The bus was crowded. It always was as it wound its way to the university. Every weekday I took this journey, what with parking difficult on campus and me being four months pregnant.

About a mile from my home, the bus lurched to a halt, brakes wheezing. Hearing a ruckus at the front, I looked up from my book to see two seniors, neither clearing 5 feet tall, each gabbing to the other and then to the driver as they hunted through their purses for change, oblivious to the delay they were causing.

The dark-haired one grabbed a seat near the front while her companion looked for another. I averted my gaze, knowing the empty spot beside me looked inviting. As the bus bounded forward, the second woman fell into the seat next to me.

Her red hair caught my eye; its unnatural color and texture shouted “wig.” She must have been in her seventh decade and wore a brown polyester pantsuit, the uniform of a certain age in the 1970s.

I stared at my book, hoping for silence, yet knowing I was doomed to interact.

“Hello,” she said with a bright smile, within moments of getting comfortable. “What are you reading?”

I gave up and closed the book. There would be no chance to read that morning. After answering her questions, I stared straight ahead, peering at her wig out of the corner of my eye. When it was time to leave, I climbed over her with relief and scooted away.

Day after day, I took this trip, dodging chatty riders until one occasion when I skipped the bus entirely. It was my father’s 51st birthday and I had planned a family celebration.

Setting aside mass communication law and statistics, I played hooky from graduate school, immersing myself in a housekeeping frenzy that always struck when company loomed: vacuum the carpet, dust every surface, clean the bathroom.

Then there was dinner to make, of course. For this meal, I’d chosen my father’s favorite foods, not the ones that the rest of the family preferred, because it was, after all, his birthday and he liked simple food, simply prepared: meat and potatoes and a plain old vegetable, because there was nothing wrong with plain old. He knew it and wasn’t sure why everyone else didn’t know it, too.

That meant a meal of tender roast beef with gravy (no onions because this was aimed to please the one who ordered liver and onions without the you-know-what), feathery riced potatoes, essential for any family gathering, and some sort of vegetable from a can (this was the ’70s, remember) because, for my father, you could not go wrong with any of the big three, which were — what else? — corn, peas and green beans. The traditional family birthday cake, angel food covered in a cloud of chocolate whipped cream, would wrap up the meal.

Tonight’s gathering had taken on a special meaning and not only because it was my father’s big day. This meal was noteworthy because my father had an unusual request: He wanted to bring along his mother.

Not any mother, mind you. Not the grandmother I knew and loved. This was a new one he’d been on the hunt for since he was a young boy. His birth mother we say now but, of course, at the time we said “his real mother,” as if our grandmother in the nursing home, who had loved us and laughed with us, wasn’t real after all.

My father had only recently found the new one after years of contacting adoption officials, after coming so close he almost knew her name and, therefore, his name. Then it would all slip away because birth mothers — the “real” mothers that few of us talked about — didn’t always want to be found.

The adoption officials did, indeed, know her name. They told him so, but refused to provide it because his first mother didn’t want him to know.

“Please,” he said with a breaking heart.

And when no other reason seemed persuasive, he told the caseworker, who told his very surprised biological mother, that his first grandchild would soon be born.

“Her great-grandchild,” he noted. At the very least, could he have the family medical history to pass along to his daughter?

There were more phone calls, more persistent pleas, followed by no response. Then, one day, she told the caseworker it was time. She would meet with her son in a few weeks.

My father fretted and paced. He lost sleep and talked too much. And then he fell silent.

As those days slipped away, the unexpected happened. My mother’s own parent died, which created a crisis of its own. The funeral was to be the same day as my father had arranged to meet his newly found mother, one more obstacle on the path to finding his history. Yet he could not delay the meeting for fear she would change her mind.

The morning of the funeral broke sunny and clear. Despite the somber occasion, there was a sense of hope and excitement in the air. The service proceeded predictably, followed with guests showing up at the house afterward.

“Where’s Donny?” they asked as they greeted my mother, who bravely feigned ignorance.

“He’ll be back in a bit,” she said, as the guests moved on to the table of sugar cookies, lemon bars and brownies that the neighbors had provided.

Hours later and long after the guests were gone, my father returned, his voice trembling as he told the tale.

It was 1928, and the struggle was too much for this single young woman, who lived with her parents, to raise a child. She would put him in foster care, later giving him up for adoption to that same foster family.

“He’s ours,” the family said, even before they signed the paperwork for adoption. And so he was, as the Svitak clan claimed him as their own.

Foster regulations being far less restrictive, his birth mother knew where he lived and had visited him, even watched him play at a nearby park.

She attended Central Lutheran in downtown Minneapolis. Didn’t know it was to become her son’s place of worship when he married, the sanctuary where his own children would be raised. He and the family went to one service, she to another, never meeting in the grand space, not surprising given they weren’t looking for each other.

She was a widow now. Never had any other children. But she’d kept his baptismal gown, which she showed him that afternoon.

As my father wept, we gathered around him, shaken as much by our inability to provide comfort as we were with his story. We listened in shock as he told of the missed moments at the park and church.

When, months later, he called to say he’d like to bring his mother to dinner at my house to meet his family, I said the only words possible.

“Of course.”

That was the real reason I stayed home that day: to cook and clean and make sure everything was set for when I met this new, bonus grandmother, the soon-to-be great-grandmother of my firstborn.

The gold-rimmed dishes, used only for guests, were carefully positioned on the hand-embroidered tablecloth. Flowers plucked from the garden served as a centerpiece; candles flickered in the dim light. The warmth from the oven spilled into the dining room, as did the scent of roast beef, while I scurried around to make sure everything was in its place.

When the doorbell rang, I smoothed my unruly hair before heading to the screened porch.

And there she was: my grandmother, the woman from the bus, who still wore her red wig and, tonight, a hesitant smile, with my father at her side.

On this day, her granddaughter had time for her.

“I’m Marge,” she said softly, and we sat down at the table.

 

Copyright © 2018 Lee Svitak Dean