My Stolen IDentity
I stare at the face in the bathroom mirror. The same face I have seen for more than 50 years, and I ask myself the same question, “Who am I?” As I log memories, I try to piece together the hidden story. The story no one ever told, but many knew. Just about all of the people who had any knowledge about my origins are gone now, having faithfully kept their silence. There have been so many secrets...so many lies. I would go for many years at a time not thinking about any of this; then I would do, or say something that would bring it all back to conscious thought in a flash. I was different, very different, and those around me always made me painfully aware of that fact. Not so much by what they said but how they acted, or reacted around me. As I grew older, I learned to bury a lot of things about myself in order to be more accepted. But now, even at this age, the effort is becoming futile as things are beginning to come to the surface, and I can’t seem to stop them. Nor do I want to. I know this all sounds like familiar plots in so many mystery and suspense novels by well-known authors. The difference is, it actually happened. This time it is all true.
My earliest recollection is a dream actually; one that I have had many, many times. I am small, a toddler, on a ship. It is night, and cold. I am dressed in a warm, wool coat. It has a matching hat. My hair is long. I am holding someone's hand, male, I believe. I do not see the face because it is in the shadows, but I am not afraid. There is so much water. Then the dream is over. Each time it is the same. I wish I knew what it meant, or who the person was that held my hand. I may never know. I don't remember anything else about that period. My next memories are very different.
The house is huge. It is red brick, two-story, with white pillars. The kind of house you see in movies. There is green grass in front and in back as far as you can see, and fruit trees lining the back. It sits on the corner. On the far corner sits another two-story house, much smaller and far less grand than the brick one. It houses the hired-man and his family. The son helps his father, the wife is the housekeeper, and the daughter babysits the little girl living in the brick house. I am the little girl.
During those early years, I don't really remember my father very much. I know he is there. I know he does things around the house, and yet, he is not very tangible, seems almost chimerical; an illusion. Memories of Daddy, as I called him, are an odd collection. I remember that he had a large corner gas station in Chicago. It was a Cities Service station. I believe they are called Citgo stations now. I remember the time Gene Autry came with his horse as a promotion for the business. I got to sit on the horse with him. I also remember the “rag man”. He would come to the station regularly to bring my dad rags. I was afraid of him and would hide when he came. I thought he was going to steal me. My mother was another story. She was always there; every waking moment. I can't tell you how I knew I was not safe with my mother. I just knew. I sensed it. Hate is not an easy emotion to hide.
It is summer and hot. I am dressed only in underpants with my hair in two braids, and sitting underneath the huge cherry tree in our backyard. This is my favorite place because the branches go down to the ground, and I can hide there. But she finds me anyway. She takes me back to the house for a bath and a nap. She does all the right things. And yet, I know she hates having to do so. I need her because I can’t take care of myself, but I can't remember love.
The curse that should have been a blessing was when I said my first words. Actually it was a sentence. What you don’t know, is that I am now three years old. I had not spoken a word before this moment.
After being told that I was 'slow', having me tug on my mother's dress and say, "May I have some milk, please?" had the effect of a full blown heart attack. They say the doctor told my mother that I obviously hadn't had anything to say until now. My talking was going to start the lies and secrets to begin unraveling like an old sweater.
I have wracked my brain over the years, but try as I might, I cannot remember having friends when I was small. I know that, whoever I played with, they were handpicked. They were not the neighborhood kids. I was so Isolated, I don't even know if there were other children in our neighborhood. I had everything in my back yard. Huge swing set, and an over-sized sandbox with imported white sand. The sand was pretty but you couldn't do much with it. At least not like regular sand. I believe the whole point was that I wouldn't get dirty. I was never supposed to get dirty.
My clothes were separated into categories. I had clothes for Sunday and clothes for special occasions. You know; the taffeta dresses with the crinoline petticoats, the socks with the lace trim, Mary Jane shoes, and tiny white gloves. There were clothes for everyday, and clothes that were literally designated "play clothes". I was a human doll. My mother loved to dress me up and then take me out. She loved the compliments she would get from everyone who saw me. Those outings were soon going to backfire and be the catalyst for her hatred toward me.
There were two major issues that were going to constantly be confronting my mother. One was that she was older and would not have a child my age. The other was, I obviously was not in her gene pool. I had long, wavy hair, fair complexion, and fine features. My crater-like dimples seemed to compel people to pinch my cheeks. I hated it. My mother, on the other hand, was considerably darker and not particularly attractive. She would become irate when people thought she was my grandmother, or asked whose child I was. But instead of realizing that people don't always think before speaking, it somehow became my fault. I would pay. When we would return home, I would be taken upstairs undressed and then given “the speech”. To me it was more of a threat. My mother would look at me and say, "Remember, you're adopted. And if you don't please me, I can always send you back to where you came from!" It was a long time before I knew what adopted meant, but from the look on her face and the tone of her voice, it couldn't be good. So I became the perfect child. I never wanted to give my mother reason to send me back 'there', wherever 'there' was.
I turned four and two very significant things happened. One is I started pre-school. It was located on the campus of the University of Chicago. I remember my mother referring to it as a “lab” school. I’m sure that there were acceptable pre-schools where we lived. This wasn’t regular school. I was four years old. Why was I taken that distance? I don’t remember what I did there. The other significant thing was it was decided that I should play the piano. My father bought me a baby grand piano. He had to put wooden blocks on the pedals because my feet couldn’t reach. I started lessons. Again, I was four years old. I also started ballet lessons. This would be a significant year for another reason. It would be the last year I would live in the big brick house in Illinois. The following year would find us in Southern California; Pasadena, to be exact. These years would prove to be, in Dickens’s words, “...the best of times and the worst of times”.
Our first home was on a street called Cypress. It had a house in the back, where we lived, and four rental units in the front. It was going to start my father in real estate investing. My favorite thing here was the huge tangerine tree. It’s odd, the things that will impress a child. Once again, I was going to be isolated from other children. I only saw, or played with other children when I was at school, lessons, or Sunday school. Once in a while, if there was a birthday party, I was allowed to attend if the family was considered “acceptable” by my mother.
My mother found the church we would attend. Just the two of us since my father never went to church. I sang in the cherub choir and was an acolyte. It was here that I would meet the woman who would be my first Sunday school teacher and be a part of my life, even now. She was young, beautiful, and very kind and gentle. She loved me and I loved her in return. My mother would hate her because of it.
A very important event was soon to occur. I’m not exactly sure what time of the year it was, but I believe it was summer because that’s when we traveled. My mother and I were on the train returning from a visit to Chicago. I loved the train, especially the observation deck. I was singing. I was always singing. But not the songs that children normally sang. I was singing all the popular songs of the time, in tune with all the right words. I could hear a song one time and sing it back to you. There happened to be a very distinguished gentleman on the train that seemed to be wherever my mother and I were. It became apparent that he was following and watching us. My mother finally confronted him. He presented his business card. He was a talent scout for 20th Century Fox and was scouting for a movie that was going to be made. The movie was “The King and I”. He was looking for children to be the children of Yul Brenner. He was amazed by the way I could sing all of the songs. He asked where we lived and my mother told him we lived in Pasadena. He then made an appointment for a screen test at the studios in Hollywood. I went and immediately became a member of the cast as one of the children; the littlest one, in fact. I remember that photo session so well. I had wonderful pictures. In one I was wearing a pleated skirt with suspenders and a blouse with a Peter Pan collar, holding a stuffed rabbit. In another I was wearing a ballet tutu and was kneeling down. But I lost them all in a storage facility.
Another important event that would happen while all of this was going on was that I would meet my brother for the first time. He was in the Air Force as a navigator/bombardier, stationed at March Air Force Base in Riverside, CA. I don’t really remember him at that time. What I do remember is that he gave me a black stuffed Scottie dog. I carried that dog with me everywhere until it just finally disintegrated. It seems a strange attachment for an object coming from virtually a stranger. It wasn’t like I didn’t have other stuffed animals. I would be reminded of that attachment later on. I would also later learn that I did nothing else for “Fox” even though they called constantly and visited, and my brother was given as the reason. That would be the start of my living in my brother’s shadow. The beginning of a movement of keeping me suppressed. To a large extent it was successful, but then again, to a large extent it wasn’t.