After he died, I went out to help you empty the house and put it up for sale. I sifted through past records in his Samsonite valise, such as old insurance policies, and the mortgage for our New Jersey home built in 1954, and sold in 1975 when you moved to Calabasas. I gathered clues to glue the pieces of my story together. His collection of correspondence with the adoption agency, lawyer, court papers, doctors’ letters, my certificate of Baptism and Adoption, character references, letter to his superior officer, and progress updates for Catholic Charities touched and fascinated me.
We were newly acquainted when Dad, a lieutenant at the start of his Air Force career, received orders to continue ROTC instructor’s training in Alabama. Dad requested that he be permitted to continue his training by mail. He included my pediatrician’s letter to document the concern: Family separation could have a negative effect on our new adoptive family’s fragile bond.
Duty called. You worried ahead of those early departures until you learned to pack his blue B-4 bag for summer or winter and to kiss him goodbye at the door. This time, your anxiety heightened, he decided to drive us up to New York City, and you and I stayed with your parents. You missed your mother badly since your move to Sumter nearly two years earlier. My Nana was your foremost model of motherhood and your best friend. You lived in their walk-up flat at West 58th Street from high school through college until you married Dad. She had taken the train down to South Carolina to meet me, her soon-to-be granddaughter, shortly after you brought me home.
You knew little of my origin–had only general information. I had early clues about the non-truth of me. I existed by, for, and because of you; the daughter you chose. You were all I knew. And, Mom, there were tales you told when there was no one else to tell. Those were the stories that formed me, the stories that gave me clues of who you are and what you felt.
Encapsulated within the records in Dad’s suitcase were your worries and fears that the agency would find you unfit. You doubted your capacity to mother a baby not your own by birth. Maybe I didn’t eat enough, you worried. Or they’d discover something else. They’d say it was a mistake—you were an imposter to motherhood. Catholic Charities would take me; place me with a better mother. What caused your fear, your tentative emotional connection? Smiling photos belied your apprehensions. And you never mentioned a birth mother. Not a word was spoken of one. I never imagined there could be another. It wasn’t until adolescence that Dad told me he couldn’t have a child, as if he mourned a loss.
Dad’s course completed in Alabama, he returned to pack the contents of your tiny Sumter apartment where I’d lived just over a year. Dishware, pots and pans, kitchen table and chairs, bed and dresser, and my crib were trucked to Athens, Ohio. Dad drove there in his new ’52 Buick Special and took possession of the upstairs apartment of a two-family house on Shannon Street. Preparations made for his little family to move in, he returned to New York to collect us from Nana. He only had time for a short visit with your parents and his sister, Rosemary, my Godmother, who lived uptown on Cooper Street, before he had to report for his class in Ohio. Off we went in the tank-like Buick that would take us on many of our travels through the mid-‘60’s.
My memory, nurtured in black and white, is of barefoot neighbor children, our summer tree-lined street, my backyard kiddie-pool with me in a one-piece with a plastic watering can. This strutting toddler wears your high heels and straw hat, and a pocketbook over my arm; cool and comfy in nothing else but training pants. That September, wearing a party dress, I lean on the kitchen table toward the layer cake adorned with two birthday candles, a striped tent and circus animals. The landlord and lady smile; seem pleasant in the photo, but you have said you disliked them.
A bleak Ohio winter followed. You’ve told me many times that you were unhappy on Shannon Avenue. You told me you hated living in Ohio, and you wanted to go home to New York. You said our military family wasn’t accepted. Dad’s papers vouched for your sadness. He arranged counseling sessions, and you were diagnosed in a depressed, nervous state. Apparently, I showed moods, too–perhaps picked up from yours—or from my own deep-seated separation anxiety. How sad for the baby that was me.
In a spacious room where books lined a wall, a gentleman sat at the long wooden table. I busied myself by arranging blocks and assembling chunky puzzle pieces while he asked me questions. He was a University developmental psychologist. The Intelligence Quota test was at its height of popularity. Not only was my “potential” a point of pride for Dad, it later would become a source of disappointment for him. It may be true it was he who needed affirmation. The results may have assured him, that despite my uncertain origins, I could achieve, albeit not his genetic child. It was his way to learn something about me, to claim me as a family member–legit. Both your concerns were unfounded, no reason for worry or shame.
You held my hand to nursery school, only a few doors down. I painted at an easel and napped with classmates on throw rugs. I wore a plaid jumper with suspenders and drew “a man in a hat” on a chalkboard. You resolved to leave for home after another lonely winter.
Dad’s class completed, we returned to Nana. I have memories of Central Park, Columbus Circle, swings, sandboxes, splash pool, the zoo, pigeons and peanuts; subway rides, and Schrafft’s. Dad went about his business and stayed with Aunt Rosemary. Nana’s apartment had only one full bedroom, so I slept on a high, iron bed in her cozy front alcove. You slept on a modern, grey Castro Convertible in the adjacent parlor.
One Sunday afternoon, Dad drove you, Nana, Aunt Rosemary, and me over the bridge to New Jersey. We met a German man, a builder, who showed us a model home. He took us to the site of what would be our new brick raised ranch. Native birch trees and pin oaks filled a quarter-acre of sandy loam. Older homes surrounded the quiet neighborhood. The summer of 1955 we move from New York. I remember nothing of the details—maybe I stayed with Aunt Rosemary. You and Nana must have handled the move from 58th Street. The furniture in our new home was Nana’s, and the few pieces you brought from New York to South Carolina and to Ohio. A year later, Dad ordered a Mahogany dining room set and forest green wall-to-wall carpet.
Dad said we’d always have our permanent home to return to between all the transfers ahead of us. It was a consolation–a new start for our family–aided by the G.I. Bill. He hoped that if you and Nana were happy, I’d thrive, and he could come and go, worry-free.
He took off for Keflavik. The Air Force assigned him as Aide to the General at the Iceland NATO base for about a year. You and Nana, immersed in our new home, painted and papered walls and sewed curtains. Nana seeded a lawn and planted gardens. We learned to live in the New Jersey Suburbs.
A three-year-old can be contrary. You could lose patience; like the time you flung the hard Hoover brush attachment and hit the base of my spine. I wailed in pain, then indignation at the injustice, and the power you wielded over me. My first memory of an injury. I don’t recall that you apologized, Mom. You didn’t hug or console me. I heard you mutter you “could have paralyzed me,” since you hit my coccyx bone. Nana was nearby and must have heard. The fear you revealed later, that you’d been afraid the Agency would take me away—it mustn’t have been on your mind with that rash act.
You said I was awkward, ungraceful. Maybe it was your way to call attention to and correct my flaws. I recall every mocking derision. You knew how to hurt me, Mom. Through high school: my leggy height, compared to your short stature, my flat-chested lankiness to your large bust, my long arms that could reach top shelves for you. It was your insecurity that took a blow to my self-esteem.
Talent scouts chose me from ballet class and we both were to appear on “Name That Tune.” I guess I was a bit of a show-off. I must have been chosen for personality and clarity of speech. Nana took our pictures in front of the fireplace, dressed for the Big City; you in your hand-sewn tailored wool tweed dress, and black velveteen hat with its black feather; and my puffy, pale blue organdy dress that stuck out from layers of crinoline.
We boarded the 21 bus to George Washington Bridge Terminal, where Aunt Rosemary met us to take a cab to the studio. You’ve told me you could have died from nerves and stage fright, but I recall no performance anxiety in myself. Aunt Rosemary, in the first row, beamed with pride.
The Master of Ceremonies, George DeWitt, instructed me and my competitor, a little boy, to just run up to the bells—we were too short to ring them–and say the titles of the music played. I remember later you told me “Paper Doll,” wasn’t a kid’s song, so how would I know that one?
Nana and Granddaddy watched us on the black and white console. Your Pennsylvania cousin captured the show from his black and white TV and mailed the film to Iceland, where Dad proudly projected the super-8 of his star onto a conference room screen.
A year is a long time for a self-absorbed four-year-old. But the memory of Dad’s homecoming is illuminated by the gift he pulled from his B-4 bag for me. The eight-inch tall white television set was a German music box. Nana turned the key at its rear, and a dial on the console, and a ballerina–blond plastic hair piled onto her tiny head–twirled in a pink tutu to the twinkling tune of “Skater’s Waltz” behind a plastic screen. The kitschy keepsake reminds me of the year Dad was so far away in a cold, icy country. And it reminds me of the awkward little brown-haired dancer he saw on black and white film, and my photo in a black leotard and white Capezios you sent him. It reminds me of all we missed by demands placed on him, and by his own choices.
Kindergarten graduation color photos in Nana’s garden show you, Dad, and Aunt Rosemary, me in long ringlets and white cap and gown. Before long, I was in tears at my new pixie and buster brown bangs, ready for the Texas heat.
I began first grade in Victoria, and Dad was away on a one-year assignment in Tokyo. Our wide street, lined with Pecan trees, was fine for kids’ bicycles and games. I made friends and adapted, but you missed your comfortable home and your mother. Outside Foster Air Base, in Victoria, the brick duplex was more Spartan than future quarters would be when Dad’s rank increased.
You grabbed down the flyswatter from the top of the Frigidaire when your temper flared. You made deliberate contact with the metal handle against the back of my legs. I remember well the sad tune you wailed with Dean Martin while you washed dishes:
“Return to me Oh my dear I’m so lonely Hurry back, hurry back Oh my love hurry back I’m yours Return to me For my heart wants you only Hurry home, hurry home Won’t you please hurry home to my heart”
Mom, didn’t I also miss those you missed—the ones who loved me, too? Separation–repeated separation– your frustration, and loneliness. Our transience– South Carolina, New York City, Ohio, New Jersey, Texas, Louisiana (two moves, two schools), New Jersey and the 2nd half of 4th grade; then to Tokyo, three moves, two schools, and back in New Jersey for eighth grade in the same school as for kindergarten, and the second half of fourth, then two high schools. The concept of permanence–meaningless to me–everything was transitory. I couldn’t keep up with studies, dialect, distractions of new surroundings, and the pressure of making new friends. Dad’s coming and going–weeks, months at a time—as hard for me as it was for you.
One bedtime when I was nearly seven when Dad came back from Tokyo, he told me a story. You were at the foot of my bed when he said I had another mother–maybe a family who might as well have fallen off the face of the earth–killed in a car wreck. You both must have wondered, beyond what the agency told, Was she dead? You accepted me on faith at six months, since you never knew more. Did you find some closure at that moment? Was my adoption finalized for you with his words?
We did have our fun, though, didn’t we, Mom? We were always together, and your sense of humor and sensitivity to nature were positives. And bonding with me was hard, by your own admission. I wasn’t like you; completely different, not like your mother. When we moved away again, and again, I couldn’t replace her friendship. Trouble was, I didn’t know who I was like.
Dad soured on the under-achievement of a pre-teen who didn’t live up to expectations. Might my strict, Irish-Catholic father have feared I’d become my birth mother, become wanton, irresponsible? What did you think, Mom? The troubles and harsh punishments began with his disappointment. And there was little time with me, only the gifts upon his returns – Asian dolls, kimono. Reward or punishment, nothing in between. You weren’t the one to wield punishment once you were preoccupied with my adopted baby sister.
I dropped the TV music box in the ’70s, and a top corner broke, the gold trim separated, and the ballerina split from her pedestal. As is, it remains in my unpacked suitcase of souvenirs.
Mary Ellen writes personal essays about an adopted Air Force daughter in the 1950s and '60s, search and reunion with her birth family, and survival of stroke at mid-life. Her work appears in The Remembered Arts Journal, Soft Cartel, Drabble, Memoir Magazine, Bella Muse, Borrowed Solace, A Thousand and One Stories, Spillwords, BookEnds Review, Mac(ro)mic and other fine journals. She has self-published three books, Stroke Story: My Journey There and Back, Coming to Terms: My Journey Continues, and Permanent Home: Memoir. Her website - Mary Ellen Gambutti Author.