The Birthday Present
May 8, 1971, was my eighth birthday. Birthdays were never a big thing for me. I would always be asked by my mother what I wanted for my birthday and my usual response was the latest cool toy. However, I was always disappointed because my mother always bought me either clothes or a new doll. I never did understand why she asked me every year what I wanted when she was only going to buy me what she wanted anyway. This year when she asked me what I wanted for my birthday I said I wanted a new bike. A blue Schwinn bike to be exact. But I didn’t expect I would actually get one. I figured that this birthday wouldn’t be any different than past birthdays and I would probably end up with some dress I would never want to wear or yet another doll I would never play with.
There was one good thing about this birthday, I remember thinking. This year my birthday was on a Saturday. Being a Saturday I was glad not to be up early for school and was looking forward to watching cartoons after breakfast. I may not get my bike, but at least I could sit in my pajamas and watch cartoons.
Getting up out of bed, I went to the bathroom and quickly brushed my teeth, which was the prescribed morning ritual, before going downstairs for breakfast. Descending the stairs, I stopped at the landing where I could hear my parents talking at the kitchen table. Not being able to make out what they were saying, I scurried the rest of the way down the stairs, into the dining room and stopped at the door to the kitchen. As I stood there, I felt a sense of excitement as I saw a brand new blue Schwinn bicycle sitting right there in front of me on the kitchen floor. I remember that I was so excited that I couldn’t move. I just stood there staring at the bike with a huge grin on my face. Finally, after a few minutes, I looked up at my father who was sitting there in his usual spot at the kitchen table. “Happy Birthday kiddo,” he said to me as I stood there grinning ear to ear.
“Can I take it out for a ride?” Looking away from my father, I jumped excitedly on the bike, enjoying the feel of its perfection. Seeing the bell on the handlebars, I tried it out and delighted in its sound. This was the best birthday present ever.
“Don’t you get any tire tracks on my clean floor,” my mother barked from the other side of the kitchen.
“I won’t.” Being content for now with just sitting on my new bike, I did not want to piss off my mother and nix any chance I had to take the bike out for a ride.
“Did you brush your teeth?”
“Come and eat your breakfast.”
“But mom,” I whined moving my bike back and forth on the small three by five carpet, careful not to touch the wheels on the floor. I was having my first love affair with this bike and didn’t want it to end before it got started.
“Come on kiddo,” my father said intervening, knowing that a war of wills could break out at any time between me and my mother. “Eat your breakfast. There will be plenty of time to take that bike out later.”
Reluctantly, I got off the bike, went over to the table, and poured myself a bowl of cereal. As I sat silently eating, I would sneak an occasional peek at my new bike just to make sure I wasn’t imagining things. When I was finished, I sat back in my chair and looked at my mother. “Can I go now?” I asked, just as I was expected.
“No, not yet. Go rinse your bowl out in the sink and then I have something else to give you.”
Walking my bowl over to the sink, I turned on the water as I heard my father tell my mother “I still don’t think this is such a good idea.”
“It’ll be fine.”
“I’m just saying, I don’t think this is a good idea. She’s too young.”
“She’s not too young. It’ll be just fine,” I heard my mother say in her usual dismissive way. Giving my bowl a few extra rinses in the sink, I wanted to wait to make sure they weren’t going to start fighting. Feeling I couldn’t stall any longer, I turned the water off, put the bowl in the sink and turned back towards the table. Looking between them, I couldn’t help but wonder what the disagreement was about.
“Come and sit.”
Looking at the table, I could see a white envelope where my bowl had been just a few minutes before. Looking at my father, I could see a look of disapproval on his face but I didn’t know why, although I had a feeling it had to do with whatever was in that envelope. Looking over at my mother, I could see the impatience on her face as she looked from me over to my chair. Not waiting for her to say anything else, I returned to my chair and sat back down. I did not want to be on her bad side, not today. Not with my new bike sitting only three feet away.
“You’re getting to be a big girl now,” my mother started in a calm tone, “and I think that you should have what’s in that envelope.”
Picking it up, I looked at the return address. ‘Onondaga County, Family Court, 531 Montgomery St.’ Feeling a bit confused, I looked over at my mother. “What’s in it?” I asked feeling the thickness of the envelope.
“Well, you know that we have had many conversations about you being adopted.”
“Yes,” I said trying to figure out what being adopted had to do with what was in the envelope.
“Honey, please. She’s not ready for this yet,” my father tried interjecting one last time.
“Shut up!” Raising her voice to just below a screech she gave him the look that said ‘don’t interrupt me again’. Looking back to me, she tried to soften her tone. “You’re a big girl now aren’t you?”
“Yes mom,” I responded quickly, knowing it was always best to just agree with her. I still had no idea what I had to be old enough for or what could possibly be in the envelope that had to do with the fact that I was adopted. All I knew was that she was going to give me this envelope and it was best for me to just take it and not question her.
“See, even she says she’s old enough.” Giving my father the look that said ‘don’t interrupt me again’ she turned her attention back to me. “What’s in the envelope is your birth certificate, your baptismal certificate and papers that have to do with your adoption. Now, I want you to take that envelope and put it in a safe place so you don’t lose it. Okay?”
“Okay.” Feeling myself starting to fidget in my seat, I sat there still looking at the envelope but not opening it. The thought of opening it then and there never crossed my mind. No, my mind was racing for a place where I was going to keep this important envelope in a safe place in my room. “Can I go now?” I asked timidly, wanting to avoid what was coming next between my mother and father.
“Yes, you can go. But don’t dawdle too long watching cartoons. We have to go to your Aunt’s house this afternoon. She has a cake for you and wants us to come over for awhile.”
“Okay.” Getting up with envelope in hand I wanted to stay on her good side, at least for now. Giving my bike another loving touch, I quickly ran back upstairs to my room to watch cartoons and see what was in this mysterious envelope from ‘Family Court’.
Closing my bedroom door, I went over to the television and turned it on. Hearing the familiar hum of the tubes warming up I waited for a picture before turning the channel to my favorite Looney Tunes program. Usually the antics of Bugs Bunny and company kept me completely engrossed in their antics. But today the white envelope that my mother gave me trumped my love of cartoons.
Sitting down at my desk, I read the front of the envelope again. Turning the envelope over, I slowly pulled out the neatly folded papers that had been stuffed in the small envelope. Unfolding them, one at a time, I saw my baptismal certificate from our church and my birth certificate. As I dug deeper, I unfolded a very long piece of paper that was entitled ‘adoption decree’. ‘In the matter of Elizabeth Gendron, a child under the age of 18…’ Elizabeth, I thought. That was the name my other mother gave me when I was born. “Elizabeth,” I said out loud, trying the name on for size. I like that name. I wonder why my parents changed it.
Staring at the name for a while longer the realization that this person was me and what it actually meant to be adopted started to set in for the first time. They were talking about me. My name was Elizabeth Gendron. I was someone else’s daughter and my name was Elizabeth Gendron. That means that my other mothers’ last name was Gendron too. There’s a family out there somewhere with the last name of Gendron and I was once part of their family, I remembered thinking for the first time. I wonder what her first name is. Looking up at my reflection in the mirror, I wondered for the first time, do I look like her?
With curiosity getting the better of me I got up from my desk and went out to the hallway where the telephone and phone book were located. Bringing the book in my room I sat down on my bed and started to look for the name. “G..e..n..” I said out loud to myself as I flipped pages. Finding the right page, my index finger started down the columns: Genay, Gendahl, Gennet. No Gendron. Walking back to my desk I looked at the name again just to make sure that I was spelling it right.
My heart sank as I realized that they weren’t in the phone book. If they’re not in the phone book that meant that they don’t live here in Syracuse. Maybe they moved? I thought trying to rationalize why they weren’t in the phone book. A sense of sadness began to set in as I let the phone book slip out of my hands. They moved and left me behind. Why did they leave me behind? I wondered, feeling tears filling my eyes.
In the midst of my ponderings I heard my mother’s voice yelling up the stairs. “You better be getting dressed, we have to leave soon to go to your Aunt’s house,” her voice getting louder as she ascended the stairs.
“Oh no,” I thought, wiping my eyes quickly with the sleeve from my pajamas while feeling a knot forming in the pit of my stomach. She’s going to notice that the phone book is gone, I thought with a sense of panic beginning to build. Grabbing the phone book from the floor, I quickly went back to the phone stand and put it back under the phone as quickly and quietly as possible. Feeling guilty, as if I was somehow doing something wrong by looking at the papers that were in the envelope, I didn’t want my mother knowing what I had done. Hearing her continuing to ascend the stairs, I quickly folded the papers and returned them to the envelope before quickly opening the bottom desk drawer full of blue hanging folders. Finding the folder that contained my family tree project for school, I dropped the envelope in and quickly shut the drawer.
Giving my eyes a good wipe with my sleeve, I didn’t want my mother knowing that I had been crying or that I had looked at the papers in the envelope. Turning my attention to the cartoons on the television, I heard myself let out a nervous laugh as my mother poked her head through the door.
“Start getting dressed,” she said before heading off to her own bedroom.
“Yes mom.” Staring at the television, I let out a sigh of relief that she hadn’t noticed anything was wrong or out of place. Giving my eyes another good wipe, I looked towards my bedroom door to make sure I was alone. Getting up, I quickly dressed in my favorite jeans, t-shirt and sneakers. Ready to go, I sat back down and feigned watching cartoons until it was time to leave. Lost deep in thought, I pondered my birthday present.