Entry #19

It’s funny how the pieces come together. The little stuff you’ve forgotten, or the big stuff you’ve never really thought about. I’m not sure which this is.

Until my sophomore year in college, I spent a lot of time onstage, and much of that time was spent singing. I performed in community theater musicals and in the church choir and even managed to squeeze my way into my high school’s semi-elite show choir. I’m pretty sure that last one happened because I’m a decent dancer and I was moderately strong, and the director was always in need of male dancers who could throw girls around. Every time I see photos from that era, I’m reminded of the lyrics to that Smiths song, “Shakespeare’s Sister“: “I can smile about it now, but at the time it was terrible”. Except in my case, it’s the reverse: back then, it was kind of awesome. Now, I grimace.

Anyway.

In those days, I was given solos fairly regularly, mostly because there was an unwritten rule that every child in any choir had to have a solo now and then. The other kids loved singing alone, but it made me nauseated: I didn’t have a soloist’s voice, and I hated performing by myself because — believe it or not — I never enjoyed being the center of attention. I still don’t. Apart from my obvious lack of talent, that’s why I stopped singing long ago. Acting, too.

But despite my fears and my shortage of star quality, I did all that musical stuff, and I was the only one in my family to do so. My adoptive family never showed a lick of interest in anything musical (and it’s just as well they didn’t, because none of them can sing a note).

When I met my biological family — at least my mom’s side — the theatre stuff was an obvious match, but there’s a musical side to that family, too, that I don’t think I ever fully processed.* I was reminded of that today when my sister posted a scan of my biological grandfather’s business card. He was a New Orleans jazz musician named Stuart Bergen, though it looks as if he preferred to be called “Red Hott”. The card features a little devil — presumably my grandfather — floating over a lake of fire and wailing on a trumpet. It encourages the recipient to “BE DIFFERENT” at her/his next event and book my grandfather’s band.

Now, even if I wanted to have a musical career, I know I don’t have enough talent for it — not nearly as much as my grandfather or my sister or my other bio-relatives. But I have a little, which is far more than anyone in my adoptive family can say. And in a correspondingly little way, my grandfather’s business card is one more instance of my biological family putting me in context, making me less of a black sheep, explaining things from my adolescence that, looking back, seem kind of weird and out of place.

I guess what I’m trying to say is: I continue to be amazed by it all.

* For non-performing arts folks, the worlds of theatre and music may seem similar, but they are light years apart. You’ll have to trust me.

Entry #18

As I was saying:

I suppose I could’ve just rung up Mr. __________, but there were a lot of variables to consider. Would he even remember Callie? Or that she was pregnant when they parted ways? How would I persuade him to admit that he was my father? Hell, how would I even introduce myself? “Hey there, it’s me, your bastard son! Happy holidays!”

No, an out-of-the-blue phone call to my long-lost potential bio-dad seemed imprudent, so I did the only sensible thing I could: I let someone else do the dirty work. I forwarded the email and the link to Callie and waited for her to call. (She’s a very responsible woman, so I knew it wouldn’t take long.)

It didn’t. In less than an hour, she called, fresh from a few rounds of web-searching for info on the mystery man. Mr. _________, as it turned out, had several children and an estranged wife who was recently deceased. That last bit was oddly good to hear–only because when I tried to imagine all this from _________’s perspective, I presumed the hardest part would be telling his wife. “So, how was your day, honey? …Uh-huh. …Well, that sounds good. By the way, did I mention I got my college girlfriend pregnant? Because–funny story–the kid called me today. Could you pass the baba ghanoush?”

Still, I was excited, and so was Callie. Like me, she’s a born researcher, and this news gave her the opportunity not only to use her investigative skills, but also, more profoundly, to fill in a missing chapter from her own life. I don’t mean to imply that Callie still carried a torch for Mr. _________, or that she wanted to rekindle any long-ago flame, but to reconnect with the man who fathered your first child…. I mean, that’s kind of a big thing to check off your to-do list.

But even more than the thrill of research and rediscovery, Callie was excited about a very strange coincidence: that day, December 7, was the very day I’d been conceived 40 years before. Exhibiting memory skills that, alas, I didn’t inherit, she recalled that the one and only time she and _________ did the deed was on Pearl Harbor Day. (Which begged the question: what made that particular Pearl Harbor Day memorable? Was there a besotted Pearl Harbor Day party that led to my conception?) So in keeping with the general weirdness surrounding my adoption saga, I’d found my father exactly four decades after I became more than just a sparkle in his eye. Assuming, or course, that this was the right guy.

I asked Callie how she thought I should proceed, hoping all the while that she’d volunteer to make the first call. I mean, at least she knew the guy, once upon a time. Maybe she could just play it off like she found him by accident and called to say “hi”. Worst case scenario, they’d talk about the weather for a few minutes, then go their separate ways. Whether Callie sensed my unease or whether she was just eager to speak to him, she offered. She said she’d call me back as soon as she was done.

I went back to work, and before I knew it, an hour had passed. Then two. Finally, just as I was about to run out to lunch, she rang. She’d been on the phone with him the whole time.

As I suspected, at first Mr. _____________ was reluctant to admit that he was the right guy. Callie played it cool, calling under the pretense of gathering info for an alumni database, but he didn’t bite. Just before he hung up on her, though, she must’ve said something that broke the ice, something that made her identity and her intent clear. After that, it was gab, gab, gab.

She said he was warm and funny and very talkative, despite his initial reticence. He’d lived through a lot but still bore similarities to the man she’d known in college. He’d mentioned that he was pretty conservative, and he’d asked if I was married. Callie said no, and he asked if I was gay. She said yes, and the subject was dropped…. That didn’t sound especially good, but at least he knew.

Most importantly, Callie said that Mr. __________ was interested in chatting with me, but that he wanted me to call at a specific time so he could speak freely. (The Yellow Pages listing only had his business line, and he didn’t offer a home or cell number.) I had a long list of things to do that afternoon that I couldn’t avoid, so I called and arranged for a chat the next morning. He rang me at 11am on the dot.

We talked for over an hour that morning. He told me some harrowing stories about living through the wars in Lebanon, fearing for his life, escaping in the middle of the night to Cyprus, going back to Beirut and trying to raise a family, and eventually moving to the states. I told him about my life growing up and my life now. I sent him some photos to look over, which he seemed to enjoy, but it’s hard to tell. We’re still kind of feeling each other out.

Not surprisingly, my chats with ____________ have been very different from the first ones I had with Callie. She was overjoyed when I contacted her; she’d been waiting for that moment for years. We had a lot in common–including many friends in New Orleans–and she and my half-sister and I got along like a house on fire, right from the start.

With Mr. ________, it’s slower going, much more cautious. I mean, hell, he’s only known about me for a couple of weeks. In forty years, I don’t think he’d thought of me at all, and he certainly wasn’t anticipating the moment of contact. He’s very different from me, raised in a different culture, with a large family who don’t even know I exist. I can tell we differ in our political and social views–but then, I have the same problem with my adoptive family, and we somehow manage to avoid killing one another at Christmas. So I’m guessing that Mr. ___________ and I will gradually get through it.

I think things would be easier if I weren’t gay. ____________ seems fairly religious (Christian, fyi), and when I bring up Jonno in coversation, the subject changes pretty quickly–though that might be my own doing, to avoid making him uncomfortable. Still, his children sound pretty cool and laid back, and they get along with him, so he can’t be a total ogre. In fact, I have to agree with Callie: he’s a very warm, inquisitive, and talkative man.

Bottom line: Mr. ___________ has clearly indicated that he wants to keep talking. And in our last chat, (we’ve had three now), he even mentioned a possible meeting in the not-too-distant future. So it may not be as easy and immediate and open as my relationship with Callie, but it’s happening. And I’m happy.

Stay tuned….

Entry #17

Okay, so here’s how it all went down: since Callie’s first letter all those years ago, I’ve been on a half-hearted search for my biological father. I say “half-hearted” because I knew that he’d gone back to Lebanon after college, and I knew that Lebanon was not a very safe place to be for most of the 1970s and 1980s, so I figured there was only a 50/50 chance he was even alive.

My optimism wasn’t exactly boosted by the inadequacy of online Lebanese directories, or by the conversation I had with a woman at the Lebanese embassy in DC, which was about five minutes of “Oh, I see…. Is that right? …Okay, I’ll have to get back to you,” after which she never got back to me. I’d even made a point of hiding the real nature of my search, claiming that my father was looking to reconnect with one of his former LSU classmates. (I’ll leave out that detail when I recount the story to my adoptive father, a dyed-in-the-wool Ole Miss fan.) Maybe Embassy Lady didn’t buy it–which would be totally plausible since I’m an awful actor–but did she really need to lead me on?

In my head, it finally came down to this: I’ve built a great relationship with Callie and my half-sister, Tiff. We chat, we email, we exchange presents. It’s really hokey to say, but they complete me somehow. I fit that particular puzzle. So why go and flirt with disappointment by looking for a father who’s quite possibly dead? Or, if he’s not dead, he’s almost certainly got a wife and kids–what’re the odds he’d want to disrupt the life he’s built by befriending his bastard son? His gay bastard son, even? Why bring all that tsoris on myself?

Then, dumb luck. Like, Jed Clampett-shooting-at-some-food dumb luck.

Back in October, I was noodling around Facebook, looking to see if any of my offline friends had recently signed up. And as I searched for one name in particular, someone with the same name popped up–someone from Beirut. And I thought to myself, “Hmmm. This could be useful.”

So I ran a search using my father’s name: no dice. But then I searched using only his last name (which is a little unusual), and bingo! Eight people in Lebanon came up. I chose the first one on the list and wrote her a short note using the ruse I’d used before–namely, that my father was looking to re-connect with some of his college classmates, and did she perhaps know a man who shared her last name, a man named ___________? I apologized for the out-of-the-blue and vaguely creepy nature of my request and signed off, never really expecting to hear from her.

I had a reply in about 20 minutes. No, as it turned out, she didn’t know of anyone named ___________, but she had several relatives on Facebook who were really well-connected, and she suggested that I write them. She said the request wasn’t strange at all and wished me good luck. She hadn’t led me to my father, but I’d gotten my foot in the door.

It totally wasn’t what I’d expected. I’d expected her to respond like Embassy Lady, or frankly, like I would’ve myself: with loads of skepticism and more “Is that so?” In fact, if I’d been in her shoes, I don’t think I would’ve responded at all. “Just another freak,” I’d have said to myself. “Maybe even a stalker.”

I was so shocked by her generous response (it really was sincere) and so distracted by my impending trip to Italy that I couldn’t focus on following up with her relatives for while. Then finally, not long after Thanksgiving, I sent letters to the other seven folks on Facebook.

All responded within 24 hours, and six responded favorably. (One was a total dick, though, just like I’d have been. What would’ve happened if I’d written him first? More dumb luck on my part, I guess.) Each said they’d be happy to ask around, but they needed more info–most importantly, was he from the north or the south, and was he Christian or Muslim? Unfortunately, I didn’t have any more details to give them. Again, pessimism set in.

Then something strange and magnificent happened: the next morning, over the course of one cup of coffee, two of the people wrote to say that they’d asked around, and that their relatives remembered a man by the name of _____________ who’d left Lebanon years ago and moved to the US. One of them had gone a step further and looked him up for me. He sent me a link, and with one click, I was staring a listing for my father on YellowPages.com. The name was spelled differently than the one I’d been circulating, but surely it was him, right?

To be continued…

Entry #16

I know it’s rude to drop a bomb like that — saying “Oh yeah, by the way, I found my biodad through Facebook, and I just spoke with him for the first time ever,” and then taking forever to follow up. But honestly: it’s a longish story and kinda weird (like everything else in my adoption/discovery process), and with all the wassailing going on, I just haven’t had the time/energy/focus to write it down. Soon.

Entry #15

And in other news: I was conceived forty years ago today. (Yes, my mother remembered the date.)

Also: I have just spoken to my father for the first time. Thank you, Facebook.

More later.

Entry #14

THE MEETING

callie

My first look at Callie. I made her stand in the door ’till the flash went off.

callieandme

Just before leaving for dinner. Am I standing like a big nelly or what?

callietiffyandme

Me, Callie, and Tiffy at Sid-Mar’s with Jonno (who’s taking the photo). They make me feel so…swarthy.

Entry #13

Callie called Wednesday to confirm: she and Tiffy were planning to get in town yesterday, and we’re all going to dinner tonight. We’re going to Sid-Mar’s, a seafood restaurant out on the lakefront, near the neighborhood where Callie grew up.

I’m not really nervous or anything. I know I should be. I should be concerned or giddy or shopping for flowers or something. Maybe it’ll hit me when I see ’em.

In fact, the only nervousness I’ve felt came when I was telling my dad. I wanted to tell him when we were face-to-face last weekend, but there wasn’t really an opportune moment. So I had to tell him Wednesday over the phone.

He wasn’t surprised, really. I mean, he told me years ago that if I wanted to track down my biological parents, he’d be happy to help. He said he was proud of me and that he’d have done exactly the same thing, had he found himself in my position.

I told him about my uncle, about the fact that he was a theatre person and gay and all. I jokingly told dad he could stop wondering where he went wrong and just blame my uncle. He laughed, and I could tell he’d never even given the matter much thought.

Entry #12

I got an email from Callie yesterday. She and Tiffany are coming on the 15th. They’ll be here for a week.

Suddenly, it seems like this has all happened really quickly. Too quickly? I dunno. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have concerns. I feel like Woody Allen when I ask questions like this, but really: what if we run out of things to talk about? Five days is a long time to spend with strangers.

I have a hunch my fears are unwarranted, though. From our emails and our one-time phone conversation, I think the three of us–four, counting Jonno–are gonna be fine.

If all else fails, I’ll just start drinking. I can blab away for hours with a little alky-hol in my veins. Just ask Jonno.

Entry #11

Hmm. My sister’s music reminds me a little of Moloko, one of the hippest bands of the late mid-90s.

Separated by three decades and 3,000 miles, we still manage to share a lot. Genetics, oy.

Entry #10

Last Saturday night gave me my first real chance to speak with someone who knew my uncle, Stuart. I mean, Callie knew him, of course, but she knew him as a brother. This man, Jerry, knew him as an artist, a roommate, and a lover–a very different set of relationships.

Let me back up: earlier in the week, I’d run into my friend Amy on the street. She’d mentioned that Jerry–a New Orleans native living in New York for a couple of decades now–was paying her a visit. As she described him and his work in theatre, somehow we pieced together that he probably knew Stuart. She offered to bring him along on Saturday night to the Libra party, held in honor of my boyfriend and few others. She wanted us to meet. (Amy’s a real yenta’s yenta.) When they arrived at Lucky Cheng’s, though, I’d completely forgotten about him. I guess I assumed that even if Jerry did know my uncle, it’d be only tangentially.

I was very, very wrong.

Apparently, the two met when they were very young; each was the first boyfriend the other had had. Even with the painfully loud disco music thumping through the lounge, I could hear sincere affection in Jerry’s voice as he spoke of Stuart. There was a thoughtfulness to his descriptions–as if he were trying to relive a particular moment and wanted to get every detail right. It’s the same tone I hear in my voice when I try to describe childhood walks with my grandmother through the ludicrously idyllic woods of rural Mississippi. Sadness, happiness, nostaliga: all of it mixed together.

I don’t know why, but from the moment Jerry began speaking, I was on the verge of tears. I’m not the sort of person who gets weepy when he’s drinking–if anything, I head towards giddiness–so it was an unusual sensation to be feeling so maudlin with a glass of wine in my hand. If I hadn’t been in such a festive, public place, surrounded by friends new and old, though, I probably would have bawled my eyes out. This from the guy who began searching for his biological family with textbook Gen-X glibness.

As Jerry unraveled Stuart’s story, I drew parallels between my uncle and people in my own life: Mick, the artist and designer in a constant, manic state of destroying old work, building new; Michael, filled with creative drive and a laugh like a big, strong hug–each impossible to dislike. No, I didn’t know my uncle, but I knew people like him, fantastic people no longer here, people I’d give anything to see one more time, just to say a proper goodbye.

But enough about that.

As it turns out, Amy knew Stuart, too. His name rang a bell the first time I mentioned him to her, but it took her a while to remember: he was the nephew of a woman in her care on her first job in New Orleans. Amy is a counselor for the terminally ill, and this woman, Stephania, was one of her patients. Stuart visited her weekly during her last years of her life.

It’s a damn small world. Damn, damn, damn small world.

Entry #9

Before leaving for Louisville, I made The Call. I guess I was just being paranoid, but given the current political climate, I didn’t want to shuffle off without at least meeting Callie voice-to-voice.

As it turns out, we gabbed for nearly an hour, filling in various blanks and getting a feel for one another. To me, she sounds like a good-time gal who’s slowly settled down over the years (a far cry from my own, painfully demure mother). Different, good, alien–all sorts of things.

I still don’t think the reality of our reunion has hit me yet. (Though “reunion” isn’t exactly the proper word; we weren’t really “united” in the first place. I mean, she didn’t even know she’d had a boy.) Callie, on the other hand, seems very excited, and very cautious, too. We’re set for a mid- to late-November rendez-vous. She and my sister are coming to New Orleans for a visit.

Three interesting things I learned from our conversation:

1) As a child, I was told I was born in Jackson, but in reality, my mom gave birth in Natchez. Not a big deal at all, but interesting. Apparently, Callie was sent away to a maternity home there for the bulk of her pregnancy. She said it was fairly pleasant, though when I imagine it, I invariably picture Lu-Lu’s nun-run stalag for unwed mothers in Polyester.

2) At the time of my conception, Callie was a grad student, but my father, Haleem, was an undergrad. In that way, I guess she and my mother are alike: they both prefer younger men.

3) Callie always kinda suspected I was gay. In fact, she’s very happy with it. Yippee.

Entry #7

Life is weird, the world is small.

I plopped myself down in front of the computer Sunday morning with a reheated cup of yesterday’s coffee, and I began to do a little bit of casual “work”–poking around, really, just a bit of research on Lebanon and Beirut and such. Maybe something would point to my father.

I quickly learned that Lebanon’s few “white pages” directories were going to be no help at all–it seems like they only list people who sign up for the service. That, coupled with the ubiquity of my father’s first name (i.e. Haleem/Halim) and the uncertainty of spelling his surname, meant I got nowhere.

I changed tactics and began flipping through chat rooms. Again, nothing. Most of the major Lebanese portals have chat rooms and guestbooks, but they’re rarely used. In fact, the only room I found occupied was on gay.com, where a couple of very helpful men offered to do some legwork, provided I could give them a little more info. I’m going to see if the LSU alumni association can can help me out with a recent address or something.

While I’m sitting there, chatting away to anyone on the Mediterranean who’ll listen, a banner ad pops up. Remember, I’m surfing the international section of gay.com, and as such, I’m privy to ads only intended for folks living outside the US…. Well, what should pop up but an ad for Jeff/Varla‘s upcoming show at London’s Soho Theatre, The Very Worst of Varla Jean Merman? I found it bizarre. Tiny, tiny world.

Later, I stumbled across a piece of my uncle’s work: a play with Meryl Streep, directed by Elizabeth Swados, called Alice at the Palace. My uncle, Stuart Baker-Bergen, is listed in the credits, right after Mark Linn-Baker. I’ll never know him, but he’s preserved on video.

Life is really, really, really, really weird. Really.

Entry #6

JUST THE HIGH POINTS

The letter came yesterday afternoon while I was home for lunch. I was in the kitchen having tomato sandwiches (a childhood/Harriet the Spy fetish), when the mail slot opened with its typical nerve-shattering squeal. I gotta oil that hinge one day.

I trekked to the front of the house to see what had arrived. The letter lay on top of a pile of garish circulars in a simple white envelope, with only a Jackson, Mississippi post office box for a return address. I was excited, but not unduly so. I think I was probably more nervous opening acceptance letters from grad school. I guess I’m still not taking this as seriously as I should.

I took the envelope back to the kitchen and sat down. The letters inside–one from Callie, my birth mother, and one from Tiffany, my half-sister–were kind of amazing. Not just because the two come across as normal, healthy, wacky people, but because of the way I’m an eerily neat genetic fit for the family.

Callie, my mom, is a librarian in Columbus, Georgia. (Yes, JB, this may entail a trip to your neck of the woods soon.) She grew up in Orleans Parish, not far from where I live now. She attended Rhodes College–perennial rival of my alma mater, Millsaps College–and earned a BA in English, with hopes of teaching, not at all unlike yours truly. Eventually she began work on a Masters at UNO (where I myself picked up an MA about 30 years later), and it was during that time that she met my biological father; shortly thereafter she became pregnant, gave up the baby (i.e. me), moved to Georgia, fell in love, got married, and had more kids. All in all, she was leading a pretty normal, middle class life a couple hundred miles due east of me.

Fine so far, right? Nothing surprising or unusual.

But our circles begin to overlap. My half sister, Tiffy, is two years younger than me and is apparently a musician. She’s moved around a lot, bouncing from Columbus to Atlanta to LA to San Francisco. Now she’s living in London, cutting an album or something. I dunno.

At one point in Tiffy’s self-described “crazy” life, she moved to New Orleans and worked at Warlocks Salon. Warlocks, as you might imagine, was the ever-so-wacky salon, one of the first in New Orleans to offer extensions and Manic Panic hair colors–you get the picture, I’m sure. As a fringe member of the hipster crowd, I was familiar with most folks who worked there, and I can just barely remember mention of a gal named Tiffany. New Orleans being as small as it is, she and I invariably crossed paths, maybe shared drinks, bummed smokes, who knows? But we were definitely part of the same peer group. There was no way we could have avoided it.

Things started to get considerably stranger when Callie spoke of my uncle, Stuart, to whom she affectionately referred as “Diggie.” Diggie was, by the sound of it, a theatre guy extraordinaire, with training in playwriting, directing, and acting. He earned a degree in Drama from UNO, then moved on to an MFA program at Columbia. After two months in the city, though, Diggie was lured away from his grad program by none other than Andrei Serban, Ellen Stewart, and La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, with whom he worked over the next several years. As fate would have it, during my own stint in New York, I had a job that required me to speak with Ellen or one of her staff on a weekly basis. If I’d known, I guess I could have asked…

Being a New Orleanian, Diggie couldn’t completely stay away from the city. He’d come back from time to time, hanging out with New Orleans’ only female female impersonator, Becky Allen–the same Becky Allen with whom Jonno and I appeared three years ago in Psycho Beach Party. Yet another person to ask.

I keep using the past tense because Diggie is dead. He died of complications from AIDS in May of 1986, at the same time I was graduating from high school.

Here’s the only missing piece of the puzzle: my father. Apparently, he wasn’t just of Lebanese extraction, he was a citizen of Lebanon. Callie seems to think he moved back to Beirut after college, sometime in the early 1970s. I have no idea where I’d even begin looking for him. Anyone have access to the Beirut white pages? Anyone?

Same brow, same jawline: physically, I’m clearly more his son than hers. She‘s happy to hear from me, she‘s accepted me. What would he think? And do I really want to know?

Entry #5

I’m sitting at my desk yesterday afternoon, trying to clear up some painstaking minutiae involved in an artist residency I’m coordinating later this month, and the phone rings. My caller ID shows a 601 area code: Mississippi… It’s not my father, it’s not my mother, it’s probably not any of my brothers… I pick up and hear a five-syllable “hello,” and instantly I know I’m on the phone with Jodie, the agent at the Children’s Home Society who’s coordinating the meeting with my birth mother. From the sound of her voice, I can tell she’s got good news: the letter from my counselor arrived, it was approved (even though, I think to myself, it wasn’t anything like what she’d requested), and it’s been delivered to Callie. A corresponding letter is on its way to me, complete with photos and such.

I’m excited, but not in the way you’d think. Yeah, sure, meeting my birth mother’s going to be interesting and all, but more than that, the anal side of me is thrilled that one more facet of my life can be wrapped up, checked off, and neatly filed away:

    _x_ Gay? Yup, I’ve got the boyfriend to prove it.

    _x_ College degree? Yes indeed, and there are numerous sheets of paper in the attic to prove it.

    _x_ Adopted? Affirmative: here’s a pic of mom and dad.

Just another victory for empirical knowledge.

Entry #4

The letter from my counselor went out last week (I hope). I’d post it, but it’s not very interesting. Basically, it tells my mom and the folks at the adoption agency that I’m sane. Which is not entirely untrue.

Entry #3

Just before walking out of the office and heading to the mailbox last night, I caught myself wondering what my mother looks like: Fat? Thin? Tall? Short? Stylish? Dumpy? (Maybe it’s genetic?) This, of course, led me to the corollary: “Well, she’s never seen me, ever, so she’s probably a little curious about what I look like, too.” I sat back down, pulled a few photos–some new, some old–from my hard drive, and printed them out for her.

The baby pics were fine: harmless and thoroughly appropriate. The recent shots, though…well, I don’t have too many of ’em, honestly. I don’t know why. Here’s the ones I chose to send:

Sad but true: this is the most up-to-date shot I’ve got. It’s kinda cute in it’s own way. Message I’m trying to convey: Your son’s goofy and fun-loving and has a good sense of humor. He may be a little “off,” but in a lovable sorta way.

Of course, I had to include a shot of Jonno, so why not send one of my favorites? Even though he’s doing his usual doe-glancing-up-from-the-meadow pose, it’s charming. Message I’m trying to convey: Your son’s boyfriend’s a hottie.

This shows just how limited my selection was. It’s one of the few recent photos in which you can see more than my nose. Of course, this was the pic over which I hemmed and hawed the most: do I really want my mother to know I smoke, even if I’m only a social smoker? Unconsciously, I started making some assumptions about her, like, if she gave me up for adoption then she must have been having pre-marital sex, which was a little trashy back then, so she might very well have been a smoker, too, which was also pretty trashy for women. (Ask a sorority girl sometime about the many dos and don’ts of smoking, including rules about sitting down and having a roof over your head at all times. Or just read Florence King.) Message I’m trying to convey: you’re son’s got plenty of vices, which means he’s not going to hold any of yours against you.

Entry #2

I wrote the letter. It came much quicker than I thought it would. Thirty-two years in 2 1/2 pages–not bad.

Of course, I’m not entirely pleased with it. It came out a little flat and flip, like one of my journal entries. Maybe I’m just used to writing that way. Or I’ve grown too used to emails and business memos. Or I’m trying to put some emotional/psychic distance between myself and her. Whatever. I’m tired of looking at it and just want to send it off. I mean, she’s my birth mother. The agency tells me she’s been looking for me. What’s she gonna say? “I don’t want to meet you now?” I’m banking on her curiosity.

Even the most casual of my acquaintances know more about me than she ever will. Ergo, I’m not going to bother with the whole letter. It’s essentially a Kubrik-length Director’s Cut of my bio, anyway. Here’s an expurgated version:

30 July 2001

Callie:

Jodie at the Children’s Home Society asked me to write you a letter in preparation for our eventual meeting. She wasn’t very clear on what I should say in the letter, but of course, how could she be? I guess I’m supposed to sum up the past 32–almost 33–years of my life. I’ll try to limit myself to the high points.

So…I grew up in a small town in southern Mississippi. You’d be very happy with the folks who adopted me. Dad was a little distant when I was young, but I understand now that he was busy working and getting himself established. (No one could ever accuse him of being lazy.) As a kid, I didn’t care much for him, but once I graduated from college and began living as an adult, our relationship changed. Today, I can honestly say he’s one of my best friends.

My mom, she’s a little different. For the first 18 years or so, we got along like gangbusters, but around the time I left for college, things changed. She divorced my father in the middle of my freshman year, and since then, I’ve watched her mental condition spiral downward. (Unfortunately, it’s genetic.) Nevertheless, she’s always been a loving, caring mother. She fits the cliché perfectly: if mom’s guilty of anything, it’s of loving too much.

I have three brothers: I’m the oldest. I was adopted because the doctors thought my mother couldn’t have children. (She’d had a couple of still births.) Then, almost the very day I came home from the hospital, they conceived my brother. They waited a few more years, then had two more. I’m not very close to #2: like my mom, he’s a little odd. He’s never really found himself; in the past two years, he’s worked as a missionary, a welder, and is now studying to be a truck driver. We don’t have much in common. I get along much better with #3 and #4–especially #3. He’s a physical therapist. Number 4’s finishing his degree in finance, with plans to become a stockbroker. Our house, as you can imagine, was loud.

I had a great childhood. The four of us spent a lot of time with my dad’s parents in an even smaller town, population 195. There were acres and acres of rolling farmland; it was idyllic. My brothers and I attended a good, if somewhat pretentious, elementary school that put us ahead of the pack when we reached the public junior high. I excelled in French and English language and literature, drama, and, oddly enough, chemistry.

I performed in my first play in fourth grade–a stage version of Hansel and Gretel my teacher had yanked from the pages of Ladies Home Journal or Redbook or McCall’s. I was hooked: the better part of my high school career was spent working on plays or preparing for drama/debate tournaments. I found an “artsy” crowd–as artsy as you could get in Mississippi–and we had a great time being outsiders together. In fact, we all shunned the prom my senior year in favor of attending a debate tournament in Natchez. We came home with 16 trophies. All in all, it was much better than listening to some crappy band crank out Led Zeppelin covers.

College went reasonably well, too. Practically everyone I knew was going to Ole Miss, so being the willful outsider that I was, I chose Millsaps. I had a very pleasant four years, made some great friends, did a lot of partying, and somehow managed to graduate with a good GPA.

After graduation I moved to New Orleans. I already had a wide circle of friends there–half of Millsaps was from the area–and I’d always liked the city, so it seemed a natural fit. I spent a year becoming an adult: working retail and trying to make ends meet for the first time in my life. It was eye-opening. Suddenly all my father’s admonishments and Protestant work ethics and home-spun wisdom made sense.

. . .[grad school, etc.]. . . [ugh]. . .

There’s something I should mention before I sign off: I’m gay. I’ve known, more or less, since 7th grade, but I didn’t fully come out ‘till college. In all that time, I’ve only had a few boyfriends–but then, I’m not the sort that goes out looking for love. When it lands in my lap, great, but I’ve found that when you actually search for it, it never works… Or maybe that’s just me.

I guess I’ve seriously dated about four guys in my lifetime. And of them, none has meant more to me than the one I’m with. His name’s Jonno. We met in the early 1990s when I was living in New York; I was instantly smitten, but he wouldn’t give me the time of day. Four years later, I was at a party in New York and a mutual friend re-introduced us. He didn’t remember me, but I filled him in. Six months later, he moved to New Orleans. We’re going on five years together. We are very, very happy.

Well, I think that’s probably enough for now. I’d wanted to keep it short, but I tend to babble. Lucky for you, my fingers are getting tired.

Anyway, I look forward to meeting you. I’ll see you soon.

–Richard

P.S. I apologize in advance if this letter looks a little weird by the time you get it: I imagine Jodie will censor some of the more specific bits, so if it’s not entirely coherent, there’s a reason–apart from me being scatterbrained, that is.

P.P.S. Sorry to have to call you by your first name, but it sounds equally odd to call you mom or mother just yet…

Formal, distant, something’s wrong. I think there’s an element of respect that’s missing.

Screw it. It’s getting stamped tonight.

Entry #1

So, yeah, basically, I’m adopted. What I mean to say is: yes, I’m adopted. Most definitely.

I’ve always known. I can’t even remember the conversation my parents had with me–not the color of the walls, not the toy I was playing with, not the cut of my mother’s hair, nothing. That’s how long ago it was.

They got me a book, mom and dad: The Special Child or The Chosen Child or something like that. It was one of those late 60s, warm and fuzzy books, telling me I was so wonderful that I had personally been singled out to go live with the fantastically fun Mr. and Mrs. _______. The book was illustrated in tones of turquoise and peach, but it got the point across.

Fact is, I’d never given much thought to the matter. As a teenager, when my parents became domineering and monstrous in an effort to curb my raging hormones, I guess it crossed my mind a couple of times to go look for the birth ‘rents, but I wouldn’t have even known where to begin. I was adopted right outta the womb, in Jackson, Mississippi, and I was jaundiced: that’s about all I had to go on.

goddess, i was  geekyTime moved on and puberty passed and I resumed normal relations with my parents–except for my mother, who’s gotten increasingly odd with age. But that’s another story. Anyway, I realized that, honestly, I didn’t much care about finding my birth parents. Mom and dad were the only parents I knew, and that was fine.

Then I saw Secrets and Lies, and I became intrigued. Well, not much, but a little–enough to mention it to my friend Karl one day, forgetting that he was adopted, too. And he sat me down and told me that the laws had recently changed, and that it was actually pretty easy to find your birth parents, or at least get your medical and social information, and that he was in the process of doing it himself. And before I knew what was happening, he gave me the number of the agency in Jackson through which we’d both been adopted, which I called and which sent me the required one page application. Name, phone number, date of birth, and a couple hundred bucks: that’s all they needed to get the ball rolling.

It took me almost a year before I sent the thing back–not because of reluctance on my part, but because I got distracted. Jonno and I had bought a house that we were trying to renovate, and with all that, we were kinda scraping by, and I felt guilty spending money that could have been used on paint or a sander on myself like that. So I waited. When I finally sent the paperwork in this past July 2, I thought of it as a kind of treat. Like buying a boxed CD set or a signed first edition: something I shouldn’t do often, but every once in a while…

Within a week, a woman from the adoption agency named Jodie (as in Buffy and…) was calling me at work, telling me that she’d found my mother and that it’d taken her a grand total of one hour to do so. Of course, there was a lot she couldn’t tell me–stuff that might hint at the woman’s identity or location–but she did pass along the info that my mother was born and raised in New Orleans and that she’d been looking for me for some time. Apparently, she didn’t even know she’d had a boy. Her name is Callie. (Calliope? Calendula? Calpurnia?)

A few days later I got a letter. It was written by Jodi after her initial conversation with Callie, the complete story of my birth mother’s life crammed onto a single page of archive-weight stationery. My birth father was given a paragraph at the top of the second page; they’re no longer together, surprise. Among the more interesting facts to come out of the letter, I learned that…

  • My mom was/is a geek: she earned an MLS (Master’s in Library Science) at college.
  • My mother is standard-issue Irish-German, but my father’s Lebanese. Which may or may not explain my attraction to hot, swarthy, Mediterranean daddies. Probably not. But it makes for a good story.
  • My uncle (my birth mother’s brother) was highly involved in the arts, particularly theatre and painting. He had a wonderful sense of humor, and he taught drama at university. It think we can all guess what that means…. I wondered why none of my adopted brothers ever took a shine to the theatre or to kissing boys. Or to kissing boys in theatres. Thanks, Unk.

Now I’ve got to do two things. I’ve got to get some sort of certification from a therapist/counselor saying I’m mentally stable (or at least stable enough to meet my birth parents). I guess they just wanna know I’m not seething with anger and planning to mow ’em down when I see ’em. Then, I’ve gotta write my birth mother a letter. They didn’t tell me what I needed to say. What should I say?