“You poor dear, first your mother last year and now your father.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
“I’m so sorry.”
Anna nodded numbly and willed the pieces of her body to hold together through hug after hug and the occasional iron-gripping hands clasping her forearms as they shook her emphatically.
“Miss Miller, please call if you need anything.”
It had been days since she had heard the first of these common phrases directed at her.
“We did everything we could” had been followed by, “The road was wet when he swerved. It was instantaneous. He didn’t suffer.”
The line of faces stretched down the aisle to her left, so many people still waited. She swayed slightly and refocused on the tall man with thinning hair in front of her. He wore a charcoal gray suit with a shimmery silver tie covered in tiny dots of blood-red diamond shapes, lined up diagonally with military precision. His nose was large on his face, but his eyes were a beautiful amber brown, glinting with unshed tears.
“I’m so sorry. We’ll all miss him,” he said as he grasped her shoulders gently, sincerely.
How many times would she hear those words spoken? In some eyes, she saw pity, some compassion, and others were just blank. The required words repeated and ran together. They sounded hollow. She struggled to respond with the socially mandated appreciation, mumbling thank yous and you’re-so-kinds.
A vise settled into her chest, squeezing her lungs until no air could escape or enter. A silent sob escaped her.
THREE WEEKS PASSED SINCE THAT AFTERNOON SHE GOT THE CALL. Anna went through the motions of life’s routine in a fog, barely remembering the details of tasks and activities that once seemed so important. She had not been to work; not that it mattered since she worked for a temp agency. Since the funeral, Anna didn’t bother to call the office to request an assignment. She didn’t have the energy. It all seemed so pointless. She gave up her apartment. After packing up a few cherished possessions, donating the larger furniture to charity, she moved back into her parent’s house, her house now.
Anna pulled up to her parent’s former home and parked her small car in the driveway. She got out and leaned against the car’s frame for a moment, looking up at the structure that had been her home for so many years. She had grown up in this house, and she was surrounded now with warm bittersweet memories. The two-story, three-bedroom house sat back from the street always had an aura of peace, but now it seemed silent and empty.
Reaching into the back seat, Anna wrestled with the large, flat pile of unfolded boxes, twisting and tugging on the ungainly stack that slithered and refused her efforts to extract them through the car door. Frustrated, she yanked them out one at a time, leaning each against the rear quarter panel, where each declined to cooperate and promptly slid to the ground. Tears pricked at her eyes and she resisted the urge to stomp on the unapologetic pile of cardboard. Biting her lip, she grabbed two edges—one for each hand—and stomped to the front steps, her arm held out awkwardly to keep from tripping herself on the box flaps.
OLD MAPLE TREES GRACED THE FRONT YARD, CASTING CHILLY SHADOWS across the path. Every summer, they created a privacy screen of leaves between the sidewalk and the home’s wide front porch. Anna had spent countless hours on that front porch. Some of her earliest memories were of running up and down the steps, dashing between her parents’ cozy spot on the porch swing and the enticing blinking of the numerous lightning bugs around the yard. She crossed the porch and leaned one cardboard square against the doorframe, where it promptly threw itself to the floor. She rolled her eyes and dug into her pocket for the keys, her slightly shaking hands fumbling as she tried to slide the key into the lock and open the door. She threw one box in and kicked the other from its resting place on the porch floor before turning around and heading back to the car for the others. Successfully managing the remaining four at once, she turned and headed back inside. The light blue house with its gray shutters and shiny black front door had been host to countless barbeques, holiday parties, and birthday festivities. She stepped in and closed the door behind her. The living room looked nearly as it always had, comfortably casual, but now there was a light coating of dust on the tables, highlighted by the weak sunbeam struggling to brighten the room. Years of Christmas celebrations, football game-day gatherings, and lazy Sunday afternoons reading had been here. It was so quiet now, but the memories soothed her, easing the constant ache of her loss. Anna knew every inch of the house, and it had never seemed too large when the three of them lived here together. It was odd to be here again, in the space so familiar but now so quiet. The home seemed much larger now, each room seemed to echo the smallest movements.
Anna had already spent days organizing and rearranging rooms, and was now nearly ready to box up clothing and sort through financial papers. She had gone through the same process after her mother died, although on a much smaller scale. It had been easier then, with her father here to share the sadness and smile over silly memories. “Remember this hideous scarf? I gave it to her for Mother’s Day one year and she wore it to church to make me happy. I never realized how ugly it was because she smiled and wore it with pride,” Anna laughed. “But, now that I think about it, I think that was the only time she ever wore it.” Her father had smiled, running his hand across the silky fabric. “Yeah, I think it was too ugly to wear. But, sweetie, she kept it.” There was no one here now to relive those little moments with her.
She quickly finished the work in the living room, she hadn’t changed much or boxed anything up beyond the personal papers. The master suite, which faced her now, was much more difficult. Deciding what to keep, what to give away, and what to toss was tougher with items as personal as clothing. Each one had so many memories attached.
Taking a break for lunch, Anna moved into the kitchen, her favorite room of the house. Like most homes, it was a place of many happy memories. She had always loved this room with the walk-in pantry and small sunny dining nook. Her mother had always called that the heart of the house. Anna agreed. Making popcorn for movie nights, Saturday afternoons learning how to make cookies, and times of pumpkin carving, Easter egg decorating, and summer lemonade-making. The project of stripping wallpaper and repainting the walls and cabinets had taken days. At the time, it felt like a punishing chore, but now she recalled the silliness and laughter she and her mother had shared. Every visible brushstroke and drip of paint held on to the memories of those days.
She smiled as she pulled out black forest ham and Swiss cheese from the refrigerator. Slicing sourdough bread left over from the previous night’s dinner, she layered it with the meat and cheese. Returning the packages to the refrigerator, she grabbed a handful of green grapes before kicking the door closed with her foot. Reaching into the cookie jar, she added a peanut butter cookie to the plate and headed for the deck.
Early May in eastern Iowa was a forecast gamble. Some years it would be eighty degrees and sunny, others times it would be windy, cold, and gray. Today was the best kind of day. It felt like a perfect seventy degrees; the warm rays of the sun were a treat to soak up. Anna enjoyed the balmy temperature while the sun played peek-a-boo with the big fluffy white clouds that lazily drifted across the robin’s egg blue sky.
She snorted at her mind’s description. “A little over the top there, doncha’think?” she asked herself, breaking the silence of the day by speaking aloud. Her parents would have enjoyed this day. She missed them both keenly, but today was more of a nostalgic ache than the aching sense of loss. Some days, the pain seemed to ease a little and right now, she allowed herself to enjoy this moment of contentment. She watched the birds as they flew from the feeders to the trees and she worked her way through the ham and cheese sandwich. As she finished the fruit and cookie, Anna stood up, sighing, and headed back into the house.
She doubted anyone would ever know if she had dirty dishes piled in the sink, but she washed up her few dishes and set them in the strainer anyway. Looking around the kitchen, there was no additional cleanup to be done and she resigned that she couldn’t avoid it any longer. She needed to tackle the bedroom. It had been hard enough when she had helped her father but now it seemed so much more difficult facing the same task alone. She dragged the cardboard wardrobe box near the closet door, next to the smaller ones she had positioned for folded clothes, shoes, and miscellaneous items. Next to them, she had a plastic bag for trash, a dust rag, and furniture polish. She worked mechanically, blinking her eyes to clear the tears that threatened to spill over as she slowly packed up the last of her father’s life.
After an hour, she finished emptying the dressers and cleaned each surfaces inside and out. She knew the exhaustion she felt was more emotional than physical. “Just the closet,” she said aloud, “and then we reward ourselves with a pizza tonight.” She winked at her parents’ photo on the wall.
Anna grabbed two large armfuls of clothes, carried them out, and tossed them on the bed for sorting. She decided to donate the entire pile to the resale shop, except one sweater she wanted to keep. Walking back to the closet, the empty space revealed three boxes lined up at the back wall. The first contained some of her mother’s old photos, a few scarves, and mementos her father had kept. The ugly scarf was in the stack. Anna laughed. He must have snuck it back in after she had put it on the toss pile. The second box was full with what appeared to be years’ worth of receipts and tax forms.
“Ugh,” she said aloud. “There is no way I’m going through those.” She shoved the box back into the corner with her foot.
The third box was different, not a box but a plastic file storage container. Anna sighed as she dropped to her knees, sliding the box closer and flipping the top open. She smiled, a wash of memories flooding over her. This was a project box. She and her father had created many boxes just like this one. Every box contained the notes, photos, and research data on any number of topics that caught her father’s interest. Her favorite father-daughter activities had been research projects.
The distinctive clear lid triggered a memory. Most of their project boxes came with blue lids, or maybe that’s just what Dad always chose. This one had a matching milky-white semi-opaque lid that looked familiar. Anna recalled seeing this on the floor of her father’s study recently.
Dad had been a huge history buff, and Anna would often get caught up in his enthusiasm. From riverboats to pearl buttons, everything had a story. They both had a love for the Mississippi River and its part in the Quad Cities history, the four towns on either side of the state line: Moline and Rock Island in Illinois and Bettendorf and Davenport in Iowa. They had toured many of the state’s Silos & Smokestacks National Heritage Area historic sites and volunteered together for the heritage area at the state fair. Ten years prior, Anna helped her father research the history of the family’s home. Even her mother had been fascinated with the original owners and the hardship of early life in the area. Anna remembered the long hours of research with fondness. Somehow, working with her father never felt like work. He made it into an adventure. Using their research, they compiled the full life detail of a person, the details so vivid they would often create stories about daily life. Anna remembered those stories as if they were books she had read. She imagined a family crossing the plains in a wagon train, what their days were like and how excited they must have been about the trip. Their months and years of work carving out a homestead in the wilderness. Then, the fear and sorry they must have felt when tragedy struck. The records only reflected the tragic history of a large family nearly wiped out by an epidemic and their struggle to keep the farm. There was always so much more to the story, she thought.
“You would have made a good pioneer, Anna,” Dad had said. “You’re not afraid to get dirty and you learn how to do the task that needs to be done. Keep that attitude and you’ll always succeed in life.” He was always turning ordinary moments into the basis for sage advice.
Occasionally, they would research a specific person or event in history. Buffalo Bill had been one of those projects. After they had visited the famous folk hero’s local birthplace, Anna and her father spent months learning about his life from cradle to grave. That was years ago, but she smiled, remembering how much fun it had been.
Anna wondered what project he had undertaken this time. She found it odd he never mentioned a new interest.
Opening the box, she tossed the lid aside and saw that the box was half full with notebooks, printouts, and copies of official-looking documents. She grabbed a handful of papers and files from the top, twisted her legs around and plopped the pile in her lap. A well-folded single page slipped out of the pile. It looked like a copy of a fax, the letters distorted but still readable. Anna read the first line. “The Idaho Voluntary Adoption Registry is a confidential cross reference.” She paused and reread the line again, intrigued. Who would her father be doing adoption research for and why would he not have enlisted her help? She recalled that he had taken a ski trip to Idaho just before Christmas. What resort had that been? At the time, she thought it was unusual for him to take such a trip but had secretly harbored the hope he had taken a lady friend on a romantic weekend getaway. He had been distant afterward, and she had assumed it was either a solo trip or a disappointing rendezvous. Either way, he hadn’t offered details, and Anna had not pressured for any beyond the expected “how was your trip?”
She fanned out the papers, stopping at random for a clue. District of New York Port of New York read one page, the lines filled with a flowing cursive script indicative of records of decades past. She squinted at the top. 1946. She found similar records for Philadelphia, Boston, and San Francisco. What did New York, Philadelphia, Boston and San Francisco have to do with Idaho? She didn’t see a connection.
Anna continued to flip through the papers. Many were filled with general references to genealogy research. Had he been researching a specific person? Anna thought so from some of the pages, but there weren’t any names highlighted. Whenever they created a project box, they always included an elaborately detailed summary page, outlining their project focus and interesting highlights. Anna suspected her father used those summaries as another learning exercise for her. This box didn’t have a detailed summary, so it wasn’t clear what the topic or purpose or the project had been.
She found a copy of an Iowa Census from 1952. Now Iowa? She found copies of phone book pages listing hospitals in Sioux City, Cedar Rapids, and Des Moines. Each one had a dark X.
She still searched for a name. Who had her father been researching? How had he managed to keep this a secret? An even better question was why had he kept it a secret? Did he have a secret new friend after all? Was there a mysterious troubling stranger he felt compelled to verify the background of? That seemed far-fetched. It was far more likely it was a boring innocuous project he considered too dull to include her in. She supposed adoption research could be dull, searching through courthouse or online records. She realized she had never actually thought about the process for researching adoptions. How would one go about it? She wished he had included her on this project. It might have been less interesting than their previous ones, but since it turned out to be his last one, she couldn’t help feeling cheated.
Now that she thought about it, maybe he had shared a small piece of it with her. The memory of a conversation months back. She had come to the house to make dinner, as she did at least two or three times a week back then. She recalled popping her head in the study, and he seemed surprised to see her, as if he had been a thousand miles away in thought and was startled by her appearance. He had dropped some pages into a box with a lid just like the one she looked at now.
Their conversation over dinner that night had been a spirited discussion of instinct, personality traits, and impact of the environment a child was raised in. She had been surprised at the number of famous orphans and adoptees that he had named at the time. She wondered now if there was a more personal interest in the area or if he had been involved in this project even then. She sat back on her heels as she tried to recall details on that discussion. She remembered they talked about the concept of nature versus nurture. How much impact a person’s genes have on their personality or instinctive actions and whether those inherent characteristics weigh more than how a child is raised. Would the lessons and learned routines shape a person’s life path more? Was it the impact of the adults and the cultural traditions the children learned growing up? Or, regardless of the upbringing, the instinct and desires would show through no matter what.
They recalled watching a historical program on Viking settlements and the culture’s outlook and those ideas entered their conversation. The program indicated that many had been farmers and fishermen, men and women working together equally to survive. They didn’t distinguish between women’s work or men’s jobs. When times were tough, they would “go a-Viking” which basically meant, according to the program, sailing to explore, plundering food and treasure as they went until eventually they returned home and resumed their previous life. Anna and her father had been amazed at some of the stories of tenacity, the determination to carve out farms and villages in harsh climates, while overcoming losses and fatalities in their communities. It reminded Anna of the struggles the settlers faced in the American frontier. She had heard stories from her grandparents of their grandparents’ experiences. The hard work required to farm the land, stubborn refusal to quit, and commitment to family. The Viking stories were different only in that they seemed to be optimistic things would improve and they always seemed to have a desire to return home.
“You know, I might have made a good pioneer, but I think I’d have made an even better Viking. Yup, I’ve got a Viking heart all right. A little stubborn, independent, and ready to tackle what’s next.” He had laughed at that. “I must have been a Viking then too, because you’re a chip off the old block. That has to be a double dose of nature and nurture going on there.”
She smiled, recalling the easy banter they had shared. They had always been able to talk about anything. Why wouldn’t he mention this project to her? It seemed odd now that this had not come up. Unless, she reasoned, that random topic had sparked an interest that led to the research. Maybe it was the history of a celebrity he had been tracking down. Anna felt the spark of curiosity increase. Maybe this was a project she could continue. She hoped it would be someone interesting, someone she had at least heard of, if not liked.
As she studied the pages, she searched for clues. Somewhere around 1952 there had been an adoption he was either looking for or found. That would make the child around her father’s age. Based on what she had seen so far, the birth was probably in Idaho, and the adoption in Idaho or Iowa. The adoption registry was from Idaho, but the census record was from Iowa. Based on their prior research projects, Anna surmised her father had been trying to determine exactly when the adoption had taken place, and which state would be likely to have the record. The next step would be to identify the adoptive parents and where the child had grown up. The census record probably meant he had tracked the records that far. So, a child was born in Idaho, was adopted and grew up in Iowa. Anna sighed. That wasn’t much to go on so far.
She reached for another pile. This one seemed to be Internet site screenprints and search results. She removed the paperclip and spread the pages. A small folded slip of paper fell out and Anna reached for it, unfolding it slowly. This was not a printout, but a handwritten note.
Mother requests child’s middle name be Lander.
Her heart skipped a beat. Lander had been her father’s middle name. A project box with adoption and historical search. A search on “Lander”. It was an uncommon name.
It was her father’s name.
Her mind could find no other explanation.
Her father had been adopted.
Thoughts spun through her brain so rapidly she had trouble grasping any of them. She sat up straight as her unfocused eyes stared toward the closet ceiling for a moment. Shaking her head, she rifled through the pages in her hand but realized she had no idea what she was looking for. She had an excitement that she might still be part of a family, a family new to her, but another painful jolt that the family legacy she knew was not hers. She couldn’t help but have the sense of another loss, this one the loss of her identity and heritage. The anger that her father didn’t share this with her was there too, along with some fear and uncertainty. She often heard of adoptees seeking out birth parents for medical history because of predisposition to disease or being a carrier or something in their DNA. She had never paid close enough attention, but she wondered if that was a concern. Would that make a difference now?
Anna spent over an hour just sitting on the floor, surrounded by the mess of paperwork, absorbing the impact of her discovery. Alone, all she had to hold on to was family history and memories. Every story from her grandparents, her father’s recollections of growing up, and the entire family history that had been passed down. Never had there been any whisper that he had been made a part of this family legacy through love rather than blood. The Millers had chosen him, but what happened to his birth parents?
Anna searched her memory for any scraps or hints. She had to believe her father had no idea he was adopted, or had chosen to keep that fact a well-guarded secret. She wondered if he had known all along or whether the fact had been a surprise. If he had never known before, then how would he have found out, she wondered. His parent had passed away when Anna had still been a teenager.
She stared down at the box. He was researching to find out where he came from, who his birth parents had been. If his parents had told him he was adopted, they didn’t have the details on his birth parents, she thought. Otherwise he wouldn’t have needed to do all this research. She faced so many questions. How had Dad found out? Why had he not talked to her about it? How far had his research taken him? Why had her grandparents kept this secret?
Why did his birth parents give him up? Ann couldn’t keep the seed of hope from growing. Her father had birth parents somewhere. If either of them had children, they would be Anna’s aunt or uncle. Any of their children would be her cousins. Anna considered the possibilities. She might be able to find family to claim, but she was afraid to hope. Her rational brain insisted there could there be another explanation for the project box. She wasn’t sure if she was ready to know.
SHE WAITED UNTIL THE FOLLOWING DAY BEFORE MAKING THE CALL SHE hoped would provide answers. Her fingers shook as the dialed the familiar number.
“Hello?” The warm voice at the other end of the line should have comforted Anna immediately but didn’t. Her emotions were still raw and she drew in a ragged breath.
“Anna? Is that you honey?” The voice was instantly concerned. “Yes, Margaret, it’s me. It is so good to hear your voice. I’ve missed you,” Anna admitted. Margaret had been a part of her life as long as she could remember. The office manager at her father’s agency, her mother’s best friend, she had been a frequent babysitter when Anna was young and a close confidant as she grew older.
“I miss you too, munchkin. The loss is so very hard, I know. After working for James for over twenty years, I miss him too.”
“Yes,” Anna responded, and then paused. Silence stretched across the phone line for a long moment.
“I found something strange that I need to ask you about, but I have no idea how.”
“What do you mean, strange? You know you can ask me anything.” Confusion was clear in Margaret’s voice. “What in the world is it Anna?”
“I found a box, and at first I thought maybe it was some research Dad was doing for someone else. But, part of what I saw makes me think maybe it was for himself, but he never said anything and it is just so weird.”
Her words came out in a jumble, the thoughts she had so carefully organized before making this call refused to stay in order and flew out of her mouth.
“Ahh. What kind of research?”
“It looks like birth records research, maybe an adoption or something?”
“Uffff,” Margaret made a noise like a rubber beach ball deflating suddenly. Anna instantly knew this was not a surprise and obviously a topic Margaret was well acquainted with. “I had hoped he told you about this.”
“He didn’t, whatever it is,” Anna said frustrated. “So just tell me, okay?”
“I’ll tell you what I know and you might be able to fill in the rest with that box you found. He hadn’t talked to me about this in a very long time.”
Anna waited, silently. Words just would not form.
“After your mother died, he sold the business and was at a loss. He needed something to do with his time. You remember what he was like. Bouncing from one hobby to another, taking random classes at the community college...”
“Yes, I told him just to take a cruise or something I think,” Anna said absently.
Margaret sighed, “Yes. He decided to travel, to see the world some, and he applied for a passport. His application was rejected.”
“Excuse me? Rejected?”
“Yes, there was a problem with his birth certificate and some of the information on his passport application. He started researching paperwork and somewhere along the way, came across something that led him to think, that uh, well...”
“What? What did he think?”
“He said he found out that he was adopted,” Margaret admitted. “Huh.” Anna could not form a single intelligible thought. Before she made this call, she already knew, deep down. This information shouldn’t have come as a shock, but having Margaret confirm it removed all possibility of a misunderstanding. It wasn’t a mistake, her own misinterpretation of the mysterious box. Her world was already unsettled and now it had taken a sideways shift.
Her parents were gone, and without any close family, her memories were all she had. The family history, the stories from her grandparents, and the legacy gave her a sense of belonging. Without that, her very identify seemed in question.
Deep breath, she thought. At the center of every project she and her father had worked on was history. History tied each lifetime together. Nothing made sense if every person just lived their own life unconnected to a past or future generation. What would be the point? Even though she was alone right now, Anna knew who her family was, or at least thought she did up until this point. What if she got married one day and had children? What stories would she tell them about where they came from, what their history was? Would it be enough to take on the history of adoptive grandparents?
“So,” she said carefully and deliberately, fighting back the tears welling up. “I have lost every person in my family, everyone I have ever loved, and now I find out part of that family was never mine in the first place?”
“I don’t know, sweetie. After he started the research, he didn’t tell me any more about it and I never asked,” Margaret admitted. “It’s been a while. It was last spring he first mentioned it. I thought maybe he dropped the search or it didn’t turn out well and he didn’t want to share what he had found.”
“Do you think he found something?”
“He talked about Wyoming once, but I’m not sure that had anything to do with this. At the time, I just took it as part of his ski trip research.”
“But what if he did find something? I have to know.”
“You didn’t find anything in the research that would help?” “Maybe. I think I will have to go through it when I can concentrate a little better. This was the last thing I expected.” “Is there anything I can do?” Margaret asked.
“No,” Anna said slowly, as she felt a deep tiredness set in. “I think
I just need to process all this. It’s so quiet here now and just as I was starting to accept how things are now they’ve changed again.”
“What do you mean?”
“What if I have another family out there?” Anna dared to hope. “What if I’m not really alone?”
“Do you think so?”
“Maybe. I think maybe I have to find out, Margaret. Thank you for telling me.”
“All right then, honey. You go get a good night’s sleep. Everything will look better in the morning. It usually happens like that.”
After she hung up, sitting for a moment alone with her thoughts, her mind racing through the possibilities. She trudged off to bed, her mind still clouded with confusion.
IT TOOK TWO DAYS FOR ANNA TO COME TO TERMS WITH THE BOX AND its disturbing secret. She couldn’t find the motivation to do much of anything. The silence of the house seemed to close in on her, but there was nowhere else she needed to be and didn’t have the energy to shower and mess with her hair. She wore the same jeans and dug out a wrinkled T-shirt from a haphazard pile in her closet. She wandered around the house, stopping now and again to sit and stare out a window or sightlessly at a photo. She felt the sadness growing deeper, sliding into something deeper. It was a lonely ache that had an almost irresistible pull into lethargy. She couldn’t cry on Margaret’s shoulder every day. Several times she picked up the phone to call one of her friends, but couldn’t decide what number to dial. Cindy was pregnant, and Stacy had a two-year-old daughter, a son in kindergarten, and a daughter in first grade. Getting a babysitter was challenging for Stacy, but for Anna to drag herself into the happy zone of a boisterous trio of children was too much to ask. She hadn’t been close enough lately with a handful of others to feel comfortable unloading her tears and near depressed frame of mind. She knew she couldn’t let herself spiral into depression, she needed to focus on something, anything outside these four walls.
The only glimmer of hope that came to her now was the possibility of finding more family. She could feel the motivation starting, an incentive to search for them that would give her a goal to focus on.
She wished her father had shared this with her. She had so many questions, and now he wasn’t here to answer any of them. Dealing with the loss of both parents, she needed to be connected with a larger family. Her grandparents, distant cousins somewhere, the heritage of farmers and stories of frontier survival. Was her mother’s history even solid and reliable now? She felt she could no longer claim the heritage from her father. Well, him, but not his parents, nor any history they had shared. She had already felt like she lost everything, but somehow now she lost even more now. The shock had taken a while to sink in.
Her father was searching for his birth parents. They might even still be alive. Anna herself might have grandparents someone out there. Perhaps an aunt or uncle, even cousins. She might be completely alone in the world, or have a large extended family. She tried to reconcile these facts in her mind and was determined to find out the truth. She needed to know every detail of her true history.
Anna pulled the box out of the closet and covered the dining room table with the contents. She looked closely at each document, organizing the pages into piles. She felt a plan forming in the back of her mind but was afraid to examine it. She studied the pages, trying to memorize every line and each nugget of information.
With no other choice, she accepted that the grandparents she had known her entire life were wonderful people that had welcomed her father into their lives, but they were not her bloodline. Neither of them had siblings, nor did her father, so Anna didn’t have cousins, aunts or uncles, or any other extended family from that side of the family. There was an estranged stepsister of her mother’s and a second cousin of one of her parents who had borrowed money once, but Anna didn’t know where either was living.
The idea that there was another family out there was exciting and terrifying. She may not be alone, but what if they had no idea her father had existed? What if they knew but it was a dirty secret they wouldn’t talk about? What if his birth parents had families just as small as hers and there were no relatives to find? What if the birth mother never told the father, or what if she didn’t know who he was? Considering it had been the late 1940s, this seemed a bit unlikely, but Anna needed to know. There were just too many questions not to try.
She tried to make sense of the geography. The pages were from different states, and some didn’t seem to make any sense. She approached it logically and tried to look at it with the analytical detachment she would give any other project.
Iowa was easy. Her grandparents were both born and raised here. Anna herself had always lived in Iowa, even during college, so the connection with the state was natural.
It seemed that the adoption itself was recorded in Idaho. Anna guessed her father was able to go back from his own birth certificate and find the adoption registry. Would that be correct? She pulled out a notebook and scribbled the question. She wondered what raised a red flag with his current birth certificate. She would need to investigate how to research adoptions. Anna knew enough not to assume anything. For now, she would go along with it until she could prove or disprove that theory.
The port of entry documents were from various areas and could simply be original background research. There were not any notes that seemed to indicate relevance to anything else. What did a port of entry in Boston or San Francisco have to do with an adoption in Idaho? It made no sense. Anna picked up the closest page. The Port of New York. 1946.
She considered the possibilities. The port of entry might indicate immigration. It was the 40s, and since World War II had just ended, America was seeing lots of immigration. So many possibilities crossed her mind, and she allowed her imagination free rein of the scenarios. What if her grandparents had left war-torn Europe and one didn’t survive? Perhaps her grandmother died and her grandfather was too overwhelmed to care for a baby alone and put him up for adoption. What if it was a situation of being a single, unwed mother? A night of passion led to regrets? No, Anna refused to believe her father was anything but loved and only insurmountable hardship had led to his adoption. Her romantic fantasies spun another alternative theory.
She imagined perhaps a sleek Parisian artist or exotic and mysterious Italian heiress as her grandmother and an American grandfather as the star-crossed lovers who met by chance in New York. Her chic and independent grandmother fled a war-torn Europe to arrive on the shores of America. They met and fell in love. Her father was evidence of their courtship. So, what happened? Where would she look for answers?
The table before her held pitiful piles of her history. She missed her father keenly at this moment. Anna had so many questions for him, the powerful and unreasonable urge to seek his advice and help made her heart ache. He had always been so good at solving mysteries, mostly because his attention to detail was legendary. He could spot an inconsistency or small anomaly that other people missed. He had been equally adept at focusing that skill in business, puzzles, or word games. It was a blessing when Anna was working with him but infuriating sometimes when he so easily solved a problem she had fussed over for hours.
Tears welled up in her eyes. She wanted his help, she wanted to know what this all meant, but most of all, she wanted him not to be gone.
“HAVE YOU REALLY THOUGHT THIS THROUGH?” MARGARET ASKED, HER voice concerned. “You are like my own niece, girl, and I don’t like the idea of you heading off alone.” Anna sat across from her in the living room and could see the uncertainty in the older woman’s eyes. Margaret had spent hours there in the Miller’s living room, but for the first time it felt odd sitting here, just the two of them, knowing that her father would never be walking through the door. Anna sat on the cozy lady’s chair, Margaret on the sofa. They both avoided the recliner, which had been James’ favorite spot. The small table that stood next to it was now empty, the evidence of his passions - books, his laptop, and several spiral notebooks filled with scrawled comments, observations, and reminders - now packed up with the other elements of his life.
“Yes, Margaret, this really feels right. I can finally take a breath, like I have something to focus on now.” Anna tried to keep her voice was firm and sound confident, looking around the room. “Being in this house, at first with all their things, and now even with their things gone; every day it just hurts so much. I have nothing left here, no life really.”
Margaret followed her gaze to the corner where the Christmas tree had stood every year, the wide front window with the built-in window seat where Anna had sat and read while her mother gardened outside, even the photos and paintings on the wall. The memories, good and bad, seemed to take over the space, crowding out energy for the living.
“I know I have you, Margaret, and my friends, but everyone has their own life. I need something of my own now. You know how many questions there are for me now. I am going to follow this trail. If there’s a mystery to be solved, I’m going to try to solve it.”
“But Idaho is so far to drive by yourself,” Margaret objected. “What if something happens? You will be all alone out there. But, I guess that’s never bothered you too much. You’ve always been so independent.”
“I’m okay by myself, Margaret, and even here, I’m pretty much alone. If I have family out there somewhere. I want to find them. But, maybe I don’t have family out there. In that case, I think it will be good to get away and think things through. Either way, I need to decide what’s next for me.”
“Anna, I will always be your family.”
“I know, and I feel the same. But, I have to do this. For me and for Dad. I feel closer to him finishing something he started.” Anna smiled blinking quickly to clear the ever-present tears that threatened to spill over as she walked over to Margaret.
“Anyway, I won’t go all the way to Idaho. I’m going to start in Wyoming, so that’s a little closer.”
Margaret rolled her eyes. “Huh. Not by much.”
Anna smiled. “Stand up and give me a hug,” she said.
Margaret complied, folding Anna into a rib-crushing embrace and holding her there tightly.
“Okay, okay,” Anna said laughing as she pulled away. “I do love you, you know.”
“And I you, Anna-girl.”
Anna drew in a deep breath, held it for a moment, and then exhaled quickly and nodded. Focused on the task at hand, she rattled off the practical details. “I’ve canceled the newspaper delivery and the cable service and the mail is on hold. The mortgage and utilities are on automatic payment from the estate account. Can you call Joe to have him take care of the mowing and anything that comes up? I cannot imagine there would be anything major that needs to be taken care of. Oh, here are the spare keys.” Anna spoke rapidly, firing information at Margaret as the tidbits came to mind.
She knew she was on the verge of nonsensical gibberish. What was she thinking? A cross-country trip with no real final destination. She knew her first stop was a small map-dot where she would search out clues to a mystery she barely understood, completely on her own, in hopes that at some point she wouldn’t be completely on her own. Did that even make sense? She decided it didn’t matter. It was an excellent excuse for a road trip and a distraction she desperately needed right now.
“Breathe, child.” Margaret smiled and gently took the keys. “Everything here will be fine. You just take care of yourself and check in with me often, okay?”
“Yes, I will. I’ll finish closing the house up today and pack the car. I’m having dinner with a couple of girlfriends tonight. I haven’t seen either of them in forever, they’ve both been busy with new babies. But it would feel weird if I didn’t say goodbye, so we all made time. I’ll leave first thing in the morning, but I’ll take my time. I’ll stop often along the way and see the sights.” Anna grinned and hugged Margaret one final time before they walked to the door.
Margaret left, and the silence of the house closed around Anna.
One more night and I’ll start on the next part of my life, she thought.