I walk up the front steps of the rooming house. Well it wasn’t exactly a rooming house, more like an old century home that had fallen into disrepair and had been converted into five different units. I had never before been to this part of downtown Hamilton near Cannon Street.
The neighbourhood where I grew up in South East Oakville, with its perfectly landscaped gardens and Lululemon dressed residents, is very different from the scene around me. I look around at the stained pavements, strangely dressed women and men, many with disabilities. Many of the young people have brightly coloured hair or heads shaved in unusual ways.
I had not been able to concentrate on my dossiers that day. I am wearing a light business suit having come straight from work. Before knocking on the front door, I pause. At 37, how will my life change after this meeting? I take a deep breath before taking the next step up to the landing.
The door opens and I’m greeted by a short blonde woman. She looks me up and down, then says, “Please come in Peter”.
All my life I have pictured this scene unfolding. But today I feel like an actor in a movie. This is not my life. I am watching from the outside.
I don’t know whether to hug her or shake her hand. I do neither.
“You are very tall,” she says.
We look at each other. The woman before me is fair skinned, she has a neat figure and shining blue eyes. She has really lovely blue eyes, I notice again. Eyes that are cornflower blue, reserved yet very expressive.
“Ilse, I am so glad to meet you, finally. Thank you for responding to my letters and emails.”
She moves to the sofa, I sit down on the chair beside it. I am surprised that there is actually no awkwardness between us.
“Would you like some tea?”
I accept her offer. She brings out some white and gold teacups on a small pewter tray.
“Tell me about you first,” she says in a soft voice.
“Well, I live in Oakville”, I began.
“I went to a private school there called Appleby College. My dad is a banker, but he and mom split up and he moved back to London, England. Just recently my Mom, her name is Connie, remarried.’
I look at the worn wooden floors and the ten inch baseboards, the high ceilings, imagining what the house would have been like in its heyday. I imagine how Ilse might have looked at 21 when she first met my birth father. I wonder how long she has been living here, only a half-hour drive from where I grew up.
We don’t feel in a rush to fill in the silence.
“How are you, Ilse?” I ask with sincerity.
“I am fine”, she said. “I stopped working at the factory three years ago, when it closed down, it’s been hard to find steady work since. That’s when I moved in here,” as though to explain the Cannon Street address. Despite the humble surroundings, I notice a striking original oil painting above the sofa.
“Tell me about my birth dad Marco. How did you meet him?”
She looks away. “I hope you have forgiven me…. that you are not angry,” she looks back at me cautiously.
“It looks like you have had a good life, better than I could have given you…”
I don’t answer. She is quiet too. She appears to be noticing everything about me, my dark glossy hair, my brown eyes, my high cheekbones, even my long fingers.
After a few seconds, Ilse starts talking again, often glancing into the distance as she tries to recall things that took place almost forty years ago.
“We met in the army. I am an American citizen you see. He was very charming, he could sing very well. We met in the Philippines in Baguio City, where there was an army base. “
She pauses, then continues in a soft voice. “When I knew I was pregnant, it was hard,…we decided to give you up… so you would have a chance for a life”, her voice trembled a bit, “a life we couldn’t give you.”
‘Not with the situation… and the war… an army baby of mixed race….”
I nodded, as if to reassure her. I was old enough now, with a wife and child of my own. I could understand things like this.
Though I consider myself fortunate to have had the parents that raised me, I had always felt there were missing pieces in me that needed to be filled in. But then, most people probably feel that way, even if they are not adopted.
“Marco is Filipino, you are so much taller than him, you take after my father, Jon. He was born in Finland.”
“Ilse, I want you to know that I’ve been in contact with Marco too, it took a while to find him, but I got to speak to him on the phone…”
Her blue eyes open wide, with a sense of anticipation, but she doesn’t want me to perceive it.
“He’s living in California, near L.A. He works for the post office.”
“Is he married?” she asks.
“I haven’t actually met Marco in person, Ilse, but I know he’s on his own now…he had been living with a woman, but she died a couple of years ago.”
“Do you have any other children?” I ask the blue-eyed stranger sitting in front of me.
This seems to trigger something. She starts to cry softly and shakes her head. I feel strangely relieved, yet sorry for her loneliness. Seeing her tear up tugs at me. I lean over to give her a hug. She still feels like a stranger though, a total stranger.
I blink and say “You know, my mother– Connie–she really wants to meet you. She’s actually been the one who encouraged me to keep looking.”
Ilse stares straight at me, a range of emotions running through her. She looks sad, then happy, then sad, but over all, she looks more happy than sad.
“I want to show you my wife Erin, and we have a little boy, Seth.” I pull out from my briefcase a picture of the three of us, taken at Christmas.
“How old is Seth?” she asks with obvious excitement. “He’s almost three.” I reply.
Then I take out a small headshot of Marco which he had sent in the mail after our first phone conversation. It was probably taken a while back. He looks mischievous, like someone who knows how to have a good time no matter what life brings.
As I sit there in the small apartment, time seems to have slowed. I feel peaceful.
Ilse looks at the photo. A smile, like that of a shy young girl, crosses her lips.