The night the relative I'll call Aunt Dorothy came to visit she seemed in a talkative mood. I had never quiet known how she and I were related. Frankly, I had never been interested enough to ask, and we would only see each other occasionally, at family weddings or funerals. But now I was curious because I had just begun working on a family tree.
A proudly independent widow in her 60s, Aunt Dorothy like to travel and was visiting Washington for the first time. The living room windows were open to the warm May night, and the edges of the curtains fluttered the night she arrived. I sat in an armchair on one side of the fireplace; across from me sat Aunt Dorothy, with a whisky sour at her lips. It seemed a good time for me to ask.
"Aunt Dorothy, weren't your mother and my grandmother sisters? Was that it?"
She stared at me, speechless for a long moment.
"We were very close, you know, your mother and me." She paused.
"My baby, my first baby, had just died, and I had gone to visit your mother," she said, slowly. "You were just a baby too. Your mother and your father were living in Jersey City. That's when I found out." Moments of quiet.
Between the couch and my chair was a coffee table. Under its glass top was a 19th-century map of Bridgeport, Conn. I knew that I had been born in Bridgeport 46 years ago because my mother had wanted me born there, near her own mother. And I knew that shortly after my birth, my mother had taken me back to Jersey City, where she and my father lived. But with the next sentence Aunto Dorothy spoke, I discovered I didn't know at all. I discovered I was someone I had not yet learned about.
"Your mother told me not to worry if it turned out that I couldn't have another baby. She said I could adopt one. Like she did."
I sat very still. I knew. I knew that what my Aunt Dorothy had just said was absolutely true. And yet, a moment before, I had known it was absolutely true that I had been born to Catherine and Walter Allen in Bridgeport on March 20, 1929.
"Oh," my aunt said. "I guess I let the cat out of the bag."
At that radiant place where we know who we are, at that place where we keep ourselves, there was suddenly darkness.
"That's all I know, Tom," my aunt said when I stammered a couple of questions. "Honest to God, that's all I know."
There was no more talk about my origin. My wife and daughter had heard the conversation, but they could not know just how I felt: losened, adrift.
Long hours later, I went to bed. I began to sleep but for the first time in my life I woke up screaming.
A dream or a dream of a memory had flared in my half-sleeping mind: I was very young, just starting to walk. Another toddler was with me. We were on the outer deck of a ferry that sailed between Bridgeport and Port Jefferson, Long Island. One of us was crawling through a scupper. Then something happened...
I think the memory was real. But I did not know which of the toddlers I had been. And at that moment, as a middle-age suburban father in bed with his wife, I did not know who I was. Inside the ferry, I knew or dreamed I knew, was my mother -or somebody -sitting on a bench while I was in danger. I was in danger then, and I was in danger now. I had screamed.
By day, I did not have time to tend to my darkened identity. I carried on the everyday routines. A couple of days after my aunt's visit, went to cash a check. The teller compared my signature with the one on file, then asked my to endorse the check again. She looked at my second signatue, eyed me suspiciously and asked for my driver's license. The signature on the license matched the one on file. The signature on the check was jagged, crude. I mumbled something to the teller about a sprained wrist. I was shaking. Something inside of me had come out; my pen wrote a signature on the check as if it had been held in the hand of someone else.
Deep in the night, I would wake up, yanked from sleep by dreams or the sounds of my sobs. I lay at the edge of the bed, my legs drawn up, my face covered by my hands so that I could open my eyes but see only darkness. A dream from childhood fevers returned: I was a needle balanced on the waves of an angry sea; one wrong move would drown the needle. I must not move.
During those nights, I had trouble breathing. One night I awoke and felt a darkness closing in on me. Finally, the dreams tapered off, and sleep no longer terrified me. "I'm going to be all right," I said to Scottie, my wife, as she held me in our bed one night. "I'm going to be all right."
I began to think beyond my own clouded indentity to the people I was related to. Now there were only three I knew I was kin to by blood -my three children.
My mother and my father -I would never think of them in any other terms -were mine. I knew that. And I knew the my two sisters were my sisters. But the tie of blood was not there, had never been there.
My mother, the woman who had adopted me, was dead. My father lived in Connecticut, as did my sisters, who were both married. My sisters were born when I was on the threshold of adolescence. I had seen our mother pregnant. I knew my sisters were real -that was the work I used -but there wer moments when I did not think of myself as real.
My father had always been a secretive man. He could be genial, friendly to outsiders -but he did not like to talk to me about what I though of as the important things in my life.
He was not that different from the fathers of most of my friends in Bridgeport. He had never emerged from the Depression and would forever be distrustful of life. He put just about all the faith he had in the Catholic Church; there was little left over for the rest of his life.
But I began to understand why he had always been a cautious man. He had a secret to keep. I assumed that when I told him I had finally learned about the secret, he would have a burden lifted from him and that, relieved, he would tell me what I wanted to know.
I knew that the time would come when I would to to Connecticut to talk to him. But first I wanted to begin the search for my identity myself, to learn as much as I could on my own. And as soon as I started searching, my aanxiety began to wane. The more I did to find out about myself, the less I feared what I would find.
From a drawer of papers, I unearthed my Certificate of Birth. It proved only that I was born in Bridgeport, but it had no other information, no indication of who I was, who my parents were. I next turned to the certificate that showeed I had been baptized in a Catholic church in New Jersey.
I looked at the white paper of the baptismal certificate more closely and noticed a faint yellow splotch. Under strong, angled light and a magnifying glass I could see the the stain was from ink eradicator. It had not quite obliterated the word "adopted," which had been inserted just before the certificate's printed works "child of." With the light and the glass, I went back to by birth certificate. My name, I now saw, had been typed upon what seemed to be old erasures.
I looked more closely and saw something familiar about the typing of my name on the birth certificate. I went to the attic and rummaged through boxes that seemed to contain every piece of paper that had ever passed through my hands. And there, amid the homemade Valentines and the Boy Scout merit badge applications, were some of my school papers.
In my junior year in a Jesuit high school, I had acquired a typewriter, an old Underwood, that I had used for special projects. I thumbed through my handwritten essays and came to what I was looking for: a radio script I had written for a workshop at school. I had typed the title and my name. The "s" in "Thomas" was out of line. Was it my typing? I looked through the script. Always, the "s" was out of line, a shade higher then the rest of the letters.
I took the script downstairs to my desk and, with the light and the magnifying glass, compared the name typed on the script with the name typed on my birth certificate. Same typewriter. I felt silly, being a detective about myself, tracking myself down. And I felt angry. My birth certificate was a fake.
I could imagine my mother going to the Bureau of Vital Statistics in the old Welfare Building on Washington Avenue in Bridgeport, getting a copy of a birth certificate, probably in the name of one of my sisters, and then going home, erasing the name and, with the Underwood, typing in my name.
My search went on, fanned out. My real birth certificate had to be on file somewhere. I wrote to Bridgeport for a copy and, at the same time, asked a nephew born in Bridgeport to write for his. I wanted to see if we got the same forms for our $2 checks. He got a copy of his birth certificate. I got my check back, along with a notice that there was no record of my birth.
I was ready to go to Connecticut.
I telephoned my sisters first and told them that I knew, and agreed to let one of them break the new to my father before I spoke to him. We arranged it so that, on a Saturday morning, all three of our families would get together at the home of one of my sisters. We would sit around on her screened porch, chatting as usual. Then I would take a walk with my father.
That was the script for the day, but none of us was very good at play-acting. My sisters resented my decision. They said I should leave well enough alone, although "well enough" certainly did not describe my condition.
A few hours before the meeting with my father, we sat around my sister's kitchen table. One of my sisters asked me what it was I really wanted.
"I want to find out," I said.
"Find out what?" May asked.
"Find out who I am."
"You know who you are," Betty said.
"I don't know who my birth parents were," I said.
That was the beginningof years of misunderstanding. I could see in their eyes that the felt I had betrayed them, betrayed our father and our mother. It would be a long time before they understood and before I understood why I had so angered them that day.
I could feel them watching me through the screen as my father and I walked down the steps and into the yard. We had not walked that much together in our lives; we were awkward with each other.
We got to a corner of the yard and had to decide whether to turn left or right.
We turned left and began walking around in a circle, around and around. I cannot put quotation marks around what either my father or I said as we walked in circles that hot Saturday afternoon. My father said he knew nothing about my origin. He said all he could tell my was that I had been found, by my mother, through a priest in Bridgeport, and taken by my mother to Jersey City.
The first time my father saw me I was in my mother's arms as she stepped off the train that had brought her from Bridgeport to New York. He remembered entering Grand Central Station by the Vanderbilt Avenue entrance that day because he had taken a cab. He wanted to be on time. Vanderbilt Avenue -that was the only detail he supplied.
My mother apparently had, with the aid of her mother, talked a priest into giving her a baby born out of wedlock. In those days, according to what a priest later told me, a pastor often acted on his own in arranging for the welfare of babies born to unwed mothers. There usually were no papers. A priest in the diocese of Bridgeport told me that I apparently was the beneficiary of such a transaction -an "unofficial adoption." Neither my father nor the diocese could produce any papers on me.
I called an old friend who was practicing law in Bridgeport and asked him what he could do. He shrugged. "You're not even related to your father," he said. "Under Connecticut law, you and he are legal strangers. Would you want to get adopted now? It can be done." He started talking like a lawyer. I told him I did not want to be adopted. I wanted to find out who I was.
Then he started talking not as a lawyer, but as friend. He said that he, as a lawyer, could examine a municipal registry that listed all births. I could not look at the registry, even though I might be in it. Information about illegitimate births and adoption was kept in sealed records. But he would see what he could do.
A few days later he called to tell me that only one illegitimate white male had been born in Bridgeport in March 1929. The baby was born in a Catholic hospital, St. Vincent's on March 19, the day before what I had always thought was my birthday.
The baby's mother had come to Bridgeport from a small town in Massachusetts. She had just turned 22. Her first name was Elizabeth, and she had an Irish surname. (Let's say it was Ryan. I can't use her real name.) I had been brought up Irish, and I had been known to sing "The Rose of Tralee" on occasion. When I had asked my father if I were truly Irish, he gave me a packet of American-Irish newspapers, without comment. I had wondered even more. So I was glad to hear that I might have been born to a woman with an Irish name.
In the registry, the father's name was not given. But the baby had a nam: Thomas.
On the back of the certificate in the registry, my lawyer friend found a Bridgeport address, written in pencil. In those years, a municipal nurse checked on the health of the baby and mother shortly after they left the hospital. The nurse apparently had jotted down the place in Bridgeport where Elizabeth Ryan has stayed while waiting to give birth.
It had and address, a 46-year-old-address.
At the Library of Congress my wife and I managed to get stack passes to the library's collection of city directories, which list the names, addresses, occupation's -and often dates of marriage and death -of all the adult population of almost every city in the United States, year by year, decade after decade.
The Massacusetts town where Elizabeth Ryan lived, the town that was named on the birth certificate, was on one aisle. My wife went there; I started working with the 1928 Bridgeport directory.
In that directory I found the address where Elizabeth Ryan had stayed: two families had lived in two flats. One name was Greek, the othe Irish. (Let's say O'Brien.) I picked O'Brian.
I began tracking Kathleen and Leo O'Brien through the years. Leo worked as a machinist in a Bridgeport factory. William , their son, appeared in the directory in 1941, meaning that was when he turned 21. William entered the Navy; Leo died; Kathleen got a job in a defense plant, then moved to another address in Bridgeport. I skipped forward to the latest Bridgeport directory. Kathleen O'Brien was still at that address; the directory listed her phone number. Kathleen O'Brien, it now seemed quite likely, knew my mother.
I was sitting on the floor, the big orange Bridgeport directory on my lap, when my wife came up the aisle carrying the slim gray directory of Massachusetts home town of Elizabeth Ryan. She was holding the book open to a page. Without speaking, she held the page out to me. The directory was from 1930; the entry was Ryan, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth Ryan had died on March 20, 1929 -the day after my birth.
When we got home, I called the O'Brien telephone number that I had located in the Bridgeport directory. I told the woman who answered that I was doing some family history and that I had been given what may have been her 1929 address as my first address. Had she lived at that address?
"Yes," she said, cautiously.
We chatted about Bridgeport. I had trouble getting to the point. Finally, I said that I thought my mother might have lived at that address when I was born in March 1929.
"My God!" Mrs. O'Brien exclaimed. "I always wondered what happened to that baby."
We talked wildly, jaggedly. I made her repeat, again and again, asked her to go over the story so that I could write it down.
A priest in Elizabeth Ryan's home town had arranged for her to come to Bridgeport to have her baby. Back home they had told everybody, including her brothers and sisters, that she was having a nervous breakdown and had to go away.
"Wel, the first thing I had her do was go to the 5-and-10 and get a wedding ring," said Mrs. O'Brien. "But I really felt sorry for her. She got letters from her boyfriend, Tom There were days when I'd say, 'Let me write to Tom and tell him to come. Get married and stay with me and keep your baby.'
"The time came when she was going to deliver. I saw the baby. I told Elizabeth that he -you -was a lovely baby. She was glad to hear that and was so glad to have a visitor.
"The next day, our doorbell rang. And who was at the door but Elizabeth's mother and brother. They said the hospital had called. Elizabeth died."
I called information for the Massachusetts town. The Ryan family still lived in the home from which Elizabeth had set out for Bridgeport so many years before.A woman answered, and I asked if I could speak to someone who would know about family history. She was suspicious of me, but she said I could ask what I wanted to ask. I gave my birthplace and the presumed date of my birth.
There was a pause, and then the voice on the phone said I should put everything down in a letter.
I'm very sorry to be dropping the past in on you and your family like this. But I know of no other way to make a contact. I feel strongly that somewhere there is some clue that will settle once and for all whether I am or am not Thomas . . . "
two days later came a phone call from lillian, the younger sister of Elizabeth Ryan. Until Lillian read my letter she had not known that Elizabeth had had a baby. The story about Elizabeth's nervous breakdown had never been altered. As far as Elizabeth's brothers and sisters knew, shehad died in Bridgeport, of spinal meningitus, presumably induced by a breakdown. My search was starting to open up not just my life, but the lives of others. I was finding out who my mother had been, who my aunt was; and my aunt was just discovering that she had a nephew.
Officials at the Bridgeport hospital had told me that the family could get records of Elizabeth's maternity and proof of her death from complications followning childbirth. But I knew that Lillian needed no proof. The phone call and the letter had convinced her. "We have no animosity toward you," she said. "If you're half as nice as she was, you'll be all right."
Not long afterward Scottie and I arrived late at night in the Massachesetts town. Near the courthouse on the village green there was a diner. We went in and ordered coffee. When the young man who served us walked down the counter and out of earshot, I whispered to Scottie, "I'm related to him. I know it."
He came by the counter again to top off our coffee. I asked him, as casually as I possibly could how to get to the address I had been envisioning for days. He gave me directions and added, "That's were my uncle lives."
We hastily left the diner.
We drove up and down in front of the house several times and then spent the night in a motel. The next morning I got the nerve to call Lillian and tell her that I was in town. She did not sound surprised. I told her I wanted to see her.
I called from a phone booth near a shopping center, where I watched the stream of faces go by, trying to find relatives among the people walking by. I was feeling very near and yet very far from where I wanted to be Lillian said we could come over, but the sound of her voice was more of a sigh of inevitability than an invitation.
The house where Elizabith Ryan lived was brown clapboard with a white trim and a peaked roof. It sat very squarely along a sidewalk and a blacktop driveway. As I pulled into the driveway, I could see that the back door was already open. Standing there was a sturdy-looking, white-haired woman. I think she was wearing a white cardigan sweater and a blue print dress. What I do remember is that she looked straight into my eyes, blue eyes into blue eyes, through a pair of rimless glasses.
I got out of the car and walked the for or five steps toward the open door. When I was two steps from her, she opened her arms. She hugged me in the doorway and I hugged her, and we began laughing, talking and crying.
It was my walk that had made her certain. She said I had her father's walk. I also had his big feet and his leftheandedness. While she was telling me this, I leaned my elbow on the kitchen table and propped my chin in the palm of my right hand, my index finger pointing upward, my middle finger eclipsing my mustache.
"That's it," she said. "That's exactly the way my father held his head up when he listened."
I learned that the young man in the diner was my cousin and that I came by the "Rose of Tralee" quite naturally because Tralee is where Elizabeth's mother was born. I am very Irish.
I was shown a bright little bedroom where Elizabeth was born, the room she lived in until the day the priest came and helped her get ready to go to Bridgeport. I was shown where she played the piano, and I was shown the parlor where they put her coffin for the wake.
Aunt Lil gave me a photograph of Elizabeth. We did not have to say what we both knew. There could be no doubt that I was Elizabeth's son. The eyes are the same, and nose.
Resemblance; it is such a human quirk that we do not think about it often. But I did that day. There came that moment when I looked at the face that formed my face, and I knew how I started out to be.$