Portrait in Nature and Nurture
By Christine Koubek
Ann Mary Roberts was an uptown girl in the ’60s, a pretty, 16-year-old pianist attending an all-girls Catholic school in upstate New York. Her parents had seven children and her father had Hodgkin’s disease. They caught her sitting on a bench one day in a shaded park with the boy they had just learned got her pregnant. She was on a bus the next day, destined for her older sister’s house in Maryland, with a phony wedding ring and an alibi—”tell anyone who asks that your husband is in Vietnam.”
Her last trimester was spent at a home for unwed mothers in Massachusetts. She was eating a forbidden stash of chocolate on Halloween when the stomach pains struck. She thought it was indigestion. I was born the next day.
I knew none of this, not even the correct state of my birth, until the letter arrived.
“Honey, a young man dropped this off for you,” my mother said, handing me a sealed brown-linen envelope labeled “Christine.” It was Mother’s Day, 1987. I had just transferred to a college in upstate New York, and was living at home in Albany until I found campus housing.
I took the letter and headed for the family room couch, thinking it was from a friend until the pictures started falling out: a cute little girl with painted fingernails, a dark-eyed woman feeding wedding cake to a man who looked like a mob boss and that same woman with an older lady who looked just like her, both smartly dressed in crisp black-and-white suits, sipping drinks on a balcony. I was breathless as I stared at the photos of a girl, and a woman, with my own dark brown eyes and auburn-streaked hair.
“Dear Christine, The time has finally arrived. I don’t know if you even know you are adopted. I was 17 when you were born. I remember holding you on my lap; your eyes seemed to look right into my soul. I knew I couldn’t keep you and my heart was broken and still is. Words cannot express how I have felt for 19½ years, not knowing anything about you. I visited you at the infant home but I couldn’t hold you or kiss you because you were behind a glass window. You are a five to ten minute drive from my house. I named you Ann Marie. We are good people, nothing to be afraid of. Love, Ann”
While I knew I was adopted, I also understood that adoption agencies brokered two things in the sixties—babies and secrecy, but somehow she had found me.
“Honey, who’s that letter from?” Mom asked from the kitchen.
My cheeks felt hot, as if I’d been caught reading someone’s diary. My mother, had suffered miscarriages; the deaths of a baby, her father and brother; and my father’s affair—the affair that left her with three young children to raise, with me the oldest at 7. If there was one thing I vowed as a girl, it was to make my mother’s life easier in whatever way I could. She had devoted her life to us, and unlike other adoptees I’ve known, I never felt loved any less than my younger brother and sister whom she’d given birth to.
* * *
I was 13 and playing the board game Sorry with a girl down the street when she got mad and spat: “I don’t care if you win, YOU’RE adopted!”
I ran home in tears to our babysitter, Vivian, who put her claw-like nails to work dialing my mother at the restaurant as I cried at the kitchen table. I was overwhelmed to think that this woman who had always been my mom might not fully belong to me.
She rushed home from the double-shift she was waitressing. We went to her room. I sat on the edge of her waterbed, across from a photo of us kids dressed in matching green-and-beige plaid. Our clothes matched, but in my family of lights, I looked darker than ever. My mother had always said I looked like my grandmother, her mom, and that I took after her too because I loved music and making things.
“Honey, I’ve got something to show you,” she said. “Wait here a minute.” I listened to her rummage through the deep part of her closet, behind her clothes, where the ceiling sloped down. My sister once told me our mother hid our Christmas presents back there, but I never peeked—I always wanted to be surprised.
My mother emerged from the closet, her hair a little askew. She held a large beige envelope and opened the tiny metal prongs that had clamped the envelope shut. I’m not sure how I knew, or what I knew, but when she pried those prongs apart, something clicked in my head, that noise, the way a padlock clicks before it opens.
She pulled out notes from my first visits to the pediatrician, and a letter, typed on white parchment paper from a caseworker at Catholic Family Services.
We sat together on the bed’s black cushioned edge. My arms goose-pimpled as I read the letter. It told me I was Irish, German and Welsh, that my birth mother was 5 feet 5, intelligent and sensitive, had taken piano lessons for years and hoped to major in music; and that my birth father was 17 when I was born, athletic and enjoyed team sports and the drums.
I’m no longer French or Dutch, I thought, as I looked at the framed picture of me and my grandmother atop the lace on my mother’s dresser. My grandma, with her chestnut hair and large brown eyes, had always been the person I thought I looked like in a family of blue-eyed blonds. In a single afternoon I had traded one ancestry for another. I felt betrayed; yet I couldn’t be mad at my mother. My father had been gone for over four years and she was the only parent I had.
“Chrissie,” my mother said, “when you’re older, I’ll help you search for your birth parents if you want to find them.” I tucked that offer away, thinking I might dig it out sometime after college.
* * *
“Who’s the letter from, Honey?” she asked again from the kitchen.
I walked into the room, eyes cast down at our red and cream linoleum floor, and said, “Mom … it’s from my birth mother.”
“What! Who the hell does that woman think she is sending you a letter? What if you hadn’t known you were adopted? I can’t believe she didn’t contact me first!” my mother ranted. I didn’t disagree, but I didn’t know what to say. It was all shocking to me too.
My mother didn’t bring the letter up the next day, or the next, and I took that to mean she didn’t want to talk about it, or maybe I didn’t want to either. Adoption had always seemed like something you don’t discuss.
Yet a craving for answers got the better of me a few weeks later after I finished my last final exam. I called the number Ann had written down and arranged with her husband to meet the following night after I got off work from the local department store.
I scanned faces that entire evening wondering if one might be hers. I straightened and re-straightened the tie displays and paid frequent visits to the ladies’ room.
After work, I stood outside on the moonlit sidewalk in front of the store, waiting for a woman as foreign to me as the person who had just sauntered past on her way to her car. Yet the stranger I was about to meet shared a shrouded part of me. I pulled my cardigan closer to fight the spring night’s chill.
A woman with shoulder-length brown hair walked toward me. She was dressed in navy linen pants and a beautiful white blouse that was billowing in the breeze. She looked like the woman in the pictures, and she was studying me.
When she was only a few feet away, I whispered, “Ann?”
Before I could say anything more, she wrapped her arms around me and cried, “Oh, my baby.”
I put my hands lightly on her back. I felt cold. I’m hugging a stranger. I have a mother; I’m her baby, I thought.
“It’s nice to meet you,” I said and pulled back. I don’t recall tearing up, or saying anything more in that moment. I felt as if someone had shot me with Novocain—nothing but numb.
She introduced me to her husband and then I followed them to an Italian restaurant down the street, where Ann and I filled each other in on 19 years of personal history. It was the first time I’d heard a true story about the night I was born. If an adoptee grows up believing one history to be true, what happens when you learn part of it was fiction? Does it change who you are? Should it change who you are? I didn’t know it that night, but it would take more than a decade to answer those questions.
What I remember most from that night were her arms. She had the exact same lightly freckled skin tone as me. And she kept saying, “I always thought you would have blue eyes, like your father.”
A few weeks later, I met my birth father, Gregg. Ann had contacted him in a neighboring town to tell him she’d found me. My initial lunches with Ann and evening get-togethers with Gregg were electrically charged; we had an instant rapport. I learned that Ann had a master’s in music, taught piano and was trying to have a baby after almost dying during a recent tubal pregnancy. And that Gregg was an English teacher, a poet, a music aficionado and father of a 13-year-old boy.
As the months passed, though, that initial excitement ebbed as we each struggled with the fact that I was not Ann Marie. I was Christine, a complicated composite of everyone involved. And it seemed like our reunion made them mourn the loss of Ann Marie again, or at least the Ann Marie they’d imagined all those years.
Gregg put it into words in a letter a few months after our first meeting: “I think there is such a gap between reality and the dream in this situation. Do you know what I mean? I guess I’m trying to say that I want to be everything you want me to be, but, realistically, I’m not sure I have the foggiest idea what that is—do you? I say to myself I hope we can get close—but how close?”
I didn’t have any idea. But those words and a mailbag’s worth of beautiful letters those first few years fostered a kinship and a second chance to have a father. We’d meet for coffee, go to concerts and talk frequently on the phone. But I felt guilty every time I did the same with Ann.
Though our reunion certainly answered those central questions—”Where did I come from?” for me, and “Whatever happened to Ann Marie?” for them—for every detail, every question answered, more unanswerable questions arose, such as: How do I introduce these people whose genetic makeup I share? How often should I see Ann or Gregg? Do I invite them to my graduation? Will knowing Ann and Gregg jeopardize my relationship with my mother? My siblings? My cousins?
* * *
At the time I met Ann, adoptions were still whispered about, and reunions like ours occurred mostly as a result of a private investigator. It was seen as disloyal and ungrateful for an adoptee to want to know his or her birth parents. Somehow a primal desire for ancestry had been construed as a statement about adoptive parenting.
For all those reasons, I grappled with my need to know Ann and Gregg. And I found it easiest to offer people a practical excuse, such as: I’d like to know what medical conditions I could inherit.
But the truth is, knowing them made it profoundly easier for me to feel at home in my own skin. I discovered Gregg and I both tried to figure out life through writing, and that Ann and I shared many of the same spiritual philosophies. And I realized why I was so damned introspective and curious: I got a double dose from them.
Given all that, I didn’t want to say: Thanks for answering my questions, for letting me know where I came from. Now can you please go away and we’ll catch up again in another 19 years.
So I fumbled on, even as it became complicated having them in my life, especially around the holidays. “I haven’t seen you in a long while,” Gregg’s mother would say. Or Ann would ask, “A bunch of us will be at my brother’s house on Christmas Eve. Would you like to come?” Though it was wonderful to be included, I was trying not to lose my place in my own family gatherings.
One weekend visit home, a few years after I had moved to Boston, I divided 48 hours among my mother and beloved grandmother (my mom’s mother), who had just suffered a stroke; my brother and his new baby; my sister, who was enduring a trial; Ann, who was going through a divorce; and high school friends who just wanted to catch up over a beer.
No matter how I allocated my time, there was never enough. I was always letting someone down, and always struggling with this sense that I was being ungrateful to my mother.
Through all of this, my mother remained fairly silent, which I interpreted to mean she was stepping back to let me figure it all out. I was immensely thankful for that on my wedding day. My mother looked beautiful in her floral-pink dress as we rode in the limousine to the church. She sat in her place of honor, the front row of the church, like all mothers of the bride. Except this mom shared the day with her daughter’s birth parents as Ann played Christine’s songs from Phantom of the Opera on the piano and Gregg waited at the church entrance to escort me down the aisle.
I know my mother’s stomach was in knots that day as she endured endless questions from relatives who hadn’t met Ann and Gregg, but she handled it with grace. She gave me a gift perhaps not many parents could: She let go and loved me unconditionally, wanting nothing more than for me to be happy. And that is what makes her my mother in every sense of that word.
* * *
For that brief time surrounding my wedding, all my relationships converged, but it didn’t last. I could quietly be a part of each individual family, but not one whole. A few months later, Gregg and I hit a reunion rough patch and took a break from one another. After that, I wasn’t sure I was capable of traversing this rocky terrain anymore, and I couldn’t help but wonder if my mother and Ann might have felt the same.
A few years later, when my son was born, something shifted. I now understood the anticipation my mother must have felt before picking me up from the infant home. And I began to realize the despair Ann spoke of as I breast-fed my newborn son and stroked his pudgy legs in the middle of the night. I couldn’t imagine having to relinquish him, never to touch his baby-soft skin again, or know the person he would become.
As my son grew, Gregg and I grew close, and Ann and I settled into a sisterly relationship of sorts supporting one another through the ups and downs of our lives: for me, the birth of my second son, and postpartum depression; for her, artistic endeavors as a painter, and a first bout with breast cancer. We’d meet for lunch, then stroll a park when my first son was young. She called him “a wise old soul.” He called her “Grannie Annie.”
* * *
A week before Mother’s Day in 2009, I stopped at Starbucks for a coffee before crossing the boulevard to the card store. I had learned that this annual greeting card ritual could take a while, and I needed cards for my mother, mother-in-law, a couple of grandmothers and, toughest of all, for Ann.
That particular Mother’s Day marked our 22nd anniversary. More than two decades of knowing each other, after a childhood apart. It also marked the year Ann’s cancer had spread.
I opened the door and meandered down the card aisle, hands warmed by the cardboard cup as I perused the racks of cards for mothers, step-mothers, grandmothers, godmothers and women who were “like a mother to me.”
I stopped at “grandmothers” and selected a few, then moved on to “mothers” for my husband’s mom and my own. I found one for my mom that thanked her for always being there, for teaching me to take care of myself, to persevere and be strong.
Every year I tried to find a card for Ann, but they invariably said: “the one constant in my life,” “being there when no one else could,” or “since I was a child”—none of which applied. There was no card that said: “I’m sorry for all you went through back then.” “I can’t thank you enough for giving me life and for the gift of my family and for the opportunity to know you, as well as that part of me that is Ann Marie.” Or “in a world where we all could use a parent who truly knows and loves each of us—thank you for being one of mine.”
I tossed the cards aside, and rounded the corner to the blank card aisle. I figured I’d just keep writing it myself.
* * *
Four months after that Mother’s Day, Ann lost her battle with cancer.
A few days before her death, Ann’s younger sister, Lisa, asked how to refer to me in the obituary. “I don’t want to offend your mother by calling you Ann’s daughter,” she said. I thought: God, how that question sums up our 22-year journey.
I told Lisa I needed to think about it. I asked my mother, who said, “Whatever you want to do is fine with me. I know you’re my daughter.”
And then I had an idea. I wrote to Lisa:
After all these years with Ann (and Gregg), one thing I’ve learned is that none of the labels (nor their associated roles and obligations) have been sufficient, and I am so happy that Ann and I were able to create our own meaningful relationship despite them.
But an obituary needs a label, and you’re right: “Daughter” is true but confusing in the sense that I’m my mother’s daughter. And yet, I’m not a stepdaughter nor a goddaughter, and “birth daughter” sounds ridiculous…. I think using the name she gave me at my birth is the truest way for me to honor her and our relationship. Therefore, please use:
“Survived by a daughter, Ann Marie Roberts.”
Christine Koubek’s essays and articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Ladies’ Home Journal, Coastal Living, Washingtonian and many other publications. “Portrait in Nature and Nurture” is adapted from an essay she had published in Bethesda magazine shortly after Ann passed away. An adoption-related short story she wrote earned an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s 2012 Family Matters contest. Christine is the Cofounder and Editor of Secret Sons & Daughters: Adoptee Tales from the Sealed Records Era — A digital publication and community based on the power of shared stories to inspire hope, healing, and change.
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