What would it have been like to grow up in my birth mother’s home? I will never really know, but perhaps I can get an inkling by seeing it. On a trip to Chicago, I take a swing through the northern suburbs to get a taste of what could have been.
I feel anxious, uneasy on the Metra train to Northbrook. My son, Jake, and I are going to see Lillian’s home — the house where I would have lived if Lillian had not given me up for adoption.
At the Northbrook train station, we jump in a cab. Our driver takes us to Alice Drive, a nice, quiet, leafy road with an odd mix of newish McMansions and small older homes. Lillian’s old house is a modest but tidy two-story gray and white home with dormered windows upstairs. The mature trees and shrubs in the front yard make the house look tiny. Behind the house, there’s a big backyard with a well-tended lawn. A mansion across the street and another large, imposing home to the immediate left make Lillian’s home look dinky.
Lillian’s old home where she lived with my four brothers and sister. Alice Drive is quiet.
I start taking photos. There’s an attached garage and a central air-conditioning unit on the side of the house. I’ll bet Lillian and her family didn’t have central air conditioning in the 1960s. I can picture my brothers and sister having a blast climbing that tree. I can see my brothers sneaking out those windows upstairs. Did Lillian or her husband, Dick, ever slam that front door after an argument? My imagination takes over.
I fantasize about the present owner of the house or an elderly neighbor approaching me.
After I explain what I’m doing, they tell me about Lillian, the lively waitress, the great cook, the unhappily married woman who was overwhelmed by the job of raising three boys and a girl.
“Your mother was a lovely woman” or “what a tough chick,” or “I’ll never forget your mother’s beef stew” or “Lillian sure liked to drink”…or some new bit of information that surprises me.
Well, nothing like that happens. Perhaps the house is vacant or the owners are on vacation or sleeping. Nobody opens the blinds or the front door. I see no sign of life in the house or on the property. You could have heard a pin drop on Alice Drive. The whole block feels dead. I don’t see a soul.
Is this how it is in the suburbs? I grew up in a brick bungalow 35 miles away on the southwest side of Chicago. Neighbors hung out on their front porches. After dinner on summer evenings, my parents used to sit on the front steps and watch life go by on Sacramento Avenue. Kids played in the street. In Brooklyn, where I live now, I can look out the window at any time of day and see someone walking along my block or lingering to chat with a friend or neighbor. Brooklyn is a 24/7 kind of place, full energy. Chicago is lively too. Northbrook has a nice train station with paperback books for riders to enjoy, lovely homes on grassy lots, good public schools. But it’s too damn quiet.
I decide to trespass. What the hell, who’s going to stop me? I step on the lush lawn to take closer shots of Lillian’s old house.
This feels strange. I don’t belong here. I never lived here and I never knew the family who lived here. Many people might wonder why I’m curious about this house.
Well, I’m an adoptee on a mission of discovery. I don’t know my biological family’s complete story, only bits and pieces. My blood relatives were like candles that burned at both ends. Two of my brothers, boys who used to play outside this house, are long gone. One committed suicide as a teenager, the other one died at 23 following an accident. Lillian was only 48 when she died in 1983. I am related by blood to the people who used to live in this house but I will always be the outsider. That will never change.
I’ve got all the photos I need. The patient cab driver drives Jake and me back to the Metra station where we wait for the next train to downtown Chicago. My anxiety fades. I can’t wait to see my sister and fellow adoptee, Melissa, who grew up with me in that bungalow on the southwest side.
Unlike Northbrook, I will get a warm welcome when I walk in the door of Melissa’s home in the suburbs of Will County. I always feel at home in their house, which is something I never had with my biological family.