Sunny Side Up
Updated: Mar 1
(by Joy Curtis)
I was adopted at one month old and am grateful to the parents who raised me. But I always wondered about my birth mother and recently learned her story: She met my father cooking him bacon-and-egg breakfasts as the maid for his grandparents.
Her family were German immigrants living in Russia for many generations, under a special agreement with Catherine the Great not to pay a fee for the land they farmed or ever be conscripted into the army. But years later, the original agreement was not honored. So the Kloberdanz family, with five-month-old Joseph in tow, booked passage on a steamship to America, settling in cramped quarters with relatives in Sterling, Colorado. Joseph grew up to marry Mary, and my mother, Joan, was born, the second oldest of five siblings.
The family was very poor, as my grandfather could only find work picking beets. When the snow fell and there was no farming to be done, he drank the day away at a neighborhood bar, then went home drunk and abused his wife. After several black eyes, Mary left her five children with her mother-in-law and found jobs waitressing and house-cleaning in California, saving every penny to send for her children. But her mother-in law did not want to take care of five children and, declaring Mary an unfit mother, put all of them in an orphanage run by Catholic Charities.
The orphanage had a work/foster program for children, and at 15, Joan was sent to an Italian family as free hired help. Their grandson, Gerald, went to live there, attending the local university. That is how Joan met the handsome student. Their rooms were down the hall from each other, and every morning Joan cooked Gerald’s breakfast. After fixing her hair and putting on a pretty blouse, she’d run to the kitchen and set the table while he was upstairs shaving, and he’d remove his glasses before heading downstairs. He liked his eggs sunny side up, and she became adept at cooking them so they were just right.
The two young people fell in love, and my mother became pregnant. She was innocent about reproduction, and I assume my father was too. She thought she was just getting fat, as did all the family, until she went into labor. I was rushed off to the same Catholic Charities. My father was never listed on my birth certificate, and no one in either family ever knew about me. About six months after I was born, my grandmother Mary was able to sue for custody of her children and moved them all to California with her. Joan married at 17 and had two boys; my father never married or had children.
Recently I was permitted to obtain a copy of my original birth certificate and saw my biological mother’s full name. My mother-in-law, whom I love as a mother, helped me find her and gave me air miles to meet her in California. It is extraordinary to know about my past and acquire new family—including cousins who joke that I have a lot to learn about growing up Italian. Joan and I talk all the time, and she tries to “mother” me. The other day I received a big cold storage box of lemon dill salmon with couscous—making up for the meals we missed together, with the postal service and QVC as her minions.
The sunny side up eggs that she made for my father are easy to master: Just cook the bacon first, and crack the eggs into the bacon fat, drizzling some on the yolks. It's a link with my past.
Joy Curtis is an actress living in Seattle, Washington. Clips of her work are at: www.backstage.com/u/joycurtis.