Today is the xxth anniversary of my marriage to T.. I refuse to write the number It’s too depressing. It is also the anniversary, or thereabouts, of my first big Bastard Moment.. You know, the moments that hit you in the gut and remind you that as an adopted person–a Bastard–you are different from the rest Suspect. Damaged, Troubled .Inadequate. Unloved. Abandoned.
I met T (he is an intensively private person, virtually invisible on the ‘net, so I’ll only use his first initial) when I was close to the end of my junior year in college. I worked three evenings a week downtown at a bookstore, and he came in nearly every night. He’d stay a couple hours, stand in the aisles, and read mostly poetry, European literature, plays and sometimes philosophy. He was especially fond of Beckett and Ionesco and German writers. He’d memorized passages from Goethe’s Faust–in German–and could rattle them off. He believed Goethe was far superior to Shakespeare.We talked a lot.. He very much opposed the war in Viet Nam and had done civil rights actions in college. He was a Taoist. Although I read The Village Voice and The Evergreen Review when I got my hands on them, I felt like a bumpkin next to T. I may have spent the previous summer in Europe, but he lived in his head, and what a head it was. We started dating almost immediately, clubbing in Kent one night, a movie, a concert the next. That summer we saw the Stones (the “rill dill” with Brian Jones), the Animals, the Beatles, the Lovin’ Spoonful. T, back then, resembled John Sebastian and was sometimes mistaken for him in public. Did I mention he played the harmonica?
In some local circles T was a household name. In my football-centric town he was a star. He had been the captain of the football team of the city’s powerhouse high school. He’d won a highly prestigious local football award. Both had national implications and guaranteed him a free ride to the school of his choice. Around 54 schools recruited T.. After a weekend at Ohio State at something that sounded like it was out of of Animal House years later, he turned down Woody Hayes flat and had nothing but contempt for the Buckeyes afterward. See, besides being a jock, T had a genius IQ–mid-160s. Really. He’d been through the local school system’s “high ability ” program and thought it was useless and created privilege where none was due. Maybe he was beyond it. He’d been reading since he was three.
T wanted to play college ball, but he wanted to play ball in an intellectual atmosphere. That turned out to be a swanky school in the east better known for academics than sports. He liked the smallness of the university and the location in northern New York State away from people, but close enough to a large city for fun. Yale and Dartmouth came in close. Although he qualified for an academic scholarship, he went for the football. T got the largest athletic scholarship ever offered at the school at that time, much larger than academics would reel in. He found it amusing. The college was a frat school, and he actually negotiated terms making the school pay for his frat housing. (He rejected jock frats.). He took up golf, listened to Miles Davis, and he and his roommate carried on a correspondence with Jay Ward, the creator of Rocky and Bullwinkle.
For personal reasons I won’t get in to here, T dropped out of school after the football season his sophomore year. His departure had nothing to do with academics or sports. That’s why he was back in town the spring I met him. With the Vietnam war in full gear it was pointless to look for a job. He was killing time waiting to be drafted. For awhile, at least.
- lived in a working class, mostly black, neighborhood
- dropped out of college
- was of Ukrainian-Cherokee extraction (with some respectable Welsh thrown in, at least)
- wore Wellingtons in the winter
- wore no socks (or underwear) in the summer
- was a Bob Dylan fan
- wrote pretty good poetry
- liked jug band music
- had long hair
The last being the worst offense. My mother literally, wouldn’t let him in the front door. He had never been treated that way, and I’d never known my mom treat anyone like that. She never did again.
Shortly after we began dating, T joined the Marines. It sounds drastic, but there were reasons, none of which he liked, but made sense under the circumstances. T wanted to take control of his situation. He knew what would happen inevitably. The Marines were desperate for a “few good men” (with very specific exceptions, Marines weren’t drafted.), in fact so desperate that T was offered a 2 year enlistment with a 120 day deferment. That meant that he didn’t have to leave for 120 days after signing up, and he’d have most of the summer free. The day, he signed the papers, his draft notice arrived in the mail.
T asked me informally to marry him before he left for Parris Island, and more formally in letters home. We planned to get married when he came back on leave after basic. As the time grew near to his return, the more frightened I became of dropping the bomb on my parents. Strangely enough, I’d been engaged when I was a senior in high school and nobody carried on like they did about T. They should have. I put it off as long as I could, and about a week before T’s arrival, I told them.
The reaction was worse than I imagined. My dad, while not happy, didn’t go berserk. My mom did. Jane, whom I wrote about earlier this year, was a born nitpicker and she picked this one bare.
Jane never cried. Never.The only time I ever saw her cry was when she slammed her hand in a car door–and that’s different from crying out an emotion. She kept her emotions close. Not even a tear when my dad died years later. Jane wept. And those tears dropped down on me like the bomb I’d just dropped on them. I haven’t mentioned the screaming.
Thus, began my trail of Bastard Moments- or to be more precise, my Bastard Month–a month that to this day I still don’t understand.
BASTARD MOMENT : Are you pregnant?
A couple days later my dad invited me out to dinner. We went to one of the nice restaurants my parents and I often visited Only, this time, my mom wasn’t along. Sitting across the table, very awkwardly, my dad asked me if I were pregnant. I wanted to go through the floor. I think he did, too. My mom had obviously put him up to it. Apparently, the only reason I’d marry the “dirty hippie” (sometimes he was a communist) was because I “had to.”
This was the longest meal of my life. We sat in silence.
And, as I learned years later, female adoptees are often suspected and accused of “promiscuous behavior” by their adoptive mothers. Like mother like daughter, ya know. I have no idea if Jane thought that way, but I believe she did at the moment.. Whatever great life she’d imagined for me was down the tubes–but how marrying (at that time) a potential college professor was bad is still a mystery to me Since she was the keeper of other people’s virtue, due to her own dysfunctional upbringing, it’s hard to say exactly what was really going. on. The subject was put aside, but probably didn’t go away until no untimely baby made an appearance.
Whatever was going on with my parents, especially my mom, being adopted was never far from my mind. The Bastard Moment hadn’t been coined back then, but I knew instinctively that adoption was pounding on my door.
BASTARD MOMENT 2: Made invisible
When T arrived home from Parris Island, one of our first acts was to get our marriage license and “plan” the wedding, such as it was. Back then I thought you had to get married in a church or you weren’t “really” married. My mother forbade our minister to marry us. He came over to our house, talked to me, and when T refused to involve himself in the BS, we were pronounced unfit for marriage. We finally got the minister who’d married T’s teenage sister a couple months earlier (in a quickie) ) to do it. There’s more
When we applied for the license, my mother called the local paper to ask that they not publish the ap. “What will the neighbors think?” I suppose Well, nothing. And btw, no dice, lady. Only the couple can request it be removed from paper. She got even more upset after the wedding when I put a small notice in the Society section–especially when her friends said, “why didn’t you tell us about this?” They, in fact, saw nothing wrong with T and thought he was quite the catch.. But there’s more.
My mom forbade my dad to attend the wedding. I have no idea why he agreed to this ludicrous request. It wasn’t like he did much of what she told him to anyway, so why this time? He’d never shown any particular animosity towards T.. Maybe he just got drunk and blocked it out. Maybe he felt he had to back her up. Oddly, my mother helped me pick out my wedding dress and paid for it! It was too late to be picky, so we got a nice white dress and coat outfit off the rack.I cried through the whole thing.
BASTARD MOMENT 3: The Bastard Card
Two days before our wedding, my mother did the unthinkable, and to this day I remain nearly speechless over it. She asked if I’d told T that I’m adopted.
This must sound strange, but it was not something that ever occurred to me to tell him. People were circumspect and reticent back then and didn’t talk about these things in polite company. Although some of my parent’s friends knew I was adopted, and adoption was not a verboten subject in my home, I’d never told anyone It was the dark, grotesquery I carried in my soul. My secret sin. My staggering shame. So clueless was I about what adoption implied back in those days, that it didn’t occur to me until I was 14 that my “real parents” as they were so unPCingly called back then, hadn’t been married. And that only happened after I’d watched The Proud and the Profane. (In case anyone wonders, neither of my parents were William Holden or Deborah Kerr.)
Here is what my mom said:
If you don’t tell T you’re adopted, then I will. It’s not fair to him. If he knows you’re adopted, he probably won’t want to marry you.
Yes! She actually said that!
If I didn’t know better I’d think she’d gotten that from Blossoms in the Dust when Edna Gladney’s “sister” kills herself for being a bastard.
I nearly threw up.
I dutifully informed T of my indecent past. His reply:
The subject never came up again.
BASTARD MOMENT 4: Pathetic wedding
The wedding was, of course, pathetic. To level the playing field, T forbade his parents and sister from attending. Since T’s two best friends were MIA (one living an artsy life in San Francisco hiding from the draft, and the other studying engineering at Carnegie Tech) his best man was someone he barely knew–a guy from our hometown he’d met at Parris Island. My matron of honor was my best friend from high school. We had two other witnesses: my best friend from college and my English Lit teacher.
After the wedding we went to the “bad part of town” where somebody took a couple pictures. Then I went to my (now former) home, to change my clothes, (T waited in the car) and leave for our honeymoon, which wasn’t a honeymoon at all, but a trip to the nearby summer cottage owned by T’s grandparents. I stayed home from school the next day, and I spent the majority of my time honeymooning with Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution vol 1. Ours was a marriage of intellect–or so I liked to think.
Eventually we collected a handful of wedding presents: a set of steak knives, 2 coffee mugs, a blanket from my next door neighbor, some hand-embroidered sheets and pillow cases from one of my mother’s friends who saw nothing wrong with T ( I still have them) and $5.00.
I had never bought into the bride fantasy that lots of little girls do. But, this wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. There was no joy. I felt deserted and alone.I didn’t want to be married . I wanted to go home to my family and be loved once again. No matter what T said (and he had a lot to say about it), it didn’t help. I’d been abandoned.
BASTARD MOMENT 5: Sick and alone
T started “advanced training” in paper pushing at Camp Lejuene about two weeks after the wedding. I was still in college, but wasn’t “allowed” to live in the house I grew up in due to my marriage to the long-haired commie. My mother, again, oddly found a bedroom rental for me a block away from college,-and paid for it, My landlady, Mrs F, was a retired factory worker and current Italian cook. She was in her 70s and had been a widow since she was 29. A couple times a week she catered Italian meals for the now grown children of her old friends from the NE side of town who had become doctors and dentists and other big shots. She felt bad for me. I was pretty shy depressed and hid in my room and stared at the ceiling. I stuck a Blue Star Mother sign in my bedroom window. Mrs. F would invite me downstairs to help her roll gnocchi. I wasn’t too good at it, but she liked the company. She told me about her own screwed up mother.
As soon as T went to Camp Lejuene, I got really sick. For some reason I forget, I’d been walking around barefoot in the snow. Maybe it was my fucked up state of my mind.. Mrs. F called my mother and demanded she take me home and take care of me. So back I went for a few days. Both ears were infected and I couldn’t stop coughing. My mother fussed over me. I missed a week of school. So, for a few days I got to stay in my own home, in my own bed, but then it was back to Mrs F and her gnocchi. I was better but I felt sicker.
BASTARD MOMENT 6: Misery loves company
The situation was intolerable. I had neither a husband I could live with nor parents who would wanted me (though they kept giving me money and stuff), and certainly not a home. My job at the bookstore paid about $20.00 a week. I felt angry and unloved and worth nothing. Absolutely nothing. T would probably be sent to Viet Nam and get killed before we even got to live together. I was writing an Advanced Studies in Political Science paper about the the war and the influence of the Catholic Church on JFK, and another paper on Chinese poetry.
At the end of the semester I dropped out of school (with only 4 months to graduate) and went down to Camp Lejuene and later the Marine Corps Supply Center in Albany Georgia, where we wasted the next 18 months. Me working at a Carroll’s hamburger joint on Oglethrope and later a music store. T pushed paper for the Atlantic Fleet, but mostly played football for the Marines. When Martin Luther King was assassinated, there was a riot across the street, that stopped at the street line. If it had crossed I’d have joined them. I wanted to burn down my apartment building. The manager of the nearby Piggly-Wiggly suffered a drooling disorder, which seemed to get worse when I walked by him.I began to have fantasies about conking a railroad detective in the head with a rock and jumping a freight for San Diego. I had only one friend in town outside of T She was married to a Marine and having an affair with a country DJ. One day the DJ’s wife attacked her with a tree limb shouting “whore whore” at her, and my friend began to carry a gun. Things were way too weird.
My parents paid for my trip down and regularly sent me money. When we went home to visit, T was still so angry that after a few minutes he’d scream at my parents, especially when my mother tried to apologize for her earlier actions, and shove me out the door.. My mom talked to T’s mom, who was cool and not happy about any of this. She tried to talk to T, but she was at a loss. It was too late. Should anyone be surprised were divorced 2 1/2 years later?
There’s more to this lovely story, but I won’t continue. Even sitting down to write this today has sent me back decades. I’m still angry. And it still makes me sick.
Not all of this is about adoption, of course. Parents do stupid things to bio kids all the time. But with the extra layer of adoption– those layers of secrecy, abandonment, the loneliness of not knowing, and anonymity–makes it about adoption, even if its egocentric.
If I hadn’t been adopted would I have responded differently? Probably.. At least I’d have been tougher, and probably not had what now seems like a nervous breakdown.
Even if at the time I didn’t see the adoption connection so much, it was right under the surface gnawing away. The whole thing was like being dumped in the adoption mill–even if I didn’t know what it was back then–all over again. Rejected and abandoned by the people who are supposed to love and care what happens to you. Your parents. And especially for such a dumb reason. I hadn’t joined the Manson Family. or blown up a draft board. I’d simply gotten married. I can only imagine what would have happened if I’d just gone off and shacked up with T.
The mixed signals are what I find so distressing today. We love you, but we won’t come to your wedding, but we’ll buy you the dress We love you, but you can’t live here, but we’ll pay your rent. We love you, but your husband is a douchebag–only that word wasn’t used back then–who can only come in through the backdoor. Preferably at night so on one will see him.
It was nuts. I had no frame of reference I had friends who were married and their parents didn’t carry on. like this, even if they didn’t like the husband. My parents, in fact, had actually approved of me getting engaged to my high school sweetheart when I was a senior in high school–and I was 17 then. It didn’t work out, and maybe if push came to shove, they would have objected. My hopes of reconciliation with my parents bounced up and down daily, but I never made a move to do anything; and neither did they. I didn’t feel I was unsuitable for marriage as the minister claimed, but felt they were unsuitable as parents. I have no idea what my parents were thinking. From what I know of Mama Dot, I doubt I’d have fared better with her. Whatever…I wasn’t thinking anything. I just shut down.
While some of this scenario was built on adoption, other parts were built on class, and gender expectations. and cultural change. When T and I went to see the Stones at the Cleveland Hockey Arena, my mother was convinced I’d be killed (seriously!) because there’d been what is quaintly called a race riot in Hough (something I felt Cleveland had coming) a week earlier.Or maybe she was afraid I’d try to boost a color TV. After all, I was with “him.”
I had planned to end this blog on a more eloquent note. I intended to critique each Bastard moment. Instead, after all these years I feel like I’m going to throw up again. It all seems so surreal; so archaic, and so much tied to the narratives of many of our first mothers.
All-in-all this story is pretty trivial in terms of really bad things that happen to people via adoption. I almost feel silly writing about it, but I know that it is these Bastard Moments that shape nearly every Bastard, no matter how “good” her or his adoption may be. It’s part of being “touched by adoption”. It’s part of what makes the personal so political.. It’s why we fight.
My mother apologized profusely many times for what she did that year and she was sincere. She really was ashamed. She never said I told you so when T and I divorced. She seemed genuinely sorry. A couple years later she ran into T, bossing his new wife around in a grocery store parking lot, and he was actually nice to her. I was surprised. I was harmed, but he was, too. Neither of us deserved it.
I’d like to write more about this today, clean up some language, be more articulate and centered, but I just can’t. Bringing up Bastard Moments isn’t for fast writing, and right now I’m sick of thinking about them, and sick to my stomach. Even if it’s not about adoption, it is. I like to think I recovered years ago. Activism is the big deal, but nobody comes to activism easy..