Stephen Fagan was arrested in Florida last month for the 1979 kidnapping of his two young daughters. Lisa and Rachael Fagan grew up believing their mother, Barbara Kurth, was dead. So far, they have chosen not to meet their mother. But Ann F. Cummings, whose own childhood parallels that of the Fagan sisters, was moved to write this open letter to them.
Dear Rachael and Lisa,
Although no two experiences are alike, I hope that mine will help give you both additional perspective on the challenges you're encountering.
I was 4 when my parents divorced. For the next seven years I believed that my mother was dead. My father said she had "passed away." Later, after other school children told me she wasn't dead, he explained that he meant she had left town, passed away to another city. All photos of her were removed from our family album. Any image of her in a photo of other relatives on my Dad's side was cut out, leaving only the "good guys" in the picture. For 19 years I never saw my mother or heard from her. Not one kind word was ever said about her either by my dad or my brother or sisters.
Then I met her.
A friend gave a talk to one of the adult education classes at the local YWCA. Chatting in the cafeteria afterward, she met my mother. The next day my friend told me about it and asked me if I wanted to meet her. The news literally took my breath away.
Several years before, on two different occasions, I had seen one of my older sisters and my brother try to reunite with our mother. Both attempts ended in failure because once my dad found out, he let it be known that a choice must be made. They would have to choose between their mother or father. Both chose our dad.
It was apparent that the only possible reunion between my mother and me was to keep it a secret. This I did for the next 20 years.
My friend arranged for us to meet at her home, a neutral ground and a quiet one compared, say, to meeting at a restaurant. The only guideline was the possibility that our first meeting might also be our last. We, or one of us, might not want to continue. We might find it too difficult to sustain this new relationship.
Dj vu doesn't begin to describe the feelings I had when my mother and I first met. It was as if no time had passed. I loved her just as I had when she left. And now, here she was willing and ready to accept my love. And I, hers.
We hugged. There were tears. How could there not be? She told me stories of when I was a baby and toddler that I had not heard before. Stories that a mother keeps in her heart and occasionally shares with a friend. Stories that a mother wants to share with her child and grandchildren.
I told her how I had always loved her; that although there were no photographs of her, I once found a deck of playing cards with a picture on it that reminded me of her. I told her how during those years I thought she was dead, I still looked for her. Downtown, I'd hope to catch a glimpse of her in the crowd.
And one time, when riding a school bus to a museum across town, I thought I saw her face looking up as I pressed mine against the window. Here, she excitedly interrupted me and exclaimed, "It was me! I saw you, too! When I saw the school bus with the name of your suburb on it, I looked at every face. And I was positive I saw you!"
For both of us, the confirmation of that singular, precious moment of recognition, the transition from imagination to fact brought a feeling of awe to our visit at my friend's house, a feeling so profound as to bring, not a cascade of tears, but just two tears for each of us.
One of my first impressions was how much alike she and my dad were. I also found that she did have some of the faults talked about by my dad. For instance, she did have a tendency to leave potholders near stove flames, though nothing more serious than the potholders ever burned. She admitted to preferring, in the old days, to drive her stick shift car in second gear around city streets. And she was sometimes an emotional time bomb. What "sins!"
Because of my young age at the time of the divorce, I didn't know any details until after meeting her. She explained that legal custody of the four children had been given to her. But that after a few months my father had convinced her that it was in the best interests of the children for him to raise us rather than her. He had a better paying job; they would stay in the same community. It just seemed the better thing.
He promised she could visit. But each visit became more emotional than the previous. It was harder and harder for my mother and her children to say goodbye. For reasons that probably go much deeper than I'm aware of, he finally told her she couldn't return. Ever. I have vague recollections of him yelling at her as he walked towards her across the front yard of our house. She reluctantly backed up until she had no choice but to turn and slowly, tearfully walk the six blocks to the streetcar stop.
I didn't meet her again until I was 23. In my father's defense, he raised four children, ages 13, 12, 9, and 4 from that point entirely on his own. He had very little money. One time he took my tiny savings account money and used it to buy me my winter coat. He made our breakfasts, laid our school cafeteria lunch money on the refrigerator every morning, walked us to school no matter the weather. He was the one who made dinner every night after work - before freezers and microwaves. He clothed us, cared for us when we were ill, made us laugh when times were tough. We had many happy times with our dad. I loved him then and I love the memory of him now.
But I'm very glad to have known my mother, even though only after reaching adulthood. She was a unique individual who added a delicious richness to my life and that of my daughter's as she grew up. I wouldn't trade that for the world.
Many lessons can be learned here. But one is that adult children should not have to choose between their parents. We can love and respect each of them for their individuality. Neither one is totally perfect. Neither one is totally imperfect. Part of the joy of life is loving and respecting one another as we are. And what better place to do that than with family. And what better time than now.
Ann F. Cummings
* Ann F. Cummings, the mother of a grown daughter, grew up in Pennsylvania and now lives in West Palm Beach, Fl.