Paper Lanterns

Sunny Bleckinger

My father lives in the middle of a cemetery. Large trees and civil-war era gravestones in all directions. A two-lane road curves through the grounds and past his front door. “I guess it’s weird,” he says, “but at least you know a McDonald’s is never gonna pop up across the street.”

The first day of our visit we’re all nervous. He repeats vague statements like, “Boy, is it good to see you two,” then laughs to himself and reaches out to touch one of our knees. The last time my sister and I saw him was more than twenty years ago. We were four and five years old.

My father likes to talk about his tennis career. He played against Arthur Ashe, even made it to Wimbledon. They were using little wooden rackets in those days, Bjorn Borg had not yet changed the game forever, and the small prize money–my parents’ source of income–was coming less often.  By the time my sister and I were born, sleeping in the car was not uncommon, we’d travel around the country from one tournament to the next. When they fought, my father would leave some money and stay away longer than he said. My mother had a habit of writing bad checks so we could sleep in four-star hotels and order room service.


After a few days, my father’s brother and three sisters show up. It’s his 60th birthday and they were planning on coming anyway. We knew this beforehand. We knew it would be overwhelming. We haven’t seen any of these people since we were four or five years old.

They show up with tennis rackets. They can’t wait to go to the nearest court and hit some balls. Most of them played on the pro-circuit. Their father, my grandfather, decided that Tennis would bring them out of poverty. Having no tennis courts in the snowy town of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, he built two. He opened a sporting goods shop there, taught his kids to play early on. They all got college scholarships because of it, toured the country and parts of Europe. They planned to pass this trade on to my sister and I.

It’s an early memory I have, standing in what felt like a gigantic court, a big man, maybe my father or my uncle, handing me a racket, softly tossing me balls, letting me whack them into the sky.


Our aunts and uncle ask us many questions, what are we doing, what do we like? There’s a quiet moment where they all blush and one finally says, “Play any tennis?” 

It’s not stated outright, but they all harbor guilt. Some of them were too young or financially insecure to adopt us. Our grandmother tried, but the state said she was too old. If the state had never been involved, things would have been easier. But they all knew, if any of them took us in, at some point our mother would show up. And who could refuse a mother her children?

I ask if anyone has any idea where she might be. They get quiet, some look at us with sad eyes. “It was a crazy time then. Your mother was a beautiful, strong-minded person. She was always going to do things her own way.”


The last time I saw my mother is a blurry memory. My sister was three, I was four. We were in an empty, well-lit hall, like something you’d walk through from an underground parking garage to the elevators of a shopping mall. We didn’t know it at the time, but the two-week adventure we were having with her was about to end.

It had started in the Bay Area, when she abducted us from our foster home. Having lost all visitation rights, she pulled up one afternoon in a friend’s car and called to us through the screen door. Evidently we ran out to her and, before the babysitter knew what was happening, we were tucked in the back seat and driving off.

Two weeks later, the police found us in Venice Beach. My guess is she was driving a stolen car.

In my memory we’re all in this bright hallway, my mother is screaming, manic. Men in suits are trying to tackle her. My sister is crying. I’m jumping on the men, hitting them with my little fists.

I’m told that I’ve blocked all memories before that. But if I sit quietly, a few moments flicker by. Walking up a steep road. A cat running under a parked car. Cold mud applied to a bee sting. Sirens at night, not making a sound, just twirling. Thin, feminine wrists struggling inside handcuffs. 

Six months later we were adopted, our names changed, our birth certificates altered. There’s a photo of my sister and I with our new family in front of a glittering pool at Hearst Castle. We’re standing up straight, wearing nice clothes, smiling for the camera. Something about us seems to be saying, “We’ll be good. We’ll be good.”


On the last day we all go out to the courts together. Everyone pairs off. My father shows me how to hold a racket, how to swing correctly. We rally for a bit. Then I yell, “Let’s see one of those Wimbledon serves.”

He sighs, “Oh, I don’t know, it’s been awhile…” He stretches, tosses the ball up, slams it straight at me. At first I feel scared, then angry. I swing blind, send the ball down the line, just inside the corner opposite him. He blushes, says, “Whoo, just about the best return you coulda done.”


My girlfriend is home with our newborn. He’s got a cold, phlegm rattles when he breathes. He percolates like a coffeepot.

I’m at work, scrawling the last few changes on another galley. I pass it to the editor, then gaze out the window at the many tall cranes swaying along Amsterdam’s waterfront. The city is changing. After years of struggling, I don’t think we’ll be able to make the life we want here. My prospects for gaining a work permit are growing dimmer. This newspaper looks the other way, but they don’t pay enough to live on. I’ll have to arrange a green card for my girlfriend. Will we be happy in the States? So much to think about. I check my email.

More gibberish from my father. He sends regular emails with content that range from a stoned guy’s sense of humor, to aggravating nonsense. Sometimes it looks like he fell on the keyboard and pressed “send.” 

This time there’s a real memory. He thinks I was about three. John Lennon had just been killed. My father made a huge bonfire. I tried to jump off a chair or a box or something, hit my head pretty bad. My mother screamed. There was blood all over, I wouldn’t stop crying, I must’ve cried for thirty minutes and anyway, he’s wondering if I have a scar from it? It would’ve been somewhere near the top of my forehead.

I look up from the screen. Everyone in the office is quietly editing text or placing photos. I interrupt them all, blurting, “I just found out where my scar came from! I thought I’d never know.”


It’s so warm here. San Francisco in January allows for short pants. When we left the Netherlands, people were skating on the frozen canals. I’m carrying our suitcases out to the rental car. Obama’s inaugural address plays live on the speakers in the hostel’s lobby. The girl at the front desk is weeping. My wife is breast feeding our son in the backseat of the car. I toss our bags in, speed off to the expensive and small in-law we’re renting month-to-month.

We have no prospect for jobs. The economy is shit. We should not be attempting a fresh start in a place like San Francisco. I forced it to happen. 

Between job searches, I find an old article by Herb Caen. My birth father talked about this article with pride, using it as testament to how famous he thinks he was as a tennis player. He couldn’t produce it for me, but after several visits to the library archives, flipping through dusty tombs, I find it in the July 21, 1978 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle. The article spells my father’s name wrong, and never would have mentioned him if my mother had not been breastfeeding me in the stands, making for an easy joke to explain his win.

According to the Sheriff’s office in nearby Contra Costa County, my mother still has a criminal record, dating back to our “kidnapping.” But the records are not public, there’s no way I can see them. We spend the rest of the afternoon wheeling our one-year-old around, looking at old clothes and furniture in antique shops. 

I don’t visit the BART station in Walnut Creek. My mother had planned to spend a night there with us, until someone called the police on her for breast feeding in public. That’s when social services got involved.


My father flies out. He wants to take us to Chinese food. My wife says I should go alone with him. He orders tea and egg rolls. He wants me to try the duck. “It’s so good and tender.”

I ask him if we went to many Chinese restaurants when I was small.

“I don’t, well… We must’ve, right?”

“I had these recurring dreams after I got adopted. About being in a Chinese restaurant. I remember looking up at these big Chinese lamps.”

“Oh really?”

“Yeah, I mean, they were nightmares.”

“Yeah, I don’t remember, we must’ve gone to some.”

“There were men inside the lamps, watching us. Everyone was afraid of them, but no one would acknowledge it.”

“Oh, yeah, that’s…”

“I had a lot of nightmares after I got adopted. For a couple years, sleepwalking, troubles at night.”

“Did you go to therapy?”

“No, my family was pretty easy going about that. I have a vague memory of a, I must’ve gone to a child psychologist when I was in foster care. I remember this nice man, he had puppets in his office. It felt good there.”

“Yeah, you were so full of energy back then.” He sips his tea. “So, you’ve got a scar?”

“Yeah, you can see it if I pull my hair back, I–”

“I can’t really…”

“Here, try this, maybe if I…”

“Oh yeah, look at that.”


On New Year’s Eve my sister calls. She’s giddy, standing outside a bar in New York. Talk turns to the letter she had sent the previous night to our father. In it she explains why she no longer wants contact with him.

“It feels great,” she says under a din of drunken cheering. “I’m tired of making excuses for not talking to him, I’m tired of saying I’m busy. I’m not busy. Well, I am, but not that busy. We have nothing in common. He’s not going to tell me anything about myself that I don’t already know. There’s no hard feelings. I just don’t care, I don’t care about him.”

She sounds happy to let these things out. I understand where she’s coming from, but I’m not ready to close that door.


Everything I know about my mother ends in the Autumn of 1984. My sister and I had been adopted two months before, making the ten-hour drive with our new family to our new home, our new life. My sister sings the whole way down. I am sick, feverish.

My mother is released from a hospital in the Bay Area. She had been held there for psychiatric evaluations. She finds my uncle at the courts where he gives lessons.

They talk for ten or fifteen minutes. Then she shows him her new car. “Where’d you get that?” he asks. She tells him she got it from an auto dealer, took it for a test drive. Blankets are laid out in the back. The blankets are for us. She’s looking for us.

That’s where the trail ends.


At 3am I wake up, my son is giggling in the black night. It’s a bubbly, infectious laugh–as if he’s being tickled. I sit up in bed, my body coursing with adrenaline. Who’s here? Is there someone in the house?

For years as a child I was afraid of being kidnapped. When cars drove by slowly, my sister and I would freeze.

I get up, pad quickly to my son’s room. He’s in bed, dreaming, I guess of something funny. I pull the blanket over him and go to the kitchen, turn on the bright light, stare at the linoleum floor.

My son is five, he just started kindergarten. My wife and I have jobs. Everything is stable. The fear I had been carrying since the news of our pregnancy, fear that I would repeat the mistakes of my parents, has become fodder for fiction, rather than memoir. A constricting feeling, like a sodden wetsuit, seems to evaporate from my skin. I pour myself a bowl of cereal, open a beer, and wait for dawn.