I was 12 when I found out. My stepsister hurled it at me during a fight: “At least I’m not adopted,” she retorted after I called her a four-eyed idiot. My real mother died when I was six, and the fact that I now had a stepmother didn’t mean I was adopted.
“You really are a blockhead,” I laughed “if you think I’m going to fall for that one.”
However, I soon learned the four-eyed idiot was right. I was indeed adopted. I had been given up as an infant. And worse, no one had ever told me.
“I thought your mother told you,” my father responded when I asked him if it was true.
The news left me feeling vulnerable and reminded me of a time when I was four, shopping with my mother at JC Penney’s. She was looking for a dress.I ducked under a waterfall of polka dots and paisleys and hid in the center of the circular rack – only to become frightened and reemerged, grabbing on to the familiarity of my mother’s legs — except they weren’t her legs; they were the legs of a stranger, but for a few seconds I was betrayed by a false sense of reality. Here I was again, hugging onto the legs of a stranger—completely unaware — and deceived for nearly 12 years by the same false sense of reality.
I spent the next few weeks in a daze, my mind cluttered with memories that now seemed more like mythology than personal history. Every time I looked at my dad or paged though a family album, I was reminded of everything I wasn’t anymore. But this wasn’t the first time I had “lost” a mother, and within a few months, the only things occupying my mind were covering up my latest pimple, Mrs. Tyson’s weekly algebra test, and the cute boy who sat in front of me in English class.
It wasn’t until many years later, after I had married and given birth to my own two daughters, that I finally allowed myself to think about my adoption. Suddenly, medical history and heritage were important to me. It was then that I decided to write to Catholic Social Services to request information.
One month later, I received a document titled “Non-identifying information.” First, there were details about my mother: age 20, Catholic, blue eyes, blonde hair, an actress. Then my father: age 23, Jewish, brown eyes, black hair, an actor. I read his description again. Special Aptitudes: singing, dancing, acting. He’s gay, I immediately thought. That’s why they didn’t get married. He and my mother had probably been in the same play, I reasoned as I calculated the month I must have been conceived. For him it was an experimental fling, for her it was first love, for me it was bad timing, I concluded.
As I read about my birth father’s side of the family, I realized how deeply entrenched his family was in theater. Not only was he an actor, but his father had also been an actor, and his mother was a theater agent. He’s in his 50′s now, I estimated. He could be on TV or in the movies, I imagined. I constructed his face with the details: black, straight hair, brown eyes, 5’6″, ruddy complexion, oval face. He’s Dudley Moore, or Danny DeVito, or maybe he’s Dustin Hoffman.
My mind darted wildly; the endless possibilities made me anxious and dizzy. I closed my eyes and laid my head on the table. I imagined my pregnant mother, distraught after she realized her lover was gay, turning to the nuns at Catholic Social Services then leaving me behind to start a quiet life in a predictable town where she would regretfully live out the rest of her days.
I would not realize until years later, after I found them, that I couldn’t have been more wrong.
It turns out that my mother was a 19-year-old high-society debutante from a Main Line Philadelphia family. When it was discovered she was pregnant, her highly visible parents (authors of renowned children’s books including The Fox and the Hound) had her committed to a mental institution in the hope of getting her a therapeutic abortion, since abortion was illegal in those days. When she refused, her parents kept her institutionalized until she gave birth to me and agreed to give me up.
After her release, she found my father and told him what had happened, and against her parents’ wishes, she married my father, who was not gay after all. My mother went on to become a successful television actress, and my father a prolific Hollywood television producer. They had two more children: a daughter who grew up to be an actress in the popular soap opera “General Hospital,” a show I watched religiously in the 1980′s, never once suspecting that I was watching my sister. They also had a son who became an award-winning writer and filmmaker.
One month after I found them, I sought out counseling. “You should talk to a professional about your feelings,” my husband had suggested.
“I’m not angry,” I insisted on my third therapy session.
The therapist and I sat in silence for almost a minute; I could hear the ticking of the clock hanging on the wall above my head. I noticed his socks were unmatched, one black, the other a dark navy, and suddenly, I was provoked by his gall. Who is he to tell me I’m angry, I thought to myself, when he can’t even match his own socks.
“I’m okay with being given up,” I said, “Besides, I don’t believe in holding grudges.”
He handed me a pen and legal pad, turned, and walked toward the door.
“Write your mother a letter. Tell her everything you’d like to tell her,” he paused with a backward glance, “if you did believe in holding grudges.”
Dear JulieDear Mom,
I was there that day, I felt your hand cradle my head. I felt your breath on my cheek. And then I felt you turn and leave. You left me. Alone. You left me behind. I trusted you. And then … you left me. Was it because I was not blonde? Would you have stayed if my eyes had been blue?Were my dimples not deep enough? What would it have taken to get you to want me?
I would have been good. I would have behaved. Eaten my vegetables, cleaned my room, said “please” and “thank you.” I would have made you love me. Somehow.
But you left me. And went on to build a life without me. As if I didn’t exist. That’s what hurts the most. You were better off without me.
All I ever wanted was to love you. I would have lived you like no other. You never gave me the chance. Until now. Now we have a chance.
Kathy Hatfield is the co-author of SECRET STORMS, a brutally honest memoir, where mother and daughter lay bare their souls to reveal the pain and frustration mired in the joy of an adoption reunion.
[Photo from Shutterstock]