Catherine is on the earliest flight from Reno.
She will land in Portland by eight a.m.
I am going to pick her up at the airport.
We get a day together—just this day. She has a sick cat, a job that needs her and appointments in her date book she cannot possibly reschedule.
Catherine is my mother and we have never met.
I stand in my closet and look at all my clothing—jeans, tops, sweaters, skirts. What to wear? What to wear? Should I choose a fancy combination that makes me look pretty or perhaps something professional that makes me appear credible? Perhaps I can pick an ensemble that says “Love me. Take me home with you. Don’t leave me again.”
Catherine and I have talked, several times, on the phone. We’ve exchanged emails with photos from her life—Christmas holidays, anniversaries, birthdays and graduations. In her pictures, I’ve seen aunts, uncles, a grandmother, and a brother and sister. My people. They all have the shape of my smile, the curve of my eyes, the size of my chin and the span of my forehead.
As I look at the life my mother has had without me, I tell myself this story: She had a decent life with family who loved her. That’s good. I’m happy for her.
Deep in me, though, pushed low and flat, is a seething rage that turns the contents of my stomach to toxic waste. To get by, I drink way too much wine late at night. Or, I get my bike out of the garage, pedal hard and sweat myself blind as if in training to complete in the Iron Man competition. Or, I press my children to my sides and read silly books like Captain Underpants and Bad Kitty. The latter is the only way to actually calm the fury. Warm bodies, sweet breath, steady hearts and the familiar sound of their laughter. They are whole and loved and kept children. Their proximity makes me whole and loved too—for a while.
Beige cords and a black cardigan. I pull myself together in these clothes because they are everyday attire. Comfortable. After I am dressed and ready, I make a top down survey in the full-length mirror. There I am—Jennifer Lauck. I have long dark hair, deep dark eyes, a narrow face and a slim form. My sweater is pilled and has a hole under the arm. My pants have a ripped pocket. I don’t care.
I don’t need to impress Catherine. Meeting her isn’t a contest or a job interview.
Over these forty-four years of life, I have been adopted twice. I have been homeless, ripped off and thrown away. I have been relocated twenty seven times. On my own, I have put myself through college, have been an investigative reporter and have written three books. I have met Oprah Winfrey and toured around the world. I’ve seen my work in languages I cannot read: Finnish, Dutch and Japanese. I have married twice and divorced twice. I have had two children—who are now seven and eleven. I have become a Buddhist; I have meditated in the high, thin air of the Rocky Mountains. I have taken spiritual teachings from His Holiness The Dalai Lama.
I have done so much and yet a part of me waits and has always been waiting. It’s as if I haven’t gathered enough speed to lift off the ground and truly take flight. I’ve been a bird without feathers but today, I get what all human beings are supposed to have—a mother—my mother.
Meeting my mother will serve just one purpose in my life.
In the main terminal of Portland International Airport, I am surrounded by a fast moving stream of travelers—arriving and departing.
I hold a bundle of roses cut from my back yard. They are the best of the year, the buds the size of extra large eggs. I’ve added sprigs of rosemary and lavender. The arrangement is wrapped in a white silk scarf.
This is a perfect demonstration of the kaleidoscope of conflicting emotion within. I hate the mother who gave me away. I care enough to bring her the best from my garden. It’s a miracle I am functioning at all.
At the inbound waiting area, I sit and wait.
I check the time on my cell phone and then I check the time on my watch. There is a five-minute difference between the watch and the phone. I readjust the time on the watch.
In-bound travelers fill the corridor, people with busy expressions and quick strides. A businesswoman pulls a wheelie travel bag and talks on the telephone. Another woman, with a baby in a stroller, goes by. Next is a teenager listening to his i-pod—jeans around his hips.
I shift to the edge of my seat.
Did she change her mind? Was her flight delayed?
I check my phone. No message.
A tall woman in high heels walks my way. She’s wavy in my field of vision, like a mirage in the desert.
I stand up.
The woman wears open toed strappy heels and slim fitting jeans. She has narrow hips, a lean body and wide shoulders she rolls back with the stance of a trained dancer. She has high round cheekbones and her hair is a lovely shade of auburn.
“Jennifer?” she asks.
I nod. I think I nod.
We embrace but it’s not like a hug, it’s more like a magnetic slap against her body and on pure instinct, my arms go around her back, my chin digs into her collarbone and I inhale the smell of her almond perfume. A flood of primitive relief moves through me. This is my mother. She is the one.
Catherine is more restrained. Her side of the embrace is brief and stiff. I’ve heard it is that way when the birth mother has been found—they feel exposed and embarrassed. She has lived all my life in shame and secrecy.
She is the first to break away.
While I make a mental note to give her room, an arms length is all I can allow. I keep my hand on her shoulder and feel the shape of her bones and even the texture of her muscles and skin through the fabric of her silky blouse. My mother is utterly familiar—like a dream I’ve been having all my life.
I regress as if I am one of my own children when they are in proximity to my body. I assume ownership of this stranger, my mother.
“My God, you are amazing,” I hear myself say. “Look at you.”
I take her in from the top of short auburn curls down to her toes painted a shining red. I touch her arms, to her elbows and wind my fingers into hers. “Do you play music?” I ask.
“No, no,” she laughs.
I touch her hips. I turn her right to left and then left to right. I go around her, full circle—one way and then the other. “Look at your fucking legs,” I say. “They are so incredibly long.”
She laughs out loud.
“Look at your fucking legs,” she says. She does this flashy gesture, opening her hands like a game show hostess.
I look at my own hands, which are just like hers and I see them in a new way. I have my mother’s hands.
“How tall are you?” she asks.
“I’m five ten,” she says.
She holds out her foot. “What size are your feet?” she asks.
“I’m a nine,” I say, kicking my foot out of my sandal.
“Me too,” she says.
We laugh as if our shoe size is hilarious.
I take Catherine to breakfast. A pancake and coffee place called Zells. We order the same thing, eggs on toast. While we eat, we talk fast. My words spill over hers and her words spill over mine. We are the same that way. We are talkers.
We drink cup after cup of coffee, reaching for the cream at the same time and then crack up when our hands collide.
We use our hands when we talk. We make windmill-sized gestures to get our points across. Our voices rise and then fall in the same vocal range.
When we have wiped our mouths with our napkins and our plates are cleared, Catherine reaches into her purse and takes out a photo. She places it on the table between us—as if relieved to unburden herself. “It’s the only photo I have of him,” she says. “It’s not very good.”
The photo of my father is on a large sheet of color copy paper and he wears a military uniform. He poses next to a cannon six times larger than he is. He looks like a child playing dress up in grown man’s clothes.
“I don’t know a lot. We were just kids. I know his mother was divorced. I don’t think they were close.”
Catherine searches over my head, as if more memory lives there. “Um, he came back to Reno not long after you were born—we kind of fell back in together, eloped when I got out of high school. I got pregnant on our honeymoon. After that, he was stationed in Germany. I had our son. It was a bad marriage. I missed my family. I left him in Germany and came back to Reno with the baby. I never saw him again. I wish I could tell you more. You know he’s dead now?”
“Yes,” I say, “I heard.”
Catherine shrugs her pretty shoulders.
I study the photo with more intensity. The man is out of focus to me. All I know of my father is that he became a house painter and he smoked. He died of emphysema in 2005.
Catherine reaches to tuck a loose strand behind my ear.
“I can’t get over being here, together,” she says. Her voice is different, soft and a little sad. “I’ve missed your whole life.”
She drops her hand into her lap. Did she touch me to begin with? Did I make it all up?
Sometimes, when I touch my own son in a casual way—running my hand over the shape of his head or rubbing his back—and then stop, he’ll take my hand and put it back on his body. It’s his way to say, “Keep touching me, Mom.”
I want to take Catherine’s hand and have her keep touching me but I don’t. I am too shy.
We leave the restaurant and go to a house that has been offered by a friend. The kitchen has been stocked with cheese, fruit, bread, chocolate, wine and teas.
Catherine and I spend our day on the back deck, surrounded by vines and passionflowers. We drink pots of tea and eat dark chocolate in the September sun. She likes dark chocolate as much as I do.
We perform an awkward dance of togetherness with steps we don’t know how to execute. If I were a baby, I’d be naked in her arms and she’d touch me everywhere. She’d count my toes and press her face into my belly. But I’m a grown woman and neither of us knows how this is supposed to be. The threat of intimacy between us is overwhelming and intoxicating. She holds my hand for a long time and then, without warning, pulls back and crosses her arms over herself. I lean into her, closing my eyes to take in the sound of her voice and then scoot away, a twist of queasiness in my stomach.
“Do you want to see my photos?” I ask. A thick manila file holds images that go back to infancy.
“I want to see everything,” she says.
I move swiftly through my life story, using each photo as a marker on the time line. I don’t linger on the losses or the pain or the loneliness. I tell myself Catherine doesn’t need to know, not now, not today. I want her to see the good things, the accomplishments and the success. I sit close to her while she looks at younger and still younger versions of me.
“This is me in high school,” I say. “Can you believe the size of my nose?”
“You have your father’s nose,” she says.
“It suits you,” she says. “I like it.”
I am down to three photos, all baby pictures. In one, my first adoptive mother Janet poses with me in front of our little ranch house on Mary Street in Carson City. I’m swaddled in blue and yellow and have a bonnet on my head. Janet wears a matching outfit with a big yellow hat tilted in a jaunty angle.
Catherine removes her glasses and looks at the picture as if trying to find a way to pass through and go back in time.
“She’s not holding you close enough,” Catherine finally says. “What’s wrong with her? I thought she was a mother already?”
I don’t answer because I don’t know how to tell her that nothing is wrong with Janet. It’s called being a stiff armed baby. I’m not letting Janet hold me closer because she’s not my mother. I am rejecting Janet.
Catherine looks up, ready for the next photo. It is another of Janet and me.
She makes another sound of disgust. “Why isn’t she holding you closer?”
Anger flashes in me like a lighting hit on a dry hot night. I want to say, “Where were you? Why didn’t you come?”
But I don’t.
The sun arcs over the house and a squirrel leaps from branch to branch of an old maple tree.
My photos are fanned out on the patio table. She holds the three of me as a baby and studies each one for such a long time.
When Catherine finally speaks again, her voice is so low I have to lean closer still.