A few months ago, I was going through a box of keepsakes from 1973—the year I gave my baby up for adoption. Inside were the treasures I carted first from Alaska to California and then through eleven additional moves over the last 44 years.
I pulled from the box the pen I’d used to sign the adoption papers, a vintage-looking hospital pregnancy food menu, my patient wristband, and Catholic holy cards that the sweet little French nun had brought every time she visited my hospital room. There were also greeting cards from my parents, brother, best friend, and the nosey and judgmental Catholic neighbor lady who I’d hoped wouldn’t find out about my pregnancy. I wondered what ran through their minds when picking out a card. Congratulations weren’t in order, nor were “Get Well Soon” wishes. “Our Condolences” would have been more apropos, but no one had the guts to give me that card.
My 12-year-old brother’s card featured a seagull’s silhouette, maybe reminiscent of the then-best-selling book Jonathan Livingston Seagull. The bird covered the large card’s entire front and was positioned against a background of emerald green with a smattering of sunlight sparkles dancing on the jeweled water. Inside the card was printed, “Miss You.” Beneath it, he wrote, “From Tim.” My sweet and mostly adoring little brother was torn apart by me giving up the baby. He stood at the nursery window for hours and talked to all the parents and visitors that came by, providing commentary about each baby. He wanted me to bring mine home; was inconsolable, my mom said; promised to babysit.
There was also the card from my mom. It was white and had a tasteful and artsy line etching of a sleeping baby in a flowing gown on its front. It was titled, “An Unspeakable Joy.” Inside, it said, “Your brand-new baby….” The card was signed, “From her loving grandmother.” My artist mom may have thought she picked it for the lovely drawing, but I wonder if it was also a subconscious choice. It had been, after all, an unspeakable pregnancy.
I hadn’t received a card from Paula, my childhood best friend. Our houses were so close that we once strung a makeshift phone between our bedroom windows. It was made of string with cans attached to each end. Our families had been friends since Paula and I were two, even before we lived next door to one another. Her family was also Catholic and very involved in the church, just like we were.
When I was a teen, Paula told me that her mother hated me (probably more like a deep disapproval) and thought I’d had something to do with stealing and vandalizing their camper. She also blamed me for every little trouble Paula got into, which wasn’t much next to my shenanigans. I was a shit of an adolescent and probably deserved her condemnation, but I’d had nothing to do with the camper. By the time I got pregnant, Paula and I rarely hung out because I was off with my “bad” friends. Because of the unfounded accusations, Paula’s mom was the one person who I didn’t want to know about my pregnancy.
Even though I was a juvenile delinquent, I had valued my virginity. Virginity was like a torch in my family—or at least it appeared that way. When Mom wasn’t around, Daddy would say things to my brother and I like, “Mama was a virgin. She is a saint. I couldn’t even get her in the sack till we were married.” Virginity, sainthood, and Mama were synonymous, and they were clearly the ideal.
Paula later told me that when her mom found out I’d given birth and was giving the baby up for adoption, she’d said, “It’s too bad for the baby.” For more than four decades, I haven’t been able to forgive her for that. What was too bad? That my baby was born? That she was going to be with a wonderful loving family? And what did that say about Tim and me? We had been adopted, too. Was it “too bad” we had been born? Was it “too bad” that we had been adopted? I pictured Paula’s mom—my judgmental neighbor—shaking her head in reproach while standing in front of the card rack, picking through as if she was removing lint from an unkempt sweater.
It wasn’t until that day a few months ago, going through the box of keepsakes, that I saw her card for the very first time. The front showed a charcoal sketch of forget-me-not flowers and was paired with an Abe Lincoln quote: “The better part of one’s life consists of his friendships.”
Inside, she wrote,
We truly respect you for the heartache you have had to accept.
May God bless you always,
The Winton family
Seeing that card kinda took the wind out of my sails. How could I have missed it?
I moved away from Alaska soon after giving birth, but I have remained in contact with Paula over the last four decades. Every five years or so, we have a phone call to catch up. During our conversations, I always ask if her mom still feels the same way about me. Paula has conveyed that I turned out to be a good mother and person, but her mom never stopped disapproving of me.
Over the years, I’ve realized that I wanted Paula’s mom to love me like she had when I was the talkative little second grader who felt enough at home to walk through the front door without knocking. I wanted her to love the same girl about whom she teased, “Mary Monica could never be a Carmelite Nun.” (I was too chatty to take a vow of silence.) Because I was so deeply hurt by her comment about my baby and the dislike and judgment she had for me, my heart formed a protective crust of bitterness and resentment. But after discovering that card, I began to envision a different story.
I couldn’t be deeply hurt by someone I didn’t care about, nor could she have expressed such compassion in that card without caring about me in return. I began to wonder if her feelings toward me may have come from a place of fear: If this could happen to the sweet Mary Monica I knew and loved, then this could happen to my child. Maybe she was projecting a fear of inadequate parenting onto me. After all, if my “saintly mother,” her old friend and neighbor, could raise a child like me, then couldn’t it also happen to her? Or perhaps it came from something from her childhood—a trauma or belief system she had in place. Or maybe she was just pissed because she thought I stole her damn camper.
While thinking about all of this, I came to the conclusion that nothing is really how it seems. Our anger, judgment, and resentment comes from within and has nothing to do with the person we direct it at. Had I opened that box years before, I doubt I would have had the ability to look at the deeper meaning of these things. Forgiveness was always right there where I left it—sitting in that box, patiently waiting to be found.
Twenty-six years have passed since I was reunited with the daughter I gave up for adoption. Even though we have a close and wonderful relationship, I have avoided reflecting on the time surrounding the pregnancy, birth, and adoption. For 44 years, I also hauled around the journals that my mom and I wrote in during that time. Over the years, I’ve known that I should give them a read, but I couldn’t bring myself to open them until recently. Maybe I’d been avoiding them for the same reason that I failed to notice the sweet card from my neighbor lady. Examining that time in my life held too much sorrow. It was just too dark inside Pandora’s Box.
While digging deeper into the box, past the pen, wristband, greeting cards, and other mementos, my eye caught on Sister Clare’s business card. The plain white card was stuck under the flap of the cardboard box. She was the sweet nun at Catholic Charities Adoption Services who counseled me and found parents for my baby. My mom took me to see her every week during my pregnancy. I made a mental note to drive by the old building when I visited Anchorage a few months later.
During my trip, I first cruised my rental car past the houses I’d lived in, getting a feel for my beloved town. There is something magical about Anchorage in the summertime with its majestic crown of mountains bordering the city, its cool, fresh air, and its lush midnight sun vegetation. “There is no place like home” kept ringing in my ears. Even though I only lived there for sixteen years, I’d felt called to return throughout my life to search for something I couldn’t define.
I didn’t have the address for the old Catholic Charities building and I hadn’t brought Sister Clare’s card with me. I used my phone to search for the map and navigation, and when I did, a phone number also popped up. As the phone rang, I wondered why I was calling since I’d found directions to get there. I told the receptionist that I’d given a baby up for adoption 44 years earlier and wondered if I could visit the office building to look inside. Minutes later, I received a call back. Lisa, the director, was completely and totally gracious, even honored to talk to me. She said she would love to meet me and told me to come right over. She also thanked me and told me what an incredible woman I was.
I was embarrassed by her praise. A part of me must have still felt shame for the pregnancy and having to give my baby up for adoption. I expected that I would be interrupting by showing up in the office—I certainly didn’t imagine that I would be treated like a visiting dignitary. I was completely taken aback by Lisa’s eagerness to accommodate my visit. As I sat across the table from her, it hit me that maybe this was the moment that I had been searching for on my many trips to Anchorage and through all the decades of toting around my keepsakes and journals.
“You are only as sick as your secrets” is a saying I’ve heard quite a bit, and I had kept my share of secrets over the decades. My mother had taken me to Catholic Charities for weekly counseling sessions to help me, but they weren’t as effective as they could have been because I never told Sister Clare what was really going on. I wasted an hour each week with meaningless chitchat and told her only what I thought she wanted to hear. I don’t remember much about what I said during those sessions. The only thing I truly recall was the lie I told her about my baby’s parentage. I said that I had heavy-petted with a boy who ejaculated on my thigh. I was still a virgin, I said—a lie that she seemed to buy.
I didn’t tell Sister Clare that the pregnancy was the result of being raped when I was a virgin. Or that I was afraid Paula’s mom would find out and have confirmation that I was the slut and horrible girl she perceived me to be. I didn’t say that my dad had abused me in a hideous wire hanger beating, or that when I was 13 he’d raged at me about the disgusting things sluts and whores do and how he loathed and despised that kind of women—said this as if I was one of them, said things a young girl should never hear (especially from her father). I didn’t tell her that being adopted myself, the only person in the world who would be a part of me was the baby she and my parents wanted me to give up for adoption.
Lisa, the present-day Catholic Charities director, was roughly the same age as the daughter I’d given up. She sat across the table from me with compassionate light blue eyes and short brown hair. Her voice was gentle and kind. At first, I wondered if it was contrived and practiced, like a funeral director’s, but as I poured out the things that I should have told Sister Clare 44 years earlier, tears pooled in her eyes. She was just the angel I needed in that perfect moment.
I finally understood the reason I hadn’t been able to let go of the journals and the box of keepsakes. I had been subconsciously waiting—or maybe something greater than myself was grooming me for this healing. I was finally at a place in my life where I could face the pain from my past and let it go. As I spoke, I could feel that something wonderful was happening. My regret rose like a flock of doves lifting a heavy robe from my shoulders. I realized that I needed to tell the truth—not just to my friends or in my memoir, but in the setting of the adoption agency. I was doing what I didn’t have the courage to do at 15. I had shown a brave face back then, but I was really just a scared little girl all alone with her shameful secrets.