There are times when we come across stories which are so devastatingly powerful, they stay with you for a long period of time – they haunt you, and you have to share them with everyone you meet. In my reading experience, such stories are usually well-written works of fiction and sometimes a memoir.
Beyond the Third Door: Based on a True Story, by Maria Heckinger, is a memoir that reads like a novel as she shares her incredible story. She writes, “My book has three narrators: my birth mother, my adopted mother, and myself. It is the tale of two mothers and their connection to one child. One mother was shamed because she had a child and the other because she couldn't. I am one of 3,500 Greek orphans adopted to the U.S. in the 1950s. Conceived in an act of violence, I was born to an unwed mother who was exiled from her island home for 44 years. Homeless and seven months pregnant in a large mainland city, she could not care for me and lost me to foreign adoption. Raised in California, I returned to Greece when I was 30 where, through a series of life-changing events, I reconnected with my birth mother. Finally, as the orphaned child, I tell my story. Based on documents and oral histories given by both mothers, and my experiences, it is a tale so miraculous it reads like fiction.”
Traveling to Lefkada in search of information about her birth mother, who she assumed had passed away, Heckinger actually found the woman, Hariklea Voukelatos, who at first denied that she was Maria’s mother, but then later met with her and said, “I am your mother, and this is just like the movies.”
Heckinger recounts Hariklea’s tragic story, the harsh times, not being allowed to go to school, and at age six witnessing her father murder her mother. Hariklea then contracted polio which left her with a limp. At 15, she was raped by a so-called family friend who said “it’s too bad you are a cripple. No man will want you, so I’m going to do you a favor.” The girl had no idea what happened to her and thought she had a tumor until she went to a doctor in Patras who explained everything to her.
Maria was born in 1953 and her mother got a job in a factory and had to leave her in an orphanage with a note saying that she hoped to come back for her as soon as she could. At the time, it became popular for Americans to adopt Greek orphans and according to the book, Voukelatos returned to the orphanage and asked that Maria not be sent to America, but the administrator there decided it would be for the best.
The second part of the story is told by Maria’s adoptive mother, Ellen Pace, who struggled for years to have a child of her own. The Paces eventually adopted three more children, including another Greek orphan and Maria grew up in San Diego, CA knowing she was Greek and adopted as her parents kept a scrapbook with all the documents and photos.
The third part is Heckinger’s own story of returning to Greece, not speaking a word of Greek, but with the help of two priests, finding the orphanage and the record of her birth and time there, as well as her mother’s note, signed and dated May 13, 1953, which read, “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.”
Heckinger’s journey back to Greece, finding her birth mother and then the family reunion that ensues is incredible.
Beyond the Third Door: Based on a True Story by Maria Heckinger is available online.