Today I met my mother. I last saw her on my birthday. My date of birth. She bore me at a hospital on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, then returned to her home for unwed mothers. She held me and fed me for five days before they sent me to foster care, then to my parents. She named me Holiday.
She was 17 the day I was born, so she couldn’t take care of me the way she would have liked. She and my birth father were longtime sweethearts. They’d planned to marry even before I happened upon them, but when my mother told her parents she would have a child with a nice Cuban boy, they showed their blue and white. Nice Greek girls, even naughty Greek girls, don’t marry xeni (non-Greeks), especially Spagnoli. They locked her up and decided she’d give the baby up. Her best friend was blissfully adopted, so she imagined she could bestow the same charmed life on her accidental child.
But that’s not what happened. My parents had plenty of money and they were Greek. That was enough for the adoption agency. Nowadays adoptive parents must pass a battery of psychological tests. Back then the agencies matched babies by religion. Imagine the agency’s luck when it found a Greek Orthodox family waiting for this half-Greek baby! They told my parents the story – my mother was young and couldn’t care for me, and didn’t think her beau was father material.
I grew up in the suburbs of New York City, and my birth mother returned to Queens. For the first 22 years, we lived 90 minutes apart. A few years after graduating from USF, I moved from Florida to Queens, and we lived 20 blocks apart. Once, during a manic episode, I thought I saw her on the street. Oddly enough it’s entirely possible but I was completely crazy at the time. We’ll never know.
Growing up, I’d cry for my birth mom at night. She was my personal legend — a superhero who could come and shower me with love if only she could find me. If she wanted me. If she ever wanted me.
My parents did their best. I had a lot of material things and they gave what their hearts could offer, but I never got enough love. Maybe I needed too much, but I never stopped feeling abandoned. At 31, I began a search for my birth parents. I posted my information on the New York State Adoption Registry. No answer. I did get a “social history” that told some of my life’s secrets. My father was Cuban. Wow. My parents responded that they thought my birth father was “Spanish or something” but had told me I was 100 percent Greek. I was 50 percent Cuban. That was huge for a New York kid. The first question New Yorkers ask is your name. The second is “What are you?” – Italian or Irish or Jewish or what? For 31 years I didn’t know half of my identity.
The social history said that my birth parents had moved in the same social circles and hooked up, but my mom thought dad wasn’t father material. That was it. I figured that was all I’d ever get and convinced myself it was all I’d ever need.
Until now. I got the letter on a Saturday. The registry had produced a match. All weekend I wondered: Who was it? I called Monday morning. My birth mother. You know that gambit, “If you could meet anyone, living or dead, who would it be?” For me, the answer was always my birth mother. And now I’d have to think of a different answer to that question because I really would meet her. Wow. The thoughts blew up in my head so quickly I thought it would pop.
After we both signed a consent, the social worker at the agency asked how I wanted to make the first contact. I chose email. It’s safe, I thought. I could think about what I’d say, and I wouldn’t cry in front of a stranger on the phone.
I crafted a long email. What would I want to know if I’d given Rose up? Just the thought brought me to tears. I couldn’t imagine not knowing her. Seeing the words through my tears, I shared my first word — kiri (candle), described the sound of my laugh, my academic experience, and the people and activities that I loved. I saved the file for editing and went to bed. I’d edit and polish it in the morning. I wanted it to be perfect.
The next morning birth mother showed up in my inbox. Again, I swooned. I clicked on the email. She’d thought about me every day of her life, she said. She’d wanted to keep me but couldn’t, and she’d always wanted to meet me, and she loved me.
She loved me. All those years I’d wondered if she thought about me, If she’d loved me. And she had. She did. And here she was.
I sent my email. I owed her an immediate response. She responded that afternoon and we emailed every day thereafter, then worked to arrange a phone call. We were on opposite coasts, so the time change made phone calls difficult. To top it off, I was six months pregnant so I needed to nap in the afternoon – prime time for East Coast phone calls. But we did arrange a call, and when we talked, the words flowed. She asked about my pregnancy and my family and I learned about hers. We talked for two hours.
Over the next several months we cultivated the long distance relationship . Inevitably, we’d have to meet in person. She promised to visit after my baby was born.
Yesterday I picked her up from the airport. I didn’t know what to feel. How was this skinny woman related to me? I know that I look like my birth father but the lack of resemblance was disconcerting. I wanted to see me in her face. But over the course of the day, we noticed that our eyes disappear when we smile and we have similar noses. She showed me some old pictures and she did look kind of like me when she was young.
All day I had this feeling of surreality that I’ve only experienced in mania. Here was the woman who gave birth to me. The only blood relative that I didn’t create, and she wasn’t just like me. Was she really my mother? She showed me her picture of me as a baby. My parents have the same one hanging in their hall. She’s carried it with her since I was born. I believe her. But despite our conversations and emails, we’re still essentially strangers.
My real mother died in October. We lost her eight years before, when the Alzheimer’s took over. Without the Alzheimer’s and a push from author Natalie Goldberg, I would never have started my memoir. It began as an essay about my real mother and it just kept going. Through those pages, I realized what a character my real mother really was. I got to see her more objectively, as the product of her relationships and experiences. While she was gone, I got to know her in my own words.
My real mother and I did know each other as intimately as she would allow. And growing up I experienced her as only family would. But it was never enough. I longed for someone who’d love me the way I needed to be loved. And six months after my real mother died, I got a second chance at daughterhood. I’m just getting to know my birth mother now and I’m discovering our similarities of spirit and heart. I anticipate her becoming more of a parental soul mate than a mother. I’m all grown up, but those holes, those empty places in my heart are just now starting to fill.