A friend asked me if I saw the news photo of Jessica DeBoer sobbing in the back of a car as she was being taken away to meet her new set of parents. "It made me weepy," she said. "Can you imagine what effect this will have on that child's life?"
I could imagine. The same thing happened to me when I was about Jessica's age. It was the spring of 1943. I was 27 months old and living with my family in a small town in Massachusetts. They were not my "family" by blood but by association. More than two years before, I had been dropped off at a Boston orphanage by my mother. It was called the Home for Little Wanderers. The home ran a classified ad in the Boston papers. The headline said, "Home Wanted for Foundling." One person responded.
Florence Moberger, then in her early thirties, was a housewife in the town of Malden, a few miles from Boston. One morning at breakfast she read the ad. She and her husband, Carl, already had three children: Bill, 12, George, 10, and Carol, 5. They wanted more, but Florence was unable to get pregnant again. She called the home, talked to a social worker and struck a deal. She and Carl would take care of me, make me available to prospective parents on request and if no one adopted me they would ultimately be considered for adoption themselves. But the home much preferred giving me to a childless couple if they could find one that was suitable. I was to stay in this holding pattern for more than two years, about as long as the DeBoers and their lawyers have wrestled with Jessica's natural parents and their lawyers.
During that time I went from a puny baby to a sleek little boy with plump cheeks. My natural mother had starved herself to keep her pregnancy a secret -- she was 15 and unmarried -- and I was born with rickets and mildly bent legs. But I flourished at the Mobergers. I loved their house, their dog, my siblings and Florence and Carl. I became particularly close to Bill. When I graduated from a crib to a regular bed, Bill invited me to move into his room, which he was happy to share, and I did. He helped to teach me to read.
Every day I would wait for Bill to come home. I would hide behind the front door, and he would pretend he was surprised when I leaped out. I would do the same thing to Carl a few hours later when he arrived home just before dinner. He would stand inside the entry taking off his coat, calling out in a loud voice, "Where's Dickie?" until I leaped from my hiding place, snorting and giggling.
I had lots of visitors, at least in the earlier days. Prospective parents came from various parts of New England. One was a Navy lieutenant and his wife. They came back a number of times. I would have the chocolate wiped from my face, my hands washed and would be trotted out. Ultimately, they never asked for the order, as they say in sales.
Of course, I had no real idea why so many folks came to see me, and I just generally thought of them as new friends. My real mother, whose name was Dorothy Anderson, even came, posing as her own sister. She held me, took some photos and disappeared forever. My father, an 18-year-old college student named Richard Boynton, wanted her to help kidnap me and then run away and marry him. Dorothy was a junior in high school; no one but her parents knew she had even had a baby, and she refused. That night, after her refusal, he shot and killed himself two blocks from her house.
Even Dorothy Anderson's parents, my grandparents, came to visit. I was held briefly by Mrs. Anderson, who cried. Her husband, my grandfather, stood nearby, stern and unspeaking, but looking sad and uncomfortable, according to Florence. I may have liked the attention, but how hard it must have been for Florence and Carl. And how much harder it became as the months went by and the home -- in hopes that another couple would want to adopt me -- continued to defer the Mobergers' application to adopt.
Carl was a Swede, or his parents were. Florence was a Yankee from Maine whose mother, Mrs. Toothaker, lived around the corner. We visited her often when Carl was at work and my brothers and sisters were in school. My final day at the Mobergers' was like that. It was a sunny day in early May. Florence and I had been sitting in old Mrs. Toothaker's cozy kitchen, with me eating fresh-made doughnuts and listening to the radio as Florence and her mother chatted.
Florence has told the story of my departure and her loss, many times, always to others, but then finally to me, in 1983, 40 years after we'd last seen each other:
"We left my mother's place, and you asked me if I wanted to run the rest of the way home. I said yes, and we trotted down the sidewalk. You were laughing, your hair was blowing in the wind. You said, 'Come on Mom, you're so slow.' I had stopped. There were three women standing on the porch of our house. One was Miss Gow from the Home for Little Wanderers. One woman was Mrs. Carlson, who would become your mother. The other was her sister. They were looking right at you. Your cheeks were red. Your hair was so blond. You had on a blue jumper. You looked beautiful. I knew right then they were going to take you. We all went into the living room. I sent you out to play while we talked. All the paperwork had been done. If Mrs. Carlson liked your looks, they were going to take you. I knew from the way she was staring at you she had made up her mind. I knew she wanted you. Mrs. Carlson talked alone to the woman from the home. Then they said they would like to take you next week, maybe Monday or Tuesday.
"It was a Friday. George and Bill and Carol were in school. Carl was at work. I said no. If you're going to take him, you must take him now. We can't have his leaving hanging over our heads all weekend. I don't want to put my family through that. It would be easier for them if he was gone when they come home. Later I realized that was a mistake. Carl and the kids were crushed by the fact that they never said goodbye.
"Anyway, I went upstairs and packed your clothes. I packed your toys, too. They said, oh, we shouldn't take these, but I insisted. I carried your rocking horse out to the car and put it in the back seat. Carl had made it for Bill. Bill gave it to you. You were out in the backyard playing on a tree. I brought you in the kitchen and put you on the table. I shined your shoes. I was on my knees, and I started crying on your shoes.
"You said, 'What's wrong, Mom?' I said, 'Nothing, Dickie, I'm just feeling a little sad.' I told you that Mrs. Carlson was going to take you for a ride. You said that was okay. You liked cars. Carl used to drive you around in his old Ford. I didn't tell you you wouldn't be coming back. In the living room, I hugged you goodbye. I couldn't make it out to the car. You waved at the house from the back seat of the car as you all drove away. That was the last time we saw you. We never got over it. Neither did the kids. George named his first son after you."
I did get over it. I never saw nor heard from the Mobergers again, and after a while the memories faded like photos in the sun. Ultimately, I couldn't remember them at all.
How fortunate I was that my own small drama was played out in private. How much worse it might have been if Oprah and Phil and Geraldo had been interested. Florence and Carl and their kids gave me a base upon which to build, and the Carlsons added to that. It wasn't a perfect beginning, but it was better than many. Life is tough. It was Carl and Florence who suffered the most, as it will be with the DeBoers. Like me, Jessica DeBoers will forget her first parents and her early life, but only if she is allowed. How sad, how frustrating, but the alternative for Jessica, a continually gnawing remembrance, is far worse.
The writer is president and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.