Cycles of Rejection: An Elegy for My Four ParentsAlex M. Frankel
III saw the photo of my birth mother: black-and-white image of a 1950s cheerleader with my face. My lost face. This wasn’t right. None of this. Once long ago this stranger and I were bundled into one person! I read through the notes put together by a social worker: Marcia Cranston; from Auburn, California; twenty years old; Roman Catholic; “cannot care for a child at this time”; Frank Verges; from East Moline, Illinois; graduate student in philosophy; twenty-four years old; “pleasant features”; Greek American; Greek Orthodox faith. There were photographs; there were birth and death certificates of my “grandparents”; there was even my original birth certificate: I had been given the provisional name “David Verges.”
There had always been, for me, two worlds: one was the narrow, repressed, old-fashioned world of Henry and Vera Frankel; the other was the free, sensual, hip, young world of normal people, who spoke real American and played sports and let their boys unbutton the top buttons of their shirts or even take off their shirts when it got hot. I didn’t like the person I’d become. True, I was now more confident about my looks than I had been when I was younger, but I didn’t like anything else. I was shy, unathletic, and had bad posture. I was a weighty, unwelcome presence at social gatherings. I clung to the belief that I would have turned out completely different if I’d been raised by my real parents. And all these documents now seemed to back up what I’d always suspected: my birth parents came from a better world, the world of my classmates, a kind of middle American paradise.
I showed the papers to my father. “I’m happy for you,” he said, “but I’m sad. What Mami and I tried to give you, the trips to Europe and the luxuries and the fine restaurants and the private schools! And now I see how much does come from the genes—did you see he studied philosophy just like you?”
As soon as I returned to Barcelona I went to the library of the American Institute and asked if there was a directory of college instructors. If my birth father had been studying philosophy in 1960, wasn’t there a good chance he was still teaching it? Within a few minutes I saw my birth father’s name, Frank Verges, and the address of the institution where he worked. I began composing a letter when I got home. I needed more than old photos, notes and legal documents. My letter was well-written and silly and pompous. I think I may have said, “You and Marcia, after thirty years of my exile, are now retrieved from my unconscious. Do you know why she did what she did?” I have my letter somewhere but I don’t care to look at it. I finished the letter and mailed it. “You don’t know what you may stir up,” my father Henry said sternly on the phone when I told him what I’d done.
A week later Frank Verges phoned me.
The solemn new voice from Southern California spoke slowly and chose his words carefully. “You sound so American!” I said to him. (Since I grew up speaking mostly German at home, English has always seemed like a cold language to me; I still feel alienated from it.) “Marcia,” he told me during our long talk, “was the most beautiful person. What happened thirty years ago was not her fault. The blame rests on my shoulders.” And he said, “I’ve been waiting for you.”
I am trying to get past clichés to describe how the phone call felt. Like a dream—yes. Surreal—yes. It was like the moment of seeing my birth mother’s photo—it was like trespassing—like hearing some news that is too momentous to be believed. I give up. I don’t think such a moment can be described in prose. Maybe not even in poetry. It was a naked moment; I cried (as I had when I saw Marcia’s picture) and so did he. It was like peeling off layers, peeling off years of lies and pretending, years of Henry and Vera and Barcelona and foreignness, to suddenly get at the real, the authentic, the primal.
I wanted to live this new chapter intensely; I wanted—even consciously—to erase the past and start from the beginning, from infancy, with my real kin. But no one was particularly interested in going along this path with me.
My philosopher father Frank, believing my “literary” letter to him deserved a “literary” response, wrote to me after we spoke on the phone. Here is part of what he had to say:
I was not trying to be chivalrous by attempting to shield Marcia from blame in our first telephone conversation. I was a second-year graduate student, she was a first-year undergraduate who respected my learning. In those days, thirteen years before abortion was legalized in the United States, the overwhelming majority of middle-class women did the same thing Marcia did. They would go live in some city or environment where they were not very well known, carry the pregnancy through to its completion, and make the best possible arrangements that they could in order for the child to be adopted by loving and caring parents. Marcia was living in a room on California Street when I visited her in the summer of 1960. She took the California Street cable car to work. We did not argue when I visited her in San Francisco. We were polite, but I was incapable, at the time, of summoning the appropriate intensity of emotional support that she obviously needed. I was too preoccupied with my own graduate studies to consider marriage. For some years following that experience I would be moved to tears whenever I recalled how preoccupied I was with my own emotional and sexual hang-ups during that visit with Marcia. I have always hoped that the pregnancy did not leave her with emotional scars that would haunt her for the rest of her life. But then how could that experience not have profoundly influenced her, just as it has obviously profoundly affected both you and me, and (may God forgive me) perhaps you more than me?
After all those years it only took my birth father a few days to track down my birth mother: his hunch about where she might be living turned out to be right. Marcia had left the mainland and moved to Hawaii not long after she gave me up for adoption. In Hawaii she married a Filipino and adopted two Hawaiian children. She never gave birth again after she had me. Now, in 1990, she was divorced and alone, as was my birth father. Marcia wrote to me but sent these letters to Frank, who forwarded them to me, since at first she didn’t want me to know her address. She wrote:
Lately I’ve been feeling guilty about things that never caused guilt before. I just last week finally got a grip on myself and decided to stop this nonsense. Alex, I believe that I am more vulnerable to you than to anyone else in the world and I will not allow you to use that vulnerability against me. I don’t want there to be an “against” in this relationship. If we’re not “for” ourselves and each other, then there’s no point in it. There is a whole range of negative feelings going on here from each one of us toward the other two: anger, guilt, resentment, etc. We can’t ignore them, we probably have to express them, but the point of doing that (gruesome) exercise must be to move beyond into something better.
Nine days later she wrote:
I’m looking forward to our meeting at Christmas time, though I surely don’t know what good it will do you. One thing that I want to make clear to you so that you give up any hope of hearing a fairy tale is that in 1960 I did not want a baby. If Frank had offered to marry me or “keep” me, I would certainly have given my best shot at being a mother. Given the fact that both he and I were a little flaky, it probably would have been a disaster. In any case, once pregnant, I did want to at least give you what I could—life. Another point I want to make is that it was not you I didn’t want. It was any baby. I liked that baby I carried in me—to me it was the ideal baby. And I was quite content that other people were to bring you up. I thought they were lucky to get you.
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