Cycles of Rejection: An Elegy for My Four Parents

Alex M. Frankel


I first met my parents just before Christmas, 1990, a few days before I turned thirty.

My father—the father who raised me—was suffering and stewing at the thought of this “reunion” (as it’s supposed to be called). He would phone me in Barcelona and say, “Imagine what Mami would have thought!” or “Where do I stand?” I tried to re-assure him. Sometimes he now referred to himself as an “adoptive father.” I was tired of pleasing him. My whole youth had been about keeping him and my mother happy and being a good girl—as in speaking with a German accent, not playing rough with the guys, and only listening to old music.

Frank met me at the airport and a few days later the three of us were “reunited” (as they say) in a hotel lobby where we looked at each other and drank strawberry daiquiris.

Frank, my new philosophy professor father, was loud, talkative, emotional, and profoundly introverted. He smoked several packs a day, and from the ‘60s on was a regular pot smoker. He spoke in long, convoluted Henry-Jamesian sentences that fascinated me. He and I, it turned out, admired the same books, like The Golden Notebook, The World as I Found It, and The Flight From the Enchanter. He relished long conversations, especially if he was stoned, but he could be gruff and impatient, too, and sometimes he would terminate our talks abruptly with a regal, “I am now going to bring this conversation to an end.” At different points in his life he’d tried therapy, but it never worked out for him. He’d discarded one therapist after only a few sessions because the therapist could not pronounce “Dostoevsky.” He was fifty-four, diabetic, and could spend all day watching sports or PBS. He’d been married twice but abandoned both his wives after less than a year of marriage. One of these marriages produced a daughter, Samantha—after all these years, I had a sister, finally! I felt happy around Frank. He was easy to be with, up to a point: after brief bursts of garrulity and connectedness to others, he sank back into himself and his private world of TV and books.

Marcia, my modern, new USA mom, was fifty but looked older. Whenever I see pictures of Janet Leigh in old age, I think I’m looking at Marcia the way she looked at fifty. She was alarmingly skinny and gaunt and, like Frank, addicted to nicotine. She had very blue eyes, as I do; she had my face; she remained a stranger. She was polite and even friendly during the reunion, but the neat, insightful, wise lady of the letters did not exactly materialize in real life. The meeting was hard for her. There is a reason why they say one should let sleeping dogs lie, and that reason was expressed all over her face and body language. She conformed in an uncanny way to the image I’d had of her all those years (the few times I’d imagined her): standoffish, aloof, very American, very earthy.

During this visit my birth mother said to me, “I would not have looked for you.” During this visit she also said, “I could tell from the wording of your letters, and your pictures, that you were gay.” More than once she would say something like, “You know, I just fail to see any resemblance between us.” She tried, as much as possible, to dwell on her two adopted Hawaiian children and how terrific, beautiful, and accomplished they were. One was a girl just sixteen years old, and the other was a boy, in his early twenties. He was a surfer. He was the wholesome, macho person I was supposed to become; he was (I realize this is a controversial thing to say nowadays) the heterosexual person I was supposed to be become.

My birth mother also told us that, before leaving Hawaii for this visit, she’d burned all the letters we’d exchanged. This action, at the time, seemed logical and admirable: aren’t letters artificial? Wasn’t our goal, after all, a physical, healthy real-time interaction that canceled out the correspondence?

I met Marcia’s adopted children, Sam and Sharon; they were quiet and cautious around me, and though nothing very exciting happened between us, one incident indirectly connected to Sam stands out as the most bizarre moment of the week. We were celebrating Christmas near the beach in San Diego, where Sam lived. While Marcia was upstairs making the turkey, Sam and I were standing in the courtyard of his little apartment complex and I was trying out his skateboard. I thought it might be a way to connect with him and, besides, I like skateboards. The board’s wheels were making a racket as I skated around the courtyard when suddenly Marcia, in her apron, appeared at the railing of the second floor and in a stern but somehow sweet mother voice said, “I don’t think skateboarding is allowed here!” With my feet still firmly balancing my body on the board, I looked up at her and froze. I felt humiliated and young. Above all, I felt that for this one moment she and I had succeeded in “regressing” and recreating a piece of the childhood years we never experienced together. Having now read some of the adoption literature, I realize that this kind of regressing is quite common during reunions.

Marcia had one odd and endearing habit that in all my life I have noticed in her alone. During that reunion, whenever I spoke, I noticed that she was smiling and mouthing my words as I spoke them. I watched her lips, tongue, and teeth and, yes, she was mouthing, in a gentle, even loving manner, the same words I was using, as if to help me along in my effort to get something out. It was as if she were assuming, during this week, the mother/creator role that held everything and everyone around her together. She performed this gentle service also for Sam and Sharon, when they spoke. I loved this habit of hers and, awkward as it was, I thought it boded well for our future. We did have a brief future—a few years—but, after that first week, I never again observed her to mouth anyone’s words. Maybe this, too, was just a phase in our regressing.

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