Reading My Birth Mom
For thirty-seven years of my life, I could only read who my birth mom was from a piece of paper with “Non-Identifying Information” on it.
Hair: Light Brown
I’ve been trying to define her, describe her, to find her essence, her form, to bring her to life. My whole life. As an adoptee from the era of closed records, I practiced ekphrasis (way before I knew what “ekphrasis” was) from this 8 ½ x 11 yellowed sheet of paper. A representation of her. In print. Its edges and creases worn with years of wonder. Memorized.
I hold on to her hobby. I carry it on, still. “My birthmom’s hobby was dancing,” I tell everyone. Ballet (my favorite), tap, jazz, modern. I earned toned and defined legs over my years of dance instruction. Tendues, pirouettes, and pliés. Pink ballet tights, pointe shoes. My daughter dances too. She carries it on. “Dancing is in your blood,” I tell her. Ballet, tap (her favorite) and modern. She too, at age eleven has toned shapely legs. She dances on stage, eyebrows lifted and engaged. Easy grace. Beautiful placement. A natural turn out.
Dear birth mom, did you take dance lessons? Did you walk to dance class or did your mom take you? I’ve always felt connected to you because as a young girl I believed that my love for dance came from you. I mean, that’s what the sheet of paper told me. That’s pretty much all I had to go on until I found a yearbook picture of you when I was thirty-eight.
Reading This Print
This woman. This print. This representation. She is not you. She is Joanne Seltzer—daughter of Leo M. Seltzer, M.D. She did take dance lessons and piano lessons in 1954. I can follow the paper trail.
Check #1582 on 2/20/1954 for $90 to Mr. John Hiersoux for piano lessons.
Check #1846 on 10/26/1954 for $24 to the American Academy of Ballet for shoes.
Check #1914 on 12/14/1954 for $32 to the American Academy of Ballet.
Joanne Seltzer. Pink parfait tutu—probably a poodle skirt. Loose long and feminine hair. But no sign of ballet in this print, no grande battements, arabesques, or pas de chats. Instead, Joanne’s ghostly girly figure reaches see-through arms up, towards a partner’s neck, as if to hold on. Did she learn ballroom instead of ballet? Did she practice with her dad, Dr. Leo Seltzer, M.D.?
Dear birth mom, did you sometimes practice with your dad? Did you dance with my birth dad? I don’t like ballroom much, do you?
Reading the Backdrop
Dance lessons in 1954. I imagine money for dance lessons was hard to come by in 1954. But Joanne’s daddy was a doctor, and I (perhaps naively) assume the Seltzer family could afford dance and piano for their sweet daughter. Still, in Joanne’s print—I read the backdrop of sacrifice in the backdrop of the checks her daddy wrote.
You sacrificed for me, didn’t you, birth mom?
In fact, that’s kind of the standard definition of adoption, isn’t it—the birth mom sacrifices raising her child to give the child a better opportunity in life. My adoption story tells me my birth parents didn’t feel financially prepared to get married and raise a family. They were both seniors in college at the University of Illinois—my birth mom in accounting and my birth dad in geography (going on to be a pilot). They got pregnant in October 1969 of their senior year, and my birth mom dropped out of college. Her parents were befuddled and dismayed, I’ve learned; they never knew why and they took the mystery to their graves. My birth parents never told anyone—not their parents, their siblings, no one in their family that I know of. I can read the sacrifices. My birth mom sacrificed finishing her college degree. She sacrificed her body for nine months and then more. She sacrificed the joy of keeping and nurturing and nursing her first born child. She sacrificed living in freedom and truth.
I know this print is about Joanne, but I can’t stop thinking about you.
I would read every letter of every paper trail of yours 1000 times.
The Doner auditorium goes dark, and I light up the paper program with my iPhone. My daughter’s ballet routine is next. Budding 5th grade girls, budding ballerinas in light pink leotards and tights under soft blue light, light blue sashes made of see-through taffeta float from the girls’ wrists. On stage, her hair pulled up in a bun, held in by bobby pins, my daughter wears a little blue eye shadow, a little blush, mascara, and a little red lipstick—just to keep her from getting washed out by the stage lights. I read Natalie as a leader on the stage. She tells me she is nervous, but she knows what she is doing. And without trying or forcing or faking, she expresses the message of the composition to the audience. I can tell and I know—she feels a fullness in her heart when she dances. Gentle grace in her eyes, her legs–curves of muscle that match mine and match the dancing training she has taken so far, her arms and fingers extended . . . soft billowy poise. She communicates with her eyes to the other dancers on stage, her friends, and she shares herself as she dances.
Natalie and I read each other well. She sometimes says exactly what I’m thinking, and vice versa. I wonder about my mom. When she saw me on stage at dance recitals, what did she see? My biological daughter gives me moments of self-recognition and self-awareness I never knew I was missing. I recognize my hands when I see Natalie’s hands. I recognize the shape of my legs and arms when I see Natalie’s figure. I recognize the hugs I give and like to receive when I hug Natalie. And I recognize the many personality traits of hers that are also mine. She writes. She talks. (My dad always called me “windy” growing up.) She likes to learn. She likes to read. She likes to dance. She likes music. I recognize what I see.
Dear birth mom, do you give good long hugs? Do you like to learn? What else do my daughter and I have that is also yours?
Reading my Birth Mom’s Picture
I found a picture of her in my thirty-eighth year of life. It wasn’t easy. I chased a paper trail which began with my adoption file: her upside-down, written in cursive, complicated long Polish name on the folder of a file (which I am not supposed to see), to a computer that tracks births and deaths in the state of Illinois, to a Polish obituary that lists my birth mom as a survivor, to searching on the internet for recent addresses and such, to digs into the archives of libraries for yearbooks, to finally a friend’s mom who still had her yearbook from the University of Illinois and found your picture in a sorority composite photo from 1968.
Dear birth mom, you were beautiful. Simple stylish dark hair. Petite young woman. A beautiful smile.
I tried to see myself in you. Everyone who knew me tried. We compared smiles and hair color and eyes and cheekbones and ears and eyebrows and noses and chins and expression. We poured over your photo. The joy of seeing you in print. The joy of imagining you as a sweet, full of aspiration sophomore at the University of Illinois recently pledged to a sorority. When I look at your picture, I see the hope of your future and the terror of an unplanned pregnancy around your corner. I feel like I want to say sorry, but I don’t want to apologize for my life, really. I love my life. Could I say thank you?
Dear birth mom, did shame make you a pink ghost? Were you vibrant and visible before you gave me up? Did your dancing attract my birth dad’s attention in college? Your dancer’s figure? And now, do you regret it? Because now, you hide. You hide from me. I found you. I wanted to know you. But you say you don’t want to know me. And so I research who you are, I find images of who you are, but I can really only imagine who you are. I found you, but I still can’t make you surface.
Stuck in ekphrasis.
Wiki on Ekphrasis:
“Socrates and Phaedrus:
The painter’s products stand before us as though they were alive,
but if you question them, they maintain a most majestic silence.”
Your majestic silence breaks my heart.