Dear I. M. M.,
How do I begin a letter to you, my “first mother”? Hi, it’s me. The baby girl you gave birth to in 1963, now all grown up. Seems as good an intro as any other, don’t you think?
I know this letter won’t actually find its way to you because you’ve been gone for almost twenty-eight years. But if we’d ever had the chance to meet and talk–I’d have leaped at the opportunity, by the way–the first thing I would’ve said to you is that my story had a happy ending. There would have been a lot of questions after that, but mostly I would have wanted you to know that my life turned out good. And I would have welcomed the chance to fill in some blanks for you. I guess I’m assuming you wondered about me after we parted ways on November 17, 1963. Did you think about me over the years?
I bet you never dreamed that you’d hear from the adult version of the baby you placed on the neighbor’s doorstep. Well, surprise, surprise! DNA testing is all the rage these days. Yes, thanks to one teaspoon of saliva, I solved the mystery of my parentage. Without Ancestry.com, I would never have found you. Because there was not one clue to who the West Street doorstep baby belonged to.
I’m certain you knew their early morning routine, the couple who lived in the adjacent backyard. You know that when they let their little dog out to go potty early that Sunday morning, there was no baby on their doorstep.
His name was Frisky, by the way. The dog. He loved to roll up in the rag rug at the back door, made by Mrs. N., known for crafting rugs from scrap material. He delighted in shooting out of the rag-rug-tunnel and bounding inside the house. But on this particular morning, it wasn’t Frisky the trickster waiting on the step. When the man of the house called to his furry friend, the dog came charging from the yard and leaped over a blob on the step.
When Mr. N. nudged the dark something with his foot, a youngin’s cry sounded. He bent and scooped up a baby wrapped in a man’s black wool shirt and a blanket. But you watched all of this, didn’t you? I feel certain you did. He and his wife rushed me to the hospital. Did you see them rush out the door and drive away? I was found to be in good health, no doubt thanks to you.
Then ensued the search. The questions. The brain wracking for even a clue. But none surfaced, according to the official file the courthouse found no reason not to give to us, as it held no secrets. The granddaughter of the folks who found me said that for years the entire family pondered the who-what-when-where about the surprise on their doorstep that November Sunday morning.
Did someone knock on your door, inquiring as to your knowledge of the mysterious baby? “I’m sure they canvassed the neighborhood,” stated the state trooper who offered to assist my search for you. You see, I wrote an anonymous piece for the local paper, asking for any tidbit of information on the doorstep baby. I promised anonymity to anyone directly or indirectly involved. I implored anyone with remembrances, rumored ramblings, or known facts to come forward.
My inquiry did produce a lead, one we anxiously followed up on. A teenage girl had a secret baby that according to neighbors simply vanished. We delved deep into the mystery, but found this case did not link to me via DNA or in any other plausible way.
I thanked the police officer for his offer of assistance, but since criminal charges or a public announcement were the absolute last things I wanted, I closed the door on further police involvement.
Anyway, back to my story—um, our story. Medical personnel estimated I was three days old, so my being found on November 17 resulted in a court-mandated birthday of November 14. Is that right? Was I three days old when they found me? Where did you hide me? How did you feed me? Did you plan to keep me, but then realized you couldn’t?
I told you I had a lot of questions.
I spent the next three-and-a-half weeks in the hospital where the nurses named me Susie Hope. Mrs. N. who worked in the hospital cafeteria, visited often to cuddle me in the rocking chair. When the hospital administration caught wind of her attentiveness, they instructed the nurses to nix our time together. “She’s getting too attached,” they warned. But the nurses chose not to stand in the way of Mrs. N.’s nurturing instinct. She even purchased an outfit for me.
I would’ve loved to meet Mr. and Mrs. N., too, but they passed years ago, before you did.
Because the “court” determined I should leave the area and not be adopted by the N.’s son and his wife, a very nice young couple three counties to the south adopted me. They’d been on pins and needles, awaiting “the call” for a baby, never dreaming the wee one they’d read about weeks earlier on the front page of the newspaper would become theirs. Did you see the write-up in the local paper? We actually made the news across the state in at least a half-dozen publications.
And so, I departed my hometown, your hometown, to begin my new life. A year-and-a-half later, a baby brother joined the family. Another bouncing baby boy added to our happy household near my third birthday, and a final sibling—a third brother—rounded out the family just before I turned seven.
Us kids, and everyone else in our rural county, knew we were all adopted. Our parents read to us the book “The Chosen Baby” until the pages fell out, and the book had to be replaced when brother #2 arrived. I can’t really remember knowing any other adopted kids while we grew up, and we didn’t talk about it much at home, it was just a fact of our lives. Extended family treated us no different—no labels “adopted” and “real” or other such descriptors. We were loved, well-cared for, raised in church, taught to work hard. We fought like siblings everywhere do. We grew up to become productive, respected members of society, a close-knit family that still celebrates all the major holidays together. My parents celebrated their sixty-first anniversary three months before my dad passed in January of this year.
I always wondered about you, but I was never angry at you. And I never felt abandoned. For as long as I can remember, I assumed that for some unknown reason, you couldn’t take care of me, so you gave me to someone who could. Plain and simple. Other than checking a random adoption registry a few times over the years and once seeking “non-identifying information”, of which there was none, I didn’t try to find you. While I was curious about the details, I assumed I’d never know who my birth parents were, OR if the sister I’d always wanted existed out there somewhere.
But all of that casual curiosity shifted into high gear when the secret slipped out that I’d been found on a doorstep. Because “you don’t tell a small child someone left her on a doorstep”, was my parents’ explanation for keeping that one known detail of my beginnings from me. Rationale I totally understood and agreed with.
But once I knew, all I could think about was that someone had been wondering for over fifty years what had happened to her baby girl. Or possibly her granddaughter. Or even sister. Someone had to be aching to know the outcome.
So, I submitted a DNA test and began the whirlwind process of trying to discover who might be wondering about me and my life. The very latest in DNA technology did not disappoint, and soon I approached your two sons with the news “we’re somehow related.” Youngest son JMM signed on to assist in solving the mystery, and his DNA results confirmed we shared a mother.
I know you can imagine his shock—that’s why you never told him about me, right? Despite his utter dismay, he shared family history and lots of pictures, of you and him and our other brother and your brother and your parents and grandparents. I drank in every word, studied every snapshot, realizing he and all of this was the closest I’d ever get to you.
We look alike, me and you. A likeness JMM noted immediately. Guess what he said to me the second time we were together? “Sitting here talking to you is just like talking to my mother.” He had my attention for sure. His head shook slowly as he continued, “You look like her and your mannerisms are so similar.” I was thrilled. All my life, I never looked like anyone.
Chalk one up for genetics, huh?
A few months later, birthfather evidence surfaced by way of a new DNA match. Even though the details coming together left me in a shell-shocked daze, the reality of the scenario you faced went from a blurry speculation to a clearly-focused snapshot. I glimpsed a sliver of the desperation you must have felt. In our small Midwest town in the early 1960s, the situation would likely have been labeled a scandal. Difficult and awkward for you . . . for me . . . for all involved.
And so, you kept me a secret. From everyone. Although JMM and I speculated your best friend Louise might have been privy to the news of a pregnancy. Did you tell her? Did she walk alongside you through what had to an overwhelming experience? My heart aches at the thought of you shouldering the burden of such a huge secret alone. Did you ever tell anyone?
I’ve visited our hometown three times since confirming our relationship. I peered through the trees from the sidewalk in front of your then home to the backyard you crossed, to leave me for what I’m sure you hoped would be a better life. On a second visit to the cemetery, I lamented the forgotten spritz bottle and scrub brush for tending to yours, your brother’s, and your parents’ gravestones. I could have journeyed that way again around Memorial Day when we traditionally spruce up several generations of family gravestones, but I decided to let JMM have the official grave-decorating holiday. Because while you were “mother” to both of us, you were “mom” to him.
I’ve already blocked out time for a visit and grave-tending-time on the anniversary of your death in August. It will be a short trip, I imagine, as there’s no one left there anymore but the earthly bodies of the departed. I wish I knew your favorite flower.
Did you notice I’ve not mentioned your oldest son? I never heard from JKM, probably never will. But I’m thinking you already assumed that, right? His teenaged likeness bears a striking resemblance to my son, and I’m curious to see what he looks like now, many years past the graduation photo I looked up in the school yearbook.
Oh yes, I have a daughter and a son, so you have two more grandchildren. Both are smart, strong, talented, independent young adults. And I also have a soon-to-be six-year-old grandson. As well as a husband of almost thirty-six years who’s stayed faithfully by my side throughout this sometimes tumultuous, always intriguing search and reunion chapter of my life. I know you would have been pleased with each of them.
Almost every day, I find myself still peering into the faces of strangers, searching for a resemblance, wondering if this unknown man or woman might be a long-lost relative. With the mystery solved and an extensive family history compiled for both the maternal and paternal family tree branches, I’m well aware the likelihood of bumping into a family member, near where I live, is practically nil. Still, long-held habits are hard to break. And I’m a people person as I think you must have been, too. Relationships and connections are important to me.
I want you to know that I’ve guarded your secret. Although family and some friends have seen your picture, only a handful of folks know your name. My drive to find you was coupled with the strong instinct to protect you and your family from judgement or gossip. I can easily imagine that those who knew you back then and in the years that followed would have gasped at the news of a secret doorstep baby, just as JMM did. I see no reason to publicly solve the fifty-four-year mystery by broadcasting your name. That would serve no purpose whatsoever.
You see, from my vantage point, you made the right decision. I have to wonder if, as time when on, did you come to that same conclusion? That we were all better off—mom, dad, baby, siblings—heading in different directions, on to separate journeys, never to do life together? I hope you made peace with your decision and went on to enjoy the rest of your life.
Since I’ll never hear your story, our story from you, I find myself drawn to other birth moms’ experiences. Your granddaughter and I have been bitten by the genetic genealogy bug and have donned our detective hats to solve a number of other adoption-related mysteries, so far reuniting three birthmother’s with their son or daughter. It’s been so rewarding to play a part in bringing together mothers and children separated by life’s circumstances for fifty plus years.
I don’t know if you can imagine how much I wish you could fill in all the blanks for me. I’ve at least a million more questions. Last November on my maybe-maybe-not birthday, I sat on the front steps of the home where we parted ways, knowing I had all the answers I was ever going to get. At least I know the “who”. And I’m learning to be content with and thankful for what I do know.
It’s been good chatting with you. Maybe we can talk again sometime, soon.
Beth a.k.a. Susie Hope