A woman's life gets turned upside-down as early regret gets replaced with redemption
|I don’t even realize I’m crying until I see a drop of water fall on the photo in my hand. Parts of the picture curl up, away from the backing, and cracked wrinkles run across the photo. A baby, a girl, blue-green eyes. How old is she now? I had her when I was seventeen, and I’m seventy-three now. So she’s fifty-six now?
When the phone rang yesterday I was taking a fitful nap. I fumbled for the phone receiver and croaked, “Hello?”
“Is this Elinor Whitman?” The moment I heard the woman’s voice, I came awake instantly. It was the voice I imagined, the voice I never heard, from the daughter I barely knew. How did she find me? “This is Rebecca Hayward,” she said. “I think you knew my mother and father, Debra and Jeff Stanton.” My breath stopped. No, Debra is not your mother. I am. And no, I didn’t know your mother. I knew your father.
“My father died last month, and my mother died a year ago. I’ve been going through their things. I found a sealed envelope with your name on it, ‘Deliver to Elinor Whitman in Springfield’ in my dad’s hand-writing. Do you know what’s inside it?”
“I might,” I said cautiously.
“May I bring this to you, Elinor? I can be in Springfield tomorrow at about eleven.”
“Yes, that sounds good. I live on Bouton Lane.”
“I know that street. It’s down the block from my dad’s parents.”
Yes, I know that.
The blue-green-eyed baby is now a fifty-six year old woman who apparently knows nothing about her origins. She doesn’t know that her father and I met in August, when he was wrapping up lifeguard duties at the lake after his senior year in college. She doesn’t know that a feverish make-out session on a blanket in the dark led to her. She doesn’t know that while Jeff was on the blanket inside me, his fiancee Debra was flipping through Bride magazine looking for the perfect dress for their March wedding.
What a fool I was. In the early 1960s, girls and boys were not as exposed to sex as they are now. It was furtive, sweaty, cloaked in darkness, a lot of fumbling and back-seat grabbing, and a general confusion about how people could about sex being so great when it felt so awful.
I realized something was wrong in October of senior year in high school. My brother teased me, “Quit the Oreos, Elinor. You’re becoming a chubster.” He was right. I couldn’t zip my school uniform any more. I took to wearing shapeless sweaters and sweatpants. I hid in my room, ashamed of my body and wondering what my parents would think.
After a shower one day, I wrapped myself in my bathrobe, hurried to my room and closed the door — or thought I did. When I removed my bathrobe and started to get dressed, I heard a gasp. Standing in the hallway, my mother was staring, her eyes wide, her right hand held to her mouth. “Elinor, what did you do?”
The house became uncomfortable, claustrophobic. Mom and dad whispered, I stayed to myself, and when I did come down for dinner, my brother eyed me as if I were a mutant. I guess I was. I knew of no girl who had gotten pregnant in high school. Girls talked about it as if it was common, but it wasn’t.
By February I could no longer hide my body under baggy clothing. Teachers, principals, students stared at me. My friends avoided me, my grades dropped, and the father of my unborn baby refused to speak to me. On a cold Monday morning my mother and father knocked on my bedroom door and said they had withdrawn me from school. They were driving me to my grandmother’s house until the baby was born. I raged, I banged, I slammed, and I screamed. How could they? It’s senior year! What about college? What about prom? What about graduation?
When I look back now, I see it was empty rage. I understood why they were doing this — I understood every time I saw my mother’s eyes tear up when she looked at me or when my father glanced at my belly and quickly looked away or when I found the adoption application on the kitchen counter. One single night in August with a cute lifeguard affected not just me, but my whole family. I was going to have a baby — with no plan, no money, no common sense. I was so ashamed.
I packed a small suitcase, the one with the Lake George and Wildwood stickers, and climbed clumsily into the back seat of the Pontiac. My parents drove silently, stoically, staring at the highway through the windshield. In the back I slept. I awoke when the car bounced over uneven ruts, and when I looked up, I saw my grandmother on the steps. I was scared — this was not like visiting grandma for summer vacation. As I walked toward her I could see her lips tremble, her blue eyes so sad.
“Oh, Elinor,” she said, as she took me by the shoulders, looked into my eyes and embraced me with a hug so tight it was as if we fused into one person.
During the coming months grandma and I worked together in the house and garden. She taught me how to bake, we played board games every night, and she made me keep up with school reading — To Kill a Mockingbird was my favorite, Pride and Prejudice was hers, neither of us cared for Lord of the Flies. She used her acres of flower-filled fields to give me the science I was missing at school.
By May I was gigantic and uncomfortable. If I sat down, I couldn’t get up. If I stood up, I wanted to sit down. My grandmother walked me through all the scary things happening to my body, hoping to alleviate my fear. But it wasn’t working. I was terrified. Any day my body would explode and another human being would gush out.
On a Monday in May, as I baked biscuits in the kitchen, I went into labor. I was seventeen. My grandmother grabbed the small suitcase from the closet, hurried me into the car and brought me to the local delivery room. Six hours later, I gave birth to Rebecca with the blue-green eyes. Forty-eight hours later, I left the hospital without Rebecca. A young married couple, unknown to me, had adopted the baby and would raise my Rebecca as their own. All I had left of my daughter was a color photograph taken on Rebecca’s birth day.
I learned later that the young couple who adopted Rebecca were, of course, known to me. A month before Rebecca was born, the doorbell rang at my parent’s home. On the front porch was my one-night-stand with his new wife, Debra. With no small talk or preface, Jeff spoke simply. “Mr and Mrs Whitman, Debra and I want to adopt Elinor’s baby and raise her as our own.” My mother and father went silent. “Our lawyer has prepared an offer to raise Elinor’s baby as our own and to provide a settlement to you and to Elinor.”
And there it was. While my grandmother and I played backgammon and discussed To Kill a Mockingbird — my grandmother must have known what was going on — my parents exercised their rights as parents of a minor to surrender my baby for adoption. When I discovered that, I lost whatever trust I had for my parents. Their sadness and shame, I have no doubt, led to their deaths from cancer within the decade, my grandmother not long afterward.
At eleven the next day, the doorbell rings, and I open to see Rebecca Hayward, looking as nervous as I am. In her face I see my face, in her blue-green eyes I see my eyes, in her freckles I see my freckles. My daughter in the flesh, a grown woman. I welcome her — born Whitman, adopted as Stanton, married as Hayward.
As we settle on the couch, she passes me the sealed envelope. I nervously turn it over and over, trying to divine clues, and then open it. Dozens of photos — Rebecca at her first birthday, Rebecca on the first day of school, school photos in second, third, sixth and eleventh grade. There she is at high school graduation, her college transcript, her graduation, her wedding. Here Rebecca holds her own baby — my granddaughter — and in this one she attends her daughter’s birthday party, graduation, wedding, baby. My daughter, Rebecca. Her daughter, Robin. Robin’s daughters, Kayla and Jenna. My unknown family. I start to cry.
Rebecca takes my hand and looks at me closely. “Elinor, I know who you are to me. I know you are my birth mother.” She looks at me — my eyes looking at my eyes — and she starts to cry, too. The doorbell rings. This time Rebecca jumps up. “I’ll get it.” As the door opens, a younger woman walks in followed closely by two young girls — Robin, Kayla, Jenna. Like a beautiful set of Russian nesting dolls, my family lines up in front of me. And my life begins anew.