This Stranger, My Son
Page 2 of 3

I waited every day for Paul's first letter. Finally, after three weeks, a letter came through Janet. There was a picture enclosed, my first sight of my lost child. It was blurred and gray, but here was Paul-serious, a strong jaw, intelligent eyes looking directly at the camera. A young man, the child gone forever.

Dear Meredith, he wrote. I don't know what to say. I don't know how to do this. Paul. His handwriting was big, strong, slanted along the page as if he were in a hurry. I carried his note in my pocket, reading it again and again as I stared at his photograph.

Janet called and said, "Write back to him right away. He is very scared. Ask him some questions."

Meredith Hall '95G

Dear Paul. My name is Meredith Hall. I live in East Boothbay on the coast of Maine. I have a son, Alex, who is ten, and a son named Ben, who is seven. We keep sheep and chickens and big gardens. Please tell me about yourself. Tell me about your family. Tell me about what you like to do. I want you to know that I have always loved you.

Janet edited our letters for revealing details. They came to us blacked out: My name is Meredith —. I live in — on the coast of —. My name is Paul. I grew up on a farm in — in southern —. My mother and father, — and —, are very loving and supportive. I work sixty hours a week for — Construction Company to pay my way through the University of —. Slowly, piece by piece, our ghost lives took shape.

Our letters went back and forth, back and forth, faster and faster, three a week, four. I was in a dream. I held Alex and Benjamin close to me. Everything was changing for them, a new brother, a mother with a history. My guilt deepened. I did not tell them yet.

It is winter. He comes most Sundays. He spends part of his Christmas break here, still the mysterious family friend visiting. He is very, very funny, with an irreverent view of the world. His intelligence shines. But his sadness deepens, the price he is paying—the given away child with a separate history, struggling to belong. I think I have time to start again, to forget the years of grief, to love him so fully he will forget the life he has lived, the terrible cost to him of my actions when I was sixteen.

It is time to tell the boys. "My loves," I say to Alex and Benjamin. "I have something huge I need to tell you." I ache with guilt, understanding that I am asking them to take in stride the effects of my own enormous history.

When I tell them they have a big brother, they don't hesitate. They stand in front of Paul and grin. They climb on him, giggling. Like monkeys, they study every inch of his face and hands, studying his ears and his toes and his back, comparing their own hands and feet and hair. They peer inside his mouth. Alex drapes his arm over Paul's shoulder while they sit on the couch; Benjamin gets in under Paul's arm. All of my children are together, here in our little house in Maine. The worst seems to be over; the young children I love so completely will be all right. I am enormously grateful for their capacity to include Paul, to give him part of me.

Paul does not call me Mom, or Mum, or Mumma, like Alex and Ben. He has a mother, Ruth. He has a younger sister, Debbie, adopted when she was two. He has a father, Armi. Paul grew up poor. Very, very poor. He grew up on a farm in the poverty of rural New Hampshire, the poverty of families living in busses in the woods and cardboard being laid in a pad in the soles of shoes and newspaper being stapled on the walls of the house to keep out the wind. When Armi and Ruth adopted Paul and his sister, they had to add two new bedrooms to their tiny shack and bring the plumbing indoors. Armi worked Paul like a hired man, a child who was cold and bloodied and exhausted and frightened by the work and the machines that did it.

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