This Stranger, My Son
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As a boy, Paul crept out to the living room in the night to listen to the people on the television; he studied how they spoke, shedding ain't's and don't's as he whispered back at the television's dreary light, "I am not going," and "He doesn't own a car." He became bilingual, with a language for home and a language for the world. Paul was harassed on the school bus for smelling of cow manure. Eventually he stopped taking the bus, and eventually he did his own laundry, stashing clean clothes for school in plastic buckets in the woods. He learned to sit with his feet flat on the floor so the soles of his shoes didn't show.

Armi put the scar on his chin. He put the thin white lines across the backs of his thighs and calves. He shaped his nose this way. He put the knobby bumps on his ribs, front and sides. Armi used his fists, the back of his hand, his boots. He used a shoe, lilac switches, whatever was within reach. He used his mouth: You f---- little baby. You're no son of mine. He burned his drawings. He kicked him as he made him burn his books, his notebooks of stories. Paul hid from his father on the top shelf of his closet. He hid in the woods and in the barn. His mother, his other mother, hid under the table and cried.

When he was six, eight, ten, Paul slept in the barn beside the huge warm cows or out under the pines on the hill. He hitchhiked to New York State to his Uncle Dan's when things were too bad. He was ten, twelve, tough, scared. He protected Ruth from Armi. He did a man's work outside, and cooked and did laundry inside for his little sister. The State tried again and again to take him away. F--- you, he said to the social workers, his scrawny little arms flailing. I fell down the stairs. No one hits me here. F--- you.

What is it like to learn that your child has grown up so harmed? Sometimes I condemn out loud the man and woman who raised him. Immediately, ferociously, Paul comes back at me: "Don't you dare criticize my mother and father. They raised me." I know instantly that he is right. I abandoned my baby. Who am I to condemn the strangers who took him home?

When I was sixteen a doctor gave my baby to a very poor woman who cried every time in his office. He gave my baby to Ruth and Armi. I was told my baby would live in Virginia. I thought he rode his bike to school humming. That he held his father's hand when he walked along the river that must flow behind his house, that he made birthday cakes with his mother, standing on the kitchen chair by the counter. I thought he went to sleep warm and safe, curled maybe around the empty place of adoption but safe and loved. Instead, he lived a mile from my father. Armi made him cut lilac switches and bring them to him. Armi had a wide, white leather belt with rows of holes all the way around it. Of course, I have never seen this belt. But I remember it now, always.

Somehow, Paul knows how to love us and how to be loved. He is tender, patient, generous, funny. In the kitchen at suppertime, he walks in the door yelling, "Who wants cake for supper?" On the sidelines at Alex's or Ben's soccer games, he calls out, "Way to go, Alex! Smart play! Wow, Ben! Great work!" One day he says, "You guys need a new woodshed. Get out some paper and let's design a good building." He buys them carpenter's belts and tools and they spend two weeks raising walls and setting windows and roofing the steep pitch.

But these months are also confusing, upheaving. Sometimes, we all rest in our deep love for each other. Then Paul or I suddenly fly apart in despair or hurt or too much remembrance. Some days we need to be reassured that this is forever. Other days, we fight for our lives, the lives that have worked pretty well before. Sometimes we can't contain everything that has been lost. Once, Paul punches the barn door again and again, sobbing, for the first time in years he tells me, and his hands bleed. Sometimes I cry, pain rising from the place before he came. Now he is here and I finally grieve, crying in the field while Alex and Ben play in the house.

My friends tell me, "This is a miracle. It is a fairy tale with a happy ending."

I wish I had been the one to find Paul. That he would have been the one to receive the call, "Your mother is looking for you." I watched for him every single day for 21 years, looking into the faces of every child I passed, hunting for some sign of me, something that would call out to me and say, "I am your child." Skinny boy, boy running, child curled up reading, child crying, child wading in cold water. Teenager hugging his knees to his chest and watching the wind take dried leaves across the lawn. Young man calling over his shoulder to a friend. I watched every car: the child, the boy, the young man slipping past, the force of my gaze drawing his eyes to mine. Is it you? I asked as the car sped on away. Every child might be mine. But I did not try to find him.

A girl who had a baby in 1966 was not only shunned, not only cast off to her own lonely orbit. She was shamed. When I sat the first time at Dr. Quinn's desk, a stranger to me, he surveyed me silently and said, "Don't try to tell me who the father of this baby is. I know you have no idea. Girls like you never do." He said, "You need to give this baby up. You don't deserve a baby." He said, the lasting message, "You must never try to find this child. You will destroy his life if you have contact with him. If you try to find him, it will be the most selfish thing you could do. You are nothing but trouble." I understood. I was a filthy girl, a contaminant in my poor child's life. If I interfered, I would hurt him, again. It all seemed correct to me, the irrefutable truth. Shame, crushing shame, silenced me for those nine months, and for the next 21 years. ~

Meredith Hall '95G won the 2005 Gift of Freedom Award, a $50,000 grant from A Room of Her Own Foundation. Her first essay was awarded the 2005 Pushcart Prize and was a Notable in Best American Essays 2005. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Southern Review, Kenyon and other journals and anthologies. She teaches English at UNH. This excerpt is from Without a Map: A Memoir, published by Beacon Press in 2007.

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