SKIPPING THE STONE
When this article appeared, the editor changed the title to “Who Are We and Where Do We Come From.” He was a great editor, but changing the title was a great mistake. Since writing this article, I did meet my birthmother and my sister Leslie. My birthmother did not want me to write about that adventure, and I will respect her wishes.
SKIPPING THE STONE
This is a story of secrets and passion, although not one I every expected to tell. My world was turned upside-down, topsy-turvy, by events beginning on a February day in 2001, when I was walking a canoe through a shallow Cockroach Bay with friend and fellow photojournalist Jim Phillips. We were dragging the canoe because we carelessly did not check the tides, thus arriving at low-low tide; yet this didn't bother us, as we liked slogging through the muck like two little boys, despite both being more than half-a- century old each. Jim and I then had much in common, including elderly mothers with failing health, deceased fathers, and the uncertainty that comes of beating a living out of the keyboard of a Macintosh and through the lens of a Nikon. It is curious that we have become good friends, because as writers, we both tend to flee at the arrival of anyone else that is a writer, and yet we have forged bonds.
While we waded through scant inches of water, the cellular phone in my pocket rang. Trying to extract the ringing nuisance from my jeans, I missed the call and went to my voice mail. A woman, whose voice and name I did not recognize, said my mother had been in a serious car accident and taken by helicopter to the county trauma center.
We hurried back through the shallow waters, loaded gear into Jim's car and tied the canoe to the roof. The trip to my house blurred by, while Jim put more pedal to the metal than was wise for a Toyota with 200,000+ miles, a car whose soul has since transmigrated to the great Japanese car resting place in the sky.
With vague information about your mother in an automobile accident, horrible images run through your mind. If you're imaginative — a quality that is a mixed blessing for writers — the images get pretty ghastly. I knew it was a single-car accident. My mother was thrown or fell out the car door, while the Oldsmobile continued going round in circles until at last it crashed into a tree. I imagined a tire running over my mother's head, killing her. I worried she would be forever in a wheel chair, amputated stumps all remaining of the legs that had danced with my father.
My mother was then approaching 86, and I did not want her to drive. Several times I asked her to give up the car, but she persisted. I mentioned driving evaluations by a professional instructor. No need to waste the money on such nonsense, she said. She had unsuccessful eye surgery to repair macular deterioration. Although everything seen from one eye appeared twisted, when I asked the surgeon about driving, to my chagrin he said she was legal to drive, and said so in such a manner that it sounded like I was trying to take her right away unjustly. Her recently lapsed license was renewed by the state. Who was I to argue?
Two hours later, I found myself picking bark and wood from the bloody scalp and gray hairs on my mother's head. Inside the trauma center were moaning folks. A motorcyclist who had an accident without a valid driver's license was being talked to frankly by a no-nonsense highway patrolman. Elderly couples from a car accident called to each other from various corners in the emergency room, and one man begged to be allowed to smoke. Every five minutes or so, the man pleaded to smoke, then asked if his wife was dead. His wife called out to him that she was alive, and then five minutes later he would ask again to smoke and if his wife had been killed. The man's questions repeated and repeated, like an old vinyl record whose platter was scratched. My mother shook, her lips trembled, I kissed and held her, and told her it would be OK.
It's too bad you meet my mother in print when she is already 86. In her 30s, she was as pretty as a movie star and had long auburn hair. In her bathing suit on the beach, heads turned, and as a child she called me “Sunshine” and read to me. My love of books and my career as a writer can be laid at her door. She loved to dance, and with my tall and handsome father, cut quite a figure on the floor. She sat all night in the hospital when my tonsils were extracted, and she cried when I brought my body home alive from Vietnam; while in-between she suffered with a teenager whose heart was too reckless, hormones too powerful, and brain too large. Sometimes when I looked at my mother, I wondered where that woman I used to know went, but from time to time I saw the eyes of that younger woman looking back at me from a body that has moved on by half a century. I know men and women who hate their mothers, but I love mine and consider myself fortunate.
When you pass 80, even a stubbed toe is a major event, and my mother had multiple bruises from her accident. She was as close to black and blue all over as anyone can come. Still she was miraculously lucky. No internal organs were damaged, and the cuts on her head turned out to be minor, fixed by a few stitches and aspirin. She would need some time to rehabilitate in a nursing home — everyone thought a few days, but they were wrong. Like many simple things in life, it would not be so easy.
At her house, I saw the aftermath in her garage where the police had somehow managed to cram the remains of her Oldsmobile. The sedan was twisted so badly it looked more like a heap of painted metal than a four-door. I decided her days of mobile independence had ended and prepared for a fight. I kept thinking how guilty I would have felt if she died in the accident or if someone else was hurt. I could have been without the mother who had been there for me all my life. When I visited my mother in the nursing home, she asked what make of car I thought we should buy her next, and I told her with what I hoped was both humor and sensitivity that it was yellow with the word "taxi" on it.
What should have been a stay of a week in the nursing home turned into almost a month, as my mother did not do well in the nursing home, although she would say it was their fault, not her fault. My mother worried about having to go into assisted living and was depressed over her injuries.
She looked so dispirited when my wife first saw her, huddled and still in her sheets, that Pamela began to cry, thinking my mother was dead or dying.
I visited my mother almost daily and, looking for things to cheer her, took her candy, newspapers, magazines, and Cokes. "It's like a tour of duty in the army," I said. "You do what they tell you and when your time's up, they send you home." I also took her a copy of my then newly published third book, Florida's Fabulous Trail Guide, which I had dedicated to my parents.
Home: a very powerful word and a place of familiarity and safety. There are times in life when, without a home, you are in danger of falling apart. On the first available Saturday, when my wife could help, we took Zella Ohr home from the nursing home for a short visit to her condominium. My parents had sold the old house my father built and moved into smaller quarters when cancer arrived in his life.
I wanted mother to see return home was possible and to know good things were still in the world.
When home at last, she announced she had something to tell us. I had heard this before and did not pay much attention. On previous occasions, what was important was for me to promise to stay married this time, or that she loved me — something I had known as long as I could remember.
Then my mother told me that I'd been adopted.
It was as if someone put a bell jar of white sound over my head. Her lips were moving, clocks were ticking, car tires were rushing over asphalt on the street outside, and I heard nothing but the inside of my brain pushing against my skull.
My mother could not have children, she explained, a result of injury in a car accident and a large ovarian tumor. My father had told her to keep my adoption a secret from me; why she did not know. She directed me to the back bedroom where, under a mattress like in a Dickens' novel, were hidden my 1946 adoption papers. Orphanages and foster homes full of the abandoned and discarded were my first family.
My wife Pam was in tears, but I tried to remain calm for my mother's sake. "No, it did not matter," I said, and "Yes, sometimes I had suspected," because I was so different, not only in appearance, but also in acquired tastes, like reading and music. My Eagle Scout father wanted an Eagle Scout son, I am sure, but what he got was a sort of teenage mutant who absorbed books whole, memorized classical music, while slapping on aftershave to attract girls and scribbling in notebooks and pecking away at manual typewriters to produce infantile stories.
"Keep these for me," I told Pam, tossing her the adoption papers, with what I hoped was apparent nonchalance for the benefit of my mother. My real mood was probably reflected better in how the adoption papers soared into the air and landed at Pam's feet in disarray.
Despite many questions from my wife as we drove home, concerning how did I feel and what did I think about learning my name had been Albert, not Timothy, I was in a sort of state where everything moved slowly around me while my brain raced on like a runaway locomotive. The brain is an amazing thing, able to spin out poetry and nightmares, often at the same time.
At home, Pam knew what best to do. She went to bed exhausted, while I sat on the porch with various dogs and cats I had rescued from somewhere. I sat there for hours. Cats fell asleep. A dog wandered back to Pam.
After leaving the Army a few years following service in Vietnam, I fell apart. I have never been able to decide how much delayed stress had to do with it — from crawling in tunnels where hidden people wanted to kill me or flying in helicopters where pilots crashed us into trees — as opposed to how much it came from a half-dozen failures at love. Undoubtedly it was about 50-50.
Six months later, I was a better man for having fallen apart. The knots were untied, and I thought I understood myself from alpha to omega. I was in total possession of the facts and meanings of my life. As I have learned since, it was a false confidence, for we are always in the process of change, and change is not a comfortable process.
With the knowledge of my adoption, I realized that the onion had at least another layer to be peeled. There were wheels within wheels, gears within gears, and mazes to be run.
Some things now made sense, which never made sense before. For the first six formative months of my life, I had not had the normal nurturing a child receives. No motherly bonding, just one of many unwanted rejects. People said I was unemotional, a flat-liner, deadpan. Now I knew partially why.
Around me were the saved cats and dogs, just like I had been saved. At times I had done better with animals than people. They were easier to understand and to earn affection from. Feed them, stroke them, and toss them a ball until your arm falls off, and they love you. In saving them I was following a pattern in which my parents selected me and rescued me from a foster home. I was a rescue boy, like a rescue cat or dog. No wonder why, as an environmentalist, I wanted to save the whole wide world and its wild things. I was rescued, what more natural than to rescue in return? What better to rescue than everything?
Joy on my baby face when my parents took me home was evident on old black-and-white photographs yellowing with age. The grin was really wide for a baby. My hands were outstretched in other pictures as if there was joy in just feeling the air. What a happy little tot I must have been to have a home and someone willing to pay attention to me at last. Thank you, father Frank and mother Zella.
For hours on the porch, I thought and thought of my family, and my life as part of it and away from it. For more than 50 years they had kept a secret; a constant smoke screen hid the fact of my adoption. I recalled needing my birth certificate to get a passport to go to Mexico. Despite repeated pleas that I would take care of it, my father said perhaps too firmly, "Don't worry about, I'll do it," and did. There was cousin Fred who I once tried to defend from a perceived bully and who in youthful pride screamed angrily at me that he could defend himself, adding I was not part of his family. This caused me to flee home, look in the mirror, and convince myself that I looked like my parents. The people who knew I was adopted and didn't tell me included two uncles and aunts, two sets of grandparents, six cousins, various more removed relatives, not to mention friends of the family, various husbands and wives of cousins, maybe children of cousins — and my very own (adoptive) parents. No only did no one tell me. They kept the secret half a century. No wonder I always felt skeptical, as if a trick was being played on me. It was.
Each event in my family life, no matter how major or minor, had to be re-examined now for potential meaning it did not possess only a few hours before. New questions arose for which I felt I would never have an answer. I was stunned, and I knew it would take months, if not years, to sort all this out. It has.
I was not me, but I was me.
I had been born someone else, to another woman, not the woman from whom I picked bark from her hair. My father and mother were my father and mother, but they were not my father and mother. New modifiers, birth and adoptive, now were added to the two single most formative words in a person's life. Most disturbingly, I was not who I thought I was, nor were the reasons for events in my life true.
In John Fowles' Daniel Martin, Dan's daughter Caroline asks her writer father why writers are bad at relationships. He tells her it's because, with little effort, they can always imagine better relationships that are more pleasing than real ones.
To use one more literary illusion, my life has been like the Ogden Nash poem about being no good at love, or perhaps too good at it for my own wellbeing. Nearly the first 28 years of my life were lived for hometown women and the ideal of an all-American family — you know, two kids and a house in the suburbs, an ideal never achieved. Such failure made me feel a defective part in the great American dream machine. After falling apart around age 29, I intentionally spent a number of years involved with women who would never marry for differing reasons, including professional careers and bi-sexuality.
When I finally did marry at age 38, quickly I was headed toward a painful divorce, because I had fallen in love with someone else.
It always seemed I could never get enough affection or love, and now I knew why that was so. Possibly my entire life I was trying to make-up for the affection deficiencies of those first six months. My high school sweetheart went the way of the war and the other girl I wasn’t suppose to have. The other girl gave up on Tim and married someone else, and probably she remained married only because her mother wouldn’t tell me where to find her. Soon after I had failed relationships in Montgomery, Alabama, and Chicago, Illinois, and was lost thereafter for a year in Asia and three years in Europe. I have only felt "normal" in my current marriage with Pamela, a relationship now reaching its twentieth year, but all credit goes to her, and none to me, for my reckless heart and overly large brain continue into adulthood.
Pam, however, needed no time to sort out my predicament. Like my father Franklin, she is quick on the draw, able to make instantaneous decisions of great import and to stick by them unflinchingly. I, on the other hand, must turn a stone over a thousand times in my hand before skipping it across the water.
"Are you going to find her?" she asked, startling me out of my trance on the porch.
I didn't know. I hadn't even given it a thought.
"She's probably still alive," Pam said. "Time is running out."
Recently I watched some television sleaze, a show during which un-wed mothers confronted the man they said was the father of their child. Paternity tests were not announced until after the ensuing harsh spat; nothing like a good fight, humiliating and demeaning to one or both human beings, for the benefit of our viewing audience. Promiscuous women lied and were found out before televised witnesses, while irresponsible fathers often admitted paternity on the airwaves, or at least to sleeping with someone they shouldn't have. Meanwhile, flashing portraits of innocent children smiling or looking angelic lit the screen to touch our hearts, while women spoke of passion and secrets, and men attacked the virtues of the women whose children they may have fathered, and into whom at the very least they had plunged the most intimate part of their body in an act which implies love.
Once I had been such an innocent as those kids shown on national TV. One of those young women could have been my birthmother back at sixteen or seventeen. It was hard to believe, and yet it was certainly true.
"Aren't you going to find her?" my wife asked me again.
Pamela is my biggest fan, and when she defends me or decides to do something good on my behalf, there is no length she will not go. It might be tracking down for my birthday a first edition of Vonnegut's Palm Sunday, when I would settle for an umpteenth edition paperback, or buying for me not one but three expensive Kahlo art books after I took her to see Frida. Once someone took my parking spot, and I had to hold Pam back by her belt to keep her from going-out the window as my stand-in at road rage. This is a false image of her, as she is usually a sea of tranquility; nonetheless it speaks the lengths she has gone for me and is willing to go. God knows why, because I am not worth it.
Pam called from work on the Monday after my mother gave me the adoption papers to tell me she had the address of people related to my birthmother.
"We can find your birthmother."
"I don't know what I want to do," I said, "and it is my decision to make, not yours."
Still she persisted, unable to understand why someone wouldn't want a second mother, or a new family of half-brothers and sisters. I told her my life wasn't a soap opera, although it now felt like one, and that this was not Oprah. All endings are not happy, all reunions not joyous. To be fair, part of Pam's frame of reference was a woman to whom she was a Big Sister, who found out late in life she was adopted and found her overjoyed birthmother.
Pam is goodness, like being a Big Sister. She is Walt Disney's biggest fan. If they make Legally Blonde 4 or 5, Pam will be lined up smiling. She is Homeward Bound, Christmas presents and Halloween candy. It is a form of innocence and goodness I wish I had. My life has been too convoluted, and I am no longer an innocent. I am what you would call complicated. I was not ready or willing to address the issue of a second mother.
The stone needed turning over and over in my mind. I wasn't ready to toss it.
Not that I wasn't curious. I sent an overnight package to the appropriate agency on the eastern seaboard, followed by a check when they responded. Sometimes knowledge compounds mysteries.
The man whose sperm made me was apparently a criminal, maybe a gangster. When I was born, he was in jail for armed robbery. I, a human manatee, was descended from a tough guy. My sperm donor was apparently never told about me, or at least the woman who bore me reported that she tried to keep me a secret from him. He was not looked favorably upon by her family of Protestants. He was a carouser, a drinker, a bad influence on their little daughter; they didn’t approve of his religion; and it must have appeared to my alarmed adoptive parents that in his footsteps at times (and except for crime) I was walking.
She, my birthmother — how strange the distinction — was 17, a high school girl who was very intelligent, wanted to go on to college (she wouldn’t be able to) - and she was in trouble. She was good in school, very bright. Yes, that made sense, for I always felt like a talented alien in my home, and I am for better or worse very bright. The report from the state said she had genuine affection for the man, as the man did for her; he was a family friend. She felt unprepared for motherhood, and single motherhood was not the trend in those days as it is now.
My birthmother's family was a church-going one, but in that there was a rather large surprise. My father Frank was a Methodist too. He and my birthmother attended the very same church. In fact, she was attending the same high school Frank had graduated from several years before. When Frank lived in the same city, he carried mail and probably he delivered mail to his fellow Methodists. His brother Milt and friend Eddie carried mail, too. Chances seem good that my father and/or his relatives and friends may have known my birthmother, her family, and likely her circumstances. They inhabited the same haunts. It is possible Frank was acquainted with the family and the circumstances, and perhaps the church itself had a hand in the arrangements. At one point I wrote the church, but they had no records as old as I was.
It is even conceivable that I was baptized in front of a congregation containing both my birth and adoptive mother in the new second name of my life, maybe with both women unaware of such irony.
After the accident, I tried to buy a house near mine for my mother. Moving her into my house full of animals that might trip her didn’t seem like a good idea. Moreover she and I had contested over my life decisions ever since I was fourteen.
In discussions about a house, while explaining I had just found out about my adoption, the homeowners told me that they were both adopted. For the first time I was actually jealous, for they had a special day, like a second birthday, to celebrate the date of their adoption. I had been short-changed. I could have had two birthdays, too, but all I got was my head stirred-up 50 years later.
We talked about contacting birthparents. "It goes both ways," the wife said, and I thought about how the state reported my birthmother never contacted them about me. "It would be a slap in the face to my adoptive mother," she added, "if I tried to contact my birthmother."
Yes, my adoptive mother might take it hard if I tried to look up my biological one, or maybe not. Maybe she's curious. But I decided immediately I wouldn't do anything to hurt Zella, who raised the little boy she called Sunshine. Other than contacting agencies, I made effort to find my birthmother while my true mother Zella lived.
"Maybe your mother shouldn't have told you," a friend said. I don't believe that, since sanity comes from dealing with truth, not illusion. She did the right thing, only at least 30 years late. Not her fault either. She followed my father's wishes, a man whose labor supported us and whose decisions, right or wrong, made our lives and defined us.
I also thought that looking the birthmother up might ruin the magic. There is something a little magical about not knowing your ethnic heritage. I could believe that I was black, Native American, Eskimo, anything I wanted, except a WASP kid. For a white kid, I always felt black anyway. It started with bullies on the school bus who thought they were insulting me by hurling racial epitaphs at me. My heroes have included quarterback Doug Williams for guts and miracles of football flight, Martin Luther King for inspiration, and Malcom X for making the journey of a lifetime from hate to love. I could be anything I wanted, I told myself. Like Steve Martin in "The Jerk," I could be black, although I am not sure how many black folks would claim white bread Ohr.
It is also a good thing not to have a nasty medical background. Looking up biological parents might lead to knowing they needed a kidney — mine — or had died at an early age of all the bad habits I currently possess, meaning I might have to change them. In fact, not knowing my heritage, I could believe my biological parents were Superman or Super Girl, and I would live forever thanks to Kryptonite.
While making these excuses, there was a little voice in the back of my head saying, "Coward." I could not shut it off.
What I might do came to me slowly over two years and was capped-off by a conversation I had with Mr. Luther Thrift of Waycross, Georgia. Luther is an amateur genealogist and local folksy historian who traced Okefenokee Swamp families, including his, back to their roots in the 1800s.
I never met Luther. The day I was supposed to meet him, the trip was called off because of a tragic death in the family of my co-author, with whom I was working on a book on the Okefenokee. (This book has sadly never materialized.)
The world seems often interwoven with connections you never expect. With Luther I got help on my indecision while I was looking for swamp tales for a book. I have talked to Luther twice on the phone, and the last time the subject of my adoption came up in our conversation. I mentioned that it was astounding to me that someone could have a heritage going back six or seven generations, as folks did around one of America’s great wetlands. Even within the Ohr family, my knowledge made it only as far back as grandparents, and I had no knowledge of my birth family.
There was something warm, direct, and honest about Luther. "We all have to know our heritage," he said.
Yes, that's true. Even if our heritage is tawdry and sad, not pink and happy, it is something we need to know – if we can find it.
"Well, you're going to find her, aren't you?" Luther said.
"Well, Luther, I'm going to try," I conceded. And I thought, I am not a coward, just afraid.
I would roll the flat stone in my hands a thousand times before I sent it skipping over the waters.