Birth Mother

A new short story

Joseph Epstein

Mail in the building was arriving later and later. No big deal. Francine Doherty’s was chiefly bills and appeals to save elephants, whales, and other endangered species, and a flood of catalogues filled with items — large gas grills, $600 fountain pens, sexy lingerie — for which she had no need. Some days she didn’t even bother to go down to the lobby to collect it. Today, a Saturday afternoon, she did. The usual junk, or so it looked, until, in the elevator returning to her apartment, shuffling through it, she noticed a letter, addressed to her in longhand, with a return address of The Cradle, 2049 Ridge Avenue, Evanston, Il. 60201.

In her apartment, Francine opened the letter, which read:

Dear Ms Doherty,

This is a complicated letter for me to write, and doubtless will be no less complicated for you to read. You, I have recently discovered, are my real, or my so-called birth, mother. I don’t know if you have been curious about me and my fate since you gave birth to me at The Cradle, Home for Unwed Mothers, as it used to be called, on January 11, 1967.

Only at the age of twenty-one was I told that I was adopted, and then my first instinct was to block it out. I was adopted by a couple, Ira and Maureen Greenberg, in comfortable circumstances. My father, who died five years ago, was an accountant, my mother, who died last year, dabbled in interior decorating but mainly stayed home to raise me and her two natural children, which she had after my adoption. (I’m told it happens fairly often that, after adoption, women suddenly are able to have children of their own.) The Greenbergs were never less than good to me: they brought me up Jewish, paid for my education, were excellent grandparents to my own two kids (Jonathan, 9, and Sara, 7), who are also your grandchildren.

I know little about your own circumstances. I don’t know whether you have remarried or have other children of your own. I was able to discover that you were seventeen when I was born, which would make you, if I calculate correctly, sixty-seven today.

I don’t know the degree of your curiosity if any about me, but I did want to let you know that I seem to have landed on my feet, largely through the good luck of having been adopted by loving and generous people. I am an attorney, moderately successful in my practice — I mostly do estate planning — and have what I think a solid marriage, and Jonathan and Sara seem happy kids with good prospects. I thought it might comfort you to know these things.

I should much like to meet with you, at your convenience. If you don’t have the same interest in meeting me, if I represent a really bad time in your life that you have long ago put behind you and do not wish to revisit, I shall of course understand and never bother you again. If, as I hope, you do want to get together, my home phone number is 847-835-1413, my cell 321-542-2472.
The letter was signed, rather formally, Francine thought, “Best wishes, Ronald J. Greenberg.” She set it down on her kitchen counter, and thought about how she might answer it. One alternative of course was not to answer it at all. Would that seem wounding to him, this until now unknown son of hers, who was himself fifty years old? Truth to tell, Francine had, except fitfully, almost when caught unawares, long ago ceased to think about having had a child. The first five years of so after having given birth, she could scarcely think of anything but the fate of this child. She had in fact seen the child once, for it was standard practice in those days to allow an unwed mother to see her child briefly, if only to prevent her fantasising that he might be blind or damaged by other birth defects. All she could remember about him is that the child had dark hair, rather a lot of it for a newborn infant.

The baby’s father, an eighteen-year-old boy named Richie Gehman, also had dark hair, and lots of it. He wore it long, in the Beatles style of the day. Richie was quarterback on the Loyola football team — St Scholastica, run by Benedictine nuns, a few miles away in Rogers Park, where Francine went, was Loyola’s sister school. They met at a dance, went out a couple of times. Ritchie broke Francine into pot, which they used to smoke in the back of his father’s Pontiac Granville. One evening, high on pot, necking in the back of that car, they went what in those days was called “all the way”. Francine remembered the experience as more awkward and embarrassing than passionate or pleasing. They never did it again, but once was enough. Francine missed one period, then a second, and then knew the worst had happened.

As a good Catholic — not good, granted, in every sense — an abortion for her was out of the question. Besides, in those days, abortion meant the horror of back-alley, kitchen-table squalor, not to say serious danger. When Francine told her mother, Margaret Doherty wept. Her father, a plumber by trade, was less angry than heart-broken. Francine was the Dohertys’ only child, and they held high hopes for her. The question now was what to do? One possibility was to take Francine out of school and send her to live with her unmarried Aunt Lucille in Milwaukee. But Francine’s mother preferred that even her sister not know about this tragedy. That is what she called it, “a tragedy”. Instead, four months into her pregnancy, still not obviously showing, at term’s end at St Scholastica, Francine was sent to The Cradle.

 The nearly five months Francine spent at The Cradle, in the company of nuns and other pregnant girls, were not something she cared to recall. Not that she was in any way mistreated, but she lived daily, hourly, with her decisive mistake. Lived with it and regretted it more and more deeply. When her baby arrived, any maternal feelings she might have had about it were drowned in shame and guilt. The birth brought happiness to no one. There was never any question about her keeping the child. Seventeen years old, without even a high-school diploma, without prospects of finding work, she hadn’t any choice, really, but to give the child up for adoption. Francine cannot recall being especially sorry to have done so. If she felt any sentiment about losing this innocent being who had been housed in her body the past nine months, she must have ignored it or blocked it out. All she could think about was departing The Cradle, getting back to the life of a normal teenage girl.

Francine couldn’t return to St Scholastica, that much was clear. She moved, temporarily, to Milwaukee, and there, living with her Aunt Lucille, who never found out about her pregnancy, she finished her last year of high school. (Her mother told her sister Lucille that she was worried about Francine falling in with a bad crowd in Chicago.) She never saw Richie Gehman again. She returned to Chicago when she finished high school, and enrolled in National Teacher’s College, from which she graduated with a teaching certificate that enabled her to get a job teaching English to freshman students at Evanston Township High School. She moved out of her parents’ apartment as soon as she began earning a regular income. Much as she loved them, and they her, she could never be with them without feeling she had let them down.

Francine never married. She never, really, had a serious relationship with another man. Thin, tallish, near-sighted, she wasn’t, she realised, especially attractive to men. By her early thirties she knew that she would spend her life alone. And so she did. Her teaching occupied most of her days. She became passionate about music — she’d had piano lessons as a child — and taught herself a great deal about it. She had Chicago Symphony tickets, went to chamber music concerts summers at Ravinia, on four different occasions travelled to Europe on WFMT, the local classical music station, concert tours.

Francine’s mother died in her early sixties, of colon cancer, her father less than a year later of a heart attack. Jack Doherty, a careful man, had advanced from plumber to plumbing contractor, and at his death left his daughter an inheritance of slightly less than half-a-million dollars. She invested this with a money management firm, and at her retirement from teaching at 65, the sum had grown to nearly a million. She also had her teaching pension. She was without financial worries.

As a teacher, Francine had a reputation, she knew, for strictness. This, she sensed, grew stronger as she grew older. Most of the kids in her classes had what she called “the habits of achievement”, but she didn’t suffer uninterested students gladly, or suffer them at all, really. She gave them low grades if they deserved them. When their parents called to complain, she saw no reason to provide them with sympathy. She knew herself to be fair, and if she were a little unbending in her standards, so be it. She didn’t hold with the psychological approach to learning; she didn’t teach to acquire friends among the children who were her students. In class, she addressed them as Mr and Miss.

Francine got on well enough with her fellow teachers at Evanston. At her retirement, eight other teachers in the ETHS English department took her to dinner at Chef’s Station, a local and quite good restaurant. At that dinner, when asked her if she looked forward to retirement, she replied yes, very much. She would go to more concerts, travel, read some of the good books she had somehow until now not found time to read. She knew some people made a great drama out of losing their work, but felt confident that she would not be one of them. At the dinner’s end, her colleagues presented her with a complete set of the CDs of Franz Schubert, her favourite composer. She told them she was much touched by this. She failed to add that she would probably not see any of them very often, if ever, in future.

Solitude was never a problem for Francine, yet she would sometimes nonetheless wonder how she had become such a loner. Had it to do with her secret about having a child out of wedlock, when she was herself little more than a child? To this day, no one, apart from her parents, knew about that episode in her life. She ruefully thought what an almost minor event, scarcely a misdemeanour, birth out of wedlock seems today, when many unmarried women, their so-called biological clocks running, decide they want a child even though unmarried, and have no hesitation in acting upon the decision. Or when other women, strapped for money, choose to be surrogate mothers — the fee for this extraordinary service, last she heard, was $30,000 — for upper-middle-class couples who could not themselves have children. (She had been, though she had not thought of it before, something of a surrogate mother herself, though without the fee, of course.) Movie stars, athletes, and other celebrities hadn’t the least difficulty advertising what would once have been called their illegitimate kids. Was this loosening up a good thing? Probably, Francine thought; at other times, she wasn’t so sure.

Sometimes in the early morning, gazing into her bathroom mirror, Francine looked to herself older than her sixty-seven years. Someone once said that by the age of forty a woman can retain either her figure or her face, but can’t save both. Slender, she supposed she retained her figure, but her face seemed wrinkled and tired, her skin slightly mottled with age marks, her eyes deep-set and gaunt. Time, she thought, could be a cruel sculptor. She coloured her hair, roughly the same dishwater blonde with which she was born. Putting on her light make-up in the mornings, she would sometimes think she looked the very model of — dreaded word — the spinster.

Francine never felt she had missed out on family life. She never felt the vaunted maternal instinct, and so didn’t feel it denied by her not having children, at least none she raised. She wondered sometimes if her standard in men was too high. Or was it that the few men who met that standard were unlikely to have much interest in her, a school-teacher, bright enough perhaps, but never a great beauty?

Francine had had her work and her music, and the Church. She attended nine o’clock mass every Sunday at St Athanasius, put twenty dollars in the collection plate, went to confession at least twice a month. The acquisition of faith is one of the great mysteries, but she, Francine, had it, had always had. What did they used to say, in the old days when the Catholic Church in America seemed so much stronger than it does now? Give us the child until the age of eight and he or she’s ours for life. Her faith was crucial to Francine. She hoped to avoid a painful or a sloppy dying, but because of her faith, of death itself she had no fears. When her life was over, she knew where she was headed. There was comfort in that.

But what was Francine to do about this letter from a child she had given birth to half a century ago? Her first instinct was to be suspicious. How could she be certain that this Ronald J. Greenberg really was her son and not some con man hoping to do her out of money? Then, not letting her scepticism entirely get the better of her, she called The Cradle to make inquiries.

She found out that Ronald J. Greenberg was in fact her son. A woman at The Cradle who identified herself over the phone only as Jennifer said that when a child born there who wished to find his birth mother, he was asked to write a letter, which, if the letter were not angry or otherwise objectionable, was sent on to the mother, to deal with as she chose. “About Ronald J. Greenberg’s bona fides, there can be no doubt,” said Jennifer. “He is beyond question your son.”

Francine would almost have preferred he wasn’t. Too many complications now set in. She could of course have torn the letter up, and forgotten the entire matter. Her son — she hadn’t until now really thought of him as that, only as “the child” — appeared to have had a good life. He could have no genuine need of her, either financially or emotionally. Was his waiting this long to get in touch with her an expression of anything more than curiosity on his part — understandable curiosity, yes, but little more? Did she really need to get involved with him at this point in her life, or for that matter in his?

Francine found herself seated at her computer, tapping out a letter — not an easy letter to write, as it proved. Straight off there was the problem of salutation. Was she to address him as Dear Ronald, or as Dear Mr. Greenberg? And how was she to sign off? Sincerely? Fondly? Cordially? Should she sign such a letter with both her names, and add the M. for her middle initial, standing for Millicent, as he had added a J. to his? Calling him at any point “son” or referring to herself as his “mother” also felt awkward in the extreme.

Here, after many drafts, is the letter Francine sent:

Dear Mr Greenberg,

Thank you for writing to me. I am pleased to discover that you are well and appear to be thriving. Naturally I have thought about you over the years, and, as you might imagine, with the most complex emotions, which I won’t go into here. If you wish to meet one day for coffee, I should not be opposed. There is a place in Evanston, on the corner of Church and Davis, called Coralie that might be apposite. Late afternoons are best for me. My address is 1547 Oak Street, Evanston 60201, my phone number 874-328-6784.

Best wishes,
Francine M. Doherty
Rereading the letter, Francine thought it sounded a bit cool, if not positively standoffish. Even after she folded it up and addressed the envelope, she wasn’t sure about the phrase “I should not be opposed.” Yet she felt it somehow a mistake to come on all warm and gushing.

On a sunny Friday spring afternoon at 4 p.m. Francine walked into a crowded Coralie coffee shop. She looked around for the middle-aged man who might be her son. Students dominated the place, hovering over their laptops, diddling with their smartphones. She spotted an empty table near the back, and took it, putting her handbag in her lap. Five minutes later, a tallish man, balding, in suit and tie, somewhat heavyset, walked in. Assuming it was he, Francine raised an arm. He saw, nodded, walked over.

“God,” he said, sitting down, “where do we start?” Francine searched his face for any resemblance to her or anyone in her family, and decided that he looked a touch like her father.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I could make the bad joke of saying, ‘Funny, you don’t look Jewish’.”

“That would give me the chance to reply that I guess I’m not, at least by birth, or so I rather late in life discovered.”

“We could start with apologies,” Francine said. “I to you for bringing you into this world and then not raising you. You to me for not attempting to contact me before now.”

“Apologies seem like a bad idea,” he said. “Why don’t I instead say that I’m genuinely pleased to meet you and understand completely why, as a seventeen-year-old kid, you couldn’t possibly raise me. But what are you drinking?”

When he got up to get two coffees, Francine wondered if this meeting was such a hot idea.

“Tell me,” he said, setting down their coffees, “your father, my grandfather, what did he do for a living?”

“He was working-class,” she said, “a plumber, but a fairly successful one, in business for himself.”

“And my grandmother? And do I have any aunts and uncles I don’t know about?”

”My mother was a secretary, and I was an only child. No aunts or uncles still alive, no large cast of cousins. I never married, so you have no half-brothers or sisters. My parents are long dead, so there’s only me.”

“And what about my actual, my birth, father? Who was he? Are you in touch with him. Is he alive?”

“His name is Richard Gehman. He was tall, nice-looking, a good athlete. As far as I know, he has no knowledge of your existence. I never told him I was pregnant. I dropped out of school my senior year, and moved after you were born to Milwaukee. Someone years ago told me he lives in California, though I don’t know where. Are you interesting in finding him, too?”

“I don’t think so,” he said. “I’ve had a good father. I don’t need another.”

“I have no notion of what Richie Gehman did for a living, if he married, or even if he’s still alive.”

“Here’s a slightly awkward question,” he said, “what do you want me to call you?”

“I’ve thought about that. Maybe Francine would be best. And me you?”

“Ron, or Ronnie. My wife calls me Ronnie. Yes, call me Ronnie, please.”

“Ask me any questions you like,” Francine said.

“I made a mental list of things I wanted to ask on the way here, and it seems to have completely left my mind. I guess for now I mainly want to say that I’m very pleased to meet you at last. If you feel like it, someday I’d also like you to meet my wife and kids. You are, you know, a grandmother, also a mother-in-law.”

“That’s a lot to achieve in one day,” Francine said.

They went on for another forty minutes or so, but Francine sensed they were running out of gas.

“I probably should get going,” she said. “It’s nearly five o’clock and I expect you don’t want to get caught in the rush-hour traffic.”

At the door of Coralie, Francine thought of hugging him, perhaps kissing him on the cheek, but instead she merely offered her hand.

“We’ll do this again before too long, I hope,” he said.

“Yes, of course,” Francine said. “Don’t hesitate to call whenever you like.”

When she returned to her apartment, she wondered if he, this long unknown son, must have thought her a cold fish. Who knew, maybe she was a cold fish. The sudden appearance of a son was befuddling, to put it mildly. She was playing here without precedents. Could it be that that oldest of old clichés, holding that “blood is thicker than water,” isn’t actually true, at least when a hiatus of half a century has intervened?

That evening, over a Stouffer’s lasagne dinner eaten before her television set while watching the news over PBS, Francine thought how for some years now she had tried, as best as she could, to block out the incident of her pregnancy and childbirth, and with some success. Soon after she left The Cradle she decided that she didn’t want it to dominate her life. But now, having been with her son, if ever so briefly, she wondered if, despite her best efforts, she hadn’t after all in fact been very successful at doing so.

Before her pregnancy Francine remembered herself as a fairly normal kid, with lots of girlfriends, an interest in gossip, boys, clothes, and the rest. After the pregnancy, the nature of these interests altered radically. For one thing she ceased to have any close friends. She was carrying a secret too dark to share with anyone else. Her pregnancy, her having and then given up a child, was almost too large a burden for a seventeen-year old girl to bear. Today, for the first time, she began to think of her life as BP and AP, Before and After Pregnancy. BP — normality; AP — self-imposed isolation. She had her work at school, she had her music, she had the Church. At work she had colleagues; at home, neighbours; acquaintances she had everywhere. Of close friends, there were none; of family, all were dead. All except this now lost and now rediscovered son.

Francine had thought before of the insignificance of her death. She knew that when she had died no one was likely much to care. She had even thought about the possibility of dying in her apartment, and her body going undiscovered until weeks afterward. She had made a will, giving all her money to St Athanasius Church. She took it for granted that no one would remember her, except in the most fleeting way, after she was gone. She would depart the earth leaving scarcely any trace of her existence.

The more Francine replayed in her mind her meeting with her son, the more she felt that it wouldn’t have hurt to have been more forthcoming with him. She had told him, she recalled, not to hesitate to call her whenever he felt like it. Three weeks had now passed, and no call, which confirmed her in the belief that at their meeting she gave him the impression that she really had no wish to see him again. Another week went by, and she found herself dialling the number he gave her to call him.

“This is Laury Greenberg, his wife,” a voice answered. “I’m so glad you called. Ronnie’s not in at the moment. He’s taken the kids shopping, to the Northbrook Mall. Is there anything I can do?”

“No, thank you,” Francine said. “But please tell your husband I called.”

“While I have you,” Laury Greenberg said, before Francine hung up, “next week is Passover, and I wonder if you would like to join us for our seder? I think Ronnie would like it if you did. And it would give you a chance to meet our children.”

“Yes,” Francine found herself saying, “I would like that. What a kind invitation!”

When she got off the phone, Francine had second thoughts. She wondered what the Greenbergs would tell their children about who she was, or what her relation to them was. She could always call back, and beg off, saying she forgot she had another engagement for that evening. Or she could not show up at all, thereby cutting off all future relations with her son and his family forever. My son. She realised that she hadn’t used the phrase before.

The Greenbergs lived in Deerfield. The houses on their block looked expensive, though not extravagantly so. Her son’s house was a yellow brick, two stories, with a neatly landscaped lawn and a double garage connected to it. Was he wealthy, she wondered. God, what she didn’t know about this Ronald J. Greenberg, including what the initial J. stood for.

Ronnie and his wife answered the door. Laury Greenberg was small, dark haired, with a good smile.

“C’mon in,” she said. “So good to have you here and to meet you at last.”

Her husband led Francine past the foyer into the living room on the left, which was light and bright, with white couches, a few good oriental rugs, a large menorah over the mantle, above which hung an oil painting of a couple, distinctly Jewish looking, who must have been the Greenbergs. In the far corner of the room there was a grand piano atop which were several family photographs in silver frames.

“I’ll call the kids down to meet you,” Laury said.

“Forgive me,” Francine said, “but how do you intend to describe me?”

“I’ve thought about that,” she said. “I’ve already told them that you’re Daddy’s other mother. I trust you have no objections.”

“I hope it doesn’t confuse them,” Francine said.

“It didn’t seem to be a problem,” Ronnie said.

When the children arrived, the boy Jonathan was dark, like his mother, and when Ronnie introduced him to Francine he put out his hand and said, very formally, “I’m pleased to meet you.”

“You can call her grandma, Jon, if you like,” Ronnie said.

“Pleased to meet you, grandma,” the boy said.

And then Francine noticed the little girl, the seven-year-old Sara, who was obviously shy, with thin, long legs, wearing glasses, and looking, as she knew from family albums she’d kept, a dead ringer for Francine when she was a child.

“Pleased to meet you, grandma,” the child said, not quite looking at Francine.

“I’m very pleased to meet you, too, Sara,” Francine said. “I like your dress.”

“Thank you,” she said, still not looking at Francine.

“Sweetie,” her mother said, “play something on the piano for grandma.”

Sara walked over to the piano, sat down, paused, and began playing, with, given her shyness, an oddly confident touch, “Clair de Lune”. For a child of seven the performance was remarkable.

“That was lovely, Sara,” Francine said. Then to her parents she added, “She’s really marvellous.”

“She’s been taking lessons since the age of four,” Laury said. “We’re told she may have the talent, if brought along properly, to be a concert pianist, but Ronnie doesn’t want to push her too hard.”

“That’s so,” Ronnie said. “Lots of disappointed prodigies in the world. Sad cases of ambition thwarted. We’ll see how things go with our girl. But I don’t much like the odds.”

Another couple, Norman and Leslie Abrams, from nearby Northbrook, arrived with two kids of their own, both boys, and soon after everyone repaired to the dining room for the seder.

Ronnie Greenberg led the seder. He did so, Francine thought, with impressive gravity. He told the Exodus story in a way all the children could understand and yet that somehow didn’t seem condescending. He patiently explained the contents and symbolism of the Passover plate: the bitter herbs, the sweet charoset, and the rest. He filled them in on the cup of wine left for Elijah. He explained about why the matzo was unleavened. There was a break in the seriousness of the occasion when Norman Abrams told a joke about a blind Gentile archaeologist who had attended his first seder and when the matzo plate was passed to him ran his hand over the matzo and exclaimed, “Who wrote this nonsense?” Ronnie laughed, but returned to the proceedings by having his son, in Hebrew, ask the four questions about the specialness of the night. While her brother was reciting the questions, Francine felt Sara, beneath the table, touch her hand and interlace her fingers with her own.

At table Francine was seated between Sara and her mother. She noted the child’s attentiveness; she seemed to take in everything. Francine found herself pleased at Ronnie Greenberg’s — she still did not find it easy to think of him as her son — earnestness about his religion, even if it weren’t her own dear Catholicism.

Soon after the end of the meal, while the children were sent off on a treasure hunt to find a missing matzo, Francine announced that she had better be going. Ronnie and Laury Greenberg accompanied her to the door.

“Let’s do this again before too long,” said Laury.

“I second the motion,” said Ronnie.

“That sounds nice,” Francine added. She thought about hugging them, or perhaps exchanging a light kiss on the cheek, but it seemed awkward to do so standing in the doorway. “I would like that,” she added.

Just before she reached her car, Francine heard a child’s voice call out, “Grandma, Grandma.” It was Sara.

“Grandma,” the girl said. “I just wanted to say goodbye, and to say that I’m glad for you.”

“Glad for me? What do you mean, dear?” Francine asked.

“I’m glad because without you my daddy wouldn’t have been born. And if he hadn’t been born, my mother wouldn’t have had Jon and me.”

“Sweetheart,” Francine said, picking the child up in her arms, hugging her tightly, covering her face with kisses, “I’m glad, too, very glad, for all of us.”

Only when Francine got on to the freeway, at the Lake Cook Road exit heading south, did the tears begin to fill her eyes, so much so that she had to get off at the Old Orchard Road exit. She pulled into the parking lot of the Westfield Shopping Centre, and it wasn’t until nearly five minutes later that she gained sufficient control of herself to continue on to her empty apartment. 

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