We Always Called You Jason
Fantasizing about my birthparents, I never dreamed my strongest link to the past would be through a flinty grandmother.by Matthew Grolnic
I consider the adjective “adopted” a badge of honor. It makes me different; it makes me interesting. In my family, it was never a taboo topic. I was just my parents’ child. And adopted. Still, I often fantasized about my birthparents. I happen to look like Nick Nolte. A lot. Countless people have told me so. As a teenager, I became convinced that I was Nick Nolte’s child. And (of course) I imagined my birthmother as a beautiful, brilliant woman who had spent her life tirelessly searching for me. When I was 18, I began to search for her.
The agency that had arranged my adoption agreed to contact my birthmother and tell her that I was interested in finding her. She could either accept my contact information, or decline and seal the case forever. I was told that she declined, and that was enough to stop my search for a decade. (Years later, I discovered that the agency had never attempted to contact her.)
During my first search, I was in the throes of teenage rebellion. I hated my parents, hated myself. In my 20s, I felt less need to search. At that time, I was rebuilding the bridges I had burnt with my family and beginning to understand what I now know: They are my real parents. I am their child. No blood link required.
When my bridges were back up, and my life good, the urge to search came back—this time, not because I needed to know, but because I wanted to know. I scanned birth registries and became an expert on finding people. I kept an online journal read by thousands and even helped four other people make contact. I just couldn’t find my birthparents.
Finally, I went to the library and combed through the birth announcements for July 12, 1969, at St. Francis Hospital. Many of those families still lived in the area, so I called them. I used all the non-identifying information at my disposal and asked if they remembered sharing a room with a woman 18 years old, 5’6, blonde, unmarried. One man did. He recalled that she was from Avon, Connecticut, said she was very pretty, but couldn’t remember her name. Even this much invigorated me. It made her real.
The Search Is On
Using my new lead, I got in touch with a woman who helped to locate adoptees and birthparents. One afternoon, I picked up the phone to hear, “Get a pen: Karen Hayes, Avon, Connecticut. Good luck.”
I looked for her in the phone book—no Karen Hayes. Then I thought: Avon High School probably archives yearbooks at the local library, right? But what if Karen is married with children? What if I am the secret she’s never told? I decided it was my right to find out, regardless of the consequences.
I phoned the library in Avon, and the librarian was very nice. In fact, she couldn’t wait to look up Karen Hayes, class of ’66, maybe ’67. Later, I stood at the office fax machine, surrounded by my co-workers, as the paper emerged to reveal my first glimpse of a birth relative. She was beyond beautiful. Same eyes as me. Same nose as me. It was magic.
In the notes under Karen’s high school picture was a dedication to Ellen, her mom, my grandmother—another lead.
There are many Ellen Hayeses in Connecticut. I know, because I talked to almost every one of them. (And I called many of them back, as they made me promise to do when I found my grandmother.)
Our first conversation was brief:
“Is this Ellen Hayes?’
“Yes. Who is this?”
“I’m not sure I have the right Ellen Hayes. Do you have a daughter named Karen?”
“Yes. Who is this?”
“If you have a daughter named Karen, then I think I’m your grandson.”
“Is this Jason?”
“We always called you Jason.”
We talked for a few minutes—about where I lived, what I did, and so on. Then she asked if she could call me right back. I hung up and waited. And waited. I started to panic, and I redialed.
She was out of breath. She had been in the attic, looking for an atlas so she could see where her grandson lived. This was my first hint of the fairly eccentric world of the Hayes family.
This woman had held me for 30 minutes on July 12th, 1969. She had hugged me and cried and said everything she could think of to give me a good start in life.
Only now, she wouldn’t give me what I was searching for: Karen’s phone number. Not yet. She wanted to call her daughter first. I was eager, but I understood. No need to give two Hayeses heart attacks in one day.
Closer to the Truth
Karen didn’t want to talk to me when Ellen first told her the news. Many birthmothers feel guilty about relinquishing children they were unable to care for, or assume that we hate them for “rejecting” us. Karen was no different.
I felt anything but rejected. Karen endured the stigma of an unwed pregnancy in 1969, maybe heard whispers as she passed by, definitely felt alienation. She suffered the pain of childbirth. At the end of all that, she loved me enough to put her own desires aside and do what was best for me. If there is a better example of pure love for a child, let me know.
Ellen and I talked frequently while Karen prepared herself for contact. I learned the history of the Hayes family. (Nick Nolte has left the gene pool!) Karen, though married twice, never had another child after me. Ellen had never been a grandmother until the day I called. She was excited—also a bit standoffish. But that is just her personality. She is very New England. She wears pants, and no makeup. She is who she is, and if you don’t like it, she doesn’t care. I think I’m the only person who ever made her lose her composure.
When I finally got Karen’s phone number, I was terrified to call. But I did, and was somewhat relieved to find that she was scared, too. In her nervousness, and in her desire to make a good first impression, she sort of sang her words. It was like having a conversation with a character in Gone with the Wind.
Though she and I spoke frequently for a while, we never really connected. She keeps her feelings private. The facts are shared bluntly—her affair with a much older, married man, the pregnancy, the birth, the adoption. She leaves nothing out—except the emotions.
One of the details she shared was my birthfather’s name. I have had one conversation with him:
“Is this Matt? I hear you want to talk to me.”
“Yeah, you’re my birthfather.”
“So I hear. This isn’t a good time. Can I call you back?”
“OK, I’ll talk to you.”
He never called back, and I can’t say I am disappointed.
A Real Connection
I stepped off the train in Middletown, Connecticut, and there she was, my grandmother. I called her Ellen, and we didn’t hug or even shake hands. Yet the moment was powerful. We said our hellos, got in the car, and drove to her house. Nothing more. I’m sure this sounds disappointing, but it wasn’t. It was the same thing that everyone does when meeting long-lost aunts, uncles, or third cousins. Love and trust come with familiarity. We had no familiarity.
In spite of that, we had a wonderful day. I saw pictures and keepsakes. I mowed her lawn. She went to the store to get milk and cookies, as if I were a child coming to visit, rather than a 28-year-old man.
And we talked. There were no uncomfortable silences. She marveled at how much I looked like Karen. We caught up on 28 years of life, each of us wanting to know everything about the other.
I learned, for example, that Ellen bowls. She asked if I bowled, and I said sometimes, but I wasn’t very good. Up the stairs, sounds of digging through closets, trunks, boxes. Back down the stairs, and in my hand was a yellowed pamphlet called “How to Bowl Tenpin Like the Pros.” I have yet to read it, but I cherish it nonetheless.
Matthew Grolnic lives in Neenah, Wisconsin.
©2003 Adoptive Families. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.
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