Sunday, January 20, 2008

Wind Song: A Tale of Two Mothers

It's been ten cold New England winters since I first met my mother who bore me and gave me away, and, somehow, twenty-five since my mother who raised me and passed on her demons died. If not for the fact of her death, I'm not sure when or if I ever would have searched.

Mom was fragile, you see. Commanding, domineering, emotionally tyrannical, but, by the time I really came to know her, broken at the core. I can only reconstruct her life now from the safety of my analytical side, piecing together the myths and stories, the fragments of childhood memory, and the results of my relentless and unsatisfying questions to my father, who prefers the emotional safety of the romanticized tales he tells himself now, after all is said and done. Sometime around 1960 she miscarried or delivered a stillborn baby, I'm not sure which; the stories changed over the years. She spoke of a grave, of a named baby, Mark. But then again, she also spoke of mysterious men in black vans watching the house, waiting to kidnap my sister and I. She described being left alone after delivery in a hospital room, bleeding for a long time. My father remarked once that a doctor attributed the event as a possible precursor to the "chemical imbalance" that unhinged her later. She told us as children stories of being followed, of being sexually assaulted in a telephone booth. My father denies knowledge of this. My father also suffers from the repressive legacy of generations of Calvinism. We'll never know; all we have is her stories, riveting and fantastic, and malleable.

I know her mother was crazy; I was sent to live with her for a time, and she would call me into her room when she was "receiving the transmissions on the wall....from 'them'" Just as I grew up with my mother's psychiatric hospitalizations, my mother grew up with her mother institutionalized in a Connecticut state hospital in the 1950's -- electroshock and compulsory hysterectomy the standard of care for the day. Her mother's father was well known as the village loony. Really, she didn't stand a chance. Between the genes, the lack of medical knowledge we have today and the sexist culture of her time, she never had the chance to be the person she was meant to be. Instead of art school, she moved from taking care of her father to taking care of mine. High school sweethearts, she "married up" to my father, son of a small glass factory owner, as part of a lifelong attempt to transcend her working class background. Dad went to college on the GI Bill, got a good job, bought a cute house, and she set up housekeeping. It was an Eisenhower-era dream. But the baby didn't come. Or when he did, he did not stay, and that never left her. She couldn't help but to pass that loss on to me.

More than anything, she wanted to be a good mother. And in many ways she was. Petrified of adoption agency social workers, she kept an obsessively immaculate house in the early years, always guarding against our "being taken back." Back to where, I always wondered? She fed, clothed and cared for my younger adoptive sister and I, bringing me to the library every day, making sure I could read before entering kindergarten. She hung cardboard signs labeling household items, even pets, to develop sight word vocabulary. She moved all of the furniture out of the dining room, tarped off the floor, and let us use the painted walls as an artist's canvas. She taught me how to begin to play the piano at four. The mental illness was a creeper. There were signs in the early days, but we were little; we didn't know. We didn't know, either, as the years progressed, that it was unusual to have upwards of sixty cats, a dozen dogs, and a house full of excrement because we were not allowed to have friends visit the house, nor were we allowed to visit others' houses, for fear of being stolen, of being taken from her. Because we were to be her saving grace, her raison d'etre, evidence of her social success.

But, of course, we were adoptees, my sister and I, so her plans didn't quite work out. I was suspended from school for the first time in first grade for setting a pile of dollar bills stolen from my grandfather on fire in the school cafeteria. The first of many suspensions, arrests and fires. My sister had what we know now to be fetal alcohol syndrome, which didn't even exist then; she dropped out of high school to live with an inner city drug dealer and had her car shot at around the time I first went to jail for selling way too much acid to an undercover cop.

Resentful of my mother's physical and emotional absence during my adolescence, angry at forced attendance at smoky, poorly facilitated group therapy at the psych ward where she spent so much time, when I was eighteen and she succumbed to meningitis and was, unbeknownst to us, dying in the hospital on Christmas, I refused to go see her, sick to death of her illness constantly hijacking our lives. I didn't get to say goodbye, didn't get to apologize for calling her a "fat, worthless bitch," didn't get to know her as an adult, didn't get to forgive her for not being able to mother, for keeping secrets and telling lies, didn't get to express the empathy possible only through the perspective of adulthood. We buried her on New Year's Eve.

I was not allowed to mention the mother who gave birth to me growing up. It was too threatening. I was not allowed to ask questions or consider search because "it would just kill your mother," according to my father, who in earlier times considered information about my origin his property but who later fully supported my search. It took me almost ten years after her death to get a life and out of jail on drug charges, years on Grateful Dead tour, playing in jam bands in Boulder in the 80's, travelling all over south Asia, and finally moving to Vermont, going to college, and becoming a teacher. I was readying to search, you see, but I needed to redeem myself before meeting my Other mother; I needed to look good on the surface; I needed to be as normal as possible as to avoid being rejected once again.

But that was not to be the case. By the time I was searching in the 90's, CT policy had changed to mutual consent facilitated by the placing agency (The Village for Families and Children...sounds benign, eh? almost quaint...). Outraged at the agency's gall to charge me hundreds of dollars to access my non-id and research potential contact (and probably some good, old fashioned avoidance), I searched on my own for a couple of years. With no luck, I sucked it up, paid the money, and waited. Contact was denied. No one in her family knew about me. She had "closed that chapter," according to the social worker (the same social worker who years later informed my sister over the telephone that her conception was a result of interfamilial rape...nice, huh?) Unknown to me, my half brother had discovered evidence of my existence and applied the necessary pressure for my mother to agree to meet me.


I stepped off the Vermont Transit bus into the parking lot of the Hartford, CT bus station, heart in my throat, dizzy, looking for the woman in the pictures who shared the eyes I had never seen anywhere before but the mirror. You see, I had failed again, too. In the time in between contact denial and our first meeting, I had sabotaged both my teaching career and my long term relationship, and my driver's license was suspended for not carrying insurance. So, in my 33rd year, the number of years Jesus lived on the earth (who says adoptees can't be narcissists?!) I slung my backpack over my shoulder and stepped down to meet, for the first time since birth, my mother. She was more nervous than I was. And when she opened up her arms to take me in, I was overwhelmed...not by the touch but by the smell. Wind Song. Prince Matchabelli. The smell of my mother, the only scent she ever wore. Our childhood Christmas presents every year to her. The scent of my fevered forehead being caressed, of the warm covers after a bad dream, of all the toddler memories of the "good years," long since supplanted by adoptee vitriol.

Do you remember the song from the Tv ads in the 60's? "Her wind song stays on your mind..."

It was miles in the car with her before I could speak, before I could get the left hemisphere of brain to function adequately enough after olfactory memory shock to be able to sort it out, who was who, who was dead, who was alive, who was my mother, and, really, I still don't have those answers. My mother -- I'm learning how to call her that now, "mother," after a lifetime of "birthmother;" the disloyal feelings are gone, my mother who raised me long gone, it became awkward with my half-sibs to keep calling her by her first name, and, since my search, the first mother community has claimed their rightful titles -- my mother and i have been through the mill. we've hugged and cried and argued; there has been apologies and forgiveness; there have been late nights swilling white wine out of a box and smoking joints (Can you imagine?! Smoking a joint with your mother?! My 50's era CT amom would roll over in her grave!); there have been arguments and accusations; there have been missed birthdays; there have been long periods of silence.

My mother still carries the pain of her forced relinquishment at seventeen, of wearing the fake wedding ring, of the home for unwed mothers in Boston, of giving birth alone, of being shamed and abandoned by her family, of keeping the shame a secret for thirty three years, of failing at her attmepts to get me back after signing the papers, of guilt for leaving me, of lying to her "real" children about my existence. She has suffered breast cancer, alcoholism, and a lifetime of abusive men. She tells me I'm intense, that I'm too much for her sometimes. I temper myself and my behavior. I choose my words carefully. I spared her the Verrier. I fear scaring her away. I have the same feelings of having to manage my relationship with her that i had with the mother who raised me. Things work best when we can just hang out and not mention relinquishment or growing up adopted. I've since stopped trying to forge emotionally meaningful and authentic relationship with her, as I have with my adoptive father. They can't do it. They weren't raised in the self-stroking psychological culture of the 60's and 70's. they are stoic New Englanders, both adoptive and birth families coming from generation upon generation of Puritan repression.

Betwixt annd between, right? That's our fate as adoptees? As much as I had two mothers, I have none. I watch my son with my wife and I'm just so damned grateful we get to keep him. At least I've done that, given another son a mother.


KimKim said...

Such great writing. I added you to my links.

debbie said...

i am completely overwhelmed. i have 2 children i was fortunate enough to adopt and i will really appreciate reading your point of view.

Andie D. said...

I remember Wind Song. What a trip that both moms wore the same fragrance.

I'm just now reading Journey of the Adopted Self. Betwixt and Between? "As much as I had two mothers, I have none." Same for me. More like no man's land.

I look at my own kids (both bio), and marvel that they will never have the same questions I had growing up. For sure they'll have their own, but I have a sense of security knowing that their questions of family, origin, heritage, a place in this world, will always have answers.

Chris said...

Thanks for reading, Kim, Debbie and Andie...Debbie, I'm always happy to discuss adoption stuff with adoptive parents; hope to see you back.

Andie - I enjoy your blog very of my (found) half-sibs is a cowgirl, too...down Sonoita way...she and her bf are also working on rehabbing a little place in Bisbee...I love AZ; it's so beautiful...

Did you see we're discussing BJ's "Journey..." over on the AAAC board? Thanks again for visiting...

The Passionate Peach said...

Wow, Chris, so glad I found your blog....your writing is amazing. So true about having two mothers, yet none, really.
Congrats on your baby! As a fellow adoptee I can relate that there is nothing more awe-inspiring for us.

zomboy said...

great writing. im gonna following you