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Travels with the Blue Bicycle
Or, What is Mine?
Thank you for being here! I confess I haven’t ridden a bicycle for twenty years. Until my teens, I spent many carefree hours cruising. In my twenties, I had no bicycle. In our thirties, my husband and I biked on vacations in Cape May. A cerebral hemorrhage stopped it, but I remember well the freedom and sunny joy of biking.
On a Saturday near my sixth birthday, September 1957, Daddy and I went shopping. In the bicycle department at Sears Roebuck in Victoria, he points to a blue 26-inch J.C. Higgins cruiser he saw in the catalog. "Here’s the one we’ll get. Do you like it?” “Yes!” I nod and clap gleefully. “I can ride it, Daddy!” The purple tricycle I pedaled up and down the sidewalk at Nana's New Jersey home was nothing like this grown-up bike. Besides, it was passed to a younger cousin. This blue bicycle is a great birthday present!
Dad, an Air Force Captain, is not home much, so it’s a special time when we go out alone. My mother said, “I stay away from bicycles. When I was your age, I fell off one when a dog chased me on the dirt road.” Dad hoists the bicycle and a brace of training wheels into the ample trunk of our green Buick Special.
On the driveway at our rented brick ranch duplex several miles from Foster Air Force Base, I stand astride my new blue bicycle. Dad adjusts the seat, handlebars, pedals, and training wheels.
“OK, go ahead--start pedaling—slowly.” He walks beside me.
I feel strong, and push my long legs down—right, then left. My slender fingers are wrapped around the white handlebar grips, and my arms flexed to steer on the sidewalk. We don’t know our neighbors yet, and the tall pecan tree on their lawn looks far away. Beyond their driveway lies unfamiliar terrain.
“Stop here,” Dad says. He helps me off, reversing my bike. This time, the wobble of the training wheels frustrates me. “I don’t need them! I can’t turn! I can only go straight!” Back in the driveway, he agrees to take off the silly little wheels.
When his hand is flat on the rear rack, I pick up speed, and he trots beside me. I trust him not to let go until the right time. He coaches me, and I laugh into the breeze.
“Hold the grips tight, keep the handlebars straight! Now turn a little to the left--to the right! Steer! Keep pedaling!”
I have it! The moment he lets me go is imprinted on me. I’m ready to fly!
During our second summer in Alexandria, we left another brick duplex rental on Dennis Street and moved into a modern mid-century on-base with central air conditioning. I cried and moped for days. On Dennis Street, I was free to ride my bike through the whole neighborhood, beyond the big, grassy chain-link fenced yard. With fellow buckaroo wildlings wearing chaps and pistols, we breached boundaries of tangled privet and honeysuckle.
I grieved to leave Saint Frances Cabrini's second grade and girlfriends from Brownies. But my blue bicycle came with us and so did our Fox Terrier, Rascals. Through my tears, I saw opportunities for adventure in the Officer’s Housing complex at England Air Force Base. I discovered the expanse of tall, cool grass, sweet clover, and pink poppy mallow behind our unit, 4009A Schilling Drive. Soon, I was running and riding with other Air Force kids. My usual companions were boys who collected uniform patches, popped tar bubbles in the gutter, picked up stones, and rode bikes.
Beyond the grass out back was a shallow swale; a drainage ditch where tadpoles appeared after rain. There probably were snakes — I once felt the fire ants. Across the verge were wild roses, and we ventured into the wide-open, scrubby field. Once part of a cattle ranch, it was now under a bomber flight path. Jets came out of nowhere, blasting our ears with sonic booms.
Eight and in third grade, I piled in with other “brats” and rode the bus to Our Lady of Prompt Succor. After school, I was a cowgirl with a bike for a horse, riding like a ruffian on the wide asphalt range. I crashed when I cut a curve too quickly or hit a curb. But the smart sting of screaming scrapes couldn’t keep me from my beloved blue bike. Hands, knees, and elbows took the brunt. The ouches of abrasions brought mom’s iridescent Mercurochrome in its ominous brown bottle; the gauze, and adhesive tape when Band-Aids weren’t enough. I’d be back aboard, the hot breeze drying my tears.
One evening, Dad fastened a bulky lamp with a battery pack and a rude buzzer to my bike’s handlebars. The loose wires distressed me, and I quickly lost my balance and fell over. I howled, frustrated and furious, and fiercely kicked the heavy lamp as it lay sideways on the sidewalk. Hearing my wail, Dad came out and chided me, releasing the clumsy lamp. He only meant to keep me safe, he might have said it as he took it away. Like the training wheels, I never saw the lamp again.
“Dad's work is hard”, Mom said when I asked her about his headaches that become more frequent. After family Rosary, he went to bed with a cold washcloth on his forehead and closed their door. He had a bottle of white pills he called Cafergot. It troubled me that he was sick and in pain.
I often worried about getting sick. There were nights when I trembled, sometimes bringing on nausea. Mom didn’t know how to calm and console me. She didn't believe in babying me, but a hug might have helped.
My father got angry when I back-talked Mom or slammed the screen door. He threatened and yelled, “Don’t make me take my belt off!” But sometimes it was too late, and it flew, buckle and strap. I showed the raised welts on my arm to curious classmates in the schoolyard. “See what my dad did?” They asked me, “What did you do?” and didn't finish to deserve that, my answer was both matter-of-fact and sad, “They’re not my real parents. I’m adopted.” They asked, “What’s that?” I answered them with what Dad told me at age six: “I was born in South Carolina, and had nobody. So they gave me a home to love me.” The story made me sad, but also angry at the pain from his hand or belt and that he loved me anyway.
My blue bicycle made me feel free. I could ride off in my tooled leather yellow cowgirl boots and cowgirl hat, with my double holster and six guns, and a supply of caps to boost my power.
Dad’s transfer north put us back at our “permanent home” in New Jersey for Christmas when I was nine. He’d bought the brick and cedar raised ranch in 1954 to be my mother’s parent’s home, and our “home base”. We stayed in the place of my heart with Nana and Granddaddy for summers, holidays, and between his assignments. We usually drove but sometimes flew into Idlewild. December 1960 Dad drove us north from Louisiana, the birth state of my adopted baby sister, for the last time.
In January, the moving van arrived. “My bike is here!” It stood on the driveway for the first time, and I'd soon be riding it around our suburban neighborhood.
The split in fourth grade was sudden. I'm not sure I knew it was coming. But after the movers came, I was in a familiar school with nuns, church, and classmates who seemed to also remember me from kindergarten. When the weather warmed, I took my bicycle to school, and in the safe routine and predictability of blue serge jumpers, blue beanies, white shirts, and blue bow-ties, I thrived.
It was a mile to Ascension School. The route was: up the block on Asbury Street to the stop sign, right onto Hoffman Avenue half a block to the crosswalk, and left onto Berkeley Street by the elementary school. Then around Faller Circle to Ridge Avenue, right onto the short block of Carnation Drive, and into the school and church parking lot. I was proud to stand my blue bike among the others on the rack.
I clutched the cordovan leather bookbag Dad gave me for Christmas in my left hand, and it swung back and forth, while I steered with my right hand. The soft-spoken, lanky, retired policeman crossing guard at the corner of Hoffman and Berkeley was concerned. He told me that the awkward way I swung my book bag while riding worried him, and it might interfere with my balance and steering. “I’d like to make a hanger to hold it on the handlebars,” he offered. “I think I have some metal to form it in my garage.”
“Okay, thanks!” I said to my new friend, “That will be good.”
I walked my bike with him across Berkeley Street and rode off to school. The following morning, he held up the leaden double hook. “Here it is. I hope it works.” He explained how he had bent and shaped the thick pliant metal, then he attached it between the handlebars in the place my dad had mounted the safety lamp and buzzer and took off when I pitched a fit. The crossing guard hung my satchel by its leather handles, then stood back to admire his craft work, and his kind contribution to a school girl's safety. “Perfect!” he said, and I thanked him.
As usual, after school that day, I walked my bicycle into the back of the garage, put the kickstand down, and went into the kitchen. I mentioned my new book bag hanger to Nana and Mom; and how the crossing guard made it for me, but I didn’t tell Dad about it at dinner. I didn't know how he would react to someone outside the family doing something for me. He didn't like it if I was too friendly or familiar with an adult — even a neighbor or a friend's parent. It was disrespectful, he said, to talk to adults using their first names, or an affectionate nickname. Maybe because we never got to know people well — never stayed in one place for long.
My braids bounced as the spring breeze streamed me to and from fourth grade. The hanger disappeared without a mention when the school year ended. Six months had passed and it was time for another change.
June 15th, 1961, we flew out of Idlewild to San Francisco. A day or two later we were in a Pan-American jet over the Pacific Ocean, en route to Tokyo. I was happy in my blue checked shirtwaist dress, sky blue and white saddle shoes, and tan trenchcoat. Mom had braided my light brown hair into pigtails with blue bows. After take-off in Honolulu, I put my new blue-banded Cinderella watch, a goodbye gift from my Godmother, into the seat pocket in front of Mom. Absorbed in freehand pencil drawings of Tom and Jerry coloring book outlines. In the airport taxi, I realized I’d left my watch in the seat pocket, and that I'd never see it again. I couldn’t quite comprehend that three years would go by before I'd see my grandparents.
In the gated American military housing complex called Washington Heights, in the center of downtown Tokyo, grassy courts were surrounded by beige government-issue quarters. My parents made our two-story home comfortable with a few familiar furniture pieces shipped from New York into Yokohama and with items from “Supply” such as a dining room table and chairs, beds, and dressers. My piano was left in New Jersey, but I soon got one from a family who was returning to the States.
I was relieved to see my dolls and my blue bicycle. Open spaces, wide streets, sidewalks, flowering trees, and evergreens -- the grounds were park-like. Near our quadriplex court, lawns and a wide slope down to a grove gave me room to roam by foot or bike. I rode between and around roots, moss, and boulders. In summer, under a dappled light domed canopy, and bare chiaroscuro of black oak branches in winter. Cicadas slipped their shells, gripping their claws onto rough bark, and I wore the papery skins on my shirt like a badge of warning. I was a druid in this forest fragment that spilled over the fieldstone wall, separating Washington Heights from a hundred acres of evergreens in Meiji Shrine's inner gardens. The wall banked and bordered my sanctuary.
In June 1963, Dad announced we’d be relocating northwest of Tokyo to Johnson Air Force Base housing. Washington Heights was to be torn down for the 1964 Summer Olympics. It was a huge shock to me. I attended an international school in the fifth and sixth grades in Shibuya, Tokyo. Sacred Heart had nurtured me like a family.
Change of schools and loss of friends is the way it goes in military family life. Wise and understanding parents support their children through their fears and separations. Such losses were never discussed with me. My parents were duty-bound to build and shape my character, to urge rigor, and to make me resilient in the face of change--as they must be -- their strict rigidity amplified by post-wartime courage and religious piety.
But as an adopted child, I didn't put together what loss meant to me, or that my anxiety stemmed from the trauma of infant-maternal severance and the primal fear of abandonment.
One early June Saturday, at the end of our tour in Japan, Dad said, “I’m going to paint your bike to get rid of these scratches. I’ll clean it up before it goes on the boat.” He lifted it onto the grass from its spot at the side of the house and put down the kickstand. He covered the seat with newspaper and masking tape. I sat on the top step of the front stoop, a safe distance from the coming spray. He shook the aerosol can and aimed a fan of blue at my six-year-old bike. He shook it again, the beads clacking in the can, and sprayed an even coat over my bike’s body. One stab, a brief pang of regret, and I was resigned to the new light blue finish; my bike’s original white markings were deleted with the scratches and scrapes.
Erasure. At twelve, I couldn’t begin to fathom what adults’ denial of my origins meant to me as an adoptee — that my natural heritage, my identity had been usurped; erased, and effaced by the sealing of my birth records, and by closed adoption law.
Dad stood back, pleased, and asked “What do you think?” “Nice, thank you, Dad,” learning nothing lasts. He took off the protective newspaper and walked my bike to the street. I felt sure he’d never ridden my bicycle, but he took it for a spin in the sun to dry it, making a few tight turns. I grinned back at his grin, and his plaid shorts, calf-length white socks, and his old paint-splashed black oxfords. Did he have a bike growing up in New York City? He hadn’t told me, and I never asked.
New Jersey, Again.
Back in the States, my eighth-grade girlfriends and I walk a few miles back and forth to shop for records at Two-Guys, or we take the bus to E.J. Korvettes and the Bergen Mall. At thirteen and fourteen, we exert new freedom by walking some distance from our homes, always alert for boys.
My little sister, Julie, rides a bike with a banana seat. Older kids have three-speeds or ten-speeds. I’d rather avoid the teasing I’d get for riding my blue cruiser with its manual brakes.
One summer day in 1966, I check on it--consider riding it--but it’s not on its kick-stand at the back of the garage. My heart sinks, and I run to the kitchen door and call out, “Mom! Where’s my bike? It’s gone!”
“Your father brought it over to Johnny.” She’s as matter-of-fact as the time she told me my fox terrier, Rascals, was put to sleep because of an ear infection when they were preparing for our trip to Japan. I'd retreated in grief to the basement, where my friend's brush and an old collar were kept, and sat on the floor in tears.
“Why? Why didn’t he tell me?” My heart ached.
“He gave it to Johnny for the kids. You weren’t using it anymore,” Mom is never apologetic.
Without talking to me about it? Behind my back?
Our 1953 Buick Special was now owned by the cousins. He had given it to them, too; the large family he felt was less fortunate, without so much as a warning. We had taken it north and south all those years, shipped it to Japan, and rumbled in it down the narrow streets of Tokyo.
As I cry in the back of the garage, it occurs to me Dad had the right to do what he wanted with his car. But what about my bike? The pang of loss grips me as I realize I have no claim to anything. My salty, bitter tears are resentment and anger. But I can’t articulate, as an adolescent, my sense of disconnection, severance, and loss. That I’m cheated out of what is mine. What is mine, after all?
Note: A version of this essay was published in a 3-part serial in True Stories Well Told in May 2022. Thanks to Sarah White.
The Bookends Review published the first version in February 2018.
by Mary Ellen Gambutti
Travel across the years in this unique hybrid collage memoir, I Must Have Wandered. Rendered in personal letters, lyrical prose, fragments, and photos, these stories begin with an imaginative framing of a woman's post-World War II South Carolina infant relinquishment and her subsequent closed adoption by an Air Force couple. The stressors of family separations and transience frustrate her 1950s early childhood. Her father's demands for model behavior and religious piety deepen the complex trauma of her primal abandonment. The culture of confidentiality around an Intelligence officer's career strains their relationship as she comes of age amid the heightened anxiety of the turbulent 1960s.
Identity bewilderment and low self-esteem threaten her choices and decisions, until the need to know her origins surfaces. With the help of adoptee advocates, she breaks the sealed record barrier, launching, at forty, a records search for her natural mother. Decades later, she embarks on a parallel journey of self-discovery with DNA, reconciling the loss and privilege of her adopted life with triumph when she gains the wealth of her family and her true heritage.
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