Remembering my mother, Leona

Every life includes experiences we never want to give back. Reuniting with my birth-mother Leona on the evening of January 8, 1987 in Stamford, Connecticut is one of those moments for me. Getting to know her over the years until she died 10 years ago today, even more so.

For some very understandable reasons she surrendered me for adoption seven days after I was born in New York City’s French Hospital on October 2, 1953. She told me once that she held me every second she could during those seven days because she knew that time together would have to last both of us a lifetime. Fortunately, she was mistaken. She was 19 when she got pregnant. Being a pregnant, single Catholic girl of Irish, French Canadian and, I would later learn, Mexican stock, walked you into a world of merciless judgment. That, coupled with the fact my birth-father was, or so he claimed, an unhappily married 39-year-old who was not about to help with raising a child, made my adoption inevitable.

My mother had the rare ability to recognize opportunities to truly touch the hearts of  others that most people would miss. The sanctity of another’s humanity was never lost on her. Her compassion was limitless, her instinct for the wounded and the ignored, remarkable. I remember commenting once on the close relationship between Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. “That’s true,” my mother said. “They were very much in love. But does anyone ever think about what it must have been like for Tracy’s wife? My heart always broke for her.” Being old-school Catholic, Tracy never divorced his wife after he became involved with Hepburn.

On my first birthday after we’d been reunited my mother gave me a teddy bear, “to make up for the one I couldn’t give you when you were growing up.’

The day I married my second wife on September 12, 1991 was the only time my two mothers met. I did have two mothers. In my heart and soul their claim to motherhood was an equal one and I only use the terms adoptive-mother and birth-mother so the listener, or reader, can distinguish which is which. A quick aside: if you want to insult and probably anger someone who’s been adopted, ask them who their real parents are. All their parents are real, make no mistake about it. At any rate, this day was the one and only day they two of them met.

The wedding took place outside and was attended by perhaps 30 people. Everyone, save my adoptive-mother Virginia, was standing. She was in some pain and had a chair. We’d asked the minister, my first childhood friend in fact, William Damrow, to ask people to hold hands with the person next to them when the moment for the final vows arrived. People were video-taping the wedding and later, we watched the video that was taken from behind the minster. In the background my mother Virginia was on the far left of the group and my mother Leona was standing on the far right. When the holding-hands’ request was made, my mother Leona walked over to my mother Virginia and held her hand through our final vows.

Some say I’ve inherited the instinct for touching the hearts of others from my mother.  I don’t know about that, but I do know I touched hers on a day that held a deeply special moment for the both of us. The French Hospital had been located at 330 West 30th Street between 8th and 9th avenues in Manhattan. It was built in 1928 by the Societe Francaise de Bienfaisance. It is now the French Apartments, but the words, Societe Francaise de Bienfaisance, remain carved in stone above the main entrance. On one of her last visits to the east coast my mother visited family in New Jersey. I drove down to pick her up and drive her back to my home in  upstate New York. On the way back I drove into the city and pulled up in front of 330 West 30th Street. The two of us held hands as I said, “We’re back.”

“They always made me go through the back door,” she said. “I was from the home for unwed mothers.”

“Okay then,” I said, and promptly drove around the block to the back entrance. We both said, our voices a mix of defiance and pride, “We’re back.”

My mother Leona died in California of liver cancer 10 years ago today. On December 21, two days after she died, I received a package from her in the mail. In it was a gift-wrapped package about the size of a box a pen would come in. I called my daughter on the phone so we could share the moment together. I removed the gift-wrap to discover a narrow black box. I opened the box. In it was a Saint Christopher’s Medal.  Legend is a child asked Saint Christopher to carry him across a swollen fast-moving river. Christopher, said to be a large and powerful man, carried the child across the river to safety. It was then the child revealed himself to be Jesus. Then, according to legend, the child vanished. Saint Christopher is the saint of safe travel through life. I turned the medal over and read the engraved words on the back. “Peter, I will always be in your heart. Love, Mom.”

She is always in my heart and in every stride and breath I take.

Not long before she died I asked her if she had any advise for me. She said, “Yes. Be good to yourself, Peter.” I’m trying, Mom. I love you and miss you my whole wide world.

 

WE MADE IT: MEETING MY MOTHER

This memoir excerpt contains the scene where after 34 years I reunite with my birth-mother Leona. We had parted when I was seven days old. In this segment of the book, we had located her address in Stamford Connecticut and I had decided to call her from a nearby phone. I was with my friend and brother-in-my-heart, Dane Arnold.


It is a few minutes before five in the evening when we pull into the parking lot of the Stamford Motor Inn, a modest inn just off Exit 9. We park and go into the lobby.

I have Leona’s number on a piece of paper. I am wearing jeans, t-shirt and a denim jacket. In a sitting area off the lobby a pay phone is against the wall.

I am now pacing back and forth in front of the pay phone. Three or four strides this way, turn, three or four strides the other way. I am buttoning my denim jacket from the bottom up, aware that I am doing so but not sure why. It is now five o’clock and it is time and I can’t get myself to pick up the phone.

Dane is talking to me as I pace, he is saying, “Think of everything you’ve been through. Think of getting up off the ground after you were shot in head. You got up, man, you got up! This is your moment.”

Dane keeps talking as I lift the receiver, place a quarter in the slot, start to dial, hang up, retrieve the quarter, continue pacing. I place the paper with her number and the quarter on the small stainless steel shelf beneath the phone and continue pacing.

“You can do this, Peter, I know you can. This is your moment, your time, no one can take this from you. Think of everything you’ve survived. Think of everyone you love, who loves you. Your daughter. Think of your Dad, your Dad’s here right now, you know he is. We’re all here.”

I lift the receiver, slip the quarter in, start to dial, hang up. But this time I don’t begin to pace. And then Dane does a miracle. He wraps his arms around me in a hug and holds onto me tight. I put the quarter in the slot, dial all the way through, and now I hear the phone begin to ring. Dane holds me tight.

After two or three rings a woman answers the phone.

“Is Leona Moore home please?”

“This is she.” I can hear voices in the background.

“Mrs. Moore, my name’s Peter Kahrmann, I’m from New York. This is an important phone call, is there any place you can talk privately?”

“I can go into the kitchen. Is everything okay?”

“Everything’s okay. Let me give you my number in case we get disconnected, if that’s okay?”

“Let me get a pen, you sure everything’s okay?”

“Absolutely.”

“Okay, all set.” I give her my number and ask her to repeat it back to me which she does. I can still hear voices.

“Are you as private as you can get?”

“Yes, sorry, best I can do.”

“That’s okay. Listen, what I’m going to tell you comes with all the kindness and compassion one person can have for another.”

“Okay.”

“I was born October 2, 1953 in the French Hospital in New York City.”

An explosion of tears drowns the end of my sentence. “My son Paul! My son Paul! He’s found me!” she screams to those near her. “Oh my God he’s found me, my son Paul!.” To me she says, “Please don’t hate me, please don’t hate me.”

“I don’t, Mom, not at all,” I say, noticing how naturally the word Mom came out.

“Oh, Paul, please don’t hate me. I know you must be angry, you must want to hurt me, I don’t blame you.”

“You’re wrong, Mom. My fantasy is to hug you, not hurt you.”

She is in tears. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.”

“I love you, Mom. It’s okay,” and then I say, “I would like to meet you.”

“Yes, of course we can meet. Alone the first time, just the two of us.”

“I’m nearby you know.”

“I know, you’re in New York,” she says, mistakenly concluding that I had called from the New York telephone number I’d given her.

“No, Mom, turn around. I’m at the Stamford Motor Inn.”

Another burst of emotion as she screams to those near here, “He’s here, my son is here. Paul is right down the street, oh my God thank you, my son is here!”

“Mom, I do have a friend with me. Dane. He’s adopted too, Mom. He understands, he’s been through it all with me. Is that okay?”

“Of course it’s okay. I’ll be there in 10 minutes, let me put my face on.”

“What will you be driving?”

“A large station wagon, it has the fake wood siding.”

“I’m in a gray Dodge Caravan, I’m five eight and – ”

“I’ll know what you look like,” she says and instantly I know she will.

We are walking back to the van to wait and I am floating. I have never felt as soothed and peaceful as I do in this moment. It is not the weight of the world that has left my shoulders, it is the weight of the universe, the weight of a lifetime of not knowing. For the first time in my life I can feel my feet on the ground.

In the van we sit quietly. I say, “She’s driving a big station wagon. Says she’ll be here in 10 minutes, she’s putting her face on.”

Dane nods. We are way beyond the need for words. He is in and of this moment as much as I am and I know it and am so glad he is with me. He is the only person in the world I want with me in this moment. Being adopted, he too knows what it is like to go through life feeling disconnected from the world nearly every one else belongs too. We are, in a very real way, brothers – and we both know it. We have one of the few gifts being adopted gives you, the recognition that you don’t have to be blood related to be family. It is a glorious truth that belongs to the both of us, and all others like us.

In less then 10 minutes a large white station wagon with fake wood siding pulls into the parking lot, passes us and comes to a stop in front of the Inn 20 yards away.

I am out of the Caravan and walking towards the car as the woman I was separated from nearly 34 years earlier is getting out. Her hair is white as snow and she is wearing a long beautiful blue winter coat. She is the most beautiful human being I have ever seen. She is my mother.

We walk towards each other and stop when we are within arms reach of each other.

Here in this moment mother and child are fully together again, all time between our last moment together has vanished. The arms-length distance now between us is so filled with the bond between us no power on earth could move through it.

I say, “Can I hug you?”

She says in a voice so full of love my heart rejoices, “Of course you can.”

And here in this nighttime moment on January 8, 1987 mother and son hold each other close.

Into her ear I whisper, “We made it.”

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MY MOTHER: ALWAYS IN MY HEART

I made the decision to search for my birth-mother on October 2, 1986, my thirty-third birthday. I was reunited with her on January 8, 1987. Her name was Leona. I would learn that our hearts were very much alike.


I am now writing the final draft of this experience for the memoir and it doesn’t get more emotional for me than this. The decision to search for her with all my might (the desire to find her had been there for years) was one of the reasons I came out of seclusion back then.


Some background. I was held up and shot in August 1984, returned to work as a New York City cabby some months later, and was again held-up at gunpoint in May 1985. My ability to feel safe in the world around me collapsed and I retreated into seclusion for nearly a year. When pondering the possibility of rejoining the world, I decided that if I was going to return to daily life, I would try and find my birth-mother.


It makes sense that I am working through the final version of this for the memoir now as I am again in seclusion a great deal of the time. While for somewhat different reasons, there is both comfort and heartbreak in writing about the search for a woman I would grow deeply close to in her last years. I would discover she had always deeply close to me. I would also learn that our emotional life and our emotional experience of the world were, in many ways, mirror images of each other.




My penchant for recognizing a moment when I can touch a human heart with love is something I inherited from her. Here is an example. The day I married my second wife was the one day both my mothers, adoptive and birth, were together. My wife and I asked the minister to ask those in attendance to hold hands with the person next to them when he reached the final moment of our vows.


A day or two later my wife was watching the video of our wedding when she called out, “Peter, come quick, look a this!” She rewound the tape and said, “Watch what Leona does…”



My mothers were on opposite sides of the group of 30 or so people who were in attendance. When the pastor asked them to hold hands, Leona walked over to where my other mother was and took her hand so that both mothers would be connected while they watched their son marry.


“See,” my wife said. “Now we know where you get that instinct from.”


When I found my mother she was living in Stamford, Connecticut. Some years later she moved out to San Jose to live with my sister, Sunday, her husband and children. In 2000 I received a phone call from Sunday telling me our mother had cancer, liver cancer, which is, to my understanding, terminal. It was for my mother.


I flew out to see her a number of times and she came to this coast to make her goodbye rounds and stayed with me in my home for a few days. There were two events that again displayed how alike we were.



Here is the first event:


I picked her up in New Jersey where she had been visiting family to drive her back to my home which, at the time, was in Monroe, New York. On the ride back I told her there was a place I thought we should both visit. We drove into Manhattan and I pulled up in front of the building that in 1953 had been the French Hospital, the place where I was born.


I looked at my mother and smile, “We’re back.” She took my hand and gazed up at the building. She then said, “They made us use the back entrance.” I said, “No problem.” We drove around to the buildings back entrance on 29th Street. We sat there and held hands. I said, “I love you, Mom.” She said, “I love you too, Peter.”


Here is the second event:


My mother died at her home in San Jose on December 19, 2001. My sister called to tell me of her passing. And hour earlier my sister called me and held the phone to mother’s ear so I could tell her I loved her and that she could let go and I would always love her and do my best in life.


On December 21, 2001, a priority mail package arrived. It was a Christmas present from my mother. I opened it. It was a Saint Christopher’s medal. Saint Christopher is the patron saint of travelers, of safe travel through life. On the medal you can see Saint Christopher carrying a small boy across a raging river.


I went to my knees in tears. I turned the medal over and on the back read the following inscription.


Peter,

I will always be in your heart.

Love,

Mom


And you will always be in mine, Mom.

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