I heard the voice of my biological father for the first time exactly thirty years ago. For months–years really– I had been preparing myself for the moment I would pick up the phone and call. My mind had travelled to these moments of contact since I’d been in grade school, and after I’d turned eighteen, I began weaving plans and moral arguments pro and con.
The path was relatively easy. That wasn’t the trouble. His name had somehow mistakenly appeared on the court records my adoptive parents kept for me. Although she’d probably gotten it second or third hand, the social worker at the adoption agency in New York had told my adoptive parents the story of my biological mother and father and the reason they had given me up for adoption. The clues were all in plain sight. It was even a good story.
As it went, my father was finishing his medical residency in New York at the time of my birth. He and my mother were not yet married. They had met the year before and fallen in love, but their romance was star-crossed since his parents were orthodox Jews, hers, goyim. Not only was she a shiksa, but an actor to boot, an abomination in their eyes. So my parents had chosen to give me up, the story continued, in hopes my grandparents would accept her as an “unencumbered” love match and my parents would be able to marry with their eventual blessing.
My adoptive parents were also a “mixed” marriage, but in the opposite pattern. My mother was the one from a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn and my father from a Polish Catholic family in the down and dirty coal-mining region of Pennsylvania. Both sets were well-educated, middle class, and intellectual, with ties to Eastern Europe. Bingo! Match. The adoption agency in New York was inexplicably Methodist. Several months later, when I became “available” they returned to have a look, be interviewed some more for their qualifications to parent and eventually take me home on a Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, when nothing was open in Brooklyn.
My parents, educated middle-class people that they were, followed modern psychological advances and made my adoption part of the whole narrative of growing up. They even had a two-volume boxed set, one book for them and one for me, about coming into an adoptive family. The children’s bedtime story book version was that I was a special child, particularly blessed since I had been specifically chosen by my parents—picked from a line-up, so to speak. I was the one with the great smile, the twinkling eyes– alert, blond, a pretty baby. I wasn’t like kids in other families who were stuck with the one that came out of the mom’s womb. So as time progressed and I was able to grasp the concept, I knew I hadn’t come out of the mother whose hand I held, who took me to nursery school at Columbia University on the subway, who made me oatmeal every morning, sat with me in the kitchen and nagged me about hats and sweaters. These things are a delicate matter with one’s parents. It’s all an above-board secret. As a kid, you’re aware something’s askew—unique–about your position in a family, a story you could exploit with other kids in fifth grade who were envious since they knew they couldn’t possibly be the child of the parents they got stuck with and probably had some wonderful people out there with greater understanding and wealth who would someday come to claim them. I had that story clinched. But the down side was the chemistry was just wrong. The problem was my wiring just didn’t make sense, especially to my mother. Their love was huge and for the most part without limits, but they were bamboozled about who the heck I was. This state of affairs was probably not unlike most parents, but for me it seemed to have a twist—Alice in wonderland, perhaps, dropped down the rabbit hole into a world where the characters did things that defied logic.
For years, I had thought there was no need to make actual with the parents whose DNA I carried–too important to define myself on my own without leaning on the knowledge of my mere physical matter. I wanted to make sure I was complete enough in myself that I needed nothing from them. I wouldn’t come as a supplicant but as someone who could give to them. I’d sung to them as a child, yearning, but now I was an adult.
I had a short conversation in my young adulthood with a man who has been one of the dearest friends of my life. He was then eighty-two. We were travelling in a van-load of people outside of Toronto and the van had broken down. Sitting and waiting on that summer day, the doors of the van open as cars went by on a quiet road, and conversation strayed to the topic of families, I asked him if he thought it was a good idea to look for my biological parents. His answer was considered.
“It’s very important to see and embrace the people who gave us birth. They’re our connection to the earth, the very matter we’re made of. The connection can be very painful or very joyous, or both at the same time, but it’s there and has to be honored. Find them if you can. It will ground you. That’s my advice.”
I told him I was worried that my birth might have been a secret that could hurt them and their families. He said,
“Be respectful, but they’re adults. They made choices. Let them handle that.”
Then he went back to being grumpy about his insistence that one of his choices to stay longer and thank someone at our last stop had caused us to have this breakdown. Bad mood.
So, after I’d had thought about this conversation for another set of years and had my second child, it suddenly came to me one winter day, with my baby at home and my daughter in nursery school, that it was time to just call. Knowing it was coming, I had even written a script like a flow chart—he says this then I’ll say that. If not that, then I’ll say this. I’d tracked him down through the Medical Registry to a solo practice in a small town in upstate New York. I didn’t know who he was married to, or whether he was married—just that he had a practice.
With my baby napping, I picked up the phone and called the number, like a plunge from a rock into a cold, running stream.
The one thing I hadn’t banked on was an aggressively protective nurse receptionist. When I asked to talk to him, she said,
“Are you a patient of his?”
When I told her no, she replied sternly, backed by the growl of her Brooklyn accent.
“Well, he doesn’t talk to people who aren’t his patients. What’s the purpose of your call?”
My throat closing rapidly, I managed to say my parents were old friends of the family and I wanted to get in touch. She said,
“Well! I’ll give him your name but I doubt he’ll have time to call today. He has a full schedule.”
I left my name and number.
I put down the receiver, tears squeezing out of my eyes. I took a deep breath, thinking,
“It’s done. It’s in his court.”
As I went to make some tea, berating myself up for not taking a more indirect route, the phone rang. It hadn’t been five minutes.
“Hello. Is this Toni?”
It was a rich, vibrant, low voice, with, to me, the music of Manhattan. It was the voice that anyone would want to hear at their bedside, waking from a fever dream. Able to barely get out the beginning of my prepared speech, “Yes. I was born in 195__ in New York City…”, when he said,
“I know what this is. We’ve been waiting so long for this call!”
Before these words had completely formed, a channel of pure energy had opened through those phone lines across the continent. The force that surged through it nearly knocked me down.
(to be continued)