My Scarlet Letter

15 10 2012


I’ve known I was adopted my entire life.  I remember my best friend and I taking the shortcut to school, just a little hill instead of walking the flat surface, and she asked if ever wanted to know who my real mother was.  Who was my real mother?  The woman that gave birth to me or the woman that goes to the teacher conferences and heads the PTA? Is it the woman that bore me in shame or the woman that makes me hold my head down in shame? They have something in common- shame. No matter which one is my real mother, they both have given me my very own scarlet letter.

When I finally thought to ask what it meant to be adopted, it was if I had asked for birth control in the

fifth grade. I was quickly chastised and told not to tell anyone that I was adopted. Shame. Big red letter A on my chest. One step lower than everyone else because I wasn’t wanted by the woman that gave birth to me. It really didn’t matter if she was 16 when she had me and had no way to take care of me. It didn’t matter how much my parents wanted me. I wasn’t allowed to tell. It was a secret. That meant it was something to be ashamed of and made me less of a person. I remember the first time my mother called me illegitimate. I looked the word up as I was too young to know what it meant, but it felt bad. I had to know what it meant. She hadn’t said it to me, she’d introduced me as her “illegitimate daughter”. That word had a weight to it as the woman looked at me. I can remember blushing. Knowing it wasn’t a complimentary word. I didn’t know how to spell it so it took some time to find it, (way before computers) but I did find it because it rolled over my tongue silently as I sat like a good little girl while my mother visited with the woman. It rattled through my mind turning over and over coming closer to the meaning as I sat in the car on the ride home. I’d learned not to ask questions about things like this. It could only lead to places I didn’t want to go with my father with whom I didn’t want to deal or be alone with.

So at home, I slid the dictionary down, I remember it so well, a version of Websters, dark blue like denim, with gold lettering and onion skin thin pages like my bible. Illegitimate. There was the true meaning born of parents not lawfully wedded which my mother meant, I assume. Why did that matter? Did she look like a better person because she had taken me in? The truth was she had purchased me through a lawyer and my pediatrician. She took me home when I was three days old straight from the hospital. I was the baby she couldn’t have. I’d say we were mutually beneficial to each other. But Illegitimate means other things. Illegal. Not sanctioned by law. Not recognized as lawful offspring. Bastard. Now we were getting somewhere. Maybe my mother was a saint, rescuing me from the gutters, or the hands of the law. I wasn’t sure. There was no one to ask. And so I kept it to myself, hiding under my skin, with my head down because who wanted to look in the eyes of an illegitimate child?

I wore that scarlet letter A on my chest, carried it like a burden on my back for such a long time. When I got away from my parents, started therapy I always realized the first words out of my mouth were My name is H. I’m adopted. As if that was my excuse for why I was like this, whatever this was. It took me many years to discover what “this” was. Not something I’m able to discuss. But I think it’s why I was vulnerable and felt like a victim all my life. Because I knocked myself down a couple rungs from the rest of the world because I was adopted. So I let people use me, walk all over me, make themselves feel better by putting me down because I was a bastard.

The power of words, I’ve read them and felt them, I’ve written them, and I’ve lived them. Bastard doesn’t hurt anymore. I’ve had close family members call me my mother’s “daughter” in a letter, her brother in fact wrote me in a letter declining an invitation to her 80th birthday party that he thought it was nice that his sister’s “daughters” were throwing her a party but he would do something with her alone to celebrate. Now who is the bastard in that scenario? And did he ever celebrate with her? I’m not even sure he called her. That’s okay, as they say, “Karma’s a bitch” or maybe she’s a bastard. Anyway, he’s getting his tenfold. I’ve saved that letter. Why? I don’t know. There are plenty enough people in the world to remind me of how mean people can be. But his cut was the worst and I guess I want to remember why I have to always be on my guard. I can pull that letter out and all kinds of emotions are stirred up. The little girl being called Illegitimate by her mother in front of someone, the shame of being adopted when there should be none, and the outrage and the lie of a beloved uncle that I only found out at 40. And the guilt all over again at 40 that this man I had loved and called Uncle hadn’t really accepted me as family ever. So maybe it’s just a reminder that no matter what, you’ll always be let down. Or that shame from your childhood will never completely go away.

So for what it’s worth…Hi my name is Heather. I am adopted. That’s my excuse. The Scarlet Letter A has faded, but I guess it will never go away. The shame I was taught as a child will always be with me whether you see it or not. It’s there hovering just under the surface. Shame like that just doesn’t ever go away completely.





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