It was the moment they said, we picked you, that I knew they had not. They thought they had to say it. They knew they shouldn’t. I was the next gumball down the chute. You put in your nickel, move the lever and wait. Actually it wasn’t quite like that. If you don’t like the color or flavor of gumball, you throw it out or give it to someone else. Spend another nickel, simple. In adoption, there was no do over. In my case as well. Well there was, actually, but if you give one back, you don’t get another unless there was a really big and hidden problem. Read the fine print, the lawyers say, adoptees come with no warranty, and you take us as is. You wouldn’t buy a car that way, would you.
First Proposition: You were put up
for adoption because your birth
parents couldn’t or didn’t want to raise you.
Second Proposition: We or I adopted you
because I wanted you and not another
and to give you the good life you deserved.
Argument: Given all of the possible
alternatives, you ought to be thankful
that we saved you from that other life.
First Fallacy: My birth mother feared
rejection for getting pregnant but would
have been a loving, educated parent.
Second Fallacy: My adoptive mother
had two children with her second husband
after they married, her children at last.
Opinion: You will he told that you are
one of the family, a coequal part inseparable
from and of the others, and the same.
Fact: You were made an orphan and
always will be one, and the best you can
hope for is to be just like family, a simile
that you know will always be a transparent
wall that you can never hope to climb
and which keeps you always separate.
Name, rank, branch
of service, dates.
One New Jersey, one
Virginia, both Bittle
An email from
another Bittle, never
knew my father
but his was
William, and in
James Owen became
a father yet again
and I complete.
And later still
a single picture
he in the back
row and the mirror
agrees that we
are truly family.
I have two mothers, now both dead,
I have three fathers, one unknown, one buried
outside Washington and one lost
in a corner of his shrinking mind.
I am growing older, I have aches
and clicks and pops and groans,
which each remind me that I
am aware and alive and that
isn’t a bad way to start a new day.
I’d like you to tell me
about the village in which
you grew up, and how odd
it must have been for you
to have met my grandfather
so far from any village
in the heart of Lithuania.
I suspect you left
with your parents, exhausted
by pogroms, exhausted
by the Jewishness
that to them defined you.
I’d love to know
about my mother who
I never got to meet,
of your eight children,
but like you, she
is silent and all
I have left
is a small photo
and a volume
of imagined memories.
I always imagined it would somehow
be romantic, not in the Hollywood sort of way,
but in an idyllic, picturesque manner,
even if that denied basic reality.
Reality, when it comes to origins discovered
is overrated, for the normal percolation time
is denied, and the impact is sudden
with no restraints to temper the blow.
Way back when, you learned by stories
told by the elders, who know, or led
you to believe they did without question,
who painted word pictures, drew out
fading photographs that barely seemed real.
You believed them because they knew,
knowledge directly proportional to their age.
For me it was the inside of my cheek,
a wait, and an email, and then news,
place names barren of detail, Lithuania.
Later, village names, and only then visions
of pogroms, of flight, of a desperate search
for freedom and West Virginia.
Details were added, but the picture
was monochrome, a barren, wordless
palette and no brush to be found.
I suppose it is oddly fitting that
I was born in the continental U.S.
but can claim no state as home.
I was a Federal child, and that
meant nothing at all to me, a child who
left town at two after a father’s death,
a sister reclaimed by the government,
which was no State, just a Federal
enclave, and we all know how bad
things are inside the Beltway, those
trapped there are denied even the small
joy of self governing, waiting for Congress.
But I was an adoptee, stateless
in heritage from birth, so that was
a familiar condition, until the moment
my DNA took voice, and I suddenly
had two heritages, fully mine and
my mother’s cherished Mountain State to boot
Even when I was briefly in Edinburgh
I dreamed of walking the streets of Lisbon
or Porto looking into the faces of older men
and wondering if this one was my father.
the father I had never seen, never known.
Was the one my Jewish mother described
in detail to the social worker who took me
from her shortly after she gave me life.
It is many years later, now, my mother
has a face, discovered in the twisting path
of a double helix, good West Virginia
Jewish stock, Lithuania left far behind.
I may someday visit Lisbon, I hear
it is a lovely city, but the faces will all
be alien to me, and there I will dream
of my day touring the Highlands
of Scotland, the Isle of Skye, and which
of the McDonald’s and McAllister’s might
be kin and which Tartan I can now
rightfully claim is my own.
What I want to tell her is this:
it’s fitting, perfectly, that you
who so assiduously hid the past
from me, your past and mine,
now bars your entry, refusing you
even the briefest glimpse.
You want so to grab onto it
to have it carry you to a place
removed from here by time
and distance, where it is warm
and most of the time, cozy.
It is also fitting that you
call out his name, as though
he was in the yard
pruning a tree, delaying dinner,
the same he you cursed
glad to have him out of your life
and out of your house,
you wished him dead
so that you might call yourself
a widow and share
condolences with the other
black draped women.
You never mentioned
the six months of foster care
or the little sister who came
and went so quickly
when he had the audacity
to drop dead on you one morning.
This is what I would say to her,
this is the curse I would
place upon her
but she no longer
recognizes me, I am no more
than a well dressed orderly
come to remove her lunch tray.
First Published in Riding the Meridian 1999/1;2
There is one thing that none
of the books on discovering
who you are when you are
adopted bother to tell you.
If they did, it wouldn’t change
anything, but it is a burden
you assumed you’d easily bear
that grows heavy with time.
What they don’t warn you is
that you will discover yourself,
and your heritage that was denied
to you for one engrafted on.
But you will not be prepared
for the hidden tax that is levied
with that knowledge, for your
mourning is too soon doubled.