It came on a standard piece of office paper bearing the letterhead Families United, typed in Times New Roman, twelve font, single-spaced:
Your birth mother has asked us to contact you on her behalf. She would like to connect, but you are under no obligation whatsoever. Your information is protected and nothing will be divulged without your permission. An email and phone number along with the business hours are included.
I re-read the note again and again before laying it on the granite counter. My throat has gone dry. I swallow a half-finished bottle of Aquafina in two gulps, water sliding down my chin, fat drops blurring words on the paper. The counter feels cold under my grip as I drop onto the bar stool.
Before the mail that afternoon, it had been an ordinary day. I’d tucked cereal bowls into the dishwasher next to plates smeared with crumbs and sticky frosting from last night’s twentieth-anniversary cake.
Fifteen-year-old Marci and her sister Celia are making a racket over whose turn is next for the iPad. I love the household noise. If it were up to me, we’d have four children. I always wanted a big family.
Marci yells, “Mom, can you start the car? I’ll be right down.”
I’m supposed to take her to choir practice.
“Sure, sure, I’m coming right now, honey,” I say and fold the letter onto itself.
“Moooommm, come on.”
My boots thunk on the stone tile while my heart races, the letter is in my hand. I grab my shoulder bag and stuff the paper deep inside.
My whole body is quivering, especially my hands on the steering wheel. Traffic is at a crawl. Light rain covers the windshield and I turn the knob, starting the wipers.
My vision pulses with my heartbeat. What's wrong with me? It's only a letter.
Forty-five years, my God. Forty-five.
A homeless girl hides under the overpass, lighter in one hand, the other cupped around a cigarette. She looks up just as we roll by and I see that she's young. Maybe just out of high school. I glance at Marci. They could be sisters.
Ahead of us, one of those souped-up low riders stops, signals right, and allows a long space in front of him. I lean on the horn. Marci cracks her gum.
“Patience, Mom,” she says, turning up the radio, “Ooh, my favorite song.”
She must have half a dozen favorites and isn’t shy about belting out the words. Normally I would chide her for the gum cracking, but today I hardly notice.
My children do not know that I am adopted.
The messages that I am different came like dandelion puffs, barely noticed, putting down roots over the years.
I was in first grade, at recess with my best friend, Leslie next to me. We played on the old rusty swings, going up and down together.
Leslie said, “I saw your mother with the cookies in home room. I knew it was her. She looks just like you.”
I slowed down dragging my feet on the ground and stared at the rust on my hands.
“Nuh-uh. She can’t. She’s not my real mother.”
Leslie stopped next to me. “What do you mean?”
“I’m adopted. My real mother lives someplace else.”
“Doesn’t matter. The one you have now looks like she’s real.”
“You got brothers and sisters?” Leslie asks.
I rubbed my hand on my dark pants but the rusty color was still there.
“No. It’s just me.”
“Well, that’s good. I hate my brother.”
“If I had a brother, I wouldn’t hate him. Sister neither.”
We pushed off and pumped hard till we were up high again.
At home, we always ate at the dining room table with six chairs. Just me and Mother and Daddy and all those empty chairs.
They were always saying how pretty I was. That day, I had on my yellow dress with the puffy sleeves.
“You are the loveliest little girl I know,” Mother said, pouring Kool-Aid into my glass for dinner.
“Thank you,” I said. “Same as you, Mother. Leslie said she saw you at school. She knew you were my mother because I look just like you. I told her that’s funny because you’re not my real mother. I’m adopted.”
The cherry Kool-Aid was almost gone. Ice cubes hit my lip and the red drink got on my dress.
Mother said, “Here now, use your napkin. It’s no problem sweetie, you have lots of dresses.”
Daddy put down his fork and sat back in his chair, like he was mad at me.
“Elizabeth. That is private. It’s nobody’s business. We don’t talk about being adopted. Next time, just say thank you and change the subject.”
“Why? How come we don’t talk about it?”
His mouth stayed real tight. “We just don’t, that’s all.”
“Is it a secret?”
“No. It’s not a secret. But it’s nobody’s business.”
My shame at being adopted began with those few passing words. I didn't know why Daddy said not to talk about it, but there it was.
Mother would answer my questions when Daddy wasn’t around. She said my birth parents were college kids and couldn’t take care of me. I dreamed that they were happy and married with more kids. That someday I might meet my real family. I liked to think about being with them, like a normal kid with brothers and sisters.
I hid the letter under a lavender sachet in the back of my underwear drawer. It was late afternoon with the soft drawn-out laments of mourning doves beyond the bedroom window. The humidity had come up with the unusual hot spell. My husband, Tim, and I are in our bedroom; he's changing after work. I always thought of him as handsome. He is many inches taller than I, wears black-framed glasses, and keeps a Brad Pitt goatee.
He’s known from the beginning about my adoption.
We don't talk about it.
I'm putting away folded laundry and open my underwear drawer. There is the letter, right where it's been for a week. I pull it out and hold it to my nose. The lavender scent is like a summer garden in the paper.
Tim slips out of jeans and work shirt, and like a good husband, he tosses them in the hamper.
I wipe my damp forehead with the back of my hand.
“We’re going to have to turn on the air.”
Tim throws his work boot against the closet wall.
“Hey,” I yell, what do you think you’re doing? I mean, if you have some problem with turning on the air conditioning…”
“It’s not that. I’m just pissed. It’s been a shitty day. On top of everything else, Mom called me at work. She wants to visit over Memorial Day weekend. I swear, every time I get a game set up, there’s a glitch. Last time I had three days off in a row, it was your parents.”
“Oh, so it’s a parent problem? There are three hundred sixty-five days in a year. Can’t you can spare a day for your Mom?” The bed catches me as I sink down at the edge.
He’s fixing the waistband snaps on his shorts and looks up, startled.
“Elizabeth? Are you crying? Hey, hey, if you want my mother to come, that’s up to you. Honest to god, it’s nothing to cry about.”
The lavender scent has faded. The letter is just a page with printed text.
“What’s this?” Tim says.
Words catch in my throat.
He takes the paper. “Smells like perfume,” he says and hinges his glasses on top of his head.
I turn my back to him and face outside where the doves have paired on a branch close by, their plump bodies and tiny gray heads darting about. In a crook of the branch near the trunk, is a half-built nest.
“Look, Tim, a nest.” My voice comes out thick. “We’ll get to see hatchlings.”
Still looking at the letter, “I wonder why she wants to meet you. Why now,” Tim says, “After all this time.”
I watch the birds.
His voice is soft, “What are you going to do?”
“Nothing. I’m going to do nothing. Throw it away.”
“You’re sure? Maybe keep it for a while. You might change your mind.”
I snatch it from his hands, tear it to pieces, and dump them in the bathroom wastebasket. I look up to the long vanity mirror and see Tim’s reflection behind me, his arms folded across his chest.
“Look, nobody expects you to bounce around all bubbles and balloons. I don’t blame you for being upset. Like a bomb dropped on your head or something. I don’t know. Maybe some people would be curious. Maybe she’s really nice. You two might hit it off. It doesn’t help to get all in a lather over it. It seems like you’re kind of mad about it.”
My eyes sting. I whip around, facing him, “Mad? How would you feel? I’ve lived my whole life without her. I have a mother, thank you very much.”
Tim steps near and with his closeness is the faint smell of the morning’s deodorant mixed with perspiration.
His hands are gentle on my shoulders, “Sweetheart—,you—”
I twist away, “Don’t touch me.”
My hostility surprises me. I hate him. I hate that I love him and that he could go away or stop loving me. That he could destroy me.
Tim backs up, throws up his hands, “I’m sorry. Really. I’m sorry.” He turns and walks out.
Finally, I sit quiet for a long time looking at nothing, thinking of nothing, afraid to see. I retrieve the letter from the trash and tape it back together.
It’s been three weeks. My mind is full of this woman who made me. When I’m alone, I cry. At night I cry. In the car, I cry. I’ve apologized for my outburst to Tim, again and again until he tells me to stop, that it’s no big deal, he understands. But, does he really?
We’re in bed, in the dark. The air conditioner whispers fresh dry air. We haven’t made love since the letter arrived.
“Please don’t leave me.”
“Ah, Lizzy. We’ve been married a long time. Why would you say that?” He pulls me close.
“Just tell me you won’t.”
“Okay. I won’t.”
“I won’t leave wet towels on the floor ever again.” He chuckles.
I push him away and turn on my back. “Come on, Tim.”
“Anyone can say anything, Lizzy and still they do what they want. Why would I leave?”
I inhale deeply, trying to stop the tears before they start. “Please. Just fucking say it.”
“I won’t leave you. There. Feel better?”
He touches my hair, playing with it, twirling it in his fingers, gently pulling it, and moving it across the pillow.
“Maybe it would give you some breathing space if you talked to her. Maybe give that agent a holler. Find out what happens if you connect. That letter says you’re in control.”
“You don’t get it. I’m not in control. I have never been in control. I had no say in what happened to me. I had no choice at all. She left me; you know? She left me.
And my parents. My whole life, they kept me up on some altar. Mother always said, “I adore you Elizabeth. I’m so blessed to be your mother. You are a gift from Heaven.” I’m grateful to them for everything they gave me. I owe them. They don’t deserve to be hurt.”
It's a month since I've slept. Tim and I have talked and talked. He's right. I can go as slow as I want. Finally, I relent to this unremitting need.
My mother’s name is Wendy. The intermediary has forwarded an email from her in case I declined to communicate.
To my long lost child,
I want to tell you that I've always regretted having to give you up. You were conceived during a time when there was no acceptance of an unmarried mother. It was shameful to become pregnant before marriage back in the sixties.
I've hoped and prayed that you were well-loved and appreciated by your adoptive parents and siblings. Please know that I did the best that I could do for you at the time.
For many years, I was unable to allow myself to think about you and all that happened at the time. After years of therapy, I've decided to try to locate you and let you know me if you want. If not, I understand. I hope that you can forgive me.
All the best,
It’s the last part that kills me. I can almost touch the ache in my chest. I don’t want to feel this way. But there’s this pull.
Wendy and I email and text every day, sometimes more than once. She asks to meet. No, I say.
I send a picture of me. A head shot only. I can't allow her to see me fully.
But I want to hear her.
She sends a voice message.
We sound alike.
I have sisters!
Wendy sends pictures of a family get-together, twenty people standing in front of an old shade tree. My people. I look like them. I should have been there too, with Tim and my girls.
I can’t get enough of her, even after she shows me, tells me, reassures me. The story of my making, her time at the home, her labor alone, the secrecy, going to court alone to sign adoption papers. An old high school photo of my father. They never got back together, so that dream wasn’t true.
There are pictures of her siblings and her children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews. I’m crying every day.
Who am I?
Two years have passed and still, I can’t let her closer. This affair we’re having goes on, just the two of us.
In the beginning, my parents bristled when her name came up. Mother used to ask, “What do you talk about?” as if we might talk about her. Daddy said, “What’s she want after all these years?”
I’ve told my girls about her. They had trouble believing Grandma and Grandpa aren’t my ‘real’ parents. But with the passage of time, things have quieted.
No one mentions my birth mother anymore.
Wendy’s two daughters aren’t reaching out for me. No one in her family reaches out. Just as it was forty-seven years ago. I am not welcome.
Wendy wants to fly into the Philadelphia airport where I live; meet me at the airport and fly back to California the same day without anyone knowing. It’s too much. I cannot hold her burden and mine too.
We’ve covered the past. I know all I need to know. Now, our texts are superficial. She asks, what are you doing today? How are the girls? And how are your parents?
I don’t want to talk about my parents.
Wendy’s daughter worries that she might be a placeholder for me.
We’re hurting our families. No one except Wendy is interested in getting closer and this only hurts me more.
I’ve stopped communicating. She sounds like a wonderful mother. I must close that door before I fall apart.
Marci and Celia are upstairs with a microphone singing Karaoke to Fifth Harmony’s Don’t Say You Love Me. In an hour, I will drive them to choir practice.
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My wife and I are in the middle of the adoption process. Part of your story hit very close to home, while other parts made me honestly want to know how familiar you are with adoption (assuming that's something you're comfortable talking about ?). Well written story. Congrats on getting shortlisted.
Thank you Michael! This is an autobiographical story, meaning it happened but has been altered for fiction. I am the birth mother. My search led to her, living on the opposite coast from me. I've never heard her voice. I've written a memoir that is in its third edit. I'm searching for a publisher if you know any. ha ha
Wow, that's cool. Nice touch to write it from the daughter's perspective instead of your own. I had a feeling you had experience, but you also kept using "real mom." So I wasn't sure if that was purposeful reflection of the past stigma of the time period in which you were writing or if you perhaps weren't familiar with the more current nomenclature. Obviously it's the former. Once again, great story. And No, I don't know any publishers unfortunately.
Best to you and your wife on the adoption
I was glad to see your name this morning. Congratulations. Well deserved. The ending is really well done.
Thank you David!
I decided to read one of your shortlist ones and wow - this was great. It was powerful. I think the best pieces are the ones where it seems like every sentence counts; drives the story forward. And this read super powerful to me like it just kept barreling towards the end. I got to say, he is a good husband! He's a good one! He was kind and sympathetic to her, and he wanted what was best for her. I thought he was written great, and there was a piece of his dialogue about how people can say whatever they want but they will still do what the...
Hi Scott, Thanks for your kind words. I worked hard on that one. Even workshopped it with my writing group. The husband was easy for me. I just made him be the kind of husband I would want. Its interesting how many readers have commented on that one character. Maybe I should write husbands more often! I'm glad you took the time to read and leave your reaction for me. Thanks again.
Well done, Cathryn! I loved this story. I agree with some earlier comments about the formality of speech, but I have no other critiques. I love the emotion, I love the ending, I love the poor husband caught in the cross hairs...great stuff!
Thank you Rachel for reading and commenting. I’m so glad you liked it!
So well done. It brings the raw emotion right to the surface as if my best friend was telling me her story. Love it!
Thank you Eve! ☺️
This is so sad... But realistic. It’s a beautiful melancholic tale.
Thank you for reading and leaving a comment. Glad you like it.
Loved reading this one Cathryn..! Very well written. And the ending is amazing. Congratulations..!
Hi Mango (I love your handle!) I appreciate your feedback and taking time to comment. Glad you liked the story. Thank you!
Loved it- there was so much depth of feeling. Well written, congrats!
Thank you Holly! 🙏
What an emotional story, the daughter being pulled in all sorts of directions. I really enjoyed reading it, thank you much for writing it.
Thank you Vikki! I’m so honored it made the shortlist which means more people will see it. Your words mean a lot to me. Thank you for taking time out to comment. 🙏
This was very interesting as we have been on the other side. My wife had a child in the 60's and had to have him adopted - she had just left college and was dependent on her parents during the pregnancy. I knew all about it as I was engaged to her best friend who unfortunately drowned saving a child and since we knew each others past it seemed to solve our mutual need for a loving relationship. Our children new about my fiance but not about the child and 20+ years later my wife had a letter from her son who had obviously managed to by pass ...
How interesting that every adoption story is unique. This was written as fiction although it is autobiographical in that I searched for my daughter and she would not meet. Most of my submission Empty Chairs is true. It seems more common for adopted children to search than for birth parents. But in my case, I needed to let her know me if she wanted to. Thanks for reading.
What a poignant read! Your writing tugs at the heart strings. I can't wait to read more.
Thank you Trina! You made my day. :)
Haha, sorry, i read this like a week ago and forgot to tell you how much I loved it!! The repetition of choir practice was very clever, and the way you took such a sad subject and made it something strong was remarkably well done. The character's mother was fun to dissect, because you never really know what's been going on in someone's life until they've asked to be invited back into yours. I think that you could have made things a little less formal; "I'll" instead of "I will" "They're" instead of "They are" if only because people don't usu...
Thank you so much! Regarding the contractions you've suggested, I purposely spelled them out to add emphasis to the dialogue. I worked hard on this story! Grateful to hear you like it. Thanks
I really like the ending. You would expect a happy family get together, or something along these lines, but insted there is hurt and complication and a decision to end the relationship. I think it's quite realistic, because sometimes things just don't work. People don't work together and circumstances make things difficult. It is a perfectly reasonable choice to walk away. I also thought that the coversation with parents about adoption was really believable, the way that the father didn't want other people talking about it and with that he ...
Thank you for taking time to give critique! It’s very much appreciated.
H Cathryn, I enjoyed this heartfelt story, with believable characters and motivations. It's also very well-written, so I don't have much to comment on there. Only one thing I stumbled over, was when Beth is talking with her parents and she replies to her mother's comment that she's a lovely-looking girl with, "“Same as you, Mother. " It seemed a bit complex and formal for a first-grader (calling her Mom, Mother and reflecting the compliment, "Same as you." This is a really minor point, of course, so feel free to ignore. :)
Hi Heather, Your feedback is always appreciated. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Agree on the child’s response... it sounds a little too formal. Too late to change it. Thanks for taking time to give a critique. Have a great day ☺️
Congratulations on the shortlist! 🎉👏
thank you Heather!
Hey Cathryn, that’s a great piece of writing. I loved the internal voice of the narrator and the constant nagging need to know the truth versus the reality of time’s passage. There’s an honesty in this story that feels very real. I loved the interplay between Lizzy and Tim; the sense of humour was spot on. There were some notable touches I enjoyed: the girl under the overpass with the cigarette, mentioning the desire for a large family and tearing up the letter only to retrieve it and tape it back together again. I’m struggling to find some...
Thank you Howard! I'll take a look at that dialogue scene and see if I can do something with it. I appreciate your compliment and suggestion. Thanks again.
Hello Cathryn, I can see you’ve trimmed down the scene now, it seems sharper and maintains a ring of truth... how do you feel about it’s impact? Are you continuing to make other changes? H :) P S - I took on board your idea and scythed a layer off my latest piece. It makes everything more direct and firmly establishes the narrator, I hope...
Hi Cathryn, I always look forward to your stories. The emotion in this one is exceptional. I could see the internal tug-of-war of the narrator. She was in a difficult situation despite it not being her fault. In fact I cannot find fault in Wendy too. I couldn't help but feeling rushed from the point of Wendy's introduction. The pace of the story changed abruptly- '...They don’t deserve to be hurt. But I give in. Her name is Wendy...'- I felt like these two sentences did not belong together. Even a break would have helped. This is me being ...
Hi Girl (ok if I call you that?) I'm glad you find my stories interesting. You are absolutely right about the abrupt intro of Wendy into the story. I've added a sentence or two there. If you have a chance, let me know if it's enough. Don't ever feel sheepish about giving me feedback. Unless it's downright mean, I can take it! Without other writers reading and commenting, we can't improve. Thanks for taking time out of your day for me. :)
Ye. I read the addition and it is good. Great job!
don't worry, elizabeth, the adopted squad isn't that bad- i loved this story! it was so gritty, and real, and beautiful, and the repitition (whoo, i botched that spelling) of choir practice was everything. to be honest, if my mom was reaching out to her forty-five year old daughter that she gave away, i'd be worried too! i'm adopted (holla) and i can safely say that it isn't that bad, knowing it. of course, my parents never told me to hide it, so i wouldn't know :) all in all, deserved shortlist! maybe even a deserved win? *wiggles eyebrows*
hi Kate, thanks for your kind words. the story is close to my heart. i appreciate you sharing your own experience and glad to hear that you’re happy! thanks for reading and giving feedback!
Hi Cathryn V, what a beautiful story. I'm having a hard time trying to express how its left me feeling. I hope you and your daughter find some sort of healing closure. congratulations on being shortlisted and kind regards
Hi Chiliz, Thank you for the kind words. I have accepted her decision. After all, as she said, she’s had no control in any of this. It’s time. Writing has helped me with finding closure. Thanks for taking time to read and comment.
Aww.. I really wish she would have given you a chance but I realize I cant wish it more than you. I respect that you chose to respect her decision, that is so brave. It's a pity you both were just victims of the circumstances. Your story was totally worth my read. I'm still feeling very emotional after the second read. Thank you so much for sharing a piece of you with us. Love and Light, xoxo. ...
Oh my gosh! I love this shortlisted story Cathryn! :)
Thank you so much Laila!
Of course! :)
I loved the ending, I never expected it! Sometimes, somethings are better left alone. The way Lizzy and wendy's relationship faded—it's sad and helpless. I enjoyed empty chairs, although I'd have loved it if it was titled : " parallel lines".
Thank you for taking a look. Your title idea is a good one. I was going for a title that shows Elizabeth's unmet wish, to be a part of a family. Thanks again for taking time to read and comment!