Many years have passed since the day I got a call from my sister telling me my biological father had just had a massive heart attack and might not survive. Much of what happened in the days and weeks after that call has vanished from my memory, if ever it settled at all.
I do remember where I was when I got the call. I remember how there seemed to be no pause between the words I was hearing and the visceral reaction. My body knew how to react before the actual words registered in my brain.
It was somehow so different from the moment long before when my then-husband came to me in our bedroom where I was settling to sleep with my infant daughter and told me my adoptive father had died. In that moment my mind had intervened in disbelief, shielding me from the shock. It was only after he repeated the words several times and assured me more than once it was not a joke that I was sent reeling.
Father. Biological father. Mother. Biological mother. Birth parents. Over the thirty years I have known the parents whose genes I share, it has never felt right to call them my mother and father, despite the depth and complexity of my love for them both.
There is no word that is not awkward, ungraceful. I have always thought of my adoptive parents as my real parents. Even after those parents have been dead for years, I still have not been able to call the parents of my birth by anything other than their first names, Marvin and Toni.
Sometimes when I talk with my sister–the younger one I was never there to protect from those three brothers–I’ve been able to occasionally talk myself into saying “our mother”. It is reserved for those moments when it is clear that for her sake I need to acknowledge the stubborn actuality of that link in our basic biology. When I do say it, the impact of the words sinks quickly like a stone into some dark pool down in my interior. I can feel the concentric rings of the splash reverberating between us. Some vow has been exchanged. I have strengthened some sacred bond. That I can do.
After that call from my sister and the response of a friend in the office next to mine who held me briefly while I cried, then pulled myself in for the next effort, the next scene that appears from the fogs of my mind is walking through the giant maze of a Washington DC hospital, flanked by my grown daughter and son, tall beside me, into the hallway of the cardiac wing.
I must have been allowed a glimpse into the big room where, in my internal picture of it now, he lay right in the center on a high bed, that father who had given me something of the essence of his cells, tipped slightly forward, hooked to tubes and monitors. Or maybe I’ve gotten it confused with some scene in a Sci Fi movie when the camera pans down a hallway and you’re given a furtive glance into the secluded room where some extraterrestrial, retrieved from a UFO, is being readied for the investigations of secret government scientists.
My father himself was a doctor. He had had a thriving practice as an internist for many years in the town where they had settled in Upstate New York. He taught classes at Harvard and his brilliance as a diagnostician was renowned. Shortly after I found him and the rest of the family, he had been forced by cancer to sell his practice. He had a recovery that was considered just short of miraculous and had gone on to become the Medical Commissioner of the county where they lived. He was widely loved and respected. But there he lay, at the mercies of a medical system he could no longer influence, all his accumulated knowledge and wisdom useless to diagnose and restore his own body.
He was in and out of consciousness. My siblings were all there, having arrived from nearby, from New York on the train and somehow from England. My brother the attorney was talking with the attending doctor. Things were not looking good. Despite the fact he had initially seemed to be rallying well, his condition was worsening as each hour passed. His vital signs were deteriorating and his hold on consciousness becoming more tenuous.
I must somehow have purchased airline tickets with my two children. We must have all gotten to the airport in Seattle and navigated together across the country. I remember they were magnificent during the whole journey, proving their maturity and grace at every turn. There they were with me as we hugged the uncles and aunt. We looked to each other as things rearranged in the hallway with our arrival. We somehow exchanged the sense that an atmosphere of contention had eased a bit at our arrival.
My birth mother came out briefly, under the arm of my middle brother. We all embraced. She was pale, her eyes registering the depth of her shock even while she rallied to greet us, as ever, not wanting to show too much weakness.
The scene that appears out of the fog before it closes in again is the moment that I was somehow in the room with Marvin and Toni. My daughter and son were nearby in the room. He was conscious, but barely.
I stood on one side of him, grasping a hand pricked with IVs, smiling with the relief of seeing him alive, my birth mother stood on his other side, holding the other hand. We must have been beaming at him, intent on igniting his engines with the warmth of our love.
It was clear he held his eyes open only with great effort, but all that was needed was for them to open a little more than slits to let seep out some luminosity of emotion that had been brewing like tea as he drifted.
He looked first to his wife, then to me. It took a few heartbeats for it to register. Then he croaked,
“My God! You’re really here!”
His voice sounded like that of a man who been crawling through a desert for days.
He looked back to his wife and then to me and back again, a sparkle emerging from the depth of the clouded brown of his eyes. As he turned from one to the other, as if watching a ping pong match, he said,
“Toni… Toni… Toni… Toni…”
“The same… Different… “
“Amazing. Toni and Toni. Amazing!”
Although no sound came out, we knew he was chuckling. Wit was life to him. Family was life to him. He closed his eyes in exhaustion. Toni and I were laughing softly, uncontrollably from somewhere deep in our chests while tears dripped down onto the hands still grasping his.
Able only to take small darting glances, sipping the intensity of the joy, we held on to him as she reached across to silently ask for my other hand. He was the one that embraced as if he would completely encompass you. She the cooler puritan.
We stood like that for a long moment, a complete circuit. I think my children had come up behind me to see him. I think I remember their embrace around the two of us, standing there, holding hands. It was soon close to the boundary of maudlin. Even then we felt the limits.
She said, “We’ll let you sleep some more. Sleep.”
These were moments that, like some others in life, become infinite. They are an opening into that wellspring which can then contain everything else you experience for the rest of your life. It becomes an ocean you reach into and set sail the sight of a goldfinch darting in the golden evening light, the oh-so-human moment of ecstasy when your granddaughter runs from the car to hug you tightly around the legs, the pain of leaving your son far away after a visit, the sound of your aging in the pulses of your blood, the deep comfort of dinner at home with your dearest friend. These moments float forever on that boundless ocean.
Later that day my uncle the famous nephrologist somehow miraculously appeared at the hospital. After hours of negotiations with the head of the hospital and some political wrangling, the medication that was causing my father’s kidneys to fail was finally discontinued. He recovered slowly but surely, his damaged heart pumping on valiantly.
Although his finances had been drained, his body wracked, it turned out he had about eight more years on that heart. He was glad to be around. There was a lot of life still to experience together, both joys and intense pains. I saw him once more when his body was emaciated, his feet numb but his mind and wit as sharp as ever.
Things pretty well collapsed in the family after his death. He had perhaps travelled as far as he did in that body just trying to sort things out. The heart is often determined to stick with it, even as it knows there are few things a parent can really fix. But the circuit we created that day fixed something in my own wiring.
Now that he’s gone I can call him father. I have two.
I’ll tell you the story of when I went back east to move my mother out of her house.
She had lived there for over fifty years. It was the house where I had grown up from the age of nine. It was a wonderful home in so many ways. It had a huge backyard with a free-running creek at the bottom. It had a swimming pool, many trees and plenty of places to play with no worries. Places to give imagination free reign. It was in a neighborhood with lots of kids and plenty of places to explore. I walked easily to my school where there were teachers whose memory I still treasure.There were two families just a block away where I spent many hours, welcomed as if I were just another of their kids.
The house itself was nothing special. It was what they called a “pre-fab” house back then, manufactured somewhere else and brought in pieces to be assembled on site. It was years old when we moved in and it hadn’t aged well, dark brown mottled linoleum cracking badly on the floor in the living room where the knotty pine boarded walls were sadly dated, their care long ago abandoned by my eighty-five-year-old mother. The black metal windows were gaping and weeping.
The plastic liner of the in-ground swimming pool was stained from algae and was cracking here and there. Despite its decay, my mother had managed to maintain it just enough to swim laps through the last summer. The yard was a bit overgrown despite the attentions of the teen-aged neighbor my mother paid to mow. The wildness of the overgrowth was appealing, at least to an eye now accustomed to the wild green of the Northwest, but I could no longer make my way through the brush to the brook beyond.
My mother had decided to sell the house about a year before so she could move into a senior community under construction nearby. Other of her friends were also waiting to move to the same planned complex. She dreamed of having an apartment there, eating with her friends and taking the bus to New York for the theater.
She’d started by trying to sell the house herself and was taken in by an older couple who, it turned out, were trying to turn an underhanded deal with a developer. She’d nearly gotten sued in the process. After that, she’d been convinced to hire a realtor.
The house had sold for a good price. She was of the generation that had barely been able to afford a home but bought anyway, held on to it through the rest of her life, and, because of the economy of the times, sold at a tremendous profit. She and my father had been fortunate to buy in a very desirable area in a very desirable town. He had killed himself with drinking twenty years before. The sale of the house would give her a way to live very comfortably for the rest of her life.
The people who bought it were clear they would tear it down and build something grand. She was already living in a temporary assisted living facility, waiting for the completion of the senior community where she wanted to move.
For the first time in my life on a visit “back home”, I’d rented a car at the airport, facing the drive down the Jersey Turnpike past the unmentionable smells of the refineries (called the armpit of New Jersey when I was growing up–now called worse) through New Brunswick on Route One and on into the oasis of Princeton.
I stopped first to see her for the first time since she moved from the house to a small studio assisted living. apartment It was a spacious place. The staff seemed acceptable. She showed me around and introduced me proudly to some of her new friends, including a man who’d become her dancing partner.
Exhausted already, I drove that evening to the old house. Using the key she’d given me, I opened up the wooden front door, hearing the string of Indian brass cowbells on the inside clang and tinkle as they had for fifty years. I never could sneak out at night through the front door.
I was back in the place I wander sometimes in my dreams, the smells of the cold water sitting in the window wells, the ticking of the kitchen clock, the view of the swimming pool and the back terrace out the big-paned window in the living room, the clanking of the glass door and the clinking of the crystal wine glasses in the blond wood danish modern hutch in the dining room as I walked past toward the bedrooms.
I put my suitcase on a chair in her bedroom where the twin beds were pushed together as they had been since my father had lived there. I took off the sheets from her bed and found some worn flowered sheets in the linen closet, smelling cold and slightly musty. I remade the bed in a fog and crawled in.
I had ten days.
It was August in central Jersey. Ninety degrees and eighty percent humidity. And it cools down to eighty degrees at night if you’re lucky. Not like my home in the Northwest where the summer days don’t get about eighty-five and the nights cool down to the sixties or even fifties.
I was up early the next morning, still tired, but energized, my plan clear in my head. I drove out to the old mall a couple of miles away and bought a couple of cartons of heavy duty black plastic garbage bags, a bucket, a new broom, a mop and bottles of cleaning solutions. I stopped at the liquor store and filled the rest of the rental car with boxes.
I was back to the house by nine. My goal was to get everything ready for an estate sale on the last Saturday of my stay and to have the whole house cleared out and ready for the new owners by the time I left two days after that. I started in the kitchen and worked my way through the laundry room to the studies and finally into the bedrooms.
I got up at seven every day, took a brief break to eat a couple of times a day and worked until ten or eleven at night. Several times I went for a run in the morning before starting in. Running was like trying to exercise in a sauna, but it became tolerable after my first two attempts. The best was a run along the canal that runs along the rowing lake, where the tropical weather was accompanied by exotic marsh blossoms, lush greenery and the pleasure of a little breeze from time to time. It was the way to keep moving through the exhaustion and the steady onslaught of emotions.
One or two nights the families where I’d had my second homes as a kid invited me for dinner. I ate well there and we basked for a bit in our mutual love, catching up on the lives of their children and grandchildren, my life and theirs, remembering the old days when we’d all sat around the same tables together.
By the skin of my teeth, I managed to get an ad for the sale into the community paper. After telling all the friends on her phone list about the sale, I realized I’d just missed the deadline for ads. The next day I spoke to the owner of the little paper. She’d known my mother and managed to squeak it into the ad section for the week as a favor. I called the man who’d collected junk and garbage in town since I could remember and scheduled a time for him to come and pick up the garbage at the curb the day before I left.
I’d talked to my mother’s best friend and conspired to make sure she didn’t bring my mother to “help” prepare for the sale. We agreed we wouldn’t tell her when the sale was to be held. I knew that if she came to the house it would take tremendous effort to get her to part with many of her things for a reasonable price. We’d spend most of the day fighting.
Over the next days, I madly threw out bags and bags of things I pulled from the kitchen cabinets, piles of rags and quarter boxes of detergents from the laundry room, cleaned out my father’s file cabinets, mailing myself his last manuscript in a box, labeling the remaining still usable stuff all over the house with colored stickers and some arbitrary price, ready for the estate sale.
It was a day before the sale. I’d tackled a lot of the crowd of things in the garage, bagging up pounds and pounds of mysterious chemicals, breaking apart old lawn chairs, plastic decorations, cleaning years of dust and spiders’ nests from the rafters, sweeping junk from every corner into piles and finally standing back to see it almost clean.
Inside, I’d filled some boxes with books and some small mementos I wanted to save and already mailed them back to myself in Washington state. The bags of garbage were growing into mountains along the road. I’d boxed up the few things my mother would still need and put them into one of the cleaned out bedrooms, leaving other usable clothes hanging in the closets for the estate sale.
As I sat in the living room, resting for a few moments, reviewing the still overwhelming remainder in my mind, it suddenly dawned on me I hadn’t yet even looked at the attic in the garage. I’d had a passing thought or two about it over the past few days, thinking maybe I’d just torch it. It was a place of horrors where anything could lurk back in some corner.
My father used to move things up the ladder to the wooden loft when no one knew what else to do with them. My Patty PlayPal doll, the size of a real two year old, old Christmas decorations including an artificial tree he’d bought on impulse, boxes of now moldy books, old clothes no one ever thought of again, piles of old office supplies including reams of carbon paper, my mother’s mimeograph sheets she’d type up at night for the next day’s class, decayed badminton nets and a box of birdies, all carefully reorganized by my father in the ’70s after he left his job at Boys’ Life. He’d meant to do it annually after that.
I climbed up the ladder and pulled myself over the edge into the loft. The old refrigerator hummed and clicked below at the back of the garage. It distracted me momentarily. I hadn’t yet opened that either. I shuddered involuntarily. Then I turned to look into the darkness of the attic.
Piles of indistinguishable stuff with no pathway in. I could see the top of my Patty PlayPal’s head and one of her eyes. The rest of her was buried in what appeared to be the remains of disintegrated cardboard boxes that had been transformed into large rats’ nests with the tops of basket weave Tiki torches sticking out above the hills.
I retreated down the ladder, careful of the broken rung, to stand and breathe in gulps of relatively uncontaminated air on the garage floor. This would take a good heavy-duty pair of gloves and probably a respirator.
I found the gloves on a shelf of the garage. No respirator and no time to go buy one. I remembered the rolls of gauze in the bathroom closet. That would have to do. Back into the house. I pulled the box of ancient gauze from the shelf and wound it around my face, covering my nose. I found some scissors and cut a length that would go around, again and again, to cover my mouth as needed.
Back up I went, armed with my gauze mask, gloves and a roll of black plastic bags. I started at the ladder and just kept bagging. Every once in awhile I came across an artifact that called up some nostalgic twinge. I threw it in a special black bag.
After a few hours of this my mind was reeling, my back ached and my head pounded. The gauze was wet with sweat and breath. Did I mention the heat made it sauna-like? I came down the ladder and some lunch and a cold beer and began to feel a big revived. I knew, however, I couldn’t bring myself to go back up that ladder again that day. What remained would have to wait until after the estate sale.
I looked around the living room, feeling a sense of satisfaction at having cleaned most of the house down to the last mopping. As I sat in front of the open casement window (with its specially designed screens with a sliding door that slid back so you could reach the lever that released the window so you could open it out), the slight breeze of the early evening was beginning to make me feel I could somehow push on. There were the last remaining hardback books on the bookshelves, the ones I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend the money to send and which the first edition bookseller had rejected, my eyes wandered down.
With a start, I realized I’d completely overlooked the cabinets at the bottom of the built-in shelves. Oh God! That’s where my mother had stashed the family photo albums, the ones with black paper pages, black and white photos stuck on the page with black picture frame imitation corners, the ones with PVC pages full of the color photos of my adolescence, friends, and family, and my parents’ late-life trips to Europe.
It was just at that moment that the old phone rang from the kitchen wall next to the cabinets with its distinctive loud clanging ring. It was my mother’s friend, Elaine. She had a lovely, richly inflected voice, with a slight undertone of the old south where she’d been raised.
“Your mother and I are here at her place, talking. She wants to come over tomorrow morning and go through her things with me before you sell anything.”
“She wants me to help he go through her clothes and choose the ones she still wants.”
No! No! My brain was screaming. She can’t! That will set me back days! I took a deep breath.
“Elaine? Could you bring her over now instead? That way she won’t be here when the sale starts.”
I knew Elaine was trying to think fast. She understood the dilemma. My mother clearly had the gun of guilt pressed to the side of her head. I could hear her turn to my mother.
“Pearl, it would really be so more convenient for me if we went over to the house now. I have things I have to do in the morning. We could spend an hour. That should be plenty of time to go through things.”
I could hear my mother in the background making slight objections about how it would certainly take more than an hour, but Elaine, brilliantly from my point of view, just poo-pooed the idea.
“It’s perfect to go now. Why didn’t we think of it before? Then Toni can have time for dinner before she finishes up for the day.”
She skillfully ended the negotiations with, “We’re on our way!” brightly.
I sighed with relief. Plan!
I went quickly to her bedroom where I’d packed up the clothes for her new apartment. I unpacked them and spread them on the bed. I carried armloads of clothes on hangers from her closet and put them in the closet of my old bedroom, closing the door firmly. I knew it usually stuck.
They arrived shortly after, my mother walking quickly up the flagstone path, determined, to the front door. We hugged and she went immediately to her bedroom, Elaine in tow looking back at me with a small wince and a slight shrug of her shoulders. I followed them.
Elaine had brought a big suitcase which she opened on the bed. My mother went for the bait, going through the clothes I’d laid out and putting them in the suitcase, one by one. I left them to go and work on the last bits of my mother’s old study, worrying in my head what the hell I was going to do in the next two days to empty out those living room cabinets and salvage the family photos.
I heard my mother call.
“What happened to my other dresses? I know there were a lot more things hanging in my closet. I need those things.”
I tried to fake it. “Oh no. You must be mistaken. I took everything out and laid it on the bed.”
“No.” she said. “They must be in another closet.” She turned and went through the door into my old room. She pulled on the glass knob of the closet. It was not budging.
“Open this for me,” she said.
I pulled at it and said, “It must be stuck again. Remember how it does that?”
She was insistent I open it.
“I guess we’ll have to call that man who does things around the house. It’s an emergency. I’m sure he’ll make time for me tonight.”
“I’ll try again,” I said, defeated.
I pulled on it with both hands, bracing myself with a foot against the wall. I nearly fell backward with my feigned effort as the door popped open.
“There they are!” she said, triumphantly.
Oy vey (punctuated by a sinking feeling at the end), was my internal response.
There was barely room in her apartment for the things I’d spread out, let along another closet full of sweaters and dresses that no longer fit. Elaine, the saint, said,
“Okay, Pearl. I think we need to sort through these things and make sure you can still wear them. Otherwise, you can give them to the women’s shelter.”
Perfect. I left them to it.
There was still some time to start on those cabinets. I steeled myself and opened the one closest to the windows. As the door opened, I heard squeaking and the smell of mouse urine and mouse shit wafted into the room. The deep closet was filled with shredded gift paper and the remains of a few rolls. Underneath, I could see two of the photo albums, one I recognized as the one with the photos from the family vacation to the Montreal World’s Fair the summer of 1967.
I closed the cabinet and sat down on the sofa. How could I possibly do anything with all that before I had to fly back home? My eyes teared.
Meanwhile, I heard Elaine calling,
“I think we’ve done what we can. Pearl has all the things we’ve decided she’ll need. She wants to come back for the sale tomorrow. She says she has to help sell the paintings and things.”
She turned her face towards mine and silently mouthed,
“Someone told her!”
She gave me a stage frown of sadness before turning back to my mother.
This was the worst news of the day. I’d thought that was settled. I would take care of it all. On her way in, she’d already stopped in front of her large framed copy of a Rouault painting, “Christ Mocked by Soldiers” (very good, but out-of-favor and a copy), and said,
“That’s worth far more than $75. Say $300.”
It may have been worth it, but I knew no one would pay it. I said,
“Elaine. I need your advice about something in the kitchen,” I took her by the arm and went to the far end of the kitchen.
I took her by the arm and went to the far end of the kitchen.
“Can we do something?”
I stood for a moment, studying her face for some sign of revelation. Nothing. I opened my mouth hoping something of use would materialize.
“How about if you think of a reason you couldn’t bring her till after three o’clock? Most of the stuff should be gone by then.”
She thought for a second or two and then said,
“I’ll tell her I have a dentist appointment at noon for a crown. I won’t be done until three.”
“Brilliant!” I said.
We all kissed good night. I got out the leather gloves, a double plastic bag and a rusty garden shovel and started in on the mouse nests.
A few months back, I was deeply engaged in my job managing a therapeutic foster care program in Northwest Washington, helping as I could on our small farm and trying to make sure my mother was safe in her home over three thousand miles away. One night I got a call from the emergency room of the hospital in Princeton.
“We have your mother here. You gave us your phone number a while back as the contact. She’s ready to go home. Please come and pick her up.”
When I explained I was in Washington state, they told me I needed to arrange for her transportation or they would have to discharge her to the street. She had no money with her having been brought by ambulance by the EMTs. I was rattled.
I asked what they suggested. After we ruled out all possibilities of friends coming to pick her up (at two am) they said to call a cab. Unfortunately, no cab companies were willing to drive her home on speculation that she would give them money when they got there, nor were they willing to take my credit card until, after an hour of calling cab company supervisors and raising hell, I bullied one into taking it.
After the same thing happened again not long after and she’d barely made it home, I’d flown out to Newark Airport, taken a limo to her home and arranged a meeting with the three neighbors who cared about her most. She was desperate to stay in her home, despite her encroaching dementia and the panic that set in at night from time to time, leading her to call 911 complaining of heart pain. I’d mailed her a special plasticized list of the phone numbers of all her friends and important contacts that she’d taped to the kitchen table. She often couldn’t remember it was there. Fortunately, she remembered where she’d put my number.
We all sat down together the next evening and worked up a schedule. Each person would take a turn checking in on her in the morning and evening to make sure she’d taken the medication in her pill organizer and had something to eat and drink. One was already taking her grocery shopping every week, and making sure she had enough of the things she liked to eat and could make easily. I would call her every day and check in. She had stupendous neighbors. She’d been one herself for so many years. I gave all the neighbors my cell number as a backup, should anything go wrong.
She approved it all after I made it clear that the alternative seemed to be moving to an assisted living facility.
About a week after I got back to the west coast, I started receiving calls from the neighbor across the street. He was worried that he’d seen her out quite late a couple of nights, walking out into the street. He’d come across and talked to her and she had seemed to be okay, bright and alert, but unsure what she was doing out in the dark. He said he didn’t mind at all keeping an extra eye out at night. She seemed to be happier than she’d been for some time. Once she’d come across to visit him, knocking on the door to his office where she knew he’d be during the day. They’d had a lovely visit. He’d taken her on outings with his eight-year-old and they had spent several happy hours, she reminded of the grand-mothering she was so good at.
A week or two later, I got a call again from the hospital. A neighbor had driven her to the emergency room in the middle of the night after she had come knocking on their door after midnight, asking if they had any food they could feed her since she had nothing in the house and was starving. Her cabinets were stocked with food.
They had checked her out and there were no critical medical issues, but, since she’d been to the emergency room a few times over recent months, they had admitted her to the hospital to check her out more thoroughly. It had become clear to the doctor that she was not able to safely function in her home on her own. She was refusing to be discharged to a nursing home, which as the only place the doctor could refer her. He told me he could not discharge her from the hospital to her home. I would need to arrange a discharge to an assisted living facility and make sure she got there.
I called into work and took off the next two days for starters. I got on the phone. After hours of chasing people at different facilities, talking to my mother in the hospital about the alternatives, we found one that would take her until the place she’d been waiting for opened. I had flown back for the long weekend to move her in, just barely having time to get a few pieces of furniture and some clothes into the studio apartment before I caught the limo back to the airport.
Now the house where she had spent fifty years of her life was sold. That night before the day of the sale, I finally to bed sometime after midnight after making my way through all the living room cabinets, finding the albums and piling them on the floor until there was a tall tower.
Many of the black paper pages of the albums from the ’40s and ’50s had been chewed by the mice to make soft nests. Pages of photos were beyond salvage. I’d pulled page after page out of the ruined albums and filled cartons with the photos to go through when they arrived back in Washington. I was totally exhausted at the end of it, too tired to even shower off the clinging mouse smell. I turned on the ancient, second-hand Sears casement window air conditioner in my mother’s bedroom, fell into my mother’s bed and immediately slept.
I got up at seven to the sound of my mother’s old folding travel alarm. The sale started at nine am and I knew from what friends had told me that dealers would start arriving at eight to stand outside the door. I made myself a quick breakfast of the real bagels I’d bought at the store on the highway where they brought them from New York every morning, smeared liberally with the Philly cream cheese I’d bought at the A&P. The day was already hot.
As predicted, a small group of people arrived around eight and started walking around looking at things in the front yard, kicking the flagstones to see if they were loose and sitting on the wooden rails of the garden fence drinking coffee in white cardboard cups.
I opened the door at nine am. The first woman through the door said,
“How much for those flagstones on the front walk?”
I said I didn’t think I could sell them. She said “Eh! The new owner’s going to rip everything out anyway.”
I told her I’d check. By the end of the day, I’d sold them to her for $75 a piece.
The next person in was a man who asked how much I wanted for the brass knocker on the front door. I told him to come back later in the day. He’d left at ten a.m., carting away several boxes full of glassware and kitchen items saying he’d be back. In the end, he paid me $65 and pried it off the door with a couple of screwdrivers.
People came in a steady, thin stream for hours. Several people stayed for much of the day, leaving for lunch and coming back. Two roamed around the whole house, looking for things I hadn’t put up for sale, hoping they’d find some treasure they could wheedle out of me.
In the later afternoon, a pair of them came to me where I’d been wheeling-and-dealing with a young, long-haired man who’d come in with hungry eyes wanting the Rouault print. The first time when I’d told him the price he’d lingered for a long time, standing in the living room, looking around blankly. He’d asked again if I’d take less. When I’d said no, he waited, still standing, for a few long moments, then left. An hour later he’d returned, willing to pay.
The pair who’d been hanging around had asked earlier if they could rummage around some more in the garage. I thought, heck, why not and told them they could.
They’d already found some garden tools they wanted, but they were on the hunt for “antiques”. They’d climbed up the ladder and seen the attic above the garage. They wanted to look around and see if they could find anything. I told them it was a horrible mess, but they insisted they’d seen worse.
Now they were coming back from the garage, the woman carrying a Betsy Wetsie doll, discolored with mold, and the older man triumphantly holding the Patty Playpal out in front of him. “What is this and how much do you want for it?” he said. The woman said she’d give me $10 for the doll that pees when you give it water from a plastic bottle.
My mother showed up after all the paintings were sold, the wrought iron patio set was gone and most of the house was cleaned out. She wandered around touching things, looking a bit sad and asking what I’d gotten for the heavy Jacobean style table, the Rouault print, the throw rug from the living room. I made up inflated figures and showed her the piles of bills in the cash box. She brightened a bit, but complaining a bit more about the prices gave her some sense of control over the thing. She Elaine managed to get her out again by taking her to an early Chinese dinner before she would have to witness the dealers returning to clean things out at the end of the day.
I’d called the realtor who’d sold the house and asked her about the flagstones and door knocker. She’d said the new owners did, indeed, plan to bulldoze the whole thing, so it was all fair game. They brought crowbars and shovels and dug them up and hauled them away in a battered pick-up truck along with the azaleas that had lined the post fence along the walk. It was then I felt a real moldy lump in my chest and was glad my mother wasn’t there to see the devastation.
I’d even lined up a couple who would come the morning of my departure to buy the bed I was sleeping in. I’d bagged up the remaining clothes and everything else that hadn’t sold and put them at the curb. It wasn’t until the next day when I was packing my own bag that I realized someone had made off with the nice field jacket my sweetheart had bought me that year. That was when the whole thing washed over me. I sat down heavily on the edge of the bed, indulged in a cry and let myself feel drained.
Well, everything was gone. The incredible lightness of being.
I went for dinner that night to my home of our Jewish neighbors and ate, sitting in the air-conditioned bliss of her dining room, once again, Anita’s pot roast, the best in the world. She even poured me some decent wine.
The next day was the last. The man came to haul away the mountain of garbage bags and the old broken down washer and dryer. Our friend across the street helped me load his van with a huge abstract painting my parents had been given by their friend, an artist in Cape Cod before I was born. It had hung in each living room they’d had ever since. I wasn’t that fond of it as a painting, but I couldn’t really part with it as an object of lore and family connection.
Then the two Nakashima sofas went in the van and we drove to the mail store where I shipped them home for an inordinate price. The painting spent its remaining years propped in a stall in our barn until it was ceremoniously burned when we cleaned the barn for the sale of our own property. The sofas went to a friend who finally was able to buy himself a decent home with a VA loan after living for years in a moldy trailer.
My mother lived in comfort for ten more years off the proceeds from the sale of the home she and my father bought for thirty-two thousand dollars in 1960. That doesn’t happen these days. It was a stretch for them back then. The first house after twenty-one years of marriage. They were sick of landlords. I remember.
After a while, we moved her out to be with us on the west coast. She would say,
“Mountains! Water! We don’t have these in Brooklyn!”
When I would remind her that she hadn’t lived in Brooklyn for fifty-five years but had lived, instead, in Princeton, where she had many good friends, she’d say,
“No! I’ve lived in Brooklyn all my life!”
I spread her ashes on Mt. Hood, the volcanic peak she came to love. When we would drive together back from my house in the country and catch sight of the gleaming white peak, standing so majestically against the blue sky, we’d turn to each other in the car and launch into the chorus of “Bali Hai”. We’d get as far as the first “Come away!” before dissolving into laughter like the two little girls we really were.
It was the evening of the day I had called my birth father for the first time. My birth mother had called and we’d spoken as long as we could support the emotion of it. Just a short time.
She was astounded that my adoptive mother had kept the name she’d given me in a fleeting attempt to leave a thumbprint on the infant she’d birthed. The name was the same as hers. We’d acknowledged the overwhelming quality of talking on the phone and vowed to see each other soon.
In a daze, I’d made dinner for everyone and eaten a bit here and there, too excited to be hungry. I had put the baby to sleep after a long singing session and her dad was putting our four-year-old daughter to bed.
The phone rang. The voice was unfamiliar, yet somehow known. A voice deep and rich with the sounds of the educated class of the East Coast, a voice familiar like that of some well-known actor whose name is poised somewhere just outside the reach of memory. He said,
“This is your brother—your second oldest brother. I’ve always been in the middle of things, one way or another. I just wanted to hear the sound of your voice. I’ve thought about you ever since Mom called us all into the kitchen the day you turned eighteen and told us you existed. I’ve worried about whether you were okay. I’m so relieved to find out that it sounds like you’re doing really well. I’m even surprised by how I’m relieved”
A brother. Someone whose existence I’d never dared to imagine until my phone call earlier with my birth father, yet who had been out beyond the bounds of awareness, thinking of me, concerned for me, for all those years.
I had planned and imagined and been anxious about this day since my childhood. I had waited until my life was well under way and I’d delved deeply enough into my soul to be sure I needed nothing from my biological parents, not their affirmation, not their love, not to be included in their lives, only to know what they were, to see and hear and touch my connections to the matter of the earth. It could keep me from spinning in the void like Alice down the rabbit hole.
I had consciously blocked my mind from imagining any siblings, even planning as I had for all the contingencies of what might have happened to the two people who conceived me. Instinctively, I knew it was going too far to anticipate the existence of people who represented other rolls of the same genetic dice.
In the moment of hearing the voice of a brother, I felt a resonance unlike anything else I’d yet experienced–as if some vibration was resounding back to me in a huge echo chamber. His impulse seemed one of genuine curiosity, maybe even of connection. Deeply moved, we chatted briefly. We laughed about his relief that it had turned out I wasn’t a conservative and seemed to, in fact, be of a similar political persuasion as “the rest of the family”. I cried silently and perhaps he did too.
When I finally got into bed that night, I slept deeply, dreaming, as I woke in the morning, of all five of us siblings tromping along together in the countryside of some European land. Their faces were not yet clear, but we were like some band of pilgrims, telling stories as we went.
Two months later, we all come together for the first time. It was at the family home in rural upstate New York, a big three story rambling old farmhouse in the midst of beautiful English style flower and vegetable gardens that seemed to spread everywhere. It was full spring when we arrived–Easter. The fragrant flowering trees were in bloom. Long stemmed purple and orange and yellow and red tulips everywhere, grouped with hyacinths, jonquils, and pansies in more profusion and style than I had ever seen.
The grass was greener than it needed to be. The birds were singing and there were another mother and father at the front door to greet us. And then, there in the big kitchen opening right into the entry were my three brothers and the youngest, my sister. Such laughter and hugging and joking and tears. The flood of emotions was like the rivers of lava extruding in spurts from a volcanic explosion. That eruption went on for years within me.
There were two little girls, cousins, for all practical purposes the same ages as my two. Cousins. Five-year-olds and two-year-olds. Grandchildren. They ran in the gardens together. They painted in the basement at the easel their grandmother set up. They died elaborate Easter eggs in the big old farmhouse kitchen with a floor sloping slightly with age, under the guidance of the grandmother they called Tootsie, my birth mother. The woman who had given me her own name. They hunted eggs the next morning, scores of them the women had hidden early, early.
The youngest girl was found on the front stoop in the midst of it all, chomping on her eggs, shell and all, a mass of flaxen hair and happiness. A day of ineffable beauty, bursting unstintingly, immoderately with the joy of a family finally fitting together.
When the energy of the egg hunt had died away slightly, the five of us siblings lined up in our finery for a photo, oldest to youngest. There I am, the farthest to the left, short haired as never before or since, flanked by my oldest brother. Then the middle brother. Then the youngest brother, the attorney. And then my sister, so beautiful and so young–ten years my junior.
A little sister. She and I spent long hours that day and the next, talking in the garden, walking in the woods to the reservoir behind the gardens. All of us together had shared sensibilities we had never found in any other. We knew each other in ways that were unknowable through the regular channels of communication. We were funny together in ways we never experienced in the wider world. Our shared wit had a taste for the dryly bizarre, an attraction to the way words slide.
The five of us in the photo are so clearly a matched set within a set of fixed parameters that the fact alone brings tears to the eyes of most viewers. Looking at the pictures of us as children is another giveaway. In those black and white photos, it’s something in what looks out through the eyes of each of us at age five or eight. It’s the same innocent knowing I can trace back in the thread of my own consciousness.
I got to know my middle brother pretty well over the next years. As the one who had called me that first day, I was drawn to finding out more. There was a sardonic, somewhat prickly exterior, made sharper and more grey with infusions of alcohol. There was a tender interior and a deep and complex intelligence and sensitivity wandering around inside in a kind of darkness.
We took long walks in the city during our visits and spent a couple of dinners sharing a bottle of wine and talking for long hours. He visited me on the west coast and saw something of my environment. I went to his wedding when he married a Korean-Swede at a Buddhist Temple in Queens. I saw him little after that. After 9/11 in 2001, he disappeared from the family’s view for many years.
When he began talking to his parents after all that time, it turned out he had been working in one of the World Trade Center Towers that morning. He had just reached the ground outside the tower on an errand to get coffee for himself and a couple of office mates. As he began walking away from his building, it began to fall behind him. I have never learned more about what happened in those minutes, hours and days.
He and his wife lost the thread of their lives. The initial crash and the contamination in the air around the area for days and weeks ruined both the new art gallery he and his wife had just opened close to the site and her health. The second effect has lasted through all the years since, dogging them both in unknowable ways. When he began seeing the family again, the darkness and the sharp prickles seemed to be overcoming him. He and his wife struggled and then held on to their love together. I no longer felt able to meet the common ground within. Lines were drawn.
My sister and I knew from the first moments we sat together on the grass that Easter Day that there were countless ways in which our senses experienced the world in ways familiar to no one else. We were transfixed by the way the light touched things. We noticed the same kinds of details in a face, a forest walk, the view of a lake.
With no inkling of each other, we had worn the same kind of button down Levis for years, fashionable only for men by then. We had the same sort of awkward grace, long legs, same nearly six-foot height with fuzzy proprioception. Bull in a china shop types. Difficulty keeping our feet on the ground. Same ability to savor emotions like wine.
She had evidence in a journal from the time of her first serious infatuation that she wanted to name a future daughter the same unusual name I had chosen a few years later for mine. We could look into each others’ eyes and see the same spirit that had peered out at us from the mirror all our lives, hers looking out through the sparkling blue-green waters, mine through deep brown pools.
We spent hours talking about our childhoods, our thoughts about life, the family, the world. Our interactions have stretched out over the thirty years since we met, a symphony of instruments that sometimes play in unison, sometimes in perfect intervals, sometimes in octaves and sometimes rush off the stage in the hands of a furious musician to be smashed violently against the wall. We have stood by each other while the rest of the family was heaving and breaking apart.
The day after calling my birth father for the first time, I called my oldest brother. As the eldest all the years of growing up, he’d presumably been endowed with the most responsibility and the most power to rule the flock. I called to ask him how he felt being deposed by an older sister. He said,
“God! Go ahead, take it! I’m relieved!”
No hard feelings, he insisted. I have never gotten very close to him. We perhaps avoid intimacy instinctively. He married twenty-some years ago and moved to a town east of London with his British wife.
My youngest brother seemed to see an ally in me when we met. That has changed over the years when, again, lines were drawn.
Like me, he was the one who had taken a more direct career path, had married and had children. He was outwardly prospering. We were in a stage of life when practicality and responsibility to others were paramount. He had a big, new and beautiful home.
Raised by a Jewish father whose aunt had established the first Kibbutz in Israel and a lapsed Protestant mother, he had inexplicably become a Catholic when he married. He had walked into a huge extended Southern family, culturally and politically very different from his own. They sent their girls to private school. His wife had a good business head and ran their complex social life. They threw extravagant and fantastic parties slathered in alcohol, combining the two families. They felt, for a time, I understood their position better than the others in a family where our siblings were still choosing where to steer.
When we all first met, it was as if I had walked into a fairy tale. It was the story of the child who had been taken away and given to a family to raise in a nearby town who then when she is grown, finds the family she never knew existed and is magically reunited with her mother and father. There it is, the love of parents who have preserved their thriving kingdom and have forever left a place at the table for the one who was stolen away. There is a group of brothers and a sister who swarm around at her return and welcome her back into the flow of their lives, recognizing her as the missing link to elusive happiness.
I had been sober when I walked through the door, but the intoxication was overwhelming. The sense of finally knowing where this collection of mind, bones, cells, nerves, ego and spirit fit into the puzzle of the world was a potent drug. I could look at it all and see the balance between what we carried in the cells and what had happened to each of us through our rubbing up against experience. It was rich. It was heady.
It was not a magic kingdom. My birth-father was as flawed, large and magnanimous as Mark Twain’s King Arthur and as well loved. When he died–having lived for several miraculous years after a massive heart attack–the seismic plates moved and steam and lava rose up from all the cracks. No one in the family survived unscathed. His wife, the mother of the family, the grandmother, was left standing in the middle of the devastation. Since I was of the family but not of it, I managed to escape most of the worst effects, having my own family, my own culture stretching out around me.
Family is complicated, untidy. It is all the things that life is made of, horrors and pleasures, disquiet and joy, all traveling in the air through the corridors of this rambling house, full of many rooms.
There is no one without a family. Some families live in a house entirely inside us. Some come face-to-face with us day after day. Some are people we have chosen to love. Some are not.
In my life as a therapist, I had the privilege of seeing into the hearts of so many families of so many different flavors, so many different forms. There were peerless, rare moments when, out of all the suffering, the pain, the anger, the frustration, we all felt love descend into our midst and settle gently.
I have my own children, my own grandchild, my beloved partner –the person in life closer to me than even genetics can create–my own complicated configurations. Navigating the delicate traceries of love is so much of the job we’ve come to do. What I thought to be a very special case is only one of the infinite variations of stabbing, corrosive pains and surpassing joys. I’m glad. There is so much to know. I’ve been handed another lens through which to see all this life.