It is the summer of 2016 and I am sitting in a suburban backyard, wearing plaid shorts and a white blouse.
I have this theory that we are each are allotted a handful of days, over the course of our lives, where we’ll remember exactly what we were wearing, how the light looked, and the distinct pressure of wrought iron pressing through the cushion of a vintage chaise lounge.
This was one of those days.
It’s on my mind all these years later because I’m seeking a way, in this column, to write about some personal history.
The backyard belonged to the sister of my birthmother, so I suppose that would make her my birth aunt.
It’s an awkward term. But like the system that created it, the vocabulary of adoption is, at best, bumbling.
There are other words too — controlling, secretive and even underhanded come to mind — but let’s not leave that lovely backyard just yet.
Several members of my birth family are having a cookout, it is one of a handful of times I’ve been included in a gathering like this, we’ve finished eating and my aunt and I are sitting where we can see everyone, yet also off by ourselves.
I like her, my aunt.
She’s arty, an acute observer of life, quiet but with an edgy sensibility she guards behind a pair of dramatic eyeglasses.
“She tried to do it by herself,” my aunt says, shooing away a winged insect. “Not tell anyone. But they wouldn’t let her.”
In 1961 my birthmother was a 20-year-old college student studying to be a librarian. By “do it,” my aunt means her sister tried to hide her pregnancy and relinquish me without help from anyone she knew.
Not all adoptees want details like these. For those who do, they are like a coin in the grass.
“Who’s ‘they’?” I ask.
My aunt tenses, then tells.
My birthmother took a bus from Mt. Pleasant to Detroit, and walked from the bus station to the front steps of the Florence Crittenton Home for Unwed Mothers.
I picture her in a plaid A-line dress, tights and a wool cardigan. She pulls up a folding chair, sits down at the front desk and gives the woman there her vitals — pregnant, unmarried, unprepared, no money.
What she does have, my aunt says, with obvious admiration all these decades later, is a plan.
Take a semester off, stay at Florence Crittenton for the rest of her pregnancy, have the baby, sign the paperwork, check herself out of the hospital and return to college.
No one, especially her harsh and judgmental father, would ever know.
My birthmother’s name was Patricia and I liked her then, more so I think than I had the few times I’d met her.
The woman at the desk asks for her parents’ phone number, Patricia recites it
from page 1c
automatically, the woman writes it down, picks up the phone and dials.
“She wasn’t the same after that,” my aunt says. “They all lied to her. They told her —”
And here my aunt lifts her hand to shoo something away again, though there is no insect.
“They told her it was something she’d just get over.”
It wasn’t. It isn’t. Not for her, not for me, and what I’d like to do today is reach back in time and tell Patricia my theory.
That we are each allotted a handful of days, to remember exactly what we were wearing, and how the light looked that day in Detroit, on that long walk from the bus station.
Was it one of her allotted? She died in 2008 of ALS so I can’t know the answer.
But I’ll trade in one of mine for it, just to spite the woman behind that desk.