Leila, Lost and Found

 By Mary Ellen Gambutti

In 1957, at age six, I learned from my adoptive parents about the “lost ones” whom I might never meet. My worry and wondering peaked at forty with anxiety that would only be quelled by knowing. 

On a September 1993 morning flight between Lehigh Valley and Greenville-Spartanburg airports, I gazed out my window at a new chapter. I’d soon be reunited with Leila, the mother who gave me life. My pulse quickened as the escalator glided down to the baggage carousel, where I spotted my welcoming party. A woman beamed and waved. Karen, my half-sister, called my name in the drawl I recognized from our phone calls since my search bore fruit. After I’d contacted Karen, Leila reluctantly admitted her forty-year-old secret that was me. Yes, she had given birth to a girl when her firstborn was two. The nuns in St. Francis hospital would take care of her baby, and find her a good home. She named the newborn after her sister-in-law, Ruth, and her sister, Ann.

My heart pounded as I stepped off grinning. When I’d spoken with Leila by phone, she seemed sweetly joyful, and Karen assured me ‘Momma’ wanted the reunion. The “lost ones” I’d conjured, imagined since childhood, resembled me more closely than my welcoming group, and a sense of unreality overtook me. Karen introduced me to Barbara, my slender niece; nephews, Josh—a tall, burley middle-schooler–and Daniel, his affable elder brother. They hugged me warmly in turn.

Karen looped her left arm under her mother’s right elbow in support. “This is Momma, Leila Grace.” Leila had insisted on standing from her wheelchair. She smiled at me. The large woman was my mother, too. I’d heard her Gospel songs in the womb, felt her inflections; the laughter that rocked her, her fury, and tears, and her tentative touch before the nurse swaddled and took me away. Emotion filled her moist, puffy eyes. Was it a recollection? Regret? Or pang of pride? The panic and anxiety I’d likely inherited? I took charge of our feelings and wrapped my arms around her. “Hello, Momma! So good to see you!” She yielded to my warmth, and murmured something, not meant for me, but for the gods. Her natural affection couldn’t replace a lifetime of nurturing by my adoptive mother. She had dared not hope the infant she’d left behind would return to her one day.

At Karen’s home an hour later, my sister prepared a simple meal for us all. I chatted with Leila as she rested in the recliner, her left leg prosthesis showing below her blue pastel pants. The cruel red streak of her dialysis shunt scar was visible below the right sleeve of her floral cotton blouse. Her salt and pepper hair was cut short and tightly permed for the occasion, while Momma chittered happily in a high, soft voice like a gentle bird. We squeezed together at the kitchen table and tucked into fried chicken, biscuits, gravy, green beans, sweet tea, and store-bought apple pie. Our feast, prepared in generosity, was a celebration of family love. 

From left: Mary Ellen, Leila, Karen.
We are all the same height: 5’7″

After dinner, we perused photo albums and found a few pictures of Leila in her twenties and thirties, aunts and uncles I’d never know, and Karen’s children as they grew up. None of my father–maybe Leila recognized him in me—maybe there was a secret photo stashed away.

Karen and I talked long into the night from twin beds, and she shared stories that connected us. Leila had left her with her mother and father until her brother and his wife took her in. “Momma would come and go.” Karen moved in with her father in her teens, and she married young. 

Several months before our reunion, Karen had driven to Texas to assess Leila’s living situation. Her husband of thirty-seven years had been dead for two years. The daughter she had with him, our young half-sister, Susan—was epileptic, and drowned when she was sixteen in a San Antonio creek. Alone and in poor health, Leila had stepped on an insulin needle. First her foot, then her leg were amputated. Karen brought her back to South Carolina after her rehabilitation. Was it synchronicity, or the pull of souls that brought us together at that moment?

Taken at Antioch cemetery. lFrom left: my half-sister, Karen, cousins Lawrence and Helen, and Leila, my birth mother.

Karen, Leila, and I began to bond during our first reunion in Greenville, South Carolina, the place where we all were born. Momma took her walker, and we moved among the many antique gravestones of our ancestors in Antioch, Standing Springs, and Rocky Creek churchyards. I was determined to learn the truth of my identity, my heritage, and to find my maternal family. My pre-internet quest and discovery, laid the groundwork for finding my paternal family through DNA testing four years ago.

Leila felt she wasn’t able to keep me. Her parents were taking care of Karen, and their livelihood of tenant farming and mill work just sustained them. Leila Grace Cox passed away one year after our reunion. I’m so glad I found her, and the love I lost.

© 2021 Mary Ellen Gambutti

Mary Ellen writes about her life as an adopted Air Force daughter, her reunion with her biological family, her gardening career, and her survival of brain trauma at mid-life. Her stories have appeared in these and other literary journals: The Remembered Arts Journal, Modern Creative Life, Halcyon Days, Memoir Magazine, Borrowed Solace, mac(ro)mic, The Drabble, and Portland Metrozine. Her memoir is in progress. More: http://linktr.ee/SCMel

About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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