MAYWOOD by Tina Wagner Mattern
I wish I could go back in time to that day my adopted parents took the gamble of a lifetime and brought a terrified 7-year-old child into their home and hearts. I would sit them down, look into their eyes and tell them, “I’m sorry for everything I’m going to put you through. It’s just going to take me awhile to learn that you love me and that no matter what I do, you’ll never send me away.”
Today, if a couple were planning to adopt a child from a troubled background like mine, the first thing they would do would be to get her into counseling. But back in the early 1950’s, this wasn’t something that was done. My new parents had no idea what they were getting themselves into.
And if I could go back in time and talk to the little girl I was back then, I would hug her and tell her, “It’ll be okay, you’ll see. These are wonderful people who are going to love you like you’ve never been loved before. You have a forever home now.”
* * *
It’s been 63 years since the day I stepped off the plane that had carried me from Delaware to Portland, Oregon; from my birth mother’s arms to the airport terminal where the man and woman who were to be my new parents, waited anxiously for my arrival.
I walked into the terminal on shaking legs. The other passengers were laughing and talking above me; down below them, I felt so small I could almost hide inside my suitcase. Then, when we reached the big glass doors of the terminal, I felt even smaller; there were so many people everywhere, shouting, calling to one another, jostling, moving in a stream to the left and right of me. People were hugging, crying, calling to one another. I didn’t know what the people looked like who were supposed to come get me. My eyes were filling up with tears so fast my blinks couldn’t keep up, when I heard my name. “Tina!”
I looked up over the heads of all the people and saw a very tall man towering over everybody. “Tina!” he called out again, with a big smile. He patted the lady beside him and pointed at me. All I could see of her was from her shoulders up; she had dark red hair and glasses. She was very short compared to the man and would have had to stand on her tiptoes to see me, which she did, I guess. She was smiling too, waving her hand up in the air. They rushed towards me, moving people out of their way.
Overwhelmed with sheer terror, I closed my eyes.
When I opened my eyes again I was looking at a pair of trouser legs. I followed them up and up and up until I was looking into a pair of gentle blue eyes. Dropping down to his knees beside me, the man said softly, “Don’t be afraid, honey. We’re here now. You’re not alone anymore. The lady with him reached out and touched my arm. “That was a long flight; you must be so tired.”
I pulled my suitcase up against my chest and wrapped my arms around it in case they tried to hug me. They seemed kind of surprised, but they just smiled and told me their names. The woman called Mary said. “We’re so happy you’re here. And we’re going to take good care of you.” The man, whose name was Eddie patted my shoulder and said, “I’ll bet you’re tired and hungry.”
I was still trying my best not to cry so I just nodded. I was tired. I just wanted to lay down right there on the floor and sleep forever.
“Let’s go home,” Mary said. “I’ll make you some lunch and then you can take a nap, if you want.” Eddie stood up and laid his hand on my arm, nudging me gently towards the exit. “Come on with us, sweetheart.”
I moved to follow them, but my suitcase suddenly seemed so heavy that it slipped from my fingers and I just didn’t have the strength to pick it back up. Instead, I started to cry.
The man bent down to whisper, “I’m going to give you a ride, okay?” Without waiting for an answer, he scooped me up in his arms and wiped my tears with his handkerchief, and for the first time in a long time, I felt almost safe.
Outside, in the parking lot, Eddie carried me along and after walking past several rows of cars, we all stopped in front of a big, shiny blue Oldsmobile, though of course I didn’t know that’s what it was. To me, it looked like something Elvis would drive. I was so blown away that for a minute, I forgot to be scared, and asked, “Are you guys rich?”
They laughed and Mary said, “Not by a longshot, honey.” Eddie set me down and opened the trunk to put my suitcase in, then opened the passenger door. Mary stood waiting for me to get in but there was no way I wanted to be trapped there in the front seat between them. I opened the back door, jumped in and scooted over to the far side of the seat. They looked at each other and then Eddie smiled and said, “Too crowded up front, huh?”
I just shrugged and pretended to be looking for something in my purse.
My new parents drove me to a lovely, though unpretentious ranch-style home on a street in N.E. Portland, called Maywood Place, or as everyone living there called it, simply “Maywood”. It was, I would soon discover, one of those quintessentially perfect neighborhoods to grow up in; a place where children were as welcome (and safe) in a neighbor’s home as they were in their own. Where the people who lived next door, down the street and across the way, were more than neighbors, they were extended family. Any loneliness I might have anticipated by being essentially an only child, (since my new sibling, Richard, was an adult by the time I came) would soon be soothed by the realization that I was surrounded by surrogate brothers and sisters.
God had brought me to a place of peace, to a new beginning with two people who would love and nurture me. It would take some time, but I would heal here.
* * *
“This is your bedroom,” they told me.
Awed, I stood in the doorway, looking in at the pretty room with yellow-flowered wallpaper. It looked to me like a princess’s chamber. The bedroom I shared with my sister, Sharon in Delaware had been plain and nothing special to look at.
A large window with lace sheers shone sunlight down on the white chenille covered double bed. Against one wall was an old steamer trunk covered with an amazing assortment of stuffed animals and dolls, obviously new. My heart was immediately won by a large stuffed pony wearing a cloth bridle and saddle. I knew he’d be sleeping with me from then on.
Against the other wall stood a tall dresser with 6 drawers. Mary walked over to it and pulled one open for me to look in…it was full of brand new undershirts and panties. The other drawers she opened contained shorts, sunsuits, pedal pushers and a variety of kid-colorful shirts. Next, she went to the big closet and slid the doors open; it too was filled with clothing: dresses, blouses, jackets, hats…and on the floor, a shoe rack held at least 6 pairs of shoes.
I was speechless. All of this for me? I couldn’t get my head around it.
Eddie patted me on the shoulder. “Hungry?” he asked.
Suddenly, I realized I was, so I nodded my head.
“Well, come on then,” Mary said. I’ll make you some breakfast.” While I sat at the kitchen table with Eddie she fried me an egg, buttered me some toast and set down a glass of ice cold milk. I dug in. Two more eggs, another piece of toast and some fruit cocktail later, I was finally full.
When my eyelids started to droop and my head got too heavy to hold up, I laid it down on the table. Eddie laughed and scooped me up in his arms. “I think this little one needs a nap, what do you think, Mom?”
“I’ll go turn down the bed,” she said.
I was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.
* * *
Truthfully, I don’t remember a lot of those first few weeks and months with my new parents, only a few particular memories come to mind. I’m sure the anxiety of finding myself, once again, at the mercy of people I didn’t know, was enough to send me into the protective anesthetized-feeling zone that had gotten me through a myriad of emotional crisis’ in the past. But the patience and understanding of my tender-hearted parents, not to mention the perfect neighborhood, would eventually win me over.
When I woke up a few hours later, I didn’t know where I was for a few minutes. It felt like I was still lost in a dream. But then, as I looked around the room, it all came back. There was the darling stuffed horse that I was already calling “Trigger” in my mind, since it was the only famous horse name I could think of. I laid there for a few more minutes, listening, wondering where Mary and Eddie were, when suddenly I had a panicked thought and sat bolt upright in the bed. I lifted the covers, scooting to one side to check under my butt. Whew—no wet sheets! I scrambled out of bed and ran to the door, peeked left and right for anybody watching, and then went across the hall to the bathroom. Locking the door, I plunked myself down on the toilet. A few minutes later, someone knocked and tried the door and I was glad I had thought to lock it.
“Are you okay in there?” Mary called.
I wiped, then stood, flushed, and pulled up my undies.
“Do you need any help, honey?” Mary asked. “Could you unlock the door please?”
What kind of help would a kid need to pee? I wondered. But I unlocked and opened the door to tell her, no, I could pee all by myself.
“How about a quick snack?” Mary said, “And then I’ll take you next door to meet the neighbors. This is a wonderful place to live with plenty of kids for you to play with. I know you’re going to love it here.”
My new mother was right; I did fall in love with Maywood. In spite of all the emotional chaos I went through during those first weeks and months of my new life in Oregon, one adjustment was simple to make: the reclaiming of my childhood. Falling in love with Maywood was so easy; I was suddenly surrounded by happy, well-adjusted kids in loving families, who accepted me into their lives and play with no questions asked. When I think back on my life there I’m overwhelmed with sweet memories.
I can close my eyes and let my mind drift backwards and in a moment I am back there; 7 years old again….
“I love Maywood! See that pink, two-story English Tudor house over there? That’s where our neighbors, the Gray’s, live. They have 4 kids: Lesley, Lori, Layne and Robbie. Mrs. Gray’s name is Maxine and she’s the most beautiful lady I ever saw in person. She is tall and has very pretty legs, which are obvious because whenever the weather is sunny, she wears shorts to show them off. I think she does this because she used to be a fashion model before she got married, had kids and got old. I didn’t believe she was really a model until Lesley, the daughter 3 years older than me, showed me her mother’s scrapbook one day. There Mrs. Gray was in a real magazine picture, dressed in a red bathing suit, all shiny-lipped and smiling, just like Marilyn Monroe! I asked her for her autograph after seeing that but she just laughed and told us kids to go outside and play.
Later on, I told Lesley that I thought her mom could have been a movie star if she hadn’t gotten fat. But Lesley said, “She’s not fat, you dip; she’s gonna have a baby!” And sure enough, one day when I went over there to play, there Mrs. Gray was with a flat stomach again and a tiny baby on her lap. “This is Robbie,” she said.
I couldn’t get over it! She’s not only nice, and beautiful like nobody’s business, but she can have a baby out of her stomach, just like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat!
Mr. Gray’s name is Mr. Gray, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve heard Mrs. Gray call him Bob but he doesn’t seem like a Bob to me; he’s nice, I guess, but kind of stern and he sells insurance. When he’s home, all us kids have to be quiet while he drinks his Martini and eats his olives, which we all like but can’t have because the whole bottle is his. And it is “Off Limits” on the top shelf of the second cupboard to the left of the stove—the one where the door sticks a little.
The Gray girls are the first friends I’ve ever had, aside from the sheep on the farm (but they weren’t human, so I don’t think they really count). I love hanging out at their house and while I’m there I like to pretend that I’m one of the family. When I get to sleep over, Mrs. Gray always kisses me goodnight, just like her own kids, so I kinda feel like I am.
Besides the girls and Robbie, the Grays also have the cutest dog. His name is Twinkletoes. He has some bad habits though, that my mother says she would shoot him for (but I don’t think she really would). See, our kitchen table window looks right across the driveway to the Gray’s kitchen table window, and when they aren’t home, Twinkletoes walks around on the table and eats the butter in the butter dish. I always have my bread without butter when I eat dinner over there because I can’t tell if there are Twinkle-tongue prints on it or not.
Another small problem with Twinkle is that he loves me. He seems to love me more than anybody else because every time I go over there and I pet him, he gets so excited he pees all over the floor. Usually on my shoes. He doesn’t do this for anybody else but me. So now, when I come in the house, everybody yells, “DON’T PET THE DOG!” I hate to hurt his feelings but my sneakers keep shrinking in the washing machine. So now I just say “Hi Twinkle” and keep my hands to myself.
Across from the Gray’s house is the Amato’s house. Dr. and Mrs. Amato are very nice and I am just amazed to have someone who can save a person’s life living right across the street from me! They have 3 kids; David and Susan are a few years older than me, and Sally, is a little younger. Susan is very pretty and is really smart. It’s Sally however, who is my favorite. She’s smart too and has a wonderful face that’s shaped like a Siamese cat’s and a ponytail that’s as big around as the handlebars on my bike. This is something I envy so much that it takes up to 10 minutes of my night prayers, asking for my hair to get thicker and longer so it’ll be like hers. So far though, nothing’s happened; my hair is still short and frizzy. It’s a good thing Sally and I are such good friends, otherwise her hair would be a big problem in our relationship.
On the other side of the Gray’s house are the Christensen’s. Mr. and Mrs. Christensen are very tall, friendly, and laugh a lot. They make me laugh too when I’m over there. They have 2 kids, David, who’s a teenager, and Betty, who’s the same age as Lesley Gray and Susan Amato. Betty is a funny, warm-fuzzy person. I liked her the first time I met her.
Betty, Lesley and Susan all treat me like a little sister. I love that. And I like to pretend I’m a big sister to all the younger kids.
My life before was sad and awful. Now I have a new life, and new parents who love me, and I get to live in a perfect place called Maywood. I am a lucky girl.”
* * *
As I look back over my life, I know now more than ever how blessed I was to have had a birth mother who, knowing she was incapable of being a good parent to me had the courage and faith to give me up to people she had never met.
And as I look back, a deep, abiding gratitude rises up in me, that my childhood begun in trauma became an idyllic childhood of peace and joy beyond measure.