“Commencement means beginning….” Or Find a Stranger, Say Goodbye

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This book is almost as old as I am – I was born in ’77 and it was published in ’78.  I’d like to think that I’ve aged better than this book has. It’s not really Lois Lowry’s fault – the whole way we search for people has changed in the last thirty blah-blah years.

Natalie Armstrong is seventeen years old and is graduating high school. She has two amazing parents and a sixteen year old sister, Nancy who she is very close to. The only thing is that Natalie is adopted. And no matter how much she loves her parents and her sister, she never stops thinking about her birth mother. Her parents know about her desire to find her birth mother, and at first they are a little hurt. But eventually they understand that Natalie wanting to find her isn’t really about them. So their graduation present to her is their help in finding her birth mother.

Natalie’s adoption was not through an agency, it was a private adoption. The only person who knows both the identity of the birth mother as well as the identity of the adoptive parents is the lawyer who facilitated the adoption. That lawyer is Natalie’s starting point.

Natalie’s first stop is Simmons Mill, a small Maine town where the lawyer practiced. The town is so small there are no motels, and Natalie stays a few nights at the house of an older woman who runs a boarding house. The old woman knows everyone, and gives Natalie the news that the lawyer she’s looking for has been dead for a decade. Natalie asks after the Doctor who delivered her, Dr. Therrian, and she’s told that he’s in the hospital being treated for cancer. And that both his wife and his only son pre-deceased him.

Natalie pays a visit to old Doc Therrian, who is very clearly not doing well. But he sees Natalie and believes she is someone called Julie. Though he is sickly, Natalie manages to have a nice conversation with him, and he tells her he remembers her birth very well – and he gives her the name of her birth mother, Julie Jeffries. The only thing that shocks Natalie is that Julie Jeffries was only fifteen when she had Natalie. This news is shocking for Natalie, whose first instinct is to be little Miss Slut-shaming McJudge-a-lot toward her birth mother. Though she gets over it quickly(ish).

Natalie goes to the Simmons Mill public library and looks through old newspapers and high school yearbooks for Julie Jeffries. It appears that Julie spent only one year, her Sophomore, at Simmons Mill High School. And she’s shocked to see her in the year book, because Julie looks exactly like Natalie.

Unfortunately, there is no information about Julie’s whereabouts after she left in her sophomore year. And this is all the information she goes back to Bar Harbor with. It’s Natalie’s boyfriend, Paul, who has the idea of calling the Paper Mill to find out where Julie’s dad (Clement, an executive at the Mill)  went after leaving Simmons Mill. Natalie calls and finds out from personnel that Clement Jeffries transferred to Philadelphia after leaving Maine.

Natalie gets back from Simmons Mill, but before she can do anything the family gets news that Natalie’s grandmother, Tallie (for whom Natalie is named) has gotten sick and is in the hospital.  Natalie’s mother goes to stay with the grandmother for a little bit, leaving Natalie in charge at home. Natalie begins to appreciate all that her mother does for them.

While their mother is gone, Natalie continues her search. She calls the mill in Philadelphia and learns that Clement died in 1974. She happened to talk to someone who remembered the Jeffries because their daughter went to the same boarding school as Julie – Miss Sheridan’s in Connecticut. And she knew that Mrs. Jeffries moved to Detroit from a Philadlephia suburb called Glen Severn after Clement’s death.

A call to Miss Sheridan’s had no forwarding address for Julie. And information had no information for Clement Jeffries in Detroit. It seemed like Natalie’s search had come to an end. But then she remembered how her boyfriend joked that her birth parents, because they were rich, were probably Episcopalian. On a whim, she called the only Episcopalian church in Glen Severn, PA and talked to a secretary who happened to have stayed in touch with Margaret Jeffries, Julie’s mother. She gave Natalie Margaret’s contact info, and Julie called her birth grandmother pretending to be an old school mate of Julie’s from Miss Sheridan’s.

She learned that Julie became a model and lives in New York City with her husband and two sons, ages six and four. Natalie can’t wait, and she heads off to New York.

New York is different than small-town Maine, obviously. Julie is clearly wealthy and lives in a beautiful building. Natalie thinks she can’t just go in there, so she leaves a note with the doorman for Julie explaining who she is and asking her to call her at her hotel. Barely any time passes and Julie calls.

They meet the next day at the Russian Tea Room. Natalie is overwhelmed because Julie is beautiful. She turns heads, and as a model is dressed impeccably. But they don’t bond immediately. Julie is distant and ignores Natalie when she says she wants to be a doctor and tries to convince her to go into modeling. The whole meal is weird. And the next day, Natalie goes to Julie’s apartment and meets Julie’s sons, who are whisked away by their nanny.

Here’s the kicker. Julie gives Natalie the diary that she kept during her pregnancy, and Natalie learns that her biological father is Doc Therrian’s son. Doc Therrian was the only person who showed Julie any kindness while she was young and pregnant. Natalie knows that Doc is dying – and has maybe even died already. She leaves New York and goes back to Simmons Mill one more time to visit Doc before he dies. He is very close to death, and Natalie isn’t sure that he can hear her, but she thanks him for the kindness he showed to Julie. And to assure him that she has a wonderful life.

So at the end, Natalie feels whole. Like she’s completed her own puzzle and she doesn’t feel compelled to maintain a relationship with Julie. She loves her parents and she looks forward to starting college in a few weeks.

  • So, yeah. This reads almost like a historical document in how to find people in the pre-internet age. It’s actually kind of interesting, all the avenues she has to go down instead of sitting down in front of Google.
  • This is the book that Claudia read in Claudia and the Great Search when she was convinced she was adopted. Claudia is not as good a detective as Natalie.
  • You gotta be careful, meeting bio parents. When I was in college, I worked with a woman in her early-20’s who was adopted and chose to locate her biological family and met them and it turns out they were giant assholes and kept trying to get money out of her. She said finding them was the worst decision ever.
  • Adoption fact: adoptions are more and more likely to be open adoptions nowadays. Where the adopted parents keep in contact with the biological mother (and father in some cases) with pictures and updates. Open adoptions are actually considered more successful.
  • Natalie’s mom and grandmother are both artists, which in early Y.A. lit means they are WACKY. But their wackiness is lame. Natalie’s dad is a logical doctor, and he is so good-natured about his wife and mother-in-law’s crazy artistic antics. It’s all very stereotypical.
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About nikkihb

Wife. Mother. Reader. Blogger.
This entry was posted in Angst, Lois Lowry. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to “Commencement means beginning….” Or Find a Stranger, Say Goodbye

  1. Andrea says:

    I agree about being cautious about finding biological parents there are so many ways it can go wrong. What if you find your bio mom and in turns out you were a product of rape? I knew one woman who wanted to do the whole surrogacy thing because she thought it would be better then getting a job. It can work out but you might also not like what you find.

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