Maria Heckinger secretly monitored the street below from a balcony. Her friends approached the Greek washerwoman who might be her long-lost mother.
Just as Heckinger feared, the woman started shouting. “I didn’t need to understand Greek to realize she had denied having a baby and was furious anyone, especially strangers, would ask such a question,” Heckinger writes. “Had we made the right decision in coming here?”
The answer turned out to be a definite yes, as Heckinger relates in a thoughtful and gripping new memoir, “Beyond the Third Door.” Searching the Greek island of Lefkada for clues about the mother she assumed was dead not only reunited them unexpectedly. It led to a reconciliation among branches of the family that had fragmented over the little girl conceived by rape and placed in an orphanage, she said.
Heckinger will sign copies and read from “Beyond the Third Door” during a book launch event Thursday at Angst Gallery in downtown Vancouver. (Three sessions are set for 6, 7 and 8 p.m. that night.) The retired elementary school teacher laughs off any suggestion that she’s a “real author,” but added that this weighty family saga was one she had to write “before it killed me.”
Years of memoir-writing workshops and months of therapy later, Heckinger said, “I feel like I’ve lost 100 pounds. I feel light as air. I did it!”
Here’s what happened next on that Greek street one day in 1984: Heckinger greeted the washerwoman and apologized for the terrible mistake. But the woman arranged another meeting, in an isolated spot, and that’s where she admitted the truth: “I am your mother, and this is just like the movies.”
“When I could finally speak,” Heckinger writes, “I took a couple of deep breaths and whispered the words I had waited a lifetime to say: ‘You never came back for me. Please help me understand what happened to you.’ ”
The backstory related by her rediscovered mother, Hariklea Voukelatos, makes up the first third of the book. Heckinger wanted to get as close to the truth as possible, she said, so she tried getting inside her mother’s head and writing the tale in her voice, from a first-person “I” point of view.
It’s a painfully tough tale. Greece was ravaged during World War II and a civil war that followed. It was the poorest nation in Europe by the time 6-year-old Hariklea Voukelatos watched her father murder her mother, right before her eyes. “He was a crazy person,” Heckinger said.
Voukelatos contracted polio the following year, and when she was 15, a family friend raped her, saying he was doing her a “favor” because no man would ever want her thanks to her polio limp.
When her belly began to grow, Voukelatos thought she had a tumor. She was sent away to the city, where a doctor explained the realities of sex and conception to the illiterate girl. “I didn’t even know there was a word for what (he) had done to me,” Heckinger writes in Voukelatos’ voice.
Voukelatos never went home. Her baby, Maria, was born in May 1953. Poor and desperate, Voukelatos got a factory job and deposited the baby in an orphanage — complete with a statement saying she hoped to come back and collect her again.
When word got out that Greek orphanages were working with American couples eager to adopt, Voukelatos returned to the orphanage and beseeched the administrator not to let Maria go. But he decided that adoption to America would be best for everyone.
A real person
Maria Pace grew up in San Diego. She knew she was Greek by birth and adopted by parents who kept a scrapbook full of documents, photographs and newspaper stories about the process. Destitute Greek orphans adopted by American families was headline news in the 1950s, and the young girl appears in several group photographs with congressmen and other VIPs — including attorney Leo Lamberson, one of several officials eventually indicted, but never convicted, for profiteering from a “Greek baby black market” scheme. (Heckinger wasn’t one of those; her adoption appears to have been completely legitimate, she said.)
Part two of her book is written in the joyful voice of her adoptive mother, Ellen Pace, who finally got to raise a daughter after trying for years to conceive. The Paces made Maria a big sister by adopting three more children, including another one from Greece.
Part three is Heckinger’s own story. When she was 21, her adoptive mother presented her that big scrapbook, a trove of information about Heckinger’s origins. When she was 30, Heckinger took a three-week tour of Greece that included several stops in Patras, the city of her childhood orphanage.
Heckinger, who spoke no Greek, explained her story to her tour guides (two priests) and asked for their help. They found the orphanage, rebuilt but still in business at the same address, where an administrator opened a 1953 ledger and easily located the infant Maria Voukelatos — along with that declaration from her unwed mother.
“I have the honor to ask you to take my little girl, and maybe God will make me worthy to take her back later because right now I am merely worthy of pity and am very unfortunate. I have baptized her with the name Maria.” –Hariklea Voukelatos, Patras, 13 May 1953
“In a split second, that note changed everything,” Heckinger writes. “Learning my birth mother’s name made her a real person. … Growing up, I’d never thought of myself as being ‘born,’ only ‘adopted.’ That was no longer true.”
Word-of-mouth clues led Heckinger and friends to a neighborhood where people “had surnames like Voukelatos,” and they simply started knocking on doors. They didn’t have to knock long. Somebody behind the third door they tried pointed out that humble washerwoman.
The awkward, unlikely reunion resulted in a whole decade of joy and companionship. Heckinger traveled to Greece frequently, staying with her birth mother and exploring her world. She became buddies with the Greek half-sister she never knew existed; after a few years, her explorations even facilitated a reunion between Voukelatos and the brothers she hadn’t seen since being sent away in shame at age 15. Those brothers warmly welcomed Heckinger back into the fold.
“I ended up with this fabulous family,” Heckinger said.