From an Unexpected Message to a Family Redefined

Last in a four-part series.

Author A.M. Homes i i

Author A.M. Homes recounted the experience of meeting her biological parents in a memoir, The Mistress's Daughter. Marion Ettlinger hide caption

itoggle caption Marion Ettlinger
Author A.M. Homes

Author A.M. Homes recounted the experience of meeting her biological parents in a memoir, The Mistress's Daughter.

Marion Ettlinger

Read an Excerpt

The Phone Call

In an April 2007 interview on All Things Considered, A.M. Homes read a portion of her memoir, The Mistress's Daughter, in which she describes her first phone conversation with her birth mother.

A Series Overview

An adopted child changes a family forever. Families and adoptees have learned that it's not just family photos that change — but entire family trees, family traditions and family stories that are altered by an adopted child's own story.

When author A.M. Homes went home for Christmas one year, an unexpected message awaited her: "We've gotten a phone call and someone is looking for you."

For Homes, who had been adopted at birth, it was "terrifying" news. Then 32 years old, Homes had no particular desire to find her birth parents. But then she learned that her biological mother was looking to get in touch with her.

"It was literally the sense of the rug coming out from under," Homes tells Steve Inskeep.

For Homes, who has recounted the experience in the book The Mistress's Daughter, the prospect of meeting her biological parents "was in many ways very threatening for my adoptive family [and] they worried that in some way they would lose me," she says. They were also worried that Homes would be hurt emotionally by the experience.

"I think what was kind of interesting about it and kind of scary was finding out little, tiny details like my biological mother telling me that her father had died very early of a heart attack."

Suddenly, Homes had to worry about the possibility that a hereditary defect would kill her as well.

But the story turned out to be false. The truth was stranger: Her grandfather had really been killed in a shootout.

So then Homes had to wonder: "What kind of people were they that they would be in a situation where someone would be killed in a shootout?

"It was both fascinating and terrifying at the same time."

Homes ended up meeting her biological parents, and soon realized that her birth mother was lost in time.

"The conversations I was having with her were not in the late 1980s or the early 1990s," Homes says. "They were back in the 1960s, where she left off.

"When she returned to find me, in many ways she hoped to find her fantasy of the child she left behind."

"My biological mother was somebody who I think had had a very, very difficult life. She had left home as a teenager, which for a young woman in Washington, D.C., was a very difficult thing to do. She got involved with my father when she was in her late teens. He was married; he was in his 30s. I think she very much hoped that he was going to make a life with her, and that never happened. There were a lot of promises that weren't kept. So by the time she found me, she was incredibly needy."

Homes says she didn't know what to expect when she met her birth mother, "but it was certainly not in any way an easy relationship."

The author's biological father is still married and has four other children. His promises to Homes, like those he made to her mother, were never fulfilled, the author says.

"He wanted to take me into his family to make me a part of things, and that wasn't something he could do. I think what's painful about it for me is that I would have liked to know him better. I would have liked to know both of these people better."

Homes says the experience has taught her "that we are not just the products of our mothers and fathers ... that I am not just my adoptive parents' child and I am not just my biological parents' child. I am simultaneously all of their children and their parents' children and their great-grandparents' children."

Excerpt: 'The Mistress's Daughter'

'The Mistress's Daughter'

Hers is the most frightening voice I've ever heard—low, nasal, gravelly, vaguely animal. I tell her who I am and she screams, "Oh my God. This is the most wonderful day of my life." Her voice, her emotion, comes in bursts, like punctuation—I can't tell if she is laughing or crying. In the background there is a flick, a sharp suck of air—smoking.

The phone call is thrilling, flirty as a first date, like the beginning of something. There is a rush of curiosity, the desire to know everything at once. What is your life like, how do your days begin and end? What do you do for fun? Why did you come and find me? What do you want?

Every nuance, every detail means something. I am like an amnesiac being awakened. Things I know about myself, things that exist without language, my hardware, my mental firing patterns—parts of me that are fundamentally, inexorably me are being echoed on the other end, confirmed as a DNA match. It is not an entirely comfortable sensation.

"Tell me about you—who are you?" she asks.

I tell her that I live in New York, I am a writer, I have a dog. No more or less.

She tells me that she loves New York, that her father used to come to New York and would always return with presents from FAO Schwarz. She tells me how much she loved her father, who died of a heart attack when she was seven because "he liked rich food."

This causes an immediate pain in my chest: the idea that I might die of a heart attack early in life, that I now know I need to be careful, that the things I enjoy most are dangerous.

She goes on, "I come from a very strange family. We're not quite right."

"What do you mean, strange?" I ask.

She tells me about her mother dying of a stroke a couple of years earlier. She tells me about her own life falling apart, how she moved from Washington to Atlantic City. She tells me that after she gave birth to me her mother wouldn't come to the hospital to pick her up. She had to take the bus home. She tells me that it took all her strength and courage to come looking for me.

And then she says, "Have you heard from your father? It would be nice if the three of us could get together," she says. "We could all come to New York and have dinner."

She wants everything all at once and it is too much for me. I am talking to the woman who has loomed in my mind, larger than life, for the entirety of my life, and I am terrified. There is a deep fracture in my thoughts, a refrain constantly echoing: I am not who I thought I was, and I have no idea who I am.

I am not who I thought I was, and neither is she the queen of queens that I imagined.

"I can't see you yet."

"Why can't I see you?"

I am tempted to tell her, You can't see me right now, because right now I am not visible to anyone, even myself. I have evaporated.

"When can we talk again?" she asks as we are hanging up. "When? I hope you will forgive me for what I did thirty-one years ago. When can I see you? If you said yes, I would come there right now. I would be at your door. Will you call again soon? I love you. I love you so much."

My parents return from dinner. I am looking at a picture of her, a Xerox of her driver's license that the lawyer forwarded to me. Ellen Ballman, strong, thick, fierce, like a prison matron. There is another photo in the envelope—Ellen with a niece and nephew, with stuffed animals in the background. There is something about the way feeling moves across the face—something vaguely familiar. In the cheeks, the eyes, eyebrows, forehead I see traces of myself.

"How did she have Frosh's name?" my mother wants to know.

"She said she heard it once and never forgot."

"Interesting," my mother says, "because Frosh wasn't the first lawyer; the first lawyer died and we got Frosh after you were born, when we were having some problems."

"What kind of problems?"

"She never signed the papers. She was supposed to sign them before she left the hospital and she didn't. And then we arranged for her to go into a bank to sign them, and she never showed up. She never signed anything and when we first went to court the judge wouldn't let us adopt you because the papers weren't signed. It took more than a year after that and then finally a second judge allowed us to adopt without a signature. For an entire year, I lived in fear. I was afraid to leave you alone with anyone except dad and Grumama, afraid if I turned around she'd come back and you'd be gone."

I think of my mother having lost a child six months before I was born, having ushered him into and out of the world. I think of her having received me as a kind of get well gift and then worrying that at any moment I too would be gone. I don't tell my mother one of the first things Ellen Ballman said to me: "If I'd known where you were I would have come and gotten you." I don't tell my mother that it turned out that all along Ellen Ballman wasn't far away—a couple of miles. "I used to look at children," Ellen told me. "And sometimes I followed them wondering if they were you."

Our conversations are frequent—I call her a couple of times a week but I don't give her my phone number. They are seductive, addictive, punishing. Each one shakes me; each requires a period of recovery. Each time I tell her something, she takes the information and holds it too close, reinventing it and delivering it back to me in a manner that leaves me wanting to tell her less, wanting her to know nothing.

She tells me that she never got along well with her stepfather and that her mother was cold and cruel. I feel that there's more to the story than she's telling me. I get the sense that something was happening at home involving the stepfather, and that the mother knew and blamed her for it—which would also explain the animosity between them and why Ellen, as a teen, was propelled into the arms of a much older, married man. I never ask her the question directly. It seems intrusive; her need to protect herself is stronger than my need to know. There is an odd and anxious unknowing to much of what she says that makes it difficult to get the story straight. She reminds me of Tennessee Williams's Blanche Dubois, moving from person to person, desperate to get something, to find relief from unrelievable pain. Her lack of sophistication leaves me unsure whether she's of limited intelligence or simply shockingly naïve.

"Did you think of having an abortion?"

"The thought never occurred to me. I couldn't have."

Pregnancy, I gather, was the perfect way out of her mother's house and into my father's life. It must have seemed like a good idea, until my father refused to leave his wife. He tried. He sent Ellen to Florida saying he'd join her there—and never showed up. Three months later, homesick, she returned to Washington. They got an apartment together; for four days, he lived with Ellen. Then he went back, claiming that "his children missed him." Ellen had him arrested under an old Maryland ordinance for desertion. At the time his wife was also pregnant, with a boy who was born three months before I was.

"At one point he told me to meet him at his lawyer's office," she says, "so we could figure out a way to 'take care of everything.' I sat down with him and his lawyer and the lawyer drew a diagram an said, 'There's a pie and there are only so many slices of the pie and that's all there is and it's got to go around.' 'I am not a slice of pie,' I said, and walked out. I have never been so angry in my life. Slices of pie. I told my friend Esther I was expecting a baby and didn't know what to do. She told me she knew someone who wanted to adopt a baby. I told her the baby must go to a Jewish family who would treat her well. I referred to you as 'the baby.' I didn't know if you were a boy or a girl. I couldn't take care of you myself—young ladies didn't have babies on their own."

She interrupts herself. "Do you think, one day, we might have a portrait painted of the two of us?" Her request seems to come from another world, another life. What would she do with a portrait? Hang it over her fireplace in Atlantic City? Send it to my father for Christmas? She is in stopped time, filled with fantasies of what might have been. After thirty-one years, she has returned to reclaim the life that she never had.

"I have to go, I'm late for dinner," I say.

"Okay," she says. "But before you go out, put on your cashmere sweater so you don't get chilly."

I don't have a cashmere sweater.

"When can I see you?" she starts again.

"Ellen, this is all new for me. You might have thought about it for a long time before you contacted me, but for me it's only a couple of weeks. I need to take things slowly. We'll talk again soon. The sweater is Ellen's fantasy, an image of an experience that is not my own, but one that has meaning, import elsewhere—in her past.

I am losing myself. On the street I see people who look alike—families where each face is a nuanced version of the other. I watch how they stand, how they walk and talk, variations on a theme.

A few days later, I try Ellen again.

"Ruggles slept in the hall," she says. Ruggles is the stuffed animal I sent her, in a gesture of kindness. Tonight Ruggles is me.

There is the flick of a lighter, the suck of a cigarette.

"I'm angry with you, can you tell?"

"Yes."

"Why won't you see me?" she whines. "You're torturing me. You take better care of your dog than you take of me."

Am I supposed to be taking care of her? Is that what she's come back for?

"You should adopt me—and take care of me," she says.

"I can't adopt you," I say.

"Why not?"

I don't know how to respond. I don't know if we're talking in fantasy or reality. What happened to "in the best interests of the child?" Who is the parent and who is the child? I can't say I don't want a fifty-year-old child.

"You're scaring me," is all I can manage.

"Why won't you forgive me? Why are you always angry with me?"

"I'm not angry with you," I tell her and it is entirely true. Of all the things I am, I am no angry with her.

"Don't be angry with me forever. If I'd known where you were I would have come and gotten you and taken you away." Imagine that—kidnapped by one's own mother, the same mother who had given you away at birth. She lived not two miles from where I grew up, and luckily didn't know who or where I was. I cannot imagine anything more terrifying."

"I'm not angry with you." I am horrified at the way I see myself in her—the loose screw is not entirely unfamiliar—and appalled that in the end I may end up rejecting the one person I never had any intention of rejecting. But not angry. Not unforgiving. The more Ellen and I talk, the happier I am that she gave me up. I can't imagine having grown up with her. I wouldn't have survived.

"Have you heard from your father? I'm surprised he hasn't been in touch."

It occurs to me that "my father" may be having the same reaction to her that I'm having, that he equates me with her, and that may be one of the reasons he's keeping his distance. It also occurs to me that he may think that she and I are somehow in this together, conspiring to get something from him.

I write him a letter of my own, letting him know how surprised I was by Ellen's appearance, and suggesting that, while this is something neither he nor I asked for, we try to deal with things with some small measure of grace. I tell him a little bit about myself. I give him a way of contacting me.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Mistress's Daughter Copyright © A.M. Homes, 2007.

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