The secret
wedding party

A daughter adopted at birth resurfaces
in Maxene Raices’ life and helps heal
old wounds. But secrecy still looms.
Winner of our first Personal
Journeys Writing Contest.

I was in the middle of cooking dinner when my daughter called to tell me the news.

"David and I have made our plans and are getting married in March," she said, her voice filled with excitement.
At the age of 32, my daughter Linda had met the man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. Her announcement should have led to joyous laughter, heart pounding excitement and wedding planning. Instead, her phone call left me with a vacant place in my heart. I was not invited, nor was her father.

"Unfortunately, I can’t have you there," she said, her voice trailing off.

2

Buried secret
Six years earlier, I had met my daughter for the first time since giving her up for adoption at birth. I was 17 and her father, my boyfriend Romolo, was in his first year of college. I was about to leave for college when I found out I was pregnant. It was 1964; abortion was illegal. These kinds of dark secrets were hidden behind the facade of outwardly appearing "normal" families. Both our families wanted us to complete our educations.

Our parents presented us with two options for keeping the child: My mother could raise her while I went to college, or my boyfriend's mother could raise her. His mother was an Italian immigrant with limited English language skills and a tendency toward hypochondria. She had come to this country in support of her husband the tailor, who wanted to make a fresh start for him and his family. My mother was high strung. I appreciated her offer but knew raising a child was not something she wanted at this stage in her life.
Neither choice felt right. Adoption was the best option. The challenge was to keep it all a secret.

My mother called a friend who found me an apartment in Newburgh, N.Y., a working man’s town 70 miles north of New York City, where we lived. And a relative put us in touch with a lawyer who could make the private adoption arrangements. We visited his dark wood-paneled offices in New York City and sat in oxblood leather chairs across from his desk as he reassured us we were making the right decision.

"The young couple who are interested will be excellent parents and have already adopted another child. I'll take care of everything," he said, addressing my mother, as if I weren't in the room.

"Did you bring the photograph of the birth father and one of her?" He looked in my direction as if I were a sculpture. Directing his comments to my mother, he went on, "I want to be able to show them that they're both very attractive young people and come from good families."

My mother handed over my prom picture: me in a strapless white and silver threaded dress, him in a rented black tuxedo. I am invisible, I thought as I sat in the enormous maroon wingback chair. I'm an auction item being examined before the final offer.

At 17, I packed my bags and was driven to my temporary home, away from the prying eyes of neighbors, friends and family, banished from our community to bear a child that would be given up for adoption. I moved into a two-bedroom flat behind a store in a rundown area of town. The rent would be paid by the soon-to-be adoptive parents through their lawyer.

I assumed the persona of the wife of a Vietnam draftee, forced to have her baby while her husband was overseas. A fake wedding band completed the picture. Then I spent the next four months alone in the tiny apartment with gray linoleum floor and peeling wallpaper. Occasionally Romolo would leave Columbia University and take the bus from Manhattan to clandestinely visit me. Our parents remained unaware that we continued to see each other.

One evening when Romolo was visiting, I went into labor. He quickly exited to avoid being seen, while I called my mother and a taxi to take me to the hospital. The baby arrived full term the next morning on Dec. 27, 1964. I didn’t see her until the fourth day, when I was to be released. I was handed my baby and told to dress her in clothes provided by her adoptive parents.

Her eyes were closed, but I could tell her lashes were long like mine, and her silky cap of brown hair was so soft. As if in slow motion, I dressed her and, holding her in my arms, was wheeled out of the hospital, numb to the reality of the moment.

The automatic doors of the hospital opened, and the lawyer stepped up to take the baby to the new parents. I got in my mother's car, and she insisted I lay down in the backseat to avoid being seen as she drove out of the parking lot. A thick veil of silence fell over us as we drove along the parkway. All emotions were buried.

Three months of difficult, empty days followed as I killed time at home until I could belatedly start college and pretend to the world I had simply been ill.

A year later, my mother and I had to revisit the oxblood chairs to finalize the arrangements. Behind the lawyer, I noticed a cluster of framed family photographs on the credenza, including one of a tiny little girl crawling across the floor.

After we left the lawyer's office that day, my mother turned to me.

"Did you see the pictures on his credenza?"

"Yes I did, why?"

"The one of the crawling toddler looked so much like you when you were that age. I think that is your daughter!"

I stopped in the hallway of the office building and felt weak. I leaned against the wall to catch my breath, which had just been punched out of me.

The lawyer whom we trusted with this difficult decision had arranged the adoption on behalf of his own childless daughter without ever revealing his true intentions. He was now my daughter's grandfather.

3

Deep, unspoken chasm
All through college, I continued to date Romolo. After graduation in 1968, I began working as a ninth-grade English teacher in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Romolo had graduated premed the year before and was soon drafted into the Army. He had just finished basic training and was home that winter before being shipped off to Germany. He came to my house one evening and proposed. He wanted me to join him overseas. I found a white wool dress, ordered a cake, invited a handful of relatives and later that week we were married in my parents' living room in front of the fireplace.

I finished out my first year as a teacher, and joined him in Germany that June.

Our daughter was 5 years old by then. Every year, around Christmas and Hanukkah, I found myself wanting solitude. My daughter's birthday, Dec. 27, and the holiday season was a reminder of my loss. I often thought about her during this time, wondering what she looked like, wondering if she was well cared for. Romolo and I never discussed it, but we both silently carried the burden of her existence and the decision we had made.

After a two-year stint in the Army, we returned to the U.S. in 1971, a young couple without a home or possessions. Encouraged by Canadian friends we had met while camping in Europe, we visited Toronto the following year and decided to move there; it was a vibrant, growing city with lots of opportunities. Both of us wanted to start fresh. Our education and youth qualified us to be "Landed Immigrants," the Canadian status equal to a Green Card. I immediately applied to graduate school and won a scholarship to the University of Toronto.

But by then our marriage was deteriorating. The teenaged love we'd nurtured for so long had not matured. We weren't able to handle the stresses of marriage, living overseas during his Army stint, and the guilt we felt over the adoption.

After three years of marriage, we split up. He returned to New York and I landed a contract with a local provincial television station, teaching school-aged children how to use TV in the classroom, and began to establish roots. Within a year I married again. It didn't last long, but long enough to have a beautiful baby boy. The years flew by. My parents often asked when I was coming back to the States, and all I could say is that I had a great thing going in Toronto, but someday I would return.

Occasionally during phone conversations or visits home, my mother would wonder out loud about her first grandchild and express guilt over giving her up. These were painful discussions that reminded me of my loss. The absence of my daughter was always in the background of my life and that of my parents, but we never sought counseling or any other outlet to help us heal the deep and often unspoken chasm.

4

Unexpected call
One day, when I was still working and living in Toronto, my mother sent me information about a nonprofit organization she heard about called The ALMA Society, which helped connect adoptees with their birth parents.

"I think you should look into this. Who knows? Maybe she will be interested in finding you someday and I'll get to meet my granddaughter before I die."

ALMA was started in the '60s by a woman who had found her birth father and figured there were many others like her seeking birth parents. She established a database and identified volunteer "search buddies" willing to comb through records to help connect adoptees with birth parents. I completed a profile and paid the annual dues on the chance my daughter would do the same.

She was 18 when I registered, and for the next eight years I paid the annual dues.

In 1986, I went on a blind date with my current husband. He had been married before, too, and told me he had adopted his wife’s first child. We were on our second date when he dropped a surprise: his adopted son's birthday was Dec. 27. What were the chances?

I broke down crying, and my story poured out freely. We were married the next year and developed a loving supportive relationship based on honesty and trust. His one adopted and two biological children, together with my son, established us as a blended family who had figured out, after much trial and error, how to make it work.

We had been married for four years and were sitting in our newly renovated sunroom one evening in 1990, when the phone rang.

"Hello, is this Maxene?" a woman asked.

Her name was Linda and she had registered with ALMA. She believed I was her mother.

I collapsed against the bar top next to the phone, heart racing.

"Holy (expletive)!" was all I could say.

She explained she had been watching "The Sally Jessy Raphael Show" when they did a segment on ALMA. With a lot of prompting from her best friend, RoseEllen, she decided to register. Two weeks later, ALMA called her and gave her my phone number. It changed both of our lives forever.

We agreed to meet each other the following week at my cousin Joan's house in Scarsdale. I was finally going to see my daughter for the first time since I gave her up for adoption 26 years earlier.

When the doorbell rang, Joan and her husband raced halfway up the stairs so they could witness the momentous occasion out of view. I opened the door and we stood there, awkwardly staring at each other for a very long minute. We were both tentative, not knowing what was appropriate. Should I hug her? It didn't feel right — at least not yet.

Her eyes were blue like mine, framed in similar long lashes. We stood eye-to-eye, both 5-foot-2. Her voice had a deep resonance like mine. We even smiled the same way. But her hair a rich dark brown and wavy like her father's. She had his tapered fingers and Mediterranean complexion.

She was a perfect blend of both me and her father.

We spent the evening at a local Italian restaurant talking nonstop. We had so many questions. We were hungry for information, as we tried to fill in the gaps. Why was she put up for adoption? What was my relationship with her biological father? What was her family medical history? What was her childhood like?

Linda told me she grew up in a Jewish community but was teased because she used her hands to gesture so often, friends thought she might be Italian. Now she knew why: She was half Italian. We hugged for the first time as we said good night. Tears welled up and I barely choked them back to speak. The door closed and I cried with joy.

The next day Linda returned to Joan's so we could pick up from where we left off. She asked if I knew where her birth father was. I rifled through the New York City phone book and found his brother's phone number listed. We called him and explained we were looking for Romolo.

"He lives in New Jersey. Let me call him, and if he wants to meet you, I’ll give him your number to call back."

We anxiously sat by the phone and waited. Within 10 minutes, the phone rang.

"Exactly where are you? I’m leaving right now," he said.

Within the hour he jumped in his car and flew across the bridge from New Jersey into New York and arrived that afternoon. We had been divorced 18 years and hadn’t been in contact since. He had remarried and never revealed our secret to his wife. Now he was rushing to meet his daughter for the first time and his ex-wife after a very long time.

Once again, we waited until the doorbell rang. Linda and I answered the door together. His hair had grayed and was now only a trimmed fringe around the sides. He smiled broadly and stepped into the doorway, grabbing both of us in an embrace. None of us could speak. I suggested we move into the kitchen and I asked Joan to take our picture sitting at her kitchen table. We took more pictures outside in the backyard. He talked about how powerless he felt to do anything different back then when I was pregnant with her, and how happy he was to finally meet her. The reunion was cathartic. It enabled all of us to talk about the painful decisions we had made and the effect on all of our lives.

Linda was a middle child, she said, with an older sister and a younger brother, both of whom were adopted. She grew up in Westchester, north of New York City. Her mother stayed home while her father ran a meat company. The children were told they were adopted when they were old enough to understand. Linda was always curious about her heritage, while her brother and sister never were. They seemed to have a good life, from her account of it, but she always felt she was different. She just wanted to know more about her roots.

A few weeks after our reunion, Linda told her adoptive mother she had reconnected with me and Romolo. The news pained her mother and she asked that Linda never mention it again. And she forbade Linda from telling her father the news.

Here we were, 18 years later, and the legacy of family secrets continued.

Without her adoptive family's knowledge, Linda began to build a relationship with her "other" family, including my son, and three step siblings. Twice a year we visited together in Toronto or New York. And each time, Linda would bear the burden of fabricating stories to protect her adoptive mother.

5

Wedding plans
So here we were, six years after reconnecting, talking about Linda's pending marriage, to which her birth father and I were not invited.

Clearly, neither of us could be seen at this momentous occasion where all of her friends knew about us, as did the groom's family. Just looking at us would give away the secret: She was a mix of both parents embodied in one daughter.

Two weeks after her announcement, she called again.

"I've changed my mind. I want both of you to be there for the ceremony. But here's the deal: You need to just be there. Don't interact with anyone or make your presence known. Unfortunately, you can’t come to the reception."

I hesitated, thinking about how this would work. "'I'll call Romolo and let him know. Of course we want to be there for you."

"If the two of you come, we'll meet you back at the hotel after the reception is over."

I was dumbfounded. After all these years of silently celebrating my daughter's birthday inside my head, wondering what she had become and whether she was happy, I was going to see her get married and have our own private celebration.

I called Romolo and explained the situation.

"Of course I'll go," he said. "In fact, you can stay at my house and we'll go together."

I flew into New Jersey anxious about the arrangements. Romolo picked me up from the Newark airport and greeted me warmly. I had packed a bright turquoise silk dress for the event. His wife was cordial and quiet, realizing this was an extraordinary occasion and she would not be a part of it. I was grateful for her respect and her willingness to support the situation.

The next day, we drove together to the Westchester Country Club where the wedding was to take place. We parked toward the back of the lot and quietly entered the club to sit in the last row.

Once she had been mine, and I had given her away to this family in hopes they would give her a better life. Thirty-two years later, I watched from the shadows as her adoptive parents gave her away to her new husband. I felt a raw mixture of nervous excitement, sadness and gratitude that I was there. I managed to snap a few surreptitious pictures like an undercover agent rather than a proud parent. We were invisible, or so we thought.

Following the wedding, we left the country club, avoiding eye contact with the guests, and traveled to the hotel where the young married couple were staying before leaving for their honeymoon the next morning. During the wedding reception, Romolo and I sat at the hotel bar, talking about our lives and the circumstances that had brought us together again. At 10:30 p.m., the happy couple showed up and found us in the bar. They were glowing and rumpled from the reception. We headed to their room and soon after, a handful of their closest friends joined us, while they changed into jeans and T-shirts.

"Hi. I’m RoseEllen, Linda's best friend," said a tall, willowy young woman with long straw colored hair. "I was there the day she heard from ALMA, and I insisted she call them back. I'm so glad I pushed her to make the call. It's hard to believe how much she is a blend of both of your features. So glad to finally meet."

"I'm so grateful you insisted!" My words caught in my throat and a well of emotions stopped me from saying more.

Linda beamed.

"I will say, you weren’t exactly invisible back there wearing that shocking turquoise dress," she said. "Everyone who knew you were coming could pick you out in a flash."

Then she picked up the phone and ordered three pizzas.

"I had one bite of wedding cake, but couldn't eat the whole time during the reception," Linda said. "I was so anxious about how we were going to pull this off and what time we'd get here. I don’t know about you guys, but I'm starving!"

The room filled with laughter, and we recounted the circumstances of our reunion for her friends. Romolo had been carrying a satchel with him the whole day and finally revealed its contents.

"I thought that for this special occasion, I should bring some of my homemade wine to celebrate."

Linda's husband, David, called the front desk for more water glasses. When they arrived, we poured the wine and held our glasses high in a private toast to the bride and groom. The pizzas arrived shortly after and we enjoyed a midnight meal, spread out over the two queen beds.

We took a crooked path to get here, but we were family, and together we were healing wounds and celebrating their future and ours.

Behind the story

HOW WE GOT THE STORY

Today I'm happy to present to our readers the winner of the first Personal Journeys Writing Contest. Roswell resident Maxene Raices was among more than 50 writers who submitted entries in the competition. There were several strong frontrunners, but our judges, Deputy Managing Editor Tracy Brown and Senior Editor Ken Foskett, were in agreement that Raices' unusual story about the legacy of secrecy was the standout. Let us know what you think!

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys Editor
personaljourneys@ajc.com


About the author

Maxene Raices is a senior national account executive for a global learning services organization. A Roswell resident, she was born in New York and has lived in Canada and Germany. She started her career as a ninth-grade English teacher, and has a master's degree. She carried her secret story with her throughout her career, writing in journals that she never shared. She knew that when the time was right, she would write a book about her experiences. This short piece reflects a part of her yet-to-be-released memoir, tentatively titled, "Hidden."

Read more of our Personal Journeys at myAJC.com/personaljourneys.