Adoption Series: Couldn’t risk the shame — Ted Leonhardt

Ted Leonhardt
8 min readAug 22, 2023

Couldn’t exist sanely with things as they were.

Couldn’t stand the pain.

Not knowing another way, I braced myself and prepared to run.

Home from Easter service, I leap out of the car and open the garage door in a rush. Then into a desperate dash for my room and freedom from the itchy suit. Leaving the closing of the garage door to Dad, who I knew would make me pay for my mad escape soon enough. I’d suffered through Easter service thinking of nothing but the inflamed skin on my thighs, knowing that any protest I might make came with too much shame to face.

I’m out of those pants seconds after I’m out of his sight, hanging them up as required. Relieved, not wanting to think about when I’d have to wear them again, I pull on welcoming jeans over the angry rash, a sweatshirt and am down the stairs, out the back door, out the gate, and into the alley before Mom and Dad are up the stairs from the basement garage.

The alley is my space. Being here, I push the shame about the suit and my assorted other failings into the future — for now, anyway. Rounding the bend and out of sight, I slow to a walk, breathing free.

The alley has two dirt tracks with a strip of grass between. Unlike most alleys that go straight through the block, ours makes a perpendicular turn and exits on the side street. This screened me from sight once I’d made the turn. Safely out of sight, I feel relief surging through me.

Sneakers still untied in my rush, I stop, kneel, and tie my laces, feeling the pull of my jeans chafing my thighs as I do. Rising, I hope the burning skin will recover without the accusations, blame, and “I told you so’s,” I knew telling them about the rash would unleash. Knowing I needed to think of something else, I bury the thoughts.

The day had turned sunny, and I could hear the soft cooing of Mr. Verano’s homing pigeons in their sweet little shed. The scent of fresh oil on dirt pushes aside the smell of the pigeon hutch as I approach the end of the alley. New oil had been put down on our graveled side street to diminish the dust.

Turning the corner out of the alley and onto the street, I head west and away from my house to the next street. And there she is. Thoughts of swollen skin swept away in the rush of discovery.

Glorious black paint, gleaming chrome

It reeked of power, standing still.

Cadillac, it said in script; the letters linked together on their baseline. It felt exotic. It was exotic. Black paint set ablaze in the midday sun. A visitor from a faraway place, where cars were luxurious and fresh from some dealer who I knew from the magazines, only allowed a few extraordinary people from that other world to enter his showroom. I wanted to be one of those people.

I’d only seen them in ads, never in our neighborhood. I break into a trot to get closer. It was parked halfway up the block in front of Penna’s house.

Slowing to a walk, I debated whether or not I should approach and look inside. I didn’t want anyone to see me and maybe think I was trying to steal something. Accused of stealing a candy bar once Dad beat the shit out of me right in the store, so “you’ll remember to never, never steal anything again.” Although I didn’t mean to steal that candy bar, the pain made the lesson stick. Still, I’m drawn to the car, my caution overwhelmed by desire. I had to look inside.

Taking a guilty look left and right, seeing no one, I reach out and grip the door handle. Not to open it. Just to feel that beautifully curved, heavy chrome handle in my hand. It felt smooth and cool in my palm. Wonderful.

Right hand still wrapped around that handle, I lean against the car. The sun has heated its flanks. The warmth feels welcoming. Now, my left hand shading the view through the window to cut the glare, I peek inside. Red leather upholstery. Big thick ivory steering wheel. Chrome details on the dash. A real man’s car. Stepping back, I walk around it, taking in its mass, feeling its weight, and imagining its potential to take me away to the world of power and elegance in the magazines.

Just then, a man steps out on Penna’s porch, lighting a cigarette. “Great car, huh, kid?” A stab of fear cuts through me, but I see he’s smiling, welcoming, and my fear subsides.

He wore a dress suit comfortably like he wore it every day. Dark blue. A white shirt and a red, and black striped tie, held with a gold tie clip, says he’s comfortable with power and control. I know without thinking that men like this don’t live in our neighborhood. They visit on special days.

Down the steps and through the gate, with a wide grin on his face that tells me he’s thrilled at my admiration for his car, “I bought it last week. I saw you looking through the window. Wanna see inside?” Keys jingling, he unlocks and opens the door. The smell of new car leather sweeps away any remaining anxiety at being discovered as a thief. I touch the seat. He’s still smiling. I’m in heaven.

I know I’m testing my luck when I ask. “Can I see the motor?”

“Sure, kid, but it’s not a motor. It’s an engine.” He says it not to shame me for not knowing but as information a boy needs to know to become a man. A man like him. He slips his hand into the grill, unfastens the latch, and lifts the hood. My eyes adjust to the darkness, and I see that the engine is blue. Cadillac is spelled out in the same stylish script on both sides. It’s new car clean in there. I long to know how it works, but I’m afraid to push my luck by asking.

Penna and her family exit the house and join us. Penna, who likes me and sometimes lets me look at her collection of National Geographic magazines after I work in her yard, is beaming and asks. “Do you like my son’s new car, Teddy?”

I can feel the love around me. Just for a moment, I’m a part of this Italian family about to ride in the new Cadillac. Their pleasure with the beauty of the day and with each other includes me. They chat happily in their Easter clothes as they open the car doors and take their seats on the new red leather upholstery.

Penna ruffles my hair and takes her spot in the front seat next to her son and his beautiful wife. Her son starts the car, smiles at me, beeps the horn, and waves. Then he pulls the big lever into gear, and the car leaves the curb with a low rumble. As it glides away, I can feel the love and togetherness I’d experienced for a few precious moments slipping away.

I’m alone.

I want that car, that family, and the love and affection that goes with it.

Wool torture

My suit new suit from Sears, was nothing like the suit Penna’s son wore. I knew even then that my Dad knew nothing about fashion or what kind of suits men wore. He wore his only suit once a week when he went to church. So, even though I was excited about the potential of my first suit, I knew that, somehow, it wasn’t going to be right. Still, I had to keep up appearances.

Dad brought it home in a big brown box that had an illustration of a businessman striding forward with purpose, wearing a suit on its cover.

Despite my doubts, I was thrilled with that big brown box, with its Sears logo and the stylish illustration, although a little nervous.

I lifted the lid to see the suit carefully wrapped in tissue. Mom said, “careful, don’t tear it in case we have to return it.” I was being careful. I knew it cost a lot, and money was always an issue. Dad hovered in the background, I imagined, preparing for the worst.

Folding back the tissue, I ran my hand across the heavy wool fabric. It tickled. No, not tickled. It was rough, like the steel wool we used to clean pots and pans.

The gray suit pants began to itch my legs the instant I pulled them on. I didn’t want to say anything for fear that Dad would get angry and Mom would cry, spoiling what was supposed to be a celebration.

Now, fully dressed in the suit, white shirt, and tie, we go outside to take the picture. My cat Boots follows us out, and once we are in position for the photo, she begins to rub against my legs, purring madly. Legs that are already red and swelling.

“Get that cat away. She’s covering the pants with cat hair.” This from Dad.

And yes, my gray pant legs are covered with black kitty hair. More from Dad, “I told you she needed bushing. If you can’t care for her, I’ll get rid of her.” Then drawing more of my lapses in kitty ownership up from his list of infractions, “Your mother has to feed her most nights because you forget or don’t care. And then, litter box…”

“That’s enough, Ted,” Mom comes to my defense. “I’ll get the hair off; it’ll be okay.”

It’s not okay, and we all know it. My legs are screaming to get out of the pants. I don’t dare say anything. Photo taken. Tears starting, I run inside, taking off the suit as fast as I can, and not knowing what to do about the cat hair, drop it on the box and run to my room. Boots follows. I shut the door always risky to close that door. Boots and I curl up on the bed. I hear Dad slam the door and yell at Mom.

I picture Mom picking Boots hair off the wool pants, my head under my pillow, arms pressing it tight to my ears. A familiar protection.

Easter Sunday arrives, and I wear the suit and endure the pain.

A few days later, my rash has gotten much worse. My skin is now raw and swollen over most of my body. Mom takes me to our family doctor, who, after a quick call to a specialist, puts me in the hospital. I spend a week there. A happy week. I draw cars and superheroes every day, read comic books and take baths in red stuff that’s good for my skin. My room has two other men in it. They like me and my drawings. Mom visits every day and sometimes brings new comic books. I love it!

I’ve always had sensitive skin

Anxiety makes my skin break out. Still does. Most times, it passes quickly. The social worker and my first foster mother noted a rash they associated with the trauma of being separated from my birth mother in my county adoption record.

Maybe the hospital episode and our family doctor gave Mom a bit more courage and emotional leverage for dealing with Dad on my behalf. I do remember my “sensitive skin” being referred to. But the cause was always external, like the suit or getting too close to poison ivy. Feelings were not talked about in our family. Perhaps both Mom and Dad realized the effect stress had on me and backed off a bit but just didn’t talk about it. In any case, being sent to the hospital saved me from being shamed for rejecting that suit.

I do know that along with escaping that horrible suit, I connected cars with the power to pull families together and with the possibility to escape to a better place, thanks to Penna, her son, and that black Cadillac.

I never saw that suit again. Saved by the doctor, I suppose.

Originally published at https://tedleonhardt.com on August 22, 2023.

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Ted Leonhardt

Recently I've been writing about growing up as a fostered, adopted child. Professionally I'm an advisor to creative professionals. http://www.tedleonhardt.com