The Valentine cards have it wrong. The heart is a misshapen potato, a red potato if you like, sitting just left of center, ahead of the scapula, caged in by protective ribs.
It’s a muscle. Four chambers beating together, like a small VW engine. The vena cava delivers oxygen-depleted blood from the body to the right atrium. The tricuspid valve opens and blood enters the right ventricle, pumped up and out through the pulmonary artery to the lungs. Pulmonary veins carry oxygenated blood back to the left atrium while the mitral valve opens, permitting blood to enter the great pumping chamber, the left ventricle. The left ventricle forces nutrient rich blood through the aortic valve, into the aorta, and out through the arteries into the capillaries feeding the body, then coming back via the venous highways and byways to the right atria before squeezing through the tricuspid valve back out to the lungs to pick up the next batch of oxygen to bring back into the heart—and the beat goes on.
The heart is a resilient muscle. This muscle at the heart of life-giving blood flow relies on arteries, despite the gallon and a half, give or take, coursing through the body each day. It beats on average seventy times a minute, 4,200 times an hour, 108,000 each day, nearly 37,000,000 times each year. Faster when we’re scared or amped up, slower when we rest. If the average lifespan is roughly seventy-six years, then that one muscle, the size of a fist, beats 2,796,192,000 times. It just never quits, until it quits.
In utero, perhaps the most significant instant in gestation is that moment when expecting parents hear their baby’s heartbeat. The abstract becomes real, and it’s loud enough to hear like the sloshing lub dub of a washing machine agitator; the end result of that romp in the sack is, in fact, developing a heart.
Studies show infants, just a day old, already know their mothers based on the rhythms of her heartbeat, her voice, her scent. The newborn can easily identify her own mother from a lineup of women.
The mother-baby bond continues after birth. They are one being in two bodies, oxytocin and dopamine flooding the mother’s system so she becomes, in fact, addicted to her tiny, needy offspring. There is no greater trauma to mother or infant than severing that bond, those heartstrings.
I was born broken-hearted. My mother, just twenty, left home to stay with her grandmother until she began to show. Then she checked into the Florence Crittenton Home for Unwed Mothers. She donned a fake gold band so that when she went out, the locals would think she was married. I doubt the ring fooled anyone. When it came time to deliver, the obstetric nurses knocked her out, as was custom in those days. She never saw me, no nurse placed me on her belly after I emerged from the dark sea of amniotic fluid and wailed my first breath. The nurses whisked me away, cleaned me up, and took the obligatory hospital picture. I left the hospital with foster parents.
When I was twenty-four, I suffered a heart attack. No, really, a heart attack. Just three arteries feed the heart. The right coronary artery, the circumflex, coiling around the upper third of the heart, and the left coronary artery and its main trunk, the left anterior descending artery, or LAD. The LAD has a special alias–the Widowmaker. I’d gone to the hospital seeking treatment for a back pain, and I produced the EKG of a fifty-five-year-old man who smokes. The doctors were stymied. Healthy twenty-four-year-olds don’t have heart attacks. Was there a history of heart disease in my family?
No. I’m adopted. I’ve always known I was adopted. I’ve never not known. Is this genetic? Is there really something wrong with me? If your child cries in pain a continent away, does your heart break too? Did her heart ever break for mine?
Curiosity escalated to real need to know. My once idle curiosity blossomed into a genuine need to know. At nineteen, I’d written to the State, but was not allowed any information until I was twenty-one. Now, I needed to get to the heart of the matter. Now I put my knowledge and skills as a history major digging around in the library stacks to work sifting through public records to find my parents.
I became my own private investigator, picking the brains of librarians steeped in genealogy and emailing with distant cousins who were “not interested in finding anyone’s parents.” I stumbled across the Social Security Death Index, and looked up all of my grandparents, the ones I knew about. I spoke to the Director of the Bureau of Social Services in Columbus Ohio, searching for the records for the Crittenden Home in Akron. His sister was there about the same time my mother was. I learned about the birth index, and discovered sixty-one babies born on November 30, 1966 in Summit County Ohio. Thirty of them were boys. The rest, girls. Twenty-seven of them had first names and last names that did not match their mother’s maiden names. Three of them had no first name, and their last names were the same as their mother’s maiden names—unwed mothers. One of those three babies was me.
A heart attack happens when the cardiac muscle is deprived of oxygen. No matter how well the heart functions, lack of oxygen leads to ischemic heart disease. Muscles deprived of oxygen die, leaving behind scar tissue. After the hospital experience, the cardiac patient becomes highly attuned and cognizant of her body, the subtle signs of adrenaline causing a sudden blood pressure spike, the staccato flutter of arrhythmia as the heart races, then the crash back into normal sinus rhythm. Scar tissue began to form on my heart from the moment I was born.
To diagnose my heart trouble and find the reason for this unusual EKG—the shape of a third grader practicing her cursive b’s instead of the jagged peaks so familiar from reruns of ER and Grey’s Anatomy, I underwent the first of many angiograms. The surgeon cut a small opening in my groin to thread a catheter into my femoral artery and up into the heart itself, looking for blood clots or plaque coating the insides of my arteries like sludge coating the pipes under the sink. There was no clot. There was no plaque. No clot formed or broke off creating the blockage.
“Your arteries are…pristine,” the cardiologist said. “You’ve had a dissection. That is, you seem to have a kind of tear.” He was genuinely perplexed by both my youth and my extremely rare condition. No aneurysm, just a rupture within the arterial wall, leaving me with scar tissue over the lower third of my heart, across the septum and much of the left ventricle. The spontaneous dissection functioned just like a clot, except there was no repair for a torn cardiac artery. There was no fix for my heart, not yet anyway.
“It is Her,” the woman on the phone said. I heard her words against the susurrations in my ears as my angel intermediary revealed, “She is your birth mother. She sounds like you.”
“Wha…wha…what did she say?”
“I asked if this was Jo Dennis, and she said, ‘yes.’ I asked if she knew Luzader genealogy, and she said, ‘I do have lots of family records.’ I asked her if she had any Luzader relatives in Ohio, and she said, ‘No. There aren’t any Luzader relatives in Ohio.’”
“Well, specifically, I am calling about a relative born in Akron, Ohio. She didn’t say anything to that. On November 30, 1966. I told her. Your mother was quiet for a long minute. So I asked her, Do you know what this phone call is about?”
“She said ‘Yes, I know what this is about.’”
My heart stopped.
“I’m calling on behalf of your daughter, Debbie Oakeson, born November 30, 1966, in Akron, Ohio. She lives in the Bay Area, in California. She’s been looking for you.”
I’d found her after a dozen years of phone calls to libraries and bureaucratic offices, scrutinizing public records. Fearful of rejection, with utmost discretion, I allowed an intermediary to call on my behalf. There was good news and bad news: She confirmed she was my mother. She also confirmed she was not looking for me, and did not particularly want to be found. The heart breaks in a thousand different ways.
I spent the next three days shopping for stationery to write the letter I’d been planning to write my entire life. The first draft was thirty-three pages. I edited it down to two, in my very best cursive. An email arrived at work one day, three or four weeks later. From the Parkersburg Public Library. From Jo Dennis. From Her.
“I’ve received your lovely letter. I will write when I have a chance to compose my thoughts.” One line. A lifeline. My heart stopped again.
Despite her promise to write, she didn’t. I asked a few questions about family health, and she later sent an encouraging email as I started my first year of teaching. She simply was not ready. She had not prepared. She, too, believed the social workers who said, “She’ll never be able to find you. They’ll never know who you are.” She did not want to be found. This time, my heart broke for her, not just for her infant daughter.
The heart is a resilient muscle, and the arteries send out new shoots when cardiac tissue dies in order to feed viable cardiac tissue caught in and among the scarring. These arterioles appear like fingers reaching around and across into areas that still need oxygenated blood. Doctors know what causes angiogenesis, but they can’t cause it. If they could bottle it, we could end heart disease. Angiogenesis—or to translate the Latin, new arterial beginnings—allows the damaged heart to compensate so that cardiac patients can resume their normal lives.
I did finally meet Joellen two years later, after many twists and turns and much cajoling from my birth father. I’d reconnected with him, her high school sweetheart, some nine months before. He’d spent the better part of that summer talking with my birth mother, trying to open up that communication artery. He’d given her an ultimatum. Then at dinner one night toward the end of my summer visit to West Virginia, he looked at me and said, “Someone wants to meet you. She wants to meet you. We’re having lunch on Monday.”
We met at the old LaFayette Hotel in Marietta, across the river from West Virginia in Ohio. She sat alone in the elegant lobby, a little dark-haired woman sitting in an overstuffed Queen Anne armchair—red sweater, big blue eyes, and the whole lower half of my face looking back at me. My heart beat so loudly that all I heard was an incessant bassline in my ears.
“Mrs. Dennis?” I queried tentatively. I didn’t know her. I didn’t want to presume or call her Jo or Jody or even Joellen. I was certainly not going to call her “Mom.”
I was at lunch with my parents. My parents. I was rendered speechless for most of the meal, my heart in my throat. My father carried the conversational load as they reminisced and talked about their parents, siblings, children, and mutual friends. He ever so gingerly brought me out of my silence and into the conversation.
She and I stood on the banks of the Ohio River after lunch, looking back into West Virginia where we were from, the heart of Appalachia. I was a graft onto a different family tree, that much was clear, but I was so very much her. “You are everything I hoped you’d become,” she said.
I stood and watched her walk up the hill to her car, wondering if my heart would ever heal from this moment, this event, this heartwarming tale of high school sweethearts torn apart and their baby girl, all grown up, returning home to fill the hole in her own heart.
Her husband came home from work one day late in 1962. Des Moines, Iowa. Mary Ann hated Des Moines.
“Do you want to move to Monrovia?” he asked.
“Sure.” She thought about the excitement of living in…Monrovia? “Wait,” she asked. “Where is Monrovia?”
Mary Ann was thirty years old, and about to move to Africa. Liberia, West Africa. She soon learned Liberia was just above the equator, where the ocean water is warm as piss. In country, she managed a household staff of locals. Their servants called her husband The King, because at six feet, five inches he was the tallest white man they’d ever seen. The locals called her Missy King. She entertained Liberian dignitaries and the ambassador from the United States. She went to a presidential inauguration in Monrovia. It’s good to be The King, and Missy King. Mary Ann’s mother, newly retired from John Deere, took her first airplane trip ever to Liberia to see her daughter, who was pregnant with her first grandchild. The servants posed for awkward pictures with her and her new turquoise Samsonite luggage. They called her “Missy Mum.” They’d never seen a white woman that old.
The town of Harbel in Monrovia is the Firestone kingdom that used to run the country. Established in 1926, named after Harvey Firestone and his wife Idabelle, Harbel is home to Firestone’s massive rubber plantations. Harbel is the heart of the Company town in Monrovia, and Liberia was very much a Company country. Her husband, Dwayne, a rising young finance executive, was promoted to run the United States Trading Company which controlled all of the imports and exports for the West African nation.
Mary Ann had grown up during the Second World War, the only child of a working woman in Kansas City. “I want to go to the pretty part of town,” she said when she was small. “Where there is green grass instead of sidewalks.” She grew up on the “wrong” side of Kansas City, encouraged by her high school counselor to take home ec and sewing, for one day she would be a wife and mother.
In Harbel, she had a cook and a butler and a driver. One spring afternoon, Mary Ann went down the stairs and saw a python wrapped around one of the posts elevating her home to capture the ocean breezes. She turned around and went back inside. Her servants killed the snake, then beat the drums for three days, calling the locals down out of the hinterlands. They sold it for twenty-five cents a slice. One summer evening, a bobcat crept into the compound. The boys closed the gates surrounding Mary Ann’s home to chase the bobcat in circles. They ran it to death, dead of a heart attack. They hogtied the bobcat to a stick and disappeared with it out of town into the Hinterland.
She and Dwayne had had difficulty conceiving in Des Moines, and before that, Overland Park, Kansas, a toney suburb of Kansas City where they had met. The tropics, the loose cotton drawers, the linen pants, the tropical breezes, and the pink gins with the other expats boosted Dwayne’s low sperm count. Her obstetrician at the Harbel Hospital was Chief of Obstetrics, but he was not there when she went into labor. He’d gone back to the United States with his three remaining children to bury the five he lost in a bus accident the week before Mary Ann’s water broke, a week before her baby came due.
A tiny casket is a terrible thing. A diminutive box. The final resting place of a child. Pint sized. No one ever expects to purchase one. They certainly never expect to purchase five. We know we will likely bury our parents. No one is prepared to bury a child. Not one, not five.
Mary Ann’s water broke early. But the baby did not come. Hers was a dry birth once she did finally go into labor. Mary Ann’s labor was agonizing, stretched over two days, all for naught. The baby did not come. The obstetrician on call had never delivered a dry birth. He’d never delivered a breech birth either. The baby’s umbilical cord snaked around its neck exacerbating already developing respiratory distress. Mary Ann held her infant daughter and named her Cynthia Ann. Cynthia died just shy of twenty-four hours old. It was October 23, 1963.
Dwayne had served his two-year assignment overseas, and it cost him his child. When the assignment was extended another two years, he simply quit. He and Mary Ann went to Morocco, the first of many stops throughout the Mediterranean on their way home to Kansas City. Leonard Firestone himself met them at the docks as they boarded a cruise ship in Casablanca. “Please reconsider, Dwayne,” Leonard said. “Let us pick up the tab for your trip. When you come back, where would you like to go?”
Of all the gin joints in the world, Dwayne chose…Akron, Ohio.
Akron, Ohio is the Rubber Capital of the World, and the home of The Florence Crittenton Home for Unwed Mothers. Mary Ann wanted to be a mother, despite the loss of her first child. Her body craved an infant physiologically. Dwayne’s position in the corporate hierarchy of tires required at least one child to support the image of Family Man. Society whispers and talks about childless couples. She and Dwayne wrote beautiful letters describing the love they had for each other and for children they’d like to have, the home they’d like to make, the family they would like to create. Almost a year after they’d applied, and been inspected and evaluated and judged worthy, the adoption agency delivered them a son, born prematurely to another mother, incubated until he could go home with Mary Ann and Dwayne in October 1965. They were a family at last.
In 1965, healthy white infants were a hot commodity. Young women, unmarried, who found themselves pregnant, could not simply move out, rent their own apartments, or even keep their jobs should they turn up pregnant. It was a different time. The peak years for infant adoptions were from 1965 to 1970 when some 175,000 to 185,000 infants a year, born to predominantly white, middle-class women, were placed in primarily non-family adoptions. Acquiring a healthy white infant required patience, money, and a willingness to pay social workers to come inspect the home for up to six months after placement. Receiving one child was a remarkable feat. Few families received two children. Certainly not two healthy white infants in less than two years.
Glenville, West Virginia, USA is 5,000 miles as the crow flies from Harbel, Liberia, West Africa, but just a hundred miles from Akron. On October 22, 1963, in a small college town in the heart of Appalachia, a new boy, a skinny sophomore athlete, entered his geometry class and sat next to a talkative, dark-haired senior, the valedictorian of her class. It was October 22, 1963.
In the spring of 1966, the best athlete in the county and the smartest girl in town discovered they were pregnant. The boy was set to graduate in May. The girl was a sophomore at the local college. She left for Myrtle Beach that June with her family. He gave up a baseball scholarship to get a job to support his soon to be bride and child. They were not yet married. They were not yet of age, either. Despite their pie-in-the-sky dreams of marriage and family, cooler, older heads prevailed. The girl, old enough to know better, became a girl who went away. Her grandmother worked for Goodyear, also in Akron, Ohio. When the time came, the girl checked into the Florence Crittenton Home, about to become an unwed mother.
In January of 1967, when their son was eighteen months old, Mary Ann and Dwayne wrote another letter. “Greg loves his toys, yet as he played with them under the tree this past Christmas, he seemed lonely, bored, in need of companionship. He needs a sister, we need a daughter, and our home needs the peals of laughter a little girl might bring, to make our family complete.”
Six weeks after Mary Ann and Dwayne wrote to the agency asking for a daughter, three years after they’d lost their own baby girl, three years after the new boy sat next to the smartest girl in school, fate delivered unto Mary Ann a daughter, and Mary Ann became a mother, my mother.
He stood in the phone booth in the rain. He had two dollars in change in his pocket. He dropped dime after dime, begging, “Don’t do this. Please don’t do this. You don’t really want to give our baby away, do you? Don’t you love me? Don’t you love us? Don’t you want to be married? We had a plan…”
“It’s too late,” she spoke quietly over him into the phone, her voice absent any jingle of laughter at all. “It’s too late. It’s decided.” She hung up.
Steve was fifteen when they met, when his father moved the family to Glenville. Shinnston had been a bigger town than Glenville, a coal mining town in the mountains of North Central West Virginia, with more strapping young sons of tough sons a’ bitches working in the mines against whom he played football as a scrawny running back in the fall of ’63. Glenville was a college town. The coal mine was secondary to the teachers’ college. Steve showed up in sophomore geometry class after lunch and took the only open seat in the room.
Next to him sat Jody Luzader, just shy of seventeen when they met, a petite, bright-eyed, dark-haired senior. Bookish, sarcastic, witty, pretty, the valedictorian, with a wide, if slightly crooked smile ready to burst into peals of laughter at any moment, and a reputation for a keen mind, a sharp wit, and a sharper tongue. She was the youngest one in her class, smartest one, too. Except for math. Lucky for him, Geometry was not her cup of tea, but he was. He was smitten almost instantly.
“Can I give you a ride home after school?” she asked at the end of his first day. “I’m Jody.”
“Why, sure,” he said, entranced. “Pick me up after basketball practice. I’m Steve Koreski. Good to meet you, Jody.” By the end of that first week, they were inseparable. Jody and Steve were born.
She went on to college in town, despite scholarship offers to bigger schools in bigger cities. She wanted to be a librarian and teach English. They’d meet after classes, before practice. She watched him play ball—scoring touchdowns, driving the lane for layups, running down fly balls to left center and rifling the ball to second for a putout to end the inning. He wanted to be a baseball player and a coach in high school. They drank milkshakes and ate cheeseburgers at Pop’s Diner. They double-dated. They went swimming in the swimmin’ hole. They went to the drive-in and made out in the back seats of cars. They went to school dances and took pictures in their parents’ living rooms all dressed up. They traded Sunday dinners at each other’s homes—pot roast at her house, spaghetti dinner at his. They plotted a future together.
When he took her on the river with him, she’d read while he’d fish. In the afternoons, she made cookies with his ten-year-old sister, and he’d stop on her porch, showing off the muskies and trout he caught in the Little Kanawha River. He didn’t fish for trout, but caught them anyway.
“I’m late,” she said. “You better come talk to my parents.” She was nineteen, and not finished with her degree yet. This was not how she had planned it, not how they had planned it. It was certainly not how her parents planned it. This time she really was pregnant. Her period still hadn’t come. It was May 1966.
Steve walked up the hill to Camden Flat. Jody’s father, Jack, watched as this eighteen-year-old boy came to face the music. Confessions. Admissions of emissions. Professions of love and marriage. He needed to finish high school. She needed to finish college. This was not part of anyone’s plan. This time, the implantation held, and a baby was on the way. Decisions were made. They’d post bans, and begrudgingly, Jack agreed this boy would marry his daughter.
Steve finished his senior year, running track, and earned a full scholarship to play baseball at West Virginia University. He went to Parkersburg after graduation instead. He secured a job and a place to live for his coming child and wife to be. His father, a coal miner himself, had forbidden him to go underground in the mines. “Work above ground, son,” his father had always said. “The light is better.”
Jack heard the screen door rattle open, the old spring stretching as his daughter bounded onto the porch to greet her visitor. This boy with his string of trout, and his baby girl, who flung her arms around him as she kissed him squarely on the mouth. As the old spring finally let the door bang shut, Jack turned eyes away from the kids on the porch and looked directly at Betty, his wife of twenty years, as she sat on the brocade sofa in their living room.
“Well, here we are,” Jack said flatly as the sticky late afternoon evaporated into dusky Sunday evening. He gazed back out the window.
“He’s a nice young man.” Betty liked that boy. She always left him a couple of Tarytons when she went upstairs for the evening.
“Oh, I know he is.” Jack liked him, too, well enough. What wasn’t to like? Good kid, good family. He thought his daughter might outgrow him in college. Or meet some different people while she was there, but they’d stayed together even though Steve was still in high school.
“They’re good kids.” Betty’s hand fluttered to her glasses, fixed her hair, adjusted her necklace, and finally settled in the other hand, nestled in her lap.
“I know they are.” Jack sighed. This boy had been present in his house every day for the last two years.
“They talked about this. They planned this anyway.”
“Well, they didn’t exactly plan this,” Jack said.
“He loves her,” Betty said.
“I know he does.” Jack’s brow furrowed.
“She loves him–”
Jack cut her off, “–I know she does. Or she thinks she does.”
“They’ll need to get married.” Betty’s eyes lit up. A wedding!
“They’ll have to. They’ll want her to be Catholic.” Jack rolled his eyes at the thought. “She’ll have to be.” Betty’s glow faded as Jack spoke. “She isn’t ready for this. I don’t care what they planned. If she marries that boy, she’ll be tied to a stove, taking care of babies. Is that what you want for Jody? She’ll have to quit school, stay home, raise babies. Her plans will be ruined.”
He heard the screen door rattle and bang against the door frame as Jody turned the porch light off.
“And he’ll be off somewhere…fishing.”
Steve called her at the big yellow house in Camden Flat. When he went to Parkersburg, she’d gone with her family to Myrtle Beach for a week’s vacation. “She’s not here right now,” he heard from her mother, her father, her sister. After a week of missed calls, he returned to the big yellow house in Camden Flat. He pounded on the door. When it opened, he confronted Jack. Betty left him two Tarytons and a book of matches and went upstairs as the men argued.
“Where is she?” he demanded. “Where is my baby?” Steve stepped toward Jack.
“She’s not here, Steve.” Jack stiffened. He did not ask Steve into the house.
“Where’s my girlfriend? Where is she? Tell me where she is.” He peered around Jack, trying to see if Jody was home, trying to catch her mother’s eye, her sister’s glance.
“She’s not here. Go home.” He folded his arms across his chest and stood square in the doorway, blocking the young man’s view. Steve stepped closer, chest to chest with her father.
“Tell me where she is or I will kick your ass, old man!” He jabbed his index finger in Jack’s face. “I don’t care who you are! Don’t think I can’t!” Steve drew himself up to his full height and was still two inches shorter than Jack. At 150 pounds, he was probably fifty pounds lighter than the full-grown forty-three-year-old man standing between him and his girlfriend. His fingers twitched, reflexively curling into fists.
“Where is she? Where’s Jody? Where are they? That’s my family!” He wished hard for Jack to take a swing at him, so he could beat the shit out of this guy. “Where is she?”
“Go home, Steve. Go home. She’s not here. You need to go home.” Jack never raised his voice. “You should go home now.” He uncrossed his arms, turned away from the young man. He stepped back into his foyer, closed the door, and put out the porch light. It was final.
Steve left the porch of the big yellow house on the hill. He took the cigarettes and the matchbook with him. Later, at home, he put a cigarette in his mouth and opened the book of matches. Betty loved Steve. Adored him. Left him two cigarettes every night when she went up to bed and left the kids to the black-and-white console TV in the living room. The match scraped then flared. He saw the lettering Betty had written on the inside cover. “Akron,” it said. And a phone number.
Steve’s family had but one car, a 1964 Ford Fairlane. He left Glenville after supper and drove up old Route 21, twisting and turning under the canopy of trees as the dusk settled over the hills. He crossed into Ohio and followed the Hillbilly Highway up toward the industrial north of Akron, in search not of a better life for his family, but for his family.
Outside of Zanesville, the Ford swerved hard as the tire thunked. Steve stopped to fix the flat and put on the spare. He never did discover what popped his tire. It was late. Dark. Near midnight. He drove a few miles to a rest stop and slept in his daddy’s car. At sunup, he drove the rest of the way to Akron, looking for Uncle Ralph and Aunt SueAnn’s house. He drove through the brick and cinder and factory soot of Akron, past the Firestone and Goodyear plants, into Tallmadge, a suburb just north of Akron.
“She’s here. Betty gave me a number. You gotta help me find her,” Steve pleaded with his aunt and uncle. They loved Jody, too. SueAnn pulled the phone book out and laid it on the kitchen table. Together Steve and SueAnn searched each entry until they had a match for the number in the matchbook. He drove to the address, an elegant, stately brick manor in the moneyed heart of Akron. Jody was not at her grandmother’s.
She was at the Florence Crittenton Home for Unwed Mothers.
“Filling in the Blank(ets)”
“I’m your Nonni.”
There she was, my birth father’s mother. My grandmother. My little old Italian grandmother.
Nest of soft brown hair, silvery gray at the roots, brushed back into a ’50s bubble. Thick glasses. My father’s Italian nose, his smile, even his crooked teeth came straight from this woman. Large hands, arthritic, knuckles two sizes too big, evidence of a lifetime’s hard work, clasped one over the other on her chest, looking like she was about to take communion from the priest. She repeated it, in case I was confused, or didn’t hear, or like she was speaking to a very small child.
“I’m your Nonni,” she said as tears welled up in her rheumy green eyes. Small, frail, old. Warm, soft, sad eyes, eyes like mine, complete with the same dark circles and overstuffed bags I’ve carried since birth. My eyes. Looking back. Legacy. Glad I got her eyes and not her nose, I thought to myself.
And then this tiny woman enveloped me. She couldn’t have been but one hundred pounds soaking wet after a hearty pancake breakfast, all of five feet, one inch, stooped with age. She wrapped her arms around me and drew me into a hug she’d saved for thirty-three years.
When she finally stepped away, I could breathe, but I could not stop smiling. I looked around her little house at my father, my aunts, and my grandmother. I gazed at the framed photographs and portraits of my handsome grandfather and cousins, uncles, brothers, sisters on the wall, each worth a thousand words I longed to hear and commit to heart. I was enveloped with, surrounded by, steeped in, immersed in…family. My family. My heart was just so full.
Nonni went over to the hall closet and asked my father to pull a box down from the shelf. She took it from him and handed me the box as she sat next to me on the couch.
“This is for you. This is yours.”
“Aw, Nonni, you didn’t have to.” I removed the lid and pulled back the tissue paper, yellow with age. “Who’s Mary Frances?” I wondered, reading the name written on the tissue paper.
“I made this for you. When I knowed Joellen was pregnant.” Inside the box was a swirl of ’60s pastels in the softest yarns, lime, aqua, lemon yellow, white. An afghan.
“Even after you was gone, and we didn’t know where…. I made it for you. You was always Mary Frances in my heart.”
A small afghan, half sized,…a baby blanket. “Mary Frances? I’d have been Mary Frances?”
“I cried. I cried the whole time. I made it anyway. I cried with ev’ry stitch because you’d never see it. We’d never see you.”
The blanket was older than I was. She made it before I was even born. She made it for me.
“It’s yours. I didn’t give it to the other kids because it was yours.
It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
“It was always yours.”
She’d been so excited for the grandbaby to come. But there was no baby. The baby wasn’t coming home. She’d never heard of such a thing, adopting out. She loved that baby already, sight unseen. She finished that afghan, tears stitched into every knit and purl.
She folded the finished afghan and placed it inside tissue, inside a box. She took the box to the closet, lifted it up to the shelf, and stored her hopes, dreams, and love for that baby on the top shelf. Steve married, had three more kids, but she didn’t give the afghan to Stephanie, her second first grandchild. She didn’t give it to David, who came just four minutes after Michael, even though she hadn’t yet finished Michael’s, and was one baby blanket short because the twins were born eight weeks premature.
When her daughters married and each had two children, Nonni knitted a blanket for each of those grandbabies. When her grandchildren began to have grandchildren and arthritis made knitting a chore, Nonni kept that box on the shelf, never giving in, never giving up. She never thought of giving baby Mary Frances’s blanket to anyone but Mary Frances. Babies aren’t interchangeable.
“I made that one for you.”
I slept with it next to my skin for the next three years.
My Nonni named me, knitted a baby blanket for me, and loved me. My family wanted me all along. It was the only lie I’d been told, that he went along with it, that they both decided they were too young, not ready, wanted better…
I was home.