There was that soft “plop” in the front hall, which set the dog to barking and scratching at the door. Moving into the hall to shush Ruggles, I gathered the scattered mail, before it could be shredded by his exuberance. I instructed him firmly to be quiet, to be a ‘good boy’. As usual.
But this was not to be a usual day. That realization landed, like an unwanted guest, the moment that I had spread the envelopes across the kitchen table and looked at the return addresses.
Only a few letters arrived, these days. Mostly, they were requests for donations with unwanted gifts inside, that were intended to make me feel guilty. A few bills still arrived by mail, due to my reticence to switch to online formats. Occasionally a greeting card or a Thank You note would brighten my day, reminding me fondly of a slower era, before fax or computers.
I don’t remember sitting. But I was seated when I picked up the official-looking letter with Toronto Children’s Aid Society in the return address. I was single and childless. I looked at the letter with dread, and could not open it. It had been a very long time since I had lived in Toronto. My body began to tremble and the bile rose in my throat. I felt as though I would be sick.
Instead, as my head dropped unbidden into my hands, I was spun back in time - almost fifty years earlier. Back to an era of hand written notes and trousseau teas - and caring so much about what the neighbours might think. An era that valued social status and reputation above everything – even above family. This was all too painful, still.
My thoughts moved back to my small high school in an upper middle-class neighbourhood, where we had lived. My grades had been good and I was athletic. I was on the Debating Team and I was a cheerleader. I knew that other girls envied me. I was smugly satisfied with that knowledge, cocooned within the narcissism of early teenage years.
I liked art and I had dreams of becoming an architect. I had read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and imagined that I could be the sort of principled visionary that her architect hero, Howard Roark, portrayed. I admired the buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright, who had been the inspiration for that character.
As a self-absorbed and insecure teenaged girl, whose body and emotions seemed to morph in unpredictable ways, I longed for the status of inclusion with my peers. I also wanted teachers to praise me. I wanted older girls to include me. And I especially wanted the handsome boys to notice to me, and to find me attractive. My secret fantasies about boys were kept hidden within my shyness, as my body developed much faster than my brain or emotions.
My social life had consisted of supervised dances at school or at a local church, until I was sixteen. That year I had been allowed to get my driver’s license, mostly to be able to chauffer my younger brothers and my mother who had not learned how to drive. My debating skills proved useful to argue that if I could take the responsibility of driving passengers, that I should also be deemed responsible enough to date.
That successful argument came with strict conditions of curfews and parental warnings. My mother was full of examples of calamitous behaviour and wanton girls, whose lives had been ruined. Her paradigms were in stark contrast to the gossip, bragging, and talk of love within the girls’ washroom or changing rooms. This new stage of navigating dating relationships was confusing and intoxicating at the same time.
My eyes returned to the letter sitting on the teak table in my cheerful little kitchen, before jerking away again to stare out the window. Why was it addressed to me? What did they want? I didn’t want to know. My eighteen-year-old self was screaming “NO!” But that had not been effective then, and it was no more effective now.
I wanted to cry. But I had been unable to cry then, and I was unable to cry now. Denial had been my refuge and I had dwelt there successfully, for decades. Unconsciously, it had affected my choices over the years. My choice to remain childless. My choice to become a teacher. My choice of a husband, who had shared my wishes... before he left me, to become the father of someone else’s children.
I now had a bungalow with a beautiful garden. I had a dog. I had retired with a good pension, at 60. I had friends. I wrote stories. I attended yoga classes and art lessons. I enjoyed travelling with fellow retired teachers. Why was this wretched letter sitting on my table, threatening to spoil my carefully-crafted life? I had an urge to tear it to shreds, or burn it, or toss it into the garbage unopened – but I couldn’t. It would haunt me, if I did.
Unbidden, my thoughts returned to my teenage years and shame. I remembered back to the hospital. The nurses. The agony. I remembered that each day they brought her to me. Each day they urged me to nurse her, to touch her. Each day I kept my arms wrapped tightly around my leaking breasts and shook my head “NO”. Each day I retreated into my imaginary world, far from the hospital ward or my family. There, I was an admired architect, with a glorious future and adoring followers.
I had willed my mind to go as far as it could get from my mother’s words. But now her voice reverberated again. “How dare I destroy their life and their reputation?! I had trammelled their trust. What would their friends and neighbours think? No decent man would want me, now. I couldn’t support myself and a child - they would not help. What was I thinking?” Her words had ricocheted through my brain, until I forced my thoughts inward, to my safe imaginary life.
There had only been one option - and that was secrecy and adoption. To pretend that this had never happened. So, I had been sent away to my aunt in North Bay, just after Christmas, before it would become obvious. Before the neighbours might guess.
Thank heavens I had graduated the previous summer, due to skipping a year of grade school. My boyfriend, who was the captain of the football team was a few months older, but he was a year behind me, due to my school acceleration. He had offered to marry me, but both of our parents felt we were too young and neither family was willing to offer any support. Closer to the truth, was the fact that each set of parents aspired to higher society and could not stomach the embarrassment for them, if “my condition” would become known.
I had done what they wanted. I had gone meekly away until the due date, and then returned to Grace Hospital, where they never visited. I had not touched the child, for fear I might not be able to let her go. For seven long days, I had tried not to look at her; and tried to block out the description from the nurses, that she was beautiful. She would have a better future with two parents and without me. I slammed a door on all that pain. I had dived deep into denial and pretense, and had slept a deep sleep there …. for decades.
Each year I would stir a little, on the date of the summer solstice - on June 21st, when the earth reached its maximum tilt to kiss the sun. I had hoped that she had two loving parents to reach out and kiss her on that day, each year. I told myself that I had given her a blessing. Other thoughts were banished.
And now this letter. Why?
I reached out for the letter, but could not touch it. My hand lay inches away, frozen. My mind calculated the math. She would be 47 now. Why now? Could she have died? Was she sick? Would the agency notify me about that? Probably not. My mind raced through fantasy scenarios.
She must hate me. I hated me, if I could be honest. Had I done what was best or had I been a coward? Could she understand my situation at eighteen? Would she forgive me? I had pushed all of the “what if” options out of my mind for so many years…. And now a letter lay on my table. A letter which might have answers, or merely tear open old wounds.
Distraught, I reached for the letter and for a kitchen knife to slice it open. Unfolding the sheet of paper, I found that I couldn’t read the words. I realized that I was crying, and worse, that I couldn’t breathe for sobbing. It was impossible to read now. The floodgates had opened.
Stumbling blindly into my small bedroom, I curled into fetal position on the bed clutching a pillow to my chest. Something comforting against my belly and my heart. How many times had I lain like that with her inside me, sobbing like this, through a long cold winter and spring? It was all coming back, and the pain was excruciating.
Ruggles had never seen me like this. Putting his front paws on the bed, he licked my face with his doggy breath. I sobbed on. He clambered up onto the bed to lie beside me, with his head on my shoulder, until I had no more tears. By then, darkness had filled the room. Then he moved to the door and whined, until I was forced to get up to let him out.
Turning on the light in the bathroom and splashing cold water over my face, I looked up to peer into the ancient mirror on the medicine cabinet. Much of its silver had been lost, so that the image was blurred and foggy. Looking back at me was a ghostly old woman with red, puffy eyes and a creased face. Her wavering image seemed to be from another dimension, disassociated from me. I looked at it curiously. Only minutes ago, I had been eighteen. I still felt eighteen, but the mirror knew this to be a lie. It told me that it was past the time “to get my shit together” - an expression my students had once used. This was the reckoning that I had avoided for so long. But it would wait a little longer, until I let Ruggles back in and fed him his dinner. Then, I resolutely sat down on my chair to read the letter.
The Children’s Aid social worker stated that my daughter wished to gain more medical information to provide to her children, and that she would appreciate meeting me once, if that would not be too difficult. She didn’t wish to intrude. If that would be agreeable, the woman suggested that we might exchange a letter and a photo to be forwarded to her at the Children’s Aid Society, prior to arranging a meeting in her office. She finished by stating that I had every right to refuse such contact because we had no legal tie to one another.
I sat back in confusion. It had been so important that “no one would know”. I had never considered that we might meet or that she would wish to see me. My family had instructed that I should wash any thoughts of her from my mind, as if this ugly chapter had never happened. It had also been made very clear to me, by the lawyers, that I had relinquished all legal rights and that there could never be any contact between us.
Yet here was a letter so many years later, suggesting contact and a meeting. My daughter - even if she was not legally my daughter - wanted to meet me!
I cannot describe the whirlwind of emotions. They included joy, fear, excitement, dread and relief. I was giddy and trembling. Grabbing a pen and writing paper, I immediately replied YES, we could meet, and that I would compose a letter to send along with a photo, before that date was set. I found a stamp for the envelope and took Ruggles to the mailbox on the corner, before I could change my mind.
At home, I scrambled some eggs, humming softly, and then headed for bed, drained and exhausted. Brushing my teeth, I looked again at the mirror to see a face smiling back. It looked much younger, and it was filled with a rare look of elation. I fell asleep to a mantra of the name I had given to her: Deborah, Deborah, Deborah.
The intervening weeks passed quickly. I wrote my letter and agonized over a photo. In the end, I sent two: my high school graduation photo and one from my retirement party, together with a brief summary of my life. I realized as I wrote, that there wasn’t much to tell. I had lived a quiet life. No major accomplishments. No family. I couldn’t explain to her that I had lived according to principles too. I didn’t care for other people’s values. I stood up for the underdog. I marched in rallies and wrote letters for causes that were just. I had tried to teach those values to my students too.
My narrow world had been turned on its ear. I wanted to share this news - but no one knew. I had been conditioned by years of shame. My parents were dead and Robert was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. That’s what I had heard. His wife was struggling to be his caregiver. They had been the only ones who knew the truth. I thought of confiding in friends or my younger brothers, but I just couldn’t muster the courage to speak about this. Not yet.
Her letter was passed on to me by the social worker, with a photo of a smiling family including two sons in their late teens to early twenties, who were dressed in suits. Perhaps for a graduation, I thought. I scrutinized her face for signs of me, but she looked more like Robert. Her height and body shape were clearly mine instead. Now her name was Summer, how appropriate for her birthday. I read her letter and shook my head at the coincidences. She too was a teacher. She taught at a high school near the one I had attended. She loved to draw and to write. Her parents had been older than most, and they had now passed away. She had attended summer camps and university, where she had become a cheerleader and had met her husband - on the football team. He had become a teacher too. They would soon celebrate their twenty-fifth anniversary. She wanted to know more about her roots, for her children. She didn’t intend to intrude.
I re-read her letter over and over. Such a cascade of emotions… Relief that she had had a good life. A profound ache, that I had not shared it. Guilt and anger, that this should be so.
A meeting had been set for the end of the month. What would she think of me? The intervening days were lived in torment. Ruggles sensed it and would not leave my side. The dog kept searching my face for reassurance or an explanation. Hugging him, I tried to prepare my words for her.
On the day of our meeting, I arrived too early and nervously walked the city blocks until it was time. In the waiting room, a young woman was crying quietly. I was told that Summer was with the social worker, who would come for me shortly. I wanted to comfort the young woman. But I lacked the courage to approach her.
Finally, the inner door opened. A tall woman in her forties beckoned me to follow. I seemed to rise in slow motion, to walk down the corridor and pause at her office. My moment of truth and of reckoning lay inside the door. Could she forgive me? I had never forgiven my mother, with her concern for society’s opinion above her support for me and my baby, her own flesh and blood.
I entered hesitantly, to look at my daughter - for the first time. She was lovely. She rose to greet me, with a tentative smile. The social worker was making introductions, but I wasn’t listening. My feet were moving forward of their own volition, until I was standing before her - and sobbing.
I said, “I am so sorry.”
She touched my shoulder, crying with me. “It’s OK”, she said softly. We stood there together, after so many years. Two grown women with so much to say, yet unable to speak.
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Hi Catherine, (great name you have, by the way). Thank you for posting this emotional read. It's a difficult topic but you handle it with care and compassion for both characters. I really enjoyed reading the story. If you are interested in any critique I would just suggest that your writing could benefit from a little more showing and a little less telling. I know that's difficult with the word limit, but you have packed a lot of details into this story that could potentially be cut back on to buy you some wiggle room. For a short cours...
Thanks Katharine! I am new to this site (& pretty new to writing publicly) so I very much appreciate your suggestions. I will definitely look at the course material. Great name indeed :)