Sunday, March 3, 2024

Adoption Series: Ledger

Read Time: 4 minutes

I was fostered at birth and adopted at five months by the Leonhardts.

I meant to make him feel bad.

And I’ve felt guilty about it ever since.

I was twenty-one and walking as fast as possible out of our wedding reception in the parish hall where Judy and I had cut the cake and sipped coffee with our guests. Wayne, my best man, had tugged my sleeve, letting me know I needed to change for departure and the rice-throwing as we exited the church. He’d parked my car on the sidewalk, ready to roll.

I was beyond ready to be on my way into my grown-up life, free of parents and all that had kept me tied to childhood.

Exiting the reception, Dad was standing next to the table in the hallway with the small display of pamphlets and handouts about the church and its activities.

I almost didn’t see him; I was so intent on getting to the men’s room to change from my rented tux into my travel clothes. The shirt collar had been chaffing my neck. I’d managed to remove the bow tie the moment I’d gotten the word it was time to leave. Now, I found the collar button impossible. I needed a mirror to see why it was so stubborn.

With my frantic tugging at the abrasive collar, I didn’t see Dad, but he called my name, “Ted, stop a moment. I want to give you the wedding present from your mother and I.”

Not wanting to stop, just wanting to get the collar off, and with it this chapter of my life gone, done and over. Desperate for my new life to begin, I hesitated a moment before stopping. But stop I did, turned and looked at him.

Dad was a good half a foot shorter than me at five foot five. His stocky body had grown heavy, arms short but still powerful. Face red, and eyes, through gold-plated wire-rimmed glasses, were puffy.

He was holding his little black book. He called it the ledger. It was where he kept all the sums he felt were extra, beyond the costs he felt obligated to pay under the terms of my adoption.

He and my mother were proud that they had not included the costs of straightening my teeth in the ledger. Their contribution to my good looks was often mentioned.

The ledger included the cost of art school, my car and related expenses, any clothing not from Sears, and entertainment not considered educational. It was a book I dreaded but had learned to ignore, knowing he hated it that I only paid attention to his shame-inducing ledger when forced to.

Guilt and shame that’s what that ledger held for me. I could never make enough money in summers or part-time jobs to cover all of my expenses. He intended his ledger to show me how to conduct my financial life by example. He thought of it as a teaching document. I knew it was grossly unfair. It was actually a tool to remind me that I wasn’t making enough money and, worse, spending too much.

 As long as l lived under his roof and ate his food, I was subject to his rules about money. And his rules were that I had to cover all that was considered an extra expense. And shame was the payment required when I didn’t have the money to pay and had to ask him for help.

Once I’d stopped my escape and he could see he had my attention, he held up the ledger and said, with what I knew was pride, “Your mother and I, with your successful marriage, are wishing you well by canceling all your debt.”

I looked at him, knowing his power over me was over, and without a word, I turned on my heel and walked down the hall, the heels of my rented shoes striking the terrazzo floor with a determination to move on as fast as possible but not to seem like I was running away, which I certainly was.

I could feel his eyes on my back as I walked past the stairs to the Sunday school rooms above and the basketball court below, past the church office, and turned the corner into the hall, now out of sight, and into the men’s room with its mirrors over the sinks.

Now, I could see how that reluctant button was attached and release my neck from the abrasion. Wayne came in a moment later to get my tux for the return and asked, “What’s with your dad? He was crying in the hall.”

Right on cue, I felt guilty about what I’d done but didn’t want Wayne to know I’d made Dad cry on my wedding day. So, I said, “he gets that way sometimes.” Waving it off but laying the foundation for the shame, I still feel, despite how awful, how absurd the whole experience of being raised like an extraordinary expense item in an accounting ledger really was.


  • Wow! What a powerful story, Ted, made all the more powerful by knowing this isn’t fiction. It is your life.

  • Kimberly says:

    A terrific piece of writing about a very sad experience. I’m so sorry that this was a part of your life. And I’m so happy that you grew to build a great business, where you treated us with kindness and generosity.

    • Ted says:

      Thank you, Kim; building the business was an exciting time in my life. Looking back, I think knowing how it felt to be treated badly helped me be a better boss. Now, I’m loving the chance to improve my writing using experience to uncover why I am the way I am.

  • Miguel says:

    The parallel between the finicky shirt button and your father was palpable. Thank you for sharing your truth!

    • Ted says:

      Thanks for noting that, Miguel! I remember it vividly and thought it was a good parallel. It’s funny as I write these adoption posts the memories rush back filling in gaps in the details. Are you still in South Lake Union? I always enjoyed walking past your studio and looking in the window.

  • Liz Cullumber says:

    you must know I am reading all your stories about living in adoption. Your story sometimes parallels mine. This one actually made me laugh and cry when I was confronted with the same claim of all the expenses my adoptive parents has accrued were gifts that I should be ‘grateful’ for. They didn’t ask me to pay them back; but rather, remember that I was really not a biological member of the family. I had lived as though I could take my family life for granted, but that was dispelled but the ‘grateful’ comment…..also followed up by my aunts that I was never really a “Shockey” (my adoption name; not my birth name. Keep on writing; it’s cathartic and helpful

    • Ted says:

      Thank you, Liz, These storeies are thanks in part to our conversations about being adopted. If I remember it correctly, you introduced me to Primal Wound. The title alone was break through for me. And I now know that our experiences with parents who expected us to be grateful for paying our upkeep are quite common. Amazing how thoughtlessly cruel some adoptive parents and extended family can be.

  • Jabez says:

    Powerful and crisp. Shame and guilt are killers. Easy to say from over here, but seems to me you’d be well justified in renouncing it where this experience is concerned. Not wanting to judge Dad, but his behavior on your wedding day (not to say more generally) strikes me as very not-okay. And designed to pass on, even if unconsciously, his own burdens of guilt and shame. That’s the nature of guilt and shame, I guess; these can be a sad, generational legacy. Anyway, if this were a scene in a movie, I might well applaud how you handled the situation. When it’s not us delivering, things like cruelty, revenge, and other cold and callous behaviors sometimes feel warranted. And the image of him crying in the hallway strikes me as manipulative, even if the tears were real. Honestly I see nothing wrong with what you did, it looks justified…though I’m simultaneously sympathetic to that sad, old man.

    • Ted says:

      Thanks, Bez; Yes, I hurt him that day and still feel the tinge of guilt that comes with hurting him, whether or not he desired it. I didn’t grow up poor in the depression. He did. I didn’t survive WWII in the Pacific. He did. I didn’t get committed to a mental hospital. He did. So maybe he earned the right to be angry at the world, with me as the object of his frustration. And maybe my creative nature was actually nurtured by his and my mother’s parenting. You captured the dilemma nicely in your comment.

  • Joanie Rehn says:


    I guess what fascinates me in reading all your writings is how you became the man you are today! You give so freely of your time and kindness, I’m not so sure I would have the same outcome. Thank you for doing what you do!!

    • Ted says:

      Good question, Joanie. I saw that my bullying father was weak. I knew I was under his control for only a limited time, and I knew how to get around his heavy-handed stupidity. I knew there was a world beyond his control, and once I was on my own with my own talent and money, I’d go far beyond him. And although, as a child, I did try to bully some other kids, it never worked. I never got what I wanted. I think I mostly wanted love and respect. I found that kindness and respect for others were actually more effective than being a bully. Although I did return to being mean and bullying from time to time as a young man out of frustration or when someone hit one of my hot buttons, it never produced the love and respect I was needing so badly.

  • Paul Casey says:

    Powerful story. I am reminded that when I was very young my mother told me that after her brother had graduated from college their father gave him a graduation present. It was all of the cancelled checks that he paid to support his college education. Never thought of that until now. It must have been painful.

    • Ted says:

      Thank you, Paul; I’ve learned that this categorization of debt for childhood expenses is not that uncommon. Note that Liz above had a similar experience. Sometimes, I suspect it’s a parent who feels life cheated on them when they were growing up. Other times, it is about a parent thinking of their efforts as almost a business obligation or bargain. In any case, the child had no opportunity to negotiate on their own behalf, given they were a newborn when the deal was done. It’s all bad, nonetheless. Painful shit, this stuff.

  • Marge Rider says:

    Wow that’s was very emotional for me. Hugs

  • Thank you for these insights. I’m a mother to 2 daughters that were adopted from China as infants, now 21 & 26. I’m shocked at the whole ledger/receipts idea.
    Btw I went to Burnley/AIS ‘83-‘85.

    • Ted says:

      Most adopting parents are loving, caregiving people. My story is not everyone’s story, thank God! I’ve begun to think that I should change my title from Adoption Series to something else. Thanks for your comment and for letting me know you went to Burnley. I went to your site. Love your work! Your drawing is far more disciplined than mine!

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