Issues Change With The Times

Original birth certificates and name changes have been an issue for adult adoptees. Many adoptees still can not acquire their original birth certificates. My parents were adopted in the 1930s. In adulthood, both learned the names they were born as but nothing about their original families. I do have my mom’s original birth certificate which was very helpful as all she knew about her birth parents’ names was Mr and Mrs JC Moore (which reveals very little). I never could get my dad’s original birth certificate because California is one of those states that won’t release it without a court order. I did learn his birth mother’s name thanks to a handwritten note on a letter concerning the changed birth certificate in the state of Texas that his adoptive mother wrote down. Turns out she was unwed.

We still have new members come into my all things adoption group with questions pre-adoption about how to handle the birth certificate for pre-school children and name changes. In today’s modern society, most are over thinking what a more open and progressive society have made a moot point. While conservatives and evangelicals may not like these changes to marriage and family units, the changed nature of society is a positive development for adoptees.

Divorce, remarriage, blended families, single mothers and same sex partnerships, to name just a few of the complicating factors, have resulted in what once might have been a legal issue with schools and medical records, no longer matter regarding the child’s name. What does still matter is identity and true family origins. Keeping the original birth certificate intact still matters. Not sealing adoption records matters. Today, an adoption decree is all the legal documentation an adoptive parent needs to establish their responsibility to the child. A birth certificate and the child’s name no longer need to be changed. Some adoption agencies and social workers, perhaps even some legal authorities may still try to make changes a requirement but in reality, there is no longer a basis to do that.

There is one issue that did come up that could matter. That is where violence or some kind of public notoriety could follow a child throughout their life. One adoptive mother with just such an issue shared that she was able to get mentions of these events, where the child is also mentioned, removed from public access. She asked the kid’s attorney, the judge, assistant district attorney and the district attorney to send letters to the news outlets that covered the original story. They did that and it worked for this family. So, with some help, even news coverage can be buried. That said, as the child matures, they are still to be fully informed in an age appropriate way about these circumstances and if necessary, with the help of a trauma informed therapist. Never hide the truth from the child who it concerns.

One other adoptive parent of an older child mentioned that their child legally changed their name for reasons of their own. In their experience, the name change did not cause any problem with passport and Real ID, and even the change of gender did not cause a problem either. All that was needed was the proper documentation about these changes and they simply followed the rules related to those changes.

I Am Now My Own Parent

My Dad and Mom

I’ve told some version of this story before and can’t promise I won’t again, though with evolving perspectives, these likely do change over time. My dad died only 4 months after my mom. She died first in September 2015 and he followed in February 2016. It was a profound event in my own life as I am certain it is in many lives. After my dad died, my youngest sister said, “We are now orphans.” I remain estranged from her. The cruelty she expresses towards me when we are in contact with one another causes me not to want to be involved with her. Not long ago, the state of Missouri informed me that they held some abandoned asset of my mom’s and I jumped through hoops and ended up with a whopping check for $20. Because I needed to provide my sisters names and addresses, so they could receive their own shares, I contacted my youngest sister’s conservator, who had been appointed to manage her funds. Turns out, he has been free of her for 2-1/2 years and no longer has that responsibility. The judge turned him loose and I understand. My sister is difficult and uncooperative and so, she is on her own now. So be it. I never wanted to take her freedom away from her. It was her own lawyers and the need for a family member to ask the court to look at her circumstances that forced my own involvement.

The topic today was inspired by a Daily Guide for Sunday, July 10 2022 in the Science of Mind magazine written by Rev Dr Jim Lockard. That phrase that is my title today comes from an affirmation he put at the end of his essay. He mentions that some people have never known their family of origin. That was certainly true for BOTH of my parents – as each of them was adopted and they died knowing next to nothing about their origins. I was conceived out of wedlock by a teenage mom. I could have so easily been given up for adoption but thankfully, I was not. It seems that one of my purposes in this life was to reconnect the threads of my parents own origins and I have now made it as far as is necessary for my own peace of mind. I know who all 4 genetic grandparents were, something of their stories and am aware of quite a few living, genetic relatives now that I am in contact with.

After my mom died, I came into contact again with an aunt. She is the widowed wife of my dad’s brother (my uncle was also adopted). A profound experience for me in high school was witnessing my uncle’s slow decline from Lou Gehrig’s disease. She is a nurse who met him when he was a Marine and hospitalized due to an auto accident. I had been thinking about this aunt for several days. It seems we do have a “spiritual heart connection” and so, she had been thinking about me and called me recently. It has been true since my mom died that she still calls me to check in from time to time – mostly to hear the latest for me and adds a few insights into her own life. Mostly, she just listens. I find her easy to talk to, honestly, though she is much more conventionally religious than I am. She usually asks about my sisters and how are they doing. She used to tell me she was praying for my estranged sister and I but she no longer tries to reach me that way. She had only one child with my uncle and he died a few years ago, too young and somewhat unexpectedly. She lives with an elderly sibling and that sibling’s spouse. My aunt is now 90 years old and I never know how much longer she will be in my life but she is totally lucid and I am always happy to hear from her.

Mine is a strange reality to live. Learning who my genetic relatives were and are, has to some extent, distanced me from the ones I grew up with. Even so, I remain fond of the adoptive grandparents I grew up with (now deceased) and with the aunt just mentioned and one other (my dad’s step-sister, who he acquired when his adoptive mother remarried after a divorce). My mom also had a brother who was adopted through the Tennessee Children’s Home before her. I am not all that close to him but did see him at my mom’s memorial service. It was his daughter’s receipt of his adoption file that had her call to tell me – I could get my mom’s. That opened the door for me to become genetically whole again and fulfill an intended life purpose.

Separations

An adoptee wrote – “I hate not belonging anywhere. I hate that I have multiple families, but also really zero. I hate needing to earn my place in people’s lives.” I could relate as I recently shared with my husband and he understood. We both come from small nuclear families and there is no extended family geographically close to us and honestly, few of those as well anywhere else.

Much of this feeling for me comes from the realization that those who were my extended family growing up aren’t really related to me. Those that are genetically biologically related to me don’t really know me, have no real history with me and though I am slowly without too much intrusion trying to build these new relationships . . . sigh. It isn’t easy.

My first family break-up was one I initiated. I divorced the man I had married just before I turned 18 and a month before I graduated from high school in April 1972. By November, more or less, I was pregnant with our first child. She remains the joy of my life and has gifted me with two grandchildren. However, finances separated me from my daughter when she was 3 years old and she was raised by her father and step-mother who gave her a yours-mine-and-ours family of siblings, sisters, just like I grew up with. It has left me with a weird sense of motherhood in regard to my daughter. One that I often struggle with but over the last decade or so, I have been able to bridge some of that gap- both with regard in my own sense of self-esteem and in a deepening relationship with my daughter, primarily since the passing of her step-mother (not that the woman was an impediment but understandably, my daughter’s heart remains seriously tied to that woman even today).

The trauma of mother/child separation lived by each of my adoptee parents (while skipping my relationship and my sisters’ relationship with our parents) passed over to my sisters and my own relationships with our biological genetic children. I seriously do believe it has proven to have been a factor. Both of my sisters gave up babies to adoptive parents and one lost her first born in court to his paternal grandparents. Sorrows all around but all us must go on the best we can.

Since learning the stories of my original grandparents, I have connected with several genetic relatives – cousins mostly and an aunt plus one who lives in Mexico with her daughter. Everyone is nice enough considering the absolutely un-natural situation our family histories have thrust us into. So really, now I find myself in this odd place of not really belonging to 4 discrete family lines (one set of grandparents were initially married and divorced after the surrender of their child to adoption and one set never married, in fact my paternal grandfather likely never knew he had a son). Happily, though a significant bit of geographical distance a factor foe me, my paternal grandfather was a Danish immigrant and I now have contact with one cousin in Denmark who has shared some information with me that I would not have but for him.

Regarding estrangement, I’ve had no direct contact with my youngest sister since 2016. In regard to looking out for her best interests, her own attorneys in the estate proceedings encouraged me to pursue a court appointed guardian/conservator for her – as both of our parents died 4 months apart and she was highly dependent upon them due to her mental illness of (likely) paranoid schizophrenia. The effects of that really destroyed my relationship with her (which had been close until our mother died and then, went seriously to hell, causing us to become estranged). I just learned the other day that the court has released her conservator. I guess she is on her own now. She survived 4 years of homelessness before reconciling uneasily with our parents. I guess the survivor in her will manage but she most likely also now believes the guardian/conservator proceedings were my own self being vindictive, for some unreasonable purpose. Sigh. I don’t miss contact with her – honestly – it was cruel and difficult being on the receiving end of her offensives after our mom died. I do wish her “well” in the sincerest meanings of that concept.

It could also be that without these great woundings I would be less vulnerable and available, less empathic and compassionate, with the people I encounter as I live my life each day. Maybe it is precisely my reaching out, in an effort to connect, that causes me to share my own personal circumstances. A sacrifice of the heart.

Ancestral Emotions

Please bear with me (not to be confused with the mammal but in the sense of enduring any clumsiness in my delivery), if this blog seems to lack cohesiveness. Many times my day seems to develop a pattern and it informs my thoughts and my emotions as diverse elements seem to play off one another. So that happened today and it started as soon as I sat down at my computer. I will do my best to make sense of the notes I jotted down for you, my reader.

I spent most of the decades of my life with no knowledge of my familial roots due to both of my parents having been adopted before the age of one under sealed (closed) adoption files. They died clueless really but I had always thought after my mom had been denied her own adoption file (related to the Georgia Tann scandal in Memphis) that maybe after she was dead I would be able to get what she had not been able to obtain. All the state of Tennessee did for her was break her heart with news that the woman who gave birth to her had died some years before.

My day began with several links from a Facebook friend. She has been grappling with the admission that defines her as a NPE. In genetics, a non-paternity event (also known as misattributed paternity or not the parent expected). This happens when someone who is presumed to be an individual’s father is not in fact the biological father. Often an inexpensive DNA test at a matching site reveals that. The primary effect is a feeling of betrayal or having been lied to. Late discovery adoptees (meaning they didn’t know they were adopted until well into their maturity) experience similar feelings.

“The place where it’s interesting is what it takes to get from one stage of your life to another. The trick is finding a way . . . ” ~ Susan Rigetti in a Time article about her new novel, Cover Story. To which I add, to get there. In my own journey of genetic biological discovery, my past, present and presumably now future have come into harmony. And it feels so very good. For me, it has been entirely worth learning what I learned and brought me a surprised gratitude to understand that I could have so easily been given up for adoption by my unwed (at the time of my conception) high school student mother.

One link was a YouTube by Thich Nhat Hanh, he addresses ancestors one never knew. And he points out something quite obvious, some people in contact with parents still living don’t really know them. My parents, like many, did not share a lot about their lives. I am grateful for what they did share. He is correct that each of us is a continuation. As that, we have an opportunity to transform the negative and develop the wonderful.

One link related to a practice referred to as Emotional Genealogy. It is what we have inherited from those who came before us. It is the stories about our ancestors, and what their lives were like. It is the connection we have, with or without our awareness, to our grandparents, great grandparents, great great grandparents…going back two, three, four, five and sometimes more generations. It is the emotional traits that were handed down within our family lineage: the optimism, grit, rage, pain, inaccessibility, kindness, cruelty, avoidance, violence, tenderness, fear. It was noted that what is not transformed, is transmitted down the family line.

We owe our existence to those who came before us. Simply put, if they hadn’t lived, we would have no life. And simply put, the realization I arrived at was that if my grandmothers (because in each case it was the mother, the father did not have an actual say in the circumstances – whether my grandparents were married or not – there was one case of each) had not given up my parents to a different set of parents to raise them, I would not exist. That is a fact I can not get away from. I value the price that each of them had to pay. It is considerable, as I have learned from others that are part of the adoption triad of adoptee, birth parents and adoptive parents.

In my own roots journey, my family found over time that they didn’t come from the town or country that we (and at least I) had thought they originated from. For example, my mom was adopted in Memphis TN but was born in Richmond VA. My dad was not Hispanic and left on the doorstep of the Salvation Army. Yet because he had been adopted in El Paso TX I thought that. The crazy thing is that I also knew he had been born in San Diego CA. Go figure. When we lack complete information we fill in the blank places as best we can. And while I struggle with acknowledging double the usual set of maternal and paternal grandparents, I do know that because my adoptive grandparents cared, they deserve to be remembered.

Some people find out after twenty or thirty years that what they felt and suspected was true. Always know that intuitive knowledge IS knowledge, and it is a resource to be treasured.

My image at the top of this blog may still seem out of place but it is not to me. Robin Easton writes – “your exquisitely beautiful sensitivity. I see this refreshing trait expressed through you in so many ways: in your wisdom, your creativity, in the ways that you face life’s challenges, and in the ways that you help me walk through this life. Thank you, for such a sacred and intelligent gift.”

Whatever you know about your family can help you develop emotional intelligence. Make the effort.

Links shared with me this morning –

How to love and understand your ancestors when you don’t know them?
~ Thich Nhat Hanh
https://youtu.be/pdodGeRNjt0

What Is Your Emotional Genealogy?
~ Judith Fein in Psychology Today

How Your Ancestors Can Help You Become a Better Person
~ Crucial Dimensions
https://youtu.be/-Syo-QorTJQ

Erasing The Mother’s Name

I was reading an article this morning in Time Magazine (the March 14/March 21 2022 issue) by Aubrey Hirsch titled “Why my children have their mom’s last name.” She describes all of the complications this has raised in their family’s lives. When I conceived my oldest son, my husband strongly wanted my name added to our son’s names and so both of my son’s have my maiden name as their middle names (which in this patrilineal society causes us not the confusion this woman and her husband’s choice has caused). What is a bit strange in our case is that both of my parent’s were adopted and so my maiden name links us not at all in genealogical terms to my family. Even trying to concoct an honest family tree at Ancestry is going to be a challenge (one that I only started but still need to complete).

My dad was given his mother’s maiden name as a surname because she was unwed at the time she gave birth and even though she knew full well who his father was (as I have since discovered in my own adoption story journey and am grateful for the breadcrumbs to my paternal grandfather’s identity that she left me) she did not name him on my dad’s original birth certificate and of course, because he was adopted, his birth certificate has the names of his adoptive parents. And because his adoptive mother later divorced the first adoptive father and remarried, my dad was adopted twice and his birth certificate as well as his first name was changed twice. It was all very patrilineal because his “new” (one could say he spent his entire life as many adoptees do living under an assumed identity) first name was the name of the adoptive father each time as well as the surname for each of these adoptive fathers. I can imagine what this might have felt like to his 8 year old self when the second one occurred.

The woman who wrote that personal essay for Time magazine laments how she has been pushing back against her children having her last name and not the father’s since they were born. Is it true that babies must take their father’s last name ? Well only if the mother identifies who the father was, I suppose, in most circumstances. Studies have shown that 95% of the time, heterosexual married couples give the baby the father’s name.

Ms Hirsch makes a good argument for her choice, she says – women do the hard work of pregnancy and childbirth. They also do the vast majority of the actual parenting (generally about twice as much). And she also points to the circumstances caused by the coronavirus pandemic 80% of US adults who were not working were women who were caring for children not in formal school or day care.

I agree also that our society simply does not support mothers and their children enough. Note that any attempt to pass more social supports for working parents, like paid family and medical leave, subsidized day care, and universal preschool, have stalled. It is mothers who will be shouldering the bulk of these burdens, forced to give up their jobs along with their names. And it is the male dominated society we live in that is mostly to blame. In general, women are not valued as highly as men, only make about 75% as much in the same jobs in most cases.

The issue of names shown on birth certificates is one that most adoptees are very sensitive to for understandable reasons. Even so, this woman bucked the tradition. She is proud of her family heritage and it is true that marriage erases the family connection for women 95% of the time (though some women today do keep their maiden names in marriage or hyphenate them). For this woman, her family name will be part of her genealogy and not erased as most women’s connections to the family of their birth are.

Not The Same

Someone was asking adoptees if it’s OK to identify as “half adopted.” They were raised by their biological mom but their biological dad was absent. Then they were later legally adopted by mom’s next husband.

She goes on to note – The amount of tone deaf, “Of course, you were adopted” by non-adopted people and one adopted person was really irritating. They have their own loss and trauma, but they had their mother and only learned their father’s name when they were already in their teens.

The responses in my all things adoption group were interesting and somewhat surprising. The points chosen seem valid. I think what might be different is the degree of trauma that accompanies an infant or young child being separated from their mother.

If you were legally adopted, you’re an adoptee. I was adopted twice (blogger’s note – so was my adoptee dad) and not raised by birth parents, but it feels weird to tell someone who was legally adopted that they can’t call themselves adopted.

The person who was adopted gets to identity however they want to, in my opinion. Your identity is valid.

They were adopted, so they could decide – adoptee, half adoptee or not as an adoptee. It is their choice.

Half of their stuff was still changed. They are still not involved with the family of half of them.

Step-parent adoption or kinship adoption –  I do see them as different than a stranger adopting an infant. (Same as the point I made above – less trauma effects in these situations.) Another one added – I’m a kinship adoptee (adopted by maternal grandma) and I identify as a kinship adoptee.

Yet another response – Step parent adoptions are in no way equal to full adoptees. In most cases, step parent adoptees got to stay with their biological mother – therefore not experiencing the “primal wound’ trauma that connects so many adoptees or the trauma of being completely separated from your biological family.

Sure they are “technically” adopted – but not at all in the same way.

The issue arises when they try to say they’ve experienced the trauma discussed by full adoptees or try to say they are privileged voices in spaces where they really are not because they don’t have that shared life experience. Some of these “half” adoptees have even misrepresented themselves in order to dupe hopeful adoptive parents and profit financially as “consultants” or the like.

It really bugs me when those who were adopted by a step parent try to say they are “adoptees” in the same way that I am. Because they just aren’t. Full stop. I’m pretty surprised by the other responses here so far actually.

And a last valid point – Part of me wants to know to what purpose, to what end? A lot of people are just trying to find their identity, to explain some of their trauma responses, to understand how to describe their situation to other people.

But if the purpose is that they want to come into adoptee spaces and converse about adoption as a privileged voice to elevate their own opinions–which has happened before in the adoptee community on TikTok–they most likely will be schooled on that before too long.

I see it as a facet of adoption just like any other. There is a LOT of intersectionality here. People can be adoptees but not infant adoptees, or transracial adoptees, or late-discovery adoptees, all of which come with unique sets of issues. No two experiences will be identical. I recognize I cannot speak for transracial adoptees, for example, and so, I know not to minimize their experiences by pretending mine is just like theirs. I don’t have x, y, or z issues.

My Adoption Files Interview

Adoptee Parents

Though the podcast has been live since Feb 6th, I was only able to finish listening to my interview yesterday. I had gotten through the first 41 mins previously. Life is busy and it is long and so I do forgive anyone who doesn’t want to listen to me talk about my experience of being the child of two adoptees for an hour and a half approx. Though my satellite quality of transmission is inconsistent, it seemed to me that somehow the audio zoom file was able not to lose words but after a disruption continued where it would have been anyway. I am happy to say I was not embarrassed when I listened to it. Though most listeners would not notice my only big blub – giving the wrong part of my dad’s birth name as it relates to his father’s actual name – I can accept that as mistakes go, it wasn’t significant to the quality of listening to my interview by Ande Stanley of The Adoption Files.

For those who don’t want to listen to such a long interview, I’ll try to hit on the key or more significant points.

Though both of my parents were mid-1930s adoptees, their individual responses to having been adopted could not have been different. My mom always felt like her adoption had been, in her effort to be polite, inappropriate. She knew a bit about Georgia Tann and from what she knew and from a weird quirk in what she did NOT know (having been born in Virginia but having been adopted still technically an infant in the first year of her life from Memphis TN, how did she get there ?) she had crafted a story to explain what she was never going to be allowed to know.

I say that because she did try to get her adoption file in the early 1990s from the state of Tennessee who rejected both her initial and subsequent appeal because they could not determine the status of alive or dead for her father (who had actually been dead for 30 years by that time). Basically for $180 dollars she had the privilege of being told the mother she sincerely wish to reassure as to her outcome as an adopted child had been dead for several years. It broke her heart.

No one ever informed her that just a few years later, by the end of the 1990s, she would have been given her adoption file as Tennessee changed the law of closed and sealed adoption records for the victims of Georgia Tann (who bought and sold babies for 30 years). That is why for less money ($150) I received over 100 pages of her adoption file (which thankfully was intact though minimally inaccurate – deliberately) plus 4 black and white negatives of photos taken the last time my maternal grandmother held her baby.

Had my mom been given her adoption file, it would have cleared up misunderstandings caused by a lack of information and given her a lot of peace. She would have seen how hard her original mother fought to keep her and the obstacles against her. She would have seen how over the moon her adoptive mother was to have received her (though in life they had a difficult relationship). Though not stolen, her mother had been exploited. More importantly, my mom could have reconnected with her genetic, biological family and learned a lot of first hand impressions and lived experience regarding both of her parents.

Closed, sealed adoption records continue to be an issue that turns adoptees into second class citizens in these United States. I encountered this in Virginia, Arizona and California. I believe the main impediment is money – who has it and who stands to gain from keeping adoptees from their own valuable personal information. These parties are the adoptive parents, the adoption agencies and the legal system including adoption attorneys. They are the ones with the money to hire lobbyists to impress upon legislators the need to keep secret adoptees records. It is a big money business.

My dad was never interested in knowing his origins. I tend to believe he was afraid of what he would find out as he didn’t much like my mom searching and warned her against opening a can of worms. For $100, the Salvation Army gave me one paragraph of information, which even so gave me something important – my dad’s full name at birth and that the Salvation Army had hired and transferred my paternal grandmother from Ocean Beach CA (near San Diego) to El Paso TX with my dad in tow. I do believe they coerced her into giving him up. They had legal custody at the time he was adopted. Also, my dad was adopted twice due to his adoptive mother’s divorce and remarriage. Therefore, he experienced a name change at the age of 8 (he also was originally adopted as a infant less than one year of age).

The aspect of my story that seemed to interest Ande the most was how being the child of adoptees had affected me personally. Adoption does not only affect the adoptee but their children as well and even more so when both of the parents are adoptees. There was only a black hole of familial and medical history information beyond my two parents. Just as my mom had made up a story of being stolen from the hospital in which she was born and transported to Memphis, I had made up a story that my dad was left in a basket on the doorstep of the Salvation Army in El Paso TX by an unwed Mexican national mother because her child was mixed race with a white American father.

I readily admit that I got lucky in my own attempt to learn the truth of my parents’ adoptions. Nothing we believed due to our lack of true information has proven to be true but the truth is definitely preferable. Not all efforts at learning an adoptee’s origins are as productive or end as happily as mine with acceptance by my genetic biological relations. Persistence and determination are important. And getting one’s DNA tested can make all the difference. I had mine tested at both Ancestry and 23 and Me. Also noted in the interview however, without actual names, just finding DNA matches does not yield very much useful information as my own story shows.

In case you missed the link at the beginning of this blog (and there is so much more there than I can reasonably write for today) here it is – https://anchor.fm/ande-stanley/episodes/Interview-with-Deborah-Hart-Yemm-e1djv8e.

The What If Of It All

Michele Dawson Haber

Today, I was first attracted to a blog by this woman, Michele Dawson Haber, in which she shares imaging her father talking to her while making coffee. “What’s this? Why so many steps? Do you know the coffee we drank in the old days was just botz (mud) at the bottom of our cups? A life like yours, with such complicated coffee—Michal*, it makes me happy that you’re not struggling as I did.” *Michal (מיכל) is her Hebrew name.

I come from a long line of coffee drinkers. The pot was always prepared for the timer to begin the brewing before any inhabitants of the house woke and wanted a cup. After my mom died, I spent several quiet treasured morning drinking coffee with my dad out on their deck as we watched the dawn turn into sunrise. When I returned to my parents’ house following my dad’s death, as I walked through their kitchen, I heard him clearly say in my mind, “You miss your old dad, don’t you ?” Exactly as he would have said it in life. I admitted that I did miss him already. With my mom’s passing, . . . oh, I heard her a lot say “You’re doing really well.” many times while sitting on the toilet in the bathroom where she died in her jacuzzi tub. So much that I finally had to let her know – “enough, I don’t need to hear this any more” – and it stopped.

Yet, what really touched my heart was Michele’s piece in May 2021 in Salon about her mother’s letters – “It’s my mom’s fault I stole her letters.” I found letters like that among my parents things as I cleared out their residence after their deaths only 4 months apart. I wish I had read Michele’s piece before getting rid of my parents’ love letters to each other that my mom treasured enough to keep for over 50 years. Just before I began that work, I had read a piece by a woman who’s mother had destroyed her love letters from her father. The mother had said these were private between your father and I – and for that reason only, I let the letters go after having coincidentally read only one but a very relevant one – as though my mom reached out from beyond the grave to make certain I at least saw that one.

Michele writes in her personal essay for Salon – “I felt guilt wash over me. The debates with my two sisters over whether it was ethical to steal her letters replayed in my mind. In the end, we decided that the information in those letters belonged not only to our mother, but also to me and my older sister.” But I had not and so chose a different course based upon someone else’s story. Michele goes on to say, “the question of privacy continued to gnaw at me. I knew that if I had asked my mother 20 or even 10 years ago for permission to read the letters she would have said, ‘Are you kidding? No way. What’s in those letters is none of your business.’ And so I did what I always do when faced with a conundrum: I researched. In her book The Secret Life of Families (subtitled How Secrets Shape Our Relationships and When and How to Tell the Truth), Dr. Evan Imber-Black distinguished secrecy from privacy. A secret, she wrote, is information withheld that “impacts another’s life choices, decision-making capacity and well-being.” Conversely, if a piece of information is truly private, then knowing it has no impact on another’s physical or emotional health. 

Michele goes on to share, “In my fantasy argument with my mother, I would say that her secrecy about my biological father did impact my well-being, that depriving me of my genetic heritage handicapped my ability to shape a strong identity.” I agree with her reasoning on this one.

I had read one note (not even a letter) from my mom to a friend, stressing about how my father might react to learning she was pregnant. She had conceived me out of wedlock as a 16 yr old Junior in high school. My dad had just started at the U of NM at Las Cruces and it appears they wrote each other almost every day, though mostly these were the letters she received from my dad, except the note I read. I remember when I figured out that I had been conceived out of wedlock and how in my heart (though only for a few months) I turned against my mom because of that. I didn’t want her to touch me, such as take my hand. Hopefully, she thought only that I was asserting some independence because I was growing up. It was just all those “nice girls don’t do that” lectures she had given me. As a grown woman now, I know that she didn’t want me to make the same mistake. I hastened to get married with a month yet to graduating from high school even though I was not pregnant. My parents supported me and we had the fully formal church wedding and reception in my parents’ back yard. I suspect my parents were afraid I might turn up pregnant like my mom did and so did not discourage me from a marriage that lasted long enough to conceive a child 4 months after I married and then ended in divorce when she was only 3 years old.

Finding that letter further softened my feelings about my conception because I could clearly feel my mom’s emotions and concerns before my dad knew he would become a father. Anyway, this long story shorter. I didn’t keep the letters but sent them to the local landfill along with other items my mom had kept from their many journeys – souvenir booklets and the like. Reading Michele’s story makes me regret that all over again, and I have felt that regret before.

After my dad died, I learned from my cousin, who’s father was my mom’s adoptive brother, that it was possible to get the adoption file that the state of Tennessee had denied my mom in the early 1990s. It is a pity they didn’t let her have that because it would have brought her so much peace. My own journey to rediscover my original grandparents (both of my parents were adopted) only took me about year after my dad’s death; and then, I knew who ALL 4 of them were and something about my ancestors. What I didn’t expect was gaining cousins and an aunt. Even though I am very happy to now have family that I am biologically and genetically related to – I will also admit how difficult it is to create relationships with people who have decades of history lived that I was not any part of. Thankfully, they have all been kind in acknowledging me (and sometimes the DNA makes it difficult for them not to).

Do read the links above to Michele’s stories. I’ve made this blog long enough that I am not going to include any more excerpts beyond the coffee bit and some of her thoughts about personal letters.

The Tragic Story of Lizzie Lou and Frances Irene

My grandmother with her second husband

I’m realizing a day late that yesterday would have been my maternal grandmother’s birthday. Her father died on Christmas Day in 1953, one year before I was born to his first grandchild, who he never even knew. I can imagine Christmas was not the usual kind of holiday for my Stark family but then I don’t really know. My mom was adopted away from them when she was 7 months old.

Relinquishing a child has lifelong consequences for women and for adoptees. Between 13–20% of birth mothers do not go on to have other children. For those in an era of birth control, a few may consciously feel that to have another child would be to betray the first child which they lost to adoption. For many, and especially in my grandmother’s generation, there was either no known reason for infertility or something about their life circumstances precluded having more children.

After receiving the adoption file from the state of Tennessee that they had previously denied my mother, only breaking her heart and motivation to search by informing her that her birth mother had died several years before, it took me forever to make real contact with one of my grandmother’s remaining family members – this one is a niece. She would actually be my mom’s cousin, that same generation of descendants. She is the warmest person and gave to me the gift my heart was yearning for, some intimate, personal memories of my grandmother along with this picture of her with her second husband.

In some belated post-Christmas communication with her today, I felt compelled to correct the seeming misperception that my mom was the child of the couple in this blog. Here was my reply –

My grandmother never had another child. My mom was her only child (and this is not uncommon among women who lose their first child in such a tragic manner). Her father appeared to have abandoned them, at least to my grandmother’s perception of events, though a super flood on the Mississippi River in early 1937 must have been a factor. My cousin that shares him as a grandfather with me, believes he cared deeply about family. So why did he not come to Memphis to rescue the two of them ? There is no one alive now that can answer that question for me and so, there it sits forever unanswered. Of course, once Georgia Tann knew about the precarious situation my mom and grandmother were in, she swooped in to acquire yet another human being to sell. Awful but a definite truth of it all. I am happy that my grandmother found happiness with her second husband after the divorce between her and my maternal grandfather occurred (and it didn’t happen until 3 years after they first married and my mom was already permanently beyond the reach of her original family). 

She later corrected that “seeming” misperception, of course, she knew my mom was not this man’s child.

It is a tragic story. Why my grandfather left her after only 4 months of marriage, causing her to be sent away to Virginia to have my mom, there is no one left alive to tell me. Why my grandfather didn’t respond to the letter from the Juvenile Court at Memphis when my grandmother came back with her baby, there is no one left alive to tell me. My grandmother was so desperate to find a way to stop my mom’s adoption that she called Georgia Tann’s office 4 days after being pressured into signing the surrender papers, under a threat of having Tann’s good friend, Juvenile Court Judge Camille Kelley, declare my grandmother an unfit mother (which she absolutely was not !!). Then, she took a train to New Orleans to prove to Miss Tann that she did have friends there who would take the two of them in resolving at least the issue of stability, even if only temporarily. Everything she tried to do, including taking my mom to Porter Leath orphanage for temporary care – FAILED tragically.

I have all of my original grandparent’s birthdates on my yearly calendar now. I wasn’t able to know them in life but I don’t forget them in death. Maybe someday in the nonphysical realm to which my grandparents (and adoptee parents) have all gone, I will meet them once again and receive the answers my heart cannot acquire in life.