by Kelsey Erin Shipman
The Mailman's Son
I don’t remember the first seven years of my life. I’ve considered trying hypnosis, therapy, and meditation to rediscover those memories. Most of me wants to know what my early life was like, but a piece of me doesn’t. Why? Because my mother was many things. An immigrant. A secretary. A flirt. A bag lady. A crazy woman. And of course, my only parent. And for a few years, she was my only family. I was told that she had many male friends who provided for her. I don’t have too think to hard to guess at what she provided for them. Her most important male visitor, at least in terms of my life, was the mailman on Fort Green Place in Brooklyn, New York.
I don’t know how many times my parents met. Were they familiar with each other? Comfortable, even? Did they share an inside joke? Or, was it a single, off-chance encounter in the summer of 1957 that led to my birth? Did she happened to be outside on the stoop while he walked by carrying an overstuffed bag of letters? Did she wave to him? Did he wave back? Either way, it had to be hot. The beginning of July in New York City is always hot. Maybe there was a light rain storm that briefly cooled the air. Maybe she invited him in for a glass of water, or a cigarette, to wait it out. My mother was beautiful. Thirty-three years-old, dark-skinned and Puerto Rican, she was always thought of as the prettiest of her siblings. I never met my father in person, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he found her irresistible.
I would learn later in life that she had other children. I don’t know how many as they were all given up for adoption. For some reason, she decided to keep me. Nine months after that imagined meeting outside the red brick rowhouse that still stands today, I was born at The Brooklyn Hospital. I guess you could say the mailman delivered. On my birth certificate, my father’s name is listed as George F. Michaelson and his occupation as “Engineering.” I never met the man with whom I share my last name, and can only assume that he was a friend of my mother’s. I do find it ironic that his birthplace is listed as Saginaw, Michigan, less than 100 miles from where I would spend much of my adolescent years growing up with my aunt and uncle. My mother’s name is listed as “Mrs. Liberty Michaelson ,” and her maiden name as “Sapia.”
At the age of 26, my curiosity would get the better of me, and I would start looking for my birth father. I learned his name - Salvatore Mancusi - from my aunt, and without any hope or expectation, I located him through the Brooklyn Post Office. We exchanged a letter, and spoke on the phone once, but ultimately did not pursue a relationship. I learned that he was married with no children, retired from the post office, and that his wife was totally unaware of his affair with my mother. Though one would think this would be a momentous occasion, I honestly don’t remember having any emotions about it. For much of my life, I leaned on logic because I rarely felt that I had a safe place to express my feelings. Like so many men of my generation, I suppressed my emotions in order to survive. Interacting with my birth father for the first time felt like nothing more than a fact. We talked. He didn’t want a relationship. I didn’t want a relationship. We moved on.
My son David remembers my father’s identity as being a big secret for most of his life. I don’t remember actively hiding this detail. But, he wasn’t a big part of my life or identity - I just knew so little about him. I assume he was Sicilian because of his last name, but can’t know for sure. I don’t know if I look like him or share his personality. I do know that two weeks after I was born, he bought my mother and I plane tickets to Puerto Rico and we were no longer on his mail route.
In 1958, Puerto Rico was a rapidly developing nation experiencing an economic boom thanks to Operation Bootstrap (Governor Luis Muñoz Marín’s economic initiative modernizing the economy, increasing industrialization, and incentivizing the export of goods to the American market). Of course, most of this development was limited to the major cities while the rural areas remained largely agrarian. Puerto Rico had only become an official commonwealth with its own constitution and governing body in 1950, and in many ways was still reeling from a violent nationalist rebellion. It was a political hot bed with a fraught relationship to the United States and a long history of exploitation and poverty. It is no wonder then that at the time of our arrival, Puerto Rico was experiencing one of its largest exodus of residents to the mainland, often referred to as “The Great Migration,” in its history. Close to one million people left Puerto Rico for New York, New Jersey, and Chicago by the mid-1960s looking for stability and economic opportunity. Everyone was leaving the island while we were going back.
Though I lived in Puerto Rico from infancy to twelve years old, I have almost no memories of it. I assume that I lived with my mother in the capital city of San Juan when we first arrived. I’m not sure in what neighborhood, but I don’t think she had a car or any transportation other than the local public transportation system. Perhaps we rode in crowded public buses with stylish round edges and the route name painted above the headlights. Did my mother hold me in her lap while we bounced up and down dirt roads dodging stray dogs and loose chickens? Did she roll down the window of a shared taxi to let the humid air blow against my little face?
There are a few photos from this time period. They are grainy, black and white, and faded from time. In one, I am a few months old staring up at someone above me, my dark eyes wide and curious. I have a head of thin hair and plump baby cheeks. My hands grip a blanket beneath me. In another, I am over a year old with well-worn shoes and little white socks on. My eyes are still wide and curious, but my hair is much fuller. I’m sitting on a couch and looking up at someone with a slight smile on my face. I look taken care of, loved, and happy.
Though nothing imprinted negatively on me, I’ve always found it a little strange that I have no photos with my mother. All the photos of this time are of me alone, usually dressed nicely. In one photo, I’m three or four years old, dressed in a collared shirt, white jacket with black buttons, and a full bowtie. My eyes looked more determined in this photo, and there isn’t a hint of a smile on my face. My hair is full, dark, and recently cut. Someone is clearly taking care of me. But I am, characteristically, alone.
I don’t know how long I lived with my mother, or what members of her family I had contact with during this time. I know now that my mother had other children, but I have no idea if we ever saw them while we were living in Puerto Rico together. They were all given up for adoption, so perhaps my mother had already lost contact. I never had much interest in finding my half-siblings even later in life. I spent so many years just trying to survive and adapt to the circumstances that I found myself in that I never had much bandwidth to consider what life would have been like if I’d known any of them.
My mother’s mother was from Spain and her father was from Puerto Rico. Together, they had four or five children of which my mother was the youngest. Though most of her siblings had light skin, she was often thought of as the prettiest even with her dark skin - something that was often looked down upon in favor of more European features. I don’t know anything about what my mother’s childhood was like or what kind of relationships she had with her siblings. But, they must have gotten word of me because around seven years old, I was sent to live in a rural area of Western Puerto Rico.