I press the intercom. Silence. Waiting. Oh my God, what do I do? Press it again, and she thinks I’m a rude, impatient, who the hell raised me person, or stand here and wait. Like an idiot. As I try to decide what to do, I step back from the front door, and look up at the apartment building. Typical Scarborough highrise. Brick construction with rusty balconies and a general feeling of neglect. Had circumstances been different, this could have been my home. Fortunately, my home is on the west side of Toronto --Etobicoke. Detached homes. Big yards. Swimming pools.
Stepping up to the intercom, I press it again. It crackles to life as a scratchy “Hello?” jumps out at me.
“Hi, it’s Lianne.”
“__i! __um __on __p.”
And the front door buzzes open.
The lobby is sterile and small. Metal mailboxes line one wall. A watercolour – paint by numbers? – of a lake and a mountain, hangs crooked on the opposite wall. Straight ahead are the elevators. Once inside, I push 16 and then check myself in the mirrored panel. Nothing stuck in my teeth, no gunk in the corners of my eyes, no zit too noticeable. Comb through the hair. OK, acceptable.
The elevator stops then drops a few inches. It settles and the doors open onto a hall, slightly reminiscent of a 60’s lounge in Vegas. Dark lighting, flocked wallpaper, and carpet of such an intricate pattern, it’s hard to make out its colour. I turn left out of the elevator, walk several steps and realize I should be going the other way. I can feel a cool dampness in my armpits. I wipe my palms on my pants.
#1605. This is it. Behind this door is the woman I’ve wanted to meet my entire life. The woman, who gave birth to me, named me Susan, then gave me away. I raise my fist to knock…Oh God, I’m going to collapse, I can’t feel my legs…Will she like me? Why’d she do it? Was she just an unwed teen faced with the burden of an unwanted pregnancy, forced to conform to her parents' and society’s wishes, to give her love child up for adoption… I’m going to be sick…Did her husband die, leaving her alone with six other kids to raise, and no insurance and she wanted only the best for me?…I can always just turn around and go home. Do I have brothers and sisters? What will we talk about? What if I don’t like her … knock, knock, knock …What’s she look like? Will I look like her?
The door opens, and –
She looks -- well, average. She’s not Marlo Thomas or Cher, the fantasy mothers of my childhood. She’s of average height and build, has light brown, chin length hair. Wire rimmed, thick glasses sit on a subtly upturned nose. A slightly out of date polyester skirt in brown tweed is matched with a crisp white blouse; ruffles up the front and around the neck. She’s wearing a cardigan. I can't tell if there's any resemblance but I know I wouldn't have recognized her on the street.
We stand there looking at each other, then she leans forward and puts her arms around me. Too stiff to be called a hug. I attempt to return the gesture, but she starts to pull away.
“Lianne, come on in.”
And that’s it. The moment I’d fantasized about, over in an awkward hug. The evening is spent with Jean and her husband Peter. We eat KFC and look at photo albums.
“Your cousin, Susan, who was named after you.”
Jean points to a black and white picture, and I squint to see the resemblance. There is none. Another picture of another cousin, this one named Leanne.
“Leanne looks a bit like me at that age.”
I hold the picture up to the light. Same fine hair cut in a pageboy, same lanky, uncoordinated stance. This could almost be me at age seven. A twinge of something I don’t recognize, a feeling of belonging? I am holding open, in my lap, my biological history. A similar smile, same bad eyesight, a tendency towards knitting and playing the piano. These are the people I come from.
(that's me -- second from the left back row -- looking like a dog in a tub waiting for a bath -- how did I get here and how do I get out? Jean is standing to my left, holding on to her sister for dear life)
“You and Jeannie move your hands when you talk, and stand the same way,” Peter notes. The question of nature versus nurture. Some things you are given and others, you take. It’s an uncomfortable feeling.
She tells me why she gave me up and I realize it was the reason I had expected…I had done the math. New Year’s Eve on the couch, too much booze, nine months later. She loved me but she was 17. She only wanted to do the right thing. She answers the questions I’d lived with my entire life…Where did I come from? Who is my mother? Why did she do it? Did she love me? But...
This woman had carried me and pushed me into the world and was the one person I should be closest to. Yet I had never felt further from anyone. My belief that she was the one who got away -- the mother I never had -- was gone. I realized, with absolute certainty that the woman I lived with, fought with, hated and loved – the woman I called mom – was my mother. This woman who gave birth to me was a stranger -- someone I would have to get to know, have to decide if I even liked. I was grateful she had answered my questions. But the most important question -- who is my family? -- I realized I had the answer to all along.
(dad, me and mom)