The Doppelganger

I didn’t intend to be duplicitous, or to employ voodoo, black magic or any other form of trickery. It just happened that way, circumstances being what they were.

I was adopted in 1968, in the days of ironclad laws designed to protect the identity of the birthmother. At the age of 21, when I decided to search for her, I had, and continue to have, no legal access to identifying information. So, what else could I do, other than figure out my own way to find her and complete my story?

I loved her and longed for her, unreasonable and illogical to some, primal and pure to me. I wanted to tell her that I was okay, that I understood. But mostly, I desperately wanted see what she looked like.

Of course, I already knew what she looked like. Elizabeth Taylor. I was certain, because ever since I was five years old, and Uncle Heshy the Hungarian told me that I looked like Liz, I dreamt that she would look just like the girl in “National Velvet.” Truth be told, I thought she must actually BE Elizabeth Taylor, but I kept that one to myself.

I contacted the agency from which I was adopted and obtained “non-identifying” information. Sure enough, her physical description was exactly what I had hoped for; mine. She had an older brother, and was working as a research assistant. It said that my father was entering the Peace Corps, amazing for a globe trotting peacenik like myself. For years, I was satisfied by this tidbit. The information was enough to confirm that an alien aircraft had in fact, not left me here. Somewhere out there, there were people just like me.

In 1998, shortly after my daughter was born, I decided to try and find her. With the help of the Birth Record Book, hidden away in the 5th Avenue branch of the New York Public Library, I was able to find her name. The numbers on my original birth certificate and the amended one given to my adoptive parents were the same. Five hours in a dark, cavernous room, head buried in thick volumes of rows and columns, and voila, a match was made. Baby Girl Gerwin. No name, just Baby Girl. Ouch. I was not thrilled that she had not named me; I was rooting for Caroline. Not thrilling either was the lack of a father’s name, or a mother’s first name, but still, enough of a clue to move on.

The non-identifying information said her father was a lawyer and my adoptive parents said they were told she was not from New York. One quick call to the National Bar Association and I had her father’s name. There was only one Gerwin practicing law in the United States in 1968. Daniel Gerwin of Memphis, Tennessee. A Southern Belle, go figure. Searches of local records lead me to an obituary. Daniel Gerwin had died just a few months before; his obituary listed a wife Dorothy, as his sole survivor, no children.

I wanted to contact this Dorothy Gerwin, but I was not convinced that she was the right person. Why weren’t there two children listed as survivors? Maybe I was mistaken. I persevered nonetheless, and after a quick Yahoo People Search, I had found Dorothy’s phone number. I called. I said I was a student at UCLA doing genealogical research on the migration of the Gerwin family across the United States. You see, my mother had been a Gerwin and I was fascinated by genealogy. I felt a bit guilty, but she fell for it, hook, line and sinker.

Moments into the phone call, my life was forever changed. Indeed, it turned out that Dorothy had had two children, but they were both now deceased. Her son died of heart failure at the age of 42, and her daughter died of colon cancer at the age of 50. “When was that exactly?” I asked. “January 11, 1995” was the reply. Exactly one day before my 27th birthday. Chasing a dream is not at all the same as chasing a ghost. The pieces of the puzzle fit, I had found her and I was devastated.

Neither had children of their own, Dorothy told me. Now I knew, of course, that that was not entirely true. But I also knew, that the kind of child I was, was not announced publicly, if at all.

After an interminable sleepless night, I decided to call her back and tell her who I really was. Despite being open to this shocking news, she claimed to know nothing about me. To this day I do not know if she was telling the truth.

We spoke for hours, she told me wonderful stories, and ever so briefly brought my mother back to life. My mother and I were remarkably alike. We had the same major in college, spent our junior year abroad in France, and were both vivacious and intelligent. Dorothy asked me to send her a photograph, and invited me to come to Memphis. It was not the fairy tale I had hoped for, but it was a close second. So I sent off some photos, of my now one year old daughter as well as myself.

Three weeks passed without a response to my letter. When I finally called her, she said this and only this: “Look to your future and not to your past. Do not contact me again.” And then she hung up. That is the last time we spoke. Friends surmised that it must have been the photograph that set her off, it must have been that I looked so much like her daughter, it was simply too painful for this elderly widow to handle. Perhaps.

I could not come to a conclusion, because I did not have a photograph of my mother, Gloria. Over the years I tried to call Dorothy a few more times before accepting that this door was closed, for good. With that brief and last phone call went my dream of knowing whom I looked like. Or so I thought.

During that first and last duplicitous chat with Dorothy, I had gotten the name and location of my mother’s husband, Andrew, then living in London. I wrote it down and tucked it away. For two years I grieved, and tried to move on. I was now haunted by what would never be and unable to completely let go of this desire to see her face, perhaps to help me see myself more clearly.

In the summer of 2001, when my son was nearly one, I knew that I had to try and find more. Looking into the faces of my beautiful children, I understood that I had an obligation to them to learn more about our health and our history. I wrote a letter to Andrew and asked him for a photograph. I did not know if he knew about me, and I apologized for any heartache this letter may cause. I crossed my fingers and waited.

On September 11, 2001 a reply came, and with it, a photograph. On this day of death and destruction for so many, renewal arrived for me. We looked exactly alike; so much so that my own daughter thought it was me. Even the way she gingerly crossed her arms was so eerily familiar. I can still taste the bittersweet irony of that day.

Her husband Andrew, so debonair and kind, did not know about me. But his humanity prevailed, he honored my request and slowly, over the past 10 years, a friendship has grown. He put me in touch with her lifelong best friend Alexa, whom he thought might have the answers that he did not possess.

Did she ever. Alexa was there the day I was born. The day my mother was rushed to the emergency room, fearing that she was dying from a stomach ailment, unaware that she was pregnant and in labor. Alexa waited in the waiting room all through the night, until my mother’s brother Tom emerged to let Alexa know that my mother was all right. After surgery to correct an “intestinal blockage,” she would be fine. A few weeks rest in Memphis would do her good. For thirty-three years, Alexa believed that story. Until Andrew read her my letter, and the veil of deceit fell away.

Last year, with my husband and children by my side, I went to Paris to meet them, Andrew and Alexa, in person, for the first time. Now it was I who was the ghost. I had crossed the pond and entered the paranormal.

My first rendez-vous was cocktails at Alexa’s apartment. Alexa’s husband, the charming French professor, found it difficult to sit in the room with me, the face, the voice, so spooky was my resemblance to his old friend. I was not prepared for how my presence would touch Alexa. She deeply misses her friend and for a few hours, I brought her back. The strength of her final embrace told me everything. I had never before considered that I would be received as a gift.

And then I met Andrew, the widower, for whom there is no one to answer the questions about this apparition sitting before him. He showed me photographs that made my spine tingle and he answered what questions he could. And then he simply and eloquently told me all about her.

I squeezed my husband’s hand tightly as I listened to Andrew speak so movingly about this woman whom he had loved for twenty-five years. I hope that if I die before my husband, he will speak of me, and of our love, that same way. And forgive me, the way Andrew has forgiven Gloria, for the secrets I may have kept and the lies I may have told.

I am the embodiment of her essence, my visage her twin and the rest of me, in it’s familiarity, her doppelganger. For twenty years I chased her, haunted by her life and her death. But in the end it was I, sitting in front of them, who stirred the questions, and the love and the anger and the sadness. A bit of black magic, or voodoo perhaps.


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