' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Gathering Memories with my "birth" daughter

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Gathering Memories with my "birth" daughter

copyright (c) Lorraine Dusky 2009

Two years later after my daughter, Jane and I were reunited:

We are Loehmann’s on Long Island, a store since shuttered, and she and I have just found a great black pin-striped suit, man-tailored jacket and skirt, and it fits her to perfection, and I’m staring at her in the mirror and she is smiling at herself, back at me. How to explain the joy that is quaking through me as I smile back at my baby, and that is what she is to me, only she is a teenager but that is okay because we are here in this moment, and we are mother and daughter, plain and simple, not "birth mother" and "birth daughter"—anyone could see that—shopping for clothes for her.

When she smiles, I do not see a girl with swollen gums—the unpleasant by-product of her epilepsy medication—I see her happiness, I see my daughter quite pleased with herself, and I see how this simple purchase will please us both. I slap down a credit card and $79.99 plus tax later, the prized suit is hers. It is just the kind of tailored jacket that suits her to a tee. Me too. If there had been another one in the same size I would have bought it for myself, for Jane and I are the same size—alternations needed only to lengthen the sleeves in both our jackets.

Besides arms longer than the norm, she has also inherited my predilection for man-tailored clothes intact, as if there had been not a single mutation of the style gene when it passed from me to her. So shopping for clothes, or anything, with Jane was always a special pleasure. You might dismiss shopping as a frivolous act of consumerism, but hey! It’s also the modern day equivalent of gathering, as in “hunting and gathering.” We were two gatherers fulfilling a role determined long ago in the millennia before homo sapiens wore hide skirts and hair shirts.

Shopping with Jane brought back such shared moments with my mother. Those shopping excursions did not seem like the stuff of memorable occasions at the time, because once you hit puberty you begin to think all the high points of your life are those spent apart from your parents, but later on, they glisten like little jewels in your memory box. I can summon up the coziness of my mother and I hurrying to finish the dishes after dinner before the sun went down on summer nights. Remember, my mother was a fulltime homemaker, and when we owned the motel, a fulltime cleaning woman who kept the five units spotless and washed and pressed the sheets too, so this hour after dinner was likely to be the only time she got out of the house during the day. Dishes draining on the counter, we’d head over to the nearby mall, specifically to a somewhat upmarket department store called Crowley’s. Mostly we weren’t there to buy anything, we were just browsing, killing an hour before closing. There’s where as a teenager with my own money to spend I learned the name Trifari meant good-quality costume jewelry; where an affable sales woman hooked me on Elizabeth Arden face powder; where I got my first black dress, and where my mother and I tried on hats.

Over the years, dozens and dozens of hats. This one looked good, this one was silly, this one was gorgeous but way too expensive, and this one was positively off the charts, who in their right mind would wear something as silly as that? We always ended up laughing, usually stifling our mirth so as not to raise the eyebrows of the sales ladies, but sometimes we laughed so hard we had tears in our eyes. Not that we didn’t buy one now and then. We did. Hats back then were not optional at Sunday Mass, and they had to change with the seasons. We always got new bonnets for Easter.

One evening my mother found a particularly fetching model and I could tell how much it suited her, how much she wanted it, but it seemed too pricey by our modest standards, $25 back in 1961. It was the summer between freshman and sophomore years of college, and I had been working as a waitress both lunch and dinner, socking away everything for tuition and books. Between shifts I studied for the two classes at the local community college I took in the mornings. To make the schedule work, my mother had washed and hung up to dry my nylon uniforms, supplying me with a fresh one every day. Let me buy the hat for you, I said, knowing that $25 would eat up the cost of a couple of text books. Really, she said, smiling, hoping I was serious. Her delighted surprise is one of those precious frozen-in-memory moments. The hat is a circle of feathers in a vivid Crayola ® color called Burnt Sienna. It has flashes of red and orange among the umber, and a jaunty tuft of feathers pointing skyward at the back. She left nothing monetarily valuable when she died nearly forty years later; the hat was in a box in the hall closet. I have it now.

So you can imagine the blissful buzz the time Jane and I ended up in an antique shop, and there on the second floor, among the old Victorian vanities and early plastic-and-paper “vanity dresser sets” of a comb, brush, mirror and hairpin box, we came upon a cache of chapeaus from the Thirties and later. On and off they went, the more outrĂ© the better, the more our merriment. It was a hot day in October, late afternoon sun peered through the windows in skinny stripes, dust motes floated in the light, we kept insisting the other try on the craziest ones.

Later that day, I tried to tell her about my mother and me and hats, but it was lost on her, and in truth, would have been if I’d raised her, just as my mother’s relationship with her mother seemed of little consequence to me when I was a teenager. All that Jane said about that half hour of hats was, You had a better time than I did, but something about the way she said it just broke my heart. The slight look of distance, a second’s hesitation before she spoke informed me that she was thinking: Well, you didn’t raise me, did you? How can you expect me to know what that was like? I hardly knew your mother.

Stuff like that came up now and again and despite the joy of the moment, I could quietly be reminded of what had been lost, what we could never get back; but that is what reunion is in the living of it. Pinpricks invade the moment, like thoughts that flit in and out when you are learning to meditate. But any prickly shards of remorse quickly become diffused with the content realization of what is. After all, you know in your bones, you did give her up, you tell yourself without realizing you are having this conversation with yourself, anything shared now is pure gold. Be grateful.

--from the upcoming memoir, A Hole in My Heart by Lorraine Dusky ______________________________

Jane will be here next week with a post on the use of the term, birth mother, before a child is born.


  1. Lorraine,

    I loved reading the stories about you and your mom, and your daughter. Beautiful memories, that are kept in your heart.

    Seems our adult adoptee's can't relate to how it would have been being raised by someone who is exactly like them. That is a loss not only for us but for them too.

    Being adopted they don't have the continuity that comes with being raised, by one's own mother. Seeing a face, or family member that looks, or acts, like you is grounding, and shows them where they get their habits or looks. Something WE all take for granite.

    Even our grown raised adults don't realize this as they just take it for granite.I know I did and do but having lost my son has changed me.

    Losing my child to adoption has devastated me. And those around me can't understand that after finding my son my ex told me to stop beating my self up. I still can't stop thinking of how I could have kept him, without, any help at 17 years old. That pain lives in me coming out at least once a day.

  2. Philip Roth, in American Pastoral writes that you may remember an event one way and perhaps I do not remember it at all.

    Each person brings their own bias into any memory - and each of us sees the world from our own central point of view.

    When two people can truly share good memories, the results are wonderful.



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