For my research on how to end my memoir I decided to take a trip to visit where my mother was raised. This is one of several posts on my series about this monumental trip for me.
On the last day of my trip to central Iowa I traveled to the towns of Humboldt and Dakota City, the area my mother lived before leaving the state following the death of her husband.
It’s a town for which I have several addresses of extended family, mostly on her husband’s side.
One special destination was the town’s lovely old Carnegie Free Library, which has been in continual use since it was erected in 1880. Way back in 1997, there was a librarian who worked there who went out of her way to get me Xeroxed copies of the 1955 Dayton, Iowa high school year book that includes photos of my mother.
The funny thing was, she sent me sheets of photos, which were numbered, but she forgot to include a list of names until a week later. That week-long gap of wondering which one of hand full of girls could be my mother fueled a pretty good freelance story that ran in a long version in the S.F. Chronicle and as a shorter Glamour Magazine feature.
So, while I was sitting there looking through shoe boxes full of obituaries and binders of birth records, I took a break and asked the current librarian if there was any way to contact my old friend.
This being Iowa, she picked up her cell, dialed and left a message at the retired librarians home. Then I went back to work. I didn’t find much other than the anniversary notices for my birth mother’s husband’s brother and his wife. The town paper ran photos for his 25th, then the 40th and 45th.
Here’s what the Internet can’t do for you. It can’t show you what a community WAS like. It can’t really illustrate how friendly folks are in small towns. It has no chart or graph for how tight a community continues to be.
As part of my dream to write my memoir and book on toxic mothers I needed to understand where my birth mother lived.
I needed to consider what my life might have been like had I grown up there too. It’s hard to offer a logical reason why I needed to know that. I just did.
So I went to Iowa and learned how folks give directions in these big broad strokes, counting off driveways, ticking off the library, the post office, and churches like everybody knows where that is for goodness sake. They do that because everyone does know where the bowling alley used to be. They all share the same landscape that their great-grandparents did.
It shouldn’t have surprised me that just as I focused on my research the librarian rushed over to me holding her cell phone towards me. My friend, the retired librarian, wanted me to come to her house six blocks away.
So I drove east four blocks and north for two and there she was.
She hugged me, laughing and took me into her home where we sat at the kitchen table. Just days before, she told me, she had nearly thrown out her file on me, but something told her to keep every note, every letter now spread out between us.
You gotta love librarians.
We caught up on my life and my study of my birth family. She caught me up on her life and that of her daughters and many grandchildren.
She’s a super cool, sharp gal and she confessed that in the early days of our knowing each other by phone and mail that every time my mother came in to the library as a patron she felt guilty.
“Of course, she’d want to visit with me, exchange a little light conversation and I’d be thinking the whole time I know your daughter. The daughter you gave up. Oh, it was awful!” she said laughing, throwing her hands over her face.
We went through all the stuff on the table and I told her about my visit the day before to my grandfather, grandmother and two uncle’s grave-sites.
I told her, “I had a little talk with my grandfather. It made me sorry I hadn’t made the effort to know him. I should have. He lived to be 92. But even just knowing that in the whole world I was standing that close to his bones was profound for me.”
That was when she introduced the topic of synchronicity.
Synchronicity: The simultaneous occurrence of events
that appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection.
She suggested that by taking a risk and travelling to Iowa I found so many people that led me to others via synchronicity. Sort of like the universe wanted me to follow ghostly generational breadcrumbs leading to the truth about my origins.
I mean, what are the odds I’d find the lumberyard man’s sister who told me about skating parties there all summer long in 1955? That tidbit lined up with a line in my adoption papers:
“(The mother) was practically engaged when she met a sailor at a roller skating rink…”
“He never knew of the pregnancy.”
My mother told social workers she was the victim of a date rape at a skating rink and the classmate of hers I’d met only days before was adamant that they all went over to Gowrie to skate.
I mean, how many people can go back to the exact spot — in my case the parking lot of the Gowrie, Iowa Skating Roller Skating Rink — where they were conceived in the back seat of a car? Dude, I can now.
Talk about synchronicity.
It made me wonder. Is it always available to us — or do we create synchronicity when we are brave?
My mother had two daughters in short order after I was given up for adoption, which means I have two sisters or half sisters. The first sister born a year after me looks nothing like me at all. That made me think that her father is certainly my birth mother’s husband, now deceased.
Their second daughter was born a year later and I’ve always thought that we look very much alike, which made me wonder if my mother didn’t go back and have an affair with my real birth father.Â Stranger things have happened. That would make her a full sister I’ve never met.
The librarian offered to show me one of the sisters former home. On the drive back to the librarian’s home she mentioned that my mother’s brother-in-law lived a few blocks away. I had been reticent to contact that side of the family. After all, they are most likely not related to me by blood.
And yet, and yet… I felt the invisible hand on my back. Maybe next time I’ll recognize that ghostly pushing feeling as synchronicity.
I drove down a quiet street and thought, I know this street, this crossing of this and that. I pulled over. Sure enough in my notes I found an address scribbled in pencil.
I could see a dim light on in the back of the house. I wasn’t sure what I’d say or why it mattered as I knocked on the door
Out came a man I’d just seen in the library’s anniversary record book, looking older, grayer, thinner, but smiling. My mother’s brother-in-law, possibly my uncle.
I was half afraid I’d give him a heart attack so I chose my words carefully.
“I’m the grown daughter that (my birth mother) gave away in February 1956 shortly after she got married to your brother. I’m in town visiting and I thought. Well, I thought I’d never be here again so I should say hello,” I stammered.
He took my hand. He had the sweetest look on his face.
I filled in the quiet with words.
“I know your brother is deceased, but if he was alive I think I’d like to thank him for marrying my mother, marrying a girl in trouble, because in a way, in doing so, he’s responsible for me having a pretty amazing life. I can’t thank him, so maybe I can thank you,” I said, gulping for air.
“You should come in,” he said leading the way to his living room.
His wife was at bridge club. We sat in his living room and talked for a while. He didn’t want to say anything bad or negative about my mother. Although he did recall that once he and his brother drove to Des Moines to pull her out of a hotel where she was staying with some man. Although over the years I know they were both unfaithful to each other multiple times.
He and his wife “stood up” for my birth mother and his brother in Nov. 1955.
“My wife guessed that she might be with child, but you didn’t ask and nobody would tell and then they left,” he said. “You look so much like your mother,” he said reaching out with one hand to tap the bridge of my nose and then my forehead indicating that my eyes were duplicates of my mothers.
He wanted me to know that they had two girls and he walked over to a bookcase and pulled out a big blue spiral bound book that cataloged all the graduates of the local community college for decades.
Now, I have seen photos of my sisters.
That’s how I know the younger one and I resemble each other. He was adamant that I see the photos in the book.
The first one he found was the daughter born a year after me that I didn’t resemble one bit. Then he flipped the book to the look-alike sister. That’s when he got their names wrong, or so I thought.
Wait a minute, I said. Then we went back in forth until it dawned on me that all these years, I had it wrong. Had it backwards.
The sister I resemble is the older one, which begged the question, could we be full sisters? Could my mother, who confessed to so many interludes in her 18th summer have actually gotten pregnant by her fiance and not realize it? I wondered if she could see us side by side, if it would be obvious? Could this man actually be my uncle?
Walking me to my car, this man stood there slowly shaking my hand. He had tears in his eyes. I did too.
It had been a long week of discovery. When I set out on this trip, part of me hoped that I would actually look into the eyes of another human being to whom I am related. Having never done so made me feel really different from other people who take it for granted.
But what difference did it make if my birth mother and her husband really were my parents and that their first daughter was very likely a full sister to me? What had I really learned from all the nice people in Iowa, all the public records, all the headstones?
I drove away I feeling like I just might have actually met two relatives that day.
Unbeknownst to me the librarian had been rooting for me like a supportive mom since 1997. She kept every scrap of correspondence the way a mom keeps kid’s artwork on the fridge. She just couldn’t stop hoping for good things for me. She is a relation of mine in a sort of spiritual way.
And the brother-in-law who was so instantly understanding and so kind to me was quite possibly my real uncle.
During my week in Iowa, so many people did their parts to help me come to terms with my origins. Maybe I did look into the eyes of my family over the past few days, or maybe not. I’ll never know.
Each person I’d met in Iowa, in their own way, helped teach me that DNA is less important than the human connection.
As I steered my red rental car towards the freeway, the Carnegie Library, the dusty downtown and the ancient Texaco filling station slid across my rear-view mirror. I wouldn’t need to see them again.
I had found my peace.