After finding and making contact with my biological Father, we start retracing our steps, filling in the most important days of our respective lives. He remembers my Mother, recalling a brief relationship and that she simply disappeared one day. I know that she had gone home to her boyfriend and child California, unaware that she was carrying a baby within her.
Five years later, Joe bumped into my Mother at a café with me in tow. Standing beside her, I had a petite, heart shaped face and a button nose. Thick, dark hair cascaded down my back, and my bare feet were dirty from the city sidewalk. “Is she mine?” he would ask. “No, someone else,” my Mother replied, believing her answer to be honest. Thirty years later, he would send me pictures from his own childhood, and I would understand his question – the resemblance is remarkable.
Joe and I begin a series of video calls in which we attempt to reconcile a 34 year absence. Our calls are brief, each ending with him saying “I’m tired, have to go,” before his face would disappear abruptly from my screen. I leave each conversation uncertain of our coordinates.
Joe is generous with information, and recalls a litany of dates, locations, names, and occupations. He sends photos of my ancestors birth certificates, portraits, and causes of death. He is a treasure trove of historical information. He tells me how my Great-Grandfather immigrated from the border of Syria and Lebanon. My ancestors had an olive farm, and I image an orchard of twisting trees stretching across arid land with rolling hills and mountains in the distance. My Great-Grandfather returned to his home and brought back a bride and I am reminded of my mother-in-law telling me how her displaced ancestors would look for other Armenians when it came time to marry. The importance of preserving one’s culture seems to be universal.
Joe recites his work history- it is long, varied, and occasionally sketchy. It seems he has an entrepreneurial spirit, if not always a man of convention. He has been married twice, both unions were brief and ended in divorce. He fathered 4 children (including me) each with a separate mother. My siblings wonder out loud how many more siblings we have.
I ask him if he wants to see his Grandchildren, a phrase that feels foreign. I wonder if I should refer to them as “my children.” He answers in the affirmative and I hold up the phone, trying to capture each child as they orbit around the room, oblivious to the fact that they are seeing their biological Grandfather for the first time. He calls them beautiful.
When it is time to tell him my own story, I feel a twinge of sorrow for what I’m about to tell him. For a brief moment, I consider telling him one of my childhood daydreams- that I’d grown up with 2 parents in a big rectangular house on a tree-lined street. Instead, I tell him the truth; the same story I’ve told over and over in an attempt to prove to myself that there is no shame in where I come from.
Just after he saw me in that small café, my Mother married a warm-hearted, long-bearded biker who owned a small construction company. They would combine their children to make a family of 5. We enjoyed a brief period of familial happiness before he died of an electrical accident in the front yard, us kids watching out the picture window, our arms slung over the sofa. His death created a fissure in our lives, each of us tumbling down toward the abyss, away from our one bedroom home. We would never again share the same roof.
I entered foster care at the age of six, my Mother kissing me in front of a police car, pressing a backpack into my hands with 3 days worth of clothes, promising that I would come home in just a few days. I would remain in foster care for 12 years.
My first foster family was an ill-tempered older couple that could only offer dated boys clothing and spankings with Ping-Pong rackets. After seven months of hiding in the basement living room, watching cartoons, I was moved away from that small house in the city to a house at the end of a long dusty driveway.
Situated on a farm in the country, the two-story civil war era farmhouse housed a retired farmer and his wife, who’s weathered and knotted hands had soothed the hearts of countless children before me. Love was their native language and it was under their care that I blossomed from a withdrawn, frightened child into a bubbling chatterbox with an insatiable curiosity. It was here that I learned to climb hay bales, make crowns out of weeping willow branches, and snap greens beans on a bench swing that hung in the shade of a sprawling walnut tree. This respite was my redeeming grace that would define the trajectory of my life. For reasons that were never made clear to me, I was pulled away from this home after 4 years.
At the age of eleven, I was moved to my final foster home with a newly married couple in their early 30’s and their 6 month old baby girl. We fused together into a family unit and they welcomed home a baby boy 2 years later. My foster father was an avid outdoorsman, so our summers were spent camping, kayaking, and biking through Northern Michigan. They became my official family, cheering me though braces and glasses, and later diplomas and a cross country move. My foster mom died of cancer when I was 24, her loss a great injustice as I was eager to show her how all her hard work was finally paying off. I missed her terribly as we planned a wedding, brought home a puppy, and later our first child. My eyes fill with tears when I think of how much she would have enjoyed baking pies and sewing Halloween costumes with her grandchildren. Although we had suffered a terrible blow, our family remains unbroken to this day. My foster Father is Grandpa to my children, when he comes to visit they tumble around the living room, exuberant and laughing.
As I finish explaining where I’ve been all these years, he says “I’m so terribly sorry,” and I believe he is. Hearing that his child had been separated from her mother and scattered to the wind must have stung. Joe was never given the opportunity to right the wrongs of my childhood, nor do I know that he could have.
After an initial series of calls, we sometimes go weeks on end without communicating. When we first made contact, he had confessed he wasn’t very good at maintaining relationships. I would procrastinate on reaching out, never certain what to say when his slim crinkled face appeared in the palm of my hand. My husband would push me out of my comfort zone, insisting I call, and pestering me when I didn’t. “You can’t just appear in someone’s life and then leave again,” he would remind me.
Then one day, out of the blue, a message appeared on my screen from Joe. “I’m going to Newfoundland for the final burial of my mother’s ashes. I would like you to come with me. It’s next Tuesday.”