“Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice.”
–Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby
I stood at the threshold of the Build-A-Bear workshop in the Providence Place Mall, a middle-aged woman with no child in tow. The place was bright and loud as a pinball machine. The entrance was gaping, boundary-less, wide enough to swallow all the teenagers roaming the mall in packs. It had in fact swallowed what looked like an entire Brownie troop. The shrieking girls sat on the floor in the middle of the store, spreading like a puddle at the feet of a salesgirl, who had to shout to be heard.
“Ladies! Listen up! Can you hear me? Here’s what you’re gonna do! You’re gonna pick out an animal from that shelf! That shelf over there! Got it? Then you’re gonna take it to the stuffing station! OK? Fill it with hugs! And then you’re gonna make it nice and fluffy over there—see the station that looks like a bathtub? Got that? Ladies? Can you hear me?”
I am a baby in a living room full of babies. We cover the floor like rubber balls. Planted on our butts, we lean forward slightly, the way babies do. A man and a woman appear in the doorway. They scan the heads of all the babies and point to me. I experience that moment of their choice, the moment of being chosen, all through my body. It is like being gently touched on the head with a long, invisible fairy wand. Next thing I know I’m in a big blue baby carriage with glossy sides, the awning tipped back, the spoked wheels like giant pizzas. I am being pushed down Thorn Street in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, a long shady road canopied with huge oaks and large brick and clapboard houses. Eventually we come to Woodland Road, number 417, the three-story red brick house with black shutters and a slate roof: home. Not “my new home,” just home.
For as long as I can remember, my adoption has been a simple, happy fact, not the subject of much discussion and certainly not of drama. Quite the opposite. Biological children don’t walk around saying, Hey, my parents gave birth to me! any more than I walked around saying, Hey, my parents didn’t give birth to me! Being adopted was even a private point of pride for me. Other kids were just the grab-bag prize their parents were stuck with when they unwrapped it, whereas mine had gone shopping and picked me.
That was my story for a long time, and it worked.
Of course, this moment of being chosen never happened, at least not like this (though I say that out of duty, not conviction; a part of me still believes it did). I realized this only recently. I was at my mother’s apartment, a street away from my house in Providence, where she had been cleaning out drawers that afternoon. We were sitting on the wicker couch on her balcony.
“Oh, here. You should probably have these,” she said, handing me a large envelope. I pulled out the contents: the deed to that house on Woodland Road, some genealogical information about my father’s side of the family, my grandfather’s flight log book from World War I, the silver dollar I’d won in a spelling bee in second grade. And a bunch of papers related to my adoption that I had never seen before.
“Thanks,” I said, putting everything back in the envelope. “I’ll look at these tonight.” I think we talked about the weather then, or what to make for dinner. There was no fanfare, no ceremony. Just our typical Episcopalian reserve. And that was that.
Only it wasn’t. When I got home I went upstairs to my office, closed the door, and sat on the rug. I laid out the adoption papers in front of me. There were a couple of business-size envelopes, an onion-skin document folded in thirds, and some small, yellowed doctor’s notes written in fountain pen. I was unsure what to think or feel. I anticipated a wave of emotion, but it didn’t come. As I opened the papers and read them one by one, I could feel several beliefs that had long sat in my mind like old armchairs start to rearrange themselves.
Understand: the idea that at a given moment I was born had never occurred to me before. I’m sure this is hard to believe, but it’s true, and the fact of it is too familiar now to make me feel embarrassed. And it’s not without logic, for if I made room for the notion of having been born, I’d also have to accept its evil twin, the notion of having been given up. Just as impossibly, I’d have to acknowledge the existence of a whole other person—the woman who gave birth to me. I had no room in my head or my heart for such things. Many adopted children, especially children of closed adoptions, are fiercely protective of their parents, and my brother and I are no different. When he was in his 30s he received, out of the blue, a birthday card from his biological mother. His wasn’t gratified or even curious. He was outraged. I was, too. We had our parents, and this felt like a violation. So for me, it was not as though the notion of having been born sat in the locked chamber of Bluebeard’s castle. It simply wasn’t a consideration.
But in fact it was in a locked chamber, because the key appeared suddenly in the form of a wise and caring woman I paid each week to help me decode the mysteries of being alive. I guess she was helping me decode myself as well. One day, I was sitting on the couch across from this therapist when the subject of adoption came up. I was always wary of people’s tendency to use adoption to explain anything and everything (a French gynecologist once said to me, “Funny, you don’t look adopted”), and I didn’t want this woman I so esteemed to be tempted by that pat and predictable line of reasoning. On the rare occasions it had come up in earlier sessions I’d resisted it wholly, patiently explaining that forty-some years ago I had appeared, been chosen, and come home, and there really weren’t any fossils to be found by sifting through that dust.
I don’t know what made her push me a little that day, but in response to my breezy narrative she said, “Are you sure?”
“About what?” I asked.
“You didn’t come from anyone?”
“You just appeared.”
“I just appeared. April 2, 1965, the day I came home,” I told her, bored by the facts.
“But your birthday is in December.”
I nodded and shrugged. Crazy, huh? my expression said. I looked at her low bookshelves, her big swivel chair, the soles of her comfortable shoes resting on the ottoman. An answering machine sat on the windowsill, its red light blinking.
“What about before you came home?” she asked.
“Three months is such a short time,” I said, distracted by the blinking light. “Almost nothing!”
“Do you remember the first three months of your children’s lives?”
“Of course I do.”
“And were those months almost nothing?”
I turned my head and looked at her then.
“You were never a newborn?” she asked.
I didn’t speak. An image flickered in my mind: a baby on her back, naked. Arms and legs twitching, the way babies’ limbs do. The room was engulfed in emptiness, devoured by it. I closed my eyes.
“Well, there is that baby,” I whispered.
“It’s on the table. The room is empty.” My voice was small. I was pressed against the couch like a cornered animal. And even though I knew the person approaching slowly with her palms held out meant no harm, I couldn’t unstiffen.
“It’s completely alone,” I said. That baby, that poor baby. What had it done? “Nobody is coming for it.”
Softly she asked, “Would it be OK if we called it ‘her’?”
It was then as though my therapist’s finger grew very long. It arced through the air, crossing the space between us, and touched my chest, the tip of it pressing into my heart, and my body collapsed around it, folded in on itself from pain, the worst pain I had ever felt because it had no source. I was the pain. I saw that baby on her back, alone, and I understood that she was me. In that moment I was flooded—intellectually, emotionally, physically—by the very knowledge I had so long barricaded myself against: that someone had given birth to me. And worse: that I had not been fit to keep.
A wind the shape of my body blew through me.
Here’s what didn’t happen. The little head when it came poking out was not seen as a buried treasure but as progress in a process to be endured. The little body was not held up in strong hands and placed like a fragile prize on clammy right-smelling skin, was not tenderly touched and gazed at like some brand-new life form, or an out-and-out miracle. There was no grateful gasp or sob. No pride, no wonderment. No lips, no loving breath brushed its purple skin. No. It simply arrived, an envelope slipped through a mail slot. A bill come due, a flyer for a take-out place no one would read.
Somehow in forty-some years I hadn’t gained even a passing awareness of attachment theory or maternal gaze—not in college, not in a maternity class. My experience with the subject of psychology had been limited to flipping through the pages of my brother’s textbook and looking up “deviant behavior,” which held a certain fascination for me but whose nonspecific definition I found disappointing. Yet that gaze is what confirms a child’s very existence. “You learn the world from your mother’s face,” says Mark Matousek. I don’t doubt that when I came home, at three months, my mother met both my gaze and my needs. But before that, who’s to say? “There’s an obvious link between the emptiness caused by a mother’s absence,” Matousek continues, “and the spiritual impulse itself, with its goals of benediction, acceptance, and unity.”
A few years ago I read Jorie Graham’s “Cagnes-sur-Mer 1950” for the first time. In that poem, Graham describes her earliest memory. She is a baby, and her mother, carrying a basket of lemons, enters her field of vision. The baby sees “her face with its gaze searching for me, / gaze which felt like one of the bright things she was carrying.” The poem ends, “I think that was the moment of my being given my name, / … / as her face broke and its smile appeared bending down towards me / saying there you are, there you are.” I find this poem beautiful and return to it from time to time, but I always want to skip the ending because the last lines express the essence of my most desperate desire, and I simply can’t bear to read them.
So here were these adoption papers, and there were those three months. A hundred days. One day I was sitting in my office with the documents, trying to feel something, and I thought about my own two babies. I remembered suddenly how with each of them every day was a hundred days, every day was endless stretches of holding and gazing, bathing and drying, sniffing and cooing. And kissing. Kissing and kissing and kissing—fingertips, neck, fontanelle, soles of feet. I remembered appearing over the crib, too, the moon in my babies’ sky, when they would wake crying from a nap. Now, suddenly I had to reckon with a very different story of my own, a story my therapist was coaxing me toward and one these adoption papers confirmed: before coming home, I had lived for a non-negligible amount of time with a foster family. In the envelope my mother gave me was a paper marked “Family and Children Service, Daily Schedule”—operating instructions, like something that might’ve been pinned to Paddington’s coat. It seems I was given Carnation evaporated milk mixed with water and dark Karo syrup, Heinz baby food, Poly-Vi-Sol vitamins from a dropper. I was bathed with Ivory soap and placed on my stomach to sleep at 7 p.m.
Strangest of all, someone (but who?) had given me a temporary name, like a working title. Unfolding a certificate from the Orphans’ Court of Allegheny County, I saw myself referred to as “________ LANG, a/k/a ELIZABETH LANG.” I wrinkled my nose. Elizabeth Lang? You’ve got to be kidding. I was indignant. No one was less “Elizabeth Lang” than I. Elizabeth was flat shoes and washing machines, earnest and practical as a nun. Sarah, on the other hand, meant “princess” in Hebrew, a fact I had cherished, even clung to, as a child. Sarah Church Baldwin. I have always loved my name, its symmetry and rhythm, its clarity. I love the sound of “Sarah” and the unfancy surprise of “Church.” I love how “Baldwin” at the end makes those three words sound like a declarative statement. I love it too because it’s the name my parents gave me. I stared at the certificate, and the more I thought about strangers calling me something else, the more annoyed I felt. But no, that’s posturing. In truth, that name felt like a violation, a sign that anything could be done to this baby who was not wanted. And the name that was not mine gave a name to that fact. It became the signifier of that abandonment.
None of this sounds plausible or even the working of a healthy mind, I know. But my story of having been chosen had for a very long time been truer to me than any of the so-called facts that came to contradict it. My story was my shield.
A few years after the finger-on-the-heart episode, the adoption thing came up again. I was more in touch now with the pain that overcame me when “that baby” and I merged. I had also grown weary of my story, of the effort required to believe it and the phony comfort it offered. I needed to shed it, or rewrite it. I needed to be able to convince that little me that I was all right regardless of my beginning. I needed to be enough.
Which is how I came to be standing at the threshold of Build-A-Bear in the mall that afternoon. For a long time I had sat two levels down at a table between the escalator and the entrance to Nordstrom, nursing a coffee and summoning my courage to go up to Level 3. I’d tried to open myself up to the experience, had told myself to leave all sense of irony at home or the trick wouldn’t work. Just because this isn’t your cup of tea doesn’t mean you can’t do this earnestly, I thought. I needed to connect to this experience, to find my right place in it. When I finally rose to go I had the vague feeling of embarking on an illicit and mildly shameful adventure, like a young man’s first visit to a brothel.
I walked into the store.
The space was a blitz of bright lights and primary colors. There were racks and racks of tiny clothes, and bossy signs hanging down from the ceiling. Choose me. Stuff me. Fluff me. Dress me. Name me. On the shelves there were smaller signs bearing the animals’ names, which irritated me instantly with their flawed contractions and bad puns and unrelenting alliteration. Lil’ Almond. Pawrincess Bear. Pretty Petals. My Little Pony Mini Cutie Mark Crusader Scootaloo.
Call me a snob, but I’m much more Gund than Scootaloo. I certainly never brought my daughter here when she was a child. (Later, her high school boyfriend did, and when he moved on, their bear-progeny moved from her bed to a storage closet.) No, I wasn’t here for my kid. I was here to get myself a bear.
But there weren’t just bears. One shelf held a whole menagerie of stuffed creatures, each presiding over bins full of their flaccid, unstuffed likenesses. It’s tempting to say the likenesses were like pelts, but they weren’t. They were more like uninflated fur balloons. Their scary, surprised blue eyes were the same ones you see on cheap plastic ponies with pink manes galloping toward sparkly castles in the ads during Saturday morning cartoons, only they were more alarming because of the two unnaturally long eyelashes drawn at their outer corners, like gypsy make-up. Gypsy bears, gypsy bunnies, gypsy dogs, gypsy—what were those orange ones, anyway, chipmunks?
I walked deeper into the store. The entire back wall, floor to ceiling, was covered with sequined and sparkly outfits like miniature Jon Benét dresses on tiny hangers. On the floor racks there were police uniforms, camouflage outfits, superhero costumes, beachwear. And in the “Bootique,” horrible-looking things that looked like shoes for tiny double-club-footed people or like rubber tips for very large chair legs.
I was trying hard to have a private, healing experience but everything—sound, color, texture, sentiment—seemed somehow heightened and false. I tried to make room for the right feelings, but surrounded by glitter and sayings like “Rainbow is my favorite color,” it was difficult. Before coming into the store I had worried about becoming emotional in public. I briefly feared being so overcome by the experience that I’d collapse on the floor. Now I was worried about something else: after all this, what if I felt nothing?
A petite salesgirl came over. Her nametag said Brittany. She, like all the other salespeople, had an insistently cheerful smile.
“So, hi!” Brittany said with a compact wave and a swing of her ponytail. “My manager noticed you before. She was like, ‘I don’t know if that lady’s ever going to actually get anything, but go ask her if you can help.’ So, yeah! Can I help you?”
I was eyeing a sweet-looking rabbit with brown eyes and a nose sewn in pink thread. Her name was Pawlette, but I reassured myself that it didn’t always have to be. Choose me, the sign said. To my ears the words sounded less like a command than a plea. I began to worry about all the Pawlettes I didn’t choose. Wouldn’t their hearts break? It was confusing, this back and forth between the need to see one of the animals as real, so the trick would work, and the need for the rest of them not to be real, since that would be unbearable. Only the one you choose is real, I told myself.
I was taking so long that little girls were moving past me to get to the stuff me station.
“I’d like this one,” I said.
“Great,” Brittany said. “Who’s it for?”
I kept my gaze and my smile steady. “It’s for me.”
She nodded and wrote my name on the tag in Pawlette’s ear. “Would you like her soft or firm?”
Both. Neither. I didn’t know. “Somewhere in between, please.”
Brittany guided me to the stuffing station, a large humming machine with a glass front. Behind the glass was what looked like a combine harvester, only it was threshing fleecy white cotton instead of wheat. She sat on a stool next to the machine and placed Pawlette facedown on her lap. She inserted a nozzle into a hole in the rabbit’s back, and cotton fiberfill from the glass case was sucked noisily through a tube and blown into the empty shell. I was having trouble suspending disbelief just then, but I told myself this was Pawlette’s creation story. I needed to witness her becoming. I needed to catch her with both hands when she was born. As Pawlette grew plump, Brittany and I maintained some very deliberate eye contact—my gaze saying, That’s right, I am an adult woman getting myself a stuffed animal and hers saying, with merry impartiality, Of course you are!
It was when she told me to pick out a heart that I felt something slip in my chest. Trying to look casual, I took a small, padded, red satin heart from a bin full of them.
“Make a wish and then kiss the heart,” she said in a singsong voice. I raised the heart to my lips and felt my cheeks flush. May you always know you are loved, I whispered. I was thankful for the noise around us—the shrill sounds of excited girls, the whir of machines, the generic pop music washing through it all… I kissed the heart and handed it to Brittany. I opened my eyes wide so no tears could spill.
Brittany placed the heart in the hole in the rabbit’s back and pushed it deep into the stuffing. Then, in movements that were part cat’s cradle and part abracadabra, she worked the threads with her fingers, tightening them to close the seam.
“You can give her a bath, now, at the fluffing station,” she said, handing me Pawlette, all sewn up. “And don’t forget to get her some outfits and a birth certificate! I’ll meet you at checkout. Take your time!”
Brittany walked away, stranding me there with a rabbit in my arms. I couldn’t bring myself to walk up to an oversize plastic tub and give this stuffed animal a “bath” with air-blowing nozzles any more than I could dress her up in a crinoline tutu. Clearing the way for a mother and daughter who were headed for the fluff me station, I stepped behind some clothing racks. I needed to absorb what was happening, to be in this moment that might be important. Holding my rabbit in both hands, I raised her to my face and gave her a good look. I loved her at once, knew at once how to hold her, how to stroke her nose with my thumbs. Her mouth of pink thread was sewn into a smile, and my whole face smiled back. I was happy. Happy to love her and make her feel loved. Suddenly I felt protective and exposed. I’d done what I had come to do, and now I wanted to leave. First, though, I took her to the Name Me station, where I sat at a computer and answered a few questions. I named her Little Me, the only name that made any of this make any sense.
Out of the printer came a birth certificate in the same topsy-turvy font that covered the walls. I took it and headed to the cash register, where Brittany was waiting. As I paid, another salesgirl tried to put the rabbit in a large cardboard box designed to look like a house.
“No box, thanks,” I said. “I’ll just hold her.”
I walked out of the store and into the flow of shoppers. Just like that, we were on our own. We must have looked peculiar, the two of us, moving slowly through the mall. I held the rabbit high, close to my left shoulder, so I could rub her soft floppy ear on my upper lip. There you are, I whispered, there you are.
Rumpus original art by Elizabeth Schmuhl.