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Shadows In The Mirror

Becki Willis

Plain Roots

Synopsis: 

Taryn Clark thought she’d outgrown the need to find her birth mother. She thought that a successful career and a comfortable life in the city were enough to be happy. Did she really need to know about the woman who had given her away?

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Chapter 3

 

The town of New Holland was a great deal smaller than the city of Lancaster. Both were tiny, compared to Philadelphia.

The borough sprawled along a busy state highway, its main claim to fame the huge tractor manufacturer bearing its name. There was no denying its economic stamp on the city. Taryn drove past the factory with the monster-sized tractor on its lawn to reach Kaffi Korner. The coffee shop was dwarfed by the surrounding warehouses and shipping facilities that sat in its back pocket.

Taryn swore she gained five pounds when she walked through the door. Notes of cinnamon, cloves, and yeast floated on the air, carried by the sweetness of honey and brown sugar. Her stomach gave a loud rumble, reminding her that she had skipped breakfast in lieu of finding her past.

Now here she was, still without roots, and hungry, to boot.

Hullo!” a voice greeted from behind the counter. Taryn couldn’t immediately identify its source, until she spotted the woman behind a mile-high meringue pie. “What can we get for you?”

After scanning the board with its decadent offerings, she made her selection. She took Betty’s advice and ordered the lemon sponge pie with a cup of their boldest brew. Wise choice or not with these nerves, the sugar and caffeine would at least give her energy.

“Is Helen here, by chance?” she ventured to ask.

A woman spoke from a table out front. Against the glare from the plate-glass window, it was difficult to see the small table tucked into an unobtrusive corner. “I’m Helen. What can I do for you?”

It wasn’t something she could very well blurt out over the café, even if the other tables were all but empty. Two women chatted at a front booth and an older gentleman tapped on his laptop at another. The only other person in sight started her coffee order.

“Come on over and have a seat,” Helen invited with a wave of her hand. “Katie will bring your order.”

Weaving her way to the corner, Taryn took the seat Helen indicated. If the half-eaten sandwich on her plate was any indication, she was on her lunch break.

“I’m sorry to disturb you. A friend of yours named Betty suggested I stop by. My name is Taryn Clark.” She extended her hand for a proper hello. She hoped it wasn’t rude to keep on her shades, but being such a pale color, her eyes were sensitive to the glare.

“Betty Lawrence?” she spoke the name with affection. “How do you know Betty?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know her last name. I met her just now in Lancaster, at a real estate office on Milner Avenue. Where the old hospital once stood,” Taryn clarified.

A guarded expression slipped into Helen’s eyes, but her facial expression never changed. “That’s her. Are you looking for property in the area?”

“What? Oh, no, not at all,” she said hastily. It was a reasonable assumption to make. “Quite frankly, I was looking for Lancaster Memorial.”

“But that closed down years ago!”

Taryn murmured her thanks as Katie delivered her coffee and a generous slice of pie. She left both untouched as she concentrated on Helen. “Betty thought you may know where the hospital records were moved to.”

“Why would I know something like that?” Her voice was almost sharp.

“She said you used to work there. Were you in accounting? Records?”

“Nothing like that. I was a nurse.”

“A nurse?” Taryn wasn’t sure why the news took her by surprise, but it did. She assumed Helen had worked in the office, where she might have a connection to the old files. Why else would Betty send her here for help?

“Yes. Labor and delivery, for over fifteen years.” There was an unmistakable ring of pride in the older woman’s voice. “I helped birth half of Lancaster County. Those not born at home, anyway.”

Something buzzed inside of Taryn’s head. She cautioned herself to stay calm. “What—What years did you work there?”

“From the summer of 1963 until the spring of ’80.” A shadow crossed her face. Sadness slipped into her voice as she confided, “I gave up nursing altogether after that.”

Taryn sensed there was more to the story, but she didn’t pry. They were strangers, she and Helen, and strangers didn’t poke into other people’s heartache.

“But you were there during the first part of 1980?” she confirmed.

“I was.” It was there again, the cautious look in her eyes. This time it stiffened her voice.

Taryn leaned forward eagerly. Her heart pounded in her chest as she dared press for more. “Were you by chance on duty New Year’s Day? Do you remember if you delivered any babies that day?”

Helen didn’t immediately answer. When her eyes took on a faraway memory, Taryn realized the woman must be somewhere in her mid-seventies. “It’s okay,” she was quick to reassure her. “It’s been so long, and you must have delivered hundreds of babies over the years. I understand if you don’t remem—”

“I delivered three that day,” Helen answered quietly, her tone certain.

“You did? You remember that?”

“It would be impossible to forget.” From the sound of her voice, she had tried. Like it or not, some things were ingrained into the memory.

Taryn knew it was a long shot. It was unlikely Helen remembered the details of any of the births. Still, hope blossomed in her chest. She tried schooling her voice, so it didn’t come out sounding as excited as she felt. “Oh? Why is that?”

“We had a tradition at the hospital,” Helen explained. “Fanfare for the first baby born in the new year. Free medical care for the first year, diapers and formula and a whole slew of new outfits, and a big write-up in the paper. So you can imagine what the first baby of a new decade would get. There were rumors of all kinds of crazy stunts, women trying to throw themselves into labor, just to win.” The ghost of a smile echoed on her face.

Taryn tried to recall what time of day she had seen on her birth record, wondering if she missed the grand prize by minutes, or by hours. Would it have made a difference to her own mother if she had won? Would Rebecca have kept her baby, instead of giving it away for adoption?

It was useless to speculate. “There could be only one lucky winner,” she murmured with reason.

A weary sigh accompanied Helen’s reply. “You would think. But that wasn’t the case.”

Taryn cocked her head to one side. “Twins?” she guessed. “Or strangers, sharing the same moment of birth?”

“Neither. We had a clear winner. Over a five-minute cushion of time.”

To be so forthcoming earlier, Helen lapsed into a thoughtful silence now. Taryn squirmed on the seat. It suddenly felt like it was made of pins and needles. A full moment ticked by without another word.

She could contain herself no longer. “What happened?” Taryn blurted.

“The mother flat-out refused the gifts. We explained it wasn’t just bragging rights. There was a hefty monetary value, as well. The local junior college offered free tuition when the child graduated high school. One of the banks put up a thousand-dollar savings bond. Stores and businesses offered generous benefits for both the mother and the child. It was worth a small fortune.”

“And the father agreed?”

“There was no father. The poor little thing was widowed, and practically no more than a child herself.” Helen clicked her tongue. “It could have made such a difference for a single mother, having all those benefits.”

She had been thinking the same thing earlier, about her own mother.

“I agree that’s odd, but I’m sure she had her reasons.”

“I don’t know…” Helen’s voice trailed off, sounding decidedly doubtful. She stared out the window, caught up in an old memory. “If you could have seen that look in her eyes. She looked… haunted.”

“Perhaps she was simply heartbroken,” Taryn offered. “Grief does strange things to people.”

“The girl was scared to death.” This time, Helen’s voice was matter-of-fact.

“I would be, too,” Taryn admitted, “facing the prospect of raising a child alone.”

Helen all but pounced on the opening, her face whipping back around toward Taryn. From the fire still burning in her eyes, Taryn knew without a doubt that Helen had been an excellent nurse. She truly cared about her patients. “Exactly!” she said. “All the more reason to accept the gifts. They could have changed that poor girl’s life, and her baby’s, too.”

“You couldn’t persuade her.” It was a statement, not a question.

When Helen shook her head, she seemed to age a dozen years. Sorrow had a way of doing that to a person, seeping into one’s pores and stealing what was left of one’s youth and vitality. “Lord knows I tried. But she flat-out refused. She was so desperate, almost in a panic. I was afraid she was a flight risk. In her fragile state, both mentally and physically, I feared for her, and for her sweet baby.”

She was no longer talking to Taryn. She was talking to herself, reliving a past that still held her in its grip. Her voice dropped an octave. “I convinced the doctor we had to protect her, for her own good. He wanted no part in the deception, but he agreed to go along with it.”

Caught up in the sorrow in Helen’s voice, Taryn forgot her personal quest. Fully vested in the story of the young widow, she had to know why it wrought Helen such pain. “What happened?” she all but whispered.

“When the reporters came, I told a direct lie.”

It was there in her face, the guilt she still carried after all these years.

“They came before we had time to formulate a plan. We couldn’t force her to accept the gifts, but the first baby of the decade was big news. Back then, there was no such thing as HIPAA or patient privacy. There was no reason not to share the happy news. Before the staff could make a statement, I blurted out another name. I gave them the story they came for, but in my haste, I made a mistake. I told them about the baby born at 1:07, not the baby born at 1:01.”

“Oh, dear.”

“You can’t imagine. The 1:01 parents were furious. They didn’t even know, until they saw it on the evening news. They threatened the hospital with a lawsuit, which I knew would call attention to the true first birth of the year, at 12:56.”

Having worked for a law firm, Taryn could imagine the litigation involved. Her mind ticked off possible scenarios, but it was easier to simply ask. “So what happened? How did it get resolved?”

Helen’s eyes drifted back to the window, her mind adrift in the past. “It was a huge mess. The bank agreed to put up another savings bond, and a generous donor stepped up and paid for a second scholarship. A few of the other sponsors pitched in, as well, but it really wasn’t their fault.” Her voice quietened. “I, alone, bore that responsibility.”

“It was an honest mistake.”

“There wasn’t a single thing honest about it,” Helen said mournfully. “I lied. And then I did a terrible thing, even worse than the first.”

If she once hid secrets, Helen was no longer guilty of the fact. There was no reason for her to lay her soul bare to Taryn. They were strangers, and Taryn had only asked a simple question. Yet nothing about this past deed was simple, and Helen saw no reason to run from the truth. She made her confession, the pain in her eyes honest and raw.

“I changed the time stamp on that first birth. I erased the ‘one,’ making it read 2:56. I willingly committed fraud to hide the truth.”

She couldn’t explain it, but Taryn felt a strong connection with the nurse and her plight. She felt the need to defend her, even to Helen’s own self-imposed censure. “You were protecting your patient.”

“Doesn’t matter. As with any lie, it all came out in the end. Of course, the first reports were skewed. The 1:01 parents stirred a ruckus, trying to say the 1:07 parents paid me off, but that’s simply not true. They were as innocent as those poor babies, all of them caught in the middle of my sorry mess.”

She shook her head resolutely as she continued, “No. No one was to blame but me, and I paid for it with my career. The hospital came short of pressing charges, but only because I stepped down and agreed to never practice nursing again.”

“That seems rather harsh,” Taryn murmured, even though she was fully aware of the criminal ramifications of falsifying legal documents. She toyed with her coffee cup, her heart heavy for this dedicated and compassionate woman. “Did the first mother, the young widow,” she wondered aloud, “ever thank you for your sacrifice? After all, you did all that to protect her identity.”

Another layer of sadness dug into Helen’s furrowed brow. “I did it to keep her safe. I’m not sure if I was protecting her from past demons or from herself, but the fear in that girl’s face was real. And I was right. She was a flight risk. She snuck out of the hospital that night. I never saw her again.”

Taryn couldn’t help but gasp. “So she never knew?”

Helen shook her head, but she seemed less certain. “She had to have seen it. It was in all the papers, and in all the news.”

“I have no doubt you were a wonderful nurse. Few nurses would go to such lengths for one of their patients.”

Helen disagreed. “The ones worth their salt would.” She took a deep breath and visibly pulled her tattered soul together. “But enough about me. I’m just a foolish old woman, one who gets lost stumbling around down memory lane.” She peered at Taryn with curious eyes. “I still get occasional reporters now and then, trying to revive an old horse that’s been ridden hard and put out to pasture.”

“I’m no reporter,” Taryn was quick to assure her.

“Just as well. There’s no story here. Nothing left for me to hide; you can read all the sordid details in the archives.”

“I’m looking for my own birth records. I had no idea about… all this.” She made a gesture with her hand.

“I can’t imagine why Betty thought I would know where the records went. The hospital didn’t close for another four years after I retired. And after all that happened, I would be the last person privy to such information, don’t you think?”

“Do you remember anything else about the babies that were born that day?” A thought occurred to her and her voice rose with excitement. “Wait. If it was in all the papers, their names will be there, too, right?”

Helen’s smile was wry. “Remember? No HIPAA.”

“So even without the official records, I may be able to find my mother,” Taryn murmured the words to herself. Not but a half hour ago, she ridiculed herself for being so foolish, for still believing in dreams. One whiff of a clue, and here she was, her heart dancing with fanciful hopes and her mind reeling with possibilities. She leaned in closer and confided in the other woman.

“The truth is, I’m here looking for my birth records. I have reason to believe I may have been one of those New Year’s babies. My birth date is January 1, 1980, and I think I was born at Lancaster Memorial.”

Helen’s eyes filled with suspicion. “I told you, the first mother wanted nothing to do with the promotion. She ran away, to keep from claiming the prizes. And the fame.”

Taryn shook her head, trying to make Helen understand. “I’m not talking about the first mother.” It didn’t make sense that a heart-broken young widow would give her baby away, not when the child was her only link to her recently deceased husband. “I think I may have been baby 1:01 or 1:07.”

“Impossible,” Helen said with complete certainty. “Baby 1:01 was a male. Baby 1:07 was black. You couldn’t possibly be either.”

Practically growling in frustration, Taryn grasped at straws. “Then tell me about the widow’s baby.” She pushed her sunglasses onto her crown and adjusted her blouse, turning up her sleeves. It was time to get down to business. She settled in to get comfortable, while Helen took to looking out the window once more.

“She was a lovely little baby girl, with the cutest bow of a mouth.” Helen touched her own lips, recalling the perfection of that long-ago miracle of birth. “She had a healthy cry and eyes that were already stunning. Most babies are born with blue eyes, still cloudy from birth. But this baby’s eyes were clear from the start, and just as lovely as her mother’s.”

Helen turned back to Taryn, the smile lingering in her words. “They were such a unique color, exactly like her m—” She stopped mid-sentence, her words swept away by an audible gasp.

She recovered with a sputtered exclamation. “Ex—Exactly like yours!”