Archive for the 'birth mother' Category

No-Name Baby by Nancy Bo Flood

Book Review and Interview by Ann Angel

 NO-NAME BABY  (Namelos)  by Nancy Bo Flood , $16.95

Nancy Bo Flood’s No Name Baby is a multifaceted story, set in the aftermath of World War II, of a teenager’s discovery of family secrets. In this poetic and compassionate telling, readers are drawn into Sophie’s story as she learns her mother is not her birthmother and a family secret slowly unravels as she learns that her aunt Rae is the woman who gave birth to her. While this is a novel of family secrets revealed, it is also the story of Sophie’s coming of age. The novel opens with Sophie refusing to help her mother with the family’s pigs. When her mother falls and goes into premature labor, Sophie believes it is her fault.  Her new baby brother is born so early, his survival is uncertain. According to one reviewer, “Flood succeeds in creating a story that doesn’t pull any punches about life or death, but it’s far from grim – we’re left with a great appreciation for the resilience of the human spirit.”

Show More

Show Less

            As the novel unfolds, it’s easy to imagine the cost of the secrets this family has kept. Continue reading ‘No-Name Baby by Nancy Bo Flood’

Hole in the Roof

fiction by Bonnie Peters

On her first birthday, Marah couldn’t sit up, or roll over, or say “mama.” Her head wobbled like one of those dash-board dolls.

“We could suction cup her butt and stick her right over your glove box.  Kinda like that Hawaiian Hula girl Dave used to have in his old Chevy.”  Karol, Anna’s mom, laughed as she kissed Marah’s toes.

Anna had to hold her daughter’s chin while she spoon fed her a piece of the birthday cake, mashed up with the white and pink icing and a little milk.  Marah’s left eye looked at her nose whenever she tried to focus on a face.  Drool and pieces of cake pooled in the left corner of her mouth and returned there within seconds after Anna wiped it away.

 At her twelve month check-up, the pediatrician gently pushed and stretched Marah’s legs into strange frog like positions.

“Marah needs surgery to correct the scissoring.”  Dr. Allen looked at Anna and must have seen her confusion. “The tightness and crossing of Marah’s legs makes it hard to position and clean her properly. After surgery, you’ll be able to take care of her easier.” 

When Anna didn’t say anything, the doctor continued.  “We’ll wait on the surgery, but I’m writing a prescription for physical and occupational therapy that she should start right away.  Lacey, at the front desk, will give you some paperwork to fill out so you can get help with all the services Marah is going to need.”

When Anna still didn’t respond, Dr. Allen put his hand on her shoulder.  “Anna, do you realize that Marah is never going to grow up normal?  Her cerebral palsy and probable mental retardation are going to require a lot of extra support.”

Anna smiled, nodded her head, and after paying the bill and sliding the therapy prescriptions behind the last twenty in her wallet, she put Marah in her car seat and drove back home.  Words kept repeating and echoing in her head—cerebral palsy, mental retardation, surgery, therapy, not normal.

A couple of months ago, Anna had been given a pamphlet explaining the medical term cerebral palsy, but it was confusing.  So, Anna had looked up each word, first cerebral and then palsy in the library dictionary—intellectual tremors, cerebrum shakes?  Marah didn’t shake; she jabbed.  She could push out her arms and legs so hard they could pierce through you if they were swords.  Continue reading ‘Hole in the Roof’

Excerpts from Birth Mandala: The Power of Visioning For Childbirth with Nancy Burns

Birth Mandala Book Cover by Nancy BurnsEditor’s Note: Nine years ago, pregnant with my second child, I followed a set of handwritten directions that took me through the curves of the backroads of Sonoma County, and eventually, after a number of wrong turns, lead me to my much coveted destination: a Birth Mandala workshop at the home of host Nancy Burns. On the heels of a first birth fraught with hospital interventions, I took Nancy’s workshop in the hopes of envisioning a more empowered kind of birth experience.

Back then, Nancy told me she envisioned putting her mandala work into book format. I’m so thrilled to be able to host some of Nancy’s words on the mandala process itself, as well as a sample of some of the images that appear in her book, “Birth Mandala: The Power of Visioning for Childbirth,” mingled with the words of the women who created the mandalas. I should also disclose that while I lost my original mandala in our last move, an early version of it appears in Nancy’s book. So lovely to see the fruits of your labor, Nancy, and to share them here. –Tania Pryputniewicz

Nancy Describes the Birth Mandala Method:

 

Headshot for Nancy Burns

Nancy Burns

“Birth Mandala: The Power Of Visioning For Childbirth” is a unique and creative method to prepare for childbirth. The subtitle of the Birth Mandala book is truly the essence of this method of preparing for childbirth and should not be overlooked. The Power of Visioning is the ability to reveal personal strengths and weaknesses that influence the outcome of birth.

Just as the body knows how to breathe, digest and excrete food and perform all of its functions without the conscious mind directing it, the same is true for birthing. The body is naturally programmed to release the hormones necessary to begin labor and to produce milk to feed the baby, it does not need the conscious mind to tell it what to do. Then what gets in the way of the body doing what it knows how to do?

One of the greatest influences is a woman’s perception of labor and birth. Beliefs about childbirth formed by what we have seen, read or heard produce feelings of either fear or trust in oneself and in the process of birth. Beliefs affect emotions, and emotions trigger the body to release chemicals that support either a state of relaxation, or stimulation and constriction.

There is a chapter in the book entitled I’ll Believe It When I See It, I’ll See It When I Believe It. In this chapter there are exercises to identify limiting beliefs that could interfere with the birth you want and to change them to supportive beliefs. To envision the best birth possible, some questions to explore are: What do I need to release? What strengths do I need to embrace? What do I need to shed to allow myself to be fully empowered? What am I needing to allow myself to be fully empowered? What does it mean to be empowered? This is a very personal and important question to contemplate. The purpose and intention of the book is for all women to be able to experience a deep connection with themselves, where trust and faith replace doubt and fear.

So, what is visioning and how does it support birth? Visioning is a process that allows clarification for what you are wanting. We generally focus on what we don’t want to happen or when we focus on what we do want it is too abstract a concept to produce the desired effects. Imagine walking into a restaurant and telling the waitperson all the foods you don’t want to eat? It is impossible for the server to get you what you do want to eat.

Or, imagine being in a restaurant that has a list of soups and you really want to eat some soup. If you say I want soup they are still unable to get you what you want. In the same way, being as specific and clear as possible helps you to get the desired results. To say I want to be relaxed is going in the right direction, however, relaxed is very abstract. For the body consciousness to know what relaxed means to you, it is important to describe the concept of relaxation in concrete terms by using your five senses: what would you be seeing if you are relaxed, what would you be saying to yourself or hearing from others; what sensations would you be feeling in your body?

I offer an example in the book from a client that was concerned about her mother being present during the birth of her baby. She said she regresses to a child around her mother. I asked her what she wanted? “To feel strong and in my power”, she responded. I then guided her to envision what that would look like, what she would be seeing that is different from what she is fearing. And guess what, that’s exactly what she was able to deliver (no pun intended!).

The process of visualization is then used to support the new beliefs and vision for childbirth. Visualization is like mentally role playing. Visualizing what you are wanting further imprints the vision into the subconscious mind and keeps the vision alive. There is a chapter in the book that guides a visualization of labor and birth. I also created a CD that is a visualization of birth that can be ordered. This is where the mandala for birth comes in. The process of creating a mandala for birth draws from both the conscious mind (goals and desires) and the unconscious mind (information that may not be available to the conscious mind). A mandala for birth is a visual representation of the positive birth experience you envision. It further clarifies what you want and acts as a reminder to help stay focused on your desired outcome.

Interview with Nancy Burns:

What was the seed or prompting for your work using mandalas to support women’s experience of birth?

At the time, I was co-facilitating a Sacred Wisdom Support Group for Mamas-To- Be with a midwife friend. We incorporated her knowledge of midwifery and birth with my knowledge from counseling psychology for birth. We were using art as a medium for their expression of various topics about birth. The idea for making a mandala for birth came when I was meditating. The idea of making a birth mandala began by having a visual image of a 10 centimeter circle to support 1st stage of labor. The mandala expanded to include a woman’s vision for birth through the use of images, shapes, words, colors.

How have you seen images in the mandalas of the women you work with translating into, or empowering, their experience of giving birth or how they view themselves?

This question would best be answered by the women themselves. The following are some birth mandalas and quotes from the women:

APRIL’S MANDALA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Birth unfolds as a butterfly signifying metamorphosis, flowers opening up towards the light, owls wise and all knowing , signifying the relationship of the internal and external worlds/heavenly and earthly worlds. The inner goddess spirit that is in all women can soar and I draw upon her endless energy to bring new life into the world. The dancer of flamenco is there to remind me that birthing is a dance, as is all of life, and to remember my passion and flirtation for and with life.”

STACY’S MANDALA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

STACY’S REFLECTIONS ON HER MANDALA

“The relationship between creating life and creating art really manifested for me during the mandala project. Both take intention, mindfulness, love and patience. Verbalizing my intention helped me tofocus my creative energy and thoughts. Nature, especially water, represents the flow of life in me and around me and through me. The shell represents the sacred spiral and the path the baby will take to leave my womb. Purple is a powerful feminine energy color and the nesting flowers give birth to a perfect moon-like orb, representing my baby. The moon cycle on the bottom mirrors the opening of my cervix during labor and birth. Two spirit guides, the dove and the Virgin Mary surround me, reminding me that my higher power is always present, loving and supporting me. A golden halo-like semi-circle encircles where my head should be. It symbolizes the holiness of living in the present, which can happen when I remove my head as the barrier to surrender.

The gift was working through my mental barriers and fears to create the reality I desire for my birth experience. I intend to use my mandala to focus on what I do want: balance, centeredness, confi dence, peace, rather than what I don’t want to happen.

STACY’S REFLECTIONS AFTER BIRTH

“The birth mandala has a special place in my heart and birth story. It is such a beautiful journey. The birth mandala has been very grounding. Upon completing it, the mandala was hung in my bedroom with a beautiful scarf around it. I really wanted to create a sacred place to honor my intentions for the birth of my child. The theme of my mandala was surrender, and it was in full alignment with this pregnancy. ….The mandala was a constant source of gentle and loving reminders that I was not in control of this birth and to surrender to the moment…

…Throughout the labor I used it to ground myself in the rhythmic waves of tension and release. I envisioned my baby spiraling out of my body and into the water, just as I depicted in the mandala. I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit as life was being brought forth from my body and the warm maternal love of the Creator – symbols of which I had included in my mandala. A little past midnight on July 25, 2009, my daughter slid out of my womb, up through the water and onto my belly. Hazel stared at us with wide eyes and amazement and I knew I had just been part of a miracle.”

AMY’S MANDALA

Amy's Mandala

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“When I was creating this birth mandala, I felt like I was giving myself courage and strength I never knew possible. I am more confident after this experience. I feel peace and a connection with my baby that is so deep and beautiful. I am now ready for an amazing, healthy and safe birth experience.

AMY’S REFELCTIONS AFTER THE BIRTH:
The mandala helped me go into my center and set intentions around the type of birth I wanted. I looked at it during my labor. I felt powerful and strong, just like I did when I was creating the mandala at the workshop.”

Nancy, in your role as a counselor in the birthing field for many years, what would you say are the primary concerns you’ve witnessed women wrestling with?

This is an interesting and important question and has taught me not to make assumptions. I thought for sure the issue of pain would be predominant, but women were expressing other issues of concern like: fears around single parenting, the addition of a baby interfering in the couple relationship, and financial issues. All of these concerns are so personal and important to be addressed, accepted and come to terms with. I included a chapter on Reframing Pain because my own personal experiences and the feedback from women who used self-hypnosis and other tools to have a non-medicated birth was very empowering and satisfying.

What has been the most surprising, rewarding aspect of running these workshops and writing the book?

The workshops begin by creating a sacred space; women sitting together in a circle; lighting a candle and expressing their intentions. I suggest they spend the day creating their birth mandala in silence, which allows them to stay focused and dive deep within themselves. This in itself is a wonderful preparation for childbirth and is very rewarding. I trusted in my own inner guidance to offer this work. When I received positive feedback from women about how the process helped with their birth, I was not so much surprised as delighted. It was at that time that I felt inclined to put the work in a book form to reach more people than I was able. I am offering workshops for childbirth professionals to be able to offer this work to their clients in a deep and meaningful way.

Any mentors or other resources in the field of birth and female empowerment you wish to share with us?

My greatest mentor lies within myself. That is what inspired me to co-create with Constance Miles, the CD; A Pregnant Pause. In this CD women are guided to find their ‘inner midwife’ that guides them and supports them in birth. It is my belief that we all have the wisdom within, we just need to unveil societies and programming from the media to get in touch with our own inner guidance. Writing the Birth Mandala book brought a very important lesson to me that is equally important to birthing a baby, or anything we are pregnant with. Another childbirth author cited my work in her book and people were contacting me to buy my book. I became anxious about completing the book quickly. Like birth, you cannot force anything. It ends up with complications. The book taught me to have patience and trust the natural unfoldment of its birth. When I felt stuck that is when I did the Mother Nature Mandala Collage to take my time and honor the process of birthing the book:

MOTHER NATURE MANDALA COLLAGE

Nancy's Mother Nature Mandala

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As far as resources, there are many books and DVD’s available to empower a positive birthing. They can be found at the end of the book.

Nancy Burns is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice in Northern California, specializing in pre and perinatal concerns. For over 30 years, she has supported pregnant and postpartum women in various capacities. She has been a doula, childbirth educator and prenatal yoga instructor. She has also been a presenter at the California Association of Midwives annual conferences.

Nancy invites you to join her for “a FREE unique evening that promises to stimulate a fresh vision of childbirth” on Friday, March 30, 2012 at 6:30 pm at Soul Shine Chiropractic – 440 So.E St., Santa Rosa, CA, and a Birth Mandala Workshop on April 20 and April 21, 2012 at the same location. For more information,  e-mail Nancy: BirthMandalas@gmail.com.

Bastard babies are born with broken hearts: an interview with Leslie Worthington

Interview by Jessica Powers

Last week, we published Leslie Worthington’s short story, “The Beach House,” a story about a young woman, pregnant and  unwed, and trying to deal with her emotions as the father of her baby arranges an adoption. This week, I spoke with her about the spark for her story; about the realities of young women and pregnancy both today and back in the 1960s, when the story is set; and about why writing about these issues is important.

1. What was the spark for your story?

 The spark for the story came from a single sentence: “Bastard babies are born with broken hearts.”  That popped into my head, and I liked the alliteration and the oxymoronic nature of the phrase “bastard babies.”  We don’t use the word “bastard” in its original sense much anymore, so it added a shock to the statement.  At first, I thought the sentence was a line of poetry, but it eventually became the story “The Beach House.”  I wrote the story around it.

 2. Setting (time and place) is critical for this story. Can you give us a little bit of historical background for women who found themselves in your protagonist’s situation (unwed, pregnant) in the 1960s, when this story is set? The 1960s are an interesting bridge between cultural mores since the so-called “sexual revolution” was happening yet it was before Roe v. Wade.

Women find themselves in this situation even today.  Their options may be different, but sometimes when they are young and poor as Cecelia is, things aren’t all that different.  I set the story in the 60’s partly because I wanted the reader to think about that.  At first glance, you can say “oh, thank goodness it isn’t like that anymore.”  But is that really true?  Yes, as you say the sexual revolution had begun, but yet women didn’t have access to reliable birth control, there was no planned parenthood, and the options were, keep the child or put it up for adoption.  I think most women got married whether they wanted to or not.  Those who put their babies up for adoption were often hidden away as Cecelia is.  These girls were kicked out of school and sometimes sent off to homes for unwed mothers or to live with family far away so they could come back and pretend nothing had ever happened.  No one spoke of the child, and the girl could never speak of what had happened to her.  Another option was sometimes to give the child to a family member as Cecelia’s mother had left her to be raised by her grandmother.  Most of the time, these women never had a voice or avenue for release, a way to deal with their loss and pain over the huge thing that had happened to them.  They just had to shove it down inside themselves.

 
 
 

Dr. Leslie Worthington

Despite easy access to birth control, despite additional options, despite the lessened stigma on pregrancy without marriage, women, not just girls, still find themselves in this situation.  As a college English professor, I meet them all the time.  They are in my classes, they miss exams to have babies, and they write essays about babies they’ve lost and given up.  And society now, in the twenty-first century, isn’t as forgiving as we might like to think; these women aren’t always as forgiving of themselves. 

For Cecelia, she isn’t going to get married.  The baby’s father doesn’t have that in mind.  Her family thinks she is, so she can’t even go home without humiliation.  Can she go home to her grandparents with a baby, as her mother did?  It’s obvious she doesn’t have the means to keep the baby and care for it by herself.  It’s also obvious that she doesn’t want to give that baby up.  She’s decided on the baby’s gender, given him a name, and a future.  She’s imagined his future without her.  She’s fallen in love with her child before he’s even born, as mothers do.  Cecelia faces a horrible dilemma.

3. I love the ending, where we don’t know if Cecilia dies or just imagines her death and, later, makes it to shore. Metaphorically, however, she felt as though her life was essentially over. Can you talk about how you crafted the ambiguity and the metaphor into that ending?

I guess I haven’t thought much about intentionally crafting the ambiguity of the ending.  I’ve displeased some readers who couldn’t believe I’d create a woman who would kill her child.  I think the ambiguity comes from the fact that even Cecelia doesn’t know what she’s going to do.  She doesn’t set out intending to commit suicide.  She doesn’t go into the water intending it.  Maybe she thinks she’s letting fate take over, and the universe will decide.  She’s been in denial, not thinking about what’s going to happen.  She’s a very adaptable person, as we can see from her memories of her life before the baby.  She’s alone, and her future is uncertain, but she’s making the best of where she’s found herself.  She’s enjoying the leisure, her reading, the beach.  Being able to adapt to change and stick it out through hard times is a desirable and even admirable quality, but sometimes it hurts us.  Sometimes we need to be able to say, “No, stop this” “or I want out of this.  I’m not going to take this anymore.”  Wes’s remark about this being over soon sets her thinking more deeply about her situation.  So when she sets out for her walk that day, reality is flooding over her.  She does not want to give up her baby, and maybe killing herself and taking the baby with her is the only control she’s ever going to have over her own life.

One thing I did want the story to have was metaphor.  I wanted the things she sees on her walk along the beach to have meaning to her, as our surroundings take on life and meaning when significant things are happening to us internally.  Yellow houses become symbols of a happy life.  Birds protecting their nests become young mothers who have to give up their babies.  The world around Cecelia becomes infused with meaning as she becomes more emotionally aware.

4.  Why do you think it’s important to probe these issues surrounding sexuality, pregnancy, and motherhood in literature?

These issues are part of our common experience, and art is a cultural experience as well as an individual one.  I don’t believe literature has to be didactic, but it does need to be about something, something important.  Sexuality, pregnancy, motherhood are all important to who we are as women, and the sharing of these experiences and feelings joins us.  Sharing can sometimes lead to healing.
 

5.  What are you working on now?

I’ve just finished an academic book about intertextual connections between Mark Twain and Cormac McCarthy entitled Cormac McCarthy and the Ghost of Huck Finn.  It was released a couple of weeks ago.  I’m currently working with a colleague on an anthology of essays about images and definitions of home in the work of Appalachian artists.

With my own fiction, I’ve been working on a collection of short stories for some time now.  It will probably be called Odes of Solitude. Each piece has a female character who imagines, remembers, or hallucinates the story, yet she’s the only character who is actually present.  “The Beach House” is part of the collection.  And I continue to write poetry, usually about the experiences of women: career, love, children, grandchildren, and balancing all our many, many roles.

Stray Pets

An essay by Jody Keisner

 

Besides the frogs, fireflies, grasshoppers, and June bugs that my younger sister Debbie and I trapped in canning jars, my parents adopted seven cats, six dogs, three rabbits, two hamsters, one duck. And me. I had been adopted as a newborn, and Debbie was my parents’ biological child.  I don’t remember some dramatic moment when my parents told me they weren’t my first set of parents. It seems like I have always known. It wouldn’t have bothered me that I was another adoptee in the Keisner menagerie, except we moved to the country when I was nine, and the lives of most of our animals ended tragically. I wondered if I was next.

Our new home was on four acres in Louisville, Nebraska, a town with a population less than 2000. My bedroom faced a mowed front yard that led to dozens of dense trees. Unkempt pasture and the occasional cow bordered one side of our home, separated from us with barbed wire. The adjacent farmland gave us opportunities to stick our noses into trouble. One dog died from a gunshot wound inflicted by a half-blind farmer, one cat met death from a parasite living in cow pies, and a hamster was flattened under a truck. My mother swore an eagle plummeted from the sky to snatch a lap-dog from the snow. I found my rabbit stiff as a board one morning when I went to feed her, the death ruled a mystery. A furry gray and brown puppy we named Odie, who we liked to roll down the sides of a small hill, disappeared into the middle of the night just weeks after his birth in a cardboard box in our garage. Armed with flashlights and Dad, we walked all four acres. We never saw Odie again.

The cats that roamed our property were once kittens Mom had rescued from a farmer whose only other option was a potato sack and a lake. Our dogs were strays my father brought home from the railroad, beaten dogs that tucked tails between legs and wolfed down food in a few bites. Mom’s dog, Ladybug, was different. She had been handpicked and was our only inside pet; she slept on my parents’ bed instead of in the garage on a smelly blanket with the others. A blonde Pekinese Maltese who always had goo in the corner of her eyes, Ladybug followed Mom from room to room, her toenails clicking on the linoleum of the bathroom or kitchen floor while my mother cleaned. She tolerated my sister and me, lifting her pug nose in the air. She allowed us to briefly pet her before prancing through the house, searching for something more entertaining.

I worried about our pets’ bad luck. Was I a doomed stray that had wandered into our family? Or had I been carefully selected like Ladybug, meant for a life of luxury and coddling?  I wasn’t like Debbie, who always wanted to be around my mother, boiling the spaghetti noodles while Mom stirred sauce or cuddling with Mom and Ladybug on the couch, watching Little House on the Prairie. I preferred to be alone, reading books or exploring the neighboring land with one of the transient dogs.

One day, I studied my mother as she sat on the couch, folding laundry into a basket.  She bent awkwardly to avoid waking up Ladybug who lay curled in her lap. Even though she was only 37, half of Mom’s hair was completely gray.

“Your hair looks frosted,” I said. “Like you had it professionally done.” I knew what “frosted” hair was supposed to look like from seeing it on a magazine picture of Madonna. Mom wouldn’t let me listen to “Like a Virgin” on the radio. She claimed I was too young to know about such things, but I learned plenty from listening to the older boys up the road. The thought of my mother and Madonna sharing a hairstyle made me giggle.

“What can I say? I’m a natural beauty,” Mom said, continuing to fold the laundry.

Mom had never colored her once-black hair or even had it professionally styled. Her beauty routine consisted of a bar of Coast and Pert Plus: Shampoo and Conditioner in One. She sprayed her short “frosted” hair into a stiff, helmet shaped hairdo every morning with clouds of Aqua Net that burned my eyes and made everyone but her cough. Aqua Net was good for other things, too, and I sneaked it out from under the bathroom counter to spray bugs permanently onto the walls.

My hair was what Grandmother referred to as dirty dishwater blonde, but Debbie was a brunette, just like Mom had been when she was a child. I wondered what color of hair my other mother had.

“Why didn’t that lady want me?” I blurted.

Mom looked up at me, startled. She held a pair of Dad’s worn Wranglers, stiff from drying on the clothesline.

“Your biological mother?” she asked.

Ladybug licked her paw and yawned.

I nodded.

She set the jeans in the laundry basket by her feet and patted the couch. I sat a few inches away. 

Mom scooted close to me and hugged me hard. “You are my special gift. I chose you.”

I imagined a room full of rows of crying babies in baskets, displayed like puppies or flowers. I imagined Mom pointing to me and saying, “I want that one.” 

 “You asked me about her once before—when you were very young. I couldn’t believe a three-year old figured that out. That there was another mother,” Mom said, her eyes filling with tears, which didn’t alarm me because she was what Dad called “Sensitive.” Little House on the Prairie set her to boo-hooing, even when the episodes were reruns. Sometimes she choked up just from standing in our bedroom doorways after tucking us in, her hand on the light switch. “I just love you so much,” she’d say. “When you’re a mother you’ll understand.”

“You’re my Mom,” I said. I meant it. Mom was her name, but she wasn’t my only mother.

 

Thoughts about my adoption were mostly infrequent. The concept was abstract. Mom was there, in the flesh, every morning to pick out my clothes and make me scrambled eggs with flecks of ham. At bedtime, she weaved my freshly showered hair into dozens of tiny braids, so that I could have “permed” kinky hair like The Bangles. The process took hours, me complaining of a sensitive scalp the entire time. (In high school, friends would brush my hair into ponytails for track practice because I wouldn’t learn how until college—my mother did it at home!) She was, in my mind, proper—a proper mother.  Mom had worked her way up from bank teller to credit union manager all without a college degree and still quizzed me out of my history books and clipped my toe nails before sending me off to bed at night. She made sure our family attended Mass on Sunday, even Dad who sometimes fell asleep in the pew after working third shift at the railroad.

But by junior high, I started to find the idea of having another mother romantic. I spent hours on the couch with books and with my favorite band, Journey, who contributed the soundtrack to my life. Books offered me an exotic world of mothers, each one I imagined saying, “Pick me. Pick me.” I fantasized about what the other mother would be like. I imagined a beautiful and sad woman dressed in a white, flowing dress, like a character from Gone with the Wind. She would stand in an open door in a house surrounded by tall, swaying grass, watching the same sky as me, feeling the same breeze, wondering where I was. She hadn’t appeared to me, so I made her anything I wanted, a Choose Your Own Adventure mother, like the sci-fi books where I could determine the protagonist’s fate. Sometimes I envisioned the other mother as a horrible woman, unfit to raise a child: a slobbering alcoholic, a hallucinating lunatic, a slut, a bum, a madwoman ready to throw herself off the roof like Bertha in Jane Eyre.

I knew that someday I would meet the other mother and she would welcome me like my favorite Journey song, with “Open Arms.” I mostly kept this to myself, since my recent renewed interest in my adoption flustered Mom, who began claiming she had forgotten. “It doesn’t even enter my thoughts,” she said. But thoughts of my adoption had begun to enter mine all the time.

I learned from Mom that 31 days between my birth and adoption were unaccounted for. “But where was I?” I pestered. “Who took care of me then?”

“I don’t know, honey.” Mom, exasperated, ad-libbed: “Nuns? You were well cared for.”

“What about the eye infection I had when you got me? You said my eyes were a mess! I’ve had surgery on both of them because of it!”

I became certain that every shortcoming I had could be directly linked to those 31 lost days and that I had been irreparably harmed in some way. I read all the adoption books in Louisville’s small school library, many of which theorized that babies removed from their natural mothers never learned how to bond with anyone else. Another book informed me that adopted children would always fear rejection. Suddenly, every possible psychological affliction in the book seemed like it was describing me, although Mom was usually nearby to assure me how special I was.

“You saved my life,” she confided. Mom had lost three babies before they adopted me. “After those miscarriages, I thought I would die. Then you came along.” Her eyes were already misting.

Mom told me my adoption was a closed one, which meant that descriptions of my biological parents were sealed in a file until I turned 25. I decided that until then, I would become the daughter that my imaginary mother would want. I studied every night to earn straight A’s, ran track and played basketball after school (even though I was equally horrible at dribbling, passing, and shooting), stayed away from situations where classmates were sneaking beer and groping each other. The more perfect I became, the more my real mother would mourn giving me up (I didn’t think Mom was my fake mother,  but the word “real” popped into my head whenever I thought of the woman who gave birth to me).

 I often felt out of place, but every kid I knew felt the same way. Some of my friends were even envious. “God,” they’d say. “You’re so lucky. I hate my parents. I wish I had another set I could trade them in for.” My status allowed me to choose my family at whim. I told myself I was not related to Uncle Dean, who smoked pot behind Grandma’s garage during family reunions. I denied relation to a distant cousin, a woman Mom privately nicknamed Dirty Martha, who picked her scabs with grimy fingernails at the kitchen table. When, during our annual Fourth of July family get-togethers, a drunken uncle began hugging our female teenage cousins for too long, I just denied him, too.

Sometimes, though, my biological truth sprang suddenly and without my wanting it. One Christmas day, Mom and Dad, my sister, our cousins, aunts and uncles, and grandparents gathered in the living room before opening presents. A younger cousin and I looked at the new issue of Highlights, racing to see who could find the kitchen appliances and other out of place objects poorly hidden in the drawing of a tree. It had been the best part of the magazine when I was a child, but now I was too old for it. My grandmother on Mom’s side cleared her throat. She pointed at the school picture of my sister on the wall. “You know who that picture reminds me of?” Then she looked at Debbie. “You are your mother’s spitting image, child.” She laughed, pleased and everyone nodded at the unmistakable similarities: the same dainty smile, black hair, and ice blue eyes.  I suddenly found myself swimming in a crowd of faces, but I couldn’t find my nose, my eyes, or my hands anywhere. I felt like the toaster in the Highlights tree: Can you find the item that doesn’t belong?

Debbie had been born my parents’ natural child ten months after my adoption.

“Our miracle baby,” Mom said.

I looked at my younger sister, who sat grinning by our Christmas tree in her lace-hemmed dress, and I felt my otherness wallop me in the head.

 

As a teenager, I relished the feeling of belonging elsewhere, mostly because I found my own parents too strict, too familiar, and too annoying. I pretended I was an uncaught character in a Nancy Drew mystery novel and that my adoption made me mysterious. I passed hours rereading the few documents my parents had recently given me (the only papers available in a closed adoption): my health statistics at my birth, a line or two about the physical condition of my extended biological family, and a succinct paragraph of description about my birth mother. It was the later I was most interested in. “The biological mother was 19 years at the birth of the baby. She has blue eyes and light blonde hair. Her complexion was listed as fair and she is of German descent. She has had two years of college and her interests are artistically inclined.” I told my friends that I was German. My biological mother and I had the same color of hair. I thought she must be a magnificent painter, her canvas capturing what she instinctively knew I looked like. She would paint my hair dirty-dishwater blonde, like hers. I would smile in her paintings, but my eyes would be sad, the loss of each other a secret between the two of us. Sometimes, when we had a hip, urban-seeming substitute in art class, wearing paint splattered slacks, I was sure it was her!

Mom sat next to me on the couch when I called United Catholic Social Services. In a few weeks, I would move to Wayne, Nebraska, a small farming and manufacturing community, to attend classes at Wayne State College. I had told myself that before I moved, I would work up the nerve to make the call. My stomach lurched as I dialed.

A sympathetic sounding woman explained that because my adoption was closed, the state couldn’t release any information to me until I was 25, and even then, no names, only more paperwork.

“Your biological mother has to agree to meet you, honey.” Her delivering-bad-news voice was as soft as a pillow.

“Has she been in contact? I mean, has she asked how I’m doing?”

“Sweetie, it looks as if we’ve had no contact from her, but that’s to be expected. For some women, the entire process is just too overwhelming.”

“Oh.” I was heart sore. How could she not want to know about me? I looked down at what I was wearing—a Jordache T-shirt and tight jeans rolled into pink socks. Mom squeezed my leg. I felt ridiculous.

“But it looks as if your biological father has contacted us. He wanted to know that we placed you with a good family.”

I felt ambivalent towards him. I only wanted to meet my biological mother, the woman who had shared a heartbeat with me for nine months. I had a vision of her filling in where Mom left off. I imagined my birth mother and I would conduct serious talks about literature (Thanks to my American novel classes, I was already becoming a literature snob), boyfriends and sex, and the meaning of life. Mom read novels with cowboys pictured on the cover, told  me my father was the only man she had ever slept with (and only after their wedding) and she was raised Catholic, so she believed that life was a series of good deeds you performed to get into Heaven. I hoped my biological mother wouldn’t really be like a mother at all but more like a cool older sister.

“What now? Is there anything I can do? Can I write her a letter?” I had written her dozens of times, though each attempt frustrated me and eventually ended up in my wastepaper basket.

“Well, sure. You can mail it to us, and if she contacts our service, we’ll send it to her.”

It wasn’t much, but it was something. “Okay.” I set the phone in my lap.

“I’m happy for you,” Mom said, leaning in for a hug. “It’s just, I don’t think of you as being adopted.” Her eyes were welling.

“She doesn’t want to know me, anyway.” The phone receiver was warm in my hand. I held it tightly for a few minutes before setting it in its cradle.

 

Wadded up drafts of letters filled my trashcan, imperfect testimonies and explanations of how much I needed my biological mother. The letter I had sealed and stamped was also unsatisfactory, an overwrought story I called “The Motherless” about searching for faces in a crowd that looked like mine, finding none.  I used the same phrases one might use in a letter to a love obsession, except I kept everything in third person so my real mother wouldn’t see how fanatical I was: “thought of my mother day and night,” “wished my mother and I were near one another,” “not certain who I am without her.” I asked her if we could meet, but the Catholic Charities woman had warned me that she likely wouldn’t want to. I disagreed.  I imagined this other mother to be someone who couldn’t live without me, someone who would understand my teenage self in a way my parents couldn’t. She would never think it odd when I wrote melodramatic poetry or spent entire evenings lying in my bed feeling certain that nobody could feel the world’s pain as deeply as me. I would lie backwards on my bed, my feet draped over the headboard, and write sad sappy poetry that I signed “Clover” because of a four-leaf clover pressed in my dictionary on the page defining leprechaun.

When Mom tried to draw me into conversations like the kind we had when I was younger, when the two of us used to snuggle on the couch, I answered in one syllable words.  How was I? How was my day? Was anything on my mind? “I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine.” Leave me alone to be with my important imaginings. My parents were exasperated with the self-absorbed teenager I had become and showed me with a poster that read:  Teenagers, Leave Home While You Still Know Everything. I felt certain my birth mother would not only understand me, but find me a wise old soul full of fascinating insights into humanity. And she, unlike Mom, wouldn’t hang her nylon granny panties on the outdoor clothesline for visiting boys to see.

Amazingly, two weeks after I sent my letter, someone wrote me back. Claire Marie the letter was signed. The last name had been crossed out, just in case, I reasoned, she decided not to meet me and didn’t want a crazed lost child hunting her down. In calligraphy, Claire told me her parents had sent her to a Catholic hospital to give birth to me, a place where nuns had prayed for her forgiveness. My biological father, also a college student, moved to a different town before the pregnancy showed. He didn’t know Claire was pregnant until Catholic Charities contacted him, asking him to sign the adoption papers. Because of the silence Claire’s parents demanded, my birth became a secret that she kept through college and eventually from a husband and two young daughters.  “I will never regret my decision to have you,” she wrote. “Deep in my heart I know that you are beautiful and my contribution to this world.” She prayed and hoped that I was happy, healthy, and loved and wrote that these were gifts she couldn’t have given me then. The letter had a note of finality, of closure. She never mentioned the possibility of us meeting. I slept poorly that night, continually checking to see if the letter was still where I had tucked it under my pillow. My only proof of her existence, I was certain it would disappear.

 

The fall semester passed without Claire and me exchanging another letter. I didn’t forget about her, but she wasn’t exactly on my mind now that I had college classes, parties, and guys to obsess over.  One afternoon I was summoned to the dorm’s hallway phone. Over the past few months, my phone calls with Mom had become increasingly scarce. I felt annoyed at having to leave the dorm room full of laughing co-eds. I answered the phone with an exaggerated sigh, but it wasn’t Mom calling to ask if I was using my food plan and getting enough sleep. It was a woman from Catholic Charities.

“Would you like to meet your biological mother?” the woman asked.

Adrenaline shot through me. My ears started to buzz. “Yes, I want to meet her! What happens next? Have you already talked to my parents?”

 “Honey, you’re a legal adult. You can decide for yourself.”

I forgot. I wasn’t in high school with permission slips jammed into my backpack. I didn’t need to ask Mom before doing something.

“When do I meet her?” I asked; the words were surreal.

Without my ever having spoken with my biological mother on the phone, Catholic Charities acted as the mediator, planning a reunion at Riley’s, a local restaurant in Wayne. I felt like I was about to win a major writing prize or a state track medal (Other than a sixth grade Young Authors Award, I hadn’t won either).

At my request, Mom drove three hours to be with me, to meet the other mother and hold my hand. She picked me up at my dorm room. We drove in silence. My withdrawal into college life was hurting her feelings, yet here she was beside me, humming to an easy-listening radio station.

I stared at the fast food restaurants and the college kids bundled in their winter coats. I hoped meeting Claire would live up to my expectations. I felt a little guilty for so badly wanting another mother, in addition to the perfectly good one I already had. I pictured Mom plugging giant headphones—my sister and I called them her earmuffs—into her Sony stereo and sitting cross-legged on the floor, singing off key to Lionel Richie and Barry Manilow when she thought she was alone in the house, her hair matted down by the band of her earphones. Eyes closed, she swayed and cried when the music really moved her. Watching from the doorway, I muffled my laughter with my hand, but these stolen moments also made me feel safe. Mom would never hurt me. But the other mother might.

Riley’s moonlighted as a dance club on weekends. I had been there with my friends, usually after we drank bottles of Bud Light in my best friend’s dorm room or at one of the known party houses. By the time we arrived at Riley’s on those nights, hoping for someone to ask us to dance, the floor was packed with bodies swaying and grinding. Mom and I were meeting Claire in the restaurant, which was separated from the dance floor, but it was hard for me to dismiss the images of college students, dancing hip to hip, from my mind. I wondered if Claire and my biological father had ever danced, full of a yearning for each other that would produce a love child.  In my mind, a relationship was not worth having unless it was first full of pain. I cried hardest at the movie love stories where the couple had to overcome some self-inflicted misery in order to be together, like in Urban Cowboy when Sissy and Bud tried to make each other jealous because they weren’t mature enough to admit how they truly felt. Couples who made juvenile, passionate mistakes and risked losing each other understood my heart. I wondered if my biological father still loved Claire. How could he not?

Mom parked the car and looked at me. “Are you ready to see who’s behind the door?”

 “I’m ready,” I said. We got out of the car. I grabbed Mom’s arm before she could open the restaurant door.

“I can’t,” I said.  I started to cry.

“You’ve waited so long for this, Jody.” Mom wore one of her work outfits, a navy vest and matching slacks, navy flats. She wore a strand of pearls around her neck; she had even put on mascara and lipstick for the occasion, flare she only wore for funerals or weddings. Her hair had turned from its natural “frosted” look to all-white years ago. Mom suddenly looked older and frail, though I knew she and Dad were in the midst of a remodeling project, and she would carry two-by-fours and aim a nail gun. Mom was tough when she needed to be.

I pulled my winter coat up to my chin and withdrew my hands into my coat sleeves, though I had read in an article on body language that this gesture showed insecurity.

“I’m scared,” I said. What if she didn’t like me? I wanted Claire to be impressed. Didn’t she regret letting me go? Hadn’t I turned out well? I wanted her to think so, even though I felt nerdy. I was more comfortable with books than with college boys.

“We don’t have to go in,” Mom said. She was unusually calm and unemotional.

“No. I’m okay.” I wiped my nose on my coat sleeve. “I want this.”

I stood in the entrance and let my mother enter ahead of me. I could see empty tables. “This is a special meeting,” Mom had said when she called to make reservations. “Can we arrive a little before the restaurant opens?”

Mom saw her first, inhaled and turned to me. “She doesn’t look very much like you,” she said. It was a comment I would think about later, considering how much we looked alike. I felt as nervous as I used to at the start line during a high school track meet, when for a millisecond, I thought how much easier it would be to flee to the school bus. I took a deep breath and pushed past Mom into the restaurant where all of the tables sat empty except for one, where a fair-haired woman sat with a man. I knew who she was immediately. She stood. We were the exact same height. I walked over to her and hugged her stiffly without really looking at her. I didn’t want to cry again, so I went numb inside, a trick I learned to use when my first cat died.

Mom hugged Claire. Even though Claire was only a few years younger than Mom, she seemed like a child in her embrace. Mom patted Claire’s back before she sat down. I sat down between them.

“It’s so nice to finally meet you,” Mom said when no one else spoke.

I first stole glimpses of Claire’s face while Mom talked about the drive to Wayne. Just the tip of her nose. Then her eyelash, her eyebrow, the curve of her lips. I stared at her hands, which were visibly shaking. Her hair was reddish blonde. Claire wore city attire, a long form-fitting dress, black knee-high boots, hand-crafted jewelry. I was used to seeing my Mom and other Nebraska Moms in Midwestern mom attire: jeans with elastic waistband, oversized T-shirts with pictures of furry animals or a Huskers football logo, and dirty tennis shoes. Claire was an eccentric sort of pretty, more exotic than Mom and more attractive than me. I suddenly felt frumpy in my oversized sweater and jeans. The tanning salon near the campus sold dollar tans, and my face was unnaturally orange. With my inch-high hair sprayed bangs and winter fake-bake, I looked like every other college girl in Wayne. Ordinary. I was sure Claire would know it.

“This is Rick. My friend,” Claire said. “He’s here for moral support. I don’t know that I would have come without him.” Her voice surprised me. Unlike her shaky hands, it was sturdy and low, the way I imagined the matriarchs of my British Literature novels sounding.

“Jody, you can’t possibly imagine how happy Claire is to see you,” Rick said, “Or how much she has thought about you.” Rick’s voice was full of saliva. He spoke each word slowly. I stared at his thinning hair and his wide forehead. His glasses slipped down his greasy nose.

I had thought of meeting my other mother for years, rehearsing reunions in my head where years of experiences would finally be shared. I was unable to say any of those things. Unwilling to face possible rejection, I went mute. Mom filled our silence by presenting the best version of me, how I wrote for The Wayne Stater, my high GPA, the time I placed third in a cross-country meet, my braces in junior high and perfect teeth now. She left out the recent arguments we had been having about my college partying (in my freshman photo album, I held a beer in every picture). I was glad Mom was there to take the pressure off of me. While Mom talked, Claire remained silent and aloof. It surprised me that her demeanor seemed restrained, unlike the warmth of Mom’s.

“The two of you,” Rick said looking at Claire and then me, “just need to snuggle.” Rick reminded me of a salesman in a New Age Store. Everything out of his mouth was sappy and intrusive. I wondered if he had read my letters to Claire. I felt pathetic and needy. I hated him. Rick leaned across the table and put Claire’s hand on top of mine. We all looked at each other. Claire’s hand was cold and rigid. I slowly slid my hand out from under hers and fiddled with my napkin.

“I didn’t want to give you up,” Claire said. Mom looked surprised that Claire was addressing me. “My parents are Catholic. My mother, well, she thought it was so shameful for me to find myself with child. Out of wedlock.” She looked at Mom when she said this, and at Rick, who was smiling and nodding. Then she turned to me. “I didn’t know what else to do. Or how I would take care of you.”

I didn’t know anything about taking care of babies. I didn’t have a boyfriend. Having a child seemed like decades away.  I couldn’t relate to what Claire was telling me even though it was about me. So far the evening had been a conversation between my two mothers. I wanted to say something, but my words really needed to matter when I finally opened my mouth. Did Claire think I was insecure? When I looked at Rick, he winked.

“You and Claire need to spend time alone together,” Rick said. “In order to have those feelings, to really unearth them.” He leaned in towards me. The pores on his nose were enormous.

Mom shifted uncomfortably in her seat and cleared her throat.

“Did she have brown hair?” Claire asked.

“What?” The waiter had brought our salads and my mother had a speared baby carrot on her fork.

“The nurses wouldn’t let me see her. They didn’t even let me hold her.” I thought Claire might cry, but she sat straight up and regained her composure. “When I went down to the nursery, I saw this baby, with this beautiful brown hair. I felt something. I felt like it was my baby.”

Mom winced at Claire’s words: my baby.

“Was it her?” Claire asked.

“Yes.” Mom started whimpering. It amazed me she had lasted so long. “She had a head of brown hair. All of this hair.”

 “Our hands look exactly alike,” I blurted. I’d often thought my hands looked like my father’s. It was a small way I looked like my adoptive family, but now I could see it wasn’t true.

Claire’s eyes met mine. “You remind me of your biological father. You look so much like him.” She placed her hand next to mine on the white linen tablecloth. I looked at our identical hands together. My pinky touched her thumb.

“It’s hard for me to look at you,” Claire said.

 

I knew Claire even less after meeting her. She wasn’t anything like I had imagined. We were still strangers, and it surprised me. I had expected we would have some instant, intuitive connection like a couple who fall in love at first sight. I wanted to see my friends so we could scrutinize everything Claire had said, like we did after first dates. Will she want to see me again?  Did she think I was smart? Pretty? What will she tell her friends about me? Why didn’t I talk more? My English professors could never shut me up, but tonight when it really counted, I just froze. I wanted to look at my hair sprayed bangs in a mirror to see if they looked stupid.

“It’s a lot to take in,” I said to Mom. We sat in her car outside of my dorm.

“If you want, call me tomorrow. We’ll talk about it.” Mom leaned across the car and hugged me. She was still belted in. When she pulled away from me, her face dissolved in tears.  “It’s just…” She rummaged in her purse for a wadded tissue. “I just think of you as my own.” Mom was driving back to Omaha, a total of six hours in the car for two hours of dinner. Her mascara was smeared from crying, and her lipstick had worn off during dinner.

It had hurt her to meet Claire. Claire was intriguing, and I wanted to know everything about her because I wanted insight into myself. I liked to imagine a fantasy mother and Mom liked to imagine she had given birth to me. Claire had ended both of our fantasies.

“I guess I’m Claire’s daughter now, too,” I said, but I didn’t really feel like anyone else’s daughter. I got out of the car.

“Yes, I guess so,” Mom said.

Mom lifted up a hand, wiped her eyes with a tissue and waved her signature wave. Debbie and I called it her ‘tootles’ wave: index finger, middle finger, ring finger. She left for home.

That night I lay awake in my twin bed, my roommate snoring in her twin bed across the room. I thought of all the clever things I didn’t say when I had met Claire. I replayed the night in my head with Wynonna Ryder as myself in the starring role of a sophisticated, beautiful, long-lost daughter and Claire as the gracious, loving long-lost mother. In my edited version, we hugged and cried and spoke years of emotions with our eyes.  We were a Lifetime movie. Mom was merely backdrop, the unremarkable but sturdy character who sets up the key lines. I had great hopes for how things might turn out for me and Claire. The next morning I called Mom to tell her all about them. She was in the middle of mixing a dish of dried cat food and milk for her newest drifter. I could hear the persistent “mew, mew, mew” in the background. Mom had named the fluffy white cat Snowball, a sign that she had opened her home to the small traveler and probably her lap.

Other than me, the longest living Keisner-stray—a mixed-breed dog with soulful brown eyes—was nearly ten years-old. None of the others, though, had made it longer than a handful of years.

 “Don’t get too attached to Snowball,” I teased Mom. “We both know your track record.”

 “I know,” Mom said. “I just can’t help myself. What if she doesn’t have anyone else to care for her?”

“She might have a family somewhere, wondering where she is,” I said. When Mom didn’t say anything, I added: “Maybe she’s been abandoned.”

“It just breaks my heart. That someone would abandon such a little thing.”

“I’m glad she has you,” I said.

“Me, too,” Mom said with a sniffle.

I couldn’t predict how the story would end: Snowball might wander off the next week and find the family she last lived with, she might meet an odd and early death, or she might stay with my mother until old cat-age. I was hoping for the latter. We were lucky to have my mother, the other strays and I, however we came to her, however long we stayed. 

 

 

Jody Keisner is a full-time writing instructor of the University of Nebraska-Omaha, a weight-lifter, and a Real Housewives junkie (the latter for academic reasons, of course). She lives with her husband and young daughter, Lily. She has publications in SNReview, Left Hand Waving, Women’s Studies, Third Coast, Studies in the Humanities, Modern English Teacher, and NEBRASKAland. She is busy on her first memoir, The Runaway Daughter.

 




Social Widgets powered by AB-WebLog.com.