For 23 years, my life story began at four months, when I landed in my mother’s arms wrapped in a thin blanket and bearing a handwritten letter that read, “Congratulations to you both, the new parents of our little Tammy. First off, may I say you are very blessed of the Lord to receive such a beautiful and perfect little girl. She was brought to us when she was three days old, and we’ve all loved every minute we’ve had her.”
The letter went on to explain that I took my cereal from a bottle with the nipple cut open, that I was afraid of strangers, and that I had played the baby Jesus in a church Christmas pageant.
Because the adoption was closed, the old woman who called me Tammy has no name.
“Love her for us, too,” she wrote. And then she signed the letter “The ‘Foster Parents’ of baby Tammy.’”
For a long time, I was content with the official “Gotcha Day” story of how my parents drove eight hours from Boise to Moscow, Idaho, in 20-below-zero weather to pick up their new little baby. I always loved the part about how I was wailing and howling in the social worker’s arms, how my mom said, “Give me that baby!” and how, once I’d been handed over, I immediately stopped crying. This sweet story made me special. Gotcha Day was like a second birthday, which neither of my two brothers had.
My younger brother and I have a saying that we made up in a fit of silly dramatics one night: Blood does not make the brother. Meow. You have to meow and scratch at the air with your kitty claws when you perform this to produce maximum silliness. Growing up, my brothers and I behaved as though the fact of my adoption was of little significance. It bore no more weight than my older brother’s breech birth and my younger brother’s birth via C-section.
In later years, as I became aware of the gaps and absences in my life story, my adoption took on a significance that only I could claim. My brothers were always likened to one side or the other of our family. One looks like a Brown, the other like a Dusseau. I, on the other hand, am biracial, brown-skinned, and look unlike anyone in my family. My grandmother once introduced me to a man as her “adopted granddaughter.” It would have been hard to ignore the gaps and absences forever.
It’s no coincidence that when I was young my favorite stories were “Moses in the Reed Basket,” “The Ugly Duckling,” and “No Flying in the House,” all about characters abandoned or lost who turn out to be extra-special.
At 22, I began to search for my birth parents. Fortunately for me, a careless judge who oversaw the finalization of my adoption let slip my birth mother’s name in court. My dad had told me her last name when I was 16. My mom wasn’t so forthcoming with information.
Recently, she told me, “There was no question in my mind that I’d help you find her, but I wasn’t happy about it. I was sort of holding out hope that she’d be a jerk.”
On my 23rd birthday, I received a call from the nonprofit organization called Search-Finders of Idaho, to which I’d paid a flat $35 fee to help me. The caller gave me the names of my birth parents and the most recent phone numbers available. I prepared a brief, to-the-point speech to use when I called the number: “My name is Elizabeth. I was born on August 19, 1973, in Moscow, Idaho. My birth father’s name is Karl P., and I have reason to believe you’re my mother.”
I had to adjust the speech for my birth father’s family, since he has been dead since 1977. I spoke to his mother. She didn’t know what to say. She had no knowledge of me. Nor did anyone else in the family, save for one great-aunt who had been sworn to secrecy. She corroborated the story during a family powwow, and when I sent pictures, my grandmother and the rest of the family said I look just like Karl. Less than a week after my initial phone call, I got a message from my father’s sister. “This is your Aunt Beverly,” she said on my answering machine. We’ve been family ever since.
My birth mother (we’ll call her T) responded to my phone call with a surprisingly chipper attitude.
“Well, that sure sounds like me!” she said.
I don’t remember if T cried right then. But I do remember her crying when she told me how alone she felt during her pregnancy. She found out she was pregnant when she left Atlanta to start college in Idaho. No one in her family knew, and she didn’t have anyone to talk to about what was happening to her. There was, she said, one graduate student who lived in her apartment complex, and he would check in on her every now and again to see if she needed anything from the store.
In the end, she walked to the hospital. She didn’t know she was in labor. All she knew was she was in pain. The graduate student came looking for her and stayed until I was born. She bit his hand during a particularly painful contraction.
That was all. She never held me. And to this day, no one in her family knows.
Within a year of our first conversation, I went to visit her in Tucson. She introduced me to her eight-year-old daughter as “Mommy’s friend.” We had dinner together. It was surreal. After so many years of wondering who she was and what she looked like and what it would be like to sit next to her, the reality didn’t feel...real. It was mind-boggling to feel such an affinity for someone I’d never met before. I felt the same way about my little sister.