I wanted to use every color of oil I had and this is what resulted:
I wanted to use every color of oil I had and this is what resulted:
In the Bourne Trilogy, Jason Bourne is an amnesiac. He knows nothing of his past and is desperately trying to figure it all out, a situation I can well relate to.
This scene from The Bourne Identity especially hits home as Bourne suddenly discovers that he has abilities that he never knew he had. His looks of surprise at what he can instinctively do are priceless.
On a slightly less badass level, it reminds me of when, out of financial desperation, I spontaneously started a painting/handyman company in New York City and, to my surprise, discovered I had a propensity for it. Some customers even asked me, ‘did you go to school for this? and, over the course of a decade, I was recognized for my work in three separate publications.
Where did that knack come from? It seemed contrary to who I really was, or rather, who I had been told that I was by the people who raised me. My adoptive mother forbade my adoptive father from teaching me how to use tools and yet here I was as an adult instinctively having a knack almost as if I’d been born with the ability.
But that couldn’t be possible. Aren’t adopted children blank slates?
Upon meeting my mother for the first time, she told me that her father had been a welder and my own father a tile setter.
In May 2016, I ate at a restaurant for the first time with my mother.
She was seventy-nine years old.
I was forty-eight.
Why did we wait so long to squeeze in a dinner?
Too busy? Were all the tables booked?
Or was she forced to give me up for adoption because she was an unmarried mother in ultra-conservative 1960′s Saint Louis, Missouri?
That’s a rhetorical question.
The answer, of course, is that all the tables were booked.
I’m not sure how you met your mother – perhaps at birth – but me, I hired a detective to track mine down.
“Tracking down” is perhaps an overstatement.
She wasn’t really on the lam, running through the woods on a rainy night, me behind her clutching a torch with the detective and hunting dogs in tow.
Rather, she was just quietly sitting alone in her HUD-subsidized apartment, watching Spike TV, not far outside Saint Louis.
And being slowly suffocated by memories of the life she could have had.
Perhaps I’m inferring that last part.
She never married.
And she never had any other children.
From looking at her life, you could almost get the impression she had been traumatized in some way.
As if having her child taken away from her was an upsetting event she could never quite get over.
My mother’s last name is Ludwig.
She had planned on naming me Mark.
That would have made me Mark Ludwig.
Now, when I look in the mirror, I see two names looking back at me.
Being adopted truly is a Zen exercise.
A daily reminder that the name of a thing is not actually the thing.
With the help of DNA and the detective, I’m currently, albeit somewhat halfheartedly, trying to locate my father.
And I’m also still trying to nail down that free-floating lack of identity I have that is so common among adoptees, trying to nail it down to something solid.
At last having a family tree, or at least half of one, has certainly helped.
As does having learned my family history.
And having seen family photos.
Every morning I look at the photo of my mother next to my desk and am comforted by my resemblance to her.
The eyes, the nose, the chin, the smile.
Those are the physical characteristics.
The roots, the history, the belonging, the sheer grounding in time and space.
Those are the unseen factors.
I grew up never having seen anyone I looked like.
Never having touched anyone I’m related to.
And despite all this loss being burdened with the expectation of gratitude
The choruses, both sung and silent, of “you’re so lucky you’re adopted!”
If all this sounds like a profoundly disorienting way to grow up
Perhaps a hindrance to one’s psychic development
The key word for me when I was growing up in Missouri in the 1970s was “wondering.”
I was an adopted kid and would wake up every day wondering what my parents looked like. I had adoptive parents, of course, but I knew that we weren’t related – so it was more than a bit surreal. We play acted like we were all really related, because that seemed to be what was required, but none of us could really pull it off. Despite being told at a young age that I was adopted – “other people had to have their children but we chose you” – this elephant in the room was nonetheless not be further spoken of.
So, day after day, month after month, year after year, I would wake up wondering. And while others were busy planning their lives and their futures, I was busy wondering where I actually came from and and from whom exactly and what the hell it all meant.
This wondering – which to an outside observer could be construed as spaced out drifting – lasted a long, long time.
Eventually, for various reasons, I landed in New York City and, by the age of twenty eight, my wondering was getting very intense and life disrupting. I realized that I had to try to find these people who brought me into the world.
I made some inquiries and was quickly connected with a detective near Saint Louis – a female detective named Virginia. Virginia was a mid-fifties half-native American and like a film noir character – chain smoking, pistol-toting and drawling out her words with casual irreverence. She was cynical but hopeful. She was fatalistic. I immediately adored her.
This being before email existed, Virginia and I spoke on the phone a few times. I told her my story. She said in her Missouri twang, “kiddo, I’ve been doing this a long time and I know what I’m doing. We’re going to find your mother.”
Click. The line went dead.
Virginia had hung up and I didn’t know if I’d ever hear from her again.
About a week later, Virginia called. “I found your mother. I talked to her. She says she’s okay with you calling her. Write down this number.” With shaking hands, I wrote down the number. “Call her and let me know how it goes.”
I sat there for a while holding this piece of paper with my mother’s phone number scribbled on it. My actual mother’s actual phone number on it.
Things were getting scarily real.
I didn’t call her that night and I didn’t call her the next night. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. On the third night, I finally called her.
A woman answered. I said, “hi, my name is Mike Trupiano. May I speak with Patricia Ludwig?”
A very soft voice said, “yes, that’s me. Virginia said that you might be calling.”
We talked a little while. I have no idea what we talked about. I know I asked, “how long was labor?” (it was three hours) but other than that, I can’t recall a thing. After about fifteen minutes of talking, I hear a voice in the background on the phone yell, “that’s long enough!”
As I quickly learned, my mother at the age of fifty eight still lived with her mother and her mother was none too happy that I tracked them down. Her mother, my grandmother, had forced my mother to give me up for adoption.
When my grandmother barked, “that’s long enough!”, my mother said to me, “well, let’s save some for next time” and I said “okay. Sure.” We hung up. About a week later, I called again and we chatted and after about fifteen minutes on the phone, my grandmother again yelled – not, “oh, my God, is that my long lost grandson? I can’t wait to finally speak with him! Put him on!” No, rather, she instead yelled, “that’s long enough!” and my mother again said, “let’s save some for next time” and we hung up.
A week later, I called a third time. We chatted and my grandmother yelled and my mother said, “let’s save some for next time” and we hung up.
A pattern was emerging.
I needed to figure out what my next move was. I was confused. I called Virginia my Midwestern film noir detective and, coughing from her chain smoking coming through the phone lines, told her what had been transpiring with the phone calls.
I told Virginia, “I think if I ask my mother to meet me, she’s going to ask her mother if it’s okay and her mother is going to say, ‘no.’ So, I don’t know what to do. I almost feel like I just have to show up on her doorstep.” I heard Virginia take a drag and exhale before saying, “that’s a great idea. I’ll drive you down there.”
I thought, ‘well, all right. I’m visiting my hometown at Christmas and this was already November. So, stop by my mother’s house is what I’ll do.’
On the flight down to my hometown, however, I started thinking, ‘what exactly is my plan here? How am I going to do this? Am I just going to show up? Yeah, okay, and then what?’
Then it occurred to me that the best solution would be to pose as a delivery man.
I had been a pizza deliveryman. So, I was comfortable faking the vibe and demeanor. But what should I bring? A pizza? It was a few days before Christmas so – a Christmas card delivery?
As promised, Virginia drove me down to my mother’s house. Neither of us even knew what my mother looked like but we did know her address: 4525A Flora Avenue.
For this excursion into the city, I was dressed normally – long pants, collared shirt. I carried a clipboard because in my frenzied state of mind I somehow thought that a clipboard made me look official and more believable.
Clipped to the clipboard was a Christmas card.
I was a deliveryman delivering a Christmas card. This was our story and we were going with it.
I rung the doorbell and I heard someone walk down stairs to the front door. The door cracked open and a frail, fiftiesh woman wearing wire-frame glasses peered out, saying, “yes?”
“I have a delivery for Patricia Ludwig,” I say.
“Oh, that’s me,” she says, somewhat excitedly.
She came out on the porch and signed for the card. I was sticking with my bogus deliveryman story even as I knew that she didn’t believe it and she knew that I knew that she didn’t believe it.
Virginia sat in the car peering up at us on the porch. Virginia told me later that my mother could not take her eyes off of me the entire time I was on the porch, staring intensely, her eyes burning through me.
I looked just like him apparently. That’s what my mother told me later. I looked just like my father, the guy who was probably named Frank Romeo who she had a few dates with and then told her to, “watch out, would ya, with the lipstick on the collar?” My mother inferred from this that, rather than being sartorially fastidious, he was more than likely married and when he called again, she told him she was pregnant.
Now it was Frank’s turn to go ‘click’ and bye, bye Frank if that even was your name.
As I stood on the porch, my mother staring at me, I knew she knew who I was but I could not articulate what I wanted to say.
I wanted her to tell me the entire story of everything ever.
I wanted her to take me inside to meet her mother, my grandmother.
From what little I remember, we just stared at each other, reunited at last.
Then, at what surely must have been the fifteen minute mark, her mother yelled down the stairs, “that’s long enough!”
I don’t remember that grandma yelling part.
Virginia told me about that part years later.
That’s how out of it I was on my mother’s porch.
The next thing I remember was sitting next to Virginia with her driving through the city night and thinking, ‘I can’t believe it’s over. I did it. I know what my mother looks like. I can’t believe it. The simplest thing in the world. I know what my mother looks like and I’m going to wake up tomorrow and what what my mother looks like. Things will never be the same.’
Virginia puffed away, blowing it out the window.
At a stoplight, she grins at me out of the side of her mouth, softly punches me on the shoulder and said, “Kiddo, I told you we’d find your mother. Now…about your father…”
When I was growing up in the ’70s in the suburbs of Saint Louis, Missouri, baseball and football were king.
The Cowboys. The Bears. The Cardinals.
While other boys idolized Roger Staubach and Johnny Bench, I, however, worshipped Der Kaiser, Franz Beckenbauer, the brilliant soccer midfielder who led Germany to the World Cup.
Franz was my guy. I had posters of him on my wall. In 1970s Missouri, this was considered aberrant behavior almost worthy of psychological intervention. And if anyone had actually believed in psychology in 1970s Missouri, then I probably would have experienced a little psychological intervention.
Soccer was terra incognita back then in America. The World Cup was not even televised and I had to secretly get videotapes of the World Cup on the black market. Soccer was not American and apple pie but something foreign, something suspect.
Later, as the years piled up, I realized I wasn’t merely obsessed with soccer. What I had instead was a full blown case of Germany obsession, a malady which had not been seen in America for over a century.
At the age of nine and ten, while Three’s Company was blaring from our television, I would pore over maps of Germany and was endlessly fascinated. Depending on the day, I’d say something to my parents along the lines of:
“We eat these things called Braunschweiger sandwiches. Do you know there’s a town in Germany called Brauncschweig?”
They didn’t know.
“Hey, there’s a town called Hamburg. What food could have come from there? Huh? What do you think? Want to guess?”
I was an adopted kid and my adoptive parents had no clue what to do with me and my Germany obsession.
In high school, when I learned to my chagrin that my school did not offer German as a foreign language, I was duly outraged. To my fourteen year old mind, this was scandalous. What, pray tell, were we to study then? French and Spanish – the other languages offered?
Fuming, I thought, ‘why would anyone want to study a clunky language like Spanish when you could imbibe the mellifluous mother tongue of Kant, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche? Why would you want to spend a year abroad in Barcelona, of all places, with the food and the music and the weather when you could instead spend that time on the Baltic Sea in gloomy Kiel?
Which is what I did. I studied in Kiel and I took in everything Kiel had to offer – from the Sturm und Drang weather to the submarine museum.
All good things must end and so I eventually returned to America but soon realized that I had only begun to scratch my Germany itch. I was still obsessed with all things Deutsch and knew I just had to somehow get back there.
In New York City, when I was in the theater world, I dated German women. I even dated a woman with the Wagnerian name of Runhilde. In retrospect, I can’t believe it. My friends at the time couldn’t believe it. How do you meet a German Runhilde at an Irish bar surrounded by Marys and Colleens?
How indeed. But quite logical if you’re a homing pigeon locked on Germany.
I eventually married a German woman, not named Runhilde, and, for a variety of reasons, one of which was to allow me to continue to scratch my Germany itch, we moved to Berlin. And, after a few years there, to my amazement, my itch, instead of lessening, began to grow even stronger.
I wanted even more to know everything about the country, the history, the culture. I wanted to somehow fit in – to become German, to blend in, the meld with my surroundings, to become part of a greater whole. It was completely irrational but at the time made perfect sense. Why everyone didn’t want this was beyond my comprehension.
As I mentioned before, I was an adopted kid and, after a few years in Berlin, I was referred to an American detective who I was told could help me locate my birth mother. Almost immediately, she found my birth mother.
I flew to my hometown and met my mother. Through talking to her and her extended family, I began to get acquainted with my family history.
For one thing, my mother’s last name is Ludwig. A German name.
When I learned that my mother’s mother’s last name was Heidger, another piece of the Germany puzzle snapped into place.
Great grandparents on one side and great great grandparents on another hailed from Germany, the land I was inexorably drawn to since birth, trying to reclaim something beyond my understanding.
My ancestors spoke German at home and cooked German food.
As I listened to these tales of my roots, I began to get a little annoyed but then, soon after, I felt relief. I thought, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me. Are you telling me that this lifelong Germany obsession – the drive behind all this – has been just me looking for my mother?’
That seems to be the case.
This weight I felt for eons – the burning compulsion to understand Germany and, against all odds and hope, to fit in in Germany and somehow become German – this weighty obsession dropped from my back immediately upon finding my mother, never to be felt again.
But now I’m in Germany.
And I’m not certain anymore why.
June 1976. I was eight. Almost nine. We – my parents in the front seat and my six year old sister in the back – were driving from my hometown of Saint Louis, Missouri to Los Angeles and then, unfortunately, back.
Barreling down the highway, we saw an ungodly amount of cars for Wyoming (about twelve) clumped together and an ice cream stand and, thank the merciful Lord, a bathroom.
Apparently, this was yet another natural wonder site – an otherworldly clump of rocks in a weird color. Or maybe that was South Dakota. I forget. Most of the trip I had my head buried in my horror comics. The greedy boxer who drank the potion to give him superhuman mass had just sunk to the earth’s core and, in an ironic twist, was being pummeled by mole men. I had no time for scenic vistas.
We grabbed our ice creams and stood with the others staring off into the near distance at the immensity of it all or something like that but my mind was elsewhere. On the mole men, yes, of course, but also I couldn’t stop thinking about the pile of money that we passed on the walk from the car to our current location.
My sister Dana had seen it too. We exchanged glances and slowly backed up from the group as new aficionados arrived. We walked quickly to the fountain and stared hard at the loot gently ensconced in the water, smiling at us, winking, beckoning. I felt dizzy.
I had seen a wishing well before, of course, but never in my almost nine years on this planet had I seen this kind of haul. This was the motherlode. Twelve, maybe thirteen dollars.
I looked at my sister. She knew the routine. We’d run this sort of thing before in our hometown but on a much smaller scale.
By this time in my checkered history, I already had been busted many times for thievery – Juicy Fruit from Burt’s Five & Dime, Archie comics from Woolworths, and miscellaneous school supplies from St. Rita’s, my grade school (“Why do you have fifty pencils and nine chalkboard erasers under your mattress? my mother asked one day at breakfast. “What’s that?” I said). The list was long.
Of course, I didn’t need the stuff I pilfered. Half the time, I didn’t even want it. I just liked the buzz, the rush of it. So much better than kickball.
And coming from the middle of America with a Catholic father and a Southern Baptist mother in perpetual conflict about which version of guilt would rule the house – well, that just made it all the more exciting. Everyone was always on the precipice of hell anyway – so why not take a little control of the situation? Such was my logic.
Going to weekly confession and neglecting to mention that week’s crimes was a middle finger to all that was sacred. “Nothing new this week father. Maybe I didn’t pay attention enough in religion class. I’m sorry about that.” “Just try more next time. Five Hail Mary’s.” “Thank you, father.”
But that was all peanuts compared to a Wyoming wishing well. This was big money. I was already feeling the rush.
So, as people stood at the fountain, closed their eyes and made their wishes, Dana and I made our move. Slowly, methodically, ever aware of our surroundings, we shoveled more and more coins into our pockets. The others either didn’t notice us or, cherubic as we were, or they couldn’t quite comprehend what they were seeing. And if someone did glance our way, we would close our eyes and mumble a prayer.
On and on it went. The wet coins soaked through our pants. It was summer but cool nonetheless so we were wearing jackets. Great for us. More pockets and also cover for our leaking pants pockets.
Where our parents were while all this transpired, I can’t imagine. At some point, we were back in the Pontiac station wagon and driving west again. Dana and I were cool as cucumbers. Mission accomplished.
Then, suddenly, things got weird. It all started to get to me. The apocalyptic Wyoming landscape began to taunt me – the burned out cars abandoned roadside, the burned down churches with trees growing through the roofs. The sun began to set.
We kept driving past and through it all. Now a burned down gas station. Now a mangled antelope by the side of the road. A coyote stared at us.
“Oh, God,” I murmur, “looking out the window. “He knows. God knows. This will soon be me laying on the side of the road.”
My mother looked back. “How you guys doing back there?” “Good.” The sunset glares red in my eyes. Water, warm like blood, trickles down my leg.
“What’s up with the water?, “my mother barked. “Open your jacket.” I opened my jacket. My sister opened her jacket. Busted. She glares at us and then my father. He looks scared.
They pull over and the Catholic and the Southern Baptist fire and brimstoners began to formulate a plan of familial redemption. The only solution to save us from perdition, they surmised, was to not enjoy the money. The only solution was to find a church, not yet burned down, and to give it to them to do whatever they wanted with it – rebuild a burned down church, perhaps.
So, we kept driving and driving and driving. Finally, we saw it – a functioning church. My mother leaned in the backseat, eyes blazing with rage and fear, and spat out through clenched teeth, “I’m gonna march you kids right up there and you are going to give this money to the priest and tell him what you did, you bad kids!”
Weighted down with coins, water, guilt and shame, we slowly trudged up the hill to the church rectory. The sun had been down now several hours. A cold wind blew. A coyote howled. We heard a television and knocked softly. No answer. We knocked louder. No answer. We rang the bell. At long last, a priest cracked open the door. An older man with a gentle face. “Yes?”
Our mother exclaimed, “father, we’re very sorry. These are very, very bad children. They’re going to explain to you what they’ve done.”
My sister and I explained ourselves with quivering voices and beseeching eyes. Our very souls depended on this man. He nodded sternly, a faint smile crossing his lips, which he, sensing my mother’s mounting fury, promptly made even more sterner.
“Father, we are so sorry. We took this money -” –
“Correction. You stole that money,” our mother said.
“We stole this money from a wishing well in Wyoming. We are very sorry. Please take this and give it to charity.”
“Oh, children. That was a bad thing you did,” the priest said, “but you’ve now done the right thing and all is now good in the eyes of God. God is all forgiving and forgives you.”
Our mother softly gasped.
We all three glance at her. She looked disappointed, like she needed a little more.
But the holy man had spoken. So, we unloaded our pockets on a blanket on his porch and then stumbled forlornly down the hill in the moonlight, kicking rocks as went, our mother behind us saying the priest was too lenient and our father studying a map in the car trying to locate our hotel.
As we drove away, I caught eyes with my sister, fingering the few coins I had managed to hide in my pocket, and couldn’t help but wonder if she was thinking like me:
The American West is big. There will be other wishing wells. And next time -next time we’d get it right.
My current doctor knows my story.
…or lack thereof…
I’m comfortable with him.
By staying with him, I can avoid THE QUESTION that adoptees abhor.
THE QUESTION is what a doctor asks you at the very first exam.
THE QUESTION goes something like this:
“Any history of heart attack, stroke, debilitating diseases in your family?
For me, when I hear THE QUESTION, being an adoptee, my eyes glaze over and my thoughts wander.
In my mind, I’m suddenly a character alone on a stage, a stage bereft of life, perhaps only a lone tree, possibly like Waiting For Godot.
I always liked the name and was once certain that I had Russian roots.
I speak haltingly, yearning, confused, perhaps speaking to Godot himself, gazing blankly into the distance.
“Family medical history?
Is that what you ask, good sir?
Is that the data you require?
(I walk to the front of the stage, peering out)
I…I don’t know. I just don’t know the answer.
I wish I knew but I don’t.
(I pensively take my bowler in my hand)
I do wonder – will death arrive soon?
A heart attack?
Perhaps already growing?
(I lean against the tree)
If I were to somehow know this history…would I then be safe?
But that is an impossibility.
Knowledge is an impossibility.
The records are sealed.
Far from here.
So, I wander the earth.
Waiting for the inevitable diagnosis.
(Blackout. Thunderous applause)
In actual earth time, about one second has passed since the question was posed.
I say calmly to my new caregiver, my torturer.
“I don’t…know my family history. I’m adopted.”
My doctor, taken aback, stares for a few seconds at the void, then proceeds.
“Well, then. Let’s have a listen to that heart.”
Things, however, are different since I found my mother.
Now I know some family history.
Now I’m ready for THE QUESTION.
I actually look forward to it.
But no one asks.
What I need, I have concluded, is a new doctor.
A new doctor would ask me THE QUESTION.
I’ve waited my entire life to answer THE QUESTION.
With a new doctor, I would at last have my triumph.
I’m quite sure it would go something like this:
“What’s that you ask, doctor?
My family medical history?
Well, I just happen to have that information.
Heart disease, it seems, was rampant
with many dying quite young from it.
My grandfather Jack, for instance, died of it in his fifties and his father, August –
he hailed from Southern Germany
near Stuttgart –
a town called Uhingen –
died of it in his forties.
My Uncle John, he was a hell of a drinker and, coming home late one night, drove he and his girlfriend –
he was married at the time with six kids –
anyway, he was plastered apparently and drove his red ‘65 Chevy Impala into a telephone pole and killed them both instantly in a fiery wreck.
Oh – and Uncle Rich –
he was tall like me –
he was what we’d today call bipolar and shot himself behind the barn.
Unfortunately, he didn’t die immediately but was laying in the cow manure too weak to move for three days with the crows pecking at him.
That’s what the coroner said anyway.
That explained the missing skin.
My great grandfather Heinrich had severe depression –
Or “the blues” as they his wife Hildegard called it –
and apparently walked the earth like a zombie, barely lifting his eyes to meet yours,
except when he flew into a rage.
Everyone called him a “good for nothing.”
And Aunt Jeannie, my mom’s sister, insisted on a having a career but the family put her in an asylum for being uppity.
Too much electroshock took her down.
And Jake, my grandmother’s first cousin –
he drank himself to death on highballs.
He had both been diagnosed with incurable bone marrow cancer
and understandably wanted to drown his sorrows.
My new doctor glances up at me over his glasses.
beaming with pride,
finally grounded in the earth
and not a leaf adrift.
Alcoholism, depression and suicide?
At least it’s something real.
Sign me up!
Author: Mike Trupiano
Copyright May 8, 2017