It is the start of my birthday week. I think it’s an appropriate time to offer a sneak peek of my memoir in-progress. This section, “Maybe,” will disappear in a few weeks, as I don’t normally like having my writing on my blog. Thank you for this journey and I hope you enjoy!
In 1984, I cut a square from a piece of tan construction paper and wrote:
HUDSON STREET ORPHANGE FOR GRILS
Spelling errors aside, I knew that this was where Annie lived. Annie was that infamous red-headed, blue-eyed, freckle-faced, sass-mouthed orphan who vigilantly wore half of a gold heart-shaped locket around her neck. The locket was her insurance that one day, her parents would come for her and whisk her away from the clutches of Ms. Hannigan and her bleak life at the orphanage. In short, she lived with a broken heart until (she hoped) her real parents would find their way back to the Hudson Street Orphanage for Girls and claim her as their daughter.
Maybe far away or maybe real near by.
When my sister Lynne took me to see the 1982 movie version of Annie starring Aileen Quinn, I fell asleep halfway through. I was five years old and the plot was lost on me at the time. By the time the movie came out on VHS (and the plastic action figure dolls, and the soundtrack on cassette tape that I played in an endless loop on my purple cassette tape player, much to my mother’s chagrin), I understood Annie’s plight and the grief that would keep her up a night, perched at the windowsill, looking out over Hudson Street for signs of her parents, singing about who they could be right then, out in the world as she imagined it: an ordinary couple doing mundane households tasks. She played piano, he paid the bills. They collected ashtrays (which my mother assured me was something that people readily collected during the 1930s and 1940s, and showed me her grandmother’s milk glass ashtray, kidney-curved with a scattering of yellow and blue flowers painted on it). They were young, smart. But they weren’t present. They had given her away for a life beyond child-rearing, a life with a house hidden by a hill, a piano, and ashtrays. They could be walking down Hudson Street, or in Connecticut, or Paris, or Mexico, or two blocks over. Or dead.
When my mother would take me with her on shopping trips to the mall or my sister Lesley would take me once a year to the larger Galleria in Houston to see the Christmas tree that had been erected in the middle of the Olympic-sized ice skating rink, I would look for my birthmother in the wash of faces rushing past with bags from Neiman’s, JC Penney, Waldenbooks.
I pictured myself a detective in pursuit of the fugitive parent who had given me up for a better life, one, maybe, with a piano and ashtrays. As I held my mother’s or my sister’s hand, I would scan the crowds, and look into the faces of each woman, and hope to see a resemblance. Sometimes one of these strange women would catch me looking at them and I would hold my breath, waiting for her to walk over to me, bend down, say, hello, I’m your mother. It never occurred to me how unsettling this would be—to have my birthmother be in the same shopping mall that I was with my own mother or sister, and further, to have my birthmother walk right up to me outside the Sunglasses Hut or Corn Dog 7 and greet me as her very own. It never occurred to me how slim these chances actually were and how even if I did see my birthmother eyeing a strand of freshwater pearls in Dillard’s or buying perfume at JC Penney, I would never have known it.
He may be pouring her coffee. She may be straightening his tie.
When I would listen to Annie sing Maybe, I would imagine my birthparents in a house hidden by hill, one where my birthmother would straightening by birthfather’s tie while he poured her coffee in the mornings. I once drew this picture, which has been lost to time or the garbage can or a wayward house cat, but I remember it clearly. In the drawing, the green hill took up the largest portion of the white sketch paper. The grass, shown as small slashes and straight lines rising from the hill’s curved surface, appeared to wave in an unseen wind. There was a half-circle of sun in the far right corner, complete with yellow-orange lines representing rays. On top of the hill was a small house (the technique of drawing a suggestion of a house hidden by a hill was lost on me) with a chimney smoking its fire plume into the clear, colorless sky. There were windows everywhere and a narrow black door.
After I completed this drawing, I remember sitting on the bedroom floor with it in my lap. Inside the house lived my birthparents. If I looked very closely through the windows, I could see the evidence of their life without me: tables and chairs, art in heavy frames on each wall, a staircase, dishes in the sink, a piano. His tie. Her coffee. I did not imagine another baby in the house. It never occurred to me that they would not be together. There could be ashtrays. Perhaps a dog. Through the little windows, what I pretended to see what not unlike my own dollhouse given to me as a gift from my mother’s friend, Jeannette Johnson, another foster parent who lived in our neighborhood. Little replica beds and chaise lounges. A miniature chest of drawers. A doll wife at the kitchen table, smiling as her husband poured her coffee.
These were my parents: toy husband and wife in a house built of pencil, crayons, watercolors. A sun shined overhead and a chimney smoked into the white sky. The hill and the waving grass. A dark door. I sat on the floor and ran my small fingers over the house, the hill, as though reading its secrets. As though my parents were speaking to me: come find us. We are waiting.
Their one mistake was giving up me
Some nights, after my mother tucked me in, brushing my cheeks with her soap-scrubbed face and Jean Naté talcum powder, I would sing Maybe to myself, quiet enough that no one else could hear. My bedroom glowed night-light gold and the shadows of the dollhouse were deep black against the opposing wall from my bed. I would sing, or sometimes the words would come to me in fragments—their one mistake was giving up me—and sometimes I would cry into my pillow for someone I could not visualize, a primal wound. The words would come to me and sometimes I would sing them out loud as I watched the door, afraid my mother would come in and tell me to go to sleep, it was late, I had school in the morning. Sometimes the words would come and I would think them to myself, repeating the remembered phrase over and over as a small prayer, an amulet worn smooth, until I fell into dreamless sleep.
When I was just on the verge of sleep, remembering the words as they came to me, I would try to picture my birthparents in the hospital where I was born. My birthmother would always be holding me, smiling down at my pink face as I had by then seen so many mothers do on television and in movies. As I pictured their faces, myself in the hospital, my birthmother would give me away. She would hand me over to a nurse in white and she and my birthfather would cry. I would cry.
They made a mistake, I believed then. Maybe they wanted to find me, but didn’t know where I was. I was lost. I had a new name—Amanda Leigh—and they didn’t know. I imagined them at shopping malls, asking, “do you know where our baby Shannon Reneé is?” There were little girls on milk cartons, on paper fliers on telephone poles, stop signs.
I had a half of a heart around my neck. It came with my Annie doll and it was the first thing I tore from the cardboard packaging. It came with the other half so the child could put the halves together when Annie got adopted by Daddy Warbucks at the end of the movie. I put on the broken locket and dressed Annie in her red and white dress. The other half of the locket became lost within a few days.
So maybe now it’s time, and maybe when I wake
The Annie soundtrack wore out and my mother bought me a new one to play in my purple cassette player. I integrated Annie into my collection of Barbie and Skipper dolls and dressed them all as orphans. They wore mismatched skirts and blouses, never the pink or yellow plastic high-heeled shoes. They slept on the floor and never in the canopy bed with red velveteen hearts. I pushed play on the cassette player and Annie led the Barbies and Skippers through It’s a Hard-Knock Life and sang Maybe alone on the top of a book, looking out onto the beige carpet road and the towering desk and stuffed animals beyond.
Somewhere among the tennis shoes, the crayons, the scatter of Barbie clothes and peel-off Tinkerbell nailpolish were her parents. Maybe.
At night, I would put Annie and the Barbie Orphans to bed on the floor, each, and sometimes two, covered by old washcloths. Annie would remain on the top of a book, sometimes sitting in my actual windowsill overlooking our front yard, waiting for her parents to come. Before I got into bed, I would stand with her, looking out my own window at the dark street, the lawn, the other houses and imagine a house, a hill, a piano. The whereabouts of the other half of the broken locket.
They’ll be there calling me “Baby.” Maybe.
I sold the Barbies, the books, the locket at a garage sale years later. My mother came into my room with a box and said, pack up what you don’t want anymore because we’re having a garage sale. I was eleven, twelve. My friends were no longer playing with dolls, listening to Annie. No one wore their broken lockets anymore. I kept the cassette, the Annie doll, and put them in the bottom drawer of my dresser.
I sold the locket to a woman who wanted it for her daughter, then about five. The little girl snatched it from my hand, ran off down the driveway that had filled with baby cribs, baby clothes, bicycles, dishes, stuffed animals. The woman gave my mother twenty-five cents and I listened to the clank of the coin in the tin cash box. Do you want me to get it back? My mother asked when she saw me looking at the girl with the locket. I don’t need it anymore, I said. The girl swung the broken locket and smiled.
That night, I did not sing Maybe, did not perch Annie on the windowsill, the book. I remember listening to my mother wash dishes in the sink. The house settled. I could not picture my birthparents’ faces and did not go to the window. I knew if I looked out the window, there would only be grass, other houses, a moonlit street. The words came but I did not sing them, even to myself. The dollhouse was against the wall, empty. The little beds and chairs, the kitchen table and miniature plates and utensils, were still in place, waiting for a family to come, to open the door, sit down, eat. In another room, my mother did the supper dishes. My father listened to the radio while my sister talked on the phone. The night-light glowed golden across my floor, my walls, the small couches and dressers. I did not sing.