A tipping point is "the critical point in a situation, process, or system beyond which a significant and often unstoppable effect or change takes place."
-Miriam Webster dictionary
You don't usually know ahead of time that something is about to happen that will affect you for the rest of your life. Unlike in movies, there's no "dramatic music" to warn you. It just happens and you're left to deal with the results.
That's how it happened for me when I was roughly 4 1/2 years old.
We Have Visitors
Early in the fall of 1952, Granny Shaw, Aunt Margaret, and Uncle Albert finally made the 100-mile trip from Brandon to Crystal City in Uncle Albert’s 1946 two-door Ford.
As usual, Uncle Albert drove, Granny Shaw sat in the front seat, and Aunt Margaret in the back seat. Back seats weren’t especially comfortable in those days, so, since Granny Shaw was elderly, she got to sit in front.
This was the first time they’d come to see us since we'd moved to Crystal City. And the first time we'd seen them for quite a while.
I wonder now if it might have been the Sunday of the Labour Day weekend, because neither Uncle Albert nor my dad was working the next day.
After we’d shown them through our new house, we took them for a drive around town in our car, which was newer and larger than theirs. I expect we stopped to show them Dad's store, too.
Then we had supper and the adults talked to each other while I played with my dolls and “read” my Little Golden Books.
Now and then, someone spoke to me or offered to read a book to me, and for a short time, Uncle Albert and I played a game of Snakes and Ladders. But for the most part, I was just kind of there but also on my own.
After I was in bed, however, my four-and-a half-year-old mind kept whirling. We rarely had company, so seeing them was exciting.
Plus, while I'd been in the upstairs hallway next to my bedroom (likely visiting the bathroom), I'd overheard a few bits of conversation, and wondered what it was about. Their voices seemed kind of louder than usual.
I especially wondered what Granny Shaw was talking about when she said, “You must tell her!” I wondered who “her” might be, and what they all knew that she needed to be told.
Mom Takes Me Aside
The next day, we’d just finished eating lunch in our kitchen when Mom looked over at me. “Nancy,” she said through tight lips, “You need to come upstairs with me.” She pushed her chair back from our grey chrome kitchen table and stood up.
I quickly tried to remember everything I’ve done that morning. I couldn’t think of anything that might have annoyed her, but she definitely sounded annoyed. When I didn't get up, Mom pulled my chair away from the table and held out her hand.
I placed my hand in hers and she tugged as I tried to propel myself off the kitchen chair, but the red vinyl stuck to my bare legs and I had to wriggle to get free.
I sensed only anger from my mother, and I wanted to run outside. She hadn’t spanked me for a long time, but I was worried that she was about to, even though I had no idea why.
I looked across the table at my dad, but he looked away. My aunt and uncle were watching me, encouraging smiles on their faces. Granny Shaw was looking at my mother. I realized that everyone except me knew what was going on, and I wouldn’t get help from them. I took a deep breath and slipped off the chair. Might as well get it over with.
I silently went upstairs with my mother.
I started toward my bedroom, but Mom steered me in a different direction, leading me into her and Dad's bedroom with the white chenille bedspread over their double bed, the dark brown wooden headboard and footboard, the matching chest of drawers placed against the wall on the near side of the bed, and the small mirrored dresser next to the window. The dresser had two small drawers on either side and a small rectangular stool with the burgundy seat that Mom could sit on to put on her makeup, or turn sideways to push it partway under the middle part of the dresser.
Mom went to the chest of drawers and bent down to open the bottom drawer.
I held my breath, wondering what she was getting.
Mom dug under some folded clothes and brought out a child’s picture book with a baby on the cover.
A new book? Relief flooded over me and I breathed again. But then I considered the situation. As far as I knew, Mom had never kept books in any of her drawers before. Why was this book there? And what else might be hidden in the drawer?
My mother shut the drawer, and I turned, still puzzled but ready to go back downstairs.
I didn’t get far. Mom picked me up, and set me down on the edge of the white spread, not saying one word about keeping my shoes off the spread because the bottoms were dirty. She sat down beside me, opened the book, and began to read the story aloud.
I wondered why she was reading to me when she so obviously didn’t want to. I preferred to have my dad read anyway. Even though he didn’t read as well, he seemed to enjoy it more. Or Aunt Margaret. She was really good at telling stories.
But I didn’t say any of this to my mother. Just sat there politely in my pale blue dress, keeping my feet, encased in white socks and white sandals, as still as possible. I wanted to swing my legs, but I knew my shoes would hit the white spread then and get it dirty.
The New Book
The story in the book was about Moses when he was a baby, and his mom had to put him in a basket and send him away because some bad people wanted to kill him. And the King’s daughter found him and rescued him and raised him as if he were her own son.
I already knew the story from church activities, and while I liked it, I didn’t know why it was so important that Mom was reading it to me now when we had company downstairs.
But the story didn't end there. Apparently there was another little baby whose mother couldn’t look after it. Only that happened now, not many years ago. And so the mother got help from some a nice lady who knew a couple who didn’t have any children of their own, and who wanted a baby. So the baby’s mother gave the baby to the nice lady, and then she gave the baby to the childless couple, and the baby became their child.
The last pages of the book said that just as God had looked after Moses, so he looked after the other baby, too.
The story was okay, but I was still wondering why my mother had brought me into her bedroom to read the book instead of reading it in the living room or in my bedroom, as usual. And why was she reading it with so little enthusiasm? And I still wanted to know why Granny Shaw had said, “You have to tell her?” Who was "her?" I also wanted to know why the book was hidden away in the drawer. Sometimes Mom hid presents, but that was for Christmas and birthdays. And then she would get excited, not angry. What was going on?
My mother closed the book, and said, in a funny, kind of distant voice, “The reason I read you this book is that this story is about a little girl like you. We wanted a baby and God chose you to be our daughter. He gave you to us because he knew we would be the best family for you.” Her voice broke. Although she turned her head, I caught a glimpse of tears in her eyes.
I realized that I’d been wrong. I’d thought Mom was angry when, really, she was sad. And maybe afraid. When Granny Shaw had said, “You have to tell her,” it was because Mom hadn’t wanted to tell me this story. She was afraid, but Granny Shaw had made her tell me anyway.
I sat quietly, processing what I'd just heard. “Can you read the book again?” I said quietly.
She nodded. This time, she read it more softly, and with more emotion.
I listened carefully this time, trying to connect the words with what my mother had just said. This story was about me. I was like Moses. My own mother couldn’t look after me, so she had given me to my parents, who wanted me. And God had known they would be the best parents for me.
When Mom finished the book, she repeated what she had said before, and told me that God had given me to them to be their daughter. She asked if I had any questions.
I shook my head.
The air in the room felt damp and heavy. Mom used a tissue to wipe her eyes. But there were no tears in my eyes.
Mom lifted me off the bed and I watched her put the book carefully back under the clothes in the bottom drawer.
Even though I had only a few precious books, I didn’t ask to keep this one. And I didn’t try to see if anything else was hidden in the drawer. I simply waited until she had closed the drawer and straightened up.
“Can I go and play now?” I asked.
My New World
I went down the hall to my bedroom, but I left the door ajar. It was a few minutes before I heard my mother go down the stairs. I heard Granny Shaw say, “Did you tell her?”
I didn’t hear Mom’s response; just the hum of their voices moving from the front hallway back into the kitchen.
I climbed onto my single bed and sat there trying to make sense of what my mother had just told me. I looked just like my parents. Same pinkish beige skin. Same dark brown hair. No one would ever guess they weren’t my real parents.
Part of me wanted to go downstairs and ask my dad if it were true. But Granny Shaw and Aunt Margaret and Uncle Albert were in the kitchen, too. And my mother might be hurt if I acted as if I didn’t believe her.
I got down and gathered my three dolls—Judy, Donna, and Mary—into my arms, and held them close for a few minutes. I replayed everything my mother had said. I can't be certain, but I likely told my dolls what had happened.
I considered my thick, wavy, unruly hair and Mom’s very straight, thin hair. And a very small part of me felt relieved. I’d rather have my thick, messy hair than her straight, thin hair. Then I moved the whole thing into a far corner of my mind.
I knew I’d never forget what I’d been told, but I also knew that I’d never mention it. And I didn’t think my mom or dad would, either. Not unless I brought it up.
For me, the most important part of what Mom had said, and what the book had said, too, was that God was the one who decided my mom and dad were the best parents for me, because just as he’d taken care of Moses, he’d take care of me.
I gave a moment’s thought to my original parents, whoever they were, wherever they were, and then asked God to look after them, content in the belief that God knew where everyone in the world was.
Then I sat on the linoleum floor of my bedroom holding my dolls and thinking. What troubled me, much more than the fact that my parents apparently weren’t my real parents, was the realization that they’d kept this secret from me. What other things might I believe that weren’t true?
It’s very unsettling to realize, at four and a half years of age, that you can’t completely trust anyone…except God.
I should add that I'm positive either Granny Shaw or Aunt Margaret had found the book, brought it with them, and given it to my parents the night before. And that I'm so glad Granny Shaw insisted that my parents tell me the truth about my birth. I’m quite sure Mom and Dad would have preferred for me to have gone on believing I was their natural daughter, my name was always and only Nancy Jane Shaw, and there were no photos of me as a newborn because their old Brownie camera wasn’t working.
. . .
Can You Relate?
There's a lot more I could say about adoption, of course, and I have some posts here outlining what I've learned in the past twenty years about the reality of adoption during the 1940s to 70s. And in my memoir I'll be sharing a lot more about how my being adopted affected me in the years to come. However, my focus here is not so much on adoption itself as on an event in childhood that affects you for the rest of your life.
Can you recall something, positive or negative, that had a "tipping point" kind of affect on you?
. . .
LoveChild: Life Lessons from an Ugly Duckling is the story of my struggle to adjust to the life I was given, and my eventual discovery that, not only had I become a swan but, contrary to my perceptions, I had always been one. Though I didn't realize it until many years later, my life was part of a much bigger plan that all made perfect sense.
I'll be blogging my story once a week.
Find links to all these blogs at: