Strangers And Kin – Lisa Grunberger

Part 1:

ISO Susan: Are you my Birth Mother?


Before I ever considered spitting into a little plastic vial, I searched for Susan through a more primitive way, which is not as technologically sophisticated as an algorithm––or, maybe, in fact, is exponentially more sophisticated: my way with words. I like to talk. What did I do? I made a phone call.


Sometimes I would find myself Googling Susan’s name after midnight, when my husband and daughter were asleep, our black tuxedo cat named Shai (fun-fact: it means gift in Hebrew) in my lap, a glass of red wine on the table. I would Google her name, wondering what happened to her, this mysterious woman who had carried me for 9 months, who gave me up.


Did her C-section itch on rainy days?  Would she then look wistfully out the window thinking, where is my baby?  Or maybe she pushed me out vaginally after two days of hard labor, and she thinks “damn, that baby tore me up.”  Is she a nurse, a social worker, an Uber driver, a gazillionaire who lives on some mountain top in Italy?


I say found myself Googling her, for it was not my rational self that was doing the Googling; it was as though something else took over my faculties during these moments of longing to know, when curiosity overcame me like a wave pouring through my after-midnight body. A desire I could not own during the rational light of day.


The only thing I could compare these frantic, wine-infused searches to were midnight, drunken booty calls one makes to old lovers. Calls one makes that are full of longing and nostalgia, when memory blocks out the bad, but longs for the gone romance. One is embarrassed by such impulses in the morning. One is a different person at night. Sometimes these searches would lead me to call.


The first woman I called, I will never forget her. She was a warm, Texan mother of four girls, and she just didn’t want to let me go.

“Hello? Is this Susan Morris?”

I was greeted by a warm drawling voice: “Hello, honey. What can I do for you today?”

“Hello. My name is Dr. Elisa Greenshein (establish authority, legitimacy, credibility). I live in Philadelphia. I am looking for my birth mother, whose name happens to be your name: Susan Morris.  Could you be she?”

“My Lord, how exciting! Honey, come upstairs, I’m on the phone with––what is your name, chile? With Elisa from Philadelphia, and she thinks I’m her birth momma!”


She sounded great. My heart’s beating fast now.


“I am sorry honey, I’m not your birth momma. I did give birth to three beautiful daughters but they’re all grown up and outta the house now. You know what?


“Why don’t you come to our family reunion in July?  It would be just lovely to meet you.”


I was taken by her Southern hospitality. “I wish I could help you chile. Have you been searching a long time?”

“No, not really, I mean I had wonderful parents.”

“I know, adoption is a beautiful thing. But you have your curiosities, which is only natural.”


“Well, I wish you many blessings. Are you a Christian, chile?”

“No, I’m Jewish.”  For some reason this sounded dead pan, like the punchlines to a joke.  I didn’t mean it to.

“Well, I think Jesus is gonna help you fine your birth momma. You know Moses was an adopted boy?”

“Yes, I know.”

“Our pastor calls him Pharaoh’s favorite Jewish boy.”

What should I say I think.  But she beats me to it, this warm, chatty Southern belle.

“I think you’re gonna fine exactly what it is you’re lookin’ faw.”

“Yes, thank you, ma’m.”

Did I just say ma’am?  I said ma’am.

“And we hope we all see you at the family reunion in July. In fact, I’m going to call my girls right now and let ‘em know you’re comin’”

I can hear their conversation in my head.

“Yes Elisa’s comin to our annual family picnic.  Why, she’ll be our Hebrew guest of honor. Girls, she’s part of the ancient tribe of Israelites and she will be our very special guest.”

“Let me give you the information right now. Do you have a pen handy?”

I didn’t have the heart to say no, thanks. So I took Susan Morris’s information, and I said I would be in touch.

“All right. Bye.”

“Goodbye, now.”

What the hell was I doing? I have since spoken with many Susans: interrupted a Mah Jong game in Huntington, NY, talked at length with a woman from Brooklyn who sent me the name of her Uncle Morty, a stamp appraiser, who would “take care of me” and give me a fair appraisal on my mother’s stamp collection. I have spoken to Arizona Susans, San Diego Susans, Jersey Susans, and Denver Susans. Not one Susan has hung up on me.  One sent me two tickets to an Off-Broadway show her stepdaughter wrote.  “She’s a lesbian, but it’s a very funny show in a sarcastic kind of way.”

I have come to think of these calls as performative, sincere little ventures in detective work, that allowed me to continue to search for Susan, the real Susan, my Susan, the Susan whose womb I gestated in, and at the same time, ironically disavow any bonds I might have or feel for Susan.  I never use the word “mother” in association with Susan.  That word is reserved exclusively for my mother, Rachel.

Many of the Susans told me: “I hope you find what you’re looking for.” This wish strikes me as a tad sad. And depending on how it’s delivered, in what tone of voice, it could also be a tad sarcastic, with a subtle suggestion that what I am looking for is too much, that my desire is somehow excessive. Or maybe that my way of approaching my desire, to satisfy it, by these cold random calls, is excessive. Or not quite the right way. To take my desire into my own hands and just call people and ask such an intimate question.

It’s odd what a name can do to bring people together.  I tapped into something I didn’t expect with these calls. Out there are people named Susan, Jennifer, Debbie, Judy––all the names of the world, and they want to know you, they need to connect; they need to put down the newspaper, pause the movie, get off Facebook and twitter and be disrupted from their routines to receive a call from a stranger who wants to know her birth mother.

If you call they will come, they will listen, they will try to help. They will invite you to family reunions. They will offer to send you photos of themselves, photos of their children, they will offer to visit you, send you home-made cookies, they will offer to help you find the Susan you are looking for. They will say I have a cousin who is a genealogist in Florida, maybe she can help.

My cold calls have been an unintended study in generosity, an anthropology of human connection or the desire for it in the early 21st century when it has become easier to connect through social media, but more difficult to know how to connect more deeply, and emotionally with others.


Part 2



After a certain age, there aren’t many ‘firsts.’ The first time I get sent to the principal’s office that smelled of Miss Lonergan’s overly sweet perfume and Dunkin Donuts and Mr. Judd’s aftershave. The first kiss, in second grade, on the cheek from Matthew Brumley behind a bush by the cement tunnel with all the graffiti, long gone. The first time I stole something from a store, Jolly Rancher sucking candies which produced an immediate klepto rush of adrenaline. The first time Mom forced me to go back to the store on a dusky winter evening, to apologize, and return the candies, that rush of shame and guilt so bittersweet I still feel it in my throat, a slightly sour taste mingled with the dry winter air and the cigarette smoke of a man inside the store smoking. The first time I smoked pot, the first time I smoked pot and got paranoid, the first time I smoked pot and had sex. First break-up, first plane trip alone to Europe, first sex on the train, on the plane, inside those old-fashioned phone booths, first job that came with health benefits, first unsuccessful IVF, first successful IVF, first waitressing job at a Greek Diner where the cook called me a kike.

So I was feeling rather triumphant that I had made it in this life to the age of half century still looking quite good, as Leon would tell me in a few hours––“you’re a beautiful woman, dahling, how old are you now?” and that now I had this new ‘first.’ On a cold March Day––the day of this new ‘first,’ when I will meet Leon, my birth father and my half-brother L, I wake up wondering what to wear. This first was not anti-climactic. I had little expectation. L told me Leon was not the man he used to be.

“He has a touch of dementia, an open sore that won’t heal on his foot. He’ll complain about it to you and tell you I neglect him. And he has an aide that social services provides; she’s covered under Medicaid, and he will be mean to her. So don’t be too surprised to find a curmudgeonly old man in a wheelchair, he is 85. you know. Unless he turns on the charm, which is possible because you’re a woman, and Leon likes women.”

It is sad boarding the train for NYC, for when I step on the train I remember the last time my father dropped me off at the train station after Mommy died. He would never just drop me off and drive away. He was a European gentleman; he would park the car and walk me up the steps. He would wait with me, his arm often looped inside my arm, his green wool Loden mantel so elegant on his tall body, and he would caution me to stand behind the yellow line, the way I caution my daughter Rachel now. Once the train comes, he kisses me goodbye and he walks off slowly, his methodical steps so careful and steady. As I approach Leon’s apartment, I realize I passed by it a hundred times with my mother, Rachel. On the elevator going up to Leon’s apartment, despite my own cool intellectualism, my stomach jumps. My gut apparently cannot explain away how momentous it is to meet one’s birth father.


“I know you,” is the first thing Leon says to me, a twinkle in his blue eyes that look like my green eyes. It felt biblical and lewd and innocent. Then he asks me if I’m married. When I tell him, yes, I’m married, an adorable grin slowly fills his face and he begins to un-age, his lines become clearer, his blue eyes become bluer, his ears tauter. He says to me, knowingly, as if he were talking to a woman in a bar after his shift at the Carlisle––a woman who came with her poodle and ordered the poodle a steak au poivre, he says, “you’re not married, are you?” My birth father is a flirt.


As if to say, you might be married, but you’re not committedly married, you don’t take marriage seriously, you know it’s all a sham. I know you, you are like me, you know there are no real rules to living, you know the Holocaust exploded that myth, you know that we can do anything we want. He’s saying to me: you, like me, are free, I see freedom in your green eyes you got from me.

A child survivor of the Holocaust, by the time Leon was ten, the war was over. He had been hidden, jailed, hungry, separated from his mother, with and without his brothers, one older and one younger, for over six years. L tells me Leon also had sired a daughter, Victoria, who lives in Austria. She is 36 and has two children. Leon was married to her mother, Lise, but he didn’t raise her. He and L’s mother, Estelle, also a survivor, divorced by the time L was 2, so Leon was in and out of L’s life for years.

“So I have a half-sister, too?”  I am suddenly a middle child.

In his apartment, his Jamaican aide, Karen says, “Mr. Leon, this is your dawta. Why don’t you decide to be nice today?”

He is smoking at his small card table messy with old newspapers, the Jewish Forward, the Daily News, Newsday, an ashtray, old coffee cups. I lean into him for the first time, and I can smell his dirt, his disheveled Einstein hair, and I kiss his old cheek, and when he reaches out to me I feel his arm tremble. We all go to lunch at Thalia’s which is, L tells me, “Leon’s cafeteria,” and I realize I know Thalia’s, I’ve had dates at Thalia’s, this is familiar terrain. I’ve had first kisses with strange men at the bar in Thalia’s. I went there after Broadway shows with my mother. Closer to the hotel, I’d passed the bakery where I once bought a croissant because I drank too much at Thalia’s.

“We are all sluts”, Leon whispers into my ear, at the restaurant, when L goes to the bathroom.  “Don’t be fooled by his slick clothes, he’s a slut, and the waitress is a slut too.  We’re all sluts in the Scheer family.  Are you a slut?” Leon asks me.

His crab cakes arrive and he lifts one up with his bare hand, a work man’s hand, thick and dirty with long nails.  A neglected hand.

“Probably has a lot of filler in it.  They used to be quite good, full of real crab until they changed chefs.  I knew the first chef.  I used to know everybody,” he says.  He’d been a waiter after the war.  After he took the boat from Paris to NYC, leaving little L with his mother, Esther, in Paris to travel alone with the baby.

I want clues about Susan.

“I remember sitting in the back of her car, what was it, a ‘64 Oldsmobile, and she was singing a song, remember Leon, and she was very pregnant with you” L recalls, as if he senses my need to hear about Susan, even a small morsel of a memory.

Leon takes a bite of his crab cake. “No, it doesn’t taste right.”  He turns to me, “You didn’t order the crab cakes, dahling, did you?  You shouldn’t eat them.  They are not good.  Just like my son L here, big man in town.  He’s not good.”

“Leon,” L says, “Behave yourself for once.  You are meeting your daughter, Leeza for the first time.”

“Leeza? Who is Leeza? You mean Susan’s daughter? She is a beautiful woman. Susan really missed out in life. She was a good kid, Susan. But she didn’t know what she wanted. She followed me to Miami, and I told her, you have to behave yourself, Susan. You have to listen to me. We drove out there in her car, and she parked it right on the sand, at the ocean. And when I woke up she was sitting on top of the car half naked sunning herself!  She was a wild girl.”

We quickly finished a bottle, as we were all a little nervous. Except Leon. Leon is the kind of man who didn’t get nervous. He left all his nervousness in Europe in the monasteries that hid him as a young boy. By the time he was ten, when the war was over, his little body was all nerves, and he was a dirty little Jewish kid survivor who had been hidden and hunted and left by his mother who went to Israel, leaving him with his two nervy brothers, the one who will become an Orthodox Jew and the other who will work for Meyer Lansky’s mafia operation in Miami.

Similar paths, really, paths of extremes. Paths of fuck you to the world, I can do whatever the fuck I want. I can imprison myself in a medieval shtetl in Brooklyn where Jews have their own currency and customs and don’t have to deal with goyim, or I can hide in plain sight, a.k.a. assimilation. In the 1980s, one of the brothers, Benny, will be found dead in his car on the highway between Miami and New York.

“As an adopted girl––,” I begin to say, but this sounds all wrong, too stiff, too formal.  “I used to think Barbara Streisand was my mother, Leon.”

“What did she say?” Leon asks L.

“She said, she used to think Barbara Streisand was her birth mother,” L repeats to Leon.

Leon takes out a cigarette and holds it in his hand.

“Dad, you can’t smoke in here” L says.

“Fuck you, L.”

The waitress comes by. “Is there anything else I can get you?” Leon smiles at the waitress and his blue eyes are watery. “Barbara Streisand?  I knew Barbara back in the day.”  He chuckles to himself as if the idea was absurd. I look at L to confirm whether this is true or another part of his demented mind spinning tales. L nods like a judge who is bored and angry and mildly interested in what’s going on. “Barbara used to follow me around and ask me for advice. “What roles should I take, Leon?  You don’t lie to me, Leon, you tell it to me straight and honest.” Yeah, I knew Barbara.”

As an adopted gal, I can’t say I have not wondered who I resemble. I can see my eyebrows on Leon’s face as he eats his crab cakes. When I was mistaken for my parents’ biological daughter which was all the time, for I looked like their child, my mother would say, “People see what they want to see.” My father would say, “Of course you look like me, you’re my daughter, bubbeleh.”

Now I have met my birth father, the Y chromosome that contributed half of my DNA. Strange how much power we give to this imprint, the biological one. I am here at Thalia’s with my half-brother and my birth father only because a genealogy test told me we were related.

Before I left to meet Leon, Robert suggested I should name my book “Investigations into the Possibilities of an Algorithmic Family in the Early 21st Century.” Rachel said, call it “The Spit Book.” I will call these genetic kin “The Spit People,” I said. They will be my genetic tribe and I will become the anthropologist chasing whoever pops up as an “estimated relation” on my screen. My Curiodysseys with The Spit People.

There is a photo of me with Leon and L sitting at the table at Thalia’s that is in a photo album now. “That’s my mom and her birth father,” I imagine my daughter Rachel telling her daughter. I did not find a father, I found a Leon, a Holocaust survivor like my father was. How many people can say they have two Holocaust survivor fathers? Correction: I have found a pere sperm.

I urgently want Rachel to know my father, my real father, Robert. When the bus home enters the Lincoln Tunnel, I imagine I’m in the back seat of Daddy’s mint green Cadillac, listening to my parents speak in German about ‘yenner this’ and ‘yenner that.’ We are heading home after visiting my parents’ good friends, who I called Aunt Edith and Uncle Dave. They survived the war because their parents sent them on a train to England on the Kindertransport.

My new brother sends me a text: “I’m abuzz from meeting you, Lisa. You are lucky that you were not raised by wolves.” When “Estimated Relation: Half-Brother” showed up in my 23 & Me in-box I couldn’t help but be excited by this new connection. Though L seems distant, cool, cautious about me from the start. Still, he is kind and walks me to Port Authority at the end of a long day. We could easily be mistaken for a couple, rather than siblings. The word brother doesn’t seem to capture what he is to me. For we are really strangers who share centimes of DNA, right? We are connected through Leon’s sperm.

Why do we attribute meaning to this, I think as we hug goodbye. Is this the beginning of a new family relationship? If so, we would have to make it from scratch and become something wholly new. This would take time and patience to cultivate, like any friendship. Birth father, brother, birth mother––these are words we use to describe relations of blood. But I have no intimacy with L or Leon. I would need new words to describe them.

I close my eyes and let the rhythm of the bus moving through the dark lull me further into the past, where I am with my parents, a child safe and loved. When we pull into the Greyhound station, I feel like I’ve been away, to a different planet, for years, even though NYC is only 80 miles away and so familiar to me. Mom was right: we never find what we are looking for. I spit to find Susan and instead I found Leon and L. Leon remembered so little about Susan.  “That was hundreds of women ago, dahling.”

Wild. Susan was wild, L and Leon both use that word to describe her. Then I remember. Once, when I was a teenager and came home too late and too tipsy from imbibing too many Oreo cookie chocolate martinis, my father said to me: “Susan said to us: Be strict with her, I was wild and look what happened to me.” I happened to her. I’m her consequence. All five-foot six-and-a-half inches, 125 pounds of me.


“How was your day, ma’am?” my Uber driver asks me.

“I met my birth father today,” I say matter-of-factly, as I buckle my seatbelt.

“You are very beautiful, Ma’am. Do you look like him?” my driver asks.

“Where are you from?” I ask him.

“Pakistan, Ma’am. I came here five years ago, I left my family in Pakistan.”

“He has dementia, my birth father. He is in and out of touch with reality.”

“That is too bad. But I imagine he was happy to meet you, his beautiful daughter.”

“He is lonely,” I find myself saying. “A lonely old Holocaust survivor who has three children with three different women. He lives alone in a building I passed a hundred times with my mother.”

“I believe this is your home, Ma’am. We have arrived.”


Pushcart Nominee, Temple University Professor and playwright, is also an award-winning poet whose work has appeared in The New York Times and in numerous literary publications.  Her poetry books For the Future of Girls (Kelsay Press) Born Knowing (Finishing Line Press) and I am dirty (Moonstone Press) are lyrical reflections on life as a Jewish woman, a mother, and a first-generation American.   This essay is an excerpt from her memoir, Chosen: An Adopted Woman’s Double Holocaust Inheritance for which she is seeking literary representation. 

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