A young girl’s snooping leads to a harrowing discovery about her birth mother, and the year she spent as a prison baby.
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Sweat glues my palm to the brass knob of my parents’ bedroom door. It’s an off-limits, by-invitation-only room, sacred, like a boudoir. We kids don’t dare go in on our own. Until today.
It’s my first breaking and entering. But what else does a 12-year-old girl do when she’s grounded but sneak around the house?
I listen for a second at the door of their room to make sure no one’s in there and then twist the knob. A ray of Seattle’s noon sun slants through the glass of the patio door on the far side of the room. I’m glad for that door. Good thing my dad just fixed the sliding device, though. Short on patience, he isn’t much of a handyman. Things break in his hands more often than they are repaired. If my parents come in, I can slip my slim five-foot frame out the sliding door and escape.
I creep across the room, around the footboard of their bed, and face my mother’s nightstand where a bird book, two novels, and three volumes of poetry pile high against her alarm clock. Her quick-fire brain keeps her engaged in no less than three or four books and magazines at the same time, each one bookmarked midway—Audubon News, the Sierra Club magazine, the New Yorker, the ACLU newsletter, books about the history of ancient Rome and Greece, poetry.
A mechanical pencil alongside pages of my father’s typed manuscript, with scribbled notes in the margins, cover his nightstand. He keeps his dresser top bare except for a tray of pipe and cigar paraphernalia—always a Zippo lighter, pipe cleaners, a box of wooden matches, a pipe damper, and an Italian leather box with gold fleur-de-lis engraved on the outside. Inside, his Italian cufflinks crafted in gold, silver, and leather jumble together.
I tiptoe to my mother’s dresser where her clip-on earrings and a strand of pearls scatter across the top. If it weren’t for her tray of Chanel bottles and collection of perfume atomizers, I’d have to pinch my nostrils to block the reek of my father’s tobacco.
I slide open my mother’s top dresser drawer.
“Shhhh,” I whisper and grab Kittsy, our Siamese, to quiet the rattle of her purr. Then I set her down and she weaves in and out between my feet, her tail in a fast flicker around my ankles. But the sweep of her purr and her tail across my skin comfort me. She calms my nighttime monster dreams when she nuzzles on my pillow, her belly curved around my head, her almond-shaped eyes more like mine than anyone else’s in my family.
The scent of Mother’s French soap collection wafts out of her dresser drawer. Each bar, the size of a silver dollar wrapped in parchment paper, perfumes her drawers. Neat stacks of folded underwear and silk slips bunch in a pile at the back of her top drawer.
I glance through the sliding-glass door—nobody’s in sight on the other side. Mother’s in her garden where she snips dead tulip heads and prunes her rose bed. My father’s secluded in his study out back, a room connected to our detached garage. He’s always hunched over a manuscript about John Donne or Milton, deep in thought and taking long puffs on either a Cuban cigar or one of his pipes. Jonathan hotdogs on his bike somewhere in the neighborhood with his friends. He’s older than me by eighteen months and never in trouble. He leaves the back talk and smarty-pants to his little sister.
Nothing here. I nudge the top drawer closed, but a corner of white catches my eye. A crisp piece of paper peeks out from under the plastic drawer liner, printed with miniature roses. I peel up a corner of the liner.
Lodged under silky slips, under all the softness and the scent of perfume, stashed like a rumpled stowaway in a first-class cabin, I unveil a copy of a typed letter, just a paragraph long.
My neck throbs—boom da boom—my pulse in a loud pump of anticipation all the way into my shoulder muscles. High and tight as usual, my clenched shoulder blades draw in my neck so much it aches.
Must be important if it’s hidden. I already know I’m adopted, so the letter can’t be about that. Maybe it’s about my race, or races. No one’s explained to me why I’m caramel-colored in a white family.
My mother writes to the family attorney: Can you please alter Deborah’s birth certificate from the Federal Women’s Prison in Alderson, West Virginia, to Seattle. Nothing good will come from her knowing she lived in the prison before foster care, or that her birth mother was a heroin addict. After all, she was born in our hearts here in Seattle, and if she finds all this out she’ll ask questions about the prison and her foster homes before we adopted her.
Impossible. Read it again. Everything blurs.
Foster care? I’d no idea about my life before my adoption or even how old I was at the time or where I lived before then. I read the letter over and over, these new truths forever imprinted into my memory.
I step back a few paces from the dresser and sink into the folded comforter at the end of my parents’ bed.
Born in prison? No one’s born in a prison.
The worst place, the worst of the worst: prison. And the worst people, from everything I’ve heard in cartoons and seen in magazines and heard from talk.
I tuck the paper back under the liner and float from the dresser into my parents’ bathroom and stare at myself in the mirror over their sink, my body in overload. Time and space distort inside me.
I don’t know where I am. My feet seem to lift, my body and brain separated by some wedge, and I’m disconnected from my house, from my neighborhood, from Earth, from humanity.
It can’t be true. If it is, what’s wrong with me? When people find out, then what? Who loves anyone from prison?
My skin itches as if tiny ants crawl along the bones in my forearms, and I scratch so hard red streaks rise on my skin. I splash water onto my burning face but give up after a while. I can’t wash away what I know isn’t there, but I feel dirty, as if grime coats my cheeks, hot to my hands. Still, I can’t stop splashing my face to rinse the grit from my eyes. My mouth has a sour taste.
Then something sinks in. My “real” mother’s an addict and a criminal. My “real” home is a prison.
The trauma of learning about my birth sends me into a deep dive, an emotional lockdown behind a wall that imprisons me for almost twenty years. The letter forces me into an impossible choice between two mothers, two worlds far apart. One mother behind bars, a criminal, a drug addict, tugs at me, her face and voice buried deep in my subconscious. The other, the mother I face every day, the one who keeps fresh bouquets of flowers on our teak credenza, I don’t connect with this mother.
I’m not hers. Not theirs.
It’s the first and last time I read the letter, and I never see it again. I don’t need to, for every word is etched in my brain, and it’s given me all the proof I need. I’m not the daughter of parents who toss Yiddish quips back and forth, of the mother who spends her Saturday afternoons throwing clay with a pottery teacher, then comes home with darling miniature ceramic vases, the mother who writes poetry with a Mont Blanc fountain pen and uses the same to correct her students’ papers. I’m not the daughter of the mother who cans cherries and whips the best whipped cream ever, the mother who says “I love you, Pet” so many times I want to smack her, the mother who waits for me after my ballet class every Saturday.
Don’t think about it. It’s not true, none of it happened. Not even the letter.
Some things we need to unthink and erase, just to endure living.
That night at dinner, everything moves in slow motion as if on a conveyor belt. The voices of my family echo far away, as if from a faint cave. I forget I’ve ever read the letter, forget everything in it. Gone. Zip. Out of my mind, and it doesn’t show up again until a flash about a month later. Maybe not a month, maybe eight. I forget this too. These new facts about my prison birth never stay in my brain or anywhere inside me long enough to grasp. But something this big can’t hide for long. Buried secrets live forever, glued to our insides like sticky rice.
I convince myself: “Don’t think of it. Then it’s not true.”
Thus begins more than a decade of emotional lockdown, a feeling I’d experienced before but never understood what it was. The anguish seeps out of me like poison trapped in a balloon-size blister.
My brain battles as I force it to divorce from reality, the one way to metabolize what I’ve just learned: I was born in prison.
About four years earlier, before I have found the letter, we drive across the country from Seattle to Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire, to vacation with my father’s family.
There, my two uncles, Peter and Marty, hold me in long bear hugs whenever I try to run past them on the way to the beach. Their knock-knock jokes, pranks, and bubbles of love bring me out of my shell. Silly is the furthest thing from my ponderous father, the bearded stoic and scholar who might give a quick swing of his hand upside my head if something I say irritates him or if the energy of my mischief calls forth his reprimands.
Not always. Sometimes. He’s unpredictable in his outbursts, and once is enough to live on edge and wonder: Will this call out his wrath?
I thrive around my uncles’ playfulness, the same way I thrive around my mother’s side of the family in Minneapolis. It’s easier to let my guard down with both extended families. They bring me out of my isolation, and it’s simple: I just want hugs and to play without a need to perform or pressure for “proper” behavior.
One afternoon my cousin Dorrie bursts through our cabin screen door and races up to me. She’s like an older sister to me and born on the same day as my older brother.
“You’re lucky!” she exclaims. The door slams behind her because she’s run in so fast with her news. “My mother told me you were chosen, said you’re lucky because they had to take me just because I was born to them.”
I stare at her. What’s lucky about me?
“You got picked,” she says, and spreads her arms wide. “You’re adopted.” Then she adds, “Lucky!”
This is the first time I’ve heard the word adopted. I don’t have a clue what she’s talking about or how the word connects to me. All I understand is I think adoption means some kids come from a first set of parents but live with a second set. I’d never thought about why. No one ever told me about my adoption, although I’ve already sensed something different about me. But I don’t know what and haven’t figured out why no one looks like me.
I don’t feel lucky. I’m sick in my stomach, tight inside, like a rubber-band ball the size of a bowling ball. I don’t remember much after this. I never said anything to anyone. My usual lockdown took over, an instinct and habit I acquired long before the shock of the letter hit me. Any kind of trauma sent me into this state, but it’s impossible to lock up just one experience. The fence I’m building around me is turning into a concrete wall with barbed wire at the top.
I waited until we arrived home from New Hampshire to pull out more details from my mother about my adoption. Shortly after we return, I track her down in our garden on a late Saturday afternoon. She’s sleeveless and wrist deep in planting tulips, geraniums, and pansies, and yanking weeds, her usual for the weekend. The garden is the one “room” I like to share with my mother. I never let on how I admire her strength, the way she pounds stakes to prop up her plants or untangles a garden hose as it whips around the yard when she sets the sprinkler near her shrubs.
“Am I adopted?” I ask.
“Yes, you’re adopted.” Her answer drops with a thump and sticks like flour to wet glass. In and out, her jaw muscles clench. She digs lines of holes for tulip bulbs and doesn’t return my gaze. “And we love you.”
Inside I’m a swirl: Tell me everything! Who is she? My mother, my other mother, why didn’t she want me? Where is she?
Silence weighs heavy in the air. I need her to say more, but I don’t know how to ask. I keep it all in. I hold my breath and gnaw the inside of my cheek, too afraid, too frozen inside to dare. It’s true. I have two mothers. Another mother, somewhere else.
The final question pounds at my insides: Didn’t she want me?
Most adopted kids wonder about the same question. Kids simplify, and for many adopted children it goes like this, a belief in our rawest core: if we’re good, they want us, and if we’re bad, they give us away.
The deeper my mother digs in the dirt, the more hatred is dredged up in me. Mother-blame sets in. I hate her for her brief answer, hate her for adopting me, and hate myself for being adopted. Nothing bothers me about the identity of my birth father. Not yet. It’s primal, the complex bond between a mother and daughter. Why didn’t my prison mother keep me? Didn’t she want me? If I love Mother, am I betraying my other mother? But isn’t she the one who didn’t want me? I try not to think about this.
The more muddled and saddened I feel about losing my prison mom, the more I hate Mother. I cringe every time she says those words—“we love you”—and every hug adds to the hate.
Every week after Sunday school, my mother, my brother, who was also adopted, and I, would stop at the Twenty-Third Street Bakery in the inner-city Central District, the only Black neighborhood in Seattle. While my mother ran in to pick up snacks for us, we waited outside in her faded-green Plymouth.
One Sunday, Jonathan grabbed my shoulder and shoved me under the front seat of the car. I was still small enough to fit under it. He whispered in a panic: “I’ll lock the doors! They might take you!” By “they,” I knew he meant someone whose skin color matched mine more than his. My T-shirt tore over my brown-skinned back from where the coiled car-seat springs stuck out.
Whenever someone walked by the car, he repeated his order, as if a Black family would take me away. Like me, he wasn’t sure in which world I belonged, but I knew he loved me with his big-brother protectiveness.
When Mother got into the car with a bag of doughnuts, Jonathan grabbed for the sugar and glazed ones, but I wanted to run away in our yard to climb trees, seclusions high in the sky.
My first memory in my adoptive family is a recurring dream: From high above, I’m looking down on myself right before sleep descends in the bedroom I share with Jonathan. The room is dark, other than the nightlight by the roofless wooden dollhouse by my bed. Just when my spirit is about to leave my body and float around the world, a vision startles me. Five or so unrecognizable faces of women surround me in a half-circle. We are in a room full of movement, a busier environment than the sedate atmosphere of my childhood home. In this mirage, the onlookers’ faces, sometimes visible and other times obscured behind vertical lines, peer down at me as I rest on my bed. Narrow wooden rods hide their bodies below the shoulder. I wake soon after I fall asleep, the dream so brief.
The same women stand around me every night. I’m not distressed; I just feel crowded, my personal space invaded. I crave solitude. I wake up weepy, not fearful about the dream but, rather, sad about its recurrence, the repetition of images I can’t understand. I sniffle in the night so no one will hear. Jonathan, asleep in his bed on the other side of the room, has no idea what’s going on. He’s a deep sleeper and never hears me stir or cry in the night.
My recurring dream haunted me for years. I call it my crib dream, the vertical lines maybe crib rods from my past. I couldn’t shake the dream and even grew to expect it every night. After a while, the dream women at the edge of my bed stood like a wall between the world and me. They never left, yet I can’t identify who they were. When my brother and I moved upstairs into our converted attic bedrooms when I was around age seven or so, though, I never dreamed the vision again.
After I unearthed the news about my roots, I began to wonder if my dream vision had started in prison with my birth mother and other inmates, the vertical lines representing iron window guards and not crib rods. Or was the image a memory from one of my foster homes?
I have no idea if Mother heard me cry—whether it was from my bedwetting, even as a grade-school girl, or from my angst about waking up in the morning with my thumb in my mouth—but I knew she cared for me in the night. I longed to stop wetting my bed and sucking my thumb, tried and tried and just couldn’t. Not until my teens.
Many times after I’d woken up crying, I’d sit up, lean over the edge of my bed, grip my pillow so I wouldn’t fall out, and grope around in the dark for the single graham cracker my mother would hide each night in one of the rooms of the dollhouse next to my bed. The tooth fairy also visited the same dollhouse rooms the nights after I lost a tooth.
I’d discover my treasure and then sit up in bed and nibble it, one hand under my chin to catch the crumbs. The crackers appeared night after night, yet my mother and I never discussed this secret ritual. I locked my tenderness inside.
Memory can play tricks on us. Or maybe we trick memory to serve a deeper purpose. Maybe I kept the dream alive so I could keep the sensation of my prison mother surrounding me. The longer I kept her with me, the more I pushed away Mother, the one I should have loved, the one I wasn’t sure I wanted to love. The longer I kept myself outside my family, the more I lived with the memory sensations of my first home in prison. I’d begun to glamorize my birth mother, to romanticize our relationship, romanticize the prison and whatever sent her there.
The longing stayed with me, but I didn’t know for what. I couldn’t control any of it.
Excerpted with permission from Prison Baby: A Memoir, out March 2014 from Beacon Press.
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