My adoptive parents never lied to me about being adopted. They never tried to hide it from me, the way some of my adopted friends’ parents did. Whenever I asked where I was born (hoping for the name of a local hospital,) my mother always answered, “We were lucky. We got to pick you out.” It made me feel so wanted, and a little more special than other kids. When I pressed for more, she always told me that she didn’t know what hospital I was born in. I don’t remember any further conversation on the matter, just that one answer. When I was around eight years old, I put two and two together and asked, “Does that mean that I’m adopted?” Mom answered, “Yes.”
Over the next few days, I asked her many questions about my birth parents – why they gave me up, where I was actually born, anything I could think of. She told me that she knew that I was born in Rome, Italy, but that she didn’t know any more about my mother or father, or why they gave me up. All she would say is that my mother must have loved me so much that she wanted to give me a better life. I didn’t understand that at all; apparently none of my friends had mothers that loved them that much, as they kept their children. As long as she lived, this is all my mother would tell me.
Later, as I wished aloud for an older brother, she told me that she and Dad “were supposed to” adopt both a boy and a girl, but that they decided against the boy because Mom was too sick and frail to handle two children. I accepted this explanation, because my mom was pretty fragile all through my childhood, never feeling completely well and having repeated bouts of sickness. It seemed a plausible reason for why they backed out of adopting two children instead of just one.
My wish for an older brother never abated; I asked Mom & Dad to just go ahead and adopt another child well into my teenage years. It’s like something crucial was missing from my life. Mom always deflected by musing about who among the boys whom we knew were adopted around the same as I would have ended up as my “brother.” Thinking about it from a mother’s perspective now, it must have taken a little piece of her heart every time I requested a big brother. But I had no idea, no way of knowing of the truth hiding inside the “two children” story, and wouldn’t discover it for many years.
My adoptive parents provided a secure, stable, and loving life for me. Honey and Bob were solid, good people, deeply rooted in their Italian-American families and the Catholic Church. Mom, “Honey,” was a first-generation American with immigrant parents from the Abruzzi region of Italy. Dad, Bob, was the son of a Sicilian immigrant and a first-generation Italian-American mother. Family was the center of their lives, and I grew up among many aunts, uncles, and cousins, most of whom accepted me as one of the pack, as if I was born into it. Mom & Dad gave me everything they could. I was spoiled in all the good ways. I always, always felt wanted and cherished by my dad. I can’t say the same about my mom.
I don’t have many memories from my childhood, but what I do remember is playing alone a lot and being rebuffed whenever I asked my mom to play a game with me. She was a stay-home mom, as most were in the early 60’s, and she always seemed more interested in keeping a clean and tidy house than being an interactive mother. When I found myself playing alone, I’d ask Mom if she’d jump rope with me, or maybe play a game of Hi Ho Cherry-O with me. The answer was almost always a brusque refusal. “Can’t you see that I’m in the middle of washing the kitchen cabinets? I don’t have time for that. Go play.”She wouldn’t even let me help with cooking when I was older. It wasn’t this way every time I asked – I do remember her teaching me how to play Jacks – but it was often enough that my strongest association with my mother is that of rejection and disappointment. It was often enough that I used to wonder why she adopted a child in the first place.
Dad was never too busy for me, although he was always busy doing something when he was home. A locomotive engineer in the steel mills, he worked every extra shift he could get his hands on to provide a comfortable life for his little family. When he was home, he was usually working on something in the garage; he repaired televisions and radios as a hobby, and seemed to always be under the hood of a car, tinkering with it to make it perform better. I’d wander out there and just hang out with him. He never shooed me away – in fact, he usually put me to work, holding flashlights under the car hood, holding the solder to fix a connection in a radio, pumping the car’s brakes to bleed the lines, anything. He also took me along with him on any and all errands. He taught me how to hit a baseball and throw a football. I felt needed and appreciated by these small gestures. I also learned a heck of a lot about vacuum tube TVs and radios, and how to install a new muffler on a car. But most importantly, I learned I was important to my dad. He wanted me around, and didn’t ever treat me as a bother. He was happy to share every minute he had with me. I learned that he really wanted to be a dad. I was never that sure about my mom.
I’m still not, after all these years.