We met Leah at the train station on a bone-cold day when only crows walked the white snowfield outside our house. The threat of black ice on the highway would usually deter mom from getting in the car on a morning like this, but today she couldn’t be stopped. We headed out an hour early in case there were accidents, but we passed only one car that had spun off the road. Through the driver’s window we could see that the woman was yelling into her cell–phone, so we didn’t bother stopping.
We were half an hour early and the train was twenty minutes late. We stomped our feet on the platform and blew foggy puffs in the air. Mom worried that she wouldn’t recognize her, and they’d forgotten to give some kind of identifying code: a ribbon in the hair, a coat color. I reminded her that there were never more than a few passengers arriving in this kind of weather, and there was a good chance she would be the only woman in her mid-20s traveling to Essex Junction, Vermont on a Wednesday morning in late January.
Leah was the first one off the train, pulling a bright red roller bag by its long black handle. As soon as she saw us she ran over, the bag tottering behind her, and gave mom a big hug. They both started crying and laughing, then pulling back to look at each other, then hugging again. She had mom’s rich chestnut hair, but without the mottled salt and pepper streaks. After awhile, they remembered me. Leah was a few inches taller, or at least her heels were, so when she threw her arms around me I smelled the earthy perfume on her neck and felt the brush of her blue wool coat against my face. “I couldn’t wait to meet you either, Tricia,” she said.
On the ride home, Leah and mom talked about her trip from New York City and how much colder it was in Vermont and how happy her father was that she was finally going to meet mom for the first time. I watched her in the rear view mirror and saw how she smiled as she chattered on, seemingly delighted to be bumping along the highway in our beat-up Buick. She had a knit hat with a flower on one side, but not the kind you find at a church bazaar. Her wide blue eyes were surprising; I would have expected brown to match her hair. With her high arching eyebrows and narrow face, she looked noticeably, bizarrely like mom, more than Roy or I did, I thought. But besides being younger, she appeared healthier, and brighter than mom ever did. It was like looking at a past version of her, an old photograph before it had been faded by the sun.
At the house, Mopes ran out and jumped all over Leah’s skirt, but she got down on her knees in the snow and let him lick her face like it was nothing. Roy was sullen and quiet when they met, checking her out like he does with everyone new, but she embraced him as she had me and he didn’t pull away. He’d even turned down the TV for her, which he never does.
I showed Leah to the guest room, which was just mom’s painting studio with a blow-up mattress on the floor covered with some worn flannel sheets. She didn’t seem to notice the shabbiness of it, or at least she didn’t let on. “Who’s this?” she asked, pointing to one of the photos mom had tacked to her bulletin board amidst outdated oil bills and quotes from Rumi.
“My grandparents. They live out in Portland now near my uncle’s family,” I said. She nodded, looking at the photos of my uncle and his children, Mopes when he was a puppy, Roy and I on our matching green tricycles. Our grandparents, I could have said. Our family.
“Did you like college?” I asked.
“Oh, yes, Yale was wonderful. I wish I could have stayed for four more years,” she said. “Are you applying for next year?” she asked.
“Yeah, I just did all my applications. I only really want to go to Hampshire, but my father’s threatening not to pay though—he thinks it’s too Bohemian,” I said. Then without thinking I added, “I wrote my essay about you, I mean about mom telling us about you.”
She turned around from studying the bulletin board. “Really? Oh, I’d love to read it Tricia,” she said.
“Ok,” I said, wishing I hadn’t mentioned it. The essay described mom’s ups and downs over the years, and how I wasn’t so surprised to hear that she’d had a baby at twenty. I didn’t know how much Leah knew about how she came to be: the child of the student-mistress, the bastard of an academic and his star pupil. Born of “intellectual passion taken too far” as mom had said when she’d broken it to us. I wrote about how it felt to learn I had a sister, and what I thought that meant. I wasn’t sure I should show the essay to her, or what she’d think of me if she read it.
Over lunch we heard all about Leah’s life, all twenty-seven years of it. Mom had had hours long conversations with her over the phone before they’d made a plan to meet. But she seemed to want to hear the same stories repeated in person, as if this would make it more real, or make Leah more real, I guess. Maybe it was hearing her voice in our house, the way it lilted over the leggy plants and bounced off the old Aga stove that mom wanted. In any case, Leah told her story well, and so we listened.
Roy and I knew up to this point: Leah had been adopted through a Jewish agency because mom’s “lover,” as she liked to call him, one of her visiting professors at Columbia, was also Jewish. He’d suggested the agency and done all the footwork to avoid having the University find out, and mom had liked the idea of her baby going to a Jewish home. “Somehow it felt like giving her over to family,” she’d told me, wiping tears from her eyes. For a month after Leah first emailed her, she couldn’t stop crying. I didn’t blame her, of course, but it was hard to know what actually being in contact with her “lost baby,” as she called her, was going to do to her emotional state, which wasn’t so hot to begin with.
Being put up for adoption isn’t an ideal way to start out life, but Leah’s story just seemed to get better from there on out. She was given to the Bernstein’s, a young couple that had always wanted children but had been told they couldn’t have them. They were both doctors, he a psychiatrist and she a pediatrician, but she—her name was Deborah—had decided to work part-time so she could stay home with Leah. After less than a year, she ended up getting pregnant after all, so Leah had a sister so close in age that people always thought they were twins. A few years later her brother had followed.
“Were you worried they’d love them more because they were their real children?” Roy asked.
“Roy!” mom said, drawing in a breath. “What a rude thing to ask. Sorry Leah, he doesn’t think.”
“It’s ok,” she said, smiling at Roy who was blushing now. “Actually, I might have been worried, but I didn’t yet know I wasn’t their biological child,” she said. “They didn’t tell me until I was thirteen years old because they didn’t think I’d understand. But right before my bat mitzvah we met with the Rabbi and they gave me the whole story. They made a big point of telling me they loved me just as much as my brother and sister.” These Bernstein’s were something, I thought. I was starting to feel like I was a side character in an afterschool special.