I don’t remember my very first film, but I do remember sitting Indian-style in a squeaky red chair, my face aglow in the radiant presence of the Columbia Pictures lady. She was a statuesque beauty with a magical blue sash. Most people saw her only as a chiseled piece of stone, draped in a flag. She appeared with a swell of music and then was gone again. Just a glimpse and then forgotten. But to me, she was unforgettable. She was my mother.
For years we had these clandestine run-ins at the theater, stolen moments that went completely unnoticed by the rest of the world. It was our little secret—but sometimes it’s the secrets that keep two lives connected. I felt desperate for intimacy and acceptance as a kid, and somehow seeing her helped in some incremental, incalculable way. I felt certain of all of this . . . until I wore that story thin. Then I would change the story and my mother would become someone else entirely.
I assume this is something all adopted kids do, trying on different mothers for size. Sometimes she is a lofty unattainable sort, like my Columbia lady, or a captivating commoner who shared an illicit love affair with Prince Charles, which would explain my ears and my love of architecture. Sometimes my mother is just your run-of-the-mill hooker with a heart of gold or a greedy teen mom who sold me on the black market for six figures.
I always assume that this fickle process of mine has no rhyme or reason, other than restlessness, but I’ve come to realize that my mom of the moment is like a mood ring. When I feel like shit about myself, she is a heroin addict or a nymphomaniac. When I’m on solid ground, I romanticize being linked to royalty or some kind of creative genius. But I don’t get to fantasize about her anymore, which I strangely miss, because I found her. My birth mom.
The first time I meet Ida Knapp, we sit at her kitchen table. I watch her unsnap the leatherette cigarette pouch and fish out a Lark. She has to be pushing 70 but has the focus of a broker on Wall Street. I like her already. Ida is taking my measure as she lights up, and I am not sure what she is searching for. If I have to guess, she is deciding if she wants to take me on or not.
She goes to the kitchen counter to grab an ashtray, then parts the billowing yellow curtains to peek outside. I can’t help but think she once worked for the government. “You got a birth date for me?” she asks. Ida is a private investigator slash bored housewife who specializes in adoption reunions. I’d been at it long enough, and hit enough dead ends, to know that what matters most is not my birth date—it is my birth mother’s. And I don’t have it. As Ida contemplates the monumental task ahead, she makes it clear that it will likely be a long and frustrating journey, at the end of which might be heartbreak. She has the stomach for it, but do I?
I’d like to chronicle the exciting details of a real-life manhunt, but it’s quickly revealed that I’m on a path littered with bureaucracy; my adversaries are file clerks on ego trips and civil servants with rubber stamps. Ida is undaunted. She has me sign a release of information waiver that I have put in my closed adoption file, in the hope that my birth mother has done the same. This would pop the seal on the records lickety split. It’s a long shot, and like most, it doesn’t pay off. Turns out, my mother isn’t looking for me, isn’t even curious, obviously doesn’t care enough about me to sign her name on a form and stick a 20 cent stamp on an envelope.
As usual, I am letting my imagination get the better of me and my optimism instantaneously wanes. I can barely muster the energy to sign my name to a letter Ida has written. A request for non-identifying information? Could it be as boring and as fruitless as it sounds? After a long wait, I am soon holding my mother’s story in the palm of my hands. My eyes dart around the page, picking up words and phrases that paint a tragic picture. I see it all in frantic bits and pieces: 18. No abortion. A boy across the street. He won’t help her. He won’t talk to her. Had to drop out. Secretary to pay for medical bills. She had three big brothers but only two alive. She will go home to Oregon when she loses the weight.
This is the first time I know her real story. Not the ever-changing one I have played in my head for so long. And I am proud of her, I am rooting for her as I would any heroine of a story. I realize that my hands are clenched into fists because, above all, I am angry for her, too.
I think maybe I’m in the home stretch now. But Ida takes a puff of her Lark and out with a whirl of smoke comes the frustrating revelation that we need more. She insists that I request the same information over and over again. A total of 8 times I write this letter. Changing the request with a single question. Is she from Portland? Is she from Eugene? Is she from Bend? And again and again, I get the exact same information back. On the final try, a letter comes back and this is one is signed by a different bureaucrat, politely stating that there is nothing new she can give me except for what is already here. I have now read my mother’s information a hundred times and it’s burned into my brain. I am crumpling it into a ball, but as the words disappear into my fist, my eyes flicker to something new. It’s only five little letters, but it will change my world forever. Salem.
Salem is my mother’s birthplace. A city that had only one hospital in the day. Knowing she has twin brothers, one who died at four, Ida Knapp has what she was looking for. Before I know it, she is bribing a nurse with 300 of my dollars, sending her into the hospital’s basement to dig through old files in search of a set of twins, and a single death certificate. There is only one file that fits the bill. There is also a birth certificate for their sister. My mother.
Turns out, she is not the Columbia lady with a magical blue sash. She is a telephone company operator named Judi. The sash, which isn’t very practical, is instead a wool winter scarf she wears to battle the cold Oregon winters.
I have fictionalized her for so long, I don’t quite know how to process this new truth. And for the first time, I can’t seem to conjure up an image of her. She has always been just out of reach, but now she is just out of focus. Ida Knapp wastes no time in bringing some clarity. In less than a day, she has her social security number, marriage license, address and phone number. I learn that my mother married Gary Jennings the year after I was born. He is a linesman for the Mollala Telephone Company and Judi answers the phones there. They have two grown children. They live in the tiny conservative town of Scotts Mills, Oregon. Population 283. Translation: I am a secret.
I have a few options spinning in my head. I could show up on her front door step. I wouldn’t have to say much because she would open the door and immediately know who I am. I would remind her of her much younger self and hopefully not the guy who put her in the predicament in the first place. She would begin to sob bittersweet tears and invite me into her home that should have been my home, telling me that she knew I would find her. How she celebrated every birthday, looked at the moon and wondered if I was looking, too. It could go like that. Or she would step outside and close the door, hissing at me in a fearful whisper, “Who do you think you are? You want to ruin my life? Don’t ever come back. You are not my daughter.” This happens. I know for a fact that it does. Ida discourages it.
I could call her on the phone, and she would step away from the dinner table and answer with a singsong voice. I would have a script in front of me, but I would fumble for the words anyway. I’d tell her that I’m the baby she gave away in 1965. She’d sit hard in a chair, the breath going out of her. Forgetting her husband and two other kids were there, she would again tell me that she knew this day would come. There would be relief, some kind of completion. She’d be happy to know that I’m alive but ironically surprised that I’m no longer an infant. When I had once been such a burden, so needy I would suck the air out of her own life, she would now be amazed that I am fluent in English and can dial a telephone. Or she would hang up on me and tell her family it was a wrong number, cursing me under her breath because the casserole was now cold. I didn’t need Ida’s advice to know that this would destroy me.
I decide to write her a letter. Yes, because I am a writer, although I never prided myself much on the art of letter writing. But also because I can write and polish, rewrite and overwrite, and then start again—all in the privacy of my own home. When it is perfect, I will send it to the phone company, so her husband won’t get to it first. She can read it and have time to process my words and her shock, time to experience the myriad of emotions before she actually responds. Or never responds. I had to be prepared for the later. Because this happens, too.
My letter arrives at the local telephone company by registered mail. Judi is sure it’s a thank you letter for passing on a résumé. She opens it and reads the first line “You don’t know me but we met once on February 20th 1965…” Her coworkers see her bolt upright and head to the ladies room, her face flush. Judi darts into a stall to read my letter in private. She reads it a few times over, unaware it has been written a dozen times over. And she is relieved to see that it’s a thank you letter after all. I have grown up with two loving parents. I’ve been all over the world, been to college. While she has always been on my mind, I have had a happy childhood. Since I hope that was her intent, I thought she should know; just in case she had worried, had ever second-guessed herself.
That evening, my telephone rings and I let it go to the answering machine like always. But I scramble out of bed and race for the phone when I hear the strange voice. I don’t expect her to call me right away, if ever! I cannot remember to this day what we talked about; I only recall soaking in her timbre. “I think we sound alike, don’t you?” This is what she says to me. And while I didn’t agree because I have a southern lilt and hers was born thousands of miles away, it didn’t matter. She was acknowledging that I was her daughter.
Weeks and months of phone calls and letters follow. And while her husband Gary has always known about me, and encouraged her to call me that very first night, her two kids do not. She just needs a bit of time to tell them. A little voice in my head tells me it’s a ploy, a desperate attempt to drag things out. But she stands tall and tells them all, just like the lady in the blue sash would do. And on my 29th birthday, I get on a plane bound for Portland.
It is the ultimate blind date ahead of me, filled with expectation beyond explanation. My stomach turns and twists and the guy next to me asks if I am nervous to fly. I tell him the smell of scrambled eggs makes me nauseous and then I tell him why. My story apparently travels from rows one to eight because everyone stays seated until I got off the plane. And by the time I exit the jet way and hug Judi Jennings for the very first time, we can’t help but notice that a semi-circle of my friends from Alaska Air Flight 1412 is forming around us to watch. You just don’t get to see drama like this that isn’t scripted.
It’s a long drive to Scotts Mills, and I take the opportunity to study my mother through my magnifying glass. She smokes menthol cigarettes and drives a stick shift. Things my adoptive mother would never do. But she also has no earlobes just like me. The same squinty-eyed smile that I have never seen on another human being. I feel downright giddy.
The cityscape soon turns to grain silos and rolling snowy pastures that are dotted with livestock. We bounce down the gravel road onto the Jennings’s little farm that has been passed down through the generations. I feel a strange pang as I look out the window, the pregnant sheep glancing at the car with blank stares. Judi seems to know what I am thinking, commenting that the lambs are usually born around this time of year. I nod quietly as the car rolls to a stop. As soon as I cross the threshold into the modest little farmhouse (the opposite of the suburban gated community that I had grown up in) a pair of Popeye forearms pull me into a bear hug. It is Judi’s husband, Gary. I was sure this man would be reluctant to have me there. I expect mere toleration, the lowest level of official hospitality. After all, I am proof that there had been another man, a boy actually, that has come before him. But Gary turns out to be one of those happy-go-lucky guys who basks in the bright side. To him, I am an exciting, new member of the family. In short order, I am sitting in the living room with my two squinty-eyed, lobeless, happy-go-lucky half siblings, Jill and Jay.
The confusing thing about my new brother and sister is that I genuinely like them, and I am secretly impressed with myself for being able to strike a healthy balance between my enthusiasm for them and my instinct to be jealous. We talk like strangers do, but with goofy smiles plastered on our faces that we can’t quite wipe away. It is all very surreal—like a Tim Burton flick and I had somehow landed the starring role. Still, this would not be the most surreal moment of the night. That was ahead of me.
At midnight, my sister drives back to her college dorm about 50 miles away, my brother is going to work the graveyard shift at a bottling plant. And I am shown to my bedroom, which takes me on a trip down memory lane. Only they are not my memories at all—because I am soon lying in Jill’s childhood bed in Jill’s childhood room. There are trophies that I didn’t win. Boy band posters I didn’t hang. And I can’t help but think about the thousands of bedtime stories that were read in this room. The nightmares that must have kept my mother here all night. And as I try to fall asleep, I indulge in the dark side and let the jealousy wash over me. Jill and Jay got to stay. I had to go. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. It was cruel. Yes, I had a good life with the Newtons. But it didn’t change the fact that I had been given away. Kicked to the curb. Forgotten. How can this not be taken personally?
I’m startled awake in the middle of the night. The clock in my sister’s bedroom reads 2:15. I hear hushed voices then a slamming door. I pull the blinds to see a million dazzling country stars in the night sky, blue moonlight bouncing off the white snow, and then I spot Judi and Gary out in the pasture. I lift the window and call out to them. Is something wrong? Twin lambs are being born, and they ask if I want to help. I throw on my jeans and a jacket, the Sorel boots I bought just for the trip, and I race out to meet them.
I jog through the snow, my heavy boots break through the icy shell like a crème brûlée. The desperate bleating of a sheep in distress is already tugging at my heart, although Judi and Gary seem unaffected. This is normal to them. Then I see the bloody corpse of a stillborn lamb in the snow, and I want to cry. The second lamb is stuck. Gary takes hold of the distressed mother from the front, and I’m instructed by Judi to take hold of the little leg that’s peeking out. Together we pull but my hands slip off, sending me backwards into the snow. I’m next to the dead lamb, ice crystals already forming over her lifeless eyes. I feel a burst of anger as I get back onto my feet to help pull again. The baby slides out in a gush of afterbirth, and lands at my feet. The mother sheep stops bellowing and saunters off as if nothing has happened. Judi and Gary drop to their knees to wipe away the placenta with a towel, as I stand frozen, holding my breath until the little lamb cries out. He is alive.
I want to celebrate. I want to be happy in a desperate kind of way. I’ve just birthed a lamb with my birth mother on my first night with her. Even in the moment, I know it’s fucking amazing. But the good feelings just won’t come. All I can focus on is the lamb that was lost. The baby who will never have a chance to frolic with her family in this pasture. In the dark, I watch my mother tending to the little lamb as it shakily gets to his feet and sweetly bleats into the darkness, beckoning his mother. Oddly, Judi doesn’t even smile as the mother sheep returns to greet her newborn. Instead she turns, heading back towards the house. “Who wants coffee?” That’s what she says.
And I get it now. I finally understand. It isn’t personal. It isn’t cruel. My mother is simply one of those women who does what needs to be done. Stepping over a dead lamb to save the living one. Giving me up for adoption to start this family on the farm. Judi Jennings is a survivor. Stalwart. Flinty, in a good way.
Silent tears roll down my cheeks as I trail behind her in the snow. I’m too self-conscious to have the good hard cry that’s trapped in my chest. Some genes you just don’t inherit.
Kim Newton grew up in Houston, Texas and currently resides in Los Angeles, California with her 9-year-old son, Oscar. Although this genre of writing is new to her, Kim has worked in various writing fields including advertising copywriting and television drama. Her relationship with her birthmother and half-siblings continues to this day.
© 2015, Kim Newton