"When you were born, you weighed only four pounds and eleven ounces. By the time we brought you home at five months, you still weighed less than ten pounds. You had a layer of dirt caked onto the soles of your feet that we had to scrape off. Dad would proudly show your picture around his office, but people must have thought that you looked like a concentration camp survivor. To us, you were beautiful." My mom lovingly recited the tale, like a favorite bedtime story.
"What did the doctor say about me again?" I wanted every last detail, every time.
"The doctor who examined you surmised that your foster parents boiled your formula for so long that it had lost all its nutrients, which explained your inability to digest food and your malnutrition. He told us, 'Don't get too used to her.'"
The pediatrician's flip dismissal of my chances for survival must have devastated them at the time, but my parents' innate optimism was apparently enough to fatten me up. They quickly managed to compensate for my early months of neglect.
This heart-wrenching tale of a pathetic orphan and the parents who rescued her from certain death and nursed her back to health seemed so incongruous with my comfortable suburban upbringing that I returned to it again and again. I was no longer that starving abandoned baby, but I loved to romanticize my humble beginnings -- especially in the comfort of our four-bedroom house in manicured Westchester County. I might have been wearing a Benetton sweater and Calvin Klein jeans, but I came from dirt. I was tough.
It always seemed surreal to me that I had had another identity before my parents adopted me. The social worker at Louise Wise told my parents that I had been called Jean at the foster home. Perhaps because it represented the time before I had a real family, I despised the name Jean, which sounded so homely to me. I was grateful my parents had decided to call me Paula.
However much I liked to imagine that my rocky start in life made me a more hard-edged person than my pampered peers, it simply wasn't true. If anything, I was more sensitive, more prone to cry when a friend snubbed me for another playmate or when I failed to get a grade I felt I deserved. My parents rarely had to punish me, because most of the time I was harder on myself than they would ever be.
Like most adoptees, I occasionally fantasized about my biological family. When I was seven, I sat glued to The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, convinced that the glamorous stars were my parents and that their blond daughter, Chastity, who was about my age, had stolen my birthright to be onstage.
I also felt a kinship with Little Orphan Annie, especially since she also had curly red hair. At nine I barricaded myself in my room after school to sing along to my Annie record for hours, mouthing the words to "Maybe." I studied my reflection in the mirror as I imagined my birth parents living a romantic life a world away from mine: "Betcha they're young,/ Betcha they're smart, / Bet they collect things like ashtrays, and art!"
I dreamed that one day I would star in Annie on Broadway and that my birth parents would come to see me perform and realize how wrong they had been to give me up since I was clearly such a special, talented child.