ON AN UNSEASONABLY WARM DAY last fall, my brothers, sisters, and I sat on a stoop in Philadelphia, sipping beers, eating burgers, and reminiscing about what it was like when we were kids. It wasn’t the typical family reunion, though. We had just met. At age 43, I was the eldest of the six siblings; my youngest brother was just 26.
Together, we are a mosaic of contrasts: black, white, tall, short, curvy, lean. At first glance, we don’t look like we have anything in common. But as it turns out, we do — our mother, Joan. She was 17 and, after years in and out of foster care, she was living in a home for unwed mothers when she had me. Born into the system, I was placed with foster parents five days later; they adopted me at age 1½. All I knew about my birth mother was what my parents later told me — that, for example, she had regularly visited and occasionally taken me for weekends until they adopted me.
I didn’t see my birth mother again until I was in my early 20s. She was 38 when I found her living in a boarded-up row house in a desperate section of Philadelphia. Petite and with short hair that fell around her face in thin, wispy sections, she wore large glasses that looked larger still against her delicate features. We sat in her room, a tall stack of library books on the floor next to her bed, and she told me about her life, about the unexpected death of her mother when she was 9 years old, about the sexual abuse, the foster homes. Sitting cross-legged on her bed, she told me I had five brothers and sisters, but that they had all been “taken away” from her, just as I had been.
She was a heroin addict, battling a dependency that took hold soon after I was born, when she began experimenting with drugs to numb the pain of having to give up her baby. She was a study in opposites, telling me how much she loved me, and indeed all her children, getting misty-eyed over memories of my birth father, while at the same time never letting her guard down, even whispering that she carried a gun in her purse. She survived by the grace of friends and public assistance, stealing whatever the others failed to provide.
My mother was proud of her children; we were something good that she had done, and she loved us deeply and without hesitation. As we entered her life one by one and were later “taken away,” she was determined to ensure we knew about one another. She wanted us to meet — we are sure of it.
I grew up in a fairly traditional working-class family in a suburban neighborhood, far from the cement stoop in Philadelphia where my siblings and I finally converged and even farther from the place where I started with my young mother. Nonetheless, I felt right at home with my brothers and sisters, their faces at once familiar and unknown to me. Like me, some of my siblings had only a brief amount of time with our mother; others spent years in her care. Collectively, we six have lived in foster homes and orphanages, with neighbors and relatives, and have been adopted into permanent families. As adults, some of us share a resemblance, a sense of humor, a talent, or an outlook. We all share a resilience.
Our mother died in 2008, three years too soon to witness our reunion. But in a way, she was with us on that stoop, because although we were strangers, we had this in common — we had a mother, and we know she loved us, and somehow that is good enough.