Path CROSSings

Fifty years ago a bizarre event occurred in the cramped halls of Southampton Hospital. Quite simply a private moment was exposed between two women, one of whom may have passed on to the grander beachfront in the sky; the other has lived on to retell the tale. Names will be changed, with the exception of the narrator (then in her mid twenties) and her nephew, even though all parties in the story are innocent. There was no crime; there’s nothing libelous in its telling. It was a strange sharing of amazing magnitude, in a sense one more of the “love stories” that one experiences in the course of a long life. My young nephew Mark had become very ill with such a high fever that it was recommended that he be taken to the hospital. His mother, my sister, had died in the year previous, and my own mother had become the surrogate mom. The four kids along with their dad lived with her in the city, but they were all summering in the cottage of a grand aunt in Montauk. Carless and driverless. Their father was on the road off at work, and so it was that I was summoned from the Bronx. (There’s a love story thread in all of that family dynamic.) The hospital was a far smaller structure, and as it was summer, there had been an increase in admissions; space was at a premium. I forget the admitting details, but I remember the long wait we experienced. Poor wee Mark rested languidly on a gurney in the quiet but crowded corridor as the admitting/attendant nurse recorded information and then went off to find a bed. Once she left us, I thought to myself, “She looks just like Sally Marie Farley.” Sally was a girl from my old neighborhood whom I hadn’t seen in more than a decade. I hadn’t known her very well even though she had lived on our block. She was slightly older and far more refined than the rough and tumble crowd that lived on the other slope of that same street. Her parents were professionals, and she was uniquely pretty with the blondest hair I had ever seen. I dismissed the thought of the similarity because I also knew that Sally had been adopted. Mark and I bided our time doing whatever aunts and nephews do to lighten fears while waiting in a dismal hospital. He was dozing when the nurse returned. She told us the wait would last a bit longer, but she motioned me aside so that we could talk quietly. “I see that Mark lives on 121st street in NY.” I nodded. “I wonder. I know of someone who lived on that street. I wonder if you know her. Her name is Sally Farley.” Of course there was wonder in that exchange, in that wording, because I looked at her wide eyed myself and replied, “Of course I do! And when I first saw you, she came to mind immediately because you look exactly like her!” Her response stunned me (as it still does as I type it today fifty years later!): “I am Sally’s birth mother.” ………………… In itself, the encounter holds the “wonder” to which I allude. The story she went on to share possessed a poignancy in its details that for years I had to retell and share it myself. ………………… The nurse’s name was Maureen Fairhaven. (Remember, dear reader, I have changed names!) She told me that Sally had been born “out of wedlock,” as people quaintly phrased it decades ago. I heard that as: loved into existence, not aborted, and bravely brought into the world by a single mother during the depression. What an act of love and bravery. With help of her supportive family, Maureen was able to maintain her job as a nurse. An added blessing was that she met a young doctor whom she soon married, a promising young man who seemed to love her young toddler, as well. Sadly, the birth of their own daughter created problems. The father became cold and indifferent to Sally. Maureen did not go in to great detail — we were still talking in the hushed corridor — but she explained that she had to put Sally up for adoption. So it was that Sally came to live in my old neighborhood. There she was far more affluent than the rest of us, certainly loved and cared for by adoring parents, somewhat aloof from us however, and as mentioned earlier, remembered and envied by me for her blond beauty. Maureen held up the chain that hung around her neck to show me an antique cross. “See this cross. Sally gave it to me. Look at it. Look at the initials.” Stamped in golden gothic were the ornate letters “mFs.” “Sally received this as a gift from her parents on her sixteenth birthday. Look at the monogram.” She went on to explain that it was a Farley family heirloom, but that the jeweler who had crafted the monogram had screwed up the sequence of the initials. When Sally’s adoptive parents saw the error, it could not be altered because of the fragility and antiquity of the piece. They suggested to Sally that one day, she could pass it on to her daughter with some sort of explanation. Maureen related that when Sally turned eighteen she sought legal assistance so that she might track down her birth mother. At the time, it was quite difficult to navigate the labyrinth of adoption records, but she was able to reconnect with her mother. She even served as maid of honor at her long unseen kid sister’s wedding. The reunion, however, was brief and bittersweet. Sadly, Sally moved on to forge an independent life for herself, “aloof” now from both birth mother and adoptive parents — as well as that old neighbor hearing the story. The crossing of all those paths held another coincidence that electrified the unfolding narration. It was as though O’Henry was writing the script for us. In parting Sally gave the cross to Maureen. It fit her so well on so many levels beyond mentioning, certainly figuratively as well as literally: Maureen Sullivan Fairhaven — mFs