The things I know for certain include that my mother was wearing a pale blue polyester skirt and blouse set that she had sewn herself. She did that. The sewing. Her skill at the sewing machine was a combination of 1970’s fashion and frugality. She could tame McCall’s and Simplicity patterns into beautiful clothing behind the hum of a presser foot in the quiet hours at her drab green Singer sewing machine.
All the time she was using pinking shears and seam rippers and the other detritus of a hard-core sewing mom.
She was not a professional seamstress, but a hobbyist who could master basic pattern cutting, straight stitches, and hems.
I had a Holly Hobby sewing machine perched on a short wooden table to the right of her sewing desk. Her desk was literally that - a seven-drawer wooden thing whose slender center drawer made a distinctive squeak that my mother could somehow hear from any room in the house. The center drawer housed the precious (to me) pinking shears. I wasn’t allowed to use the pinking shears because I might use them on paper, and they were very expensive to sharpen.
“Those are not meant for paper, Susie,” my mother would scold, “You mustn’t use the pinking shears.”
But they made such pretty edges. But the drawer also held the key that opened the breezeway door connecting my grandmother’s house and ours. My grandmother delighted in my sneaking in that way; my mother thought it was rude. So when I sought undetected respite at grandma’s, I had to open that sewing drawer very, very slowly. I knew how to open that door quietly. When I was seven...
While my mother made entire outfits for herself in the polyesters and synthetic wools of the early 1970s, I wished for the ability to sew, on my Holly Hobby, fake fur coats for my Barbies and lavish gowns for their fetes. Alas, the tiny needle on the Holly Hobby was not meant for plunging through dense faux-fur fabric, and I was better at sewing simple blankets with zig-zag edges that resembled the edges pinking shears could make. My mother created overalls for me with snazzy brass buckles, wrap-around skirts in a variety of kitschy prints and a gallery of gauchos. For herself, she made simple, elegant, lovely dresses, like the pale blue polyester she wore that Christmas.
Things I don’t know for certain are which holiday it was, and just why my cousin Mindy got me to do what I did, or why I allowed her to place any seeds of uncertainty in my head about being adopted. My parents kept no secrets from me about being adopted. With me, they treated it as naturally as if every child were adopted. They attempted to make it part of natural conversation so as to make me comfortable with it. I don’t think that any child is comfortable with adoption, though. Every child is suspicious and curious. At least one who is seven...
It had to be a holiday, because my cousins from New Jersey did not visit merely to be social. They visited out of obligation. They stayed in the next town over, with my paternal grandparents; they only graced our house if my mother was duty-bound to host that particular holiday meal. I do not know how the designations were handed out, but I suspect it was a simple rotational schedule.
At each such visit, there was a lavish dinner served at our enormous dining room table. A heavy, dark wood with a high-shine finish, courtesy of Lemon Pledge. No one could see the finish on the table as it wore a lacy, patterned tablecloth that screamed of special occasions and the hope of no spilt wine or coffee. The matching hutch, dry sink, and chairs for more than a dozen bore the high gloss sheen that my mother achieved with weekly dustings and a spritz of lemony aerosol. The hutch displayed Blue Willow dishes. Johnson Brothers. From England. The actual china for eating was a delicate bone china style with tiny pink roses and a silver trim around the perimeter. I always thought those dishes were delicate, fragile, as if the tiniest tap might set shards flying and be the reason for a child’s immediate banishment.
The Blue Willow dishes that sat on the hutch were special to my mom. She and my dad picked out each dish together, or bought them as gifts for each other. The blue of the dishes was several shades darker than my mom’s dress. Blue Willow is an intricate storyline that my mother explained to me, but that I have long since forgotten. Something about a Chinese man, his daughters, a river they had to cross? I was enthralled by that story. When I was seven...
My mother sat at the foot of the table, roughly eight feet away from my father who sat at the head of the giant oval. Remnants of dinner remained scattered about. Coffee cups, silverware askew, serving pieces scraped of their contents, bearing only the leftover sludge of a meal getting cold and useless where it sat. A cascade of grey smoke rose from her hand, which was holding a Merit Ultra cigarette.
My brother Brian and my cousin Missy had commandeered the television in the living room, and in typical fashion had banned anyone younger than their current age. Later, they would hole up in my brother’s room to have a conversation of great importance, to which we the younger cousins would not be privy. My older brother was, and still is, selfish that way, but somehow he and Missy got along fine when they needed to. Years later, both in their late twenties, they would share a rental house in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, and yet they would barely speak to each other by the end of the lease. But as kids, they got along fine. Probably something about not seeing each other for more than five or six days a year, those days not consecutive.
Mindy and I were thus cloistered in my bedroom, not wanting to dally at the dinner table for the dull grownup conversation, but also prohibited from being around the big kids. I was no more than first or second grade, because in the summer between second and third grade, we moved up the street into our “big” house, where I would live through high school. The big house was only roughly half a block away from this house, but to move there felt like a huge upheaval. I would lose the breezeway access to my grandmother, for one. And the Holly Hobby sewing machine would get lost in the move. I loved that sewing machine. When I was seven...
Mindy and I had little in common, so we muddled through. Her parents were wealthy, so I liked her clothes. She was one or two sizes bigger than me, so I got her hand-me-downs. Our mothers thought I loved getting them, but I didn’t. They made me feel like an afterthought. She had thick brown hair which contrasted my thin, mousy locks. Envy. She played softball in a beautiful suburban development that had its own lake. My rural town didn’t have enough kids to field gender-specific teams, so I feebly played for the Pee-Wee boys’ little league team. Envy. At least she was sometimes nice to me at these mandatory gatherings. It’s not all that hard for kids to play together. Especially when you are seven...
We were listening to my Glen Campbell record, a 45 RPM of Rhinestone Cowboy, or maybe Andy Gibb, singing along to “Love is Thicker than Water” and its whiny guitar. Perched on my matching twin beds with aqua green coverlets, classic 1977, talking about serious things, declaring how awful it was that my mother wouldn’t allow us to paint our own nails. In brilliant red. In the living room. On the shag carpeting. I’m sure I bored her quickly.
We got around to the inevitable. To Mindy saying, “Is it true that you are adopted?”
To which I replied,
without much fanfare. I knew I was adopted. It was no secret. My parents had told me this before, many times. It was a common thing in our house. No news flash here. Somehow, though. she had cause to question the truth of it. Maybe I tried to shove her off with a shrug to try to deflect the topic.
Or maybe I mumbled, “I don’t know…”
Occasionally I did that, trying to not have “that” conversation yet again. Sometimes, at that age, I wasn’t even sure of it myself. At age seven, I had had that chat so many times with so many different inquisitors that it was uncanny.
What was familiar to me was still uncharted territory for many other seven year olds. I couldn’t have realized, of course, that my custody status was the conversation of many adults in the presence of many kids my age, and that those adults didn’t figure that those children were listening at all. But they were. And those children were bound to bring that topic up with me, where they thought they assumed could get all the real dirt. Those are things you do. When you are seven...
She probed a little harder, as though somehow this couldn’t be true.
“Are you sure? Like, did your parents actually tell you, or did Brian just say that?”
I fiddled with a Barbie dress, trying to recall which conversations were which. Brian was often terribly mean to me, after all, in the way that big brothers are to little sisters. On TV shows, characters told their real siblings they were adopted all the time, just out of spite, and it turned out not to be true, all revealed to the sounds of a laugh track. Did I confirm these things? I think so, and I know there were conversations from time to time, but Mindy seemed to crave some sort of attestation from a higher authority than her scrawny cousin. She yearned for substance. She wanted a bona fide adult to provide testimony.
She continued, “You should go downstairs and make your mom tell you, because she can’t deny it in front of everyone if it’s really true.”
I pondered this. It couldn’t hurt.
I turned it over in my brain. Sometimes, usually when I was in the bath at night, and my dad was coming in to lift me up out of the tub and wrap me in a warm, fluffy wonderful towel - (this was one of my favorite acts of his strength and, to me, the very essence of his fatherhood) - I had these fleeting thoughts that maybe, just maybe, he was merely a very nice gentleman who decided to take me in. He wasn’t an actual dad. I mean, since I wasn’t his real kid, he was just a generous dude who came along one day and offered to take care of this little girl who didn’t have anyone else who was willing to take care of her, so he stepped up to the plate. Sort of like how there was no one else in the house who was strong enough to pick me up and lift me out of the tub, so if he didn’t come along to lift me, I’d have to stand up on my own. I was capable of the standing, but the lifting was so much nicer. Being adopted was kind of like that. Much nicer than going it on my own, but if I had to do it, I could have done it. Even thinking he was the most generous man on earth, I occasionally wondered if his generosity would dry up the way my skin dried and that one day he would get tired of lifting me out of that tub, or what would happen when I was a big girl, too big for lifting, would I have to go back? Would I be all alone because I wasn’t really theirs? My mind ran away with me, and Mindy’s questioning spun in my head.
Maybe I should ask, just in case. This is logic. When you are seven...
Ronald Reagan’s “Doveryai, no proveryai - trust but verify” would not come into common parlance until 1985, but two first graders were employing this diplomatic tactic in a rural dining room some five-plus years earlier.
I tentatively approached the top of the staircase, and by peering around the corner, I could see just a sliver of the dining room, with its low chandelier embraced by gravid tendrils of cigarette smoke, wrapping it like lazy cirrus clouds. The conversation at the table was pleasant but not boisterous. Everyone was getting along fine. My extended family did not tend toward political disagreement or drunken outburst at holiday dinners.
Mindy nudged me forward. Egged me to descend. She was eager to hear the reply.
I looked down at my black patent-leather buckle shoes. I don’t know why I didn’t just go back upstairs and get my Barbie dolls or a coloring book. This answer wasn’t for me. It was for a dramatic show of some sort. I felt hot around my neck, itchy in my dress, but I also felt as though there was a mighty revelation about to finally be unearthed. Maybe Mindy was wrong, and it was I who would be vindicated. Perhaps in this glorious moment my mother would say,
“No, silly girl, of course you are not adopted! What on earth would give you such an idea?”
Then I could turn to everyone and shout, “Ha! I am one of you! I am every bit as good as all of you and I have secretly known it all along! I am NOT a guest in this family! I Do fit!”
And then I could run up to my room and really feel like it was my room and all of the hand-sewn clothing would all of a sudden feel very special, as though it was perfectly designed for me, and not cheaply made because we were not rich, and the hand-me down clothes could be cast aside and no longer feel second-best, and all of my anxieties that one day my father would stop being generous out of the goodness of his heart would melt away because I would know that I had a place here forever. Of course, I knew none of this was true. But, When you are seven...
So, looking at those black patent-leather shoes, I counted one by one as my little feet descended the steps through the smoky murk and down into the dining room, and my mother looked up from her spot, and my great Aunt Louise, a soft and kind soul who never had any children of her own, tilted her head and said, in her gentle, Virginia accent, “well heeeyyyy, sugah,” and her bluish hair glinted a little in the candlelight, and I looked back at Mindy, who was clinging onto the wrought-iron railing of the staircase, eagerly waiting for me to pop the question, her eyes round with encouragement, her head nodding my way in that way that says, ‘go ahead, do it like we planned it!’
I cautiously approached my mom, and a few of the grownups stopped what they were talking about in order to listen to what the kid wanted, but mostly the others kept doing what they were doing. Mindy stayed in her appointed position, half seen and half unseen at her perch. I stumbled a little in what I was trying to say, and detected my mother’s mildly growing impatience. The evening had reached that point where it was expected that the children would be seen and not heard, and I was interrupting a conversation, that much was clear. She was expecting me to pester her to do something that she would have to deny, and she was bracing for the arguments to follow. Because I was seven...
I swallowed hard, and steeled my shoulders.
“Umm, am I adopted?”
In my recollection, the room fell silent, but in reality I think only a couple of people even noticed. Still, the interruption was enough to startle my mother just a bit. She tried to hide it, but I saw the corners of her mouth turn down distinctively. Her coral lipstick, faded in the center, was now only bright at the edges. She searched full-tilt for the proper way to be both dismissive and compassionate; it eluded her.
I thought I caught a quick glance toward my father, but he was eight feet away, stationed at the opposite end of that long, dense table, his thick leg crossed over the other at the knee, a pipe between his teeth, holding court with my uncle Butch, oblivious to the napalm of words I had just sprayed all over her end of the table. I swear I heard my Aunt Carol, Mindy’s mother, gasp just a little, then giggle at the absurdity. Aunt Carol, my father’s sister, was an unkind harpy of a woman even on her best of days, and surely I had just given her what would be fodder for one more unkind gesture, and my mother knew it. Carol would flap her gums later on, gossiping about Susie’s stupid question, blabbering about the dumbness of my dinner table stupidity, how Jim and Bettie (my mother and father) were mishandling information about my adoption. It must have felt awful, in that moment, in my mother’s stomach. Despite this, she composed herself enough to give me an answer.
“Of course you are.”
It was that blunt. Hard-edged, but not in a brutal sort of way, just in my mother’s own sort of commonsensical, efficient manner. She had not, in that moment, attached any of the viscera to the question that I had, and why should she? In that moment, I was asking a question that was silly in its simplicity.
I was seven…
I accepted this answer and her dismissiveness, feeling that I had disturbed her tranquility, knowing that I had upended something, but not knowing quite what. This out-of-placeness is common for me. It is a sensation that I have carried with me throughout all stages of life, an awkwardness akin to girls who get very tall very early in their pubescence, or girls who have freckles covering much of their skin - I feel noticeable for the wrong reasons, as though I’m supposed to disappear, but I just can’t, quite. I’ve done something wrong, but not horrible, and I cannot correct it.
Because I am seven...
Any hope that I would leave the room feeling triumphant vanished, and instead I felt small and weak. Featherbrained, even. Instead, Mindy looked the triumphant one, like this information gave her an additional upper hand. I sensed in my gut that I hurt my mother’s feelings. The whole plan had unraveled and I couldn’t figure out why. I tried to repair it somehow, so I ran the three or four paces over to my mom to hug her before retreating upstairs to play.
It was a totally unexpected maneuver.
She didn’t have time to move her hand.
I rammed my tiny body right into the cigarette wedged between her forefinger and middle finger, and the long, hot ash dropped onto the center of her blue polyester dress.
It melted a hole into the center of her dress, right there in front of a dining room of relatives. The dress she had made for herself, next to my Holly Hobby sewing machine. Simple, elegant polyester does not burn; it melts. It can’t be fixed. You cannot tidy it up the way you can some fabrics like faux fur or kitschy prints, even if you are a very experienced seamstress. It doesn’t shatter like a dish, so it cannot be glued together when it shatters; it just melts away, because polyester is basically 1970s plastic fabric.
It melts a hole.
A spreading, widening, irreparable hole.
And if you are my mother, who has been recently overwhelmed by your seven year old, you cannot hide your shock, your disappointment, and your general anger at the whole thing. You brush your child away, partly in fear and partly in frustration, and all of those emotions blend and widen like the melting hole. And then the table really does fall silent, only most of the adults don’t know what the hell just happened.
Then all of that commotion swirled together, and I shouted, “I’m sorry!” and I started to cry, because at that age I cried a lot at everything, but I cried then, too, because I knew I had hurt her feelings, and I knew there was some other layer to all of this, but I didn’t know what it was, and I wouldn’t know it for a whole lot of years to come, but I could just tell that I wasn’t triumphant that day, and her dress that was a little lighter than the Blue Willow was ruined and my Holly Hobby couldn’t fix anything, and it wasn’t quite right.
I knew that I wasn’t quite right.
I was just seven...
About the Author: Susan Kelley is an adopted kid who grew up to like being adopted, and found her place in the world next to her dog, Atticus on the South Side of Pittsburgh. She doesn't sew, and seven is not her lucky number. This essay is part of a collection that will one day grow up to be a book. Others have been published in great lit mags recently like SLAB. She is the mom of three amazing kids.