Wendy Hibbard shares her first story at Tenx9, remembering her mothers.
I am the oldest child, the middle child, and the youngest child, all at once. Sound impossible? It’s true. I was born in a Milwaukee area hospital to a woman I wouldn’t formally meet for another 27 years. 9 months later, my adoption was finalized, and with my new family, eventually moved to a little town out in the country.
I remember feeling frightened and ashamed in my earliest memory of the woman who would become my mother. Her intensity as she yelled at me from across the driveway was startling. I was barely over two, yet somehow I knew the punishment didn’t fit the crime. I remember feeling innocent, and confused by her strong response. That was the last time in my childhood that I remember feeling innocent. But confused, – and unjustly accused; those were everyday emotions. And guilty, and afraid. So much of my very existence seemed to frustrate and anger her.
Somehow I also knew at an early age, although she never fully filled in the blanks, that she was simply repeating much of the same behavior she had experienced. It was a time when parenting skills were considered automatic. She’d also inherited a distrust of doctors, and after an important medical procedure, refused to go back to the for checkups and the hormone balancing medication that would have helped subdue her temper.
My family are simple folk. Pretty much what you’d describe as anti-intellectual, without much appreciation for self-awareness. Black or white; make your choice. But I was different. I was shades of grey. It’s interesting; I actually look like I should be the natural daughter of my parents. But that’s pretty much where it ended. Genetically, it seemed, my markers were lined up in direct opposition to what was expected or hoped for. It also seemed that those differences caused my mother to feel rejected by me from the start. As I grew, and my natural aptitudes and inclinations emerged more and more, those inclinations were frequently misinterpreted as defiance. They just didn’t understand.
Now don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I was never praised, never given special gifts. I was, in fact, given the horse my mother never had as a child, a collie she named Lassie, and a pepto-bismol princess pink room with a pink canopy bed, pink shag carpet and a pink macrame plant hanger. I didn’t want to be a princess. I wanted to plant weed gardens in the bare patch outside my father’s garage door. I wanted the ballet lessons I was “too clumsy” for, and I wanted the Crayola Big 72 box with the built-in sharpener.
I remember when things got really hard, Lassie and I would head down into the woods. We lived on a ten acre plot of land with a sweet little pine forest in the back. We would spend hours upon hours back there. It was the most special place in the world to me. I would lay down on my back upon the pine-needle-carpeted forest floor, and long before I was ever really taught anything about God, He would meet me there. I could feel his sheltering comfort through those tall, tall trees. My heart lightened as I listened to the birds singing amidst the treetops. And that breeze – oh, that breeze – that whirled all around me and danced through the trees, and spoke to me in places deep that felt like history, and hope. At times as I rose from my resting place I’d realize my face was wet with tears that had rolled down my cheeks, but I hadn’t noticed. I always felt refreshed: stronger, and ready to face anything that may await as we headed back for home.
But please, let me be clear: my mother is a good woman, a solid woman; and I am grateful to her for her dedicated service to our family. She kept a clean house, managed my father’s paychecks well, always had dinner on the table at 5, made clothes and crafts for everyone in the house and for sale, raised beautiful summer gardens, canned and baked like nobody’s business, and was an accomplished horsewoman. On long car rides into the city every Friday for groceries, we’d sometimes sing along with the Judds on the radio. I think that’s the closest I ever felt to her, in those 3 ½ minute parcels of harmony.
I remember the day the knock came at the front door. I was making my way up the stairs from the basement with a laundry basket in my arms. As I reached the landing behind the door, there came a loud knock. I mean, the minute I was lined up right behind that door and the face level window, that’s the exact moment it came. Three hard, fast raps. Bam-bam-bam. It caught me off guard.
At the time, I was not in the habit of opening the door for unexpected visitors, and would probably have ignored it. But there we were, face to face: just me with my laundry basket, and the FedEx guy in all of his brown uniformed glory.
I opened the door. Signed for the envelope. It contained a much smaller, thank you card sized envelope. Something told me what it was, but it couldn’t be? I had filled out paperwork for the agency that conducted my adoption to search for my birth mother on my behalf, but they weren’t going to even open my file for another 4 months.
I tore open the small envelope. My eyes fell on the first sentence of the handwritten card. It said, “I held you only once, but I’ve loved you ever since….” That’s as far as I got before the tears and shaking set in.
It was her– 27 years later.
I called the phone number written on the bottom of the card. She was sweet and soppy and loving and girly and artistic and politically and intellectually minded; and the complete opposite of my mother. In fact, she reminded me of a better version of me. We made plans to get together the next week.
The first several days we spent huge chunks of time together. And among all the heart-warming stories, fascinating similarities, and bittersweet sharing of memories, one thing became painfully obvious: she wasn’t any better prepared have me in her life than my other mother had been.
She was a whirlwind, spewing out love and hugs like a violent force of nature. I’d never known that kind of affection – not quite in that way. And we hardly knew each other. I felt guilty. As my “natural” mother, we had a special bond that could be tangibly felt. But although I experienced an undeniable connection, she was a stranger to me.
I didn’t realize it yet, but I was on a slow burn. It made me mad when she brought me baby toys, and announced that she wished she could just hold me in her arms, curl up on the couch and take a nap together. It hurt me when she showed me the program from her mother’s recent funeral listing all the names of her beloved grandchildren. All but mine, the eldest grandchild. And I remember the feeling of my heart falling into my stomach as I learned that unknowingly, she, my half-siblings, and their father had been vacationing each summer at the campground in my very own hometown.
She returned to her life, and seemingly vanished. I reached out to her with call after call, email after email. No answer. She had become overwhelmed by all of the little fires waiting for her when she returned, and later apologized, explaining she had been too distracted to respond fast enough.
I remember that it was the first time in my life that the knowledge that I was adopted had caused me to feel rejected. I became very sick. I lost thirty pounds in a month, my hair began to fall out, and I held in my heart a stamped, one-way ticket to a nervous breakdown. I saw a counselor who decided to shorten the awkward moniker of “biological mother” to B.M., for some light, comedic relief, and suggested I do the same.
In time she finally returned my call. We talked. I had no choice but to forgive her – I saw myself reflected in her flaws. And I was intrigued to see if I could find any part of myself reflected in her better qualities too. Above all, I would have forgiven anything, because the most important thing to remember was that she chose to give me life. And she didn’t have to. Because she did, I am here.
I remember walking across the threshold of my biological uncle Ned’s home. So much about his house, filled with crazy, colorful art and music filling the walls, mantels, and shelves, felt familiar to my heart. After struggling all throughout my life for the permission to express my artistic nature, this was transcendent. Even the yard was filled with welded metal sculptures he had made, and an odd little “social art” piece, that to me was the final confirmation of our genetic bond.
I have been known to enjoy messing with people – just a little. Like watching a pen or pencil slowly roll off the table, fall onto the floor, and leaving it there, until the person sitting with me dives down to pick it up in a burst of urgency as though it were about to detonate an invisible bomb in the floor below. It’s my favorite game of chicken. Or walking up to a co-worker, handing them a random object, looking them straight in the eyes, and with a quick pat to the upper arm, walking away.
Ned came upon a cast concrete form of a woman years ago, and he decided the best place to display it in his “sculpture garden” was just a little behind the natural gas tank on the side of the house that flanked the sidewalk. Of course, digging a her shallow trench to lie in was just smart, so she wouldn’t be blown away by those strong Midwestern winds known to carry off cast concrete statues of women from people’s yards. Eventually, the police stopped coming to investigate the reports of the body hidden behind the gas tank, but knowing the calls would still occasionally come was satisfying enough for him.
Ned explained that my biological father was chronically mentally ill. He had been diagnosed with Bipolar disorder years ago, at about the same age I was that day, when it began to fully manifest. He generally refused to take his meds, and the Bipolar made life interesting. And dangerous. Ned had become his legal guardian after a couple little stints living in Hawaii, landing in jail for his own protection. He was prone to doing things like placing all of his earthly possessions in a pile on the beach, taking off his clothes and then setting it all on fire.
I got to meet one of his daughters, my older half sister, and she shared story after mortified story of things like driving past the lakefront in Milwaukee while her friends pointed at the “bum” sleeping under the lifeguard boat – whom she quickly and silently recognized as, “Dad”. He would show up at their adult homes and burst into their lives at the most unexpected times, creating total chaos. One time, he walked across a room she was painting, accidentally stepped into the paint tray, and just continued walking, tracking big blue footprints across the entire apartment.
They cautioned me to take some time to think about whether I wanted to introduce myself as his daughter, considering how disruptive his presence often could be. When I met him at the restaurant on Madison’s State Street, above which he lived, he looked like a happy, friendly, homeless Santa with a crazy beard and wild eyes. He was wearing a grease-stained t-shirt and no shoes in the midst of a freezing Wisconsin winter. He seemed well loved by everyone around, and I was introduced simply as “Wendy”. We made a couple minutes of polite conversation, and left. I’m still not completely sure why I didn’t need him to know who I was, but I was grateful to have the chance to meet him.
PART THREE AND A HALF
I remember the tiny little East Side bar I used to hang out at while I was a wee babe going to school at UW Milwaukee. It was called Wolski’s, and I couldn’t explain it, but it felt like home. I’d never felt comfortable myself as a single woman going into a bar alone, yet somehow I felt unexplainably drawn to that place. I would go there to work on my homework sometimes, and the owners and bartenders, who had all become friends, would look out for me. I even went on an accidental date with one of the owners once, which felt very, very odd. I loved the man dearly as a friend, but something was off.
It turned out that the brothers who owned the little pub grew up with my biological father. They all attended the school just two blocks down the street together, and had been best friends until his illness became full blown. In a way, this told me more about my father than meeting him ever could.
I remember a time when I thought the key to freedom would be learning to forget the pain of what I endured along the way. Since then, I have learned instead, to embrace it. This today, is a rite of passage for me. Not only is it the first time I have publicly shared this part of my story, it’s also exactly the kind of thing the artists, writers, and philosophers in my genetic lineage have been been doing for so many decades, before I ever knew of them. Thank you for allowing me to share. I am blessed.