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Epistles

March 7, 2015

AdobePhotoshopExpress_2015_03_07_15:21:33I’ve been saving letters and postcards since I was a child.  In a tiny closet in my attic study are hat boxes filled with these relics.  Most of them are from my twin, my mother, and my grandmothers, but I have decent-sized stacks from others, including my best friend Emily, who still writes to me several times a year, and my husband, who was living in a different city when I met him.  Most of these letters were written during years when I was away from home and from people I loved, college and graduate school years in which long-distance phone calls were 25 cents a minute on the MCI Friends & Family plan and my e-mail address was jes97003@uconnvm.uconn.edu.  The popular world of text messaging was still 10 years off.  Back then, too, I had plenty of time to write, and to wait.

There’s one letter, though, that I’ve never been able to find despite a dogged search through all of the boxes and bins of memorabilia that I’ve lugged into my present.  It’s a letter that I wrote to my birthmother when I was around 12, the age my oldest son is.  He writes e-mails to me like: “Dear Mom, November 26 is Mrs. Spinelli Day.  I need to bring in a $1 by next week.  Love, A.”  The first letter I ever wrote to my birth mother begins,  “Dear Lady,” and launches into a long explanation of my difficulty in knowing how to address a nameless person.  For the longest time, that letter was sealed in an envelope and tucked between the mattresses of my childhood bed.  It was one of those letters that needed to be written, even if I knew it would never be read, because somehow by writing it, by putting words into the universe, I was convinced my birthmother might hear them.  It worked for my sister and me–this talking to one another without speaking–and so I hoped it might worked for “Dear Lady,” too.  In that sense, it was more prayer than letter, promising that I had turned out well, that I was loved and happy, that I harbored no ill will.

By the time I was a sophomore in college, my letter to my birthmother was angrier.  It’s less of a prayer and more of a late adolescent howl.  It’s a letter missing the context of a full life, though no less real for its moment.  Several years ago my birthmother asked me if I had found the “Dear Lady” letter I had told her about.  The angry college letter is all I turned up.  I quoted her a few innocent lines from the letter, but I didn’t tell her what it really said.  By the time I finally knew who she was, I was  somewhere other than the emotions of that letter.  And she had a name.

There is a hatbox now for my birth family although it’s nearly empty.  Most of our correspondence has been by e-mail.  In fact, our first words to one another came packaged in e-mails that began tentatively, wondrously.  She called me Jenny.  I called her Mrs. D.  We didn’t talk on the phone for four more months. I’ve saved over 1,000 e-mail messages in the last five years, mostly from my birthparents and their son, my biological brother.  I communicate now most regularly with my birthparents’ daughter, but that occurs in the ephemeral space of instant message and text.

These days, other than the communication that is hard to hold onto, I am confined to notes of last resort, to the scribbles I leave my boys in the final moments before I head off on a trip.  In our daily leave-taking, my last words are spoken.  “Be kind!” I say as they head out to the door to school, uttering my daily mantra.  They’re smart boys.  Most days, they’re good boys.  So I trust that everything else will fall into place if only they remember to be kind.

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But when I’m about to leave them for an academic conference or for a research trip or, as I did last December, for travels across the world to meet my nephew in an orphanage in Morocco, my compulsion is fueled by an inexplicable panic.  What if something happens to me?  What if they never see me again?  I think of them as I imagine my birthmother thinking of me all those years, with hope and yearning from an insurmountable distance.  What I have to say must be written down.  After all, I reason, if something happens to the Mother of Flesh, then the Mother of Words can take over.

“Dear boys, Leaving you on Christmas is hard!  Please be good for Dad and to each other.  Be kind!  It’s the most important gift you can give to the world on this day of gifts. I love you.  Mommy will keep you close to her heart.  You do the same.”

And so I become that child of adoption once again, leaving my boys epistles to tack onto their bulletin board, leaving my boys with all that I have: my heart and a name.  Love. Mommy.

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