Years, months, miles and mysteries

So I found my mom last month.

 

Not like in the “did she go to the store? Is she doing laundry? Is it Ladies Night again and we forgot?” kind of locating my mother, but a discovery that was a long time coming.

 

It was a little more than 63 years ago that my parents met a tearful woman at Oak Knoll Naval Hospital and learned that they, not she, would be taking home her little bundle of joy.

 

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Anne and Joe Kochalka holding the future blogger at their Fremont home in April 1954. From the empty bottle, apparently I have always been a good eater.

I spent the next 18 years in their home, raised with love and rules and experiences and responsibilities. Was a good student, became active in my community as soon as I could drive and got into a four-year college with a scholarship right out of graduation. There was a lot of love and laughter in our house and I have aunts and uncles and cousins that wove a crazy quilt of love around me.

 

And through it all, I always knew I was “special” – from the moment I could understand, my parents told me that they got to pick me, which they thought made me better than any other baby at the hospital. Ironically, I understood adoption better than I did sex, because for them, it was much easier to have the first talk than the second.

 

In school, it didn’t seem to make much difference that I was adopted, but that all changed when I reached adulthood and had no idea what my ethnic background was, even though my parents spoke Czechoslovakian when they didn’t want me to know what they were saying and our dinners often featured fine Slavic cuisine (kielbasa and cabbage is a guilty pleasure and Buttermaid Bakery has my regular Christmas order for kolachi nut rolls ).

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These are kolachi nut rolls. They are the most delicious bits of heaven one can consume and a Czechoslovakian holiday tradition. My mother used to make them by hand. I order them online from buttemaidbakery.com

 

I had all these relatives who didn’t look much like me. And I hated not having the answer to questions like “do you have a history of heart problems? Any cancer in the family? Are you predisposed to (fill in the disease)?”

 

And the dimples. Other than the parish priest pinching me until I winced every Sunday, where did they come from?

 

While my parents never kept secret the fact that I was adopted, the names of those involved were revealed only when my adoptive father died. I was 20 years old. Suddenly, I had two names that might hold the key to the Book of Answers. Luckily, at the time, I worked for a law enforcement agency that had access to DMV records and I found my “father’s” addresses and phone numbers immediately.

 

I could go home from work and call him. That night.

 

But for reasons that only fellow adoptees will understand, it took me five years to make that call. It’s not that I didn’t want to know. It’s not that I hadn’t fantasized in great detail the glorious reunion, the open arms, the rainbows and sunshine that would certainly appear when I was reunited with those who brought me into this world.

 

It’s because I could imagine what might be more realistic. A lot of murky water might have gone under the bridge in the last 25 years. I might be the family secret, not the “where is she now?” girl. I could be the She Who Will Not Be Mentioned, a scenario that many adoptees fear. That included me.

 

But the call had to be made, despite the possibility of a “click” once I asked that loaded question. I have a button in my office that says “Don’t Die Wondering” which applied to women’s rights, but now, I felt, was written for me personally.

 

I dialed the phone. My husband, who is my most ardent supporter and loves this little bastard no matter what, (I dig getting to use that word in its real context), was standing nearby. A male voice greeted me and I tentatively asked, “May I speak with Elizabeth?”

 

A short silence. “She’s not here. May I ask who is calling?”

 

This was it. The moment before the deafening click.

 

“This is Carol Rock. I think she may be my mother.”

 

Feeling brave and feeling that I had but nanoseconds to make my case, I added, “Are you my father?”

 

Another silence. But no click.

 

I heard him take a deep breath. “I am not,” he said. “But I would like to hear about you.”

 

A wave of cautious gratitude swept over me. I told him who I was, how I got his name, how I was raised in a loving, safe environment and why I was looking for the woman whose name was on my adoption decree. He listened and we agreed that a face-to-face meeting was in order. After a cordial goodbye, I made reservations to fly up to the Bay Area to meet him at his office.

 

He wanted a letter from me giving him a little background. I feverishly wrote a chronicle of everything I could remember, sharing highlights and pitfalls of the last 25 years. Emotionally, I felt like everything was going at a fever pitch, that I might be getting close to meeting the woman who I simply wanted to tell that I had been raised by good people and that I knew she did the right thing out of love.

 

And that I thought I turned out pretty good. That was important. I wasn’t letting adoption define me. I wasn’t angry, or looking for money or crazy. I was just an ambitious young woman with a lot of questions.

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I can’t remember the flight or driving to his office or the restaurant we went to for lunch. I remember seeing him, his smiling face and outstretched hand. And I remember the gasp.

“You look just like her,” he said, apologizing for his reaction. “Except she had red hair. In fact, her nickname was Rusty.”

 

At the time, my hair color was my natural, lovely dishwater blonde. I had colored my hair before, but never more than an auburn brown. Never red. Didn’t think it would look good on me. It would be 20 more years before I colored it for a role in “Bus Stop” and decided that from there on out, red should be my natural color every four weeks.

 

We moved on to other topics. He explained that he and my mother were married in 1952 and that he was a pilot and she worked with the base photographer, both in the Navy and stationed at Alameda Naval Air Station. He was flying missions over Korea from late summer 1953 until he came home in January 1954 and much to his surprise, she was five months pregnant. When she went into labor in April, he did what he felt was his duty and drove her to the hospital. After checking her in, he told me that he left, chased to his car by a nurse who told him he should stay. He excused himself and the next morning, my mother called to say she’d given birth to a baby girl.

 

They tried to reconcile, but to no avail. He told me that they traveled back to Florida, where she was from, and he left her in Pensacola. He said what little he remembered of her family, that her maiden name of Kilgore was one that was as common as Smith in the South, and that there might be some family in Texas. He also said that Life magazine had done a feature on the base while she worked there and that she might have been photographed for that.

 

We parted as friends, I was thankful that he shared what information he remembered. Perhaps he was thankful that a day he anxiously anticipated for the last decade or so had gone smoothly. I decided to be respectful and keep my distance. He owed me nothing more and my debt to him was one of gratitude.

 

I flew home with a little more information than I had before. Although I was told I looked just like my mother, I still had nothing to show, other than re-living my presumptive father’s reaction over and over again.

 

Back at home, I started looking for old copies of Life magazine in the library, but could not find anything about the base or pictures of this woman who I resembled. Looking for your own face in a magazine isn’t easy, at least it wasn’t for me. I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for. Dimples? A certain smile? Red hair didn’t show up in black and white pictures. (Remember, this was before the internet and searchable archives online. I have since begun to comb through the pages of the 1953-54 issues, but still no luck).

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I wrote to the State of California, where the laws still redact data (such as birth parents’ identities), asking for anything they might be able to give me. I got a one-sheet of non-identifying information that was obtained from a cursory interview with my mother. From that, I learned that she was full Irish, Catholic, 23, from Florida, 5’ 9 ½”, 155 lbs., fair skin, freckled, red hair, and described as “attractive and intelligent appearance.” She was a high school graduate who worked as a grocery cashier and was interested in photography and art; she had no prenatal care and told the state she was always in good health and that there was no history of serious illness in any member of her family.

 

My father was listed as Possibly English or Scotch, Protestant, age 23, and described as “6’ 1”, 185 lbs., blue eyes, dark brown hair, medium skin.” He was a high school graduate and a photographer for the US Navy. He lived in the District of Columbia and his health was “good,” but family history was unknown.

 

So I was the product of a wartime affair.

 

Another document obtained from the state listed that my mother was a Photographer’s Mate (really…) in the US Navy from 1951-1953 and had no history of hereditary disease. My grandparents on my mother’s side were listed as “grandmother, 53, high school graduate, housewife; grandfather, 54, 8th grade education, construction engineer.”

 

When this information came in, I was in my third year of college at Cal State LA and I found the Adoptees Liberty Movement Association, or ALMA, a group of searching adults. For a year, I remember being active and learning how to become an advocate for myself and others, but then life stepped in and provided an interesting diversion. I became pregnant with my first child.

 

Suddenly, I had too much else on my plate to search. I was focused on becoming a mother, holding down a job, making a home and trying to finish my degree. But there was one moment when my inner searcher came out. When I saw my beautiful little girl for the first time, I looked in vain for the dimples. I remember being disappointed, thinking that I couldn’t even produce a kid who looked like me.

 

In June 1981, still 10 units short of my degree (but close enough to walk), I marched from the podium to the grandstand to hold my 1-year old daughter. A year later, she got a baby brother and five years later, our family was complete with the addition of another daughter – who had dimples. Finally, the ringer had arrived.

 

My family/work/home/life kept me busy and those last 10 units became less of a “let’s finish” and more of an “I’ll get around to it sometime.” I just didn’t sense the urgency anymore.

 

Kind of like my adoption search.

 

Until I met a detective friend who shared a contact with me that has since knocked me on my ass. Stay tuned. There’s more coming. Did I mention I found my mom? I’m getting on a plane in a couple of days to learn more about her… but there’s more in Part Two of this blog…..

Carol Rock is a writer based in the Los Angeles area. She is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years experience covering all areas of news and features. She works as a freelance public relations and media consultant, with writing remaining her strong suit. Her tattoo, if it were real, would read “Don’t Die Wondering.”

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