I had the perfect opportunity to peek inside the bag that afternoon in New York.
But I felt so honored that she entrusted it to me while she did the tourist bit out to the Statue of Liberty that I wouldn't have betrayed her trust for the world.
She was one of the many wonderful people who visited my table in the book room at the conference sponsored by Adoption Crossroads. Conference attendees included adult adoptees, first ('birth') parents, adoptive parents, social workers, various mental health professionals, and many others. They came from throughout the U.S. and elsewhere, every one with a story to share and many understanding and caring ears to hear.
I was known as The Button Lady, vendor of a large assortment of pin-back buttons with adoption reform mottos. The often-provocative mottos tended to generate lively discussions around my table.
I heard joyful reunion stories; sad rejection stories; reports of deception by agencies or individuals; laments of frustrated searchers; mothers' painful accounts of coercion or outright theft of their newborns; angry rants against discriminatory state adoption laws and more. Most stories, though poignant and profound, have drifted into a memory cloud with blurred details after all these years. A few, however, almost haunt me to this day.
Like the story of Rita* and her canvas bag.
After years of searching, Rita, a woman in her thirties, finally located the whereabouts of her birth mother––in Colorado––and tried to call her. After a couple of days of getting no answer, she called the woman's next door neighbor.
"Oh, my dear," the neighbor said. "I just came from her funeral."
Within hours, Rita flew to Colorado, where she learned she was the only living relative her mother had. Rita quickly established her legal blood kin status and paid to have her mother's body disinterred.
It had been only a day since burial, and Rita knew that if she didn't get to look on her mother's face then, the opportunity would be forever lost.
Alone before the opened casket, she touched her mother's face and laid a single rose on her hands. It's hard to imagine pain more acute than realizing she missed, by merely a few days, the opportunity to touch her mother and give her flowers while she was alive.
Among her mother's personal possessions she found a letter, addressed to Rita, postmarked months before but returned by the Post Office for incorrect address. The letter was in response to Rita's earlier attempt at contact, sent indirectly through the Social Security's confidential forwarding service.
Trembling, she opened the envelope. Rita read her mother's response to her query: Yes, she had the right person, and yes she would like very much to get to know her.
Her mother had never married; never had other children. She'd lived alone with a houseful of cats.
And she'd almost – almost – gotten to meet her only living relative: her daughter.
The bag had traveled with Rita to New York for the conference. And once there, it couldn't be left in her room, but had to be carried about with her everywhere. It was heavy; she often set it down beside her to give her shoulder a rest.
The trip out to the Statue of Liberty would have given her reason to leave the bag behind in her room. But she insisted on taking it with her. Until I offered to store it for her behind my table, where no one would disturb it, including me.
And she trusted me. After pondering for a minute or two, she carried the bag back behind my table where it was out of the way. She thanked me and departed, far less encumbered, on the special outing with the other conference attendees.
As I pondered the bag and its mysterious contents, I began to appreciate her almost infantile attachment to the items inside. They represented all that she had left of her mother. Precious items which, like a security blanket, gave her comfort as she made her way through her days, cheated out of meeting her mother but keeping a part of her close in a way that assured her they would never be separated again.
I can't begin to tell you how honored I still feel having been entrusted with her precious mementos.
Rita* is a pseudonym, as are all names in this series.