A Mother, Her Son and a Fifty-Year Search
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Mike looked at his sister and saw she had tears in her eyes.
‘Do you remember anything about the place?’ she asked.
‘Well, I once went back, actually, and there were places I definitely remembered. I remember the nursery; I remember this hall or that staircase . . .
The long narrow nursery was derelict – a couple of broken cots lay by one of the doors, and the windows still bore the strips of adhesive tape that had sealed them shut in winter – but in Mike’s memory the place had sprung into radiant life: in a sudden rush of emotion he felt again the sunshine that had lit his first days on earth, saw again the long high ceilings and polished wooden floors that had been the boundaries of his childhood universe; he saw the two rows of cribs – tall and narrow, then wide and low – and the nuns in white habits who had walked among them, brushing the side of his cot with a soft rustle of cloth; he smelt the lilac floor polish, the long-boiled vegetables and the lingering perfume of incense. In his memory the place was bustling with people, as if the hundreds of babies now scattered to the corners of the earth had been sucked back to where they all began, as if the hundreds of mothers who had suffered and grieved here, the hundreds of nuns who had prayed and died and were buried in the churchyard, as if all the shades of the past had returned from their wanderings and gathered once again in the rooms they once inhabited. He saw them peering through the windows, drinking in the sunlight, a hundred pale faces at the windows, quizzical, lost, staring out at him, looking for answers. And somewhere in the background, in the darkened part of the nursery behind the hosts who jostled at the window, a young woman with jet-black hair and blue eyes, short and slight, little more than a girl, was walking slowly out of sight.
Mike was cut up about not being able to find his mother, so he pictured Ireland as some kind of lost paradise he had been expelled from. It tormented him but it gave him his security too. He had never really felt like a Hess, so Ireland was this unattainable, wonderful thing out there that he could wrap around him like a warm blanket.
Mike told his boyfriend Pete about the losses he had suffered in the past and how he blamed himself for all of them; about his special friend Charlotte, about the Bishop Mathias Loras of Dubuque the brother of his adoptive mother and about his true; about how he had spent his own life rejecting and failing the people he loved; and about the tremendous guilt he felt. The only way out, he thought, might be to go back to where it all began: to find his birth mother, understand what happened all those years ago. Maybe that way he could halt the cycle of pain.
Mike told Pete the tale of Marge and Doc, how they had wanted a little girl back in the 1950s and how Marge had come to Roscrea in Ireland for Mary.
‘. . . but when Marge came to see her in the orphanage, Mary only talked to this little boy named Anthony. Whenever Mary was around, Anthony /Mike was around; if Anthony wasn’t there, Mary would withdraw into herself. So Marge got to know Anthony as well, without ever really thinking about it. Then the night Marge was leaving she went into the nursery to say goodbye to Mary and Mary was sleeping, but little Anthony was standing in his crib and she said goodbye to him and started walking out. And he’s saying to her the whole time, “Bye-bye. Bye-bye. Bye-bye.” She turned around and looked at him waving in his crib and went right to the telephone in the convent of Roscrea and said, “Doc, can I bring back two of them?”’
Roscrea ... all those years Mike had been trying to remember things about that place – the place he grew up in. Then he got to WRGW and an album by a group called the Bothy Band – who he ’d never heard of – was lying on his desk. But as soon as he played it he thought he had heard that song before. But that seemed so crazy, because the album only just came out. So he asked a friend about it, and he said it was an old Irish song they revived from somewhere.’ And Mike thought he must have heard it over there when he was a baby. he thought they must have sung it to him, and it got stuck in his brain. It was like a message coming to him from that other world he came from.’
And the strangest thing was there were moments when he could almost picture the woman who sang it to him, he could almost see her face.
It felt like his mother was sending him a message; like she was trying to contact him, as if she could tell what he was thinking all the way over there and he could tell what she was thinking even though they were parted by all those years and all those miles.
‘What I think is that my mother is looking for me. I think she’s searching for me right now. And I think she’s sending a message for me to do the same. I think if you love someone long enough and hard enough you can always get through to them. And there’s nothing stronger than a mother’s love. You hear so many stories of mothers and children communicating – mothers who can hear their children cry even when they’re miles apart. I’d say you’ve got to go over there and find out if she is looking for you. Think how desperate she must be.’
Mike said. –
He had some toy airplane thing that he carried all the way from Ireland right to Chicago and he had always wondered where that plane came from – who bought it for him, Maybe it was his mother when she heard they were going on an airplane to America, where Mike he grew up to be a handsome, intelligent young man with a successful career as a lawyer. Ronald Reagan’s Republican Party brought him into the White House, and when George Bush Senior became president, he made Michael his chief legal counsel.
But Michael Hess was a gay man. He was a gay in a homophobic party, a rootless orphan in a world of rooted certainties.
For Mike, in the shadow of the unknown, the reunion with his mother seemed the key to unlocking the sorrow and the pain, a last chance to find the answers to the puzzle of his life. Because if I don’t find out now, he told himself, I never will. And I have to find out who I am before I am no more.
But where was his mother ?
‘Unless I go back again and make those nuns tell us what they know. It’s so frustrating knowing they’ve got the information, and I don’t understand why they won’t give it to us. Or maybe I do understand. Maybe they think they’ve got something to hide . . .’ Mike said to his sister.
And there was something to hide: in 1989, people started talking about how the nuns had coerced those young women into giving away their babies – how they made mothers sign terrible pledges that they would never seek to contact their children or try to find out what happened to them, how they were so brazen that they even forged some of the signatures and how they took stacks of money from the Americans who bought the babies off them. They may have called them donations but they were cash payments – for babies that weren’t theirs to sell!. Hildegarde McNulty burned those records because she was scared people would find out what they did.
The smell of that bonfire – it was the smell of those babies’ souls rising up to heaven. Hildegarde McNulty burned their records and they burned their hope.
But Ireland was Mike's hope, it was his home. It was where he and his sister come from, and even though they were US citizens and everything, when people ask “Where were you born?” that’s really where your home is.’
The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
Michael A. Hess, a man of two nations and many talents,” the inscription reads.
The book is quite different from the film, but they are equally compelling.