I carried the worn slip of paper in my wallet for months. Often I would pull it out and stare at the woman’s name and phone number, the hand-written letters and numbers were beginning to fade. Sometimes I’d go so far as to stop at a payphone and dial the number. A computerized voice would tell me how much more money I would need to complete the call. I’d start slipping quarters in the slot, only to hang up seconds later. I’d listen to the coins make their way out of the machine, then, I’d simply collect them, toss them back in my pocket and carefully fold the tattered paper back up.
I’m not sure what I was afraid of. Perhaps the reason I continued to chicken out before completing the call was a culmination of many fears: the fear of the unknown, the fear of being rejected, the fear of discovery. For years, I had pretended she was Cher. As a child, our family watched the Sonny and Cher show on television. I loved the way Cher looked with her long, straight black hair, her over-sized hoop earrings and the glittery gowns she was so famous for. My mom would sometimes make off-handed remarks about how much skin she bared in her skimpy dresses. Maybe there was some small defiance, then, in pretending that Cher was the one.
Months would pass and the phone booth scene would play out hundreds of times before I finally got the nerve to complete the call. Just like always, I dialed the number written on the now crumpled piece of paper. I put the quarters in the slot and I listened for the ring. Only this time, I didn’t hang up. I heard a voice with a funny-sounding accent say, “hello”. “Betty Jo, my name is Beth. I was told that you are my birth mother.” We spoke for several minutes and ultimately agreed that I should drive up to meet her in person.
When the day arrived for me to go, I was a nervous wreck. So much so, that I asked my boyfriend to go with me. He even offered to drive which was a big relief. I was fearful of stepping into unknown territory and welcomed the back-up that his presence provided.
The ride, though under three hours, seemed to take forever. Normally, I was a chatter box, but I barely spoke the entire drive. There were no GPS devices, nor cell phones, back then so we were forced to stop so I could call her when we realized we had gotten lost. She had to put somebody else on the phone to give us the directions and eventually we made it.
She lived in a trailer in a neighborhood full of other trailers. I had never known anyone that lived in a manufactured home so I was immediately out of my comfort zone when we arrived. I suddenly had the urge to leave, but my boyfriend pointed out how rude that would be. I reluctantly agreed to stay.
We walked into her home and into a living room which was occupied by several women, all strangers. She began introducing them to me one by one. Most of them were my aunts and one was my grandmother. A few of them hugged me tightly, which felt somewhat awkward. I noticed several large stacks of coloring books on a piano. Betty Jo caught my gaze and explained to me that she liked to color when she felt anxious or stressed. I was stunned at her admission because, I too, would get out a box of crayons and a coloring book when I felt overwhelmed. I had never before met anyone my age, or hers, that had a passion for such a childish pastime. It was comforting to realize we had something in common.
Over the years, Betty Jo and I developed a friendly relationship, mostly via letters, but occasionally by phone. She apologized once for having given me up for adoption. She also explained her reasons for keeping two of my siblings, while not keeping the remaining four of us. I appreciated her candor. With only an eighth-grade education, she could hardly feed the two she did keep, much less all six of us. It was interesting to learn that while we had things in common, we were also different in many ways. She hated to travel and rarely left her small town. I, on the other hand, was quick to take an impromptu road trip. I loved to explore new places.
I really liked Betty Jo, but I realized something during the process of getting to know her. I began to understand the significance of motherhood, and how, despite how much I liked her, she was not my mother. A bond is not formed by merely passing through a birth canal, the bond is formed by years of being actively engaged in the role of motherhood. In that respect, I like to think of myself as very fortunate. I had a birthmother who, realizing she could not properly care for me, made the unselfish decision to give me up. I cannot fathom how difficult a decision like that must be. I also had an adoptive mother who, unable to have children of her own, accepted the gift of child with love and gratitude. It is with that same aura of love and gratitude that I am raising my own adopted children. Of all of the gifts I could have ever received, they are by far, my most treasured. My only regret is that my own mom never got to meet my youngest four sons. She would have embraced the role of grandmother, just as she embraced the opportunity to be my mom.