"I look for her whenever I'm in her town," he said to me from across his kitchen table.
This was my birth father talking about my birth mother. He had wanted to marry her 55 years ago. She didn't because she didn't love him, and they hadn't seen each other since. It had taken me a very long time just to get here, to be comfortable sitting across the table from him.
Back when I was 6 or 7, there was a neighborhood kid named Jay, who was angry over some call in our kickball game. When I argued, he blurted out, "Well, your mom's not your real mom and your dad's not your real dad!"
"That's not true!" I screamed back. I became hysterical and ran home.
My parents began to explain it all to me in a torrent of words, but to this day, I can't remember anything specific. What I do remember is that they held me tight for a long time while the tears flowed, and assured me over and over again that they were my parents—in spite of the fact that I was "adopted." I believed them, but I knew Jay was also right.
From that point on, I felt different from everyone else, and not in a good way. Being adopted in 1960 was a lot different than it is today. The court files were sealed and the whole thing was kept a secret. And as with most secrets, there was stigma and shame. At least for me.
So when Albert, my birth father, decided to reach out to me on the day after I turned 18 years old, I was not only unprepared, I was a ticking emotional time bomb after years of blissful denial.
"I'm looking for Stephanie Brown," an unfamiliar voice said.
"This is Stephanie," I answered.
"I'm Albert, your biological father. I love you and I never wanted to give you up. I would've kept you," he said, fighting back tears. "I tried … but fathers had no rights back then."
I collapsed onto my dorm room floor, paralyzed with fear over the potential nightmare that was unfolding. In the closed adoption system of that time, there was never a door for a birth parent to knock on—much less walk through—18 years later.
Adopted children didn't get "found" in 1978, but Albert was a relentlessly stubborn man, I'd later learn, whose paternal instinct bordered on the obsessive. I could see it as an admirable quality today, but back then only as a horrifying intrusion in my life. He had miraculously managed to find some sympathetic judge willing to give him what he had most desired: access to his daughter.
He told me he was born in a Middle Eastern country and in my vulnerable state of adolescent identity formation, that was not easy to hear. I was a bat-mitzvah girl from Long Island. He told me that my birth mother was "so mentally ill that it would be best that I not go there."
"I want you to come visit me!" he said, like it would be as easy and fun as a trip to Disneyland. I nixed that idea right away.
He also called me "cherie" and "doll," words that made me cringe. He may have been my biological father, but to me he was a stranger.
I immediately called my mom and dad.
"What? That SOB called you?" my father bellowed. My mother was furious, too. It turns out that six months earlier, he had phoned them to say he'd found me.
"I'm calling her when she turns 18," Albert warned. "It's my legal right." My parents had begged him not to as they knew it would devastate me. They were right.
My father suggested that I write Albert a letter telling him never to contact me again. I did write, but added one part I didn't tell my parents about. I told Albert I'd write him now and then to "let him know I was OK." I knew that I was connected to this man, as much as I wished I wasn't.
Years passed, I got married and had my first child. Parenthood is a time when many adoptees from the closed era awaken from their own adoption slumber, and for me, that meant being ready to see Albert again. And, also, to find my birth mother.
Finally meeting Albert was both terrifying and intoxicating. It felt good to compare myself physically to someone else for the first time in my life. But learning the truths of my biological heritage was much harder. Where I came from and who I was was like trying to put together a puzzle where the pieces didn't fit. It caused me too much anxiety and I needed a long time to figure it all out.
Meeting my biological mother was even more distressing. I pictured her as someone right out of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," based on what Albert had previously told me. When I rang the doorbell, my body was shaking and my knees were weak. The moment she opened the door, however, I was immediately relieved. She looked like she could be anyone in line at the supermarket checkout, and that was all I wanted. We sat down for a mother and child reunion.
"As a little girl, I lived with my mom in a tenement on the Lower East Side," Pearl explained. "I was sick from malnutrition, and a policeman came and took me away." She said that she never saw her birth mother again.
"When I didn't listen, my foster mom pinched my arm till it bled," Pearl continued, "and by the time I was pregnant with you, I was a shell of a person. I felt I had no choice but to put you up for adoption."
For a moment, I couldn't breathe but then it all made sense. Back in those days, single mothers were few and far between. On top of that, she was in no position to take care of me. Her foster mother threatened, "You can't stay here anymore, if you have this baby." So she did what she had to do.
I couldn't even begin to imagine the pain she must have endured, that so many mothers endured, feeling compelled to hand over their infants in the so-called "Baby Scoop Era" of the late 1950s, which ran through to the early '70s. With no accessible birth control, sexual freedom rampant and abortion illegal, young women were having babies in record numbers, the perfect storm in the days before Roe vs. Wade. A million and a half infants were given away just like that—with no regard for the emotional fallout.
As it happened, Pearl was in and out of psychiatric hospitals for most of her life. Believing her husband and children would be better off without her, she attempted suicide twice. The utter sadness of her life coming at me full force in one sitting was like being in a boxing match with no gloves. And while her confessions ripped at my heart, her ability to survive simply amazed me.
After meeting Albert and then Pearl, I was emotionally drained and even more confused than before. I felt relief and heartbreak, gratitude and guilt, ping-ponging between the past and the present. I chose to focus on the life I had. To be honest, it was just easier.
For the next 20 years or so, I had minimal interaction with my biological parents. Avoidance became the best way for me to cope. Just thinking about them gave me chest pains. I sent them occasional letters and holiday cards but that was pretty much it.
When I hit my mid-forties, feeling safe, settled and secure, I decided to finally face the uncomfortable truths I had blocked out. I knew that I needed to. I knew that I was ready.
Today, I visit Albert and Pearl in Florida once a year. They are as much my parents as my adoptive ones are, just different. I can now embrace them all, but more than that, we can embrace each other, and it feels good. What had long been a secret—four parents instead of two—has become a blessing.