My peach ice cream and a black man’s spoon in it

Memories often are formed around food or meals. Like when you tried your first bite of cheesecake or tiramisù — can you guess my bias for which course I like the most? — or like that disastrous dinner when you drove from Denver Airport at 5,000 feet above sea level to your buddy’s house another 3,500 feet higher, had an amazing steak dinner lovingly prepared by his wife and then, with sudden altitude sickness, puked it up?

That puking steak thing has happened to all of us at some time or another, or at least it should, because then I wouldn’t feel so naked right now. Please comment below what your most embarrassing food story is. Or actually your most embarrassing story, period. Like, things that have traumatized you to this day. Only five people regularly read this blog, so your secret is safe.

I digress.

Food and meals aren’t always funny or facile tropes in TV shows, like the “look who decided to come home for Thanksgiving dinner” episode.

How about the meal memories that reveal a true weakness? One that leaves you much more naked than admitting to puking up a steak.

“He’s a prince from Ghana.”

Yeah, right, I thought, in whatever the six-year-old, first-grader equivalent was. I was a NYC-savvy grade school cynic.

Dad had taken me to lunch with one of his work colleagues. They worked for a company called Transportation Displays Incorporated, “TDI.” In second grade, our teacher Mrs. Ricciardi asked each of us to stand up at our desk and state aloud what our fathers did for work. An innocent and honest mistake, I said my dad “worked for the FBI” (rather than “TDI”). I got major street cred for that, until moments later when I had to confess that it was in fact “TDI,” a company that sold advertising space. Specifically, they sold “out-of-the-home” advertising space to companies like Time, Inc. and advertising agencies like Young & Rubicam.

Needless to say, this new status reduced my cred. Like, to zero.

One of the benefits of having a dad who worked for TDI and not the FBI is that Dad would bring home commuter rail posters from a completed ad campaign, like the Cutty Sark one shown here. Dad told me that commuters would remove these stiff posters — probably 1/8-inch thick — from their metal frames and would use the horizontal surface to play cards on them during their hour-long ride into or out of the City.

Dad amassed these and other posters in our apartment’s second bathroom, a half-bath which he’d converted into tool shed and curio cabinet, and which was thoroughly cleaned out only after my father died in 1998. Dad was a pack rat but an organized one. Advertising posters were stacked neatly alongside baby food jars holding different sizes of nails and screws, and scraps of plywood, and jars of paint which might have only an inch of gooey Navajo White at the bottom but which could be salvaged with a little thinner, because that’s what you did when you were born in 1921 and saw hungry men show up at your backdoor looking for a meal and your family let them in — total strangers, yes, but strangers whose only likely crime might be to steal a random parsnip.

Dad brought home things like that just because. And also because it was easier to bring home commuter rail posters than bank robbers.

(We need another subhead to say, “He’s a prince from Ghana.”)

Have to continue my thought above. So I met a lot of people in New York City in the 1960s and ’70s. People who were famous, eccentric or exotic. Or exotic, eccentric and maybe famous, like a woman named “Lady Enid P__” (last name intentionally omitted) who was a tall and sultry friend of Dad’s from Australia and used to give my brother and me dollar bills and let us wrestle with her. I mean, tell me that isn’t practically the sexiest thing for an 8-year-old kid struggling to understand anatomy. She was from Australia.

Still not getting to Ghana, are we.

I’m delaying the shame is why.

Dad took his non-FBI colleague John Okawa and me to lunch one day. At the end of the meal, we ordered dessert. (Of course we did. What lame person would not allow their kid to order dessert at the end of a restaurant meal. I mean, please correct me, but that’s just something that should not be tolerated in America. Let your kids order freaking dessert. Like, every time. Kids are dealing with enough already, like wrestling with sultry Australian gentry for pay.)

So we’re ordering dessert and I order peach ice cream. And I am STOKED to get this peach ice cream. Stoked. It’s served, and I take a bite. Maybe two at most. Mmm. Cool. Tasty. Peachy. An amazing restaurant-quality, all-American ice cream experience that had not been denied me.

Then Mr. Okawa, a very dark-skinned man who Dad had described as a prince from Ghana — yeah, right, an African prince is here in New York selling 2×3-foot spaces on the Long Island railroad to whiskey-drunk bond traders — turned to me and asked very kindly, “May I have a bite?”

I was genuinely caught off guard.

Now, you must know, Dear Reader, that as a kid I had a serious Germ Phobia anyway. Like, that was already there. Anyone who knew me would tell you this. But this moment was qualitatively different. Because Mr. Okawa’s request for a bite of my ice cream, even with his own spoon, didn’t just introduce germs, but they were especially germy germs. And I feel it’s important to say this in the context of “race relations” in 2021: this was in 1969 in New York City, and anyone who wasn’t alive then but looking back now and thinks they know what racism is and isn’t should instead worry about what people one hundred years hence will think about their strong belief that avocados are the “good kind of fat.” In 100 years, they will probably say that avocados scream when you tear their flesh from their beautiful, if rough, exterior. They will say to those reprobates then, “Hey, you avocado-eater, don’t ‘rough-rind-shame.'”

Mr. Okawa’s request added a layer of germiness in my mind. He was a dark-skinned man, and I was a very white kid who candidly didn’t have any known dislike of black people. I simply didn’t know many black people — which is probably why Dad had me meet him in the first place — and to have a black man want to dip his spoon, which he may or may not have used on his own dessert already, was a bridge too far.

I hesitated, which was answer enough. I still remember that moment, that hesitation, the millisecond of indecision between “yes” and “no,” and it was in that millisecond that I exposed the brokenness between people who are different in skin color and can’t escape the fact. And, yes, a six-year-old’s actions and words can exacerbate brokenness, or they can heal it. Six-year-olds wield that kind of terrible power.

Of course I said, “Yes.” Yes, he could have a bite. Was a 6-year-old going to say no to an authority figure over something like that and embarrass his father?

But after Mr. Okawa, the Ghanaian prince and ad salesman, took a bite, I said I was not hungry for my dessert anymore. To this day, I feel the shame as I recall sensing my dad’s embarrassment and Mr. Okawa’s… what: pity? anger? frustration? empathy? powerlessness? sadness? at my decision that his Black Person Spoon contaminated my dessert. I avoided eye contact with both men.

That was 52 years ago.

2020 sucked but shone light on us all, and that’s a good thing

I think what brought this to mind was that yesterday I had a long, and I thought helpful, talk with an old and very dear friend about Election 2020 and my support of President Trump. My friend and I had disagreed intensely during the election season, and he sincerely wanted to know now what compelled me not just to vote the way I did but how it was that Trump was disqualified in my mind, particularly because of his racist statements.

I felt, and I hope he did, our conversation yesterday was in the context of love. Much of what my friend brought up were things I couldn’t defend. Some of them were indefensible because my friend was right, and others I chose not to attempt to defend because I thought it would lead down rabbit holes and be unhelpful to explain my vote. But he was surprised — and refreshingly candid about his surprise — to hear that the “fine people” statement surrounding Charlottesville, which President Biden used to launch his candidacy, was once and for all debunked for the nth time during the Senate trial in the second impeachment. At that time, Trump’s lawyers played for everyone present or watching TV Trump’s full statement at the press conference where he was reputed to call white supremacists “fine people,” which he absolutely did not do. (This, of course, introduces the whole media bias thing, which is a rabbit hole and a dead-end hole at that.)

I’m no longer defending Trump — it’s not helpful to anyone — even though I defend my having voted the way I did in 2016 and 2020, because I made what I thought were selfless and patriotic decisions both times and even if I’m proven wrong by history. I told my friend, “I may have voted for P.T. Barnum, but I also feel like he enlarged the tent” of those who felt forgotten or wanted a voice. And yes, Nazis found a voice through Trump. But so did lots of blacks, Latinos and others. Look at the data.

I’m also defending the fearless search for honesty, candor and forgiveness. Humility. Placing relationships before “the Truth.” For who among us knows “the truth”? The truth is a vapor. As soon as you see it, it disappears. It’s more helpful to know that Truth exists “up there,” like clouds, than to try to bottle it up and show it to a friend. Avocados will likely always be good for us and will not be found to scream. But there are avocado equivalents now that will be vociferously denounced a hundred years hence. Will my descendants decide I’m no longer worth remembering because I decided that a black man’s spoon contaminated my peach ice cream? Or because I voted for Trump? Twice?

And the real question for me to answer is: if I knew that in one hundred years my descendants would disown me, would I disown them first?

[photo credit: Justin Shockley]

Tea and cinnamon toast at midnight

We’re about two to three hours past the time that, as a young boy, I’d often find Mom and have a “midnight snack.” “Midnight snack” is a general term, not anchored to 12 a.m. The phrase has a bit of elasticity, like saying “block party” can be anything from a little get-together among adjacent Manhattan buildings to all of the East Village erupting after the Rodney King verdict in April 1992.

That last comparison didn’t really flow, I’ll admit, but as it’s 3:48 a.m. as I write, long past the “midnight snack” range when I might have had a little get-together, I’m rapidly approaching the riot stage of insomnia.

As a kid, I often couldn’t sleep. This hasn’t changed much. Nowadays, naps are often more successful for rejuvenation, especially when I have a 90-pound labrador retriever sleeping next to me. Having Leo as my nap buddy is like taking half a bottle of Benadryl without the life-threatening part.

When I couldn’t sleep then — and “then” means between the age of about 5 until the age I became a blackout drinker, so maybe by second grade (again, kidding/exaggerating, ok? Brain fog.) — I’d either find Mom in bed and rouse her, or I’d find her already in the kitchen.

If I found her in bed, I’d tiptoe past Dad’s side and over to hers and whisper close to her ear, “Can we have a midnight snack?”

As a parent now myself, and as a father who’s much less nurturing than a mother would be — even on a wide-awake Sunday afternoon; I mean, NFL…right? — this sweet little whisper up close at the side of my head while I try to sleep might as well be someone tickling my eardrum with a toothpick.

Nevertheless, I have no recollection of Mom ever saying, “Go back to bed.”

On the contrary, even though Dad never watched the NFL and was very nurturing as far as men go, he too found a way to get me back to bed with minimal disruption in his own sleep, which was to tell me that if I slept on my back, I’d have nightmares. Which really meant, “I know you are only in second grade, but you snore when you come home drunk.” Like I said, practical but loving.

I haven’t told you what the “snack” consisted of. In short:

  • Tea
  • Cinnamon toast

I may have had milk, but I also may have had tea. Kids of American/Anglophile mothers also drink tea. (When speaking directly to her, we’d use the English “Mummy,” not the lazy “Mom” or “Mommy,” and certainly not the more southern, “Mama” or “Momma” — although one cannot distinguish between homonyms at 12:30 a.m.; I don’t know if you knew that. Of course, if the emphasis of “Mama” is on the second syllable, that might become acceptable.)

As for the “cinnamon,” Mom and Dad had mixed that and sugar in a small glass jar that probably had rosemary in it until recently, before my brother and I experimented in the kitchen. We buttered the toast and then sprinkled the cinnamon-sugar mix on it.

Knowing what I know about that midnight snack and its soporific effect, if you tickled my eardrum with a toothpick these days, I’d thank you.

But don’t come over now and try. It’s four hours past snack time and I need to go find Leo.

Toddler. Kitchen step-ladder. Open flame.

Custom countertops and Nazi butt-kicking

My family’s kitchen on East 96th Street in Manhattan was perhaps ten feet wide by fifteen long. But, of course, the countertops took up enough space to make the kitchen more of an L-shaped space that opened at the kitchen entrance — Dad had fashioned swinging doors with louvers, like an Old West barroom — turned right toward the fridge with expandable countertop to the left (Dad made), and took a sharp left toward the window with a copious runway of four or five feet until you reached the stove on the left, double sink on the right. (Window in the middle, looking out over 96th Street.) To the right of the runway, before you got to the sink, was a custom countertop (again, by Dad) with a built-in raised cutting board (Dad) surrounded by inlaid tiles bought in Spanish Harlem (Dad…and me, age 7. Maybe younger brother Jim was there also, but as I am the owner of this blog and therefore seeking glory only for myself, I will avoid any uncertainty about the participants.).

Yes, Dad created this kitchen infrastructure like the architect he always wanted to be. That is, until his father died and he had to drop out of college at age 20 to support a stepmother and three younger half-siblings. That was 1941. Dad was a 4F, which perhaps was fortuitous, because were he not, he’d likely have had to serve or would be faced with the task of deciding whether to stay or go. His poor health made that decision for him.

Going into advertising sales was not his “passion.” Nor was doing so following his “dream.” But it provided for four other people at a time when — having had its ass kicked in the ’30s — America was about to kick some Nazi ass in the ’40s. It also provided for us growing up in the ’60s and ’70s. His valor was demonstrated in flying home from a client in California and then flying off to Chicago two days later. They don’t give out medals for that, just new fiscal year goals.

I remember oregano. Oregano and lots of rosemary.

The kitchen wasn’t all about Dad’s incredible handiwork. (It was indeed incredible what that man could do.) It was also about Mom’s cooking. Mom made great meals for kids and adults alike and, because of that, she required a lot of herbs and spices to be on hand. They sat on four shelves that were easily accessible to any child who crawled onto the countertop and then kneeled. That would get you to the good stuff on the top as well as to the bronze mortar and pestle, weighing as much as a small wood-burning fireplace.

As kids in the 5- to 8-year-old range, we were fascinated by the smells of everything coming from that kitchen. Herbs. Spices. So we would take it upon ourselves to use Mom’s herbs liberally — she had no saffron that I recall — and stir them into a pot of water that we would already have simmering. On a gas stove.

Did I mention that we were too young to reach the stove without using a step ladder? I can’t recall whether we stood on the top step, but any manufacturer warnings about that — if even invented by 1970 — must surely have been printed on the underside. And who stopped for directions when making spice soup?!

Fear not

This is not a story that ends badly, like me with clove-shaped scars on my right cheek or daring my brother to eat a tablespoon of crushed chili flakes. (Well. That might have happened.) It’s not even a story.

Rather it’s a memory of a small kitchen, a family of four, lots of meals, and no devices of any kind.

Mom and Dad never owned a microwave.

Point O’ Woods, Fire Island: Flotsam & Jetsam (sink or swim)

“You’ll swim and swim and swim,” he told us at the beginning. “And then you’ll swim some more.” That was Art Hawkins describing the legendary “Flotsam & Jetsam” 1-mile ocean swimming race at Point O’ Woods, Fire Island.

In case you’re not familiar with Point O’ Woods, a private community — a legal corporation, actually — then you are also not familiar with the “Flotsam & Jetsam” race. Usually not found as separate words, like “Did you see that flotsam coming from the wreck of the S.S. Minnow?” or “We don’t need that chum; it’s soon to be jetsam,” flotsam and jetsam are basically the crap you see floating in the ocean, which could be the floating remnants of a sunk vessel or jettisoned rubbish, like styrofoam cups, which both float after a shipwreck and also form really effective jetsam. (In fact, white styrofoam cups are such effective flotsam AND jetsam that there should be an international campaign to replace all current flotsam and jetsam with white styrofoam cups. Preferably the white styrofoam cups that contained nasty coffee and had a brown plastic stir straw that was unintentionally and inevitably hit, knocking over said white styrofoam cup and spilling coffee onto table and splashing over “Jake,” the 250-pound boatswain who is likely to make you into flotsam and jetsam. (Again, please note: words used together, not separately.)

History of the Flotsam + Jetsam race at Point O’ Woods, Fire Island

I switched here to the use of the “+” between the two words, because the early logo contained a plus sign, signifying safety (like the red cross).

In fact, that was what the race was originally designed for: promoting ocean safety. I won’t go into too many details about its history, because an essay in a book on Point O’ Woods’ 100th anniversary describes it better. It describes it better, because its author was me after researching it extensively. I’m not that “me” anymore.

Over the years, men and women have competed to have their names engraved on the silver trophy. Top man, top woman and now, I assume “Top ___” (however one identifies). I am considering going back this summer and tell them I now identify as “The Flotsam + Jetsam Winner.”

Everyone else can go play tennis.

After the win

I won the race the first or second time I entered.

Of course, it wasn’t really a fair fight, since I was in my 20s and doing triathlons regularly. I was competing against, mostly Wall Street bond salesmen whose generous torsos made them ideal flotsam. (Shoot! There I go… I used one of the words by itself.)

The year I won, my main competitor was my mate, Dave. He had done more triathlons, was in better shape, and pretty much could beat me in any physical sport. The one thing I had on him was underhandedness.

When you swim, you can employ same- or alternate-side breathing. Same-side swimmers usually breathe on the fourth stroke. Alternate-side swimmers do so on the third stroke. This does a couple things: gives us more oxygen per four strokes and also helps us “steer” better in long distances where one doesn’t have the benefit of pool markings to look down at. Breaths every third stroke balance out our trajectory, but in either case you have to occasionally breathe and look directly ahead to confirm your bearings.

It also helps in one other manner. And this manner is also where underhandedness comes in.

Dave breathed on his right side only. I was an alternate-side breather.

So I allowed myself to trail just behind him, letting him set the pace and perhaps wear himself out. About 100 yards from the finish (as far as I could tell in an ocean setting and half-looking at Mr. Hawkins at the shore’s edge with an air horn to blow for the winner), I pulled up to Dave’s left side. His blind side. I was between Dave and the shore.

He may have looked over at me a bit later, but at that point, I’d pulled far enough ahead on his blind side that I crossed the finish line comfortably and heard the air horn.

For participating and completing the race, everyone got a cloth patch to sew onto one’s bathing suit: An “F+J” patch that, I must say, was quite an honor. It wasn’t one of today’s “everyone who plays tee ball gets a trophy.” It was “everyone who started and who I see coming out of the ocean after a mile–Congratulations for making it, here’s your patch.”

Deviled eggs and martinis

Up until perhaps the late 1970s, Point O’ Woods had a post-race tradition of all swimmers going back to the Main Beach and leisurely heading out to the sand bar — a little offshore and somewhat shallow at the time — and enjoying deviled eggs and martinis.

You read right.

Someone would bring a thermos or five of martinis, and someone else would bring some deviled eggs into the ocean to enjoy while standing on a sand bar.

This practice was ended some time before I became F+J club president in 1990. It didn’t end because I was sober (that happened only in 1994). Nor did it end because most Americans over the age of Cary Grant and cigarettes-after-sex not only didn’t eat deviled eggs but didn’t even know what deviled eggs were. It ended, my guess, due to a combination of other things.

It ended because the ocean bottom changed. The sandbar was largely eliminated, so that deviled egg eaters would have to place a half-egg with paprika into mouth, chew, breathe through nose and risk choking and drowning. People of the Cary Grant and cigarettes-after-sex generation certainly didn’t mind dying, of course. But they’d have rather died by a Kraut bullet at the Battle of the Bulge than a cooked egg white filled with mustard and mayonnaise. Cause of death? “Choked on soggy hors d’oeuvre.”

It ended also because younger people joining didn’t like martinis — this dislike, however, went through a renaissance in the 2000s, but by that time, young people no longer took swim lessons, so martinis were forever de-coupled from the Flotsam + Jetsam race — nor did they like deviled eggs, nor cigarettes-after-sex, which for some reason were considered harmful carcinogens. (Battle of the Bulge bullet is more harmful.) They had no idea who Cary Grant was.

Death by device

It ended because analog life was replaced by digital life.

Swimming is inherently analog: You can’t have a device with you while swimming, the exceptions being a cocktail glass, toothpick for olive, and two fingers to grab the egg, and that’s only after the formal swimming part. Swimming is inherently analog: You do it with friends; you swim on their blind side for the win and then the shoreline hug, when you hear: “You sly dog, you!” A tired but intimate smile.

You do it and focus on nothing but breathing and good technique.

You don’t even think about winning.

You don’t even think about martinis and deviled eggs.

You think, if you think at all, about swimming and swimming and swimming. And swimming some more.

“Untitled” – Conclusion [Part 8 of 8]

Child adoption stories are like winding Texas Hill Country roads. To enjoy them fully, you have to start at the beginning, after you exit the interstate.

If you’ve been riding along with me since Part 1, congratulations and thank you! Thank you for sticking with this and for reading about this aspect of my story, which is neither less nor more exciting than your story or that of the person next to you.

Each of us has an eternity inside daily. We just need to give it oxygen.

If you haven’t been riding along, here’s your chance to begin at the beginning:

Read Part 1 HERE. 2 HERE.HERE. 4 HERE. 5 HERE. 6 HERE. And 7 HERE.

And as I confessed yesterday: I know I told you it was going to be nine parts. I screwed up the sections. It will be eight. Today’s it. Tomorrow I’ll probably go back to talking about tomatillos.

Some names and identifying details have been changed
to protect anonymity.

The other day, I was reflecting on what COVID has most clearly prevented Barbara and me from doing: creating memories together.

We have no shared in-person experiences together except for a 3-hour lunch one day and a two-hour brunch the next. To be clear: both wonderful. Days I wouldn’t trade for anything. But in mid-March when I was to see her again and go on a hike not far from her home, instead of discovering new things together along the trail we would have walked, we called off the visit, agreeing that the health risks outweighed the possible benefits, especially since her husband is older than she.

Since then we’ve been relegated to talking about family background, sharing photos, and the like. If there’s a silver lining to having to FaceTime only, it’s that we’ve been able to spend a lot of time literally face to face talking and laughing rather than doing activities that might be distracting. At least I rationalize it that way during a time when everyone has been going through the same thing.

I’ve come to know my biological father, his wife, my mother and her husband (my “stepfather”). Each is a thoroughly enjoyable person, and I’m proud to be associated with each. Between the two families, I have four half-siblings and have met one of them. (Of course, I am the oldest child on both biological sides, which gives me an honor shared by few and known by fewer.)

I’ve talked with Bob’s sister a number of times and have corresponded with Lindsey, my biological half-cousin on Bob’s side. Through Bob and Barbara and the genealogies they send me, my family tree on is growing almost as many branches as my adopted family tree has, which I had traced back to the early 17th Century.

So: is the search worth the cost?

What of all of this? Does it always turn out the way my story has (so far)? Is it always advisable to search at all, and is it wise to search for more than fifty years, as I did?

If the end justifies the means, then in my case the answer is an unqualified yes. All the agonizing hours lying in bed wondering what she was like; the dreams of her that were more like nightmares upon waking; the conventional routes I pursued and crazy schemes I devised to find her (thankful I didn’t have to dress in brown UPS shorts); all the attempts and heartbreaking failures – those became mere vapor when I met my mother.

But what did this journey cost my wife, Karen? For nearly 25 years, she’d heard me complain about my fruitless attempts and watched me endlessly ponder what to do next. What time and attention did I divert from her to focus on a fantasy that may have remained so were it not for $59 and the internet?

What did this journey cost the two siblings who learned about me and have so far chosen not to meet me? What will it cost the other sibling who still doesn’t know about me? Or Barbara who, because of COVID, hasn’t been able to see her daughter to share the news in an appropriately safe and personal setting?

Something my adoption search and reunions have made undeniably clear is that my actions have profound consequences in others’ lives. And from what I hear from other adoptees, the outcome of my search has been ideal. Sometimes the newly established parent-child relationship is tense or even adversarial. Or the search concludes only for the adoptee to learn that the parent has passed away, leaving a blank avatar on the Ancestry family tree. In almost every case, reality doesn’t exceed expectations. In my case, which I have reason to believe is the exception, it did.

My advice to the adoptee who wants to search is this: don’t have expectations about the future, have gratitude for now. Don’t press forward so much; let go. Take each step intentionally, and balance your desire with responsibility toward others.

But ultimately: do it.

The truth is always better than any alternative.

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“Untitled” [Part 7 of 8]

Child adoption stories are like winding Texas Hill Country roads. To enjoy them fully, you have to start at the beginning.

So, first things first.

If you missed reading from the beginning of this series, you are encouraged — nay, exhorted — to go back and start with Part 1. If you start here with Part 7, I’ll look like a crappy writer, and you’ll go away very confused.

Neither of us wants that.

So if you’re in a rush, slow down. Skip work if you must. (Don’t tell your boss I told you to.)

And read Part 1 HERE. 2 HERE.HERE. 4 HERE. 5 HERE. And 6 HERE.

And… I know I told you it was going to be nine parts. I screwed up the sections. It will be eight. Final piece tomorrow!

Some names and identifying details have been changed
to protect anonymity.

[For now, my mother wishes to remain anonymous for family reasons.]

I met Barbara and Jim, her husband of 45 years, twice over the weekend of February 8-9, 2020. COVID prevented us from meeting a third time in mid-March when I was in their city again for work, and since then we’ve had only emails, phone calls and FaceTime.

We scheduled our first meeting by email. I hadn’t heard her voice before our lunch on February 8. I arrived at a golf course restaurant a half hour early to make sure I wasn’t late. As a career nonprofit fundraiser, I’ve had probably a thousand meetings at a restaurant, office or Starbucks, and I always arrive a little early, so that I don’t offend a potential donor. In more than two decades, I have never arrived a full 30 minutes early, even for the atypical handful of billionaires I’ve met. This wasn’t so much out of concern that I’d offend her, though that was true. It was more that I believed I might miss her if I was even five minutes late. Like she’d vanish.

Therefore I was the first to arrive and agreed for the hostess to go ahead and seat me at our table.

It was on a patio on a warm day. I looked around to take in all the details that I knew, correctly, I’d remember later. As I write this, I recall the putting green behind me, the warm touch of the sun, the chatter at adjacent tables on this Saturday. A standing propane heater repelled what little late winter breeze there was.

Before long, a blonde lady in a black blouse followed by a tall man in a sport coat – both of them quite distinguished-looking — emerged from the main building about forty feet away and started walking toward the table.

I can’t remember the very first words she and I spoke, if there were any, but after a hug, she stood back, twirled in place and said, “Well, now you’ve seen all of me!” And she laughed. If there’s one thing we can’t imagine about a stranger nor do we expect its rightful centrality, it’s their laugh. We imagine their look, their personality, their political or religious views, even how their voice might sound, but we never consider what it’s like when they laugh. At least I didn’t. Her laugh, which I enjoy as much during FaceTime calls now as I did in person, was the thing that perhaps made her more real than anything, even more real than how she looked, which had been the thing I’d been most curious about until that moment. Our laugh is a public declaration of how comfortable we feel in our body.

It’s not a stretch to wonder, though it’s bandied about so casually, “How might God sound when laughing?” Perhaps this is the deep mystery we all long to have answered. One we cannot solve ourselves.

As we ate lunch, she elaborated on her initial email to me. It had said that she was young, just starting college, had met a “very nice boy,” and got pregnant at a time when “society looked askance” on a single “girl” in this situation. With the support of her loving parents, she had written, and everyone in agreement that this was best, especially for the baby, she went to a home for unwed mothers. Jim had known from the beginning of their marriage about her secret. Over lunch, I now heard how hard it was when she learned she was pregnant. She couldn’t tell anyone. But she had a friend who’d been through this not long before, and this friend came alongside her and supported her during those early days. Even the more intimate parts of the adoption agency’s document I’d received in my 20’s had no real dimension to what she was describing about her life. I was getting to know her.

During the course of that first meal, we of course discussed how the internet connected us. She had intentionally avoided using one of the handful of DNA testing services because, she said not looking directly at me but with a somewhat quiet laugh, “I was worried you’d find me.” She didn’t need to explain. I immediately knew why she had had that concern and how it wasn’t her fault nor mine. American society in the ‘60’s and often even now shames unwed mothers. The same society not only doesn’t shame the man involved, but it often puts a feather in his cap. Her admission only made me more empathic. She was becoming more real by the minute.

As she recounted the months leading up to my birth, the day of my birth (when she corrected that important mistake in my agency document about being held by her), and her emotions in May 1963, her sapphire blue eyes grew misty and her voice shook. She found it hard to continue. Jim leaned over and gently touched her forearm. “Next time,” he said, “next time.”

In her first email to me, she had written, “When I received your letter with your loving message, it was like opening a door that I have kept closed for 56 years.” Jim had encouraged her to “keep the door open” about meeting me. Our lunch carried different emotional tones for each of us. She had felt shame at becoming pregnant; I had felt empty at being adopted. She had closed a door; I kept trying to open it. Meeting me required her to confront her secret; meeting her was a realization of my frequent and most significant life’s dream.

When it was time to say goodbye, we hugged. Jim and I hugged. Later that afternoon, she called and invited me to brunch the next day. I went to their home, a short walk from the Pacific Ocean. A few blocks away, in fact, was “where I began” in the summer of 1962.

Conclusion tomorrow…

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“Untitled” [Part 6 of 9]

Child adoption stories are like winding Texas Hill Country roads. To enjoy them fully, you have to start at the beginning.

So, first things first.

If you missed reading from the beginning of this series, you are encouraged — nay, exhorted — to go back and start from the beginning. If you start here, I’ll look like a crappy writer, and you’ll go away very confused.

Neither of us wants that.

So if you’re in a rush, slow down. Skip work if you must. (Don’t tell your boss I told you to.)

Read Part 1 HERE. Part 2 HERE. Part 3 HERE. Part 4 HERE. And Part 5 HERE.

Some names and identifying details have been changed
to protect anonymity.

I was able to locate an address that was connected to her name, though online information is often dated. Still, I sat on that information for a couple weeks. I knew how to contact her with a letter, but I didn’t know if I should contact her at all. Or, if I should, how would I write it in order to respect her privacy? Perhaps a husband or other family member, not knowing about me, would open the letter and this would cause a huge rift on her end. I spoke with a trusted friend, then prayed for three days, then decided that even if I never heard back from her, knowing she existed would be enough. The calm in knowing I could take a proactive step to reach her was enough. Nothing more was needed.

From that place of calm and peace I wrote to her, knowing that anything in return would be icing on the cake. There was a certain undeniable selfishness in my decision to write, of course, because anyone would be a little curious about meeting one’s birth mother, but the disruption on the other end would be completely unknowable.

After addressing her as Mrs. ___ (her married name, which I learned from the newspaper article), I wrote “My name is Howard Freeman, and the following information is confidential, so I hope you are in a place where you can have privacy.” I wanted her to be able to react privately to the contents. I outlined how I had first connected with my biological father, who offered to vouch for me if she had doubts about my intentions. With Bob’s permission, I included his phone and email.

Then I wrote, “If you are indeed my biological mother, I want to say first how grateful I am to you, how much I have always wanted to meet you, and how much I admire what you did in 1962-1963 to bring me into the world. You have been a ‘hero’ of mine, and that’s no exaggeration.” If she were to read this letter and not be able to or not want to meet, I wanted her to know that what she did was the “right” thing for me. I figured that she must have made peace with her decision in order to move on with her life, but if there was any remaining doubt, I wanted to dispel it. I was later to learn how shameful it was for an unmarried girl (she was 18) in the early ‘60s and from her social circle to go through what she did. I was her “secret,” which her immediate family never spoke about again.

After some brief family history and current family details, I gave her my contact information including my email address and opened the door for her to be in touch.

I concluded my letter with, “If you are not the right person, I want to sincerely apologize for what must come across as a bizarre intrusion. I am truly sorry.” Again, I wanted to protect her privacy if someone else read the letter. You never know someone’s situation. “Please know that I respect your decision either way, and if you are my biological mother and this is my only contact with you, please know that I have had nothing but love for you — always have, always will.”

I signed it “With deep affection, Howard Freeman.” I had wanted to say, “Love, Howard,” but that seemed miles away from where we were in a relationship that was both real yet unrealized. I put a stamp on the letter, wrote “Private and Confidential” in the lower left corner, and mailed it. When the letter left my fingertips on December 11, 2019 — an act within my control — I knew that the next step was out of my control. She’d get the letter or she wouldn’t. She’d read it or she wouldn’t. She’d respond or she wouldn’t. While these outcomes were out of my control, it was a different feeling than what I experienced as a child having no control whatever. These now were intentional moves. Surrendering to the unknown consequences of a well-considered action is different than the self-imposed powerlessness of obsession. I felt strangely peaceful.

I counted the days it must have taken for my letter to arrive on her end. I allowed for a few days for her to react, perhaps some more time for her to consider or discuss with family, and then on December 18, a Wednesday shortly after Noon, I was checking my personal email and saw a message that had the subject header “Life” and which had this first sentence: “Dear Howard, Yes, I am your birth mother.”

The feeling upon reading, “Yes, I am your birth mother” can be described only with words we reserve for music we hear that transports us, or a sunset that makes us pause with awe and wonder, or seeing one’s first-born child come into the world, especially looking into the eyes of my first son in 1999, since he was the only blood relative I’d ever met. Reading those opening words was sublime, ineffable. Yet, strangely, they were also normal. They made sense. They grounded me while also freeing me. Yet as extraordinary as those words were, they’d be eclipsed soon by meeting her.

Continued HERE

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“Untitled” [Part 5 of 9]

Child adoption stories are like winding Texas Hill Country roads. To enjoy them fully, you have to start at the beginning.

So, first things first.

If you missed reading from the beginning of this series, you are encouraged — nay, exhorted — to go back and start from the beginning. If you start here, I’ll look like a crappy writer, and you’ll go away very confused.

Neither of us wants that.

So if you’re in a rush, slow down. Skip work if you must. (Don’t tell your boss I told you to.)

Read Part 1 HERE. Part 2 HERE. Part 3 HERE. And Part 4 HERE.

Some names and identifying details have been changed
to protect anonymity.

Thirty minutes later, I got a call. The name Bob Lewis appeared over the number I had added to my Contacts list. I let it ring perhaps four times, petrified, and then let it go to voice mail. Don’t ask me why; perhaps more fear about theory becoming reality. I immediately listened to the message, which started out, “Well, Howard,” and he laughed — it sounded winsomely conspiratorial — “be careful of what you wish for…” and he left a light-hearted but respectful voice mail. As I’ve pleasantly come to know, he laughs easily and also has a serious, intense side. Intensity, I’ve learned, is genetic.

I walked from our house to a pond nearby. It was a warm morning for November, and I paced a few times before taking a deep breath. (It’s true what they say about taking a deep breath before doing something difficult.) I tapped on his number and heard the ringing on his end.

He answered and, knowing my number and that it was me, said something like, “Hey, hey, Howard!” While I can’t recall the exact words, I remember that the tone between us was warm, even intimate, and easy-going. The connection was instant. While I hadn’t really considered him as much over the years as I had my mother – I had no ill will toward him at all; I merely didn’t have the same mystical or physical connection with him as I had with her; I have since learned that mothers and sons, in particular, have a very special bond — he immediately took on height, width and depth when before he was but a shadow.

We found ourselves laughing, sharing information back and forth, finding commonalities and generally just enjoying each other not only as blood relatives but also as two men who had more in common now than an hour earlier.

Toward the end of the hour, I said, “Oh, Bob. I almost forgot to mention, I know my name at birth. It was ‘Robert Doyle Macey’.” He paused and then exclaimed, “Bingo!” That word, bingo, opened up the path to meeting my mother.

Bob had been reluctant to share even one of the very few details about her that he remembered from decades ago, and while the remaining part of our morning conversation is murky in my memory, I was able finally to find her through an internet search. Her maiden name was Barbara Doyle Macey. I had Robert Lewis’s first name, and her middle and family name.

When I saw the first photo of her, from 2015 in an article in her town’s local newspaper, I sat back in my chair. I had been able to answer the question, the superficial yet all-important one, that had been foremost on my mind since I was five. “What does she look like?” She was indeed beautiful, as I’d been told. More than that, though, this was my mother.

As much as I knew over the years that out there somewhere was a woman who had carried me nine months and given me life, a woman who had felt unable to care for me yet wanted me to have a good upbringing, a woman who might or might not still be alive or, if alive, might not want to see me, this was documented proof that she existed. I knew of course that I had a mother – I hear it’s rare that one doesn’t have one – but it didn’t become real until I saw her photo.

I wept.

I had built and fortified years of emotional walls and barriers. With that photo, those all came crashing down.

Continued here…

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resistance bands

“Untitled” [Part 4 of 9]

Child adoption stories are like winding Hill Country roads. To enjoy them fully, you have to start at the beginning.

So, first things first.

If you missed reading from the beginning of this series, you are encouraged — nay, exhorted — to go back and start from the beginning. If you start here, I’ll look like a crappy writer, and you’ll go away very confused.

Neither of us wants that.

So if you’re in a rush, slow down. Skip work if you must. (Don’t tell your boss I told you to.)

Read Part 1 HERE. Part 2 HERE. And Part 3 HERE.

Some names and identifying details have been changed
to protect anonymity.

I knew that first cousins share a grandfather in common and second cousins share a great-grandfather, so I felt let down when my AncestryDNA results came back with only a handful of third cousins, a good many fourth cousins, and countless “distant” relatives. (Aren’t we all “distant relatives”?) I knew only my name at birth and neither my mother’s full name nor my biological father’s name at all. My family tree was a stump. Nevertheless, the information was interesting, and it was real, and that wasn’t nothing.

There was the short-lived novelty of learning that in addition to the expected Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian roots (outlined by the adoption agency), I also was one-eighth Eastern European. I fashioned that I was part Jewish, because it was so different from my obvious “WASP” look, and because since childhood I have resonated with Jewish literature, thought, and culture. I later learned that on my biological father’s side that I am indeed part Polish Jew.

I logged on to the Ancestry site perhaps two or three times over the next few years. A few more third cousins surfaced.

And then, in October 2019, I logged on and saw an alert box on the home screen that said, “New matches found.” Underneath the alert were two names: [these and other names below have been changed] Robert Lewis and Mark Lewis, and the header over Robert’s name said, “Close match: parent/child.” Robert had been my first name at birth. I knew that I had no other children than my three sons, so I was fairly certain that this Robert was my birth father.

I decided immediately to send an in-app message to him: “Robert, I believe I may be your biological son. I was born as Robert Doyle Macey on May 17, 1963 in New York City.” I sent a similar message to Mark, who appeared to be Robert’s brother. In both messages, I included my email address.

Several weeks passed. Nothing.

On November 15, 2019, I was in a taxi to JFK Airport to return home from a business trip and checked my email. My work email had nothing important. But in my personal email I found a message that started, “I just got off the phone with my sister Margaret who gave me the pleasant surprise about your identity, via niece Lindsey ___.  I absolutely look forward to establishing a relationship with you. Let me say that when I did the swab maybe three years ago, I don’t recall any relatives, close or distant, coming up. Had I seen any info about you, I would have gladly tried to make contact then.” His note continued and was signed, “Bob Lewis.”

We had done the DNA swabs probably within weeks of each other in 2016, but the test results didn’t cross. Looking back, it was a helpful waiting period, when a certain surrender had come over me. Bob was my biological father. This was great news in and of itself but, as I was to learn from the rest of his email, it didn’t connect me to my mother. Each of them got married to other people, and while they lived in the same major West Coast city he said he hadn’t seen her in decades.

Arriving at JFK and going through airport security allowed me some time to let the news sink in. I then called my wife, my brother, and my best friend Dave to share the news. Dave had been the one I plotted with to show up at my mother’s home disguised as UPS deliverymen. In his email Bob offered to get in touch with me if I chose and gave me his phone number. I arrived home that night and didn’t do anything until the next morning. I was thrilled but terrified. After decades of life, I had learned that expectations breed disappointment. I emailed him back and asked for confirmation of certain details so I would know that he was in fact my biological father.

It took me a few minutes to decide whether to leave my email signature block on my note. It had my phone number. You know how with some emails you wait forever before clicking “SEND”?

This was one of those emails.

Continued HERE…

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Fredericksburg Farms Gifts

“Untitled” [Part 3 of 9]

Child adoption stories are like windy Hill Country roads. To enjoy them fully, you have to start at the beginning.

So, first things first.

If you missed reading from the beginning of this series, you are encouraged — nay, exhorted — to go back and start from the beginning. If you start here, I’ll look like a crappy writer, and you’ll go away very confused.

Neither of us wants that.

So if you’re in a rush, slow down. Skip work if you must. (Don’t tell your boss I told you to.)

And read Part 1 HERE. And Part 2 HERE.

Some names and identifying details have been changed
to protect anonymity.

PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3

Three decades passed, and the closest I got to meeting her was finding someone I thought was my maternal grandfather. He had the same last name as I had at birth, he was military, and Mom found a wedding notice that she thought was about my biological aunt. After trying to contact him by mail, I received a gracious letter saying he was not the man I thought he was. And in the Small World category, I recently learned that my real paternal grandfather had the same name as another man (not the one I wrote to), born four months apart from each other, both graduating from Annapolis, and both decorated naval aviators in the Pacific Theater in WWII.

I tried traditional search methods to find her: I looked into an adoptee group for help and guidance, but I found it depressing and filled with angry people. I added my name to New York State’s Adoption Registry:

In a word: bullshit

New York at that time had closed adoptions, and both parties needed to register to find each other; apparently, she hadn’t. I considered hiring a private detective agency. Too expensive. I also considered unconventional methods, including faking my way into the birth records archives of the hospital where I was born or even into the NYC Department of Health, where I might find my original birth certificate. Arrest for trespassing and theft seemed like a small price to pay.

(The plot of being UPS deliverymen with my best friend Dave, mentioned in Part 2, had been 86’ed long before.)

My “longing” became something that could be described better as desperation. It wasn’t healthy, and my grand search occasionally robbed my wife of my attention. I ran into one wall after another, and at a certain point found myself thinking, “This isn’t fair.” I had become more like those angry adoptees I had previously looked down on.

In 2012, however, AncestryDNA was launched in the United States. This ultimately gave me the second of the two pieces of information I needed to complete my search, the first piece being my full name at birth that Mom had told me.

I had started an account a few years back – another fruitless attempt – and while I’d heard about genetic testing and its availability to the general public, I don’t recall why I waited four years before using it. Perhaps its advertised promise of finding relatives made me terrified of actually meeting her or knowing more about my birth.

My childhood had been great.

So, while the “truth” seemed attractive in theory, would the truth be as attractive when encountered?

What New York State and a number of people kept secret for decades was soon uncovered with $59 and a cotton swab.

Part 4 tomorrow…

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