It all started-- for me-- when my father won a family trip to Senegal when I was around 10. I’d been out the country before, of course. But I was little so I didn’t need a passport. This time, I would. So one day my mother picks me up from school and we go to the passport office. We stand in line, and I’m bored out of my mind as we wait. At the window, my mother slides an envelope of papers, my birth certificate and social security card and whatever else is necessary to prove I am who she claims I am, through the opening underneath the partition. Then, she slides a folder full of different documents for herself. The person is sorting through them, punching the information into his computer as slow as humanly possible. I zone out thinking about whatever tweens think about. I hear him (or her?) ask a question, but I don’t remember what it was. My mother’s response is all that really matters anyway. “I’m adopted,” she responds.
I know what that means, that Grandma and Grandpa who I’ve spent every summer with in the Midwest as long as I can remember are not my Grandma and Grandpa. Grandma taught me how to iron and to make cinnamon rolls. I follow my Grandpa around like a puppy does its owner because I adore him as much as he adores me. They aren’t my grandparents?! Huh?
I jerk my head up to look at my Mom, who is steadily looking at the person behind the glass and ignoring me. I pull at her sleeve. “Mom. Mom! Mom!!!” She continues to ignore me until I give up.
I’m worried that I’ll never see my grandparents again. Because, you know, they’re not actually my grandparents. Ohmigod! Ohmigod! Ohmigod!
The adults have my rapt attention now. But no one’s talking. The person behind the window is typing and my Mom is just standing there looking, waiting, not answering questions. Finally, the teller slides two blue passports under the counter. My mom says “thank you” and walks off. I follow, not like I'm a puppy, but because I don't want to get left.
When we get in the car, Mum explains half the story. The short (and heavily edited) version: my Mom’s mom got pregnant as a teenager in the 50s. My grandparents adopted my mother when she was 3. She’s never technically met her biological mother, although when she was a kid a woman she thinks was her mother showed up at her parents' house once. All she knows is her bio-Mom’s name. Anita*. She knows who her bio-Dad is. And there’s way more to the story than that, but that’s where I’ll stop.
Yes, I’ll see my grandparents again, Mum promises. Nothing will change. Grandma and Grandpa are still my grandparents. They always will be. That’s all I care about. End of story… or so I think.
We never make it to Senegal. (Another long story that’s a story within itself.) I do make it to the Midwest that summer to see my grandparents, as promised. They don’t know that I know that my mother’s adopted, and I don’t see a need to tell them.
But it’s weird. I’m with my grandfather at his church, and another minister drops by. My grandfather calls me to the office to introduce me, and the Reverend smiles and tells Grandpa, “she looks a lot like you. She has your smile.” I think, “What an idiot” because how can I have the smile of someone I’m not biologically related to?
My grandmother takes me to visit her Mom, sisters and brother and the rest of the big family in a town a couple hours away. Everyone treats me nice, the same as they always have, but it’s different now. I’m not close to any of my cousins there, mostly because I only see them for one day, once a year. But I feel extra weird now knowing that I’m not related, and it occurs to me that everyone else has always known this and no one said anything. I feel betrayed.
I spend most of my free time that summer hanging out in a guest bedroom at my grandparents’ house. In there is a chest of drawers loaded with pictures from the 1920s up until the 1980s, or so. They’re photos of my grandparents, mother and various other family members when they were young. I’m looking for a picture of my Mother’s mother.
I don’t remember how long it took me to find it, but I did. It was an 8X10 high school photo of a woman who looks exactly like my Mom. She has Mum’s eyes and her smile. I think it’s her, then I flip the picture over. “Anita, 1953” is written in my grandmother’s pen on the back. It’s definitely Mom’s mom.
I take the picture and put it on the table outside my grandmother’s bedroom. I’m hoping one of my grandparents will see it and tell me who she is and how they got my Mom. It sits there all summer. I know they both saw it. No one touches it. And no one says a word about it—at least when they know I’m listening.
My grandparents’ house doesn’t have air conditioning and one week there's a heatwave. My grandmother has a ceiling fan and a huge fan in her bedroom so I sleep with her until it cools down. One morning, I wake up to my grandparents talking.
“She’s looking for information on her mother,” my grandmother is saying. “She doesn’t know her mother has an impeccable past.”
My grandfather doesn’t say anything.
When I call my mother that night, I ask her what “impeccable” means.
I tell her what my grandmother said.
“About me?” Mom sounds shocked. She laughs.
I don’t get it.
Sometime during my college years, my mother decides she wants to find her mother. (She’d tried several times before. This is just the first time she tells me.) This time, the search is brought on by Mum’s health scare, and she wants to know her medical history.
Mum starts by asking her parents. My grandfather says, “You’re here, that’s all that matters”, i.e, he’s not giving up anything. My grandmother has Alzheimer’s. She can’t remember what happened two minutes ago, but can recall what happened anytime before 1980 down to the day of the week, the weather and what outfit she, and anyone else present, was wearing. She gives up some back story, most of which, again, I don’t have permission to retell. None of it gives any clues to where Anita is now.
I know Mum's looking, but she doesn’t really talk about the search. Every once in awhile she’ll make a joke about how I should be careful who I date because it might be a cousin or something. It’s not funny to me… it’s odd.
I find myself looking for my mother’s face in other women around her age. Junior year, there’s this professor for my African-American Lit class who looks exactly like my mother. Same nose, same smile, and a similar haircut. I sit in the front for most of my classes, but I always sit in the back for hers. I find myself studying my professor's face, more than listening to her lecture. I wonder if she’s my Aunt, but never get the nerve to ask her. (I’m not sure if it’s coincidence or not that this is the professor in whose class I had the “eureka!” moment that made me decide to be a writer.)
My mother hires a private investigator in the Midwest. All she has is a first and last name, and an approximate year Anita was born. After several months, she finds nothing. Mum gets frustrated and gives up.
Years later, my grandfather dies. And two years after that, my grandmother does too. Around 2006, Mum starts searching for her bio-Mom again. No luck. On and off over the years, she’ll start looking, hit another series of dead ends, and give up again.
For years, she never really talks about her bio-Mom, but I know it bothers her that there’s this lady somewhere out there in the world who is her mother and she doesn’t know who she is. If I didn’t know who Mum was, it would bother me.
Earlier this year, I decide maybe there’s another way to find her. I’ve got a built-in readership of thousands of people worldwide. And I’ve got a project coming up that will expand the reach further. Maybe I can put this new platform to better use. I tell Mum this, and add, “This is the year we find your Mom!”
She goes, “really?” and she sounds like a kid whose Dad has just promised to take them for ice cream. Immediately, I wish I hadn’t said anything because now I’ve got her hopes up again, and I don’t know if this will work. I don’t want her to be disappointed. Again.
So I put a picture of Mum on all on my social media accounts. It’s the picture where she looks most like her bio-Mom. I tell everyone that she’s adopted and looking for her mother. I’m hoping someone who’s seen Anita’s picture will say, “hey, she looks like the picture of my grandmother on my family's mantel.”
Leads pour in, along with stories from all over the world from people who are looking for their parents or have found them. I get generous offers from people who are willing to help anyway they can and want to hold my hand through this process. I keep a list of all the ways, and comb thru all the sites they suggest. My goal is to find Anita by Mother’s Day. I don’t tell my mother any of this.
On Thursday night, I get a text just after midnight from my mother. It reads, “I found my Mom!”
The night before, she was tinkering around on Ancestry.com till 3 AM. She found a family tree with her Mother’s name, a year of birth that was off by a year from her mother, and the woman was from my mother’s hometown.
The woman with my mother’s mother’s name died in the 1970s, the year my mother graduated from college. She was 38 years old.
“I feel like I’ve been orphaned a third time,” Mum says as if that’s a normal thing for someone to say. “My mother gave me away, then both my parents died, and now I find out I’ve been looking for a mother who’s been dead 30 years.”
Jesus. What do you say to that?
My mother tells this story sometimes about how when I was a kid, maybe three or so, I walked into the room and found her sitting on the floor crying (it’s not a devastating as it sounds. She always sits on the floor. It’s her thing.) Without missing a beat, I walked up to Mum, hugged her, and said, “it’s okay, Mommy,” and began patting her back. I have no recollection of this, but it’s what she did to me when I cried.
So she says what she says about her Mom, and I think of that story, and say, “It’s okay, Mommy” though I haven’t called Mum, “Mommy” in over a decade.
There’s a contact listed with the name, so Mum sends a letter off into the Interwebs, explaining who she is and who she is looking for. If nothing else, maybe she could find some information about her mother, if indeed the woman with her Mother’s name is actually her bio-Mom. She would find out who she was, what she liked, what she didn’t, etc. Anything was better than nothing.
A person wrote back that morning, confirming the Anita in question was deceased... and if Mum's adopted parents were the minister and his wife, then yes, she’s found her bio-mother. Oh, and by the way, did Mum know she has a sister and brother who live in the Midwest?
Part 2: Coming Soon