The Son Rises

Given up for adoption as an infant, the author sets out to climb his family tree

In fact, I was the subject of an upcoming episode of Past Lives, a Canadian television series about people searching for their roots. Rohan was the director and Jean-Francois Turcotte, the sound man. BBR Productions, in Montreal, had underwritten our five-day stay in Nova Scotia. They'd even given me $153 Canadian to spend, which I would blow entirely on savory fish chowder.

It was a year later -- to the week -- that this second visit occurred. I met Rohan and Jean-Francois in Halifax, and we drove to Cape Breton in a rental van in what was to be a reprise of the previous year's trip. I'd visit the same people and sites, only this time accompanied by Rohan with his $5,000 videocam and Jean-Francois with his sound boom. When BBR Productions had put out a call for life stories, using genealogy websites and newsletters, Mac urged me to contact the producers with my story. He'd submitted his, as well, but they ended up choosing mine.

Colie knew we were coming, as did Jessie MacDonald, but some simply had to be surprised. We parked the van at the end of Sally MacDonald's long driveway on Centennial Road. If Sally had looked out her window just then, she might have thought she'd won some sweepstakes; three strange guys strolling up her drive, two of them carrying video equipment. Just walk up and knock, said Rohan, always striving for the candid moment. It took twenty minutes to cajole Sally into allowing herself to be filmed, but soon she was telling the same funny stories about my great-grandparents.

The author as a three-year-old with a department-store Santa in Grand Rapids. Adopted from a Kalamazoo orphange at three months, he grew up an only child.
All photos courtesy of the author
The author as a three-year-old with a department-store Santa in Grand Rapids. Adopted from a Kalamazoo orphange at three months, he grew up an only child.
Adoptive mother, Virginia Stage, who felt that “nothing your dad or I tried to teach you rubbed off”
Adoptive mother, Virginia Stage, who felt that “nothing your dad or I tried to teach you rubbed off”

Across the road and beyond a thicket stood their old wood-frame farmhouse. Decrepit with neglect, it had nonetheless managed to weather one more winter. I led the Canadians down the overgrown path toward it. Brambles and nettles scratched our legs, and weed-covered tractor ruts made us stumble. Nothing had changed since the year before, but much had occurred in my crazy life.

I'd met two more half-brothers, Tim and Pat Lennon -- Mickey's sons -- and I liked them. Things were improving with my own son, as well. He was living with his mother in Rhode Island, pulling a B average in high school, and visiting me on holidays. Now when he comes, we watch MTV together. Virginia had confronted her feelings of alienation and was back to her old self of being only slightly neurotic. Moreover, my two mothers had met during my daughter's First Communion in St. Louis. After that, they'd visited in Michigan without me.

Two weeks before this Nova Scotia shoot, we'd filmed at Mary Ann's home on Grosse Ile. Jim and Maureen were there, and all afternoon Rohan delved into our psyches. He'd ask a question, to Maureen perhaps: How did you feel when Mary Ann told you she'd had a child before you and your brothers came along? Or to Mary Ann: Was it hard to accept William in your life after all these years? What were your feelings when he first contacted you? We had to dig down to get to these feelings, but thanks to Rohan as psychotherapist, we learned more about one another and talked about things we'd never broached.

When Rohan asked Jim what it meant to have a new brother, I listened as he said he really couldn't think of me as a brother. We shared no history. There was no rough-housing as kids, no reading comics by flashlight under the covers together, no teasing about pubescent crushes. I'd never seen the relationship between their father and Mary Ann. Fifty years loomed between us. As a latecomer, I couldn't tap into the experiences that made Jim, Mike and Maureen siblings.

I remember thinking that maybe I was fated to be an only child after all. But then Jim spoke again. "You know," he said, "I think of William as more of a friend than a brother. It's obvious he fits in. He's one of us, right down to the small hands and the wisecracks. That's what it feels like, I've found a good friend."

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