50 years ago today, a teenage girl in the Bronx gave birth. After, one hopes, a sufficient period of rest – and, I’m told, a fair amount of argument and determination – she was allowed to see her baby. It was a girl, with fine red hair, like that of her erstwhile lover, wherever he was. Vera had been toying with the name “Titania” for a girl, after the fairy in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; but at the last minute, filling out the birth certificate paperwork, she decided to drop the “Tit” and just go with “Tania.” The name of the baby’s father, she left blank. “It’s none of his business,” she muttered. She signed the form. Then she signed the relinquishment papers.
“Are you sure?” had asked her best friend, barely 17 herself, and in awe of everything Vera had ever done, and was about to do. “This is serious.” But once Vera had made up her mind about something, she was determined. She would not take that baby home.
Vera had a cousin Christine who was adopted, an only child. Christine always seemed to have the best of everything. “Lorraine,” Vera had explained, “when people adopt a child, go to all that trouble and work to get that child, that child is their LIFE. That child gets everything possible from them.” That is what she wanted for Tania, to be Christine (I am not making this up).
Vera’s hitchhiking days were over after Tania. She went home to live with her parents. She worked in their store. When they got old, she took care of them. She only married late in life, and didn’t have any more babies.
But she was a tremendous aunt, big sister, and cousin to her younger relatives; she was crafty, making them costumes and toys and dolls. But one doll that she made, she kept for herself and wouldn’t let any of them touch. “That’s my baby!” she would admonish them. It was a red-haired Raggedy Ann kind of doll that she called Tania. Her younger sisters and cousins would only put two and two together about that doll much later, when Tania herself had shown up on their doorstep.
We are all dealt our most important cards before we are even born, at conception, when our genes come together. I was dealt a big fat fateful card just days after my birth, when a 19-year-old girl made a big decision. And then, seven months later, I was dealt the formative cards of a mother, a father, and an older brother.
Now, there’s the cards you’re dealt, and then there’s how you play them. I think I’ve played a pretty tight game here. I’ve come up with some odd strategies that have nevertheless worked well for me, and when something has worked well, I’ve tended to stick to it, doggedly. Like Vera, I guess, I can’t be swayed.
And then, this card game itself is embedded in a larger game of dominoes. (Stay with me here.) Each moment of our lives is a domino, knocked down by the moment before it, and itself knocking down the next domino. Branching out from every single domino are the other paths which represent the choices or events that could have happened but did not. We are relentlessly knocking the dominoes forward. When something crazy happens, and you wonder, “Why did that happen?” “What a coincidence.” “Why did have to get hit by that car?” “Why couldn’t I have looked where I was going?” The answer is, because, something had to happen, and in this universe, that was the thing that did.
Vera, if you imagined a picture-perfect Life of Riley for me, where I’d be wearing satin frocks and playing with a small yappy dog, you might have been disappointed. I think I ended up in a neighborhood much like yours and surrounded by similar people. But I had one extremely important thing that you could not give me: I had two parents, always, the same two parents throughout my whole childhood and beyond. Though during the worst years I often wished that one of them would get the hell out of there, I do realize and appreciate the irreplaceable benefits of family and home stability to a child. I had two parents and I had the best education they could provide. This was no small card to have been dealt, its impact on my game not to be overlooked. Thanx, Vera, and Barbara, and John, for playing the cards that provided me with that.