My dad always said,
Be careful what you wish for.
I wished for a photograph of my mother as a young woman. I had plenty of pictures of my adoptive mother, the mother who raised me; and a few of my darling step-mother.
But I had no photos at all of the teenager who gave me life and then gave me up.
At the time I was a researcher for an executive recruiting practice. Honey, I could find anybody. A decade before I nailed down my mother’s identity, and then her address and phone number.
I called her but was shocked into hanging up by the unanticipated strength of her Midwestern accent.
I don’t speak French or Iowan, so I sent her a letter.
She wrote back on a small piece of folded paper the size of two baseball cards. She said that when she’d found herself in her dilemma she viewed giving me up as her best option. She said that what she did needed to stay done. She asked to be left alone.
So that was that, until my adoptive father died,rekindling my old desire to see my birth mother’s face. Loss is like that sometimes.
It can cause weird emotional vacuums.
Feeling inventive, I called the library in the small town where my birth mother had grown up. Did they keep high school yearbooks? “How far back?” the librarian asked. “Way, way back.” And what did I need if she found it? “Just a Xerox of the photographs of the senior class,” I said.
It was just my luck that this librarian was extremely professional. (Aren’t they always? I love librarians.) She asked numerous questions to make sure she could provide precisely what I needed. Twenty answers later, my story had been reluctantly spilled. She promised to track down the yearbook.
Three weeks later (which felt like three years), a manila envelope arrived in my home mail box. I summoned my husband (that means screamed for) and mixed each of us a stiff vodka cranberry. We went out on the side porch sheltered by towering redwoods.
A few gulps later, I tore open the envelope and pulled out three sheets.
There were the pictures of the class of ’55, boys and girls. All told, less than a 20 kids. Each student had a number. When I turned over the pages I realized to my horror that the librarian had not written down names to correspond to the numbers.
“Oh my god!” I exploded, frantically searching the empty envelope. “She forgot to include the friggin’ names!”
“Calm down, Rayne,” my (dang, he’s logical!) husband said, picking up the pages. “Is someone circled, underscored or checked?”
When it became clear there was no way to identify anyone in the pictures from our porch that night, we began studying each girl’s face, searching for my nose, my eyes, my expressions.
No. 8 seemed a strong possibility. No. 9 was wearing a sweater set I liked. No. 12, with a cute poodle cut and flashy earrings, somehow echoed by style — she was the vivacious type, we could tell.
“Look up,” my husband directed, squinting as he compared me to each girl.
I’d mimic the pose from the picture, then he would say, Hmm…. Maybe,” or “No, that’s not her.”
The summer night was balmy and as the sky changed from blue to gray to black above our heads; we rocked our rocking chairs, speculating into a second round of cocktails.
When flying bugs reminded us that we owned a house, the mister said, “Let’s decide. It’s this one, isn’t it?” He pointed to one of the girls I resembled over so slightly.
“It has to be,” I agreed.
Later on, as I tried to sleep, I recalled for the first time in years a fantasy that I used to have as a teenager; I imagined my mother as an attractive young woman in scuffed saddle shoes and pink pedal pushers. In my mind, I saw her dropping the swaddled newborn me on a doorstep and walking away, hugging her car coat tight as she disappeared into a wall of San Francisco fog.
Three days later, a small white envelope arrived with a list of names and an apology from the librarian for having forgotten to include them. My mother was No. 14 – not the one we’d chosen.
Not even among those we liked.
“Then maybe she’s that vivacious one,” I thought as I trotted into the house and grabbed the photos off the kitchen counter. Good ‘ole No. 14! She was the one dismissed at first glance.
She was a bucktoothed girl in a wrinkled black dress wearing cat’s-eye glasses. She also wore a triple strand of plastic pearls. Her eyebrows were like caterpillars kissing and her hair looked like Elmer Fudd’s hunting cap with the earflaps pulled down.
I studied my mother’s young face.
The only resemblance I could detect was that we both wore cat-eye glasses. I started giggling, and soon was laughing out loud.
Once again, my dad was right. How could I expect a photo of my biological mother to match my dreams, or to create a feeling of connection? The whole experience helped me give up that fairytale. And I learned that when I ponder my origins all I need to do is look in the mirror.
I can study my own reflection and be grateful only I get to decide who I am.
Everyone should be so lucky.
Rayne Wolfe’s dream is to write her first book Confessions of an Undutiful Daughter by the end of 2011. She completed her dream journey May of 2011 on 8WD after a year living her dream. You can find her at Toxic Mom Toolkit on Facebook.