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How I Remember
Two years of anticipation have ended this October 1993 afternoon with my flight from Allentown to Spartanburg. The nervous and anxious bumps of my search are over. At the bottom of the escalator to the baggage carousel, I recognize my half-sister, Karen, though we've never met. She waves, girlish and grinning, and though her sneakers are firmly grounded, she bounces with excitement. Smiling broadly next to her are an adolescent as big as a man, and a slim young woman, and Karen introduces two of her three children, Josh and Barbara. We don't delay our hugs another moment. It's like we've known each other all our lives.
"And this is Momma!”
Leila's face and form – the woman who gave me life. We're both five-foot-seven, but her frame is bulky; her skin is wan, while I'm sturdy and lean. Tan from the garden. Her short, greying hair is tousled. Mine is short, straight, and tinted auburn. Her flaccid cheeks are weary with poor health, and early old age. She has risen to meet me with her walker -- her wheelchair waits nearby.
This reunion, with all its angst and euphoria, barred by South Carolina adoption law, was facilitated by a record breach. When we first spoke by phone several months earlier, the mother who didn't raise me said she'd always wondered, and were it not for my persistence, it would not have come about. Now at forty-one and sixty-seven, related and severed — separate, we come together from across two worlds.
May I call you what Karen calls you? I wonder, but don't hesitate.
“Hello, Momma! So good to see you!”
Do you recognize me as your daughter? Accept me as family? Do I remind you of the man who fathered me? My mind and heart are racing. I need to know something of that early September 1951 morning when we were last together. But this is not the time to ask if you held me before the sister of Saint Francis swaddled me and carried me off -- a ward of Catholic Charities and the State -- to be put on the market for adoption by a childless couple with the prospect of a good life, a year later to be erased of my origins, my name, and all traces of you, Leila? Your eyes are moist and puffy. Your face flushed with some unknowable emotion. Is it a flood of recollection or regret, or a pang of pride, or pain? Confusion from a life hard lived? Do you feel a thud in your chest, the one I feel, the gene of angst we share?
This mother who didn't raise me yields to my warmth and murmurs something meant only for the gods. Can we be happy?
©️Mary Ellen Gambutti 2023
Note: Versions of this piece have been published in literary mags, as well as in my memoir, I Must Have Wandered: An Adopted Air Force Daughter Recalls.
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