Chasing Ellen Gilchrist
The cool thing about meeting ex-boyfriends’ new girlfriends is that you often have a better chance of being forever friends with the woman than with the man, who, inherently, already has an x by his name.
I liked Todd when I met him, and I liked him when we broke up. We had been kind to each other and, although we lived a country apart, we had kept seeing each other for almost a year. It was a sweet, easy time. We got to break up in the best way, lightly, so that both of us barely noticed. For me, an adoptee, to break up without needing a therapist was a miracle. I could be in relationship and then be out of it and not think I was going to die. Amazing.
I was as satisfied with how we had broken up as with how we had stayed together. Reading and writing and thinking about adoption was working! I was not one big button of reaction. I could actually access the reasonable part of my brain.
And then I met Todd’s new girlfriend at a Super Bowl party, and things got even better. She was smart and thoughtful and interesting. She was a writer! A published writer! While everyone else watched the heartbreaking first half of the game, she and I sat in the living room and talked about life and husbands and dating and music and writing.
She mentioned loving Lucinda Williams, and I could see how Lucinda would seem like a mirror for her—rangy long-haired poet women with careful eyes. I said something about how one of my favorite writers, Ellen Gilchrist, supposedly had had an affair with a boyfriend of Lucinda’s once up on a time.
Todd’s girlfriend had also read Ellen Gilchrist. It was official: Todd’s love was now mine. The very best people bring you home to yourself, and this was what she was doing for me.
When I got home to California a week later, I had a stack of books from Amazon at the door. One that I’d forgotten I’d ordered was my all-time favorite Ellen Gilchrist book, The Annunciation. I’d ordered it because my copy was in storage and I had the funny feeling that the story Gilchrist had told, and that I vaguely remembered, had something to do with adoption. (When I read or see movies, more often than not I forget the plot and remember instead specific images or the rhythm of the language. Books and movies just wash over me.)
When I dropped out of college for the second time and was feeling particularly lost in my life, I got in my car and headed back across the country, headed first for Fayetteville, Arkansas, because I had the feeling that if I went, I’d find Ellen Gilchrist in the city I’d read was her home, and she would tell me what I was supposed to do next.
It was sometime around 1988, and I had a thick book of American Bed and Breakfasts on the car seat next to me and enough money to get from one coast to the next. I’d arranged by phone to stay in the extra bedroom of a woman’s house in Fayetteville and had visions of walking into the local bookstore and finding Ellen Gilchrist there. I imagined she’d look up and see I was like a daughter to her, and she would take me home, feed me, and would give me the key for how I could go out and make something of this life that had me so flummoxed. I was like a wild animal with crossed eyes: all energy and desire and no focus.
The woman in Fayetteville hadn’t been looking for a Bed and Breakfast guest as much as she had been looking for a friend. When I arrived, she had me set my bag in my room and then took me on the tour of her life. She showed me the backyard trailer she’d constructed into a frilly love nest. She showed me the edible underwear she had carefully spread out on the pillow. All she needed, she said, was a boyfriend.
She was thin and tan and, to my twenty-something self, deeply wrinkled. She took me to her mother’s house down the street because she thought maybe Ellen Gilchrist went to her mother’s church. We sat and had a Coke with her mom and talked about how to make brownies that people couldn’t stop eating. I think they used coffee grounds. I’m probably making that up, but at this point in the journey, I was feeling trapped and used. I wanted to go off and explore Fayetteville on my own, but this woman was lonely and she was trying to buy me in all sorts of weird ways. She had her mom go into the deep freeze down cellar and pull out a tray of her famous brownies for me to take home, silver pan and all.
Her mother had said that, although she’d heard of Ellen Gilchrist, she didn’t know where she was or where she lived but that her friend across the street might know her and that we could go over and ask. We couldn’t call this friend because she didn’t have a phone, but we could just drive over and look for her. I started to doubt they even knew who Ellen Gilchrist was, but I was a superficially polite and shy girl and was incapable of speaking my mind.
The woman told her mom we had other plans, and we headed out the door, me carrying my cold brownies. The woman told me she wanted us to go to the Holiday Inn and pick up truckers. I said that sounded good. I said I had to put the brownies in my car first. I walked around the corner, put the brownies in the back seat, got into the driver’s seat, and drove off.
I had the radio on high and I didn’t look back until I crossed out of Fayetteville. I was so afraid the woman was running behind me like Ben in The Graduate, yelling my name. I didn’t want to see or hear her. What if I stopped? What if I said yes? I was not the kind of girl who went into a trailer and ate underwear. Maybe that was what a wild southern woman like Ellen Gilchrist would have told me to do.
I kept driving, only stopping at a trash can to throw out the brownies because seeing them in the back seat carefully saran wrapped made me sick to my stomach.
A few years later I wrote a letter to Ellen Gilchrist in care of Little, Brown. I told her how much I loved her books. I didn’t tell her about Fayetteville. I told her I heard she had a river that ran through her house.
I got a note back a few months later. I don’t remember what she said or whether it was typed or handwritten. I put it in a special place, and, like so many things that are special, I lost it. But she had written to me. Ellen Gilchrist had said my name.
Almost thirty years later, I started reading The Annunciation again. It’s about a girl who gets pregnant at 14 and gives up her baby for adoption. It’s about the baby as a woman, struggling in her life. This book is all about adoption! And I, somehow, in my haze of “my adoption doesn’t matter” forgot this part. I thought it was a book about a wild southern girl who did and said what she pleased.
It’s a book I gave to my mother when I was nineteen, my mother with whom I could not talk about my adoption. It’s a book that, much to my surprise at the time, my mother had said she couldn’t finish. We shared a love of books, of authors: Alice Munroe, Nadine Gordimer, Alice Walker, John Updike…the list went on and on. Surely Ellen Gilchrist would slide right into this list. It wasn’t until now, now that I am 52 and my mother is dead, that I see the reason my mother couldn’t read this book was because it told my story, the story of being relinquished. The story of struggling with identity, and my mother couldn’t look at her daughter whom she loved and also look at adoption.
And so, in my eyes, my mother never fully saw me.
And that means I never fully saw her.
I wish she had read the book. I wish we had talked about it.
I am going to write another letter to Ellen Gilchrist, and this time I am going to tell her the truth.
I may even get in my car and go back.