My mother's daughter

Part Two of a trilogy by three women whose lives were forever changed by adoption -- the teenager who gave her child up, the girl she gave away and the woman who became that girl's mother.


Kristina Zarlengo
January 6, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

Editor's Note: This is the second in a trilogy of stories by three women whose lives were changed forever by adoption -- a teenager who gave birth alone in a home for unwed mothers in 1967, the baby girl who grew up to wonder who her birth parents were and the woman who became a mother when that baby girl was placed in her arms.

Point: We are born with our future selves intact -- I am but the extrapolation of my genetic helix. Like an unconscious at the wheel of a conscious mind, my genes drive what I appear to freely choose. My inklings are no more a product of my will or my experience than light is a product of the moon.

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When I went to meet my biological father, a man I wished to meet inorder to gain a sense of my medical history and dispose of a sense of curiosity about the man who sired me, I was dropped off at our train station rendezvous by my groovy boyfriend. A European, my boyfriend had a goatee and great, crazy hair that stood in tufts. I think he was wearing a purple shirt under striped overalls. I myself was dressed out of character, wearing something I don't remember because the whole point of my attire that day was that it not offend my father or betray me by giving away the details of who I am. I wanted clothing that would allow me a reporter's distance. I wanted objectivity and freedom from the consequences of this father man. My idea of neutral clothing is black everything, head to toe, but I already knew this father was a rancher and that to a Colorado rancher black is funereal. I wore something else. When my boyfriend dropped me off, he shook my hand as if we had just closed a business deal. No kiss. A firm handshake.

It came out later that my prescient boyfriend had pretended we werefriends at that moment because he wanted to prevent my father'scondemnation of me by virtue of my association with a man who wearspurple and fails to comb his hair. But I guess my new father was disenchanted with him all the same. After an hour and a half of iced tea, coffee, conversation and staring during slow afternoon hours at a Denver hotel bar, Harry -- the man my birth mother, Ceil, had identified as my biological father -- got simultaneously personal and paternal with me. "Stay away from the cupcakes," he said, and he said it strongly, with emphatic eye contact and nods.

Now, "cupcakes" still means to me little frosted things in paper holders.To the extent that I can identify cupcakes with deviants, which is what Harry meant by the term, I am sort of a champion of cupcakes. But Harry was quite poignant in his effort for family-type interaction, and so I tried responding with a laugh and a "Yeah, sure, but I don't think I can identify a cupcake" comment meant to deflect his line of commentary. He switched confections, told me not to hang out with fruitcakes. Then he switched analogies.

He explained to me that some people are weeds. They are parasitic, they eke important resources away from where they belong, they suck dry and contribute nothing. Cupcakes are weeds, he was saying, and he went onto say that he himself had been a weed, in particular during his college days, before he settled down, married, held his ranch together and raised two children. When he had begotten me, Harry explained, he had been a weed.

I grew up amid the vast rows of suburban homes on the plains of south Denver, so I know about weeds from a lawn perspective. Weekends where I grew up were spotted with moms and dads on their hands and knees in their gardens and on their lawns, pulling weeds, especially dandelions. When I was 8, I had my first dandelion salad when my adoptive father picked a bowl's worth of tender, preflower dandelions and dressed them with olive oil and lots of vinegar. That dandelion salad was memorable, delicious, and it started me wondering about why we suburbanites preferred sod to dandelions, why the green symmetrical crewcuts of lawn were my neighbors' pride when we all could have had lawns of dandelions that would provide delicious salads, then bloom into those charming yellow flowers, then puff into white seed balloons, all without needing constant attending or mowing or even sowing.

During high school, I looked up "weed" in the dictionary. It was defined as an undesirable plant. I desired weeds. By the time I was in college it seemed to me that we hate weeds only because they are so stubbornly alive and easy to care for. It seemed to me that dandelion-revulsion is a symptom of capitalist dementia: We love only what we cannot have or that the having of makes us first work, then suffer to maintain. We hate what is free. I tried to love what is free and even to be free of such mind-sets that pull weeds. I avoided any group with the semblance of "normal"; I majored in philosophy; I studiously avoided all fraternities, sororities, their parties and their beverage, beer. At the University of Colorado at Boulder, a college and town that are well known as beautiful playgrounds pickled in beer, I read thick books, dressed in black, observed a circadian rhythm of 11 a.m. wake-ups and 4 a.m. bed times, and drank coffee or vodka. Two weeks after graduation I moved to New York City to pursue a graduate degree in literature.And it was on a trip back to Colorado that I learned from my birth mother, and then from Harry, that during what he called his "weed phase" I had been conceived on a couch in the basement of a fraternity house after they had drunk a lot of beer together on the single night of their acquaintance. So went the story of my seed.I would have been more honest with Harry during our meeting; would have told him that I liked being a product of sex for sex's sake, of spontaneous passion. (Was mine not at least as auspicious a beginning as one inspired by ovulation and driven by baby desire?) I would have told him that I did not mind, and sort of favored, the idea of myself as a mistake, a weed, or that I adored my boyfriend's look. I didn't tell him these things because I was touched by his honesty and his effort to act like my father.I was touched by him in part because he told me a story about his neighbor's son -- who, like me, had been born out of wedlock and unknown to his father until the boy (who, like me, had been adopted) showed up at Harry's neighbor's door at the age of 27 (which was my age when I met Harry). I don't know what happened next, but the fact that Harry's best friend and neighbor had sired a weed the same year Harry had sired me was a coincidence I took as confirmation that Harry was my biological father. Harry and I had not yet had blood tests to verify his paternity. But I knew. And I promised him I would stay away from the cupcakes, even as I wondered how long it would take him to realize I was a cupcake, too.I also knew him to be my father, and was touched by him, because he was so much like the man who raised me, Frank Zarlengo -- a strong, captivating, somewhat intimidatingly charismatic man who cared for my sister and me with fierce loyalty and stern, deep love. Frank died when I was 15; his death was horrible to me. I missed him terribly, dreamed of him frequently. And here I was with a stranger, also my father, who insisted as haughtily as Frank had on opening the door, on paying the bill, on strict honesty in conversation. Harry had a mustache like Dad's; he was tall, tan and convinced like him. I think at one point he winked, like Dad, which about slayed me.I decided after I met with Harry that blood relations are what give us our emotional templates; that our capacities, our attractions, our loves are hard-wired. I decided that one of the reasons I had loved my father, Frank, so fiercely was that he was very much like my biological father, Harry.I had learned as a philosophy major how, for the purpose of understanding, to assume a new philosophy as one would put on a pair of glasses. But adopting a philosophy that made my love for my adoptive father look like an effect of my genetically hard-wired disposition was not easy. It meant accepting determinism, the power of the kind of genetic fate and destiny I had always shunned. It meant finding sympathy with the nature people in the nature/nurture debate. I had spent hours on term papers in attempts to dispose of everyone from Hitler to Freud to Marx on the ground that theirs were pernicious determinisms.But I tried to accept Harry as a father; I tried, too, to accept that my life was not something I had chosen. I wore the lenses through which my life was predetermined. I saw myself balanced on a great wave of destiny, the contours of which were vaguely revealed by my meeting with my biological father. Harry and I arranged to conduct a paternity test. I had my blood taken at a Denver facility, gave the nurse there his name,then flew back to New York.It took Harry six months to give his blood to that nurse so our test could be performed. I didn't mind his delay -- his becoming a father of a grown woman needed necessarily to shake his well-weeded world, and I did not need for us to begin acting as father and daughter. I was raised by the man I considered to be my father; I did not want a new one or a replacement -- the very idea was heresy. I was prepared never to see Harry again, or for us to meet infrequently and awkwardly, or to become friends or whatever. I was not prepared to have our blood test come back negative, which it did.

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Counterpoint: What we are is the miscellaneous substance of our choices, our actions and the influences of those around us. I was born tabula rasa. Switch the world I grew up in and you switch me with someone else.The late '60s, when I was born, were years when parents were counseled to tell their young adopted children that they had been adopted. My mother and father did just that. So, from the time I have known anything at all, I have known I was adopted; what I did not know until later was that anyone else was anything else.At some early moment, Mom and Dad explained to my sister, Katarina, and me that they had waited a long time for us -- years. And after that long wait, they had gotten us. We also learned that my sister, when she first saw me, inspected my navel and said, "Yep. That's the right baby!" I am now certain that my parents were more thorough than this, I'm sure they said much else. But I was very young, and I turned their report into a theory -- which I took to be a memory -- of How Babies Come To Be With Their Parents. I believed that children were collected by their parents from large white structures ruled by bureaucrats of luck. Parents, I believed, were ushered into these structures and assigned a number that corresponded to the crib number of a baby in a warehouse of babies. That baby was theirs to take home and love.Of course, I did not formally consider how every baby came to his or her family, but I assumed the scenario was the same for everyone. I was roused to my error in first grade. My family had just moved to Reno and Kathy and I were attending a new school. At some point either my sister or I revealed to the other kids that we were adopted. Probably I did --my sister has always been canny. Plus, when I said, "I was adopted" at that time, it was a generic statement, nearly synonymous with "Here I am." It was more evocative to some other kids, however, who said things like "You're adopted!? That means your mother didn't want you!" I was stupefied; the idea that my mother did not want me just because I existed was as senseless as it was painful.Getting taunted by those kids was worth it. When we got home and told Mom what they had said, her eyes, which are green and bright, darted around sharply as she pronounced the children's taunting "perfectly ridiculous!" She was our mother, she said, and she and Dad had waited and yearned for us far more than some people who have children without even intending to do so and then only have to wait nine months. There were clues in this talk that I would later put together into the understanding that I had another mother. At the time, I was simply overwhelmed with Mom's fierce love for us and the gravity of her having wanted us so much. If it took taunting children to bring that out in her, it was fine with me. I learned later, when I better understood adoption, that I was not my parents' second child but their third. The first had been an adopted baby boy named Jimmy, who had contracted meningitis and died of it when he was just 7 weeks old. My parents had clearly been heartbroken over Jimmy's death. I felt terrible about it, both out of a sense of sympathy for my parents and because I was wistful for the big brother I never knew. Then again, the possibility that my parents might already have adopted all the children they wanted before I had been born -- which was the possibility that I would never have had my family -- made me believe that Jimmy's death had been a stroke of luck. His death made room for me. Luck is a morbid muse.My father was a creatively superstitious man. He had no problem with black cats crossing his path, but he adamantly forbade us to transport even a bug out of a cemetery, and he refused to carry toothpicks in his pockets. I have never seen my Air Force buddy returned from battle dead, with only toothpicks in his pocket, as he did. I do not carry toothpicks in my pockets because I revere luck. For most of my life I have believed that luck, and the way we act on it, is the shifty essence of life.After all, it was our conspiracy of luck and action, fused with emotion and common experience, that made my family. Kathy and I have the same voice, and I believe we agreed to develop the same sounds just as weagreed to become the sisters that we are. Kathy and I are also very different from each other, but we share a voice and much else because of common experience and because sisterhood is role-playing, and Kathy and I are hamming it up, maybe more ardently than others do because weknow it is a role.I suppose all families are conspiracies; all daughters, sons, mothers and fathers actors. The importance of blood relations is another script among many -- a bit of plot. Kathy and I used to exchange glances of superior awareness when acquaintances would fawn over how alike we looked, how Kathy had Dad's eyes, or how I got my height from Mom. We sort of agreed that we supplied proof of natural resemblances, but our idea of natural was different.

However, I long nursed curiosity about my birth mother, a feeling that was isolated out when I read novels like William Faulkner's and Toni Morrison's, whose mildewed estates, ghosts, chains of blood and family fates were sci-fi to my thinking. Their sentences remained empty until I made contact with Ceil.Like all adopted children, I had long contemplated my other mother: Wonder Woman, Jackie O., Princess Leah were each her at different times. Virginia Woolf was my grandmother. Dates and nationalities and details (like whether she was a fictional character) were of no importance. Usually, though, my mother was some elegant woman I would glimpse on a street, or a witty lawyer I would meet at aparty. But while the prospect of meeting an ideal woman attracted me to finding my other mother when I was in my teens, the prospect of meeting someone I hated -- or worse, someone who hated me -- neutralized any real effort. What if my other mother were cruel? What if I were the product of a rape she longed to forget? What if she used our blood bond as an excuse to invade my family? What if she, her mother and her grandmother were all schizophrenic? Coupled with a worry that my return to my other mother's life would be unwelcome, my fear that my other mother would unhinge me prevented my trying to find her sooner.My decision to do so was in part a decision to do some sisterly bonding with Kathy, who had contacted her biological mother. Kathy had discovered a private group with a remarkable database designed to obviate reliance on closed official records. The idea was that, seeking either parent or offspring, you could send a letter listing whatever history you knew, and if the database contained a match, someone would call. Kathy gave me the Nevada address and I mailed a postcard with everything I knew scribbled in the little white section on the back. Three days later I received a phone call from a woman who told me my match's name, address and phone number. It happened very fast. When people ask what prompted me to find Ceil, I truthfully respond that I dropped a postcard in the mail on a whim.The more complete reason I contacted Ceil is that I finally could -- it was a whim I never would have indulged had I not been beyond expecting that she would fill gaps in me or in my family. I already had a magnificent mother. I don't mean to brag (and anyway some would say one can only brag about one's mother's virtues if she is related by blood), but I say she is magnificent not only because of the work she did with my sister and me -- and believe me, she worked, since neither of us was easy. I have also, as an adult, seen her mothering habits when she cares for friends' children. She is patient and attentive, but mostly she is slyly motivating in ways that are heartening to the wee ones. I am lucky to be her daughter.It was on a firm sense of the excess of my own possibilities and the mettle of my family that I bounced my whim. I still had the sense I might disrupt or harm some contented people by showing up, adult, after more than two decades. I rationalized that a little disruption is good for the constitution, but maybe I had to choose to seek out my birth mother on a whim because I knew I was being reckless. As it turns out, meeting blood relatives has never brought me grave news about my destiny. Nevertheless, the experience has sometimes been so jarring that I have often been glad I did not seek them out before I was an adult.When I talked to Ceil for the first time, I phoned her from my apartment, where I sat with a candle and a glass of scotch, and with the lights out. I focused on her voice, which, like mine, was choppy with emotion. She was kind. The idea of meeting her was terrifying, but we arranged to meet when I returned to Colorado at Christmas. Some people like to call such meetings reunions, but it was hard for me to see it a ssuch. I have no memory of my birth -- a reunion with the woman who birthed me connotes, to me, somehow crawling, full grown, back into her body. I could no longer refer to her as my biological mother; it is a term at once too cold and too inaccurate, since much of my biology developed when she was away from me. I sometimes refer to Ceil as my birth mother, but the qualification is misleading. Ceil is a mother to me, but she is not the mother.Do not rely on my account of my first meeting with Ceil. I met her during winter. We ate lunch in a Victorian house whose living room had been converted to a restaurant. I did not taste my food, although I ate it. She wore a long purple wool coat, and I believe I was dressed absurdly, in a summer dress of too-thin fabric and shoes with leather soles. I slipped and fell on the thick ice in the parking lot. I was aiming to please that day; I wanted no neutrality or cover; I wanted Ceil to like me. I probably wanted her to feel like her effort in having me had been worth it. I had none of the detachment I relished when I later met Harry. I hugged Ceil when we met, which is not my style. We look a lot alike, which was a revelation to me. I gawked at her. I gave her more latitude in being correct about everything than I have ever given anyone. I felt compelled to assist and comfort her, though she was poised. I got the idea that my birth had changed her permanently, scarred her. I tried, stupidly, to say things that would make it better. My tension never entirely went away -- it was only during our fourth meeting that I was able to consistently breathe. I think Ceil is a wonderful woman. But I am biased. Ceil was, and still is, strictly heroic to me. Not only was her pregnancy with me solitary, without support from family members, friends or boyfriends; not only did she abandon her pursuits to go reside first in the home of the wealthy Denver family that employed her with child care and housekeeping duties, then to the Florence Crittendon Home for Unwed Mothers that had arranged her employment-in-exile; not only did she sleep alone in that home until one night she walked upstairs and gave birth, only to be forbidden to cuddle her baby (a scenario far more surreal to me than my vision of the baby warehouse); not only did her body swell up with a baby that days after birth became only a memory no one shared in the life to which she returned; not only was this woman my mother, but had she decided not to be my mother, I could never have been. I was beside myself when I met Ceil because unlike my biological father, who had wanted sex and had gotten something far more messily consequential, she had, under forbidding circumstances and over nine months of time, willed me alive. The message I wanted to deliver to her -- a message that cemented my desire to meet her -- was a "thank you" of absurd proportions. I have known her for six years now and still feel I have not gotten that message across.I was also beside myself when I met Ceil because even though I was about to meet her for the first time, I was wary of losing my other mother. When Ceil and I first got in touch, I realized the lawyer at the party had been my mother when I had wanted to be a lawyer, and then had dissolved into the next mother as my ideals for my future selves had dissolved and reassembled. And I realized that meeting Ceil would mean there would be no further mothers. What I did not expect, though, was that the disappearance of my abundant lineage of ideal mothers was no great loss, or that knowing her to be my other mother would be so obvious that we never seriously discussed confirmation with a DNA test.Anyway, such a test became moot. It turned out that David -- a man who had always believed he had an adopted child by Ceil, and the man she named as father on all her medical and legal forms -- passed the bloodtest Harry had failed. Ceil told me she hadn't been sure when I was born which of the two was the one, but was led by the timing of her pregnancy to believe it was Harry. I imagine she was also wishfully thinking a man ignorant of the pregnancy -- rather than one informed of it who left her to cope alone -- was the father.

When David and I first made contact, already I was somewhat numbed by
almost three years of reconstructing and deconstructing
family. I was loath to cram still more figures into a family tree that
was beginning to seem all branches and too little trunk. When I learned
that David had not supported Ceil during her pregnancy, I waxed
defensive of her, becoming ill-disposed toward him for her sake. But I
did want to know my medical history, and when I spoke with him on the phone
in California, I found his manner sweet, his voice deep and gentle. He
talked about how young and confused he had been when Ceil reported to
him their unintended little consequence, and I began to feel ridiculous
for being so defensive. He wanted us to meet, and I agreed but named a
rendezvous on my turf: a New York cafe with a view of the Cathedral of St.
John the Divine -- that huge stone structure that can overwhelm
anything. Near my school, it was where I supplied myself with coffee
every day.

Meeting David, I immediately felt jaded. It was he who approached me
with the uncertain, awkward hug; he who gawked at physical resemblances
that would have floored me once. By then, I had become cool about
seeing my jaw line or finger length or hair color on a stranger. He and
I had coffee and croissants with apricot jam at a table on the
sidewalk. It was a hot, bright early summer day, and the year's bees
were beginning to show up. David spoke at length; I mostly listened,
smiled and nodded. He told me about his wife, Jo, and his daughter,
Kate ("You two could be twins!"). He told me about his home in
California. I said some things about myself, told him I had been a
tomboy as a kid. He said so was Kate. I ate some licorice while we talked. He told me my grandfather had eaten licorice,
too.

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Since then, I have gotten to know David and his family quite well; they are among my favorite people. We now have the kind of formally intimate rapport that people
have with close cousins, aunts and uncles. They recently brought me
with them to the wedding of a friend of their family, and I'm sure
strangers sized us up as a family of four without thinking twice.
Initially, I would have explained the extenuating circumstances of our
relation to as many people as would listen; lately, I just let
misunderstandings happen. Dancing the family dance with them can be
fun, even though I know the music is much more complex.

After the wedding, when we were crowded in the chutelike entrance to
the reception hall, I introduced myself to a friend of theirs I had
heard tale of, Jo's role twin in another reunion drama. Like Jo, this
woman had seen a child mothered by another woman and presumably adopted
into oblivion reappear in her husband's life, claiming him as her birth
father. She had showed up around the time I had. This adoptee was, in
the testimony of her birth father's now-ex-wife, "a snake" -- she had
destroyed her birth father's marriage, marred the fate of her
half-sister and duped and manipulated her newfound parent. I asked
for details and facts but got none, except that this daughter had been
driven by fury born of an abandonment complex. These terms were so
extreme -- the girl so demonized -- that I started to figure she was a
caricature and figured this woman was trying to amuse me. I quipped
something like, "Oh, yeah, I'm a snake, too," which
prompted everyone to pat my arm and reassure me that I am "one of the good
ones." At that point I shut up, saving my breath for when next I would
hang out with Mom and Kathy, who know that being abandoned and being
adopted are not equivalent, but opposite.

In the appearances, voices, myopia, hair, shyness or tastes for
licorice of my genetic relatives, I do sometimes recognize myself. I
was right when I concluded, having met Harry, that we are 100 percent
byproducts of our genes. What's tricky, though, is that while what we
inherit is a big enough vessel to hold us, the particularities of our
lives are also 100 percent, or more, of who we are. We remain within our
genetic boxes, but we are excessive, easily spilling over by choice or
because of happenstance. Given enough living, I am sure genetic
identities can become so diluted they are negligible.

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I take as my mascot the visual
cortex: cells born already specialized that are then deeply affected by
their surroundings, and then who knows? We can opt to press the world
through a refinery like the vision of Van Gogh; or we can see only what
flickers in our genetic caves.


Kristina Zarlengo

Kristina Zarlengo is a freelance writer living San Francisco. She received her Ph.D. in English from Columbia University in 1997.

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