On November 22, Carlyn Montes De Oca appeared on Esoterica’s podcast to discuss her memoir, Junkyard Girl. In it, she relates how, at 57, she took a DNA test on a whim, and discovered that she was not only adopted, but her entire family knew. Here’s an excerpt:
“SOMETHING BIG HAS HAPPENED in our family and I have to talk to you about it,” Lilly said, as we stood in my kitchen in Santa Fe, a week later, watching the electric tea kettle boil.
“Is someone sick? Who died? Is Ray getting divorced? Is Art okay?”
I spewed out every conceivable disaster that came to mind. Lilly shook her head slowly, her complexion a tad more pale than normal. I realized if any of these catastrophes had actually happened, my sister would have simply picked up the phone. What could be so important that she felt compelled to hop on a plane and fly three hours in the heart of winter to tell me in person?
“Let’s just get our tea and sit down, okay?” The tone of her words were missing their typical lilt.
Ever the caregiver, Lilly plopped tea bags into four colorful mugs. As she covered them with steaming water, I stepped behind her so she couldn’t see me silently mouthing more potential calamities to my brother-in-law.
I must have looked ridiculous, because he half-heartedly chuckled—a sound that didn’t match the worry in his gaze. His calloused hands gripped the counter behind him, as if steadying his brawny physique. He glanced at Ken, who offered no help whatsoever being in the dark as much as I was. David, a retired firefighter, always on the ready, was accustomed to facing all manner of emergencies. Today, he looked ready to battle a blaze.
The sixty seconds it took the four of us to walk from the kitchen into our living room and settle into our respective seats felt endless. Something big has happened in our family—Lilly’s words echoed in my mind. I am not a patient human being. I seek efficiency; I like finding the quickest, smartest way from A to B. This brief minute of waiting was taking an abundance of self-control.
It’ll be over soon, I told myself. Be patient. In a few minutes you’ll know what this is all about.
Lilly sat beside David on our cat-scratched couch. Ken and I faced them on our wicker chairs. I crossed my legs tightly, holding the large arms of the seat for support, wondering if anyone else could hear the pounding of my heart. My sister said something unintelligible—then her eyes met mine, and she burst into tears.
“I’m sorry,” she apologized through choked sobs. She turned to her handbag, rustled through it, then pulled out two sheets of paper and a pair of stylish reading glasses. “I thought this might happen, so I wrote it all down—about a dozen times—on the plane.” She dabbed her cheeks with a Kleenex, slipped on her glasses, then held the pages out in front of her. Her actions gave her a few seconds to compose herself. She sat up straight—something my mother always nagged her to do—and, hands trembling, began to read.
Carlyn, about three weeks ago, you forwarded an e-mail from Martha Baptista. She wanted to get in touch with you and see if you knew how you might be related. At that point, I knew we needed to break a promise to my parents that we made as children.
When we were young, you mentioned to me how differently you felt about the world and from everybody else in the family. Then, as a young adult, how eagerly you looked forward to getting away and making your own life. Secretly, I envied your attitude. You began exploring different places and experiences with a passionate energy! You grew and developed into an extraordinary human being.
Today, I have a story to share with you, which began even before you were born. This story is the best I can remember, though not perfect . . . Carlyn, you were adopted.
And with these last four words, I was unmade.
As Lilly paused to take a sip of her tea, my world also paused long enough to spin off its axis as if the fibers that bound me to this planet were sheered of their power. I floated in the air for a moment, severed from all I knew to be true, watching my planet and life disappear beneath me. In the next breath, gravity lassoed me downward and smacked me hard against the ground, shattering my identity into a thousand tiny fragments.
My hearing diminished after Lilly said the word adopted. It was as if cotton balls had collected inside of my ears, muffling her voice into faraway echoes coming from the other side of an immense canyon. Like a lip reader, I stared at her mouth, hoping it would help me hear what she was saying.
Your birth mother’s name was Maria Gallegos. She had two small children already (Martha and Robert) when she became pregnant with you. She wasn’t married to your birth father. I don’t know who he was.
The following information is what I remember of a story told to me in brief, guarded, and cautious conversations when I was a child and as a young teenager that our mother, Mary, had with me about how you became my sister.
Maria Gallegos was a distant relative of a woman named Molly. In 1952, Molly was Mary’s roommate when they were both in the hospital delivering their respective daughters. They remained friends and our mother would visit Molly at her home in Montecito several times a year.
On one of those visits, Mary parked in Molly’s yard and heard a woman crying inconsolably. When Molly came out, Mary asked her if she knew the woman. Molly responded yes, that it was her cousin. She said that this woman was unmarried, had two small children already, and a third one on the way. She wanted an abortion. Molly told her she wouldn’t help her get an abortion, no matter how much she cried.
The cotton balls plugging my ears after Lilly said adoption multiplied exponentially when I heard the word abortion. My chest tightened around my lungs midbreath upon realizing how close I had come to never being born. This can’t be happening. It must be a mistake. Is this a joke? My mind filled with denial.
I contemplated the alternatives. Humor, teasing, and laughter were Montes De Oca badges of honor. My brothers loved to taunt me. When I was a kid, they tried for years to convince me I was born on April Fools’ Day, not March 30, my actual birthday. They told me my parents felt bad that I was an April Fool, so they’d invented a new birthdate for me. They’d carried out this tease well into my adulthood by phoning me on April 1 to wish me a happy birthday. But this was not the secret Mom and Dad had actually protected me from.
I glanced up; Lilly’s lips were still moving.
Our mother didn’t believe abortion was an option. She and Dad had discussions, and they subsequently offered Maria a way to get out of her situation. They offered to adopt the unborn baby she was carrying.
Before you were born, Maria came to live with us with Robert (about age 3) and Martha (about 7). They lived as part of our family, sleeping at our house, eating at the same table, until Maria went to the hospital and gave birth to you.
My parents told us never to tell anyone that they had adopted you. They told us that if we shared this information, it would only be used to hurt you. It was the 1960s; they had been raised in a small, remote pueblo in Mexico in the early 1900s. They’d lived through revolutions and uprisings and the stigma, prejudice, and shaming of children left without fathers that led to them never being accepted as “real” members of a family. They felt it was the most compassionate, loving and protective decision they could make. They were firm about this, and we never broke our promise.
These are the facts as I remember them. We always meant well, but the process is difficult and unclear. This is shattering information. I hope you will eventually be able to put yourself in Mary, Vincent and Maria’s place, to begin grieving your loss and understand that these decisions were made with a 100% loving intent. I have a sister that slept in my room, whom I played with, carried in my arms and in my heart, to love forever.
I don’t know when Lilly stopped speaking. I’m not sure how long I remained quiet. I was not a fan of Humpty Dumpty; the image of an egg-shaped fellow tumbling off a wall never appealed to me. But now there was no one I could relate to more. Like Humpty, I’d fallen and been cracked open, and wasn’t sure how or when I could be put back together again. Adoption, abortion, secrets—the words circled me like leaves caught in a spiraling gust of wind.
The silence in the living room demanded attention. I looked up from my lap, where for several minutes I had been studying a wisp of brown fur—Rudy’s—that adorned my black leggings.
Everyone’s attention was focused on me. Waiting. Wondering. Worrying. David’s anxious eyes were wide, deer-like, and moist. Lilly’s fair cheeks were flushed a rosy red, a look I’d envied when we were young; probably because my own tanned skin would not allow the bloom.
How must I look? I wondered. Was I wearing my typical half-grin? The one that lives on my face whether I’m having dinner with a good friend or my car has just been rear-ended with me in it?
Lilly told me later that my skin had lost all its color and that no grin, half or otherwise, was in sight. Somewhere during her revelation, Ken rose from his chair and kneeled beside mine, his face ashen. He clenched my hand in his own. Now, our eyes met. Bulging saucers like I had never seen before had hijacked his soft brown pools, and his head was trembling ever so slightly. I felt as shattered as he looked.
Lilly’s fingertips slid a black-and-white snapshot across the wooden table in front of me. In the photo, my brother Ray, fourteen and lanky, cradled me, in his arms, as a newborn. Next to him, Lilly scrunched her face up at the camera. Beside her, Art’s hands rested on a three-year-old boy’s shoulders. The boy’s eyes refused to meet the camera lens, staring at his shoes instead, the noon-day sun too bright for him to attempt a smile. A little girl stood beside him, wearing a striped shirt and knee-length shorts. Her forefinger rested on her lips. She squinted at the camera, looking unsure.
“That’s Martha, and that’s Robert,” Lilly said, her voice quivering as she pointed to the two younger kids. “Your sister and brother.”
What??? My mind echoed. I had seen this photograph in a musty family album many times over the years. “Who are these kids?” I’d asked my mother and my sister repeatedly. An offhand response usually followed: some neighbor kids; distant cousins; the children of a compadre of my father. To be a compadre—a godfather—to someone’s child was an honor my dad had been given by many. I’d accepted the answer I was told because there had been no reason for me to doubt it was true.
Paralyzed on my cushion, I stared at the glossy photo, refusing to touch it, as if handling the celluloid memory might actually make it real. I looked up at the faces of my sister and brother-in-law, who anxiously awaited my reaction. Perhaps they expected an explosion of anger—accusations. But there was no fight in me. Bewilderment consumed me. What does one say when they are told they are not who they thought they were? How are you supposed to react when you discover that the parents who raised you are not your actual parents?
My thoughts drifted to my extended family.
“Lilly, we have sixty-three first cousins. How many people know about this?”
Lilly shrugged. “I have no idea.”
Sleep did not come easily that night. When it finally did, I dreamed I was a little girl standing on an immense plateau covered in fresh snow and surrounded by mountains. The myriad of puzzle pieces once forming my identity fell like snowflakes from the sky. Like a film strip moving at half speed, these fragments floated onto the white earth, settling beyond my vision. Frantically, I gathered them, trying to force them back together, but nothing fit as it did before. The lid on the puzzle box lay near my feet. With some effort, I yanked it from the ice and studied the picture.
A family get-together. My brothers, sister, and parents stand around me as I blow out a candle with the number six on it. Food, teasing, laughter.
As the sun rose, the picture faded.
I woke up in my bed laying beside Ken, reassured by his presence and the life we had made together until the tension in my chest reminded me something was amiss and I remembered.
Carlyn, you were adopted.
I lay awake watching baby blue and pink pastels cover the horizon outside our bedroom window, replaying the previous night’s dream in my mind. My family history, origin story, the identity I once took for granted . . . it had all vanished overnight. To recover my identity, I would need to find where the new puzzle edges now interlocked. The picture it would paint would not be the image I’d once known. That life was gone forever.
A few hours later, Ken and I met Lilly and David at our favorite Mexican restaurant for breakfast. The aroma of freshly steamed tortillas and my sister’s cheery face was a welcome break from an uneasy night.
When Lilly revealed the story of my beginnings, shock impeded my hearing. Later, I read, reread, and triple-read her two pages as if committing the details to memory. But no matter how many times I pored over her words I couldn’t help but interpret the subtext as: You have a new family now. You should go be with them. I felt stranded, abandoned, and cast off by the people I loved the most. I pictured spending Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve with strangers named Gallegos instead of Montes De Oca—imagined trying to fit in where I did not belong. The knot tightened in my chest and quickly spread to my belly as I picked at the inside of my breakfast burrito.
No one brought up the adoption. We spoke about the hotel Lilly and David were staying at, what they’d eaten for dinner the night before, and how bone cold the air felt outside. The elephant in the room sat silently in his place.
My parents taught us never to complain about the challenges we faced. We spent our formative years enrolled in the Buck It Up School of Life. But today, my inner turmoil, a storm threatening to burst and take no survivors, overcame my conditioning.
While Ken and David discussed the differences between Mexican and New Mexican cuisine, I leaned in and, as softly as I could, whispered to my sister, “I don’t want to make a big deal out of this. But I think I was in shock yesterday, and I’m not really sure I heard everything you said. I need you to go over some things again so I can be clear.”
Lilly met me halfway across the table. Her soft hands, infused with loving intent, covered mine.
“This is a big deal, and I am here to talk as often as you want and to answer any questions you have for as long as you have them,” she said. I squeezed her hands.
David and Ken, overhearing our talk, apparently could have cared less about the differences between Mexican and New Mexican food; they were just waiting for me to make the first overture. With the elephant now free, and snacking on a chimichanga in the back of the room, everyone talked at once.
“My heart sank when I heard the name Martha Baptista,” my sister admitted. “I was so scared she was going to tell you before I could.”
“The other night I walked downstairs and saw Lilly and Ray sitting at the dinner table—they were crying, worried about how to tell you,” David said.
My adoption news had been hard to hear, but picturing my brother and sister this upset made me realize how difficult the unveiling of the secret they’d kept quiet for so many years had been on them. Ray in particular was a man who kept his emotions under lock and key; for him to be this distraught made me feel that regardless of our genealogical severing, I was as important to siblings as they would always be to me—at least for now.
After breakfast the four of us strolled around the Plaza, the historic, Spanish-style square in the heart of Santa Fe where tourists and locals gather to hear music, shop in quaint adobe-style stores, and, on arid summer nights, dance. As our husbands chatted ahead of us, Lilly and I walked together, arm in arm, glued to each other like Siamese twins. I craved closeness to my sister, both physically and spiritually. I imagined myself as the puzzle pieces scattered in the snow—a leg here, an eye there, a crow pecking at the remains of a forgotten memory. The last thing I wanted was to join another family. Lilly was my family. Her arms were my haven, my sanctuary, my home.
“I like your scarf,” I said, admiring the charcoal gray and lime green muffler. In typical Lilly fashion, she promptly pulled it off and slid it over my head and onto my neck, fiddling with it until she knew it was protecting me from the cold.
“Mom would have loved visiting here,” Lilly said, taking my arm again as we walked through the narrow sidewalks of The City Different and past the displays of turquoise jewelry, resplendent, colorful tapestries, and lifelike animal sculptures.
“Why didn’t you tell me, Lilly?” I blurted out, louder than I meant to. “You’re my sister. I tell you everything.”
We stopped in front of a large window display and feigned interest in some life-sized paintings. A couple passed us and, seeing our strain, looked away.
I lowered my voice. “I just can’t imagine not telling you something like this.”
Lilly’s face flushed pale pink. “I was afraid. I thought you’d be so angry and that you would reject me, reject our family. Mom is dead, and so is Dad . . . I couldn’t bear the thought of losing you too.” Lilly tightened her arm around mine as she spoke.
I rested my head on her shoulder, reassured. The fear trailing behind us like a persistent pest, nipping in my ear, insisting I was being shipped off to a new family—it was wrong. The only thought in Lilly’s mind was, Please, don’t push us away. The only thought in mine was, Please, don’t let me go.