In this story from January 1962, the Green Acres star shares how he and his wife relied on divine guidance in navigating the process of adopting a child.
Someday, Maria, someone is going to say a silly thing to you. “Maria,” he’ll say, and he’ll be very solemn, “you must always be grateful to Mr. Albert for choosing you out of all those children.”
And the trouble is, Maria, that you just might believe him. Because you are beautiful, because I adore you, because your hair is long and your eyes enormous, because you are seven years old and have me completely wrapped around your finger, you might actually believe that I stepped into that orphanage, looked around at all the children, and selected you.
But I didn’t, Maria. I wasn’t the one who chose you at all.
It was three years ago that I had dinner in Paris with Art Buchwald. It was the first time I’d been away from Margo and young Edward and I missed them terribly. Only one thing cast a shadow when I thought of my family: there wasn’t enough of it!
Margo and I never dreamed of having just one child. After Edward’s birth, when no brothers or sisters came, we placed our name with adoption agencies all over the country. Years went by, but no child.
That evening in Paris I was sounding off to Art on the slow pace of adoption. He lay down his fork. “We have three adopted kids,” he said, “and we didn’t wait years and years to get them. We found one in England, one in France, and one in Spain–and you couldn’t ask for finer youngsters.”
He leaned across the table. “It would break your heart to see some of those orphanages. Why, we saw one in Spain that had over 2,000 children.”
It was one of those strange moments when everything seems to make sense: even the language. Margo was born in Mexico and speaks Spanish fluently. I went to the telephone and talked to her in California. The next day I was bound for Madrid and the orphanage with 2,000 children.
Once on the plane, the enormity of what I was doing swept over me. How was I going to pick the right child from 2,000?
Psychiatry, I thought. I’d pick a child that looked healthy and bright and then take him to a psychiatrist for tests. I lowered the seat-back, I was tired.
But sleep wouldn’t come. Suddenly I realized that psychiatry could not really define the special magic that makes one person belong with another.
I remembered what I’d long ago learned, that the only valid position for viewing a decision is eternity, that the only One who sees from there is God. I’d asked Him to guide me in lesser matters, why not in this one?
Did I really have more confidence in myself than in Him? The children in the orphanage were His children, just as Margo, and Edward, and I were. He knew which one belonged with us.
But how would I know? How would I be shown His choice for our family? As soon as I asked the question I knew the answer too: God’s choice would be the first child I saw.
There in the plane seat I bowed my head. “Lord,” I said, “I’ll take that first child.”
This time, I got to sleep.
Early next morning I was sitting in the office of the director of the great gray-walled orphanage.
“And what kind of child do you have in mind?” he asked in English.
“I would not be so impertinent as to say,” I told him.
The director stared at me, then at the paper he’d been writing on. “You have one son, age seven. So I suppose you would like a girl?”
“A girl would be fine.”
The director scrutinized me for a moment. Abruptly he picked up the phone and spoke a few words in Spanish. I wondered if he heard my heart pounding as we waited.
The door opened and a nun led in a little girl. I stared at her, gulped, and closed my eyes.
“Lord!” I prayed. “You don’t mean it!”
For there in front of me you stood—the toughest, most defiant, dirtiest four-year-old I had ever seen. You stood with your feet planted wide apart, your eyes on the floor.
I looked from you to the director. He was watching me nervously, apologetically, retaining the nun to whisk you away when the American exploded. I suddenly knew that this was not the first time you had been shown to a prospective parent. Suspicions stabbed me. You might be a behavior problem...
“How do we go about adopting her?” My words came quickly.
The director stared at me as if he hadn’t heard right. Then he sprang from his chair so hastily he almost knocked it over and plunked you into my lap. And so, with your feather-weight on my knee, I heard the director outline procedures: the Spanish government required certain papers, the United States, others.
I hardly listened. For—was I imagining it or—was there a gentle pressure against my chest? I leaned forward half an inch: the tiny pressure increased.
My proud Maria, before you responded to me you were testing me to see if I would respond to you. It was a kind of unspoken proposition with no loss of face: “I could love you if you loved me.” My brave Maria!
I didn’t see you again for two whole weeks, while the slow, legal part of the adoption got started. My first job was to telephone Margo that we had a daughter. I’d talk about mechanics: she would have to deal with the immigration authorities, find a welfare agency to sponsor us...
Then there was Margo’s voice from California, asking the one question I’d been pretending she wouldn’t ask.
“Oh, Eddie, describe her to me!”
I suppose that was the longest pause ever run up on a trans-Atlantic phone call. Then I remembered a photograph I’d once seen of Margo as a child: She was all skinny arms and legs.
“Honey,” I said, “she reminds me a lot of you.”
One day, while we were waiting for final papers, the orphanage gave me permission to take you out for lunch. At the restaurant you scraped your plate clean while I was unfolding my napkin. Then you ate my lunch too.
In the taxi going back you sat close to me, studying my face. That is why you didn’t see the orphanage until we had stopped in front of it. You looked out at the gray walls, then back at me.
Maria! How could I have known? How could I have guessed? Somehow no one in the orphanage had explained to you that this was only a visit, only out to lunch. So many children, overworked Sisters, and no one to read in your eyes that you thought this was the day of adoption, the final leave-taking.
And now I had brought you back!
You flung yourself, shrieking, to the sidewalk. And I, with my miserable lack of Spanish, could not explain. I knelt beside you, begging you to believe in me. “I’m coming back! Manana, Maria! Tomorrow!” When a nun came out to get you, we were both sitting in the middle of the sidewalk, crying our eyes out.
I did come back, the next day, and the next, until the unbelievable day when you were ours.
It was 24 hours from Madrid to Los Angeles. You sat on my lap the entire plane trip, you would not sleep.
We were a pretty groggy pair when we stumbled off the plane in California and into Margo’s arms. She let loose a machine-gun volley of Spanish, the only word of which I understood was “Mama.”
Going home in the airport car you sat in her lap, and for weeks afterward I was a lucky man if I got so much as a glance.
At home Margo tucked you into bed. And still you would not close your eyes. You’d been without sleep 36 hours, but you didn’t want to let Margo out of your sight. At last you pointed to her wedding band.
“Give me your ring,” you said.
Margo slipped off the ring and placed it in your hand. “Now you can’t leave me,” you said. A second later you were asleep.
And Edward–how did he feel about this possible competition for our love? We soon found out. You had lungs that could summon the fire department, but whenever I asked you to speak more quietly, Edward would give me a look of deep reproach.
“Papa! Of course she shouts! There were 2,000 kids making a racket; she had to yell to be heard.”
Any correction you received had to be while Edward was out of the room. And you felt the same way about him. I’ll never forget the day the school bully knocked Edward down and you knocked down the bully. They tell me you were banging his head on the floor when a teacher pulled you off.
I love the toughness in you. I love your loyalty. I love your quick mind. I even love your noise (but not while Papa’s napping, all right, honey?).
I think you are the most beautiful little girl in the world and sometimes, watching you, I think: “How in all the world did I find you?”
Then I remember: I didn’t find you. I didn’t do it at all.
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