The daughter I gave up for adoption in New York City in 1965 "found" me in 1995 and visited my husband (not her father ) and me in Clover, South Carolina when we were living in the section of town known as Mill Hill, in a rambling rental frame house with such an ancient gas heater I was in dread of yet another fire. My father had died in a rental house fire in Lancaster about a decade earlier when I had moved to the state to do Poetry in the Schools work for the South Carolina Arts Commission. This old Victorian was definitely working class accommodations. My daughter regretted not staying in a motel, though she was too polite to leave.
Her adopted parents had raised her in Bergen County New Jersey. Poverty wasn't something she had experienced directly. Wasn't that the whole point of giving her up? A better life for her. And for me, too, planning on returning to college, which my working class parents had always insisted was something I must do. The pregnancy cost me a year of schooling and I had to make it up. I was getting out of the Warrendale (Detroit) Polish ghetto but I couldn't take her with me.
Now I see clearly that most adoptions are moving from one class to another. From a lack of resources/finances to more abundance and opportunity. This has nothing, necessarily, to do with love. I thought I loved her even more than a mother could love a child by giving her up. I may have been wrong.
Abortion had been an option for me, though not legal in Michigan. The doctor who had declared me pregnant was willing to perform an abortion at a hospital in Detroit. My mother had somehow convinced him of this necessity. She felt that having the baby would be a mistake. How I wish I had heeded her warnings then—what would my writing, my life, have been without the loss of my daughter, who knows? But I was determined to follow my own path. The operation would have been listed under A for appendectomy on my father's Blue Cross Blue Shield Plan. Not one to easily give up, my mother convinced our family doctor to give her quinine and she began administering the pills to me around-the-clock, ostensibly treatment for some type of flu bug I had at the time. I became suspicious when I began spotting; my mother told me the truth about the pills. I was instructed to stay off my feet with ice packs on my stomach until the bleeding stopped. Ice packs—irony of ironies—which my mother fixed up and brought to me. She had always wanted to be a nurse but had to drop out of high school to take care of her parents who had lost their hand-built home with the hand-dug basement, all work done by my grandfather, to foreclosure just as Herbert Hoover was leaving office and before Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordered a moratorium on such seizures by the banks.
My daughter's adopted family went on vacations to Martha's Vineyard and the Bahamas. Mine took rides to local parks, and before my father bought a used car when I was thirteen, we traveled the city and beyond by bus, sometimes several there and back. My daughter's adopted family paid for her to attend a small liberal arts college. I struggled with a National Defense Student Loan I had difficulty paying back for years after I graduated. I worked full time and part time in my effort to educate myself. Her adopted mother, trained as a nurse, did not return to even part-time work until Elena was ten. Elena's adopted father was able to get his education through the GI bill for World War II vets. He was an engineer for a pharmaceutical firm that had developed the patch as a drug delivery system.
My mother worked through five pregnancies and three living children. My father worked vacations at Ford's because we usually needed the money. If he stayed home, there was work to do: house painting, yard and garden, building rooms in the basement and the attic.
My daughter was about to get married and searching for me out of a concern that prompts many adoptees to find a birth parent: genetics. I tried as best I could to answer her questions. She made it very clear I wasn't invited to the $75,000 bash her adopted father was going to pay for when she said "I do". After she left from that initial visit, she refused to contact me for a decade or so she threatened because I had divulged too much and she couldn't handle it.
Now I have done what would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. Recently I wrote an e-mail in reply to one of hers that said I loved her and wished her well but I could no longer expose myself to her judgment of me; it was just too painful. I had to guard my heart.
Our mother and daughter reunion had never been TV picture-perfect. We had spent a few days together on two occasions and it was always apparent that class separated us in a chasm growing wider by the minute. In the intervening years, I made an e-mail confession to her about her paternity, which was unknown, though a certain high school sweetheart was willing to take the rap, and we masqueraded as a young married couple in Corona until I birthed my daughter a few weeks before Christmas, 1965 and left her at Spence Chapin Adoption Agency. He wasn't my only partner, though he was the central figure of my life for many years, and we did eventually marry. Still, there were a few other candidates who also could have provided sperm. My daughter's judgment deepened with this revelation. Or so it seemed to me reading between the lines of her occasional e-mails to me.
A few months ago she announced her intention to visit me again in Kansas City. This time with her husband of some fifteen years and their two sons, my grandsons; I had not met them. At first I thought this would be a good idea. But I turned down a late-summer visit because of the heat here in Kansas City which is very oppressive. I can't be out in it.
As the months passed, I had time to reflect upon the nature of our relationship. I recalled a photo of her taken with me beside her in front of the Intercontinental Hotel on the Plaza. The water of the modern fountain cascaded behind us. I had my arm loosely around her; she was very visibly not putting an arm around me (her face is covered for privacy). That old saying: a picture is worth a thousand words wouldn't stop running around inside my head.
What if I met my grandsons, both minors for many years to come, and my daughter refused any further contact? She had a great need for control. This may be an adoptee trait but my daughter is also a recovering alcoholic and this may be more the reason why she needs so much control. Or maybe her personality has more to do with who her adoptive parents have been than any limited genes I provided. One thing was clear: I couldn't be a pawn in such a game. The risk for me was too great. I had played it before with my brother before his death and his two sons and their mother, his ex-wife. I couldn't bear another merry-go-round with children some sort of golden ring, especially my own grandchildren. How could I not love them and want to see them?
At sixty-four, not in good health, on disability, I have to protect myself. My heart has had many blows and loss and trauma define my writing, my poetry, in crucial ways. (A recent poem is about the men who gang-raped my mother long before she met my father and how their assaults destroyed our family in ways I am still trying to comprehend). My daughter's and my inability to bridge the many differences of class and privilege was another failure to tot up. As a writer and poet I could no longer sustain our lack of true connection.
What can we really know about each other? Separated by decades, from two worlds, one solidly upper middle class, the other just as solidly blue collar working class. She was WASP for all purposes, while my roots were deep into a Polish-American Catholicism, though I am atheist now.
The blood that connects us, the womb knowledge linking us are incontrovertible facts, but neither informs the operating language with which we communicate.
In photos taken by my husband of my daughter’s first visit, my first experience of her physically since leaving her—abandoning her, there I said it—to another fate in the care of others eager to parent her—she is very much leaning and resting on me, a happy primate. I think about Harry Harlow's experiment, which ended in 1963, two years before Elena was born. Baby macaques were ripped from their mother's arms and some provided cloth-covered surrogates. All were severely damaged individuals. Wikipedia says some credit this experiment with the beginning of the Animal Liberation Movement. I remember studying about these poor monkeys in college Psych.
Elena seems happy and joyful to be in such close proximity to my body—her birth mother's body denied to her, its smells and nuances lost through the decades. My womb her source of life. There is a Polish proverb which translated means: Our mother brings us only once into this world. My "job" was long over, but my daughter's whole demeanor in these photos is welcoming and seeking connection. But she is in her thirties, not that infant longing for the familiar body she'd inhabited nine difficult and tumultuous months when I was eighteen turning nineteen.
HOW HAS THE ADOPTION EXPERIENCE AFFECTED YOUR POETRY?
I had started out on the path of becoming a writer early. My mother wrote my stories down and the nuns encouraged us to write rhyming poetry, as well as memorize some, including Joyce Kilmer's "Trees". My father told me stories about his life in Missouri and Poland. In high school my poems won honorable mentions in the National Scholastic Writing Awards. I read Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and was convinced that my strong desire to not have children was the wisest choice, considering what future loomed for the earth. I took Journalism I and II and was elected Feature Editor of the Cass Technician. My Journalism instructor recommended me for a new venture: summer arts camp at Olivet College in Olivet Michigan for creative teens. William D. Snodgrass was a guest poet on several occasions. I see now that I was a young shoot of green about to be mowed down.
Getting pregnant put a halt to much of my life. Everything was on hold, including poems, though I did write here and there, it was difficult to concentrate on being a poet/writer again. I took a class from Tuli Kupferberg at the First Free University of New York while pregnant with my daughter. I took the train in from Queens where we were living to the loft on the Lower East Side where class was held. Ed Sanders visited occasionally. Kupferberg and Sanders had recorded the first Fugs album and were facing censorship because of lyrics on their second. Sanders had been in trouble with the New York censors before because of his Peace Eye bookstore; he brought samples of his latest literary venture Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts.
I didn't pick up the thread of my writerly life until after I moved to Oregon in 1973, though I had started keeping a regular journal shortly after finally graduating from Wayne State University in 1970. It had taken me six years to get a Bachelor's. Even though I was a certified special education teacher and working in schools in Michigan, I wasn't that enamored with attending further formal schooling. Oregon beckoned. Ken Kesey's early novels, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion were an inspiration. My mother had been hospitalized in mental institutions starting when I was seventeen and Big Nurse was someone I had met.
A small private collection, Free from Dust, Neglect and Spiders' Webs was published while I was teaching special education at Estacada High School in Estacada, Oregon. Another book of poems, Shimmy Up to This Fine Mud, out of print now, came out through Poets Warehouse in Portland Oregon in 1976. I moved to the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State and the interactions and alliances of that town of a hundred poets helped further my education as a poet. I was able to get a CETA (Comprehensive Employment Training Act) stipend to attend a workshop with Margaret Atwood, one of two I was lucky enough to participate in with her. I never paid for the privilege of these marvelous summer school at Centrum opportunities but managed to get scholarships, too, to do so. Money was always lacking. I had chosen the gift of time to spend in Being and Becoming taught by a new way of living close to the natural world and the Now. Detroit with its awful pollution and race riots and murders was far behind me. Or so I thought. I worked many odd jobs a la Gary Snyder after deciding to leave public school teaching.
A decade after relinquishing Elena, I was a poet with publications, some about her, but at what expense! The terrible loss of her was like a death in my family. My parents' first-born son died during childbirth during World War II. Losing their only grandchild, especially for my mother, was a burden to struggle with in lives already overburdened by circumstance. She died before my brother's twin boys were born and my father only knew them as infants before the flames took his life. Elena was it and I deprived them of her presence.
Despite the sorrows, none of my life apres-Elena could have been possible if I had been a single mother struggling to raise a child. I could barely take care of myself. Like Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams' play A Streetcar Named Desire, I had learned to rely on the kindness of strangers. A tiny glimpse of how this worked: Returning from poetry-in-the-schools residencies in Eastern Washington state, I had no money to pay the Hood Canal bridge toll, but I did have postage stamps. I convinced a startled woman passenger on a ferry out of Seattle to buy them from me. "It isn't a scam. I have no money to get home." Both of us were embarrassed by my bold beggaring, but she offered me a few dollars and I gladly handed her the stamps.
Love, I have discovered as I have aged, is an accrual of habit. Elena and I lack such mundane connections and cannot easily recover or retrieve any in our present lives, especially considering the physical distances involved in our relationship. Those years she absented herself she spent with her German national husband in Germany, then Singapore and Hong Kong, where she finally resurfaced into the stream of my life. Now she is living the existence of a wealthy matron in a suburb north of NYC. A realization of her dream, she wrote at Christmas. The perfect life. But she is restless and bored by the chores of her world: two elementary aged boys involved in soccer and choir and the literary club, a household to maintain, and a husband who is mostly absent, taking the train daily into the city and traveling internationally often. She longs for spring when she can get out into her English garden. A crew of Italians helps her with the heavy lifting. When the boys were small Elena had live-in help. Gina, whose last name was never given to me, was a Filipino woman trying to send her own daughter in Manila to nursing school while she raised my two grandsons and cooked and cleaned and shopped for my daughter and her family. My daughter has never worked outside the home and only briefly worked when she was single after leaving her parents' home for an apartment. Where I come from this is luxury beyond imagining. A staggering abundance.
While writing this blog post, I dream about the photograph of my daughter and I in front of the fountain in Kansas City. Elena has a bigger than life frowning face looming and leering at me in the dream, but in the temporal photo she is smiling, though her body language shouts otherwise. Both arms clutch her purse tightly to her chest, no part of her body touches mine. My arm is expanded toward her, resting lightly on her waist. Even though we are both smiling it is NOT a happy photo.
In one of my last e-mails to her I talk about how I love winter. I hope to buy a set of snowshoes for next year's snows, I tell her. I am happy to report a pair of snowshoes now waits underneath the bed in the spare bedroom. I won't be able to go far, not like when I was cross-country skiing in Michigan, Oregon, the Olympic National Park, Alaska. But I cannot fall, I also write her. And what are the odds on that? I chuckle.
Next winter I will break a city trail down narrow streets filled with newly-fallen snow. I will not fall, though gravity might have other plans.
PLEASE SHARE A SAMPLE POEM(S) ADDRESSING (IN PART) ADOPTION:
Distances of the Heart
Happy am I for the daughtersfor Leah
will call me blessed
In the room
my only possession
I try to keep them out
Set shallow bowls of milk
or cold beef broth
It’s the head they want
Smell of blood drives them wild
I hear them knocking over bowls
in their hurry
In the morning
on my pillow
with sharp animal teeth
I didn’t know
leaving you to another’s care
this nightly claim
you and your kin hold
If I’d kept you close
but I left you
blanketed and crying
gave you up
before your birth
said you were dead
You fit my belly
moved to our anger
absorbed fear and food
I knew you lived
I named you Leah
my only gift
first wife of a man
who didn’t want you
Leah wild cow
dark-eyed Semite sister
waiting for Jehovah
to fill you with sons
six the bible says
only one dear daughter
Child, what mark?
On your inner thigh,
or a third nipple
beneath a breast’s new bud?
How will I know you?
Dark river daughter
river red daughter
When you come
how can we know
hopes of suckling.
Colostrum flows daily
balm for all the ill
I brought you
those nine months
we were trapped
in each other
Red river daughter
what shape have
How have you
I give you
my breasts full
Can you call
The woman who
who pours milk
if you come
[Originally appeared in Calyx, Volume 3, #2, 1978]
ABOUT THE POET:
Christina Pacosz’s chapbook Notes from the Red Zone, originally published in 1983 by Seal Press in their anti-nuclear series, is now available from Seven Kitchens Press as the inaugural selection in their ReBound Series September, 2009. She has been writing and publishing poetry and prose for 50 years.