogists shared with one another.The records, however, were not chronological (for one thing they were compiled from among the 5 separate boroughs of New York City – Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island.) Thus, one needed to look through all of the thousands of births recorded for a particular year of birth (and sometimes overlapping into the following year). The typeset was small, and the searching tedious. One distraction and the number could be missed. Sometimes books were searched two and three times. Since I was born in Massachusetts and already had my identifying information, I didn’t need the birth record books for that purpose. However, I soon found myself helping others find their records, sometimes spending hours looking through the books, certificate number by certificate number, solely to see the look on the face of another adopted person discovering a crucial part of their identity. Painstakingly, with an emphasis on pain. Another form of procrastination, but one with a good purpose.

At the time, the word was that the professional librarians who worked in the genealogy department did not approve of people using their records to “subvert” the sealed records laws. Rumor was that they would not help. The aura was that it was wrong (as if adoptees needed anyone else to add to their guilt). Nevertheless I played the game, never divulging the reason why I was looking and, indeed, not asking for help unless it was absolutely necessary. If it was, I made up a story. Either I was a surprisingly effective liar or they really did not care, because I never encountered one bit of resistance.

In time, I located a number of families named Yedlin (the surname of my mother’s husband) in the phone directories, the last one in the 1950’s. There was one address in particular on the upper West Side, which happened to be in the same neighborhood where my wife’s uncle lived with his family. I made note of every entry and, of course, searched all the current telephone records as well. After discussing this with Emma May, I then expanded the search and located other Yedlins (fortunately not a common name) throughout the country. In particular, there were a number in New York, some in Florida, and in a few other places. After I compiled the information, which I accumulated over the course of several months, I did absolutely nothing with it. I was not really sure what to do, other than to call. The few numbers I did try were no longer in service. Also, I did not like lying, at least not about this. I didn’t think I could pull it off. It was one thing to go see my birth records, another to have a detective agency search, a third to gather information from public records. But now I needed to act, and that was difficult. It involved picking up the phone, actively engaging people in my search. I felt like I was betraying my adoptive parents and, in general, doing something I was not supposed to be doing. I had it pretty good – grew up in a nice house, summer-house in New Hampshire, good friends from high school and college, married to a nice person, in my second year of law school. Was I just opening a can of worms? Was it fair to my parents to go behind their backs searching for the persons and the place from which they saved me? As much as I felt guilty, I also felt compelled to proceed. My head could not register the conflict among feelings that I did not seem able to control. The result? Procrastination.

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.

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.

Side-tracked

I got a message on Facebook the other day from someone who took offense to my using the word birthmother. I was glad to receive it. It made me stop and think about how I describe Virginia Peters. Sometimes I just use her name, Virginia M. Peters. Other times I use mother. I have no trouble with that, though I admit using mom usually does not feel right. Still other times, I`ve used birthmother. And it is the use of that word to which my Facebook friend objects. Believing the correct term should be ¨first mother,¨ she said: ¨Every child has a first mother, the one who conceives, nurtures and carries him until he is ready to be born. She is the one who has all the right material to raise her baby. Please call us first mothers.¨

Hmmmmm. That set me thinking. Years ago the term was biological mother. That fell out of favor, and the term birthmother gained popularity. Now, many mothers who have surrendered their child to adoption wish to be referred to as first mothers. I am sensitive to the names used in adoption (I was adopted, but I do not always like to be referred to as an adoptee). If a mother relinquished her child for adoption and wants to be called the first mother, I respect that. When, in my story, I try that term on for size, it does not ring true for me.

But my friend has a point. Now that I think about it, the term birthmother does not feel quite right either. Maybe I am guilty of simply using outdated and time-worn terminology. Birthmother, as a term, implies the single act of giving birth. In my case, my mother not only conceived and gave birth to me, she kept me for the better part of 2 years. Then she gave me away. To refer to her solely as a birthmother acknowledges only the act of giving birth and nothing more (even though, in trying to come to terms with everything, I have, at times, called her a few other things that might not quite fit either). One could reasonably argue that Virginia Peters was my first mother, as in she was the first person in my life who was also my mother. But I don’t want to use a term simply because others tell me to do so. I don’t want to use it because others tell me to do otherwise demonstrates a lack of respect for all women who have relinquished their child for adoption. I do respect them. But I also I want to respect my mothers, both of them. I want to respect myself as well. For my story, I want to use terms that work for me, that feel right to me.

Years ago, when I was a lawyer, I represented a courageous woman, Marilyn Burson. In the 1960’s Marilyn found herself alone and pregnant in Buffalo, New York. She tried desperately to keep her baby boy. She was very close to working it out, but the right combination of family support and a steady income were devastatingly elusive. She wrestled back and forth with what to do, while the Agency involved pushed her towards adoption. Finally, when all else seemed hopeless, she agreed, on one condition: that if the Agency were not able to arrange a suitable adoption, Marilyn would get her boy back. After she signed the relinquishment papers (after receiving reassurances about her condition), she continued to search for the economic means for the return of her baby. She wrote letters to the agency, asking for news of her baby and seeking his return. The letters went unanswered. She visited the agency and was rebuffed. She received no further information. Years went by with no word. As the political climate began to change a bit in the 1980’s, Marilyn kept pressing the Agency for information. She delivered a letter to the Agency on her boy’s 18th birthday, in case he wanted to look for her. Incredibly, more than 20 years after she had (conditionally) relinquished her baby boy for adoption, the Agency told her the awful truth. The baby had been placed in a home nearby for prospective adoption. Within just a few weeks, and before any adoption, the baby was electrocuted when he touched both an old television and electrical outlet simultaneously. The prospective adoptive parents were not even home when the tragedy occurred. The boy was dead instantly, and no one bothered to tell the mother. Marilyn was not a birthmother (though there is a photo of her from an adoption march holding a sign saying ¨birthparents care forever¨). She was not even a first mother. She was, simply, the mother, a mother the Agency totally ignored for over 20 years. The baby was buried in the family plot of the prospective adoptive family, and the truth was kept from Marilyn. When she found out the basics of what happened, she sued to unseal the Agency’s records. Marilyn also sought to have her baby disinterred and laid to rest in her own family burial plot. One cannot imagine the grief she felt. I flew up to Buffalo to argue her case before the Supreme Court. When the case was called, Marilyn’s request was formally made known to the Court.  The several hundred people in the Courtroom (for their own legal matters) stopped what they were doing. There was total silence, except from the hallway outside the Court room. A baby was crying. We argued what seemed unthinkable. Since there was never an adoption, the prospective adoptive parents had no legal right to bury the child as their own. The Agency had no right to permit it. The Agency also had no right to withhold information from Marilyn. The tragic death terminated the agency, the legal authority by which the Agency was authorized to act. We demanded the unsealing of all of the Agency’s records. We demanded that Marilyn be permitted to disinter her baby and re-inter him in her own family plot. Though arguably entitled to money damages, Marilyn was not interested in suing the Agency for financial gain. She was interested in telling the world that you cannot treat people in the manner in which she and her baby were treated.

Because of the sensationalism surrounding the case, we retired to argue privately in the Judge’s chambers. The lawyer for the Agency, pressing for the continued sealing of the records, noted that in Marilyn’s Petition for relief, she used the word ¨I¨ 18 different times.  The point? – that she was being selfish when she should be thinking of others (who, you night ask? her baby?). In the end, the case was settled. Against her wishes, the baby remained in the burial plot of the prospective adoptive parents. Marilyn was given the location and permission to visit the grave (though still buried under the surname of the family that had yet to adopt him). She had made her point, and there was nothing possible to do to bring her baby boy back. I respect the dignity with which Marilyn pressed her cause. I am humbled by the pain she felt. It may well have contributed to her early death from cancer. In my life, when I have come across woe-is-me moments, I have thought or Marilyn and her baby. In trying to answer my friend who objected to me using the term birthmother, I see the image of Marilyn Burson holding that sign, declaring that birthmothers care forever. There is a point there someplace.

Though I was glad to receive the message from my Facebook friend, I have to admit my first reaction was ….. it’s my book – I’ll call Virginia what I want to call her! That was maybe not a particularly mature response. After all, my friend did take the time to write me. Okay, she seemed more interested in what I called Virginia than in my story, but that’s cool – she obviously read at least part of what I wrote. For that I am (dare I say?) grateful. By the way, I never understood the word ¨grateful¨, or ¨gratefully¨, for that matter. If grate means to irritate or annoy persistently, why is grateful a good thing? Wouldn’t one just be full of irritating and annoying behavior? When one says an adoptee is not grateful for being adopted, what’s that all about?  Normally, no one asks to be adopted, so the whole ¨grateful¨  thing seems a bit of a set-up. Since I was, in  fact, adopted, how is it that I get called an ingrate for something that was essentially arranged without my participation? And how do I, down the line, end up getting called ungrateful? Shouldn’t the word be ungreatful? – as in not being full of thanks? Well, there you go – they should be saying thankless.  And yet, it is right there in our lexicon. . . . when an adoptee acts up he/she is considered ungrateful, an ingrate. I was called that a few times. You’re ungrateful!!!! Grate seems to come from Middle English (by way of the French), and grateful has its roots in Latin. No matter. Anybody who would call someone ungrateful for their adoption probably loses at chess. But I digress.

I respect my friend’s participation in the struggle to change our vocabulary, to continue to advance the cause of mothers who have relinquished their children for adoption, maybe all mothers. I was confused, though, by her statement that (the first mother) ¨has all the right material to raise her baby.¨ I didn’t understand what that had to do with arguing that mothers who relinquish their children for adoption should be called first mothers. So I asked. She explained that she is an advocate for family preservation (I am too) – that babies thrive from the sound, smell and milk of their first mothers (I’m with you). She argued that babies look in their mother’s eyes to connect them to the world, and that is the first thing on which babies try to focus (I agree – I  even saw it myself, with each of my own boys). She went on to define a first mother as someone who carries and gives birth to an infant (what others before have referred to as biological mothers or birthmothers). And while she did say ¨please try to respect us enough to use that term¨ (???), she later added that she respects anyone who cares enough to think about the issues (okay I like her again).

First mother, to me, seems a politically charged phrase. ¨First¨ is a word susceptible of several meanings (kudos to the person that thought of using it in this context). If one simply means first, as in original, I understand. A woman who conceives a child and carries that child to term, then relinquishes it for adoption, is still a mother. And she is the first one that came along, to be followed by an adoptive mother. Absolutely. I get it. But like so many words in our lexicon (including lexicon), first has other meanings. It means coming before all others in time or order, but first also means being foremost in position, rank, or importance. That’s where I get a little squeamish. As an adjective, it can mean ranking above all others. Why do I have to rank my mothers?

Maybe the proponents of using ¨first mother¨ argue that the intended definition is simply to denote the original mother. If that’s so, why not use ¨original mother¨? First mother feels, for me, ambiguous – a double entendre. I don’t want to be a party to ambiguity. I have had enough of that for one lifetime. Emma May Vilardi, a saint in the adoption movement, once said: ¨A mother can love more than one child. Why can’t a child love more than one mother?¨ (she might have been quoting someone else, maybe Jean Paton). I like that quote. It’s simple, direct and rings true to me,  but I do not want to be pigeonholed into categorizing my mothers, intentionally or unintentionally. I can understand why some people who wish to be called first mothers believe that all of these definitions apply, and in some instances maybe they do. But I feel like the person on Facebook who, not sure of the answer, lists their relationship status as ¨It’s complicated.¨

Part of me believes I have the right to call Virginia whatever I wish to call her, within the bounds of respect and decency. Biological mother, birthmother, first mother, mom, mother, mother for a little while (just kidding. . . . ). As an adoptee (no, as a person who was adopted and am now an adult), my adoption and my story is my experience, no matter how universal the themes may be. I have sometimes used my mother’s name to describe her, Virginia M. Peters. I have done that because, at that particular moment, that is what felt correct. In doing so I am not seeking to diminish her stature in my life. I have devoted a substantial amount of time in my life trying to figure out the significance of everything she set in motion years ago. It is not my intention to ignore the fact that she gave birth to me or, indeed, did quite a bit more than that.

Other times I have used the term birthmother, for a number of reasons. I am going to think about it before using it again, because my friend is right that birthmother does not do justice to my mother’s contribution to my life. I have been around the adoption movement for a long time and remember when I first heard that term and when I met, for the first time, what was then known as a birthmother. Earlier, when I met Olga Scarpetta, the mother of Baby Lenore, the term birthmother was not yet common usage. In 1983, I sat in a roomful of what were then called birthmothers, at an American Adoption Congress Conference in Columbus, Ohio (I was scared). When I have used the term birthmother in referring to my mother in my life,  I have never meant to diminish her contributions. I also, by using that term, never meant to imply she simply gave birth to me and did nothing else. For me, that would not only be inaccurate, it would be just a small part of the story. She did a lot more than just give birth to me – good things and not so good things. I want to tell that story, as much for myself and my kids as anything else. It is something that I have been promising myself  to do for years. I have also found it incredibly difficult for me to accomplish.

I appreciate what my Facebook friend implies by her message, that  the term birthmother is limiting – in the sense it evokes a feeling that a birthmother does nothing more than get pregnant, give birth, and then move on down the road. Although it does not mean that for me, I can see where some people might feel belittled by the word. I am thankful (as opposed to grateful) to my friend for pointing it out. I can’t promise her that I will start referring to Virginia as first mother. When I met all those women who were then called birthmothers in the AAC conference room in Ohio, it took me a while to understand and accept that adoption affects more people than just those who were adopted. Over the years, and through my search, I have run the gamut of emotions concerning Virginia Peters. The other day, I spoke with a good friend, also adopted, about this issue after my Facebook friend wrote to me. We both agreed that, for us, the  preferable term is not biological mother, birthmother, or even first mother. It is, simply, mother.

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.

Chasing My Rainbow Circle

It was thin, the size of a college rejection letter. I wanted to be alone. I already was, but I wanted to be more alone. Unlocking the front door, I walked slowly up to our apartment and sat on a window seat under an oversized bay window. Outside, an oak tree dimmed the sun. Hiccuping for a breath, I watched my fingers slit the white envelope. The Agency’s report was inside – typewritten, single-spaced, mostly on one page, a little spilling over to a second. I scanned it and quickly confirmed what I somehow knew already – they had not found Virginia. Essentially the report was compiled from a review of public records, most likely records maintained right in their office. Today, most of the information could be found quickly on the Internet, but as of 1972  Al Gore had not yet invented it.

There was, to be sure, helpful information, including Virginia’s birthdate in 1924. The report provided the names of her parents, their dates of birth, as well as other potential relatives (including the name Cleasby, seemingly the maternal grandparents, which would come of use later). From the information, it was apparent my mother grew up in Haverhill, Massachusetts. An old address was provided. There were no current addresses. The Washington Street address my birthmother used when she signed the Consent for Adoption was now a Chinese Restaurant. It may have been a Chinese Restaurant in 1948. Dead end. Interestingly, the report stated my mother married in 1948, to a guy named Edward Yedlin, from New York City. His family address on the Upper West Side was listed. There was not much else.

I placed the letter on my lap. There was no number to call, no current address to visit, seemingly nothing that would quickly complete my search. My fantasy that the Simmons Detective Agency would, with little effort,  provide me the information I needed was gone. If I were able to be honest with myself (I wasn’t), what I really wanted was for my birth mother to find me. She seemed to have departed for parts unknown. Me too. If I had known then what I know now, there was enough information in the report for me to hop in my little Toyota Coupe and go back up north. I didn’t. I could have sung along to the new Tom Rush tape  – ¨Merrimack County,¨ looking for my own rainbow circle (www.cowboylyrics.com/tabs/rush-tom/merrimack-county-2240.html). Tom Rush’s Merrimack County is in New Hampshire, but the river, the Merrimack (or Merrimac to my parents), is the same one that curves through Haverhill, meandering down from its origins at the southwestern tip of Lake Winnipesaukee. On the other side of the Lake, Wolfeboro (America’s oldest summer resort, maybe), and later the Barber’s Pole on Tuftonboro Neck, were second homes to my family for over 100 years. They are as much as part of me, maybe more so, as Needham. Needham was where my friends were. Wolfeboro was where I learned to be friends with myself.

I knew little of Haverhill, though I thought of it in the same vein as Manchester, New Hampshire. We drove through Manchester each time the family travelled up to the lake, sometimes speeding through on the Everett Turnpike, taking the Hooksett exit to pass over the Merrimac River on a one lane bridge; other times taking the local route over the Queen City Bridge and up Routes 3 and 28 (avoiding a highway toll), past the old Indian Cliff Trading Post totem pole and on through Hooksett towards the Lakes Region. We studied Manchester in college, Economics 101, using a Robert J. Samuelson textbook that cited Manchester (shoes and hats) as an example of a failed industrial city due to poor economic foresight. Haverhill (shoes and hats) seemed in a similar canoe. Both were industrial cities. Both had failed to reinvest in its plants and machinery. In time, both were supplanted by other locations with better technology. Though now thriving again, in 1972 they seemed, well, tired.

The Adoption Movement was just gathering momentum at that time. There were few search organizations, and the ones that did exist were feeling their way. Many adoptees still felt guilty about searching. It was an issue that haunted me. I would tiptoe through my search, I reasoned. My adoptive parents need not know. No sense in hurting them. Virginia’s family need not know. This was between me and her. I had a right to know what happened to me for two years. In the same breath, I believed I did not have a right to unnecessarily disrupt Virginia’s life (no matter how much she had disrupted mine). I would quietly go about my business, finding my birthmother, tapping her on the shoulder, and asking her for the inside scoop on what happened. I know now I should have willed myself back to New England; that it was the most direct approach to finding Virginia. I didn’t think so then. Years later, I helped another adopted person find her birthmother. We knew only that my friend was born at home, as well as the general Brooklyn neighborhood where the birth occurred some 25 years before. One Saturday morning we took the subway down to Brooklyn, the same Lexington Avenue line I used to ride to my first year law school classes. We made our way to the neighborhood where she was born. We spent hours going from shop to shop, looking for people who had lived in that area for many years. Finding several, we asked if they remembered a baby born at home in the neighborhood about the time of my friend’s birthdate. Incredibly, we eventually found someone, a butcher I think, who vaguely recalled such a birth and knew the building. He pointed to it, just down the street. In a matter of days, my friend found her birthmother who lived a scant 10 blocks away. They ended up living together. It is sometimes amazing how much you can learn from so little. But for me, in 1972, other facts were at play.

First, there were law school classes. St. John’s kept attendance in every class, and reported the results to the State Bar upon graduation. If you missed more than 5 classes you did not receive credit for the course. It was going to be difficult enough for me to get credit by passing a final examination. I didn’t need issues about absence to make a tenuous situation worse. Second, there was the issue of money. I didn’t have it. Newly married, we were surviving on my wife’s teaching income. Spare cash was not in abundance. Paying for further services of the Simmons Detective Agency was not even discussed. While the Agency gave me reasonable value for the little money I paid, I could envision an intensive search costing what to me would amount to a small fortune. Third, I was swayed by the fact my mother married someone from New York City. I had names and a family address with which to work. I decided I would take on the search myself. If I found Edward Yedlin, I would find Virginia.

I settled into the second year of law school along with my new commute to Queens, speeding down Route 95 each morning and joining the backlog of cars waiting to pay the toll at the Throgs Neck Bridge, which connected the Bronx with the Bayside section of Queens. I sometimes car-pooled with a classmate who also lived in New Rochelle, but I never spoke with him about my search. The social circle of my wife and I essentially surrounded other teachers and administrators from my her teaching position in Armonk. Other than her, I did not have a close friend in Westchester, not anyone with whom to share my trip to Dedham and what it meant for me. I found myself thinking of it more and more, though I tried to limit it to deciding how I would go about searching. I treated it as an investigation, which it was, though I did not then understand fully exactly what I was investigating. Did I let the genie out of the bottle, or did the bottle just break? Did it make any difference? What should I expect? More importantly, what should I do? I needed to talk with someone. My wife, as understanding as she always was, came from a close-knit, loving family. Other than explaining to her what was happening, we were not able to reach any of the dust swept under the carpet. Neither of us knew the questions, let alone the answers. Not knowing what else to do, I picked up the telephone and called B. J. Lifton

Off the Track

I was busy being busy with other things. We looked for our new apartment, bought a second car, moved from Westport to New Rochelle, bought my law books for the coming semester, took the New York State driver’s examination (congratulating ourselves for our perfect scores on a test designed for people who could barely read), and watched the Olympics – the 1972 Munich Olympics, one of those moments when time stopped.

For years I had dreams of making the Olympic team (running). I never quite got it together and ultimately accepted I was not good enough. That year, the Olympics started in late August and ran through September 11th. I was particularly interested because Frank Shorter was running in two races, the 10,000 meters and the marathon. I raced against Frank in cross-country and track, first in prep school, later in college. He always beat me at cross-country, and I sometimes beat him in the shorter distances. Frank graduated early from Yale and went to Florida to train with, among others, Barry Brown (the ¨Pied Piper of runners,¨ according to Marty Liquori). Barry, an All-American, graduated from Providence College the year before I entered Brown University, in  1965. In my freshman year, we had a ¨practice¨ meet against Providence College at the indoor track of Moses Brown, an East Providence prep school. I ran the mile, 11 laps on tight turns. Since it was not an official meet, the freshmen ran with the varsity, and Barry Brown raced as well. I thought I was pretty good. I ran with Barry, neck and neck, lap after lap. I, the upstart freshman, was going to take him down. We got to the beginning of the final lap. I felt great, just hanging off Barry’s right shoulder – and then. . . . Barry took off. He smoked me, winning by a half lap, all of which was gained on the final leg. A distant second, I peeked across the oval to watch him glide past the finish. Barry, who committed suicide in 1992, was considered an elite runner lacking only a closer’s speed, something that kept him from ever making an Olympic team. By the time I finished the race, he already had his sweats on. When, years later, I read of his suicide (apparently for financial reasons) I wondered how someone seemingly so successful could end their life by going into the garage, starting a red Mercedes, and letting it run. He left behind a wife, a 7-year-old boy, and a note saying he had nowhere to turn. The son, Darren , understandably sad and angry, later became a runner himself. When he broke the 4 minute mile at the Texas relays in 2008 (3:59.99), he became the back-end of the first father/son duo both to break that  benchmark barrier, something worth seeing.  (www.news.youthrunner.com/news/story/darren-browns-race-of-a-lifetime; www.runnersworld.com/article/o,7120,s6-243-297–13149-2-1X2X3X4X5X6X7X8X9X10-11,00.html).

Barry was a member of the fabled Florida Track Club, along with Frank and other highly succesful runners. My self-comparison with Frank, tenuous as it was, ended there. Frank Shorter vaulted into stardom on a national level, ranked the best U.S. runner at 10,000 meters and the marathon for 1972. I went to Dedham. At the Olympics, Frank raced first in the 10,000 meter final, held on September 3rd, finishing 5th to a world record performance by Lasse Viren of Finland (who also won the 5000 meters, a rare double that he would duplicate 4 years later in Montreal). Two days later, life got ugly. There are events that stand out for their sheer audacity, their impact on each of us. The assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King, RFK, John Lennon; the events of 9/11. For older people, maybe the threat of Hitler, the Battle of Normandy or Hiroshima. And for those older still, perhaps the sinking of the Titanic, the trial and electrocution of Sacco and Vanzetti, the stock market crash of 1929, or the Great Depression. These are events that effect everyone, enter the collective consciousness. Other events, equally audacious, equally difficult to comprehend, are more personal, like a father’s suicide, the burden of keeping a family secret, or, yes, the abandonment of a child.

The 1972 Munich Olympic Games (dubbed the ¨Happy Games¨ by German officials) were the first held in Germany since the fiasco of Adolf Hitler‘s Games in 1936. Hitler intended to parade before the world his vision of a superior ¨Aryan¨ race (which did not even exist). He was upstaged by a superior black athlete, Jesse Owens, who won 4 track and field gold medals right under the Führer’s moustache-dotted nose. After Hitler shook only the hands of German gold medal winners on the first day, Olympic officials directed he must similarly acknowledge all of the winners, or none of them. He chose none. While the media had a field day portraying the black American athletes showing up Hitler and his concept of racial supremacy, it was overwhelmingly silent a few weeks later when John Robinson, a black American gold medal winner (800 meter run), was denied the right to compete in a track meet at the U.S. Naval Academy because he was black – a hero in Germany (where he, Owens, and other black athletes were cheered by Nazi crowds, if not by the Führer), a disqualification at home. (www.ushmm.org/museum/exhibit/online/olympics//detail.php?content=aa_athletes&lang=en).

In August, 1970 my soon-to-be wife and I visited Munich, along with a college friend. The city, then part of West Germany, was preparing for the 1972 Games, a Games designed to heal some of the wounds caused by Hitler and his quest for world dominance of his made-up Aryan race. We rented a little Renault for the summer, with a 5 speed shift on the dashboard. Early one morning I drove around a rotary at rush hour, taking what I thought was an exit heading out of the city towards Fussen, a Bavarian town near the site of Mad Ludwig’s Castle. Instead, we found ourselves (I still don’t know how) driving over train tracks into one of Munich’s few above-ground U-Bahn stations. The U-Bahn, the city’s electric railway system, was in the midst of an upgrade  for the coming Olympic Games. Entering the station on the tracks, we were met with Aryan-like stares from the several hundred Germans standing above on the concrete platform and  peering down the track for their morning train. Feeling a bit inferior, I slammed into reverse and retreated to the rotary before the next U-Bahn train punched our ticket. Safely back at the rotary, I stopped to ask directions to Neuschwanstein (Mad Ludwig’s Castle): ¨Wo ist Fussen¨, I asked, in German (Boston style) to a blond, blue-eyed pedestrian, who supplied my blond, blue-eyed face with a detailed and completely indecipherable explanation in perfect German – to which I politely answered ¨Danke shein,¨ got back in the Renault, and took out our yet to be reliable map.

In the early morning of September 5, 1972, with 6 days left in Games, 8 Palestinian terrorists, belonging to a group called Black September, entered the Munich Olympic compound in track suits and carrying duffel bags concealing AK assault rifles, Tokarev pistols and grenades.  They quickly entered apartments used by members of the Israeli team. In the struggle that ensued two athletes were killed immediately, and the 9 Israelis that did not escape were taken hostage. Wearing eerie-looking ski masks, and dumping the body one of the killed Israelis (Moshe Weinberg) outside the apartment door, Black September demanded the release of more than 200 Palestinians and others held in Israeli jails. Israel announced there would be no negotiation. After almost 18 hours the terrorists and hostages were flown by helicopter to a NATO airbase (Furstenfeldbruck), ostensibly to fly to Cairo, Egypt. The German authorities planned a rescue attempt, though they underestimated the number of terrorists. In the ensuing battle, all the hostages were killed, 5 (bound and defenseless) shot in one of the helicopters and then incinerated by a grenade tossed into the cockpit by one terrorist (Luttif Afif, the leader). The other 4 were machine-gunned to death. All but 3 of the terrorists were killed. By most accounts, the Germans were considered to have mismanaged the armed assault on the terrorists. The three captured terrorists, one of whom feigned death on the tarmac, were jailed. Jim McKay, covering the Olympics for ABC, went on the air shortly before 3:30 a.m. to correct earlier reports the hostages had been saved. I was still up watching. With the resignation of defeat hanging in the air, McKay announced: ¨They’re all gone.¨

On October 29, 1972, less than 2 months after what came to be known as the Munich Massacre, 2 terrorists hijacked a Lufthansa Boeing 727 in Beirut, Lebanon and directed that it be flown to Munich. They demanded the release of the remaining 3 Black September terrorists awaiting trial in West Germany. The German government quickly agreed and two of the terrorists were immediately flown back to Libya to heroes welcomes. The Israelis were not consulted. Evidence later implied that the Lufthansa hijacking and subsequent release of the hostages was, in fact, the brainchild of a German government worried about further terrorist events in Germany (and perhaps the potential negative publicity of a trial). The Israeli Mossad is said to have later hunted down and killed two of the surviving terrorists. The third (Jamal Al-Gashey) is presumed to be alive still and allegedly hiding in Africa or Syria.

A decision was made to continue the Olympic games, a memorial service being held in the Olympic Stadium on September 6th, less than 24 hours later. The remarks of Avery Brundage, then President of the International Olympic Committee, hardly mentioned the murdered Israeli Olympians and outraged many of the 80,000 spectators. The Games were continued with the full approval of the Israeli government (though their remaining team withdrew). The atmosphere had changed for many athletes, who no longer felt the desire to compete (though most stayed). Dutch distance runner Jos Hermans was quoted as saying  ¨You give a party and someone is killed at the party, you don’t continue the party. I’m going home.¨

Four days later the Olympic Marathon, the final event of the Games, took place. If there was to be another terrorist attack, the marathon was the likely target. Security had finally been increased after the hostage crisis and massacre, but there was no legitimate way to secure all 26+ miles of the race course through the streets and parks of Munich. There were rumors of another terrorist attack, planned for the closing ceremonies. A small airplane was stolen from Stuttgart, and information indicated Arab terrorists planned to drop a bomb on the closing ceremonies. Fighter jets were sent to follow the plane with instructions to shoot it down if it approached Munich. Mysteriously, the plane was never found. Still shell-shocked from the massacre, I followed the race on television, rooting – however tenuous the fantasy – for Frank, in a ¨that could have been me frame of mind.¨ Years before I promised my mother, who each year on Patriot’s Day drove me from Needham over to Heartbreak Hill on Commonwealth Avenue to watch the Boston Marathon, that I would finish that race myself one day (I did, though not until 1977). The Munich Marathon course, covering the standard 26 miles, 385 yards, was designed loosely to form the silhouette of the official Olympic mascot, Waldi (an Olympic first). Designed by Otl Aicher (who later died from a lawn mower accident) Waldi was a dachshund, and  his colors matched those of the Olympic rings (excluding the Nazi colors of black and red). The race was run counter-clockwise, starting at the back of Waldi’s neck and outlining the shape of  his dachshund body, with his rear end represented by Munich’s English Garden, and the entrance to the Olympic Stadium completing the silhouette back at the base of Waldi’s neck. (www.swifterhigher.com/2008/07/meet-the-mascots-waldi-munich.php).

Frank ran the race as a track runner, using surges of speed to challenge the other runners. At the 9 mile mark, a hair pin turn (Waldi’s mouth!) helped give him a 5 yard lead. He used that to break away from the pack (sorry Waldi). Next time he looked he had a 50 yard lead. The surge lasted for 8 miles, and he built a lead of more than 2 minutes over his closest competitors, Karel Lismot of Belgium and Mamo Walde of Ethiopia. At that point he slowed but didn’t look back. Frank had trained for the race by running upwards of 180 miles per week. Now, he had a third of the race, about 9 miles, left to claim an Olympic Gold Medal. No American had won the Olympic Marathon since Johnny Hayes in 1908, preceded by Thomas J. Hicks in 1904 (in fact, they were the only Americans ever to win). Within 3 miles of the finish, he knew from experience that he was running faster than his body was telling him. Listening to his mind, he ran through the pain to approach the stadium entrance. Near the stadium he heard a large roar. Entering the tunnel leading to the track for his three-quarters of a lap to the finish line, he imagined the roar of 70,000 spectators for him. Running out onto the stadium track, he heard …. nothing. A high school student (Norbert Sudhaus) had jumped onto the course a quarter-mile from the finish and entered the Stadium as the ¨winner.¨ Sudhaus got the roar of the crowd, not Frank. (4 years later Frank did not hear the roar of the crowd either, finishing second to Waldemar Cierpinski of East Germany – for years illegal doping accusations have dogged Cierpinski’s two marathon gold medals). Eric Segal, a Yale Classics professor and the author of Love Story (love means never having to say you’re sorry), was one of the television commentators for ABC Sports. He (and I) were apoplectic. How could this be? Instead of cheers, Frank heard whistles and catcalls (for Sudhaus). Shorter thought to himself, ¨okay, I am an American in Europe, but give me a break.¨ The officials realized the injustice and forced the fake off the track. Frank won the race in the second fastest time ever. When later asked what he thought about the guy in front of him, Frank replied: ¨What guy?¨

The Olympics were over. Mark Spitz won 7 gold medals, setting a world record each time (and, being Jewish, was scurried out of Munich before the closing ceremonies because of the potential for being a further terrorist target). Olga Korbut cried, scored a 9.8 on the uneven bars that everyone except the judges thought was a 10.0. She still won 3 gold medals and a silver. The US men’s basketball team lost to the USSR in the most controversial basketball game in Olympic history. A game of two referee directed ¨do-overs¨ gave the Soviets 3 chances to score in the final 3 seconds. The first two were unsuccessful, and the Americans thought they’d won. The third was successful and counted, resulting the first ever loss for the United States since basketball was included in the Games in 1936. An appeal of the game by the Americans was denied and decided on Cold War lines. Frank Shorter won the Olympic Marathon, sparking a running craze in the United States (which included me). And terrorism took a new, bolder face.

It was Sunday, The next day I came home from my law school classes, parking my new-to-me light blue Toyota 1900 on the freshly paved black tar driveway running along the left side of the house. A sunny, cloudless day, I waved to Mrs. Miele tending her vegetable garden and walked around to the wide front porch.  Hopping up the grey wood steps, I opened the small black mailbox to the left of the glass front door. There was just one letter, a white business envelope addressed to me. It was from the Simmons Detective Agency.

Sword and Sandals

While waiting for the report from the Simmons Detective Agency, I started my second year of law school in September. The prior year we rented an attic apartment with inward slanting walls, at 160 Riverside Drive in Westport, about a mile from the train station. I commuted each day on Metro North Railroad´s New Haven line, then taking the Lexington Avenue Express of the New York City subway to my law school classes in Brooklyn (bad idea). We had a cat named Theseus (inspired by our trip to Europe in the summer of  1971). According to Greek legend, Theseus was sired by 2 fathers, Aegis and Poseidon, in the same night. Soon after his birth Theseus was deserted by Aegis, King of Athens (the only fathers he never knew?). He was brought up in ignorance of his birthright (can you imagine?). Each year on his birthday his mother, Aethra,  sent him to lift a large rock, which he was finally able to move when he reached 18. Under the rock he found a pair of sandals and a sword, gifts from Aegis. Aethra then sent him to Athens to present them to the King.  When the King saw them he knew Theseus was his son. Later, Theseus was nearly poisoned, slayed the Minotaur, fell in love with King Minos‘ daughter  (who subsequently deserted him), became King of Athens (after his father’s suicide in the sea soon to be named Aegean), and then was murdered by getting pushed off a cliff. At least he got his birthright. (www.hmstheseus.co.uk/legend.htm; www.greeka.com/attica/athens/athens-myths/theseus.htm). And I thought we were just naming our cat, who was also without a birthright and liked to hang out in our yard, sleeping with whomever was available.

In my first law school year, my commute to Brooklyn (if everything went right) took about an hour and a half – each way. My plan to study on the train was derailed because there were too many distractions. It was impossible to study on the subway. At the end of my first semester, I sat on the number 6 express train, somewhere between Grand Central Station and Borough Hall, on my way to my very first examination, contracts. The professor, Edward J. Fagan, struck fear in the hearts of every first year student (though he once got half the class to laugh when he described an artificial pacemaker as having a ¨lifetime guarantee¨ – the other half of the class apparently didn’t get it). My contracts book lay unopened on my lap. I was too exhausted to study any more. Across the aisle I noticed a classmate reviewing a torts book. How could he be studying torts on his way to one of Professor Fagan’s notorious contracts exams?  Incomprehensible. I had to say something, cracking a weak joke about planning ahead (all the while quickly calculating my options should a torts exam be in my immediate future). He didn’t laugh. He just  stared back, blankly.   ¨You mean we have contracts today?¨  He was in over his head, and he was just getting the memo. I hope he never needed a pacemaker.

Finley Hall, the new home of St. John’s Law School (courtesy of a major donation from Leon Finley, a major New York lawyer), opened in September, 1972 on the grounds of the University’s undergraduate campus in Jamaica, Queens. There was no practical way I could continue to commute from Westport – the trip to Brooklyn was bad enough. And so we began looking for a new apartment, finally renting the second floor of a house on Mayflower Avenue in New Rochelle, New York, owned by Mrs. Miele, a short sweet Italian lady who spoke heavily accented English and made delicious sauce with tomatoes grown from her backyard garden.  We also got a second car so I could drive back and forth to Queens – New Rochelle was roughly equidistant between the law school and my wife’s teaching job in Armonk.

To get to our second floor apartment we entered through the front vestibule. Invariably, Mrs. Miele was there to greet us. Widowed, her husband died on the living room floor from a heart attack suffered years before in front of the mantel. Each day she mentioned her husband and many times reenacted his last moments. I loved Mrs. Miele and her broken English. She came to the United States from Italy in her early 30’s along with her husband and 5 kids. The kids all grew up to be doctors, nurses and engineers. Mrs. Miele continued to live in the same house, visiting her husband’s grave weekly and tending her backyard garden of herbs and vegetables. We stayed there 2 years, until after I took the New York State Bar Examination following graduation from law school in 1974. I always kept in touch with Mrs. Miele and helped her once or twice, when she encountered a recalcitrant tenant (after which she would try to pay me, I would refuse, and she would then show up at my office in White Plains  with 3 bottles of Irish whiskey I never told her about my English family). One day I stopped to visit her, and it was obvious she was beginning to fail. She greeted me warmly, showed me the mantel, and offered a few words about her still departed husband. She then sat me in the kitchen at the same formica table, in a metal chair with a red plastic cushion. There was a black nurse tending to Mrs. Miele’s pots on the stove, about which Mrs. Miele was visibly perturbed. Sitting beside me, in one of life’s treasured moments,  Mrs. Miele began whispering to me in Italian (so the nurse would not understand). Even though I did not recognize one single Italian word, I understood completely. The next time I drove by to check, both Mrs. Miele and the house were gone, she to join her husband, the house to parts unknown.

It was in that apartment that I began my search in earnest. Each day I waited to hear from the Simmons Detective Agency, and each day I heard nothing. I was looking for a quick fix, expecting a telephone call: ¨Listen, Don, do you have a paper and pen handy. She is at 617-xxx-xxxx.  She lives in Boston, not far from where she lived when you were adopted. Her address is such and such. She does not know that you know.¨ I expected her to be in Boston, or near it. I expected that her life had not changed as much as mine. After all, she sent me off to a different life while she kept her own. But the call didn’t come. After some weeks, it grew apparent there was not likely to be a call. The next step was going to have to come from me. I began to wonder if my $125 was a mini-shakedown, a false promise designed to extract from me whatever could be had. On the other hand, $125 seemed a pretty paltry shakedown, even for 1972. I struggled about what to do, not wanting to appear overly anxious (why?).  I was watching myself act in a play, and the part called for the character to be reasonable, intellectually interested, though removed from feeling. I played the part with aplomb (it helped that I was the Director), though with each passing week (day?) the role became more demanding, more impossible to portray. I was waiting for Godot. Who was Godot? Maybe it was me, running around in circles trying to keep the silence at bay. (www.samuel-beckett.net/Waiting_for_Godot_Part1.html).

I finally assembled the resolve to call Mr. Simmons. To his credit, he immediately answered my call, spoke to me.  He was, as he put it, working on my report; I should expect it by mail in a few days. He offered concrete information. I hung up, believing nothing had been accomplished but hoping his promise of a report was true. I reminded myself I had only paid $125. I also knew I could not afford more. It was not like I was going to ask my adoptive parents for a loan. This one was squarely on me. Going to Boston to look on my own was not an option, as law school classes were about to start. I was not God’s gift to the legal community and needed to put every possible effort into studying (though it often seemed one’s success as a lawyer was accurately predicted in inverse proportion to how well one performed in law school – by that measure, I liked my chances). Waiting for the report was the only option. It was also the easiest. My sword and sandals were opaque.  I did not have a copy of the Consent for Adoption, having been too afraid to make a photocopy – though of what or by whom I was not then certain. Maybe it was not the clerk, but something else entirely. Perhaps those papers were better off left in the file in which they were sealed, deep in a storage vault of the Dedham Probate Court. It was the information I needed. My sword and sandals were not hidden under a rock, nor sealed away in a court file. They were as clear as the sky on a sunlit day, and they were yet to be discovered.