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A Hunger for Words

The elusive memory of a kindred spirit has steered me, over the years, toward the heart of my own story.by Susan Ito



It is a miraculous thing, to search for something for decades, to come to doubt its existence outside your own memory, and then to have it handed to you solid and whole. For 30 years I have yearned for a story that was read to me when I was 12 by the mother of a summer friend of mine--I don't remember either of their first names anymore. The husband and father was an employee of my father's, a large, bearded man named Roberts. He looked like Grizzly Adams, and he lumbered after my father, hugging a clipboard and trying to learn how to be a salesman.
Mr. Roberts' daughter was my age, and after a day or two of playing together while our fathers worked, she invited me home for a sleepover. They lived in a small house almost smothered by green foliage. The girl and I played a game with dice on the floor of their parlor, and she showed me her cheerleading outfit and the paperback yearbook from her junior high school, and we pointed out which boy was cutest on each page.

But my eyes kept drifting to the wall of books that climbed to the ceiling of that room, and after a while I went and stood by them, holding my head sideways to read the titles. Our home did not have even one bookshelf (although we had four televisions) other than the one that was built into my desk in my bedroom. All the books in the house were mine. I don't think I had been fully aware until that moment that adults, other than teachers and librarians, liked to read as well.
The mother must have seen me standing there, touching the spines of her books. That entire collection belonged to her. She pulled out the heavy volumes and laid them in my hands, then pulled them away again to flip excitedly through the pages, saying, "Listen. You have to listen to this." And she read to me in an emotional voice, while her daughter tapped her foot, irritated to have her friend stolen away. I was tugged between them, between Dickens and the feather-haired eighth-grade boys in the yearbook, and I tried to be true to my peer. But in the end I sat on an ottoman while the mother drew more books down from the shelves, and the girl went to bed alone, sulking in her babydoll pajamas.

We stayed up half the night, that woman and I. I sat there as open as a baby bird, while she fed me stories. And as the night cooled into a gray dawn and sleepiness scratched at our eyes, she said, "Just one more."

She opened a book with fine, yellowed pages. "Close your eyes, sweetheart, and listen to this," she told me. "This is Thomas Wolfe." Then she read a passage about a man trying desperately to remember his brother, who had died when the man was four. And all he could remember was his brother's berry-colored birthmark, and how the brother tried to teach him to say his name, Grover, but he couldn't, it was too hard for his small mouth. It was a story of memory and loss, and trying desperately to grasp something elusive. She cried as she read it, and something about it broke my heart.

A few months later, my father informed me that Roberts was never going to make a proper salesman, and his family fell off our radar forever. I tried to find that story again for years, every time I went to a bookstore or library. I searched for Thomas Wolfe, convinced that what I had heard was either from Look Homeward, Angel, or You Can't Go Home Again. That was what the story was about, wasn't it? Not being able to go home. I pored through the pages, searching for the little boy with the brother named Grover, for any mention of the birthmark. But they had disappeared as thoroughly as the Roberts family.

And I wonder how my friend's mother knew--but of course she couldn't have--that I would grow up to be like the man in the story, someone who was always searching for my own elusive beginnings. Did she know that I was adopted? That I have spent my life going back and back to a place before speech and memory, to find the woman who gave birth to me at midnight, who brought me by taxi to a Manhattan agency and then fled to Iowa?


Lost and Found
I did not think of Mrs. Roberts or the story she read me for many years, although it came up at strange intervals, when I had a boyfriend with a brother named Grover, when the parents of a friend of mine sold her childhood home and she wept for the room she would never see again.

Recently I found myself in a place, readerville.com, where people who love books join together. I suddenly remembered Mrs. Roberts. And I wrote the question, never fully expecting a response: Did anybody know of a book by Thomas Wolfe, something with a boy named Grover and his brother? In less than ten minutes someone posted an answer for me: "The Lost Boy." It had been in a 1937 short story collection by Wolfe called The Hills Beyond.

I found a copy a few days later, and as I read it, I was back in the middle of a long-ago summer night, sitting in my nightshirt next to a woman who would now be in her sixties. I was stunned at how it moved me, and how I understood her tears at the passing of time and people.

I come from many places. One of them is a mint-green house in New Jersey, where I lived from the time I was adopted at four months old. My mother still lives alone in that house, where my room has the same Ethan Allen furniture, and the drawers are filled with long-dry pens and folded-up notes I passed to my girlfriends during math class. There are small, square snapshots of my summer days at camp, of my Keeshond dog who died when I was in college. The stilthouse that my father built with my uncles has long since been torn down, although I can still see a round patch from its cement foundation and remember my cousins and I painting the banister that surrounded the house in rainbow colors, the bright yellow and the dull, imperfect purple. I remember the tarred blacktop of the driveway and the snake that my uncle trapped underneath a tar bucket.

I stand in my father's workshop and see his yellowed goggles, the great saw that whined its song through the house, the sawdust on the concrete floor. The babyfood jars filled with tiny tacks and screws are lined up on the workroom shelf, with their labels still legible in his narrow, slanted print. When I stand at his workbench and write my name in the sawdust, I can hear my father's voice lingering in the walls. "Hey, Rascal," he says, and if I close my eyes, I can feel it, his hand on my head, his warm breath on my face.

But I am also from another place, a place that I have never seen. I am a person built of secrets, and the voices of those who made me are nothing more than whispers in my dreams. I strain back to a house I may never find, to people whose names I will never be able to pronounce. But for everything that is lost, something else is found. In my long, searching life I have somehow found words, and the capacity to build a life in story.

"The years dropped off like fallen leaves: the face came back again--the soft dark oval," Wolfe writes in his story, "the dark eyes, the soft brown berry on the neck, the raven hair, all bending down, approaching--the whole appearing to him ghost-wise, intent and instant."

Thomas Wolfe's tale of a lost brother broke open the heart of a woman whose name I don't remember. And in the dark, humid night she gave me the key that binds us all together, those of us who have lost things, who have known suffering and joy and those moments that melt in the smallest instant and then disappear. Stories are a way of holding those moments, either true or imagined, of finding once again the brother with the berry-colored birthmark, the father who smiled through a cloud of sawdust, the anonymous evening when we sparked into being.


Susan Ito is editor of A Ghost at Heart's Edge: Stories and Poems of Adoption (North Atlantic Books). This essay first appeared in The Readerville Journal.


2003 Adoptive Families Magazine. Reproduction in whole or in part is prohibited.

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