Published in NYU’s’ Caustic Frolic, Vol 5 #1, in June 2020
Penny almost tossed the letter from the adoptees’ group, but on second thought set it aside to read. She’d sent them ten dollars just to be on their mailing list and keep track of their maneuverings, so she should at least glance at this latest missive.
Standing at Harmony Acres’ bank of mailboxes, she still had the slim, upright posture that had helped her command schoolrooms, her dark pantsuit blending a teacher’s casual neatness and a widow’s severity. Her complexion did not betray her age, and her hair was so neatly coiffed one might almost think she’d chosen to color it white.
Today, as almost always, she carried one of her Metropolitan Museum tote bags for any mail worth reading. By long habit, she thumbed through each day’s arrivals right away. Rather than walk junk mail through long corridors to her apartment trash, she flipped it into a huge, convenient wastebasket that someone had named the Limbo Box. Having taught high school English in most of the parishes to which her husband had been posted, she loved the literary allusion.
She tucked a bill and a charity appeal into her tote, consigned the rest of the day’s mail to limbo, and turned back to the envelope from the State Adoptees’ Advocacy Association. The organization’s raison d’être – which she hardly shared — was to get state law changed: to allow people adopted long ago to see their original birth certificates.
Sure enough, they were at it again. Having fallen a dozen votes short of winning the sweeping change they wanted last year, they were now gearing up for the newly-elected Legislature. Send $100, the newsletter urged, to help us lobby and “persuade every single legislator. Send $500 if you can.”
Fat chance. The last thing she needed was to be unmasked by an out-of-wedlock daughter. She had last seen her newborn almost six decades ago, left in swaddling clothes for adoption. It might be interesting to see who if anyone that tiny pink stranger had grown up to favor in height, heft, eyes, lips, voice – but hardly worth the humiliation.
Everyone in this retirement community knew Penelope Rogers as the pious widow of a beloved clergyman. She didn’t want them disillusioned.
It was such a distant past – long before she met and married George — that she could hardly remember details. The boy was Howard Somebody. Of a moneyed family. Penny’s hard-pressed widowed mother reckoned he would be a good catch, so didn’t object to her daughter’s being out late with a college man. That still-adolescent Penelope – beautiful, innocent, naïve — believed herself loved, and loved back unreservedly.
But when she became pregnant, Howard’s moneyed parents paid the costs of a discreet arrangement for the baby, and sent him off to a more distant college, forbidden on pain of disinheritance from further contact with her. He opted for a firm financial future. So much for loving unreservedly.
The “arrangement” involved taking leave from school before her pregnancy began to show, telling friends she was going to help a mythical Midwest uncle and aunt who were ill and couldn’t manage alone.
She did indeed go to Illinois, but to a shelter for pregnant unwed girls. It was run by an order of nuns who more-or-less continued their charges’ schooling until the babies arrived, and then peremptorily put them on buses home. Papers regarding each birth were signed in advance, authorizing the nuns to hand the babies over to couples unsuccessful in producing their own.
Under the nuns’ incessant pious admonishment, Penny’s unborn child had become bulging evidence of her sin. It was also an increasingly uncomfortable physical burden, and the cause of her isolation in an artificial and unpleasant Illinois bubble. She had signed willingly.
Only later did she grieve. She arrived home realizing that the infant might have become a human being to love and be loved by, a gift of self-esteem. She had just begun bonding with her child — feeling life coursing from her swollen breasts into this miraculous fruit of her womb — when the baby was taken away, leaving her back in a purgatory of guilt and aching mammary glands.
It was a loss and loneliness she could not share with anyone save her parents – a mother trying to be supportive but fixed on the wages of sin, a new stepfather able to focus only on her revived prospects for a good marriage.
She was still months away from her eighteenth birthday. Abandoned by the boy who had claimed to love her, embraced at arm’s length at home, she decided to chalk the whole year up as an aberration, best put entirely behind her.
There must be on file, in some Illinois jurisdiction, birth certificates relating the true facts of each child’s parentage and delivery, and perhaps adoption papers with the names and addresses of the couple who became her daughter’s parents. The tormented 17-year-old Penny must have signed something that veiled such details; the 82-year-old Penny had no wish to tear away the veil.
Even less did she want a stranger – what, 64 years old? — to show up on her doorstep shouting “Mama!” and revealing a secret past that most of her retired neighbors could not imagine or empathize with.
She and George – who never had any notion of his wife’s teen-aged error – moved here a decade ago. Their three kids and half-dozen grands were scattered across the country, dutifully attentive but never able to visit more than a few days at a time; they would surely be devastated to learn of an older half-sister or half-aunt.
In the half-dozen years since George’s death, she’d sometimes wished there were some Harmony Acres neighbor who might become a confidante, truly intimate. For better or worse, though, she couldn’t imagine relating this sordid story to anyone in her overlapping circles of friends and comrades in good works, let alone asking advice.
The Knit and Stitch Club gathered second and fourth Tuesday mornings in the Hearthside Parlor. It was a cozy room with a gas fireplace whose artificial log offered a cheery glow against the frigid January scene outside the window-doors.
Most of the half-dozen regulars were knitting what Chaplain Abner liked to call prayer shawls, gifts to people whose stay in the Harmony Acres health wing devolved into hospice care. George had received one during his final illness, and liked having it tucked around his shoulders when his bed was cranked up.
The church provided them skeins of super-soft wool in gentle colors, the kitchen brought them tea, and their needles clicked busily for an hour, unimpeded by occasional snatches of conversation. The “shawls,” it occurred to her, were not much bigger than crib blankets. The thought brought an unexpected tear to her eye.
Suzie Washburn was quick to notice. “Oh, poor dear Penny, it must be hard remembering how your George lingered in hospice care.”
“You’ve read my mind,” Penny lied. “Thank you.” And bent down over the shawl in her lap lest her face betray her further.
The prospect of being exposed crept closer. The Adoptees Association had won a partial change in state law four years ago. A lot of people, whose adoptions were completed since early in the Reagan years, now had access to their original birth certificates, according to that mailed newsletter. There were 26,000 of them – Penny was proud to still have a good memory for numbers –born to women who’d been apparently been warned at the time that their identities might not remain secret. Those children were now free to find their real parents.
No one seemed to know how many were trying or had succeeded, let alone what complications such reunions had spawned. No one, Penny mused, talked about the downside of welding long-fractured identities.
This year’s legislative effort would be to break the seal on all earlier adoptions, an estimated 60,000 more mothers who – like Penny — had been led to think their secrets secure.
There would be public hearings, she knew from having watched the earlier debates on TV news. Adoptees would tear at legislators’ heartstrings. Who could deny honest, upright men and women their birth-identity knowledge so long held secret – or the knowledge of genetic defects that might be medically managed to avoid impairing their retirement years?
Who? How about the birth mothers who spent decades putting youthful mistakes behind them?
The adoptees, she was sure, would have the stage to themselves. As in earlier legislative forums, no birth mothers would testify: To appear at a hearing would be to expose themselves, no matter what legislators eventually did. Penny herself wouldn’t dream of testifying against the bill — no matter how much she dreaded its consequences.
Penny and Drusilla Howard weren’t the only ones who’d gotten the adoptees’ fund appeal: So had Mildred Miller, who mentioned it at choir practice.
“I see you get mailings from that adoptees group, too. I got the same newsletter you did, but I took it home to read. I guess you didn’t send them any more money?”
“I don’t even know how I got on their mailing list,” Penny lied.
“But you sympathize with them, surely?”
“I don’t know,” Penny said cautiously. “There must be some mothers who’ve put all that behind them, and don’t want it brought up again. How far back is it they want to go?”
“Children born before 1983.”
“Gracious!” Penny said. “People born more than three decades ago? Or even years before that?”
“I don’t suppose it makes much difference,” Mildred said. “Even a much older person must still want to know where she came from.”
Penny let that conversation die, but the subject wouldn’t.
“Oh, Penny,” Drusilla Howard said as the Cheer Club gathered a few days later in the same warm little parlor, outside whose tall doors snow threatened today. “I didn’t know you were an adoptees supporter.”
“What makes you say that?”
Drusilla no longer had her hair touched up, making her look much older. “Oh, you were just ahead of me in tossing their newsletter into the Limbo Box. I’d sent them a check just last week. I’m supportive, but they spend too much time asking for money, don’t they?”
“Yes,” Penny said cautiously. “Don’t they all?” She would be happy to let this topic die, or at least drift.
No luck. “Especially with the Legislature convening,” Drusilla bubbled on. “I hope they succeed this time.” She looked around the room, seeking the eyes of other just arriving. The Cheer Club’s informal agenda was to learn who had recently been moved into the health wing, to be sure those unfortunates had regular visits and any help they might need with the transition. “We all must have known some adoptees.”
“I had a college roommate,” Mimi Henderson joined the conversation, “who wanted ever so much to find her birth mother.” Mimi was a bit pudgy, and had to use a walker, but she shared Penny’s regular trips to the Harmony Spa to have nails and hair done, so they shared some common ground. “She loved her adoptive parents, but that wasn’t enough.”
Penny hardly wanted this topic prolonged, but couldn’t help asking: “What did she call the parents who brought her up?”
“Mummy and Daddy,” Mimi said. “She’d apparently been adopted at birth. I remember asking her once what she’d have called her birth mother if she found her.”
“Good question,” Drusilla said. “Can I borrow your new list of health center folks? Thanks. So what did she say?”
“Said she’d cross that bridge when she got there. She thought maybe ‘mother’, she said. Or maybe she’d learn to call her by her first name.”
“So she wasn’t unloved, like Jane Eyre,” broke in Judy Goddard. Judy had been a community college English teacher.
“Oh, dear, I’ve forgotten Jane Eyre.” Mimi pointed a finger menacingly at her own head. “Aging brain.”
“Never mind. I taught that book for a dozen semesters. Jane was an unloved orphan, who had a desperate need for a sense of belonging and love.”
“That wasn’t my roommate,” Mimi said. “She felt very secure, but just had a missing chapter in her life.”
This conversation was like walking along the edge of a cliff. The best way to avoid a misstep was to just listen. She thought about bringing up something to change the subject, but decided that might be too obvious.
“Judy, I’ve forgotten,” persisted Drusilla. “Wasn’t Anne of Green Gables an orphan?”
“Exactly. Her foster parents wanted a boy to help on their farm, and weren’t thrilled when some agency sent Anne instead.”
“But we never knew who her birth parents were?”
“That wasn’t an issue. Maybe her mother died in childbirth. I don’t think we get to know how most orphans in literature got that way.”
“Heidi? Oliver Twist?”
“Heidi’s parents died, and she went to live with an aunt in the Swiss Alps, I think. I have no idea where Oliver Twist came from.”
Penny wondered if she ought to have a coughing spell and go back to her apartment.
“So none of them were just abandoned?” Drusilla asked.
“There was one,” Judy remembered. “In ‘The Secret Garden’. The heroine was born in India to British parents who didn’t want a child. They let the servants bring her up, and then they died of cholera and she was sent back to England to a wealthy uncle.”
If it were just the four of them, Penny might have risked speaking up. But by now a half-dozen more had arrived, including a few recent and rather younger residents. She had no idea who might be sympathetic, understanding soulmates — and who might be thoughtless blabbers. She was relieved when they got down to business, divided up the friends who needed visiting, and adjourned.
Penny took on extra assignments, to atone in her own mind for her callousness toward adoptees. The others praised her for a generous spirit. She swallowed hard, accepted the praise with modest demurral – and kept her secret secure.