Greetings, Mr. Warner –
In a little over a week, I’ll have my 77th birthday, a lucky number in some traditions. While you know me only as a file, # 156-40-304978, you’ve been very kind in providing me with facts that the law allows me to know. When you have a minute, let me tell you some things that aren’t in the file …
I wrote this letter to the man in the NY State Dept. of Health who helps those adopted in New York State find what the law permits them to know about their bloodlines and their heritage. Most adoptions are done through licensed agencies, and there is a lot available about the parents’ ethnicity, age, health, occupation, marital status, etc. By law, adoptees are entitled to everything that is “non-identifying information.” This rules out names, addresses, and anything that might help you search, but there’s usually a lot left over.
It was my misfortune to have been adopted and handed over through private channels, arranged before my birth, and my file doesn’t have much in it. Mr. Warner had to tussle with the Brooklyn judge in charge for years before he, as a state official, could have access to my records, but he fought the good fight.
It’s long been a mystery to me how a childless couple living in Chicago, later in the Indiana countryside, connected with Mary Fuller to negotiate adopting the baby she would have, given that I was born in Brooklyn. I know, that doesn’t necessarily mean begotten in Brooklyn, but it’s a place to start. In a letter from my dad to my mom, while Mary was still carrying me, he said, “Dearest do what you like about sending the check to the New York minister. I think it is very important however that you take no chances on this girl finding out who you are.” I gather that a church must have played some part.
I’d assumed Mary was a teenager, but I found that she was actually 23 when I was born, and that her lover was 29. That’s absolutely all I know about them.
I was always told I should be grateful to Nurse Larson, “who found you.” M. Burneice Larson ran a very prestigious medical placement agency in the Chicago Loop, five blocks from where my adoptive father worked as an executive for the American Meat Institute. I can’t imagine what circumstance caused their paths to cross, but obviously they did. She was of their age cohort, born in 1895 (my mother, 1892, father 1899). By coincidence, possibly meaningless, Mabel Burneice (odd spelling) was born in the Michigan UP, as was my mother. Scandinavians stick together.
I’ve been searching for decades, and a few years ago I thought I came up lucky. I found an English/Irish immigrant family in Manhattan—two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth. I always thought Mary must have had an important Elizabeth in her life, because she went against the norm in giving me a first name before giving me up. By custom, I would have been “baby girl Fuller,” but the Brooklyn register put it right out there, “Elizabeth Fuller.” I dug like a demon and found out a whole lot about the Fullers, probably some things their living descendants were unaware of. I thought I’d found my folks. When I made contact, they said, “Sorry. No way.” Then I had a DNA test.
My DNA ancestry test reveals me to be primarily French and German, with only small amounts of British, Irish, and Scandinavian. Then I remembered a very vivid past dream of looking at a map of Europe, specifically where France, Germany, and Switzerland meet. On the map I saw a dot labeled “Fuller’s Earth,” but since I’d not yet had my DNA test I paid little attention, other than to giggle at the pun (fuller’s earth is a type of clay used in processing wool).
That made it easier for me to let this family go. No, I’m not 50/50 English/Irish. But I came from somewhere.
Where did I get my music, which started leaking from my pores at an early age? How about my unusual memory, my tinker’s mechanical gifts, and the quirk that had me reading when I was three or four? Those things aren’t evident in Conrad’s background, but some of it passed on to our kids.
I’d like to find my tribe, and I’d like to have my kids know the hidden stories of their inner selves. I’m still looking. But in the meantime I’m giving thanks to Mr. Warner.
I’m butt ignorant when it comes to music. I know only enough to know how much I don’t know. I even have a hard time listening intently for more then thirty seconds unless I’m dancing or waving my arms around: I have to do something with it. Maybe that’s why people become conductors: they’re the only ones in the symphony hall allowed to wave and hop around.
All of which is preface to reporting that this week I listened to Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony twice—in separate movements while walking home, at the gym, or baking muffins. I found it intensely moving. Commemorating the 1906 revolution, it’s very programmatic—quiet protest, slaughter, grieving, outbreak—and one critic called it “film music without the film,” pretty accurate, I guess. But it’s one helluva film.
As I get older and fustier, I also become thirstier for strong emotion in art. I don’t mean the display of emotion; I mean taking the risk of evoking real feeling, whether it’s tragic empathy or horror or belly laughs. The creation whose function mainly is “innovation” or to “make people think” leaves me cold. I might well appreciate its gourmet skill, its tonal colors, its good intentions or its snark, but that’s like being served sushi when you really want chicken & dumplings. Not that I always want chicken & dumplings, but in the years that still remain to me, I want strong tastes.
Sometimes conceptualism or minimalism or abstraction will do that. If the level of obsession is high enough, as with Steve Reich’s endless progression through time with the slightest variations, it can be very moving. Part of our audiences’ intense response to our King Lear, I imagine, comes simply from the spectacle of two old actors riding the Brahma bull for a hundred minutes without perishing.
For me, it’s not a matter of going for emotion per se. It’s emotion that’s intense and honest. It’s not novelty or political relevance or hipness that makes the minutes or hours spent with Shakespeare or Rembrandt or William Kentridge or Bruce Connor worth expending, in their presence, my brief time on Earth: it’s their deepening my gut feeling of what it is to be human.