"When My Birth Mom Was an Astronaut"

When I was little, I saw my birth mom everywhere — in the grocery store, on the street, and even on TV, about to launch into space.

The author's imaginary birth mom, astronaut Christa McAuliffe

Perhaps you too are obsessed with the theory that there are infinite parallel universes, some nearly identical to our own but diverging to contain all of the tiny choices and chances that almost happened, but didn’t. One theory goes like this: every choice you make creates a universe where you made a different choice. Each of those decision points also diverges. Multiply that by every human, animal, fish, flea, and atom and you have the concept of infinity. This is why people believe in bullshit like soulmates. Think of all the choices and the entire chain reaction of events that first brought you face to face with the person you love the most in the world. He wrote to you on that dating site, and you wrote back, and circumstances led you both to be there at the same time in the first place. And then, you caught this bus and not that one. You were late but he waited for you. Now go back further. His parents met, and after they did, that cell collided with this one. And your parents did the same for you. And so on and so forth, backward and forward through time, infinitely, forever. How tempting it is to think there is some force, guiding us irrevocably toward the people or places that will make us happy. How close we come to never existing at all.

My name is Jennifer L-e-i-g-h Peepas. It was almost Tammy L-e-e (Something Else). I have two birth certificates, one with each name, the date on the second one dated eight months later than the first because it was changed when my adoption went through. I have always known that I was adopted — my parents didn’t keep it from me, though the adoption was closed and I didn’t know that Tammy Lee was my alternate name, specifically, until a few years ago. But I have always been aware of her, this other self, who belongs in a completely different family, hanging out like a shadow in my blind spot or on the other side of an invisible wall. Adopted kids understand parallel universes instinctively.

Once, when I was about seven, I decided to go and find them: my “real” parents. I would follow the little stream near our house until it became a river and then I would find a talking bird/a kindly wise woman/seven dwarves who would recognize me and lead me to the castle, where my parents, the king and queen of Central Massachusetts, would welcome me with a feast lasting seven days and seven nights, and I would meet my sisters and brothers and aunts and uncles and cousins and we would dance under the stars and ride in fine carriages through our sparkling, possibly Emerald, city. I put on my Brownie uniform, packed some supplies in a little red wagon, put a leash on our Great Dane, Muffin, and told my older brother where I was going so that he wouldn’t get in trouble for losing me while babysitting.

My brother, who is also adopted, knew something about this kind of quest, though his story is more of a Hansel and Gretel tale of a family where there was not enough of anything to go around. He and my younger brother, aged seven and four when they came to us three years before, had developed many impressive life skills over the years, like hiding canned goods between the loose boards in the back of their closet and slowly removing all the quarters from my piggy bank but leaving the smaller change so that it would still seem full.

As a lost baby princess, I was glad of my brother’s wisdom as he helped equip me for life on the road. Peanut butter. Jelly. Bread. All the canned goods and crackers in the house. A 50-lb bag of dog food for Muffin. Then we added my favorite toys. I tried to tell him that my real parents would buy me all new toys, and that he could keep the old ones, but he made a pretty good case that I’d want at least some to get started with. So on went the Barbie camper, the Legos, the Lincoln Logs, and a knee-high battery-operated Godzilla who breathed plastic fire. Then we needed books, of course. The Secret Garden. A Little Princess. Heidi. All the Lost Rich Kid Classics. An old sleeping bag of my dad’s. Some changes of clothes.

I don’t know how much the towering stack of all I held dear in the world weighed, but I do know that our driveway is a hill. When I lost my grip on the overstuffed wagon, it rolled down that hill and crashed into one of the garage doors with a spectacular sound. My brother helped me put everything back in the cabinets and my room and together we dragged the giant dog food bag back to its spot. “I think The Dukes of Hazzard is coming on, if you want to watch it,” he said. I said, “OK,” and hugged Muffin so tight that she yelped and bit me.

That doesn’t mean I stopped looking for my other family. Left alone in other people’s houses, I opened wardrobe doors and checked the backs for snow-filled woodlands. I stared into mirrors for hours to see if I could fall in. Every trip to the city was a chance to possibly glimpse them or their trail, and if we’re being honest, finding them was becoming more and more about finding her. My. Real. Mom. She could be anyone, anywhere! The lady with the cool beehive in line at the bank. The one with the pixie cut and the bicycle who rode alongside our station wagon and waved back at me when I waved to her. Other real-mom-crushes included, in no particular order, Anna Devayne, a character on General Hospital played by Finola Hughes, Natalie Jacobson, a local newscaster, and Jennifer Beals’s character from Flashdance, who needed to give me away so she could follow her dreams and be a dancer, just like I was gonna be, wearing my bathing suit as a leotard and executing sexy dances with my four-poster bed as a ballet barre/stripper pole. My imaginary real dad in all of these scenarios was Peter Jennings, anchor of World News Tonight.

This all reached a fever pitch in 1985, when Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from Concord, New Hampshire, was chosen to ride the Challenger Space Shuttle on a mission. I fell completely in love with her. She was a mousy brunette with brown eyes, like me. She was from New England, like me. Yeah, so she had a husband and other kids and was nowhere near Leominster, Massachusetts in 1974, but don’t bother me with facts. As The New York Times wrote, she “emphasized the impact of ordinary people on history, saying they were as important to the historical record as kings, politicians or generals.” Ordinary people, like me and Christa, my real mom, ordinary women, we were as important to the historical records as kings, politicians, and generals. I watched all of her TV appearances. I got my hair cut and permed so it would look like hers, and I learned to imitate how she sat and spoke. I brought her up in every single conversation. I studied photos of her to see if I could see her hands, because I have weird bent pinkies and I’ve always thought that if I’m ever in the same room as my birth mom, that’s how I’ll know for sure. I stared also at her husband, Steven, and her children, Scott and Caroline, looking for a resemblance and wondering if they’d like me when they knew the truth about Christa’s long-ago fling with Peter Jennings.

My chance came when my sixth grade class wrote letters to congratulate her for being chosen for the space program. For months, all of my diary entries had been addressed to her, so it was tough to boil all the information down to fit on an index card sized cut-out of the Space Shuttle. In the end I went with: “Dear Christa McAuliffe, you are my hero and my favorite woman on earth (and in space). Love, Jennifer P.S. Please write back I have something very important to ask you. P.P.S. My home address is on the back of this card. P.P.P.S. Thank you.”

I don’t know if she ever read my letter. I do know that she never wrote back. On January 28, 1986, my twelfth birthday, she got into the Challenger with six other astronauts. My classmates and I ate the birthday cupcakes my mom had baked for everyone and watched the launch on a TV that had been wheeled into the classroom for just this occasion. High on sugar and on the rush of seeing the greatest person in the entire world do the coolest thing that had ever happened, for exactly 73 seconds I was (secretly) THE happiest and proudest person on the planet. My heart nearly exploded. Seventy-four seconds after launch, the shuttle exploded. Everyone on board was killed. The newscaster narrating the launch talked calmly about “a possible malfunction.” But our teacher had seen what we had seen. She got up and stood awkwardly in front of the TV, blocking our view, and all of us did what any human would do in that moment; we tilted our heads and tried to see around her. The wailing came later. I heard it dimly, at first, as if it came from outside the classroom, from outside of space and time. I have had to take other people’s word that it was coming from me.

That night I took all the pictures of Christa down from the bulletin board near my desk, and, for good measure, ripped out all of the pages from all of my diaries and tore them into tiny pieces. My mom found me doing that and tried to stop me, and I yelled at her that she wasn’t my Real Mom and what did she know, anyway? This is the nuclear option in adopted kid-adoptive parent fights, one of those things that is both true and not true in a way that makes it the worst thing you can possibly say. I’m not a monster — I had done my best to keep my constant Are You My Real Mommy? auditions incredibly secret from my MOM-mom, whom I loved — but in that moment she clearly knew that I needed to destroy something. She backed slowly out of the room so that it wouldn’t be her.

I found my actual birth mom a few years back when Massachusetts opened its adoption records. We’ve never met in person, but we write letters and are very evenly matched in online Scrabble. My birth dad’s name is Richard Smith. She didn’t know him well, and lost touch with him after they hooked up. Sometimes I send her an image from one of the 57,000,000 Google results for Richard Smith, the goofier the better, with the subject line “Dad?” You never know. I have a half-sibling who doesn’t know about me. I study the few Facebook photos she’s uploaded that aren’t of her dog to see if her pinkies look like mine. Maybe someday I’ll find out.

A signature on a form and I am not Tammy L-e-e, but Jennifer L-e-i-g-h. Two horny teenagers fail to meet in a finished basement in Massachusetts in 1973, and I don’t exist at all. Or they meet, but bad unsexy music is playing on the stereo, or their parents walk in on them, or (unlikely, but still possible) they’ve actually had some kind of sex education talk and gotten their hands on birth control. There are so many possible universes where there is Tammy Lee, no Jennifer, no me. In some of the other universes, that faulty O-ring didn’t break on the Space Shuttle that day, and Christa McAuliffe taught her lesson plans from space and went on to do many more great things. In one of them she answered my letter, and OK, maybe she wasn’t my mom in any of the universes, but in one of them she did become my best friend and we went on tour together teaching kids about history, space travel, and science, with Muffin the Great Dane and Steven and Scott and Caroline along for the ride.

I still think about accidents, parallel universes, and fate. I think that what we have is not a destiny but an infinite series of choices and an even more infinite series of accidents. In the universes where we are happy, we claim the accidents we love best, hold them tight, and know them for miracles.


This piece was originally published at The Archipelago, November 2014.


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