Stepping Off the Train by Karen Uffelman
Stepping off the train Lily scanned the platform looking for a face she had never seen before but she knew she would instantly recognize.
His response to her letter had been brief. A couple of sentences of gratitude that she had worked so hard to find him, a short description of the town he lived in, a few words about his deceased wife. He’d said his work schedule would slow down in December. She could visit then, if she was up for it. He wouldn’t be able to leave the animals, so if she wanted a reunion (first meeting, actually) she had to travel to him.
She had been dreaming of him, her ghost father, for years. Her mother had died giving birth to her. She’d seen the death certificate and had some photos and other keepsakes that her adopted parents had saved for her. Surprising for the time, actually, back when adoptees and the people who brought them into the world were supposed to suffer complete amnesia that the other existed. Lily’s adopted parents had thought she’d want the hat and coat and the train case her mother had left behind in the hospital, and that she’d want to see the pictures of the woman she’d grow to resemble. Lily was grateful that they had tried to help her hold on to that part of herself, but when she asked about her biological father they couldn’t help her. His name was Bill McCullough, but no one knew who he was or where he went, and the fact that he’d abandoned Lily’s mother in her hour of need made the quest to find him less attractive for Albert and Helen, who had responded to the call from the hospital when the infant Lily was left with no next-of-kin. Bill McCullough was MIA.
And so, Lily had fixated on him. When she showed early musical talent, she knew where she got it from. When her shoulders freckled in the sun, she imagined a fatherly figure who looked like her, with freckles dotting brawny forearms. If someone picked on her at school she fantasized about that same man, charging across the playground, sending the offending boy off crying and threatening anyone else fool enough to mess with his little girl. Her adopted dad, Albert, would never do that. He’d encourage her to stand up for herself, claim that his interfering would only make things worse. Offer to teach her to throw a proper punch. He did, in fact, instruct her how to keep her thumb on the outside, put her shoulder and upper body into the swing, protect her face with her other fist. She was never a fighter, Lily, but she could hold her own when push came to shove. She believed however, at least as a young girl, that her real father would have made self-defense unnecessary.
As she got older, she gained more perspective. Another girl at school, not a good friend but someone Lily knew well enough, had gotten into trouble and been shipped off to relatives. To Texas, people whispered. Her name was Camilla and everyone knew who her boyfriend was. His conscience didn’t seem weighed down at all by Camilla’s situation or her subsequent disappearance. His school career wasn’t interrupted in the slightest and Lily heard he’d found another sweetheart within weeks of Camilla’s departure. Lily had fantasized about Bill McCullough being heartbroken at the death of her mother and fleeing the hospital in sorrow, maybe not knowing that his infant daughter survived. Or that he hadn’t known Lily’s mother was pregnant in the first place. But her wiser self knew it was more likely that he did know, that he didn’t care, that he was maybe just like poor Camilla’s rotten boyfriend.
Her adopted parents, Albert and Helen weren’t terribly exciting people, but she was always clothed and well-fed and knew herself loved. She was positive neither of them would ever abandon her, and knew they had gone to great pains to make sure she’d be taken care of should something happen to either or both of them. Not like her poor mother, or her delinquent father.
Still, the idea that he was out there, somewhere, gnawed at her consciousness. She made up reasons for needing to find him. What if he had other children? She was Albert and Helen’s only child and the idea of siblings made her heart race. Plus, if she had a brother she’d want to make sure she didn’t somehow meet and marry him.
“Simple enough,” her cousin Kate had teased, “Don’t date anyone with the last name of McCullough!”
What about inherited diseases or family medical history? There was very little medical record left by her mother and if she could find her father she’d know what was in store for her, or what she should watch out for. He’d definitely be able to tell her more about her mother, and that would be valuable even if it turned out that he was a bum. She just needed to see him, talk to him, at least once.
Helen nodded her head when Lily confessed her overwhelming desire to find Bill McCullough. She pulled out an old manila file folder that Lily had seen before.
“This is all we’ve got, I’m afraid.”
There was a handwritten note attached to Lily’s birth certificate, with the name Bill McCullough and a local phone number and address penned in careful script.
“The hospital tried to contact him when you were born,” said Helen quietly. “We sent him a letter – our lawyer told us we should – and never received any response. Honestly, we didn’t expect or want one. I’m sorry now that we didn’t try harder to find him then, Lily, but we were just so happy to have you. We weren’t looking for complications.”
Lily stared at the address. It was on the other side of town, a neighborhood she didn’t know well. She couldn’t picture any of the houses or apartment buildings there.
“He never tried to contact you or find out about me?” Lily asked.
“No, he hasn’t.” Helen paused. “Your dad and I did send one of your high school graduation announcements to the address here, thinking it might get forwarded if he had moved, but it came back with UNKNOWN written next to his name.”
“Unknown – that’s about right.”
“Yes. You’re right about that.”
Lily and Helen talked through possible places to research. Albert said he’d go back to the hospital with her and check again for records that hadn’t been offered when Lily was handed over to them. Their adoption lawyer was retired, but still living close by, and might know something. Lily’s mother hadn’t any immediate relatives to claim her, but there were some distant cousins that Helen had tried to contact a couple of times over the years. That was definitely worth another shot.
The main clue that led to Bill’s discovery came from one of the older nurses at the hospital, a woman named Peg. She knew Albert and Helen through their church, and had apparently known Lily’s mother when she arrived at the emergency room for an unplanned delivery. Peg had made the call to Albert and Helen that day, with the news of a baby who needed a home and a family.
“I honestly don’t think Bill McCullough is worth finding”, she gave Lily a searching look, “but I’m pretty sure he worked for the US post office and then ‘relocated’ to Saskatchewan. Supposedly had some family up there.”
The post office did have employment records for a man named Bill McCullough in Tacoma in 1958, and a forwarding address in Edmonton. That address led to several other addresses, and eventually a response to Lily’s letter.
And now she was standing in the freezing cold Calgary afternoon, clutching her suitcase. The first man who approached her seemed likely enough, friendly, outstretched hand for her luggage. But it turned out that he was only a cab driver trying to drum up business.
Finally, after most of the arriving crowd dispersed, someone called her name. She noticed him then, in a broad hat, pulling himself up from the bench by the door. He was older than she imagined, and walked with a limp. He looked rather worse for wear.
“Hello Mr. McCullough.”
He smiled at her and, with no little force of will, she smiled back. He walked toward her. The backs of his hands were freckled, and though his hair was faded and graying, she could tell it had once been the same strawberry blond as hers.
She swallowed and felt her heart sink. Despite her wishing and longing and dreaming, despite the freckles, despite the arm he offered her as she stepped off the platform, this wasn’t the man she was looking for. In fact, she didn’t recognize him at all.