The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming memoir, exploring my childhood and the history of adoption from the 1950s until now.
When I arrived, the next door neighbor was already halfway across the lawn. I was an oval lump, wrapped in baby wool, eyes squeezed shut. My Mum was carrying me, although those sorts of details are hazy—nobody really remembers. The neighbor probably does. She must have seen the lights of the car rock and sway and light up the grass from night to green to night again. Dad was driving our old Holden Kingswood, a big square beast of a car that I rode in the front passenger seat of for years once I was a girl because there were no seatbelts in the back.
She, the neighbor Jan rushed across the lawn diagonally, her short legs moving very naturally and quickly. All eyes in the early evening dark. She ran up the three steps to our front door, her arms outstretched to me, the bundle in my mother’s arms, as my Dad was turning the keys in the lock.
“That’s my baby,” Jan said. Her eyes pressed open, burning a lifetime of disappointment and wanting into my father’s lucky face.
“Jan. Hello Jan,” my father said, letting out a slow, deep wheeze, a boxer prepping before the first round.
I’m not sure they predicted this. They did know that Jan had been on the list longer than they had and it was not likely they chose to think about it as they’d dressed that morning, the morning of my father’s 30th birthday. He, with his glasses pronouncing handsome eyes, his head balding in perfect roundness, would have put on a jacket and suit pants, possibly unmatching. My mother would have chosen something elegant in colors of the day—a wool dress perhaps with oranges and browns in a diamond pattern—and taken hours to fix her hair that was thick and tightly curled, nothing like mine would grow to be.
Choosing not to think about things was a form of survival back then. And people like Jan were the victims. Perhaps she’d been looking out of her window, waiting all day long. What did she think was going to happen, when she rushed with quick breath from the window to her front door the minute the car was in her neighbors’ driveway. And, breathing, head fury, she hurtled herself across their lawn and up their front steps and demanded that they were carrying her baby and she would be taking her home now.
“That’s my baby,” she spat.
My Dad’s wheeze might have blown her backwards.
My mother would have put her hand on my cheek, shielding my eyes perhaps as though I was going to see something that I might never forget. The three of them and me— and my older brother, Tim somewhere—stood jammed in the doorway as though an alarm had just sounded and everyone needed to get in or out really really fast.
“Go inside, Nole,” Dad said to my mother, exhaling a whole day of angst and newness, a day that came after years of filling out all the right forms in the hours and days between showing up to work each day, early in the morning to teach classes as my mother and he laid the path towards the perfect middle class life. He might not have predicted this but he was immediately ready for it.
Dad put his hand out. “Not now, Jan.”
Jan knew that now was the only time she had. She and her bald husband Bob who spent all the day in the garage, his shiny head buried in a car engine.
“That’s my baby, I’ve been on that list longer than you have. I’ve been on that list for years. We’re getting a girl. Is she a little girl. Isn’t she?” Her cheeks were tight and reddening.
“That’s my baby,” Jan shrieked as my Dad turned the key and cleared his throat and put his hand out to meet Jan’s hand but not in a sweet way. I can only imagine the pricks of sweat and fury on my Dad’s neck. He turned 30 that day and it was one of the most special days of his life—so I grew up knowing and hearing. There was a tousle and I can imagine my Dad’s heavy breathing, his lips drained of blood, his eyes slow slow blinking, which was one of the actions that kept him sane. Jan’s face was blotched and red and she wasn’t going anywhere. My Dad had a new baby girl. All the bliss and sweetness of this moment was fizzing and spitting out of Jan’s mouth, as though someone had opened a Fanta can that had been rolling around the back seat of her family car from a holiday months ago.
“Jan, Jan, this is awful, I’m sorry but Jan, please don’t,” my mother would have said. “Where’s Bob?” I was in her arms in a bundle and my brother, maybe he’d run inside, into his little bedroom at the end of a hallway lined with blue wallpaper. There, he had a big, brown corduroy bag of lego. I imagine, given that my brother was a sensitive and quiet little boy that he had run into his bedroom, into a corner and sat there with the lights out, pretending not to be there.
Jan and Bob had been on that waiting list longer, a lot longer than my parents and she had been waiting. It was 1977 and both couples—neighbors in suburban 70s Australia—had visited a building in the center of the city at least a year earlier. It was a government building with regulation carpet and sour lighting. The adoption agency—I never did really know what it was called—was a series of offices that took up half a floor in a government building that housed also the departments of Family Services and Human Services. Australian babies born and unwanted—sorry, whose birth parents wanted them to have better lives than they could provide—were processed through this agency.
When a baby was born, a woman in an office would receive a piece of paper and a birth certificate and the baby would be typed up on a new set of forms. Folders sifted through, meetings called, letters mailed out.
Both my Dad and Mum, as well as Jan and Bob had visited this building for years. Separately. Each couple would have pulled their cars out of the suburban driveways, parked in a three-story lot and walking in hand in hand, hopeful, clueless and determined. Did they ever visit at the same time or pass each other in the car park or just miss each other at the elevators. I imagine each couple had all sorts of pieces of paper signed and tucked into yellow folders. Each time, my Dad would have been wearing a jacket but not a suit. And Jan would have worn an A-line skirt with a handbag that did not match.
I haven’t, in fact imagined too much about all these details in my life because these details somehow pry me from the romantic reality that I was special and wanted—adopted children are special because their parents really want them and go through lots of work to get them. And I was in immediate and bizarre danger from the very beginning. I’d been alive for six weeks, photographed day to day in various patterned onesies by a couple I’ll never know the name of. When I was born, thebirth certificate was typed up describing a woman with a fair complexion and interests that suggested artistic sensibilities. She hoped for a musical family and she was from a gentle Anglican background. Blue eyes was key. My Mum and Dad both had blue eyes and brown hair, as did my brother and that was important; that we looked alike. My Mum and Dad received a letter in the mail, stating a date that they could go pick up their new baby girl who had just been born and just needed a few weeks to… become part of the world. That date was my father’s 30th birthday. That date was the day that we arrived home in the dark as the neighbor looked out her window. They’d picked me up for the first time and held me in their arms for the first time and the minute I arrived to my new home, the neighbor was trying to steal me.