Finding My Place in My Family, Part II

Read Part I here

As I said, I am very lucky. Whenever I get to missing my mother and father, I can just look them up. I can look up everyone in my immediate family: my two daughters, my son, my grandchildren, and my husband, too.

Frank at White Barn Theater
Frank at White Barn Theater

The things that pop up under my husband’s name, which is Frank von Zerneck, make me very pleased indeed. From the moment I met him in the sizzling summer of 1963 I knew he was ferocious with importance and bursting with self-belief. He was a cyclone, a tempest, and a great force of nature. And he sent me soaring one tranquil day, high into the great blue yonder, spoiling me forever from all that was ordinary and dull.

But wait a minute. I might be getting ahead of myself. Maybe you need to know a little more about him before I show you what he became. Perhaps I need to explain to you that when I met him, he was all bluster and gusto, with humongous dreams.

Possibly, I should clarify that he was just a kid from the Bronx with delusions of grandeur, before I show you what pops up on the internet under his name. And maybe I ought to explain where he came from first.

He was the first-born of immigrant parents—his mother a Sephardic Jew, his father the son of a baroness from Austria-Hungry. He was a child who learned to avoid the grass between the Bronx pavement stones, lest it leave its green tint on him. He grew up smart as a whip. He grew up on a cot hidden behind the family couch in the living room, so all his toys had to be small enough to fit under it. And he grew up looking out the window of the one-bedroom apartment, four flights up, imagining what it would be like if there were no telephone poles or buildings blocking his view.

The High School of Performing Arts, circa 1950
The High School of Performing Arts, circa 1950

As a child he acted on live TV and in the theater, selling drinks and programs in Broadway lobbies. Spending most of his summers as a teenager at White Barn Theatre in Westport, Connecticut, he stage-managed and learned to light plays, and design and build sets. The White Barn was a small theater founded by Lucille Lortel, which premiered numerous plays that went on to successful Broadway and Off-Broadway runs. Miss Lortel aimed to present unusual and experimental plays, promote new playwrights, composers, actors, directors and designers, and help established artists develop new directions in ways they might not have been able to do in commercial theater. From the age of thirteen on (claiming he was older,) Frank became Lucille Lortel’s go-to guy, living in a small trailer behind the theater for seven summers, and then

Theater de Lys, 1955
Theater de Lys, 1955

eventually moving to work at her other theater in New York City, Theater de Lys (now the Lucille Lortel Theater) in Greenwich Village. That was where The Threepeny Opera by Bertolt Brecht played from 1955 until 1961, which was then a record-setting run for a musical in New York City. In between all that, he attended the High School of Preforming Arts in Manhattan, and then he went to Hofstra College on scholarship.

When I first met him he was selling tickets in the box office of a tented summer theater in Westbury, Long Island. From there, that winter, he would go to The Phoenix Theater, the first American repertory company on and off-Broadway, until he went to manage the Martin Beck

Martin Beck Theatre
Martin Beck Theatre

Theater (now the Al Hirschfeld Theatre) on Broadway, where The Ballad of The Sad Café by Edward Albee was opening in October. By the age of twenty-three there wasn’t one thing he didn’t know about the theater. He knew it inside-out, upside-down and backwards.

We were polar opposites. Where he was dark, I was light. Where he was outgoing and spontaneous I was held-back and shy. I had grown up in an insulated world on Philadelphia’s Main Line. He, on the other hand, had grown up in a world full of so many dimensions it boggled the mind.

Here is some of what the internet has to say about him:

Frank von Zerneck, born 1940 in New York City, is an American television producer. His career began as a theater producer in Los Angeles, but moved to television in 1975 in collaboration with Robert Greenwald, which resulted in the Emmy nominated docudrama 21 Hours at Munich. Of the company’s most notable productions are four Native American films produced for Turner Network Television which included the Emmy winning Geronimo, nominated Crazy Horse, and Golden Globe nominated Lakota Woman. Tecumseh, which concluded the series, was also critically acclaimed. During a career in entertainment that has spanned more than 40 years, Frank von Zerneck has been responsible for theatrical motion pictures, several Broadway plays and numerous highly rated television movies. His many credits as a producer include the Emmy-nominated mini-series Dress Gray, written by Gore Vidal and starring Alec Baldwin; and Queenie, starring Kirk Douglas and Mia Sara.

Among the many other highly successful projects which von Zerneck (and his partner, Robert Sertner) are proud of: Too Young to Die?, starring Brad Pitt and Juliette Lewis; Gore Vidal’s Billy the Kid, starring Val Kilmer and Wilford Brimley; the record-shattering drama, The Pregnancy Pact

Frank, bottom left, on the set of Armstrong Presents' "Teenage Junkie"
Frank, bottom left, on the set of Armstrong Presents’ “Teenage Junkie”

Gracie’s Choice, a depiction of drug and alcohol abuse, starring Anne Heche in an Emmy–nominated performance; a miniseries adaptation of Scott Turow’s best-selling novel, Reversible Errors, starring Tom Selleck and William H. Macy; The Mystery of Natalie Wood, a miniseries for ABC directed by Peter Bogdanovich; the critically acclaimed and highly-rated We Were the Mulvaneys, based on the best-selling Oprah Book Club novel by Joyce Carol Oates, which was nominated for three Emmy Awards; and Within These Walls, starring Academy Award winners Ellen Burstyn and Laura Dern.

Over the years, Frank von Zerneck has produced over 150 movies for television, some of television’s most successful films, enjoying both critical and commercial success. As an independent long-form producer, von Zerneck is second to none.

He has just finished filming Cleveland Abduction, a Lifetime Original Movie, the true story of Michele Knight, a 21-year-old whose life was irrevocably changed after she was abducted by Ariel Castro in Cleveland on August 22, 2002, and held as his prisoner in his home for over 11 years. Taryn Manning, of Orange Is the New Black, stars as Knight, the woman who refused to be broken by Castro.

***

Yep, that’s him, all 5 feet 10 inches of him. My husband, who went from rags to riches, as they say. But I hold that he was rich from the start, for he has always been a man of dreams. I saw those dreams the first day I met him. I saw them in the sparkle of his hazel eyes and the manner in which he walked. It was, and still is, a jaunty walk, a gentle swagger of a sort. I have, however, watched him fall hard a couple of times over the years, too. But always he picks himself up and starts all over again. Nothing worthwhile comes easy, even when you are following a dream. He is still a cyclone, a tempest, and a great force of nature. And he still sends me soaring high into the great blue yonder. I am spoiled forever from all that is ordinary and dull.

Despite all, there was a shadow between us for many years. It was not a shadow that could be lain down upon or even reached for, although we tried. The shadow was out of our reach and because of that it brought us much pain and suffering. The shadow was that of a baby, our baby. The baby I was forced to give away before we were married.

To be continued…

-Julie

The Dress that Broke the Internet and What it Teaches Us About Reunions

juliekathweddingThe dress that broke the internet got me thinking. The age-old question, “is your red the same as my red?” applies to so much more than color perception. In some ways, it’s the true foundation of all our relationships: negotiating a dance between one’s own perception of the world and another’s. If I perceive nighttime as the time when I wake up, have breakfast, and live my life, and I have a husband for whom the same is true only of daytime, chances are we won’t get to grow old together. That’s an outlandish example, of course, but it stands in for countless subtler perceptive differences that we often don’t even notice compromising on. More importantly, it’s what illustrates the true breadth of blind faith we all must have in order to function in the world. When we hear the words I love you, for example, we have no guarantee that the word love represents the same feeling in the person professing it as it does in us. We just have to trust that it does.

This is heightened and even more extraordinary when thinking, as Kathy and I are wont to do, about adoption reunions. The meeting between, in our case, an adoptee and a birth mother, is a meeting between relatives who are strangers to one another. While we recognized each other as family the moment we set eyes on one another, that had little bearing on the kind of relationship we would have. Kathy still had no idea what kind of person I was. Just because she recognized her own children’s features in mine did not mean that she could expect her values to be in harmony with mine. Or that I was an affectionate person. Or empathetic, or kind. Because these assessments can only be made with time. For example, she may have asked me, are you an affectionate person? To which I would have responded, thinking about what affectionate meant to me, yes, and by doing so created in her an expectation of me. We lived thousands of miles apart. What are the chances that the way I expressed affection would be in keeping with the way she expected me to express it?

This is just one small factor that complicates reunions. As we research reunions for our next book (stay tuned for more information about that!) we are more and more convinced of the wisdom in slowly getting to know each other rather than jumping in headfirst, spurred on by the euphoria of the ‘honeymoon period’.

Because sometimes all it takes to break up a fledgling relationship between reunitees is, “No, you’re wrong. It’s obviously black and blue. And I can’t be around a person who insists it’s white and gold!”

-Julie

Biological Stranger

Much has been written about the years, days, and minutes leading up to an adoption reunion;  very little commentary exists about the relationship that follows.  Few are prepared for the affecting and often painful stages that come after the euphoria subsides.  The back side photo (5)of an adoption reunion offers no role models, no manual, and worse, very little collateral support.  The excitement that once intrigued family and friends quickly abates, but not usually for the reunitees.  Like those caught up in a new love affair, they remain preoccupied with one another which, ironically, weakens the bonds of existing relationships as loved ones grow jealous of the attention lavished on this “biological” stranger.  Soon, reality takes hold and, for the first time, the new relationship is tested.  Both parties are forced to reexamine their definition of “family” which may ultimately cause one or both to pull back — an event that has the potential to destroy the main ingredient of any relationship:  trust.  For some, this is the end;  however, for those with the courage to reopen old wounds and the patience to wait for them to heal – a more intimate bond, strengthened by surviving a common hardship, awaits them.


-Kathy

Cut from the Same Cloth

This piece originally appeared over at the excellent Bookish Libraria

John Stamos and Danielle von Zerneck, courtesy of General Hospital

I’ll admit it; I’m vain. Upon discovering that I had a full-blooded sister, whom I had never met, my very first thought was, does she look like me? As an adopted child, I had spent my entire life wishing I looked like someone in my family, wishing I had my mother’s eyes or my father’s thick hair, wishing that –for once– someone would say you look just like your mother (or father, or brother, or cousin…). Five years ago, that wish came true. At the age of 44, I reunited with my birth mother, who eventually married my birth father and went on to have two more children: my brother and my sister. I had grown up with only brothers, and was completely enthralled with the idea of having a sister, who –quite possibly– would look just like me.

As it turned out, I had known my sister for decades. Watched her on TV in the 1980s. Scheduled my college classes around the soap opera on which she appeared daily. For two years, she played the role of Lou Swenson, the love interest of John Stamos’s character, on the wildly popular General Hospital. And for two years, I had no idea she was my sister. Now, on this side of the adoption reunion, I can’t believe I didn’t see it: we don’t just look like one another, we also share the same laugh, the same intonation of voice, the same sideways tilt of the head when we speak in earnest. And after spending time with her, I have also realized the semblance resonating on a much deeper level. I saw it when she spoke about politics, about literature, about her daughters; I saw a passion, a fire in her belly, a glimpse of what made her tick– and understood it immediately. We, though strangers, had been cut from the same cloth– and I felt the same thing that other biological siblings must feel– an unspoken connection.

Kathy, 18 years old, in Indialantic, FL and Danielle, 18 years old, in Los Angeles, CA

But is that all it takes to be siblings? Shared features, shared mannerisms, shared passions? Can a sharing of chromosomes supersede years of playing catch in the backyard and fighting over who gets to ride in the front seat? I had assumed that our genetic bond was the only requisite to being sisters, but I was wrong; we will never have the shared memories of childhood, which are the links in the chain that fasten us to our families. Yet, what remains is my greatest hope: that we may come to realize that sisterhood is not a destination, but a journey to be shared and enjoyed. And maybe someday, we too will come to form our own memories in common and redeem what could have been our past.

-Kathy