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The phone call, wholly unexpected, instantly turned Sarah Saffian's world upside-down, threatening her sense of family, identity, self. Adopted as an infant twenty-three years before, living happily in New York, Sarah had been "found" by her biological parents despite her reluctance to embrace them.
In this searing,...
The phone call, wholly unexpected, instantly turned Sarah Saffian's world upside-down, threatening her sense of family, identity, self. Adopted as an infant twenty-three years before, living happily in New York, Sarah had been "found" by her biological parents despite her reluctance to embrace them.
In this searing, lyrical memoir, Sarah chronicles her painful journey from confusion and anger to acceptance and, finally, reunion--but not until three soul-searching years had passed. In spare, luminous prose, Sarah Saffian crafts a powerful story of self-discovery and belonging--a deeply personal memoir told with grace, eloquence, and compassion. At once heartbreaking and profoundly uplifting, Ithaka is sure to touch anyone who has grappled with who they are.
"Ithaka never loses momentum. Compelling, honest, and forthright, it is a beautifully written and spellbinding book. I couldn't put it down."
--Hope Edelman, author of Motherless Daughters
"This fascinating story of Sarah Saffian's psychic journey to a home she never knew tells much about the complexities of adoption. Even those who've thought deeply about the issue are likely to be surprised and engrossed by her tale."
--Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha
"A joy to read."
"There is love and laughter in Sarah Saffian's Ithaka, which almost overwhelms the heart of man and of woman. When I finished it, I wiped the furtive tear, sighed, smiled, and was glad to have read it."
--Malachy McCourt, author of A Monk Swimming
"[An] unsparingly honest memoir...intriguing insights into the nature of family, of loyalty, of inheritance, of what we're born with and what we're given along the way by those who love us most."
--Francine Prose, Elle
The telephone rings.
"Hello, is Sarah Saffian there?"
"This is Sarah." I guess that it's a magazine editor, calling about work.
"Sarah, my name is Hannah Morgan. I think I'm your birth mother."
The progress of my relationship with Hannah and Adam continued in a two-steps-forward-one-step-back fashion, as once again, I retreated. Summer turned to fall, and I wasn't ready to visit, as I said I might be. I wanted my birth family to remain abstract for a while longer.
I maintained composure, but barely. The tension bubbled under my cool surface, the slightest incident causing it to erupt without warning, in either anger or despair. One morning, when a computer repairman was unable to assist me over the phone, I slammed down the receiver while he was in stammering mid-sentence, and in a single motion, stood up and hurled my chair across the room. Another day, when a woman working in a token booth was brusque with me, I walked home from the Station slowly, as if injured, sobbing the whole way. Waiting for the subway, the train's silent approach would terrify me, two piercing lights in the blackness, but I was fixated on it, tearing my eyes away and stepping back from the platform's edge at the last moment. I frequently stumbled while going down stairs, abruptly forgetting how, my mind lapsing for a few instants.
Chris, a budding photographer and amateur collector, owned several old cameras--Polaroids, thirty-five millimeters--and usually brought one of these along when we explored the city on weekends, poking around in flea markets and used bookstores, walking and talking for hours. A picture from one morning in October depicts me as so utterly alone that I might not have realized Chris was taking it. We are at Bella's, a little coffee shop near his apartment where we regularly ordered challah French toast. There is a plastic bottle of maple syrup in the foreground, and with chin in hand I am gazing searchingly out the window. Even though it is not an extreme close-up, I can discern the inflamed texture of the rash on my face, feel the itchy sting and tightness of it. I have dark circles under eyes that are shrunken, undoubtedly from crying. My look is of quiet desperation, as though I feel imprisoned in my own red bumpy skin, a moment past longing onto defeat, resignation that I won't ever be able to have what I am longing for--security, contentment, relief?
Finally, in November, I wrote back to the Leyders, breezily catching them up on my life, opening up only enough to tell frankly of my conflicting reactions to their photographs. I also selected some of myself at various ages--little pieces of me--to share with them, along with some articles I had written. My criteria for the pictures were that different stages of my life be represented, that my face be clearly visible and that I look attractive. I enclosed my headshot, taken a year earlier, the day after Chris and I first kissed, four months before Hannah's phone call. As I glanced at the picture before sliding it into the envelope, I felt a fleeting pang of jealousy for that glowing, focused person. I also included a profile shot that Chris had taken just before my rash erupted, because it reminded me of a similarly posed one of Hannah at her wedding--the jawline, the hair, the line of the nose. But while she had been smiling blithely at someone out of the frame, I was serious, focused, contemplative--the features were hers, but the expression reminded me more of Adam.
About two weeks later, I received their responses. I shook as I opened the envelope this time. Was I looking for some kind of approval from my birth parents: yes, you are one of us? Or was that exactly what I feared?
Hannah was cautiously enthusiastic:
It was just wonderful to get your letter and pictures and articles.
We only wisher there were more. The consensus here is that you lo look remarkably like us. In all the older pictures you look, to me, very much like Alam, and therefore like Renee, because they look so much alike. Lucy looked at your head shot and said, "Oh my God, she looks exactly like Renee." She thought the three-year-old picture looked like she did; it does, and like I did, too, at that age.
You didn't mention coming to visit in this last letter. Perhaps the exchange of pictures is enough for you to deal with for a while. But we do want you to know that we would love you to visit us anytime--with a friend or relative or support if you like, or alone. We would love you to stay with us, but can make reservations in a nearby motel if that would be more comfortable for you. Whenever you are ready, we are ready to have you in whatever way feels best to you.
After describing their various activities--performances that the girls had participated in, Hannah's holiday pottery sale, a family trip to her parents' house in Florida, plans to cross-country ski at the first snowfall--she wrote, "Come visit us, and we'll show you our world." That one short, simple phrase made me cry a little. She was so kind, and I was so afraid, and my fear of this kind person made me sad. Also, it was true that, as inviting as she was, it was indeed their world, a world that I could only visit. I wasn't automatically a part of it, and yet I was inextricably linked to it. It felt far away from my own world, which made me lonely. Yet I was wary of visiting, scared of what I might find there, or of what I might find in myself if I went there, or that their world would somehow transform my world.
Adam agreed with Hannah's comparisons: "My first reaction was to send you more pictures of the kids similar to the ones of you, to say, 'You see? You see the resemblance?'"
Sarah, seeing your baby pictures made us sad too, of course. You can see in the face of your great-aunt Ruth the joy you brought to your parents and the rest of your family. This is wonderful. We love the glee in your eyes in that photo. So this is part of what we missed, what we gave up.
It was so long ago, such a bad time for us. It's hard to explain our states of mind from fall 68-spring 69 just right in a letter, so this remains something we want very much to talk about with you sometime, by phone if you like, but hopefully in person. Please always feel free to ask us any questions that cross your mind.
I'm so very grateful that it seems to have worked out for the best--that you've come to where you are, ready to go on to wherever you want. This will sound presumptuous, but I'm very proud of you. How could I he proud of a stranger who I never helped or influenced in any way? (What right do I have?) I can't say for sure, but you don't feel like a stranger. You feel like our amazing birth daughter who lives in NYC. We love you very much.
Did I think that they were being presumptuous, in telling me why I looked the way I did, in being proud of me, in loving me? Or did I welcome the genetic link that previously I'd only imagined? I wasn't sure. I felt both.
|2. Intimate Strangers||17|
|5. Fresh- Washed Face||38|
|6. Her Eyes Have Seen the Glory||50|
|7. Two Steps Forward, One Step Back||59|
|8. The Anchor||67|
|10. Running Between the Raindrops||76|
|12. Flake of Sun||99|
|16. Further Parallels||159|
|20. Sea Changes||190|
|22. Finding Faith||208|
|29. The Infinity Within||259|
I remember being seven years old. It was not long after my mother Nancy had died. I was alone in the living room of our old apartment, poking around in the leather-topped desk by the windows that overlooked Lexington Avenue, or "Lex," as my father coolly said to cab drivers. The yellow light in my memory is of late afternoon, early evening, and the bustle-free air suggests a weekend, a Sunday. I pulled open the wooden drawer to find a black datebook with the year "1969" embossed on the front in gold. Curious, and still young enough to think unfailingly of myself first, I looked up my birthday and was proud to see, penciled in my father's rushed but tidy hand on February 23, "Sarah Ruth is born." I continued to flip through the book and was startled to find written sometime in late April, "Sarah Ruth comes home."
I mulled over the two-month discrepancy for several seconds before calling to my father to ask why I had taken so long to come home from the hospital. I perched on the leather hassock, facing him as he sat in the large red armchair, his slender legs crossed with an easy elegance, his brown hair curling with a weekend unruliness to go to his Wall Street office on weekdays, he tended to slick it down with Dep, matching the slickness of a tailor-made suit, a polished Gucci loafer. Even when I was young, he took me seriously, was attentive to my questions and straightforward in his answers. He explained that I had been jaundiced as a newborn, assuring me that this was a common condition, that nothing had been seriously wrong with me, but that I'd had to recover before I could leave the hospital. Then, for the first time, he told me the story of my adoption.
"Mommy and I tried to have you on our own, but we weren't able to" he began. I didn't yet know exactly how babies were made, but I had seen pregnant women before--on the street, mothers of friends. "So we adopted you, which means that someone else gave you to us to be our daughter." He went on to talk about filling out the forms.
"Most people are so desperate for a child, they say they'd be overjoyed with any baby, and don't put down preferences." He smiled then, brown saucer eyes glimmering behind round glasses, and smugly recalled, "But Mommy and I looked at each other and said, `Well, we really want a little girl.'" He said they had also requested that the birth parents be college graduates, or at least in college--as much as my father has always been steadfast in proclaiming me his true daughter, "birth" daughter or no, he must have believed that intelligence is somewhat genetic.
"We were asking for you in particular--you were meant to be with Mommy and me," he said, and I did have the sense of being carefully selected, deliberately ordered, as if I were a Saffian because I met their specifications. The message that I was supremely wanted overrode any potential feelings of being unwanted by my original set of parents. We discussed how I had been chosen and brought home, not how I had been abandoned. Mostly, however, I absorbed this new information the same way that I had taken in my mother's death, turning numb in the face of its enormity--as though the revelation belonged to someone else, or were unfolding outside of reality, in a movie or a book. My feelings seeped out, displaced, haphazard once, when a friend knocked over my Sea Monkeys tank, I burst into a fit of nervous tears, so profoundly did such an accident upset my precariously balanced sense of order.
The impact of this initial conversation about my adoption was gradual. I soon discovered that there was another adopted girl in my class at the Spence School, and that being adopted was regarded as only slightly weirder than having divorced parents, which had become practically as common as having parents who were still together. The fact that my mother had died was deemed exotic, perhaps because it was tragic, while being adopted wasn't necessarily so.
Being a child who spent much of the time in a make-believe world, I responded primarily through fantasy. The news didn't preoccupy my daily life, but whenever I was in the mood, I would let myself drift into imagining who my birth parents might be. As a little girl, I pictured fairy-tale characters--Cinderella and Prince Charming, Snow White and Prince Charming, Rapunzel and Prince Charming. Or modest-living but always very beautiful peasant men and women, ruby-lipped and fair-skinned, frolicking in the glistening green hills of the countryside, fetching water from the winking stream, living life robustly, passionately, purely. As an adolescent, my thoughts turned to the celebrities du jour: Was Marie Osmond my birth mother? Was John Travolta my birth father? As an adult, whenever I passed people on the street with a coloring and build similar to mine, I looked them over closely, or else I catalogued people I knew--teachers, friends of my parents--and wondered.
* * *
With a single phone call on an otherwise ordinary morning, this life of vague curiosity was instantly transformed.
"Oh my God," I whispered, receiver clutched in hand. Tears sprang to my eyes as I made my way to a chair. A pause. My birth mother started to speak, her voice soft and shaky, but forthright. She didn't sound like a New Yorker, an uptight urban dweller--underneath the surface unease, I sensed a core of calmness.
"I'm sorry to startle you by calling on the phone," Hannah hesitantly began, "but I worried that if I sent a letter and got no answer, I wouldn't know if you had gotten the letter and didn't want to write back, or if you hadn't gotten the letter, because I'd written to the wrong person."
"Mm hm," I answered, reduced for a while to one-word or one-sound responses. I was so preoccupied with the fact that we were speaking at all, it was difficult to concentrate on what we were speaking about. To ground myself, I grabbed a scrap of notepaper off my desk and scribbled down key facts while we talked. Hannah told me that she had been twenty-one years old when she gave birth to me at Staten Island Hospital, and that I had weighed only five pounds.
"It was an easy pregnancy and an easy delivery, so chances are you will have easy pregnancies and deliveries, too--that is, if you want to have children"
"Oh, I definitely want to have children," I gushed automatically, surprising myself.
Hannah said that she and my birth father, Adam Leyder, had attended the University of New Hampshire together, and that I had been conceived soon after graduation. So my father had been granted his wish of college-educated birth parents after all, I thought in passing. The link between this live voice and a preference on a form felt oddly arbitrary. What if Marvin and Nancy Saffian hadn't written that in--would I have been placed with someone else? Hannah went on to admit that toward the end of the pregnancy she had begun having second thoughts about giving me up, but believed it was too late to change her mind.
"I have another shock for you," she said. "I'm married to your birth father, and we have three other children." Renee, age fourteen, Lucy, ten, and Samuel, six--my full biological siblings.
"Oh, that's so wonderful," I heard myself saying, "then I can visit you all at once." Their family lived in Hanover, New Hampshire, where Hannah worked as a potter and Adam as a draftsman. She mentioned a store in New York called Moonstruck, which sold her pottery. I tried to absorb this barrage of information. The phone call was creating a rift in me: while one part was interacting, the other part was unaffected, on the outside looking in.
Then Hannah revealed the name she had given me, the name that appeared on my original birth certificate: Susan Morgan. I turned the strange name over in my head as if I were meeting a new person.
"Could you tell me about your family?" she asked next. "I feel like I've been doing all the talking" In the split second before responding, I considered how best to relay the most painful piece of the story. I felt oddly protective of Hannah, already. I had no intention of startling or hurting her, and was loath to contribute to any regrets she had about relinquishing me. At the same time, I also felt protective of my family. I didn't want to give Hannah the wrong impression, that I had grown up neglected in a broken household I had always been cared for, loved without bounds. In answering this woman who had given me life, I had to be gentle, but also direct.
"Well, one important thing you should know," I offered, "is that my mother died when I was six"
Hannah took in a short, sharp breath. "That's one of the things birth mothers always fear, that something happens to the adoptive parents," she said. And then, "Adam's mother died when he was six, too." I was stunned by this unexpected parallel. But I blinked and recovered, going on to explain that my father, Marvin, had remarried when I was ten, and that he and his new wife, Kathy, had had two children together within two years--my brother, Maxwell, and my sister, Rachel Anne. I reassured Hannah that I loved my family dearly: my father had been and continued to be my anchor, and Kathy, whom I considered Mom, had picked up where Nancy left off and mothered me devotedly, with strength and sensitivity.
"What do you look like?" Hannah asked later in the conversation.
"I have clark" brown hair, wavy, about shoulder-length, and green eyes..."
"Yes, I think we were told that you had green eyes. All of us but Sam have green eyes--he has blue eyes. Are you left-handed, by any chance?"
"I'm left-handed, and so are Lucy and Sam!"
"Oh, is that genetic?"
"I think so. You know, your birth father is six-foot-four."
"Six-foot-four? I'm only five-five! What happened?"
"Well, I'm not quite five-three"
"Oh, I see. Thanks a lot!" We shared our first laugh.
I told her that I had known I was adopted for almost as long as I could remember, and that I had always planned to seek out my birth parents. She asked if I had ever expressed this interest to my father and if so, how he had reacted. I said that when I had brought it up to him hypothetically, he had answered that he would be as supportive and informative as he could, but that he didn't want to be personally involved.
Hannah gave me their address and phone number, which I jotted on the notepaper. She said I could call anytime.
"Would it be all right if Adam called you? I feel badly that I'm getting to talk to you without him here."
"Why don't I try to call him instead?" I quickly responded. "Maybe over the weekend."
Hannah asked in parting, "Did you ever think you would pick up the phone and it would be me?"
After pausing to think, I replied simply, "No, because I always assumed I would be the one making the call"
I carefully returned the receiver to its cradle and fixated on it for a beat. Still sitting, I took a deep breath and switched my gaze to a point on the wall for several seconds. The room was very quiet, in that palpable way that comes after there has been loud noise. Unclear of my emotions in this moment--shock? confusion? loss?--I nonetheless felt them physically, tingling through me. After several minutes, not knowing what else to do, I wiped my eyes, pulled on my backpack, and headed out into the cold bright day.
I watched with a mix of envy and amazement the people bustling past--shower-fresh hair still glistening, hands balancing hot paper coffee cups bearing the Greek-lettered declaration "We are happy to serve you"--on their way to work, to appointments, to a normal end of a normal week. Once at the office, I said quick, perfunctory "Good mornings" as I made my way to my desk, where I sat and stared at the articles to be fact-checked, letters turning into hieroglyphics, text blurring into two fuzzy, distant columns before my unfocusing eyes. I finally broke through my trance and called my father, who was home for the day. At the first sound of his voice, all at once I began to cry in earnest. Between sobs I told him about Hannah's phone call, and he said to come right over.
I pleaded "family emergency" to my editor--the emergency being my newfound confusion about the concept of family--and rushed out. As I walked from the subway to my parents' house, I was surprised that their block, the stoop, the tree in front of their brownstone, all looked a bit different, as though I were seeing them for the first time. Through a kitchen window, I saw Dad sitting, waiting. Noticing me, he smiled and got up to let me in. Relief flowed through me as we hugged and I breathed in his warm, fatherly smell of soap and coffee and cigarettes. I sat clown at the table, running my hands along its butcher-block solidity, and gradually began to feel oriented again, in these familiar--familial--surroundings.
My father had a look of concern, but not of surprise. "So, tell me what happened" I took him from the ring of the telephone through the entire conversation in as much detail as I could muster. I was dry-eyed, matter-of-fact, exhausted and wired at once, like the sensation after staying up all night. When I mentioned my birth name as Susan Morgan, he nodded.
"Yes, I remember. `Susan' was one of the few things we knew. That, and that the birth mother was Jewish, being that Louise Wise Services is a Jewish adoption agency." The confirmation quelled my fears that this woman might be an impostor, or simply mistaken.
As we talked, I felt deeply connected to my father, sure that he was my parent, and not these strangers who had unexpectedly burst into my life. Who were they to me? He and I have always shared an especially close bond, but usually it is simply a silent understanding. Discussing my birth parents and the circumstances of my adoption brought our bond to the surface. Perhaps we were even clinging to our connection, because this new element was potentially threatening--it didn't have a place in our world of father and daughter.
After a while, I called Mom, who was at the school where she taught fifth grade. I had been open with my father, but cautiously so, afraid that he would feel defensive about my birth parents' sudden emergence. With my mother I could speak more freely, because even though the Leyders presented a potential threat to her as well, she wasn't the one who had adopted me. Outwardly, she reacted with curiosity and support. That evening, however, while loading the dishwasher after dinner, she confessed that inside, her immediate response had been, "Oh, shit" After hanging up, she had gone into a friend's office to ask, "Why did she have to call Sarah? Why couldn't she have contacted us instead, so at least we could have acted as an intermediary?" But as my mother was admitting this, I felt glad that Hannah had called me and not them. Each of us wanted to soften the blow for the other.
Mom paused at the sink then, hands inactive in the soapy water. "I appreciate a birth mother's desire to know, but I never would have called my child without warning," she mused. "If you two had met by chance it would have been one thing, but when one person has years to prepare and the other receives the call all of a sudden, it's an unfair advantage"
Because I already liked Hannah from our single half-hour-long interaction, I felt the urge to defend her, to understand her reasons for calling me. "What would you have done if Hannah had contacted you instead?" I asked both my parents, bringing the wine glasses to the counter.
"No opinion" my father answered tersely from the half-cleared table. "I may or may not have talked to her. I would have called you first." Then he added, "I certainly wouldn't have started blabbing to someone who said she was my daughter's mother." Mom said that if Hannah had called her or written her a letter, we as a family could have discussed the possibility of pursuing a relationship, whether I wanted to respond, and how.
Over the weekend, which I spent mostly with my family, I resolved not to tell my brother and sister yet that my birth mother had contacted me. They did know that I was adopted and that my adoptive mother, Dad's first wife, had died when I was little. I had told them during the summer before my freshman year at Brown, when Max was nearly eight years old and Rachel six and a half-right around the ages that I myself had been when these facts had become known to me. It was evening, on a family vacation in Spain. I related my story plainly, and then let them respond. Rachel took in the information with a small smile and a nod, and probably went to mull it over by herself in bed later. Max, on the other hand, began to shudder with sobs of betrayal, hurt that this was the truth and we hadn't told him, he hadn't known. My parents had left it up to me to decide when to tell them, agreeing that they weren't old enough to understand until that summer. Now, however, at thirteen and nearly twelve, Max and Rachel were certainly old enough to be told about Hannah. But this time, my hesitation hinged more on my own emotional needs.
I also decided not to call my birth parents back yet. It was too soon--I needed time to digest what had happened and to decide what I wanted to do about it. But in their eagerness, they didn't afford me that space. On Monday evening, again as I was on my way out, the phone rang. "Hey, Sarah, this is Adam Leyder, your birth father." My stomach leapt in panic. As the impact of both phone calls hit me at once, I felt not just startled, but invaded.
We exchanged much of the same information that Hannah and I had--what we looked like, general overviews of our lives. When I admitted my feelings of shock and self-protectiveness, Adam apologized for prompting these reactions and then stuttered, clearly moved, "I, I can't believe I'm talking to you. I'd drive down to New York to meet you on five minutes' notice and leave after five minutes, if that was what you wanted."
I tried to maintain a pleasant composure on the surface, but inside I was churning. "No, please don't do that, not yet," I answered, drumming my fingers on the kitchen table, laughing shrilly with disbelief at the extreme situation I was being thrust into. "I'd like to meet you someday, but right now, I'm overwhelmed even by these phone calls. Why don't we write instead, for the time being." I continued, choosing my words deliberately, trying to let him down easy. "I can't have an emotional upheaval every time the phone rings. It's hard to be taken by surprise like that. Letters would be much more manageable for me, just while we figure all this out. Would that be okay with you?"
He asked whether I felt comfortable sending photographs along with these letters, but I answered that I wasn't even ready for that yet. He said he understood, stressing, "We want to do whatever is best for you, whatever you want," but I thought I could sense his disappointment, his urgency deflated.
After we hung up, I paused long enough for it to dawn on me that this wasn't about a single phone call, an isolated incident, but about an ongoing process. I'd had my fantasy heritage whisked out from under me, like in the old magic trick, only I wasn't left intact as the place setting is supposed to be after the tablecloth has been yanked away. Then, flustered, I rushed out.
At work later in the week, I looked up Louise Wise Services in the phone book. I took down the number on the same piece of notepaper that I had been carrying around with me since Hannah's call, and snuck downstairs to the lobby pay phones where I wouldn't be overheard. I dialed and asked for post-adoption services. Someone with the raspy, singsong voice of a middle-aged Jewish woman answered.
"Hello, this is Millie Burns in post-adoption. How can I help you?"
"Ms. Burns, my name is Sarah Saffian. I was adopted through your agency almost twenty-four years ago." Pause, breath. "And my birth mother just called me out of the blue last Friday."
"Oh, God," she groaned, as though she'd heard this story before. Then, "Do you want to come in and talk about it?"
Immediately I felt touched, cared for. A quiet "uh huh" was all I could manage.
A few days later, I walked into Louise Wise, situated in a townhouse on East Ninety-fourth Street, and was shown into a small sunny room to meet Millie Burns. Even though I couldn't remember having been there before, the place felt strangely familiar, as it was partially responsible for my being Sarah Saffian, for my identity.
"Be glad they didn't come and knock on your front door," Ms. Burns said after I had reiterated my story in greater detail, pulling her chair closer and leaning in toward me to whisper conspiratorially, "I've seen it happen." She agreed that starting by writing letters was a good idea. Then we could progress to exchanging photographs, speaking on the phone again and even visiting, if and when I felt ready. But as one apparently disinclined toward reunions, she emphasized that I didn't owe "these people" anything, that I didn't ever have to contact them if I didn't want to. I left with a sense of solace, and also with a somewhat more sympathetic attitude toward Hannah and Adam, if only in reaction to Ms. Burns' unforgiving stance.
The following week, I received a single, white, business-sized envelope, addressed in neat capital letters--an architect's hand, which at first glance reminded me of my grandfather's. After staring at the return address for several moments, I carefully opened the envelope to find two separate letters, both a couple of pages long, typed on a computer and hand-signed. I took a deep breath and plunged in.