April 13, 2017 by larryclow
I’m walking down the sidewalk in a small town and I’m waiting for someone to catch me. Every car that passes by on the busy road next to me is suspicious. Someone is going to pull over, lean out their window, and immediately identify what I’m up to. And then they’ll stop me. This person—young, old, man, woman, doesn’t matter—will call the cops, maybe. Or restrain me. Or start shouting, cause a scene. And then I’ll—what? Run? Apologize? Lie unconvincingly and slink back to my car? What will I do?
My intentions are innocent. I’m doing a bit of personal archaeology—a block ahead is the house that my birth mother was living in when I was born. My search for my birth mother ended a year ago, when, after I contacted her on Facebook, she blocked m. And so now I’m picking at the edges of my adoption story, chasing down small leads, trying to fill in what gaps I can.
I only want to see the house, maybe snap a picture. As I’m writing my book, I’m trying, in a small way, to embellish the narrative of my adoption, and I want those small details. Where did my mother live? And with whom? What does the house look like now? What’s the neighborhood like? When I see it, will I feel some kind of connection echoing faintly across three decades?
But I feel like a trespasser. It’s a feeling that’s stuck with me throughout the last seven years, and it’s a feeling that countless other adoptees and birth/first parents have felt during their search. When I look at it objectively, that unwarranted paranoia has been one of the funnier aspects of my adoption search. I request documents, look through records, do Google searches, or, in this case, walk past the house my birth mother lived in 32 years ago, and I’m worried. Anxious. I look over my shoulder and my movements are guarded, hesitant. I’ll be found out at any moment by some unseen authority who’ll appear, demand to know what I’m doing (even though, somehow, they already know), and force me to quit.
Even as someone with anxieties too numerous to catalog, it’s the most absurd of all absurd thoughts. How could anyone know what I’m doing? But in the moment, it’s all-consuming. I walk up to the house, a split-level with an attached garage, white with purple shutters and a purple front door, children’s toys scattered in the driveway, and I freeze. The windows are open and I think I hear someone inside singing. I’m standing just to the side of the driveway for the house next door; a car pulls in there and I jump (though I stifle a yelp of surprise). I want to walk past the house, but I don’t. I turn around sharply and walk back the way I came—my car is parked in a small neighborhood park a half a block away. Go back go back go back go back, I think, but am I talking myself into going back to the house or my car? I can’t tell, but my legs carry me back to the car; I climb in and start looking up property tax records for the house on my phone.
The tax records offer up more details than the house itself does. My birth mother lived there with her parents, and they sold the house in 1986—the same year my birth mother married her husband, a fact I know from reading the newsletter of the church my birth mother and her family attend. And then, for a moment, sitting in the parking lot of a neighborhood park, watching cars drive by and listening to the children shouting and laughing at the playground behind me, I think that I might not be wrong to feel like a trespasser.
“It’s with all the unknowns … that we create our own story,” Elaine said. “It’s not always accurate.”
Elaine is the social worker who handled my adoption in 1982. She’s still working for the same agency, still performing infant adoptions. She said this during our second interview in mid-July, and those words ricocheted in my head earlier yesterday morning as I sat in the library of the university my birth mother, and, I believe, my birth father, both attended in the early 1980s. I looked through a stack of yearbooks. First up was the class of ’84 yearbook, so I could once again see my birth mother’s photo, just like I had seven years ago. Seeing the photo again could be a talisman, I thought, a blessing of luck. I paged through slowly, looking at photos of homecoming and sports teams and school concerts. I hoped to see her face in a crowd, to get some new details about her. I found nothing new, but I did start to build a picture of college life in a small northern New Hampshire town in the 1980s: parties at the school pub, rainy football games, rafting trips down the river that runs past the school.
When I first met Elaine in 2011, she gave me what little information she could–a basic health history of my birth mother and her family, and some scant biographical details. I knew from this that my birth father was a senior in college when I was born in 1982. After taking another look at my mother’s yearbook photo, I methodically paged through the class of ’82’s yearbook and examined the face of every man, mentally airbrushed away every bad mustache, hoping to see a face that looked something like mine.
“Are you the person who was looking for the yearbooks?” an older woman asked. I looked up, startled, then recognized her from the information desk.
“Yup, that was me,” I said.
“Have you found everything okay?”
“Oh yes,” I said, pointing to the stack of yearbooks in front of me.
“Oh, good,” she said, smiling. And then she walked off.
Shaken, I returned to the yearbook. About 20 minutes later, midway through the senior portraits, I found a picture of a man who looked enough like me that I pulled out my phone to snap a picture. But before I did, I looked around the library, worried that woman from the information desk has returned and, now armed with a full dossier on me and my intentions, will confiscate the yearbooks. But the library was quiet; I was alone. And so I snapped the picture and quickly put the phone back in my pocket.
I end my day in a small town only a few miles away from the house by the park. This is the town where my birth mother now lives, with her husband and her three kids and a dog. It’s a quaint New England village; I drive past the old Grange hall and a little convenience store. I park at the town library; next to the library is my mother’s church, and again, I mentally build a series of short narratives, of her and her family going to the library after church, of her parking in the exact spot I’m in now and running inside to return a stack of books.
A mini-van pulls into the parking spot next to me and I pull my baseball cap low over my eyes and put on sunglasses. I fear the worst: that she’s here, now, with her teenaged kids, to pick up some books or DVDs or who knows what. I surreptitiously look to my left and let out a long sigh—it’s a young family. The kids are all under 10, and then clamber out of the van. “We’ll be back in an hour!” they shout to their mom, who’s already looking at her cell phone.
I look at my phone, open up Google Maps, and enter my birth mother’s address. Her house is only a few miles away. I could just drive by—just look. Don’t go don’t go don’t go don’t go don’t go, I think, but the same automatic movements that spirited me away from the house earlier take over. I’m pulling out of the parking space and on the road before I even realize what I’m doing. I’m five miles away. Then four. Then three. Then two. Then one. I regard each car that passes me suspiciously. I worry that there is some great red arrow, visible to everyone except me, hanging over my car, adorned with flashing lights and neon letters that say: “MAN SEARCHING FOR HIS BIOLOGICAL MOTHER! STOP AT ALL COSTS!”
But then I’m in her neighborhood. It’s thick with pine trees and, though there are many houses, there is also ample space between each house. It’s the kind of neighborhood I longed to live in when I was a child. Her street is up ahead; I drive around a postal truck and make the turn. I find myself in a cul de sac; behind me, the postal truck pulls slowly around the corner. Get out get out get out get out, I think. I look around–I think I can see her house through a stand of trees, but who knows. My anxiety has taken over and I’m convinced the mail carrier is going to be knocking on my window any minute now. I drive away, the few new details I’ve collected outweighed by an overwhelming feeling that I’ve trespassed too much for one day.