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.

 

Words From My Mother

The handwritten date on top of the faded page read, “Wednesday 1-8-87”, the day my birth-mother and I were reunited after 33 years apart. The handwriting is hers. I have stumbled on six pages of a journal she kept starting that extraordinary January day.

Her very first line collapses me into tears. “Received a phone call that made my life complete tonight.” The phone call she is referring to is the one I made to her from the lobby of the Stamford Motor Inn in Connecticut, no more than five miles from her house. It was our first contact in the world after we were parted by life when I was seven days old.

The phone call was a culmination of a search that had begun only months earlier on October 2, 1986, my 33rd birthday. One of my closest friends in the world, then and now, Dane, was with me. Dane was the perfect companion on this day because he too was adopted.

My mother first thought I was calling to give her bad news about a family member, but then, as she writes, “He said I was born October 2 in the French Hospital in New York. I said, Oh my God, my son Paul – then, please don’t hate me. He said, I don’t hate you Mom. After that it’s a blur. Found out he was just down the street at the (Stamford) Motor Inn….I said I’d be there in 20 minutes. I believe I was there in 10 minutes. Changed my clothes, told my daughter Erin what was going on (I did during the phone conversation), couldn’t find my keys, my glasses… During the phone conversation when I said I’d be there in 20 minutes, Peter (his name is Peter, not Paul) started to tell me what he would be wearing. I said, I’ll know who you are. Also when we were on the phone he said, I’m 33 years old now. I said, I know THAT. I was shaking and don’t really know how I drove the car to meet him.”

“When I got the the Motor Inn he got out of his van and walked towards me, he reminded me of my brother. We hugged and hugged and he said, “Hello Mom, we made it.” I really only heard Mom.

To read these words for the first time, more than eight years after her death in December 2001, I am reminded to my core how close to two of us became and how close, in a very real way, we always were.

Of all the challenges I’ve ever taken on in my life, searching for and finding my mother, Leona Patricia Clark, is the one I am most proud of and most grateful for. A few pages in she calls me her “personal eighth wonder of the world.” She is certainly mine.

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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