I read these people all wrong. For so long, I assumed that my birthmother was the one to trust. That she would have the most accurate memory of her relationship with Jack, the pregnancy, birth, adoption, Jack’s disappearing and then reappearing once the “problem” was taken care of. I believed her version of the story because her story filled in most of the gaps that the facts highlighted. I believed her because, well, she was the birthmother — my birthmother — and what did she have to lose now that I had already found her?
Because I accepted her version of the past, I initially didn’t want to search for Jack. After Sarah asked me not to contact her anymore, I grew timid and fearful of another search. And then, after reconnecting with the Lund Family Center, it seemed like the next steps in the search found me.
A friend of mine once commented that this story is “a true American story.” There may be something to that, particularly in the ways in which race and class intermingle here in troubled ways. There is the more obvious thread of the taboo interracial relationship. But there are also other threads, like the Irish-Catholic family that was mortified that their daughter was pregnant and, by extension, that she was sexually active at such a young age. Add to that her involvement with a black boy and you’ve created a brew of lifelong guilt, secrecy, and willful forgetfulness. Or at least that’s what I assume. I don’t really know much about being Irish-Catholic, so I can’t say for sure all that informed the family’s reactions and decisions.
And then there’s one of the pieces that surprised me the most: the Greens were African American migrant workers. When they were in Florida picking oranges, Jack and his brothers were attending the local public school and doing well. Then, when they were in Vermont picking apples, the boys would be demoted one grade and found school extremely challenging. Eventually, the parents decided there would be better opportunities for their children up North, and so they moved to Vermont. But, how did they become migrant workers? How, later, did they make a living once they decided to stop migrating seasonally? Both Jack and his older brother served in the military. How does military service function as opportunity — often the only viable option — for African Americans at various moments in U.S. History?
The more I learn, the more questions I have.
If we assume that at some point, somewhere in their relationship, in spite of their race and class differences, there must have been young love, attraction, then the question becomes: At what point do notions of difference erode such a powerful connection between two people in love? What must Sarah have seen in the faces of her family, heard in their scolding voices, that would lead her to deny ever loving the boy she dated for almost 2 years? What was it that lead Jack to at least remember wanting to help her through the pregnancy, to have their baby in his life? What was it that made Sophie, Sarah’s sister, keep the knowledge of my whereabouts from Vanessa Green, even though Vanessa, five years ago, asked if anyone had heard from me?
And what realities do we construct to make sense and meaning of it all?
For 40 years I wondered about my biological history. For 20 years I wondered who my birth parents were. Now I have some answers. Despite what I’ve learned about my biological family, I’m aware that I’ll never know Sarah, yet I hesitate to judge her too quickly, too harshly. She’s had a difficult life, or at least difficult life moments. Perhaps she takes some solace in those fleeting, quiet moments of reflection and introspection that we all have from time to time knowing that her daughter is out in the world and has accomplished some things. During our one phone call, she asked, in different ways, what I did, what I had become. I suppose that if I had no contact with my child for over 20 years, I’d want to know that too.
I imagine that as time unfolds, I’ll have more opportunities to learn about Jack and the Green family. He’s suggested different times and ways we can meet. I’ll try my best to honor that simple wish. The first question that Jack asked me is at least what I imagine I would want to know: Do you have a good life?