A Journey to the Past by Tina Wagner Mattern
I was newly 18 when my parents, who had adopted me at the age of 7, sat me down out of the blue one day and asked me a question: “Do you ever think about your “real” parents?”
Looking into their faces, it was easy for me to see that the emphasized word was a painful one for them to say. The question surprised me, not simply because my other life had not been spoken of in years, but because I had, in fact, been recently finding myself visiting old, painful memories. The feelings and questions that those memories stirred were complex and unsettling. I couldn’t help but think about my adoption and wonder how not one but both of my natural parents had so easily given me away. Sometimes a vicious little demon would whisper to my heart, “If you had been lovable, they wouldn’t have let you go.”
I never voiced any of this to Mom and Dad, though; it seemed ungrateful and disloyal. I knew how blessed I had been that they had taken me in when no one else wanted me. But the questions were there nevertheless; were my birth parents still alive? Did they ever think of me? Miss me?
Mom cleared her throat, bringing me back to the question they were waiting for me to answer. “It’s only natural if you do,” she said, and Dad, sitting at the table staring down at his folded hands, added, “Because, you know…you weren’t a baby like most kids. You were almost 8 years old.”
Mom pulled a dust cloth from her apron pocket and wiped down the salt and pepper shakers before putting them back in their usual spots on the windowsill. “You’re 18 now,” she said, and I suddenly understood that this conversation was one they had planned from the beginning, for when I came “of age”.
Dad looked up then and met my eyes, his expression naked, waiting.
I sighed. I wanted to lie and say “No, of course not. You are my parents and that’s that.” But I couldn’t. The little girl who still lived inside me needed to find peace.
“Well…yeah,” I finally said. “I’ve been thinking about them quite a bit, just lately, actually.”
Mom gave a little jerk, and then caught herself, smoothing her apron over her lap. “Oh.” she said. “You have.” Her eyes sought Dad’s, who reached out and placed his hand over hers where it lay on the kitchen table like a wounded bird.
“I guess I have a lot of questions,” I said carefully. “I mean, I guess I’d like to know why nobody wanted me. You know?”
Dad’s hand left Mom’s and came across the table to grab mine. “We did, Mousie,” he said.
Mom patted my knee hard. “Sight unseen!” she said. “Sight unseen, we wanted you.” She got up and went to stand at the kitchen sink, straightening the already straight curtains, polishing the faucet with her dust cloth.
There was no way to be honest and not hurt them.
“I know,” I said quickly. “Of course I know that Mom, Dad. I just think I’d like to know more about them…about my life back then.”
Dad got up and went to stand by Mom, wrapping his arm around her shoulder. “That’s why we wanted to talk to you today,” he said.
Watching them, I was torn between guilt at hurting them, and the growing excitement of where the conversation might be headed.
Mom turned, pulling a tissue from her apron pocket and blowing her nose before saying, “Dad and I have talked about it, and if you want to go see your real parents, we’ll help you find them.”
“You’re my “real” parents,” I quickly corrected.
Dad threw me a grateful little half-smile. “We’re pretty sure a detective agency could find them. We have no idea where they might be now. The last we know of your mother, she was in Delaware, where you came to us from. But your father…he might still be here in Oregon but…well, we don’t know.”
I was taken aback. “You haven’t had any contact from them? I asked. I had always thought that there had been letters or phone calls periodically over the years; my birth family keeping track of how their child was faring. There should have been. I wanted for there to have been.
“No,” Mom said quietly. “They couldn’t. It was in the papers they signed when we adopted you.
“So what do you think, honey?” Dad asked. “Do you want us to try to find them? Mom watched me, chewing her lip.
I nodded, feeling guilty for wanting this. “Yes, please.”
By the following week, a detective had been hired and the search was underway.
* * *
I was completely taken by surprise only a few weeks later when Mom called and said, “We just heard from the detective we hired …he’s found your birth parents. Why don’t you come up for dinner tonight and we’ll talk about it?”
I had an instant emotional rush:
Oh man…this is really going to happen!
Now what? Do I call them? What on earth do I say? What if they don’t want to see me?
Mom and Dad…this isn’t going to be easy for them.
I swallowed hard. “Okay,” I said, “I’ll be up right after work.”
Mom handed me the detective’s report almost as soon as I came in the door, as if the weight of it was too much for her to bear, and I suppose it was.
I sat down and read through the several pages of documents: My father was married again—to a woman named Flossie. The address given for them was in Lowell, Massachusetts.
My mother was reported as still being married to the man I remembered from before I was adopted—Skip Vansant, but was not in Delaware, as I expected; she was living in New Port Richey, Florida.
There were phone numbers listed for both my father and my mother.
My mind raced with the information as the three of us sat down at the dinner table. I wasn’t even slightly hungry. The atmosphere in the kitchen was strained. Dad hadn’t said a word; he busied himself with dishing up his food and Mom with unfolding then refolding her napkin, taking nervous little sips of her tea. Finally, she picked up her fork and speared a green bean. It was halfway to her mouth when she set the fork back down on her plate and cleared her throat.
“So…” she said. “There you have it. You have what you need now to go find your uh…other parents.”
I was glad she was no longer using the “real parents” phrase that caused all three of us to cringe. Before I could comment, Dad looked up and said, “You can call them from here, of course. Save you long distance charges on your phone.”
“Thanks, but I don’t think I’ll call,” I said. They looked surprised and relieved, but their relief hurt my heart. Hastily, I added, “I think I want to just go, you know, cold turkey.” I had been waiting too long to give either of my natural parents the chance to reject me over the phone. I wanted to be the one calling the shots this time.
Dad gave up on pushing the untouched food around on his plate. He shook his head and said, “I don’t know if that’s a good idea, honey. It’s a long way to go without any guarantee that you’ll be welcomed.”
Mom broke in, “We don’t want to see you get hurt.”
I knew they were only looking out for me, as always, but my mind was made up. When they recognized that stubborn set to my jaw, Mom said, “Well, we’ll just talk about this later. Now eat, everything’s getting cold.
Within a week, Mom called me with a solution to the matter.
“How would you feel about Donna Laurent going along with you?”
Donna had been a close personal friend of the family for many years and was presently their private secretary at the company they owned. She was smart, efficient, warm and funny and I liked her very much. She would be the perfect person to come with me on my scary, life-changing journey.
“That would be so great!” I said. I was thrilled. The thought of going alone had been keeping me up at night, but I knew it was too much to ask Mom or Dad to come; it would have been impossibly painful for them and undeniably uncomfortable for me. If Donna was agreeable, she would alleviate some of Mom and Dad’s anxiety, and give me some comforting moral support.
Donna came through with a heartfelt, “Yes”. Mom and Dad bought the airline tickets for the two of us and rental cars were arranged for both cities. The trip planned was for 10 days.
* * *
“You gotta get out of the car, kiddo.”
I shook my head, suddenly overwhelmed with anxiety. “I….think I’ve changed my mind,” I said.
Donna and I were in our rental car in New Port Richey, Florida, parked in front of a house next door to the address the detective had given us for my mother. Through the windshield, I could see a woman and a man sitting in lawn chairs in their front yard. The woman, although she didn’t look in the least familiar, was almost certainly my mother.
Donna gave me an understanding, encouraging smile and said, “You’ve come this far…it would be a shame to quit now.” She nudged me and grinned, “Go on. I know you, you’re fearless. What’s the worst that could happen?”
At my sudden panicked look, she laughed and said, “Don’t answer that!”
The worst that could happen is that my mother wouldn’t want to talk to me. Would get up and go in the house without a backward glance. But, the best that could happen is that she would be happy to see me, and that I would at last get some of my questions answered.
I took a deep breath, then another, then one more for the road, before reaching for the door handle. Donna smiled, “Go get ‘em. I’ll wait here—unless you need me to come with you.”
“No, but if I fall over in a dead faint between here and there, tell my mother who I am and that it’s all her fault.”
I got out of the car, blotted my sweaty forehead with the back of my hand, and walked up the sidewalk towards the yard where the couple sat. I turned to look back at Donna. She waved and motioned me forward.
The man, Skip, I presumed, noticed me first, looking mildly interested as I made my way towards them. My mother, who was flipping through a magazine, didn’t look up until I was a few yards away. I studied her as I walked the last few feet; she was slim and pretty, her hair was dark blonde and pulled up into a short ponytail. She looked to be about 5’3 or 4…clearly I didn’t get my 5’7 height from her.
She looked me over as I approached and gave me a tentative smile, possibly expecting a sales pitch of some sort.
“Hi,” I said, my own smile quivering a little. “Are you Jean Vansant?”
She said, “Yes…Is there something I can help you with?”
I thought my heart was going to jump right out of my chest and fall on the ground at her feet. I grabbed a steadying breath and said, “Do you know who I am?”
My mother raised an eyebrow. “No. Sorry. Should I?” She looked at Skip, who shook his head. He had no clue who I might be either.
It’s now or never, I thought. “Does the name Tina ring a bell?”
I watched my mother’s expression change from one of cool appraisal to one of reflection as she ran my name through her mental list of present acquaintances, and then back further until…
I just stood there, holding my breath, waiting for the recognition to hit. After a very long second, it did.
“Tina?” she whispered.
I managed a shaky smile and said, “Hi. Remember me?”
She bolted up from her seat and said, “TINA!” Her expression of shock changing to joy left me breathlessly relieved. “Oh my God,” she cried, “I’ve prayed for this for so many years!”
Two steps took me into my long-lost mother’s arms.
* * *
I spent most of the next 5 days with my mother. She showed me my baby pictures and shared stories about what a character I had been: how, for instance, at 4, I had slipped out the door without her noticing and was shocked when a police officer knocked at the door, with me in hand (eating an ice cream cone he had bribed me with. “I found her 3 blocks down the street. Don’t you dare spank her; it’s your fault for not watching her!” he said. Embarrassed, my mother told me she had nodded, and then after he left, paddled my butt.
Stories like those warmed my heart, but even though I wanted desperately to know, she seemed so vulnerable that I somehow I couldn’t find the words to ask her why she had given me away to my father all those years ago. Or why she had agreed to sign the adoption papers that my father sent her later.
The week went flew by; my mother had wanted me to stay there with her and Skip during my visit, but Donna and I had discussed the possibility of this earlier and decided that it would be less stressful for me to stay with Donna at the hotel instead. Even after the happy reception I had been given, it still felt overwhelming to be alone with her.
My mother was hurt, but Donna played the bad-guy, telling her she had to follow my parent’s wishes. I was relieved to be off the hook.
That night in the hotel, Donna called my Mom and Dad, who were waiting anxiously by the phone for her report. I remember her reassuring them that we had arrived safely, the plane ride had gone well, and that we had, in fact, connected with my birth mother. And then, after a moment of listening, she frowned and shook her head, saying, “No. Really, you have nothing to worry about. Hold on a sec…” She covered the receiver with her hand and whispered, “They’re both on the line. Your dad is crying. They asked me if you’re coming home, or if you want to stay here.”
The thought of my father crying and my mother so afraid, broke my heart. Guilt rose as I suddenly realized how hard this trip must have been for them to agree to. To think they had been waiting for the terrible news that I was never coming home to them. I grabbed the phone Donna held out to me.
“Mom? Dad? Of COURSE I’m coming home! You’re my parents. My REAL parents. I love you. How could you even think such a thing?” Tears ran down my face as I could hear the relief in their voices. Mom’s shaky whisper, saying, ‘Thank God,” and Dad blowing his nose before saying, “We love you too, Mousie.”
When it came time for me to leave, my mother, her tears flowing, held me close and whispered in my ear, “I’m so sorry I gave you away, Tina. I was so lost and weak back then. Can you ever forgive me for letting you go?” I hugged her hard and found myself whispering back, “I already have.”
* * *
From Florida, Donna and I flew to Boston, Massachusetts, where the detective had reported my father to be living. It’s been 53 years but specific scenes come to my mind as I look back on that day.
“Try the doorbell,” Donna suggested. We stood outside on the doorstep of the apartment address given to us. I had knocked twice but there had been no answer. I rang the doorbell. No sound of it ringing inside.
“I don’t think it works,” I said. “Maybe he’s just not home.”
At a sound from the sidewalk, Donna and I turned to see an elderly man, clearly not my father, watching us. He looked us over and then said, “If you’re looking for Ed Snyder, he’s not here.” He lit a cigarette and added, “The rent must’ve come due…they moved out a couple nights ago.”
I looked at Donna, who sighed, thanked the man for the information and said to me, “Okay, we’ll head back to the hotel and call the detective. Maybe he can come up with where your father’s gone.”
Giving Donna a rueful smile, I nodded, “So, my father’s found a novel way to deal with paying the rent, huh?”
By the following afternoon, we had a new address.
The doorbell worked at this place and after only a minute or two, the door cracked open enough to allow a small woman inside to peer warily out at us. “We’re not looking to buy anything, thanks,” she said. Apparently Donna and I looked to her like an Avon tag team.
I smiled and said, “Uh, no…we’re not selling anything. I’m looking for Ed Snyder.”
The woman looked alarmed. “Why? What’s he done?”
I shot Donna a, Hmm…interesting question look before I decided to set the woman’s mind at ease. I said, “I’m his daughter.”
Her mouth fell open. “Tina?”
When I nodded, she threw the door open and grinning joyfully said, “Oh my God! He always hoped you’d come back someday!” She reached out and hugged me. “I’m Flossie, his wife,” she said. “I can’t believe you’re here! He’s going to be so happy to see you!”
I smiled at her enthusiasm. “So,” I said, “is he home?”
Flossie’s excited grin faded. “He isn’t, honey. He just left a half-hour or so ago.”
At my disappointed look, she quickly added, “But he’ll be back around three. You can come back then and surprise him.” She looked at me, her expression suddenly pensive. “Your grandma Flora always told Ed you would come back. She just knew you would. It’s so sad she didn’t live long enough to see you again.”
I hadn’t even thought, when planning this trip, of the possibility that the grandmother I still vaguely remembered living with as a small child, might still be alive. That I might have seen her as well as my father. A sudden picture of the little French woman who mothered me so sweetly so many years ago came to my mind.
“When did she die?” I asked.
Flossie reached out and patted my arm sympathetically. “Three years ago. She missed you by just 3 years.”
Donna put her arm around my shoulders and pulled me close for a hug, “What a shame.”
“Oh!” I said, “Flossie, this is Donna,” Caught up in the moment, I had almost forgotten she was there. “Donna’s my friend; my parent’s secretary.”
Donna leaned forward to shake Flossie’s hand, “Hi. I came along at Tina’s parent’s request so she wouldn’t have to travel all this way alone.
Flossie nodded, “This is a long way from Oregon, for sure.” She looked at her watch. “It’s just now one o’clock, so we have a couple of hours yet, you’re welcome to come in for some coffee.”
Donna turned to me, “What do you think, kiddo? Do you want to wait here or come back later?”
After giving it some thought for a minute, I said, “I think maybe we’ll come back around 4 or so, when he’s home for sure.”
Flossie’s unbridled enthusiasm dispelled my anxiety over what my possible reception with my father might be. I knew for sure now that he was going to be happy to see me. My own feelings about the coming reunion, however, were ambivalent. Unlike going to see my mother, with whom I had had no preconceived resentment since I had hardly remembered her, my memories of my father were visceral. Yes, I wanted to see him. He was my father after all, and I was curious…did I look like him? Did I get my sense of humor from him…my love of reading and writing? But he was also the man who had abandoned me more than once, I honestly didn’t know how I was going to feel being face-to-face with him.
“Ready as I’m ever gonna be,” I told Donna, who stood one step below me outside the door of my father’s apartment. The thought of seeing my father again, troubled me. I remembered the last time I had seen him: remembered him standing in Mom and Dad’s driveway with my bicycle. I had refused to go talk to him then—he had become a stranger. These years later, he would be even more so. I was torn; part of me wanted to see him, part of me didn’t.
I reached out and rang the doorbell. From inside Flossie yelled, “Get the door, Ed!”
A man’s voice. “Why can’t you get it?”
“Just answer the door, would you?”
The sound of a lock being turned and then the door swung open.
My mother hadn’t looked even vaguely familiar to me, but I knew this man. Even with most of his hair missing, I remembered his face. My father. Behind him, Flossie stood, smiling ear to ear.
He looked us over, noting, I’m sure our upscale clothing. We didn’t fit the neighborhood norm. His expression cautious, he said, “What can I do for you?”
I decided to fall back on my old standby, “Does the name Tina ring a bell?”
He processed this for a minute, just as my mother had done. Then, his eyes grew big and the color visibly drained from his face. “Tina?” he whispered.
I shrugged, smiling, and said, “In the flesh.”
My father clapped both hands to his chest and staggered backwards. Thankfully, there was a staircase directly behind him; he hit the bottom stair and landed hard on his butt. Flossie ran to him, dropping to her knees. “Ed? Honey, are you okay?”
Donna and I stood frozen for a minute. Neither of us had expected this reception.
My father sat staring at me like he had literally seen a ghost.
When no further signs of an impending heart attack and death appeared, I stepped into the house and said, “Hi. Remember me?”
Flossie helped him up and stood grinning like a Cheshire Cat. “Surprise!” she laughed. “Guess your mother was right all along. She did come back.”
My father looked at me with wonder. “I can’t believe it. You’re really here.” His eyes welled up. “I never forgot you, Tina. I never did. And I can prove it,” he said, digging in his back pocket for his wallet. He opened it and pulled out a photograph with a triumphant, “See?” He held it out to me. It was a little black and white picture of me on the farm in the snow with Judy the dog.
I didn’t know it then, but later I would learn that it was the one he had shown to my adopted parents 11 years before.
The seven-year-old child in me was deeply touched. The adult me…? Confused and conflicted. Nothing new there.
Memory is a fascinating thing: With a whiff of a certain perfume, it can transport you back in time to your mother’s arms; with a certain song on the radio, it can bring you to a moment driving along the highway with your best friend; with a certain photograph, it can take you instantly to that wedding, that funeral, that carnival ride.
But the mind also has an intriguing, built in fail-safe mechanism that can go imperceptibly into effect when it feels threatened by an emotional overload. Memory can be shut down in response to an intensely stressful experience.
The evening that followed with my father and Flossie was fascinating…I’m sure.
We went out to dinner. Or Flossie cooked. Or pizza was delivered. There was a meal eaten, I suppose. There was probably deeply meaningful conversation. My father almost certainly explained to me why he had chosen to give me to strangers rather than leave my abusive stepmother. But if he did, I don’t remember what the reason was. These many years later the evening is almost a complete blank. The only things I do remember about that night are sitting at a dirty kitchen table with my father, Flossie and Donna. And I remember Flossie going upstairs and bringing down a little satin bag, which she handed to me. “Your grandmother never doubted that you would come here one day,” she said. “She told us to give this to you when you did.” In the bag were a pretty cameo pin and a gold ring, which my father said were his mother’s things.
Those are the only memories I have retained of the reunion with my father. The trip to Boston has become little more than a disjointed dream. We stayed in touch by letters and phone calls for a while, but my heart was never in it. When Flossie died only a few years later, my father called and asked to come live with me, “Until I get on my feet”. I said no. I never saw him again.