"Hello, is Sarah Saffian there?" asks the voice on the other end of the line. "My name is Hannah Morgan. I think I'm your birth mother." So begins Ithaka: A Daughter's Memoir of Being Found, a powerful book written by a young woman whose life changes dramatically when she receives a phone call from someone who is at once a stranger and her most intimate relation. Saffian's riveting story of painful self-discovery and newfound joy is unique in its reversal of the usual adoption narrative: here, the biological parents seek out the adoptee. Weaving together letters, journal entries, memories and reflections, Saffian tells of her adoption, her adoptive mother's death six years later, and her upbringing in a loving family. She learns that her biological parents ended up marrying and having other children. She is thus faced with an entire family to whom she is genetically linked. Saffian's boldly honest account reaches a moving climax with their reunion, three years after the first phone call. Along the way, it raises thorny questions: What is a family? Can we have more than one? What is the line between parental concern and intrusion? Is it hypocritical to be a pro-choice adoptee? How do nature and nurture work together to form a person's identity? By turns earnest and playful, Ithaka is sure to touch readers everywhere who have grappled with who they are.
Sarah gives an overview of the book:
I awake on January 29, 1993.
It is less than a month until my 24th birthday. It's Friday, and I'm looking forward to the weekend. As on most mornings before heading to the office, I go to the gym and then return home to shower, dress, eat breakfast. At 9:15, after taking a last sip of orange juice and double-checking that I have everything I need for the day–datebook, journal, notes for an article I'm writing, cash–I'm ready to go.
The telephone rings.
"Hello, is Sarah Saffian there?"
"This is Sarah." I guess that it's a magazine editor, calling about work.
"Sarah, my name is Hannah Morgan. I think I'm your birth mother."
With a single phone call on an otherwise ordinary morning, my lifelong vague curiosity about my origins was instantly satisfied.
"Oh my God," I whispered. Tears sprang to my eyes as I made my way to a chair. A pause. My birth mother started to speak, her voice soft and shaky, but forthright. She didn't sound like a New Yorker, an uptight urban dweller–underneath the surface unease, I sensed a core of calmness.
"I'm sorry to startle you by calling on the phone," Hannah hesitantly began, "but I worried that if I sent a letter and got no answer, I wouldn't know if you had gotten the letter and didn't want to write back, or if you hadn't gotten the letter, because I'd written to the wrong person."
"Mm hm," I answered. Hannah told me that she had been 21 years old when she gave birth to me at Staten Island Hospital, and that I had weighed only 5 pounds. She admitted that toward the end of the pregnancy she had begun having second thoughts about giving me up, but believed it was too late to change her mind.
"I have another shock for you," she said. "I'm married to your birth father, Adam Leyder, and we have three other children." Renee, age 14, Lucy, 10, and Samuel, 6–my full biological siblings.
"Oh, that's so wonderful," I heard myself saying, "then I can visit you all at once." They lived in Hanover, New Hampshire, where Hannah worked as a potter and Adam as a draftsman. I tried to absorb this barrage of information. The phone call was creating a rift in me: while one part was interacting, the other part was unaffected, on the outside looking in.
Then Hannah revealed the name she had given me, the name that appeared on my original birth certificate: Susan Morgan. I turned the strange name over in my head as if I were meeting a new person.
"Could you tell me about your family?" she asked next. "I feel like I've been doing all the talking." In the split second before responding, I considered how best to relay the most painful piece of the story. I felt oddly protective of Hannah, already. I had no intention of startling or hurting her, and was loath to contribute to any regrets she had about relinquishing me. At the same time, I also felt protective of my family. I didn't want to give Hannah the wrong impression, that I had grown up neglected in a broken household–I had always been cared for, loved without bounds. In answering this woman who had given me life, I had to be gentle, but also direct.
"Well, one important thing you should know," I offered, "is that my mother died when I was 6."
Hannah took in a short, sharp breath. "That's one of the things birth mothers always fear, that something happens to the adoptive parents," she said. And then, "Adam's mother died when he was 6, too." I was stunned by this unexpected parallel. But I blinked and recovered, going on to explain that my father had remarried when I was 10, and that he and his new wife, whom I considered Mom, had had two children together within two years, my brother and sister. I reassured Hannah that I loved my family dearly.
"What do you look like?" Hannah asked later in the conversation.
"I have dark brown hair, wavy, about shoulder-length, and green eyes..."
"Yes, I think we were told that you had green eyes. All of us but Sam have green eyes–he has blue eyes. Are you left-handed, by any chance?"
"I'm left-handed, and so are Lucy and Sam!"
"Oh, is that genetic?"
"I think so. You know, your birth father is 6-foot-4."
"6-foot-4? I'm only 5-5! What happened?"
"Well, I'm not quite 5-3."
"Oh, I see. Thanks a lot!" We shared our first laugh.
Hannah gave me their address and phone number, saying I could call anytime.
"Would it be all right if Adam called you? I feel badly that I'm getting to talk to you without him here."
"Why don't I try to call him instead?" I quickly responded. "Maybe over the weekend."
Hannah asked in parting, "Did you ever think you would pick up the phone and it would be me?"
After pausing to think, I replied simply, "No, because I always assumed I would be the one making the call."
I carefully returned the receiver to its cradle and fixated on it for a beat. Still sitting, I took a deep breath and switched my gaze to a point on the wall for several seconds. The room was very quiet, in that palpable way that comes after there has been loud noise. Unclear of my emotions in this moment–shock? confusion? loss?–I nonetheless felt them physically, tingling through me. After several minutes, not knowing what else to do, I wiped my eyes, pulled on my backpack, and headed out into the cold bright day.
Once at the office, I said quick, perfunctory "Good mornings" as I made my way to my desk, where I sat and stared at my articles, letters turning into hieroglyphics, text blurring into two fuzzy, distant columns before my unfocusing eyes. I finally broke through my trance and called my father, who was home for the day. At the first sound of his voice I began to cry in earnest. Between sobs I told him about Hannah's phone call, and he said to come right over.
I pleaded "family emergency" to my editor–the emergency being my newfound confusion about the concept of family–and left. As I walked from the subway to my parents' house, I was surprised that their block, the stoop, the tree in front of their brownstone, all looked a bit different, as though I were seeing them for the first time. Through a kitchen window, I saw Dad sitting, waiting. Noticing me, he smiled and got up to let me in. Relief flowed through me as we hugged and I breathed in his warm, fatherly smell of soap and coffee and cigarettes. I sat down at the table, running my hands along its butcher-block solidity, and gradually began to feel oriented again, in these familiar–familial–surroundings.
My father had a look of concern, but not of surprise. "So, tell me what happened." I took him from the ring of the telephone through the entire conversation in as much detail as I could muster. I was dry-eyed, matter-of-fact, exhausted and wired at once, like the sensation after staying up all night. When I mentioned my birth name as Susan Morgan, he nodded.
"Yes, I remember. 'Susan' was one of the few things we knew. That, and that the birth mother was Jewish, being that we adopted you through a Jewish agency." The confirmation quelled my fears that this woman might be an impostor, or simply mistaken.
As we talked, I felt deeply connected to my father, sure that he was my parent, and not these strangers who had unexpectedly burst into my life. Who were they to me? He and I have always shared an especially close bond, but usually it is simply a silent understanding. Discussing my birth parents and the circumstances of my adoption brought our bond to the surface. Perhaps we were even clinging to our connection, because this new element was potentially threatening–it didn't have a place in our world of father and daughter.
After a while, I called Mom at work. I had been open with my father, but cautiously so, afraid that he would feel defensive about my birth parents' sudden emergence. With my mother I could speak more freely, because even though the Leyders presented a potential threat to her as well, she wasn't the one who had adopted me. Outwardly, she reacted with curiosity and support. That evening, however, she confessed that after hanging up, she had gone to a friend to ask, "Why did she have to call Sarah? Why couldn't she have contacted us instead, so at least we could have acted as an intermediary?" But as my mother was admitting this, I felt glad that Hannah had called me and not them. Each of us wanted to soften the blow for the other.
I decided not to call my birth parents back yet. It was too soon–I needed time to digest what had happened and to decide what I wanted to do about it. But in their eagerness, they didn't afford me that space. On Monday evening, again, as I was on my way out, the phone rang. "Hey, Sarah, this is Adam Leyder, your birth father." My stomach leapt in panic. As the impact of both phone calls hit me at once, I felt not just startled, but invaded.
We exchanged much of the same information that Hannah and I had–what we looked like, general overviews of our lives. When I admitted my feelings of shock and self-protectiveness, Adam apologized for prompting these reactions and then stuttered, clearly moved, "I, I can't believe I'm talking to you. I'd drive down to New York to meet you on five minutes' notice and leave after five minutes, if that was what you wanted."
I tried to maintain a pleasant composure on the surface, but inside I was churning. "No, please don't do that, not yet," I answered, drumming my fingers on the kitchen table, laughing shrilly with disbelief at the extreme situation I was being thrust into. "I'd like to visit you someday, but right now, I'm overwhelmed even by these phone calls. Why don't we write instead, for the time being," I continued, choosing my words deliberately, trying to let him down easy. "I can't have an emotional upheaval every time the phone rings. It's hard to be taken by surprise like that. Letters would be much more manageable for me, just while we figure all this out. Would that be okay with you?"
He asked whether I felt comfortable sending photographs along with these letters, but I answered that I wasn't even ready for that yet. He said he understood, stressing, "We want to do whatever is best for you, whatever you want," but I thought I could sense his disappointment, his urgency deflated.
After we hung up, I paused long enough for it to dawn on me that this wasn't about a single phone call, an isolated incident, but about an ongoing process. I'd had my fantasy heritage whisked out from under me, like in the old magic trick, only I wasn't left intact as the place setting is supposed to be after the tablecloth has been yanked away. Then, flustered, I rushed out.
The following week, I received a single white, business-sized envelope, addressed in neat capital letters–an architect's hand, which at first glance reminded me of my grandfather's. After staring at the return address for several moments, I carefully opened the envelope to find two separate letters, both a couple of pages long, typed on a computer and hand-signed. I took a deep breath and plunged in.
"A multilayered memoir that probes profound questions of identity...Saffian explores this complicated material in beautifully nuanced prose to create a book that grows richer page by page...she selects...