The author’s history is a tangled web. After years of lies, he discovers he is the child of his mother’s love affair, adopted- not conceived- by the man who raised him. Here, adapted from his new book, Eleanor’s Rebellion, he begins to uncover the betrayal that began it all.
Nineteen seventy-five. I’m standing on another line. It’s a clear winter day and the cold is still on my hands and face. The bare green walls and dirty marble floor, the clerks sitting behind cages, the people filing through the room, all of it triggers vague fantasies of Ellis Island at the turn of the century.
I can’t really figure out why I’ve let myself in for this. I am utterly devoid of belief that I’ll find my birth time. But it’s become an obsession—for an astrology chart, of all things. It’s been two weeks since I was here last to get the birth certificate that didn’t contain the information I was looking for. I’ve taken the document out of my pocket countless times and read down the grained yellow page, line by line, name, mother’s name, father’s name, date of birth, place of birth, hospital, attending physician, and soon. Nothing. There are 1,440 minutes in twenty-four hours. One of those minutes on September 28, 1935 is mine.
The line moves slowly towards the clerk in the cage. I have my spiel ready when my turn comes. I tell her I want to know all about records pertaining to my birth that may be on file at this office. The clerk asks to see the document. I give it to her and watch her peruse it. A pause, a hiatus, something. The clerk suddenly holds the paper up, pokes a finger at it, and barks: “Who gave this to you? You had no business getting this!”
I take the paper from her to see what it is she’s trying to tell me. I look at the title. Where is the mistake? The words across the top, in large black Gothic letters are perfectly clear:
C E R T I F I C A T E OF B I R TH
Then, suddenly I see it. In all the times I’ve read and reread this document, folding it, putting it away, taking it out, reading it over line by line again and again, I’ve somehow missed it every time. Two small words like a name in the phone book, in plain roman print, fly up at me like a bat out of a barn door:
Nineteen thirty-five. My mother, Eleanor Segal, nineteen, discovered she was pregnant with me in her fourth month. She lived at home with her parents and two sisters in a comfortable but cramped apartment on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, near 163rd Street.
She grew to suspect she might be pregnant because she couldn’t account for why she was gaining weight yet eating less and less. She was also moodier than usual.
My mother needed to see a doctor and knew only one, an uncle named Jacob, called Docky, who was a tuberculosis specialist. When she was sixteen, this uncle had tried to force himself on her. I never learned whether he had succeeded. Now she set out to see him again. He ushered her into an office decorated with his degrees from Europe, Canada and the United States. The place was softly lamplit and smelled faintly of cigar smoke. There were several pictures on the desk; one of them was of her.
It took him no time to diagnose her. He put a stethoscope to her abdomen and heard a heartbeat. When he moved the instrument from his ears to his neck, he smiled.
“Boom-boom-boom, very healthy little socialist child,” he said.
“You can’t tell anyone,” my mother said.
“What’s to tell? I’m your doctor, you’re my patient.”
“Aunt Lee, my parents, Harriet, anyone!” There might even have been the edge of blackmail in her voice.
“You will have to have the child, you know that,” Docky said.
“Just … don’t … say …anything.”
Pinochle night. Everyone was there. The game took place in the foyer, on the linen-covered table, under a cloud of smoke that drifted up and formed a hazy ceiling above them en. The older women congregated in the living room over marzipan, strudel and coffee, the younger ones were in the back bedrooms.
My mother avoided eye contact with her parents and with her sister Harriet. There were two relatives she had planned to tell. One was Harold, a younger first cousin who had been a sidekick, confidant, and audience for years. Now the two of them sat at a white enamel kitchen table. My mother had closed the swinging door to the dinette area, which was usually kept open. She sipped at a glass of scotch and smoked a cigarette down. The story never got to her mouth. The door to the kitchen suddenly burst open and a phalanx of women marched into the room —her mother, Harriet, Aunt Lee.
Harold was asked to leave. The women closed the door behind him and came forward in a wall, positioning themselves at the kitchen table so my mother could not have gotten to her feet if she’d tried.
“Eleanor, Docky told us everything,” Lee announced from a vast height, a perennial pince-nez in place, arms folded across an expansive bosom.
“Eleanor, what in the world is wrong with you?”
A cataract of assault and accusation fell on her: “Ruin your life like this!” “Papa, poor papa!” “Deny …” “Ruin…” “Awful …” “Irresponsible …” “for the rest of your life.” My mother pushed herself to her feet, bumping into the women and knocking them back a clumsy step or two. But the game was up and she knew it. When her mother put a hand on her shoulder and pushed her back down in to the chair, she offered no physical resistance. The room eventually quieted down, and when it did a conspiracy was born.
The goal of the conspiracy was simple: to keep the news at all costs from her father, a sixty-one-year-old druggist who was considered so fragile he might be destroyed if he found out. Lee was the lead conspirator. As the director of a social service agency in Newark, she had a certain professional authority that matched her personality. She knew the places, the little out-of-the-way homes for wayward Jewish girls, places in Hoboken and as far away as Kokomo, Indiana, where a disgraced child could wait out her time, be delivered by a professional staff, and then be disencumbered of her burden, the bastard child, who would swiftly and anonymously be placed with the appropriate agencies. She also had figured out a way to keep my grandfather in the dark.
My mother was to be diagnosed with tuberculosis. Docky, a TB specialist after all, would make the diagnosis and the arrangements for her removal to a sanitarium far from the city, too far for anyone in the family to visit. Meanwhile, a reservation would be made for my mother in one of these lying-in places; she would wait out her time in safety and then return home after she gave birth. All of this was laid out with a sense of irrefutable logic. How else to arrange for a very compromised young woman to put the past behind her and get on with her life?
My mother wanted no part of homes in Hoboken or Kokomo. She did not want to surrender her child. She wanted her father kept out of it, that was all. So she went along—and did not—at the same time. She had no trouble with the tuberculosis part but told the others she would make her own living arrangements. She would figure out the giving-birth part later on.
So one night, my grandmother explained to her husband that their daughter had not been well lately, that she had taken her to see Docky, who had examined her and given her a chest X-ray, and that the results were not good. My mother watched her father’s face actually seem to lose its definition as he took in the news. He was heartbroken. She tried to shut her ears when the questions came. Finally, she left the table, saying she did not feel well, closed herself in her bedroom, and sobbed into her pillows.
After dinner, by prearrangement, Docky and Lee arrived at the house. He had a large manila envelope under his arm, from which he removed an enormous X-ray of an obvious pair of lungs. He waved the sheet of film around as he described it in technical terms—which he then translated—the etiology of the lesion, the location of the tubercles, how bad it all was … and how he had already taken it upon himself to make arrangements for Eleanor to go to a sanitarium in Saranac, New York, the best facility in the East, he said, where she would be cured, completely cured within six months.
My mother gave birth to me using an assumed name at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital—in Washington Heights, in Northern Manhattan. Sometime after that I was placed in a foster home. Though at the outset my mother’s family, particularly Lee and Harriet, were clearly determined to have me adopted, it soon became apparent that my mother was not willing to go along. What at first was confusion in her mind soon became a determination to hold on to her child, regardless of what anyone said or did.
By the end, there was one more major conspirator, an aunt. Rose, who took in foster children to make money and was brought in to help convince my grandfather to do the same. So my grandfather went along. One day, I—the unidentified foster child—was brought home, I was blond, very blond, and had eyes that looked like blueberries, set in a very solemn face. My grandfather was supposed to have laughed the first time he saw me.
“What’s his name?” he asked.
“David,” he was told.
My mother had been home for over a year now, recovered from her tuberculosis. But she continued to look pale and puffy, and her spirits constantly seemed to be dragging. However, she was the first in the family to exhibit affection for “the child.” She very quickly took to “him” and became my principal caretaker, this fact was observed with pleasure by others, especially her father, who was encouraged by anything that seemed to rouse his daughter from her unsettling lethargy. Sometime later, after everyone was used to having a foster child in the house, and long after friends and neighbors had become accustomed to seeing me around, my grandfather was told the truth.
His wife told him one night after dinner, carefully explaining to him why he had been kept out of the loop for so long. He listened in astonishment as the details of the hoodwinking were presented to him, slowly and methodically, like the opening of a nest of Chinese boxes, one opening to the next.
I can imagine my grandfather at the table at that moment. I can picture the long silence that followed the story, and how he might have lowered his head slightly, gazed forward, chin inclined downward a bit into his chest. When he got angry, his look became dreamy rather than roiled. This dreamy look of his, however, never failed to frighten his family.
“For God’s sake, Mutya, don’t just sit there!” his wife said into the silence at the table.
“Let me understand,” he volunteered finally, his low voice in a sleepy buzz. “You lied to me, is that right?” “Docky lied to me, Lee lied to me, is that right? The medical reports, the X-rays, all lies, is that right?”
“We did this for you, Papa! No one wanted you to be hurt,” my mother said.
“For me?” he said. He got up from the table. “You thought it would be better for me to think you had tuberculosis rather than that you were pregnant?”
My mother told me that her father did not blame her but his wife for the betrayal, and that he did not forgive her for the rest of his life.
Excerpted from Eleanor’s Rebellion by David Siff. Copyright (c) by David Siff. Reprinted with permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.