“Do you have a picture of your other mother?” Mister Baby asks over fish and chips in Wimbledon. We are celebrating having successfully folded The Pater’s lanky frame into a Nissan Figaro, the adorable, affordable and most importantly automatic car we have settled on just as soon as one of us procrastinating late bloomers gets a driver’s license. Don’t hold your breath.
“You mean my birth mother?” Mister Baby nods. For a second, I think he might mean my father’s new girlfriend. He did once sweetly pronounce “you have a new mommy now,” after a weekend spent with them. “No, I do not!” I spat back and then tried laughing to temper the vehemence of my reaction. I believe I succeeded in looking crazy.
“No,” I answered, “I don’t know her. Do you think I should look for her?” He nods again.
I gulp back the tears that suddenly choke me. “That really makes me miss Grandma.”
Mister Baby knows I was adopted, as were my brother and sister. “Why couldn’t your mother take care of you?” Separation and abandonment come immediately to his mind. I too felt abandoned when I first found out, but not by the mother who birthed me. I no longer, as I had naturally assumed, belonged to my parents, the fact of my adoption put me at a remove from them. This feeling of being deceived by the people I loved most was exacerbated by the fact that at age six it was my sister who told me. “We’re adopted and if you don’t believe me, ask K. He’s six years older than you and he would remember when you were brought home.” I waited eight years to confirm this with my brother. Yet another four years went by before I plucked up the courage to ask my mother directly; her curt response was: “I know you know you were adopted through channels in the family.” It made us sound like the Corleones and our inter-family communication could be just as cryptic and treacherous. What I didn’t grasp until years later was that my mother was referring to the fact that my sister had bragged that she had spilled the beans right after telling me, when I was six. When I asked her why she didn’t say anything until I brought it up twelve years later, my mother said, and I quote: “The cat was out of the bag. I figured if you had any problems with it, you would come and talk to me.” This might go some way to explain why I foist as much information – wanted or not – on Mister Baby.
Throughout my twenties, I followed up these early individual queries with persistent questioning to the point of haranguing. I eventually wore my parents down to a point of comparatively open discussion. It was in this spirit of openness that I related a comment I had made to a friend. “I’ve never met anyone that looks like me, “ I said, “except Judy Davis, and if Judy Davis was my mother, I would drop my mother like a hot potato!” They were as tickled by this idea as I was and many conversations about me as a teenager and my adoption ensued as I wrote a play about a teenage girl who is reunited with her mother, Judy Davis, on Oprah.
I have always been reluctant to look for my birth mother in part because my curiosity has seemed superficial. Does she have the same curly hair or cartilage drip on the end of her nose? Does breast cancer run in the family? I didn’t want to know her; I only wanted to know about her. And while I presumed that it was a traumatic event in her life that she might not want to revisit, I’ve also been afraid of what I might find: I see polyester, slipcovers, blue eye shadow and an ashtray on a chain around her neck. Finally, and most importantly, I didn’t believe that I would ‘find myself’ through contacting this other woman and that for better or worse, I had a mother who I wasn’t prepared to replace. That said, however, I did harbor the thought that I merely wasn’t ready. When my brother first attempted to find his birth mother, the adoption agency’s social worker said: “You’re only looking because you have other problems in your life that you want to ignore.” As I have always been blessed with problems I would rather ignore, this also worked as a deterrent for me as well.
I thought I might look once my adoptive mother died, but since that has come to pass it has only occurred to me once. But now, a year and a half later Mister Baby asks me if I have a picture and my years of ambivalence evaporate. I want a mom again.
“Guess what I just found out?” I ask Mister Baby who is home from school, wheezing and coughing on the sofa.
“There’s a book in the New York Public Library that has the name I was given when I was born. Should we look it up this summer? ”
Mister Baby nods.