Like cowboys turning in the saddle to look at where they came from, Searching for the Castle documents the backtrail of author Barbara Leigh Ohrstrom's adoption. It begins with her urgency as an eighteen-year-old woman initiating her search for her birth parents. Her recollection includes court petitions, letters, Division of Social Service documents, and other original documents usually buried behind the lock and key of the law.
In this memoir, she narrates the unearthing of her history and that of her family. Some of her discoveries are filled with pain, while others are joyful, including locating sisters, another brother, and eventually nieces and a nephew. A story of how one woman comes to terms with her identity, Searching for the Castle tells of real people doing the best they can to live and love in the often heartbreaking circumstances of life.
As Ohrstrom shares her journey to find her birth parents, she reveals her emotions throughout the process, discovering that her identity is self-created, but also that her being is governed, in part, by her ancestors and family lines. Searching for the Castle communicates the message that love creates families and that the family to which Ohrstrom belonged in foster care gave her a mother, father, and family filled with love and decency.
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Searching for the CASTLE
Backtrail of an Adoption
By Barbara Leigh Ohrstrom
iUniverse LLCCopyright © 2013 Barbara Leigh Ohrstrom
All rights reserved.
Beginning the Search
24 West Twelfth Street
New York, NY
It was dark and late, and I was awake. I stared at the light from the streetlamp coming through the window and glimmering across the wooden, polished floor of the therapeutic community where I lived. An hour passed and then another hour. I rose and walked through the large building in the dark to my drafting desk, where I worked during the day delivering packages, creating graphics, and running the old Gestetner printing press. I turned on a single overhead light and placed a sheet of white paper in front of me.
If only, I thought, my memory would focus. The blank piece of paper became a fuzzy projection screen, like the kind in my earth science class in my high school, from which I had graduated eighteen months earlier.
I remembered getting adopted when I was five. My first time riding a subway left me dizzy and elated as I had spun myself around on the silver poles in the middle of the car. We entered a majestic building in Boston, and I cut my knee when I had fallen on an escalator. The judge had seemed otherworldly as he sat atop a dais, encased in a wooden stand so only his black-robed chest and shoulders showed. He called me all the way up to his dais and asked me to spell my middle name for him. In the car, on the way back to New Hampshire, I asked Marie, my new adoptive mother, what being adopted meant. "It means I am your mother," she said.
And then, confused, I asked, "Does everyone have more than one mommy?" She hadn't answered me, but Al, my new father, said none of us—me, my sister, or my twin brother—should say the word adoption ever again.
I remembered Sue talked about our rocking chairs from when we were little kids, but I didn't remember the chairs. My adoptive parents said they didn't know anything about rocking chairs. Once, I found Sue wandering in the basement, and I asked what she was doing. Hopeless, she had answered, "Looking for our rocking chairs."
I remembered Sue also owned a book she liked a lot. Here my memory wobbled, and I closed my eyes in an effort to see: a horse on the cover. I tried to see what Sue was doing with the book, and the memory, sharp and sudden, came. Reading the book, she and I had sat on the bed. Al had appeared, wanting to know where we got the book. Sue handed it to him, and he glanced at the inside cover, clenched his jaw, and took the book away.
I snapped open my eyes—the inside cover. I closed my eyes again, straining to make the image of the inside cover appear, but could see nothing except letters that would not completely form. I could not remember most of my life up to age five; I had thought that was normal until some Odyssey House kids told me they remembered events from when they were two. I lit a cigarette. Those letters might be important, and my twin brother, Bill, might know what they were. I could sleep now and returned upstairs to my bedroom.
The next morning, I went to Sixth Street Odyssey House and found my twin, Bill. "Bill, I have to talk to you." I shepherded him inside an empty conference room, shut the door, and locked it. "Listen," I said. "Last night, I remembered that book, the one Sue had when we got taken away from the Powers. It had a picture of a horse on the front, remember?"
"Yeah, it was Mr. Ed, the Talking Horse."
"Remember Dad got mad and took the book away from her?"
Bill looked at me like I'd lost my mind.
"Dad took it away for a reason, right? He looked at the inside cover, saw something in there, and it made him mad." I paused. "I think it was a name."
"So what was so special about a name?"
"Bill, what was the name? Do you remember the name?"
"Yeah, course I do. Orstom, or something like that."
"That's it, Bill, that's it."
"That's our name!"
"No, that's our foster mother's name."
"No, Bill, listen. Mom wrote that sentimental letter to Confidential Chat (similar to Dear Abby), right? And our foster mother figured out she was writing about us and wrote to Confidential Chat and had Confidential Chat contact Mom. Our foster parents' last name was Power, not Orstom or whatever it is."
"My God," he said.
"That's what I'm telling you, Bill. You remembered our real last name."
"My God," he repeated.
I left him and tramped back to Twelfth Street Odyssey House, where I lived. Who had written the name inside the book? Could it be my mother's actual handwriting? Did the book still exist?
The next day, I wrote a letter to my adoptive mother and pleaded with her to break into my adoptive father's filing cabinet and get the adoption records. I told her that although I knew my adoptive father wouldn't want her to help me, I had to have this information. As I licked the envelope, I prayed she would understand why I needed the information; I prayed she would help me.
Meanwhile, Bill persuaded a Massachusetts phone operator to look through every listing in Massachusetts and got the address and telephone number of the Powers, our foster parents. I was too afraid to call the Powers after all these years, so I wrote another letter, this time to my foster mother.
I waited. December slid into January. I incessantly bugged Jack, the guy who manned the front reception desk of Odyssey House. "Is the mail here yet? Any mail for me today?"
"Relax!" he growled. "I'll tell ya, ya got any mail!" One day he handed me a slim manila envelope. "Hope that's what you want," he said.
I didn't answer him. The package was from my adoptive mother. I ripped it open with shaking hands.
The first page was a letter from Ms. Frost, a social worker I remembered who had worn Coke-bottle glasses. The letter congratulated Al and Marie and confirmed the court date for the adoption. I scanned it impatiently and put it down. The second page was a letter from the Department of Welfare, stating that Al and Marie's home had been accepted "for the placement of an adopted child or children." The third page, a form, stated that according to the Division of Child Guardianship, I had, indeed, been born. Ms. Frost signed it on July 29, 1965, eight days before my fifth birthday.
The fourth page, another letter from Ms. Frost dated July 9, 1965, was rather chatty, discussing our vaccinations, the status of our education (none), and pictures taken of us with Santa Claus when we lived with our foster parents. She said we were of "Portuguese and English ancestry."
I slowly turned over the last page and stared. It was the first time I had seen my fake birth certificate. It named me Barbara Malfide, born August 6, 1960. It called Marie my birth mother and Al my birth father. It claimed I was Portuguese and English. Aside from my date of birth, it stated one true fact: I am a twin.
Dated July 22, 1966, nearly six years after I was born, the oath on the bottom read: "I, Tony Bachieri, depose and say that I hold the office of Town Clerk of the Town of Wareham, County Plymouth and Commonwealth of Massachusetts; that the records of Births, Marriages and Deaths required by law to be kept in said Town are in my custody, and the above is a true extract from the records of Births in said Town, as certified by me."
Where were my parents' names? Where were my footprints and thumbprints? Where were my weight, height, and time of birth? Where was my name? According to this birth certificate, I came from Marie's womb nearly six years before I actually met her. Where was my real birth certificate?
I threw the papers down and exploded out the door. I ran down Twelfth Street, turned onto Sixth Avenue, and ran up Fourteenth Street, past the hookers and hustlers, the watch sellers and office workers. I jumped over fire hydrants and pushed people aside, leaving behind a trail of shocked and angry pedestrians. I ran through Union Park, up Fifteenth Street, and veered toward Eighteenth Street. I ran until I thought my lungs would burst; I ran until I felt like vomiting. I stopped and collapsed on a bench next to a dealer, bracing myself with my hands gripping my thighs, gasping for air.
Even the drug dealer had a family history, ancestors. It seemed everyone had curios from Europe, sepia photographs of ancestors, fathers, and/or mothers they looked like, and stories of when they were babies. Daughters had taken after great aunts on the mother's side of the family, or sons acted like grandfathers on the father's side of the family. Someone's chin looked exactly like the chin of a long-dead ancestor in a stained and battered photo. Even Christianity and Judaism told us all we came from Adam and Eve.
I wanted to know who I came from and why my mother gave me, Bill, and Sue away. As a child, I had daydreamed my mother and father had crashed their car or died in a falling airplane. I had dreamed my mother took us to gardens, museums, and symphonies and fantasized my father beat Al because Al had hurt me so badly. I had thought of them every single day. What tore apart our family? Why had Al locked in his steel file cabinet these worthless, lying papers? Why did the Commonwealth of Massachusetts lie?
It made no sense to me. I had no idea what the commonwealth had buried, but I knew I'd find out. Let the state lie. Let Al, Marie—let everybody—lie. I would find what I was looking for if I had to rip the country apart, brick by brick. I looked at the dealer.
He said, "Tough day, huh, kid?"
I smiled a little. "Yeah." I got up and walked home.
After looking at the papers again, an idea gripped me. The papers said I was born in Wareham, Massachusetts. Since I was born in 1960 but not adopted until 1966, the hospital records might still be on file. Maybe the commonwealth, in its zeal to "protect me" from my past, had locked the windows and doors, but left the cellar open. What if no one had destroyed the hospital records of my birth? I called directory assistance and found a single hospital in Wareham, Tobey Hospital. I decided to go there as soon as possible and see if the hospital had kept the birth records for a Barbara Orstom.
February 21, 1979
30 Winnacunnet Road
Hampton, New Hampshire
Today, the snow crunched under the tires of my friend Tom's car, and the sun glancing off the snow blinded me as we made our way to Tobey Hospital. Tom's status as a war veteran qualified him beyond any degree he had earned: he knew war, chaos, and suffering, circumstances familiar in my life. We had spent long hours talking, or rather, I had talked about the fire within me to find my birth parents, to find a family, and he had listened.
Tom had a craggily handsome face. His jaw was square, hair curly, eyes bluish gray, with a deeper shadow within them. He always smelled clean—not soapy clean, but healthy clean, like a man who spent every spare moment outdoors swimming in pristine lakes or climbing snowy mountains. Despite what he must have seen in combat, he was cheerful, optimistic, and kind. He could not tolerate the violence "bad" kids like me told him about; his eyes would fill with compassion and rage.
That's why I loved him. He had done his time in his war zone. As I thought about him, our long drive to Wareham passed slowly. Anxious thoughts gripped me, so many events could go awry. I could have the wrong name. The clerk could deny me my records. The records might not exist. Toward Wareham, I blustered, hiding my fear. "If they don't gimme the records, I'm gonna take 'em anyway. I'll go right over the counter and punch the clerk in the head. I'll go through all those file cabinets 'til I find 'em."
Tom said nothing.
I lapsed back into silence.
"Tom, I won't break any laws," I said after a lengthy pause.
"They just wouldn't have the records and then not give them to me, would they?"
"I don't know. Maybe."
When we pulled into Wareham, I said, "Wait. Let's go to the beach."
He pulled into the parking lot abutting the tiny town beach. I got out and walked by the water. I had stood on this same beach three days before I ran away to Odyssey House because I wanted to see the town in which I was born. Now I wanted the ocean to calm me and stop my hands from shaking when I walked into the hospital and asked for my records.
I climbed into the car. "Okay, let's do it."
Although Tobey Hospital was built on top of a hill, it was still unimposing; it reminded me of my grammar school. Few cars were parked on the gray pavement with the faded lines. No one, I hoped, was going to be rigid or rule-conscious here.
I got out of the car and walked through the clean glass doors. The information clerk directed me to the records department around the corner. Good, I thought, an easy exit. Tom walked behind me, and we entered the records department. Looking bored, a young man stood behind the counter. I told him I wanted my birth records.
"Spell your last name, please."
"Just a moment." He disappeared.
The slowest ten minutes of my life drifted by, marked by the huge Seth Thomas clock on the yellow wall. My sister Sue worked at a Seth Thomas factory, I thought idly, and the young man returned.
I felt certain he had not found the records. Worse, he had them and would not give them to me. But he had papers in his hand, and he walked past me and sat at a desk in the room. I followed him and reached for the records, willing my left hand not to shake. He pulled the papers away from me.
"I need you to sign this release and consent form," he said.
I'll sign anything, I thought. Just give me the records. I signed quickly and pushed the paper at him. He glanced at the signature. "I need your maiden name," he said.
I did not know my name. I tried to see the papers in his hand and read my name upside down, but I could only see enough to know my version of my name had two missing letters, so I signed Barbara Orstom and placed the pen exactly over my signature. I again reached out. He again held the papers back.
"That'll be $1.40 for the copying fees," he said.
I fumbled in my pocket for the money and heard Tom's steady, reassuring voice behind me.
"Here it is." Tom stretched over my shoulder and handed the man the money.
I reached for my records a third time, and the man handed them to me.
I mumbled, "Thank you," and forced my legs to walk, not run. I waited for the arresting hand to clamp onto my shoulder, spin me around, and take the records away from me. It never came. Tom and I pushed through those clean, glass doors. I had my identity in my hands.
I ran through the parking lot and leaped in the air, joy bursting through every cell in my body. It was the happiest moment of my life.
Tom grinned laconically and sauntered over to the car.
"Come on, Tom, let's get the hell out of here!"
When we sat in the car with the doors locked, I looked at the three pages printed from microfiche.
The first fact I saw was the spelling of my name—O-h-r-s-t-r-o-m, not Orstom. My full name is Barbara Leigh Ohrstrom. I weighed five pounds and eleven ounces" at birth and measured eighteen inches long. I was born at 1:04 p.m. on August 6, 1960. (No wonder I hated getting up in the morning!)
My mother's name is Joan A. Ohrstrom; her given name was Morris, and she was thirty-three years old that day in 1960. She was employed as a housewife. My father's name is William F. Ohrstrom, and he was thirty years old in 1960. They were married. That was a surprise; I had been given the impression adoptees' mothers, poor teenagers, never married. My father worked as a bartender. They lived on Williams Avenue, Wareham, Massachusetts. The next page listed medical stuff I didn't understand about shots and eyedrops of silver nitrate. A Dr. Nye had delivered Bill and me. The next page repeated a lot of information and added some more details. My father had been born in Worcester, Massachusetts, and my mother in Boston, and he had been employed at the Surrey Room in Wareham, Massachusetts.
I looked out the car window. Tom had parked at the little beach again to let me read everything. "Tom, let's go over to this Williams Avenue and check out the house."
We found it easily enough, and Tom stopped across the street. I got out of the car and figured the owner was away because no cars sat in the driveway. I peered in the windows and felt like a thief stealing glimpses into someone else's life to try to find a piece of my own. Sun lit the house, and the hardwood floors gleamed with polish. I imagined I crawled across those floors sixteen years earlier.
We returned to Hampton. When we got to Hampton, I didn't talk much about what I'd found; it felt too precious. I wanted to first treasure it alone. On the train back to New York the next day, I wrote my name in a sketch pad—big letters, small, red ink, blue, green, horizontal, vertical. I felt the ecstasy lovers feel, the impulse to laugh and smile to myself. Instead of shouting my new lover's name to the world, I wanted to shout my own.
The train pulled into Penn Station. I felt tired, yet my mind wouldn't stop churning. My far-fetched notion had worked. Now all I had to do was find my parents. Maybe I should move back to New Hampshire; places I might need to go would be closer.
I couldn't wait to tell Bill all that had happened at the hospital, so I stopped at Sixth Street Odyssey House to tell him. (At that time, Odyssey House, a therapeutic treatment program for adults and adolescents, had facilities in four states, including four in New York City.) Bill was flabbergasted, then elated. He hadn't believed I could pull it off, but now he didn't think finding our parents would be hard. He told me he would start calling directory assistance and bugging them again.
Excerpted from Searching for the CASTLE by Barbara Leigh Ohrstrom. Copyright © 2013 Barbara Leigh Ohrstrom. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Beginning the Search, 1,
Chapter 2 Agony of Victory, 33,
Chapter 3 Finding the Strength to Stand, 65,
Chapter 4 Paperwork and Hearsay: My Mother's and Father's Stories, 87,
Chapter 5 Back to the Beginning, 123,