Essays

Salvation

{Portland, Oregon ~ 2007}


I’ve lived in Portland all my life and I know my way around this town. I grew up on the eastside in the Roseway neighborhood, went to college on the Bluff above the St. John’s slough, and then moved westside to the suburbs in my early twenty’s; in the last four decades, I’ve managed to etch a map into my brain that covers nearly every neighborhood in Portland – from Mount Tabor to Montgomery Park. I know at least seven ways to get to 10th and Burnside, and where the best chance is for parking on NW 23rd.  I  know where you can still get a real old-school  fountain soda (at Fairley’s Pharmacy on Sandy), and what the city looks like at night from the top of Rocky Butte.  I even know where Ramona Quimby grew up.  But today, I find myself crossing unfamiliar ground, to a place I haven’t been for more than 43 years – since the day after I was born.

I set out on NW Thurman, climbing the heights above the Pearl, and veer onto an unremarkable side street that gently curves back and forth beside a row of Nob Hill’s scariest stilt-supported homes. At the end of the road, I come to a narrow bridge spanning a ravine, and as I drive across, a mass of trees opens to a large brick structure.  Am I in the right place?  Is this where I started? As I roll off the far end of the bridge, I’m reassured: a large sign identifies my destination – The Salvation Army White Shield Center.

I roll into the only available parking spot at the far end of a muddy lot, then take a deep breath and open the car door.  A sticky, acrid smell rushes me – hot tar – and I remember that Robin, the Executive Director with whom I am meeting, warned that they were doing a “massive” renovation.

As I approach the front door, marked “Reception,” I make a decision – I cannot cry.  I must not cry.  I’m here to gather information, find a picture, fill in an empty page in my history.  But something inside me catches just as I walk through the door, and my eyes fill, weighted with a connection I did not know I had.  I blink, distributing the water just in time.  A young woman, strawberry blonde and smiling, greets me at the door.

“I’m here to see Robin,” I say, my pitch rising at the end like a question.

The strawberry girl’s face brightens, her smile spreads.  “Oh,” she nods, “Yes, I’ll go get her.”  She knows who I am.  I am expected.

Robin approaches a moment later from the facing hall, hand outstretched.  She is perhaps ten or so years older than I am; a gentle-looking woman with light features and rosy cheeks:  My mind flashes on the notion of a Dutch farm-wife. As we ascend a flight of stairs badly in need of new carpet, my hand touches the railing for an instant, and the cool on my fingertips makes me wonder about the hands that have passed up and down these stairs.  How many have been supported here, in this place?   Layers of paint cover the railings, thick, painted over time and time again, to freshen, to clean.  Some places have chipped, and the paint shows through in layers, revealing subtle changes in tone over the years…this place is a testimony to changes in tone over the years.  As we top the landing, my fingers brush the square finial – smooth from so many hands.

“I’m so sorry about all of this,” says Robin, indicating the smell of tar, the disorder of demolition and reconstruction.  We sweep into the second floor hallway.

“No worries.” I say, distracted.  A strange, feathery feeling is beginning to gather all around me, just beyond the edges of my senses.

Robin takes me to an office, borrowed from a colleague who is away from the building for the day.  “My office is terrible, but the tar smell isn’t so strong in here,” she says.  Then, gesturing toward a small collection of boxes on the floor, “I got together as much as I could find – I didn’t know what you might need.”  The boxes are filled to overflowing with old carbons, yellowed news clippings, glossy eight-by-tens, and photo envelopes from Freddy’s and Costco.  Treasure.

She gives me the lead, unsure if I’m ready to dig into the boxes yet.  But wanting to talk a little, I ease onto an aging forest-green couch and begin asking questions of the journalistic sort.  “How long has the facility been in operation?  How has the population changed over the years?” Robin settles onto an office chair and begins to recite a well-rehearsed outline of the facility’s development; mostly, she says, gleaned from a 1978 Masters thesis by a woman named Wendy Jo that chronicles White Shield’s history.  She promises me a copy.

Slowly, the conversation turns more personal – Robin has been working at White Shield since 1983 (with time off for children, she clarifies).  She mentions that she was raised in Pennsylvania, and I nod, silently conceding to my instincts.  Many have come back, she tells me – birth mothers who lived here, children born here – and she seems honored that they…we… share our stories with her.  She tells me about the mother and daughter who drove here from Salem on the day that they met for the first time.  And the fifteen-year old Hawaiian girl whose parents sent her all the way to Portland to have her baby and would not allow her to come home afterward.  I tell her what I know about my own beginnings, about my birth-mother, about my new sister and brother.  About my daughters.  I have a fifteen-year old.  Nothing would ever, could ever make me send her away, I say.  And I cannot imagine telling her to stay away, even if she left on her own.  Times are different now, we agree.  Thank God.  Thank God.

“Is there anything left of the old home?” I ask.  I search for the words to ask if the place that my birth-mother spent six months of her life in still exists.  Is the room I was born in still there?  I can’t say the words out loud.  I know if I do, I will cry.

“Would you like to do a walk through?”  Robin asks.

“Sure,” I say.  Nonchalant.  Practically perky.

Robin checks for her keys and we head up another flight of stairs, stopping in a few single rooms that were once bedrooms, I’m told, on our way to the “Hallmark Room.”

“We used to get a lot of donations from Hallmark,” Robin explains. “We stored them in there.”  She calmly struggles with the door lock, and wonders aloud if it has been changed.  “We’re rekeying everything around here.”  Then, as if turned from within, the lock clicks, and we are inside.

The room is musty, heaped with donated clothes and toys.  An ancient light fixture, ready for replication by Rejuvenation Hardware, hangs in the far end of the room.  A stack of receiving blankets leans against a wall on the near side of the first dormer window.    “Before it was the Hallmark Room, this was a dormitory.” Robin tells me.  “Six girls slept here,”   A giant battalion of dead box-elder bugs litters the steps to what was once a fire escape.  “The rules about visitors were pretty strict,” she continues. “One woman told me that once, when this was a dormitory, someone snuck up the fire escape and left a pie there.”  I wonder to myself about rules so strict that a friend couldn’t bring a pie.

I feel tiny invisible feathers dancing all around me, like memories caught in flight.  I have to hold myself from reaching out to touch them.  I imagine six beds – three on each side, and my mind’s eye sees a girl with long red hair in the far left bed, lying with her head propped up on a pillow and looking out the dormer window opposite.  Her face is smooth, like fine china, and dust motes play in the light between girl and window.  Another girl, round faced, bobbed brown hair, is standing by another dormer, gently rocking heel-toe, heel-toe.  She smiles toward me for an instant, and then she is gone.  A stir of little feathers lights on my shoulders like a shawl, and I am warmed.

Back out in the hallway, I pause to touch the railing again, reverent.

Robin takes me downstairs; to the old nursery, and to what was once the delivery room – where I was born – and to the kitchen.  “The kitchen probably looks a lot like it did back then,” she says.  Then we walk down a long hallway past rooms filled with teenage girls, strewn clothes, damp towels, books.  Like my daughters’ rooms, I think to myself.  Then, looking closer, onesies, bottles, diapers.  Not like my daughters’ rooms at all.

Down the hall, girls of every shade and size are laughing together, rocking, pointing, playing with their babies.  Most of these girls have choices.  Most of these girls will keep their babies.  Most look younger than my fifteen-year old.

Robin tells me about each room as we pass – shares each history.  “There is a lot of energy here,” she says, meaning what has been, as well as what is.  “Positive energy,” she reassures.  “People here sometimes say they have experiences.”  She lingers on the word a moment.  “Especially at night when it’s quiet.  You can feel things.”  She chooses her words carefully, professionally.  We nod to one another, and an understanding passes between us.  There is a lightness to the air.

We walk by the last room in the hall.  I glance in to see one of the residents; a girl of perhaps sixteen, and an unexpected rush of sorrow passes through me.   No little feathers here.  No lightness. I feel, in an instant, profoundly sad.

She did this for me, my birth-mother. She lived here, for six months. No family, few friends. She did this for me.  I cannot wrap my mind around the sacrifice.  It is too big.  The reality of it all is too big.  Those hands, her little hands, on rails… gliding up and down the stairs on smooth painted rails.

I must not cry.  Not yet.

Robin and I step through a door at the end of the corridor to the outside.  “That last room…I hesitate to tell you about that one,” she says.  “It’s the only room that probably doesn’t have much positive energy.”

Once again, my intuition surprises me.

“That’s the room that they used when one of the girls had to say goodbye to her baby.  They’d let her hold the baby for a little while, and then they would come in and take the baby and literally hand it out the back door to someone from whichever agency was handling the adoption. “

“My birth-mother told me she got half an hour,” I say.  “Thirty minutes.”  Not yet.  Not yet.

Robin leads me back upstairs, and leaves me alone in the borrowed office to go through the boxes of pictures.  I ask her to close the door as she leaves, and I settle myself onto the floor with the boxes around me, and carefully begin to lift out each file.  Carbons dating back as far as 1925, perhaps earlier, have been carefully preserved.   I am hoping against hope to find some remnant of my birth mother, of me, some proof of life.  I find a letter, typed on rice-thin paper, dated the day I was born.  Something about insurance, I think.  While my birth-mother labored, someone in an office nearby was concerning himself with insurance matters.

More recent pictures show groups of girls, pregnant, mothering, laughing.  But in previous decades, it seems that great care was taken to protect the privacy of the young women who stayed at the home, and so only backs of young heads are captured in any of the pictures taken before about 1970; long after our memories – hers and mine – were floating in the wind with so many others.

I leaf through stacks of vintage black and white photographs, but find only babies, and fox-furred, feather-hatted patrons that look by turns sympathetic and superior, posing for Oregon Journal photographers and Oregonian journalists.  A picture of a basinet full of newborns catches my eye for a moment:  One looks just like my middle daughter on the day she was born.  A coincidence, I’m sure.  Still, I hold the photo and study it for a long time – I cannot help but wonder.

Two hours later, legs cramped, feet asleep, I stumble down the hall with a few carefully selected pictures and newspaper articles to make copies.  Everyone in the office is very helpful, eager to point out their new copy machine.

Robin is in a meeting when I finish, and so I leave much as I did 43 years ago; alone.  Descending the stairs, I pause one more time to rest my hand on the smooth square finial, and I wonder how many times my birth-mother’s hand passed there.  As I pull open the front door, a woman at the reception desk asks, “Did you find everything you were looking for?”  I smile and wave good-bye.  I cannot speak.

Outside, I breathe in, breathe again.  Not yet.  Not yet, not yet.

My car rolls back across the narrow bridge, and little feathers fall like snow all around.  Then, all at once they are gone, and I am back on familiar ground; and missing the feel of down on my face, my tears begin to fall like winter rain.

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