Do1Thing photographer, Evy Mages shared her own story as an orphan with Paul Schwartzman of the Washington Post.
Evy Mages overcame a childhood of abandonment and abuse, transforming herself from an Austrian orphan into a New York photographer. But could she endure a relationship with the woman who gave birth to her?
By Paul Schwartzman
Sunday, July 8, 2007; W18
FROM SOMEWHERE DEEP IN SLEEP I COULD HEAR HIM CRY, a rhythmic sobbing that ended only after Evy went to his room, plucked him from his crib and brought him back to our bed until morning. By then, Sammy, our firstborn, was well on his way to his second birthday, and I was growing more frustrated by what had become a nightly ritual and an endless source of friction in our marriage.
The reasons for my distress were many: It was impossible to sleep well next to Sammy’s twitching legs and arms, the ceaseless sound of him sucking on his pacifier. I was far beyond hoping he could fall back asleep on his own. We never taught him how, though I forever hoped we would. Wasn’t that what everyone did? Of course we’d have painful nights before he learned. No parents want to hear their children cry. But people do it. I listened with envy to friends talk of enduring horrendous nights before their kids caught on. If they could do it, couldn’t Evy and I?
Maybe in a few months, she’d say when I pressed the point.
Half a year passed, and nothing changed, except that Sammy got older. Then, one night, Evy and I were meandering through a bookstore, with Sammy napping in his stroller, and we began bickering yet again about our sleeping arrangement.
Her clenched teeth barely contained her fury. If you know me, Evy said, if you understand anything about my life and my history, then you’d know that it’s impossible for me to let Sammy cry.
But it’s not all about you and your life, I shot back. It’s about Sammy and what’s best for him. Yet, even as I was saying it, I knew it wasn’t so. It was about Evy. With a past like hers, how could it not be?
THE FIRST TIME I MET EVY MAGES, she was perched high on a bar stool, a glass of white wine in one hand, a Marlboro in the other. It was New Year’s Eve, 1994, and we were in Albany covering the inauguration of Gov. George Pataki for the New York Daily News — Evy as a photographer; me as a reporter. She wore black velvet tights, black boots, a black turtleneck, a scarf and no make-up. Her wispy blond hair was piled on top of her head, and she spoke in a scratchy Austrian accent, her W’s coming out more as V’s, as in, “Can I please have another vite vine?”
Had I ever seen a more beautiful smile, the way it seemed to stretch from one end of the horizon to the other?
We talked about newspapers, photography and New York. I learned that she loved Thomas Mann and Egon Schiele, Cuban cigars, Coney Island, flea markets and lying on beaches in Mexico. She detested Republicans, the suburbs, Los Angeles, fast food, red meat and the color yellow.
We compared crazy New York phobias until we found one we shared: being struck by a falling air conditioner.
Oh, you, too? I asked.
Her life couldn’t have been more different than mine. She had worked in more than a dozen bars and cafes and shared something like two dozen apartments. Before she was hired at the News, she had traveled to the Iraqi border to photograph Kurdish refugees. Once, on impulse, she hitchhiked to Minneapolis from New York. A few months earlier, at 29, she had bought her first new piece of furniture, a platform bed.
By contrast, I had spent nearly all of my 33 years in New York City. I tended to get an apartment and stay awhile. Same with jobs and girlfriends. I embraced the familiar, which made Evy’s life as a self-styled urban gypsy all the more alluring.
She had grown up in a small village in the Austrian Alps. I imagined a family of skiers, healthy and attractive as they raced down the slopes. Did she go back to see them often?
I go back to see friends, she said. I waited for more of an explanation, but she only sipped her wine and lighted another cigarette.
After we returned to New York City, Evy invited me to her cluttered apartment on the edge of Times Square, where I wandered from room to room, looking for clues that could explain more about her. I found only one. In the kitchen, a framed black-and-white portrait of a sad-eyed blond woman hung above the fridge. The woman looked almost exactly like Evy. Her mother, perhaps? Grandmother? I didn’t ask. After all the mystery, I was almost afraid to find out.
A COUPLE OF NIGHTS LATER, while we were having dinner at a Brooklyn restaurant, Evy smiled and asked if I wanted to hear her story.
Sure, I said.
She eyed the bread basket, then me. I grew up in an orphanage, she said. Her voice was matter-of-fact, soft.
Where are your parents?
I don’t know.
Did you ever know them?
How did you become an orphan?
I don’t know.
She placed her hands on mine. Are you afraid of me now? she asked. Do you feel like running away? I’d understand.
Actually, I thought I’d finish my dinner. She laughed.
Then I asked: Are you a falling air conditioner?
No, she said. Just Evy.
I asked about the photograph of that blond woman in her kitchen. Evy said she’d found the picture in an old Life magazine and was struck by how much she looked like the woman. A friend framed the photograph, and Evy could never bring herself to throw it away.
HER EARLIEST MEMORY WAS HER MOST SOOTHING: a stocky woman holding her on her thick lap in a farmhouse kitchen, a box of toys in the corner where a young boy played. Evy could still feel the lap, musty and warm; it was the only time she could recall being hugged as a child. Who was that woman? She didn’t know anyone she could ask.
She spoke of breaking her foot when she was a toddler — or was it her ankle? — but she could not say where or how. Nor could she recall how she came to leave the woman in the farmhouse. All she remembered was that another woman arrived one day, wrapped her in a blanket and held her on her lap in a Volkswagen Beetle while a man drove to a house on a hill surrounded by soaring, snow-capped mountains. This was how Evy met her foster parents, who took her to live in a bed-and-breakfast they owned in the Austrian Alps.
Evy’s relationship with her foster family was difficult to fathom. They had taken her in, presumably, because they wanted a companion for their only child. Yet, in virtually every way, her foster mother lavished preferential treatment on her daughter and treated Evy as if she was a burden. Almost as a matter of routine, she would accuse Evy of breaking dishes she hadn’t broken and leaving marks on walls she hadn’t touched. Evy would be slapped and hit until she concocted a confession, then her foster mother would lock her in the cellar for hours.
If Evy needed to go to the bathroom, her foster mother sometimes would lock the door to the toilet and mock her until she went in her pants. Then she would make Evy hand-wash her soiled clothing. Periodically, the woman would threaten to pack up Evy’s things and send her away. Her foster mother made good on that threat when Evy was 7. In the predawn darkness, she rousted Evy from bed and put her in the car with her suitcase. They drove until they reached a hulking psychiatric hospital in Innsbruck, where, without explanation, her foster mother admitted Evy before driving off.
The hospital teemed with small children, who slept on cots in rooms with bars on the windows. Doctors in white lab coats hovered with medicine and questions about dreams. Each child was assigned a color. Evy’s was yellow, which meant a yellow decal on her toothbrush, dresser and school books (and which explains her later aversion to that color). At mealtime, the children marched to the dining room, where they had to ask permission to use their forks and spoons.
Five months after dropping her off, her foster mother showed up to take Evy home. Almost immediately, the abuse began anew. Not long after, when Evy was 9, she was loaded into the car again and driven to a Catholic orphanage, where she was thrown in with 120 youngsters, from toddlers to teenagers. This was Evy’s home for the next seven years.
The nuns running the orphanage demanded strict adherence to their rules. Prayer three times daily. No make-up or jewelry. Nothing on the walls except a crucifix. When they slept, the children had to keep their hands atop the covers.
Once a month, they awoke early, bathed, dressed in their best secondhand clothes, then stood shoulder to shoulder for inspection by prospective parents. Invariably, only the younger children were chosen. By 13, Evy understood that no one wanted a teenage orphan.
Yet for all its difficulties, the orphanage was far preferable to Evy’s life with her foster family. The strict Catholicism gave her faith that she would build her own life and, equally important, that her foster mother would face a form of justice somewhere, sometime.
When she left the orphanage at 16, Evy was too young to live on her own. She returned to her foster family, an arrangement that soon deteriorated. Her foster mother forced Evy to move to a friend’s inn, where she cleaned rooms, made beds and enrolled in a college to study hotel management. She did not see her foster family for two years. Then a neighbor invited Evy to a birthday party for her foster mother. Enough time had elapsed, she thought, that she could endure a get-together. But as she sat with the family, Evy was inundated with painful memories. She walked into the kitchen and lay on the floor, sweating and trembling. Then she returned to the living room for another look at this woman who had failed her. Without a word, she walked out to her motor scooter and sped away. It was the last time she ever spoke to her foster mother.
AFTER GRADUATING FROM THE HOTEL MANAGEMENT PROGRAM, Evy moved to Vienna, where she took classes and, for the first time, lost herself in the anonymity of big city life. At 20, she didn’t know where she’d end up. If she succeeded or failed, who would care? She found herself thinking about her parents. Who were they? Where were they? Why had they abandoned her? As the months passed, she became deeply depressed.
She left Vienna and returned to her village, where she spotted an ad in a travel magazine for a waitressing job on a Caribbean cruise liner. This was her way out. Soon, she was taking her first airplane flight to meet the ship in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where she discovered palm trees and Hawaiian shirts. She had learned English in school but not the version Americans spoke. On the ship, she fumbled drink orders. A Dewar’s and what? A pina cholada? The bartenders screamed at her. Evy lasted seven months before quitting.
On her last day, she went to the San Juan airport, hoping to fly to Miami to look for another job. The last plane had already left. She scanned the departure board. A flight was leaving for New York in three hours. She bought a ticket and spent her first night at a hotel in Times Square, struggling to figure out whether the police sirens were coming from her TV or the streets below. She expected to stay a few weeks, but a succession of waitressing jobs stretched that into months and then years. She made friends and bounced from apartment to apartment. She had no phone or bank account and many secrets.
One day, an old friend from Austria, Andy Schuster, sent her a copy of her birth certificate, which she needed to apply for a new passport. Unfolding it, she noticed for the first time, under the heading ” mutter,” the name Evy Rotraut Mages. Evy and her mother, she realized at age 23, shared the same first and last names. The space reserved for her father’s name was blank.
Evy slipped the birth certificate back into the envelope. She was not interested in her past. She was focused on her future. By then, she was studying photography, a passion that would lead to regular assignments with Agence France-Presse and Reuters before the Daily News hired her in 1993.
AS I LISTENED TO HER STORIES, I CAME TO UNDERSTAND THAT THERE WERE TWO EVYS, the one sitting across from me — radiant, charming, hot-headed, melancholy and resilient. Then there was the little girl who’d been abandoned and abused, who’d suffered and survived. The more she told me, the more I admired her strength and endurance. The more I heard, the more I questioned whether we could build a lasting relationship. Could someone with her history sustain one?
I girded myself for the possibility that she could be gone at any moment. She smoked and drank too much wine. She suffered from an eating disorder that she would eventually conquer. She had regular nightmares about her foster mother and woke up bathed in sweat. She could become infuriated over what seemed like a small disagreement, forecasting the end of our relationship and storming out of the apartment. Then, inevitably, we would recover our footing.
If she sometimes seemed to teeter on collapse, Evy was also generous, kind, fiercely loyal and more interesting than anyone I’d ever known. Seven months after we met, she moved into my place in Brooklyn. We bought a red art deco couch at a flea market and slanted it across the living room. Her dresses, sweaters and scarves began to fill the closets. Then, on a mid-August twilight, the phone rang. Evy answered in English before switching to German. It was her old friend Jimi, Andy’s wife, calling from Austria. Evy talked for more than an hour, her voice animated, then hushed, the silences broken only by uh-huhs, yahs and nays.
After she hung up, I found her in the kitchen, her left leg clamped tightly over her right. Her eyes were glassy.
My sister is looking for me, she said. We didn’t know she had a sister.
“What am I supposed to do?” she whispered.
IN THE DAYS AFTER THAT PHONE CALL, Evy chain-smoked, fell asleep early, then awoke in the middle of the night and stared at the television. Then the official notification arrived by mail that a Barbara Wespi of Switzerland was trying to locate her sister, Evy Mages. Evy gave permission for Barbara to contact her. A few days later, the phone rang.
This is Barbara. Your sister.
Oh, my God, Evy whispered.
Sweat beaded on her forehead. She paced, lighted one cigarette before she finished another, sat down, stood up, then paced more. Barbara had been searching for Evy for more than six months. She told Evy that she was a year younger, that she was a painter, that their mother had also given her up as a child, that she and Evy had different fathers and that she had grown up with her own foster family.
Only weeks before, Barbara had driven from her home near Zurich to meet their mother in the Italian Alps, where she lived with her husband, a retired construction worker. She’s excited about meeting you, Barbara said, if that’s what you want.
Not long after they spoke, a letter from Barbara arrived. Tucked inside were photos, which Evy studied as if she were trying to solve a riddle. Her sister was tall and thin with short brown hair and a long, intelligent face. Any resemblance was not obvious, except that in one photograph Barbara’s smile seemed equally brilliant.
The next photo was of a smiling, blondish woman, with round cheeks, deep-set eyes and a pretty face. She wore a denim shirt, cut off at the shoulders, and held a cigarette, the image of a happy middle-age woman.
The woman was Evy’s mother.
HER MOTHER’S FIRST LETTER ARRIVED LESS THAN A WEEK LATER. We went to a bar where Evy sipped wine and read it aloud, translating the German into English so I could follow along.
“Greetings to you, Evy,” she read, tears rolling down her cheeks. “I’m completely beside myself with joy. Now, I’ll write to you a small biography of myself, so you can understand the WHY of my actions.”
Evy Sr. had been born in Innsbruck in 1943 but had grown up in a Red Cross “cloister” outside Paris with her older brother, Jurg. Their father had sent them away as the war was ending. (Jurg would later tell us that their father, Rudolph Mages, was a member of the Nazi party who hanged himself in a French prison.) Evy Sr. described being reunited with her mother, Herta Mages, when she was 12 years old. Two years later, her mother died of a brain aneurysm.
“Those were terrible years,” Evy Sr. wrote. Jurg was studying graphic design while she worked as a waitress and a nanny. She was living in Salzburg when she met a man. “We dated for awhile,” she wrote. “Then I was alone with you. I worked in a hotel until just a month before your birth, and then I went to a home for single mothers. There I stayed until your birth.”
So there it was: the origin of Evy’s existence reduced to four bewildering sentences.
After Evy’s birth, her mother left her with a group of nuns and moved to Switzerland, where months later she became pregnant with Barbara. When Evy was 2 1/2, social workers turned her over to a foster family named Bischof, who cared for her until she was 4. Perhaps, Evy thought, that was the family from her earliest memory, the one about the musty lap and the little boy playing at the toy box. “I came to visit you often,” Evy Sr. wrote. “You seemed to be happy, and, also, your foster parents were very nice. You were their and my only sunshine.”
After a few years, she couldn’t visit so often. The Bischofs, already elderly, were getting older. The social workers, she wrote, forced her to decide whether to take custody of her daughter. “Then I thought of my own childhood, and I thought, no, my child should have a better future than myself and not become a child who grows up in foster homes and boarding schools.
“Barbara told me that your childhood was not very nice,” Evy Sr. wrote. “For that I’m sorry. Really sorry.”
She ended the letter by inviting Evy to Italy. “I can barely wait to get your answer. I’m hopeful that you’ll understand me.”
The letter was signed, “Your mother, Evy.”
OVER THE NEXT FEW WEEKS, EVY WRESTLED WITH WHAT TO DO. The prospect of meeting Barbara and Evy Sr. excited her. But it also forced her to think about the past, about everything that had been missing for as long as she could remember.
She decided to fly to Zurich in early December to meet Barbara. I’d join them a few days later, along with Jimi and Andy. All of us would drive to Italy to meet Evy Sr.
Just before she left, Evy came home from work seething. Why did she have to travel halfway around the world? She was the one who had been abandoned. And what would she call Evy Sr.? Mom? Mother? Evy? It all seemed absurd. She was convinced that she didn’t have the strength to endure the trip.
I tried to reassure her. If she knew anything about herself, it was that her capacity for survival was almost limitless.
She called me after she landed in Zurich and recounted how she hadn’t wanted to get off the plane, how she’d walked slowly toward the terminal. Then she heard someone shouting her name, and she could see Andy, Jimi and another woman, tall with short hair, waiting. Evy and Barbara embraced silently before erupting in giddy laughter. They popped open champagne and sat on the terminal floor toasting the moment.
The sisters picked me up at the airport a few days later, holding hands and smiling. By then, 64 hours into their relationship, they had stood naked in front of a mirror to compare their physiques; they had slept in the same bed; they had replayed their pasts for hours.
Barbara had first tried to find their mother when she was 18, without success. A decade later, she felt compelled to try again, she said, “to know myself.”
She made phone calls for six months until the government located Evy Mages Sr. in Italy. When Barbara called, Evy Sr. told her that she had had another daughter, a year older. Barbara drove to Italy a few weeks later. On their first night together, Barbara asked Evy Sr. when she could meet her sister. You’ll have to find her first, Evy Sr. answered. When Barbara returned home, she embarked on another search. More than nine months later, her sister was sitting in her kitchen.
TO REACH EVY SR.’S VILLAGE IN ITALY, we drove for eight hours through majestic mountains, rolling vistas dotted by ski chalets, castles and snow-flecked trees. It was night when we all arrived at the cafe where we’d arranged to meet Evy’s mother. A woman wrapped in a dark fur coat and scarf stood in the doorway, smoking. A streetlamp illuminated her dark blond hair. The shadows swallowed her features. “Hello,” Evy said to her mother, blinking furiously, as if she were staring into a blinding light.
“Hello,” her mother answered.
They smiled and stared at each other, their fidgeting feet crunching the snow. A camera flash lighted her mother’s rounded cheeks and smile. For the first time, Evy recognized traces of her own features in another’s face.
“You’re my mother,” she whispered. They embraced. Evy began crying into the collar of her mother’s coat, then stepped back.
“You just stare at me,” Evy Sr. said. “Are you disappointed?”
“No. Are you?”
“How could I be?” Evy Sr. replied. “You’re so beautiful.”
Inside the cafe, Evy extended her finger and traced her mother’s eyebrow. They compared hands and fingers. At moments, they giggled easily. Then they were silent.
Evy Sr. called their reunion “a gift from heaven,” and said: “It’s the beginning of something if you want it. We can leave everything from the past in the past, and now we can start something new.”
Evy knew she could not ignore the past. Eventually, her mother would have to explain everything. But she leaned across the table, hugged Evy Sr. and said, “Of course we can start something new.”
We went to sleep long after midnight at Evy Sr.’s house. Evy pulled the blanket up to her chin. Her forehead felt feverish. She was exhausted but could not close her eyes. While everyone else slept, she leaned over the toilet and threw up.
THE NEXT DAY, EVY AND HER MOTHER WALKED HAND IN HAND down a winding, snow-covered path to the village. They sat at the cafe, drinking wine, and Evy Sr. said she wanted to explain everything, but she was terrified that the truth would drive her daughters away. “I want you to know that you have a mother again,” she said. “I’ll be there for you forever.”
Evy understood that her mother’s words were meant to comfort. But she felt awkward, almost disassociated, as though part of her was hovering over the table, watching this unfathomable scene. To help herself focus, Evy scribbled notes as her mother’s story tumbled forth.
When Evy Sr. was a 21-year-old waitress at a Salzburg cafe, she began noticing one regular customer, a man perhaps 30 years old, with brown curly hair and large green eyes. He was a painter, Evy Sr. said, studying with Oskar Kokoschka.
“Do you know Kokoschka?” Evy Sr. asked.
Evy nodded. Kokoschka, as it happened, was one of Evy’s favorite painters.
“This painter was your father,” Evy Sr. said.
She described him as a “beautiful man, sweet, intelligent and strong,” and she said that Evy resembled him. They lived together for several months before he announced he was leaving to travel for his painting. They separated on good terms, she said. “Our relationship was pure and beautiful, and that’s the way we left it.”
“What was his name?” Evy asked.
Evy Sr. smiled sadly. “I’m sorry, but I don’t remember.”
“Of course,” Evy said quickly. “It’s been so many years.”
In time, Evy would rage that her mother could recall so much about her father yet not his identity. She questioned whether her mother had made up the entire story, whether the truth was far darker. At that moment, though, she raised no questions or doubts.
“If I could do it over again, if I could come back into this world again, I would fight like a lion to keep you,” Evy Sr. said. “I was so inexperienced and stupid. I never forgave myself for what happened. I wanted more than anything for you to have a better life, but I destroyed everything.”
The following day, Evy Sr. walked through the village again with Barbara and Evy. “We are survivors; that’s what we share after all these years,” she told her daughters. Night was falling as she spoke, and the three of them were holding hands. For a moment, in the darkened snow, they felt like a family.
AFTER WE RETURNED TO NEW YORK, WORK BECAME A REFUGE FOR EVY. She never talked about her mother and sister unless I asked, which I forced myself to do, in part because I wanted to support her. But I also feared that I’d lose her, that she’d want to move back to Europe to be closer to her family.
Evy Sr.’s letters began arriving almost immediately, each a breathless ode to the miracle of meeting her daughters. “It’s unbelievably beautiful to find you again,” she wrote in one. In another, she spelled out “I love you” 21 times before adding, “My feet still haven’t hit the ground.”
Evy was touched by her mother’s emotion. But the fifth letter was much like the second, and the 12th was nearly a replica of the eighth. Evy found herself becoming impatient. She wanted more — more of her mother’s memories, more facts. More about her father.
Evy Sr. landed in New York 10 months after we had gone to Italy. She had never been to America or flown on an airplane. She was nervous, smoking constantly, laughing, talking rapidly, avoiding eye contact. Evy asked her more questions about her life, but her mother offered few answers. She said she had searched her memory for the name of Evy’s father but still could not recall it.
We offered to take her to the opera or a Japanese restaurant. She shrugged. Her main ambition was to buy a Mickey Mouse T-shirt and eat hamburgers. At night, she sat on the couch, reading an Italian language instruction manual on how to drive. By the fifth day, Evy couldn’t wait for her to leave.
“She’s not interested in me,” she seethed.
On Evy Sr.’s last night in New York, we took her to the Rainbow Room. She was uninterested in the views of the city, going to the window only when Evy prodded her. We planned to take her for sushi, but Evy said she wasn’t feeling well and insisted that we go home. Her fury at her mother was making her physically ill.
EVY SR. SENT A LETTER ALMOST AS SOON AS SHE RETURNED TO ITALY. “It was so moving to see you,” she wrote. “I beg you, Evy, don’t look at your past so sadly. Do as I do: Make it work for you.” More letters arrived, but they lay unopened for days before Evy read them.
One afternoon, my mother called to say that Evy Sr. had sent my parents a letter asking for help in finding work in America as a governess. “By all means necessary, I will go to America, no matter what, to see Evy and spend time with her over the next years,” she wrote.
Evy was enraged and embarrassed that her mother would appeal to my parents without first letting her know. The resentment building inside her now had a focus. Evy had struggled for months to write to her mother. Now she had something to say.
“Do you really think you can just blow into my world like that?” she wrote. “I’m not your yo-yo.” She chastised her mother for deflecting the questions she and Barbara had about the past.
“We have every damn right to ask,” Evy wrote. “You act as if we ask the world of you and that we’re so terrible for expecting you to remember a few details. Get real.”
The response from Italy was equally angry.
“Dammit! Just be content that you both found me,” Evy Sr. wrote. “I, too, saw my mother after many years, and for me the world was perfect. I was happy the family was united. I would’ve never dared ask if my father’s name was Rudolph or Peter or Fritz, if he was Jewish or Muslim, fat or skinny, beautiful or ugly . . . I saw my mother, and I was grateful she existed.”
After that, Evy Sr.’s letters arrived less frequently. Two years had passed since we had gone to Italy, and Evy was beginning to feel that growing up without her mother may have been a blessing.
IN THE SPRING OF 1998, EVY AND I BEGAN TALKING ABOUT GETTING MARRIED. Actually, I mostly talked about it; Evy listened, amused.
She felt no great urge to marry. She was happy with our life and saw no need to formalize it with something so conventional as a ceremony. But she promised to think about it. First, though, we needed to return to Europe, this time to Austria, so I could see the dead-end valley that she’d escaped. She wanted me to at least glimpse her foster mother, whom she hadn’t spoken to in 17 years. It was time, she said, “to close the book on that.”
We arrived in May of 1998, sleeping at Jimi’s apartment (she and Andy were separated), which was about 50 yards from her foster family’s dark wooden chalet. The following morning, we walked over to the house and knocked on the door. We held hands and our breath as we waited. A caretaker opened the door and explained that her foster mother was on vacation in Turkey. We exhaled.
The following day, we drove an hour north to see the orphanage, managed now by social workers instead of nuns and less severe than Evy remembered. Before flying home, we made one last call, this one to the Bischofs, the foster family that had cared for Evy when she was a toddler. We knew nothing about them, except that they may have been the source of Evy’s first memory — the woman holding her on her lap. Evy opened the phone book and saw six Bischofs listed. She called the first one. A woman answered.
Evy told her that she lived in New York but had been born in Austria and, as a toddler, had been cared for by a family named Bischof.
“Yes,” the woman said. “That was us.”
Evy gasped. The woman was the wife of one of the Bischof’s sons. Josef Bischof, the family patriarch had died, but he had often talked about Evy. All of them had wondered what happened to her.
The next day, we pulled up to the house, on the side of a country road, where Josef’s wife, Julia, still lived. A smiling, middle-aged man stepped outside to greet us, introducing himself as Otto Bischof. He was one of the brothers.
“Yes, I remember you,” he told Evy. “You were like an angel to my father.”
He invited us into the farmhouse kitchen, where a second brother, Herman, also in his 40s, with longish hair and a beard, sat down. “Our father doted on you like you were a superstar,” Herman said. “We were heartbroken when you were taken away. I don’t think my father ever got over it. He always talked about you. We all did.”
Tears trickled from the corners of Otto’s eyes. He asked her what she remembered, and she told him she always had the sense that she had broken her foot or her ankle while she was there.
“Yes,” Otto said, “that was because of me.” When he was 17, he had accidentally backed the family’s car into her as he edged out of the driveway. Herman left the room and returned with a black-and-white photograph of Evy as a little girl in a leg cast.
Their parents, the brothers said, had tried to adopt Evy, but the social workers believed they were too old — they were in their 50s — to properly care for her. “When they took you away, it was like our little sister had died,” Herman said.
The brothers led us outside to the old farmhouse. On the way, we met Julia Bischof, then 86. Shaking the elderly woman’s hand, Evy recognized the stocky build and the warm, plush lap of her earliest memory. “Evy, Evy,” Julia Bischof said, dreamily. “She always came to our bed; she never liked to sleep by herself.”
In the kitchen, Evy said she remembered a big wooden box of toys. Otto pointed to the corner. “It was over there,” he said.
The eldest brother, Gebhard, arrived a bit later. Gebhard had been in his late 20s when Evy came to live with them, still unable to walk, he said, because she had spent so much of her young life in a crib.
It was Gebhard who drove to pick up Evy Sr. when she visited her baby. Evy Sr. had said she came fairly often. But Gebhard told us Evy’s mother had made the trip just two or three times and only reluctantly. “I never felt she was terribly interested in you,” he said.
When it was time to leave, the brothers presented Evy with the old rusted clef key to the farmhouse. “Welcome home,” Otto said. She clung to Herman and Otto and cried harder than at any time since I’d known her.
Six months later, we were married in front of more than 100 of our friends in Brooklyn. Barbara and Jurg flew over, trailing Evy as she walked down the aisle in a midnight blue dress.
Evy Sr. was not invited.
NEARLY A DECADE LATER, EVY HAS REINVENTED HERSELF AS A STAY-AT-HOME MOTHER. She quit smoking and drinking and pours her creative energy into our three children: Sammy, now 6 and happily sleeping in his own bed; Stella, 4; and Lily, who arrived six months ago. Our home in Northwest Washington has become the neighborhood clubhouse. On any given Friday night, as I walk through the front door, eight or nine kids and their parents greet me. And there’s Evy at the center of the chaos, the Pied Piper, happier than I’ve ever known her.
She will never be free of her past, though she’s tried to distance herself from it. She no longer communicates with Evy Sr., Barbara or Jurg. The drama became too unwieldy to integrate into her new life. She stopped speaking German, to help limit the reminders of her childhood.
Yet, there is still a montage of painful memories, many of them summoned by our children. On Cape Cod last summer, she watched Sammy and Stella carrying a beach chair along a path. In an instant, she was transported back to Austria, to the day when her foster mother forced her to lug a broken chair she had not damaged through the village to the repairman, past the withering stares of her neighbors. Taking Stella to a dental appointment, Evy was consumed by memories of being beaten for crying while her cavities were filled. Toilet training Sammy summoned another flurry of horrifying reminders.
Evy’s third pregnancy was her most difficult. When she wasn’t fighting morning sickness and fatigue, she found herself obsessing over her mother’s third pregnancy, the one that followed Evy and Barbara. That baby died two days after birth. Evy became petrified that her baby would suffer the same fate. She spoke of being shadowed by a curse, a fear that stayed with her until the moment Lily was born.
The following day, Evy lay propped up in bed as the baby slept on her chest. She was exhausted but smiling as she floated in and out of sleep. “How could anyone,” she asked, “walk away from this?”
Paul Schwartzman writes for The Post’s Metro section. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Evy Mages with her children Sammy, Stella and Lily during a recent weekend ski trip.