Becoming An Ancestor

Wedding Photo – Raphael Vandervort Hempstead and Mary Elizabeth Gildersleeve on April 30 1906

I’m a family historian and a family storyteller. I believe I finally did arrive at my personal destiny – that of discovering and then sharing the true origins and cultures my family was created from. It is a feeling of wholeness that I never expected to have. It is also fascinating, I suppose, simply because it is our real identity constructs. Both of my parents were adopted – with falsified birth certificates giving them identities they were not born with.

A quiet revolution is taking place for adoptees today. More and more are finding their genetic biological families, just as I did. Only a few years ago, this would not be possible but the advent of inexpensive DNA testing and matching sites like Ancestry and 23 and Me as well as social media have made what once seemed like only a dream – possible.

My parents and my in-laws are now ancestors, meaning they have died and no longer walk this earth as physical presences. My husband and I both approach our 70s. We are way to becoming an ancestor. Just yesterday, my husband went into a hours long dialog about all the choices he has made in life to arrive at this place in time with our oldest son. Too often, after our parents have died, we wish we would have asked more questions. Asking questions is not always all that easy when they are alive however and we don’t always know what to ask.

I freely share so much about my life. Someone may want to know about me. Their life might be changed by knowing that I existed. They might be empowered by knowing that they once had the same dreams I do. We’re all future dead people, and 100 years from now, someone like me will come looking for you.

Certainly, this is what adoptees are doing today. This is what I have done regarding my true family of origin. My family origins journey began in cemeteries. The cemetery in Pine Bluff Arkansas to be precise. I sat by my maternal grandfather’s grave and talked to him. Then I discovered that my mom’s half-sister had only died a few months before. Darn, I missed that opportunity to know her. But I was able to get to know her daughter thanks to something her best friend posted about my cousin’s mother on Ancestry. During one wonderful afternoon, she shared with me photos and stories from the many photo albums her mom left her. We were both sad that our mothers never got the chance to meet. Certainly, her mother always hoped my mom would show up. The state of Tennessee was not helpful, when my mom inquired. Today, it has all changed for adoptees like my mom and dad.

The photo at the top is my dad’s grandparents, sent to me by a cousin (with whom I share my paternal grandmother) who lives in Mexico, thanks to Facebook messenger.

Without My Brother

When I first saw this image, I thought of my Aunt Daisy. I don’t think she knew about my dad until after her mother had died. Her older sister did. My cousin, who is the daughter of that older sister is how I came by pictures of my grandmother holding my dad and one of him when he was a toddler.

When my Aunt Daisy’s daughter discovered me thanks to 23 and Me, her first question was – is your dad still alive ? Sadly I had to tell her no. In fact my Aunt Daisy was living only 90 miles away from my dad in the very same state at the time he died. Such a pity. I see him in her photos.

I am told my paternal grandmother never really got over “losing” my dad to adoption. It certainly wasn’t her intention to give him up. His father was a married man, still un-naturalized as a citizen at the time my dad was conceived, having immigrated from Denmark. I would guess my grandmother never told him – IF she even was still in contact with him at the time. But without a doubt, she did know who his father was and it is thanks to her own effort to leave us breadcrumbs that I know who my dad’s father was. She quietly handled her pregnancy through the Salvation Army home for unwed mothers at Ocean Beach CA. It was such an appropriate birth. My dad, a Pisces, the son of a Danish fisherman, who himself was in love with fishing and the ocean. Their resemblance to one another makes it unmistakable and lately, my reconnecting with Danish relatives still living in Denmark due to our shared genes is the proof, that didn’t exist back in the day. She obtained employment with the Salvation Army and migrated with my dad in tow to El Paso Texas, where she was pressured to give him up for adoption at 8 months old.

My slightly increased risk of breast cancer probably comes from my paternal grandmother. The day she was due to be released from the hospital after surgery for breast cancer, she suffered a fatal heart attack. I have a smidgeon of Ashkenazi Jew which I suspect comes from my paternal side – if not my grandmother, then my Danish grandfather.

It still amazes me that after over 60 years totally clueless in the dark, I know so much about my family origins. Never would I have predicted that such a possibility would actually become real.

Why I Celebrate

Birthday Hat, created by my husband

My 67th birthday comes up in 2 days now. The image here is from early in my marriage, before our sons were born. We will celebrate 33 years this June.

There is so much I am grateful for but first and foremost it is that I was not given up for adoption. I could have so easily been lost to this family I grew up within. My mom was a 16 yr old high school student in El Paso TX who found herself pregnant with me and unwed. My dad had just started at the U of NM at Las Cruces that year. They are both deceased now. When I was cleaning out my parents belongings to ready their house for sale, I discovered that my mom had kept every love letter she got from my dad during that time. I also found a note where she was worried about telling him she was pregnant.

Both my mom and dad were adopted. That is why I think it is a miracle I was not given up. My mom’s adoptive parents were well to do, had made a lucky early investment in Circle K just as the stores were beginning and on top of that my adoptive grandfather was a bank vice president. My adoptive grandmother was a socialite. I believe it was actually my dad’s adoptive parents who were always poor, entrepreneurial sorts who made custom draperies for a living, that preserved me in the family and supported my dad in marrying my mom.

Because I was preserved my two sisters were born. Maybe they would have been or maybe my parents would have gone their separate ways but that is not what happened so it is a moot point. I believe I have now fulfilled my destiny in this life. Within a year of my parents deaths (they died 4 mos apart after more than 50 years of marriage), I had uncovered who my original grandparents were. I have met or made contact with an aunt and some cousins for each branch of my grandparents families. I am the only link between them because the four of them went their separate ways.

My maternal grandmother remarried but never had any other children. My maternal grandfather also remarried but didn’t have any more children with his third wife. Yes, he and my grandmother were married at the time she conceived my mom. It will always be a mystery why he left her 4 mos pregnant and why after being sent from Tennessee to Virginia to have (and probably expected to give up) my mom, he didn’t respond when she returned to Memphis and tried to reach him. Her desperation led to Georgia Tann getting her hands on my mom . . .

My paternal grandmother had a hard life growing up. My dad was conceived with the assistance of a Danish immigrant who was married to a much older woman. He probably never even knew about my dad. My grandmother simply handled it as the self-resourceful woman she was. She did remarry twice and had 3 other children. At the time my dad died, her last child (my aunt) was living only 90 miles away, totally unknown to my dad.

I celebrate that I am alive and I am happy to have now become whole in ways my parents (who died knowing next to nothing about their origins) never were. I had to wait over 60 years before that happened for me. It is true that, if my parents had not been given up for adoption, I would simply not exist at all. Even so, there is much wrong about the practice of adoption (I write about that here all the time) . . . including that the state of Tennessee denied my mother access to her own adoption file in the early 90s. No one told her when the law was changed for the victims of Georgia Tann to be given access but because of that law, I now possess all of the documents in her adoption file. In her file there were black and white pictures of my maternal grandmother holding my mom for the last time at Porter-Leath Orphanage. It was to that storied and respected institution that my grandmother, in desperation, turned for temporary care of her precious baby girl. The superintendent there betrayed my grandmother by alerting Georgia Tann to my mom’s existence.

At the Dorchester in London
thanks to a trip with my adoptive maternal grandmother

Cousins Through Adoption

My aunt called me last night to tell me that her only son, my cousin Allan, had died this last Saturday. It was a bit of a shock and not a shock because for several years she would often ask me to pray for him due to some health challenge. When I mentioned his poor health to her, she said he was actually doing better lately and she worried about him less. He was a security dog trainer and he was doing a meet and greet with a potential new client when he literally dropped dead, with his wife nearby waiting for him in their car. The ambulance arriving was what alerted her that something had happened. So, he died instantly without pain doing what he loved.

I became closer to my two aunts – both from the paternal side – after my mom died and then my dad died 4 months later. I really didn’t have much contact with them for decades until that happened. It is like they came to fill a bit of a void for me of connection to something childhood. In fact, I told my husband – cousins are a childhood thing. They connect us to when we were children. My husband remembers meeting this cousin and I remember it was when we visited my aunt at her parents home in Pennsylvania before we had children. In fact, I wasn’t seriously close to this cousin had it not been a reuniting with this aunt by telephone and hearing constant updates on him. My aunt will be 90 this coming December and my cousin and his wife had just celebrated their 27th wedding anniversary on April 2nd. I don’t even have a photo of him, though I do have a recent photo of my aunt that she sent me one Christmas not long ago.

My adoptive family relations became more complicated for me once I discovered who my original grandparents were (both of my parents were adopted and their siblings were adopted except my dad’s step-sister who is the biological genetic daughter of my dad’s second adoptive father – yes, he was adopted twice in childhood after his adoptive mother divorced – as my youngest son said not too long ago, “you have a very complicated family”, well yes) and started having reunions with my genetic cousins with whom I have no shared life history but through whom I acquired insight into my original, genetic biological grandparents. I also acquired digital copies of photographs of my genetic family members. It is difficult to build relationships with decades of not knowing you existed between the two of you. I take a patient perspective on it and allow it to be whatever it will be. My genetic biological family is important to me and made me whole but there are still these other people with whom I have life history and I have begun to reintegrate them into my life as well.

So, while I was on the phone with my aunt, I thought of my cousin Christy. She is the daughter of the other aunt (that step sister by adoption) I’ve become closer to with the death of my parents. She recently turned 80. I remember my youngest sister sharing with me that she, Christy and Allan used to get into mischief at my Granny’s house (my dad’s adoptive mother). So I told my aunt, I would call and let Christy know and my middle sister as well. My youngest sister ? I am estranged from her, due to the severity of her paranoid schizophrenia which created a wedge between us due to cruel treatment by her towards me as I tried to administer my deceased parents’ estate and create some kind of ongoing support for her now that there are no parents to provide that.

My memories of my now deceased cousin are complicated in ways I would rather not share publicly. He is part of the story of why Thanksgiving was wrecked for my family. My uncle died due to the complications of Lou Gehring’s Disease during a holiday football game on TV as my dad and uncle’s family awaited Thanksgiving dinner to be served. There was always that watching of football games as part of my family’s holiday. The dinner was interrupted and the holiday ever after a reminder of his death. My cousin was only a child when his father died. This cousin was strikingly similar in appearance to his dad and I believe my paternal adoptive grandparents came to relate to him like a replacement for the son they lost that Thanksgiving Day.

RIP Allan Hart. May your dear wife, Christine, find comfort in the closeness of her own mother. They were living on the same property with her at the time of his death. I can truly say of ALL my cousins – God made us cousins. No truer words could ever be said since none of us are genetically, biologically related.

Break The Cycle

Early on in my education regarding all things adoption (which includes foster care), I became aware of a lot of valid evidence that trauma is passed down through families. I could see how this happened in my own family.

Take my parents (both adopted) original mothers. My dad’s mother lost her own mother only 3 months after her birth and went on to endure a truly wicked step-mother. My mom’s mother lost her own mother at the age of 11. Being the oldest, she inherited younger siblings to care for, the youngest not yet one year old. Her father never remarried, which might be just as well, but I have heard now what I suspected – he was a hard man, who without his wife, didn’t know how to love. There is trauma, particularly for a daughter who loses her mother.

There are my parents who were both torn from their mothers and surrendered to adoption. My mom’s mother was exploited in her financial duress by Georgia Tann in the 1930s when social safety nets didn’t exist. After months of resisting their pressure, my dad’s mother gave in to The Salvation Army and surrendered her son to them, which eventually led to his own adoption. I’m entirely convinced that had my grandmothers had sufficient support and encouragement, they would have raised their children. It is entirely possible that had their mothers been alive, they would not have relinquished.

My parents found each other in high school. Though they both shared the backhole void of origin information as adoptees, they were not of the same perspective regarding their adoptions. My mom confided this to me because she couldn’t talk about her yearning to locate her original mother to my dad who warned her against opening a can of worms. They were good enough parents. We knew we were loved but they were strangely detached as parents. I only know this as an adult observing how other parents generally feel a long-term involvement in their children’s lives.

With me, I knew they expected me to leave as soon as I graduated from high school and so, I married and a year later had a daughter (for which I am eternally grateful). The marriage was flawed by the time I was pregnant with her and by the time she was 3 years old, I was no longer married but also unable to support us as my ex-husband refused to pay any child support (since it was my decision to leave him). Eventually, he ended up raising her. She ended up with a stay at home stepmother and for the most part, it seems to have worked out for the best – for her – but never for me. I still struggle with coming to terms with having been an absentee mother over 60 years later.

Both of my sisters gave up a child to adoption. One, considering it quite normal (and now the truth be known there was an extremely complicating factor – the father was a good friend of our dad’s), always intended to relinquish. Shocking to me was that our own mom, who struggled with having been adopted herself, pressured and guided my other sister to give up her baby for adoption – and she tried to get the support of the social safety net that existed in the late 70s, early 80s but was refused because she was sheltering with our parents while pregnant and their financial strength was used against my sister’s request for assistance. That sister also lost her first born in an ugly custody case brought by her in-laws when she divorced that child’s father.

Mostly, these children of ours are breaking the cycle and are wonderful parents. One has struggled with failed marriages but has remained solid with his own son. I hope these recent successes continue on down our family line.

Evolving Perspectives

Bernice Dittmer, 1989

The topic came up with my husband last night as he is organizing lots of family history and photos into labeled binders for our sons if they ever should become interested “someday”. How should he label my Grandmother Dittmer ? I said adding Adoptive was just too cumbersome though it was necessary in certain communities and situations.

I was so excited when after 60+ years of living I finally knew who all 4 of my original grandparents were (both of my parents were adopted, they died knowing next to nothing about their own origins). I realize I am fortunate to have achieved so much in so little time. My dad’s mom was unwed and his father would have been lost to all of us but she knew who the father was and left us breadcrumbs. DNA has done the rest.

For awhile since, when I think of grandparents, I think of these original ones. They are the blood and genetic lines I am honestly related to – but I never knew them. I know “some” about them from meeting cousins and an aunt (though most not in person) and receiving photos and stories from these relatives that I am truly more grateful for than my words can ever express.

Lately, something else has happened in my evolving perspective. I am able to re-own my adoptive grandparents. After all, they were the only grandparents who reside in my childhood memories. They had a great deal of influence on me in so many ways. Primarily, that had a lot to do with the proximity I had to them that sadly my own grandchildren now do not even have them me and much to my own sorrow that the circumstances of all of our lives as such.

My dad’s adoptive parents taught me humility. They were poor and god fearing Church of Christ people. Since learning my origins, I also realized the “miracle” that my mom was not sent away as a high school student un-wed at the time of my conception to have and give me up to adoption as well. I believe I have my dad’s adoptive parents to thank for that and primarily my Granny. I also have her to thank for waking me up to leave an unhealthy long-term romantic relationship which opened the way to meet my husband (now for over 30 years). We spent many weekends with these grandparents and attended church on Sunday many times with them. I honestly do love them both.

My mom’s adoptive mother (shown in the image above) was a wealthy, formal kind of woman. My mom called her “Mother” to her dying day and we called her “Grandmother”. She taught us the manners of the upper class and what life is like for them by taking us on fabulous trips as her companions after my adoptive grandfather dropped dead shortly after his retirement in his 60s. My adoptive grandmother lived to over 90 years. She could be very difficult and cruel in her judgements. I respected her. Love might not be the best word but she had good intentions. She grew up in Missouri in much the same circumstances as I live now. By the strength of her own will, she made her life better than the world she originated in.

So, I can acknowledge today, a subtle shift – I have two phases of grandparent. My childhood grandparents who were that for decades of my life. And my actual grandparents who are forever lost to any ability on my part to know them in person but I am somehow – who and what I am – because of them.

My Dad with my Granny & Granddaddy

The Long Song

February is officially what is known as Black History Month. Some of my black friends joke about there being a month for something that has been going on all along – that being “history.” Never-the-less, after all the consciousness raising of last summer’s protests and my own significant efforts at self-education regarding racial inequality, as this month comes to an end, a story came into my awareness that seems to fit my blog’s topics and themes.

Here is the post that brought this story to my attention – “Today I watched The Long Song on PBS. **spoiler alert** When the recently freed black slave mother’s baby is stolen by her white master and his wife, I cried. So many thoughts came over me. My brain made a correlation. So many mothers get their kid’s ripped away. Sure, it may be due to drugs, neglect, violence and/or abuse. But I believe for most of these mothers, exposure to these things all come with ‘normal’ life in their world.”

“Often times, when their kids are taken, they don’t understand why. They were never rescued. Why do their kids need rescuing ? And despite all their parenting issues, I believe they most often deeply love their children. I do believe losing them, regardless of the state they are in, cripples them further. So, whether it’s right or wrong on the kid’s behalf, they are removed. It’s always a tragedy. It’s always traumatic. And there is always sorrow and grief. And today this 3 part series made me feel my sympathy for these mothers. Losing a child has to be one of the worst and longest lasting pains known to humankind.”

That true – one of the worst and longest lasting pains known to humankind.

The following is courtesy of Masterpiece theater’s What To Know Before You Watch

Told through the eyes of July, a slave and spirited survivor, The Long Song is set in the 19th century and explores the last days of slavery in British-ruled Jamaica. The story is about injustices humans inflict on each other and the unexpected ways in which people’s humanity can overcome harsh circumstances.

Born into slavery at the Amity sugarcane plantation, July gets taken from her mother as a child simply because the owner’s sister, Caroline Mortimer, spots her out in the fields and thinks she’s cute. There are many painful scenes yet to come, but this one is particularly crushing in its simplicity. Her kidnapping, which alters the course of her life and devastates her mother, is nothing more than a casual whim from people who have no awareness of their own cruelty. 

The story unfolds with the strong-willed July working as a lady’s maid for Caroline . When Robert Goodwin, a new overseer at Amity arrives, both July and Caroline are intrigued by his revolutionary spirit and intent to improve the working conditions on the plantation. But the winds of change across the hot plantation fields end up not being without consequences.

Robert Goodwin is a white Brit who initially sweeps July off her feet with promises of fidelity and fair wages for all the recently freed slaves on the plantation. And yet, he sours the second the Black people in his employ stand up for themselves, twisting into a hard, gnarled version of the idealistic man July fell for.

Based on the award-winning novel by the late Andrea Levy, the fictional story is inspired by Levy’s family history. Levy was born in England to Jamaican parents who arrived in Britain in 1948. “I’ve always used my books as a personal journey to understand my Caribbean heritage – and with that sooner or later you have to confront slavery,” Levy said.

After the book was released, research by a family member proved just how personal The Long Song truly was. “It was all done and then my niece found out a lot about our own family history,” Levy explained. “She found out that my great grandfather was born a slave. His mother was a housekeeper on a plantation called Mesopotamia and her mother was a field slave called Minnie. We found out that my great, great-grandfather was from Gainsborough in Britain, his name was William Ridsguard and he was the attorney on the plantation, and he had a child with his house keeper…that child, Richard Ridsguard was my great grandfather.”

Regarding the 3 main characters it is said –  “Andrea Levy really created three people who can be complete contradictions – I think you will find yourself doubting, hating, loving them. They are complete human beings.” The novel which was published in 2010 was the recipient of the Walter Scott Prize. 

Family Breakdown

Painting by Mary Cassatt 1889

Some reading I was doing today in a book titled Healing the Split by John E Nelson MD caused me to reflect on my mom’s adoption from a new perspective.

He writes – “While there remains much to learn and study, schizophrenogenic mothers bring a sense of incompleteness to child raising. This is not the same as that mother rejecting her child.”

“Quite the contrary. She regards him as particularly close and significant for her. She needs her child in a distorted way as much as her child needs her.”

This causes me to reflect on my maternal grandfather. His very young mother gave birth to him AFTER her husband, his father, has died. He was her first born (even as my grandmother was her father’s first born and his wife had died but only after the 5th child was born) and remained extraordinarily close to her all her life.

As much as I have blamed my maternal grandmother’s widowed father for not supporting her and my mother, when it appeared that my maternal grandfather (whether this was entirely true or not) had abandoned her at 4 months pregnant – there remains this question in my own heart that can never be answered now. Why did he leave her and why did he not come to her defense when she returned to Tennessee from Virginia after my mom had been born and reached out to him through the Juvenile Court in Memphis.

With the same kind of destructive failure to be supportive that I blame my maternal grandmother’s family for, I do also believe that my maternal grandfather’s mother was not supportive of him. I believe she was not happy he had married my grandmother nor did she want anything to do with the child they conceived while married.

I can never know this for certain but why didn’t he take her back to Arkansas with him, when his WPA job in Memphis ended ? It could be because he was dependent upon his mother since she was caring for his children after their mother, his wife, had died – so that he could go to work in Memphis.

So, I believe the deck was stacked against both of my mom’s natural parents raising her – by her very own grandparents, their father and their mother, one on each side of the parental equation.

Dr Nelson notes in his book – “Any movement toward autonomy leads him to feel that she cannot survive without him, added to his certainty that he cannot survive without her. For him to individuate would destroy them both.” Just the thoughts percolating in my own mind this afternoon related to my own familial adoption stories.

No, I would not give you false hope
On this strange and mournful day

Oh, little darling of mine
I can’t for the life of me
Remember a sadder day
I know they say let it be
But it just don’t work out that way
And the course of a lifetime runs
Over and over again

~ lyrics in Mother and Child Reunion by Paul Simon

Generational Trauma

I became aware of generational trauma (inherited trauma) as I began to learn about the impacts of adoption on the adoptee as well as on members of their family. Both of my parents were adopted and I do believe that the trauma they were either only vaguely aware of or totally unconscious of did impact us as their children. As to spanking, I remember my mom said she stopped spanking me when she dreamed she was hitting me harder and harder and I was laughing at her. Thanking all that is good. I only spanked my daughter once, in a grocery store, she was very young and it was just a light slap on her little hiney to get her attention. At the time, I had been told that punishment must come close to the action that provokes it but I never spanked her again.

Today, I read this piece in my adoption group –

My parents beat me as a child and I am not traumatized, said the man whose ex-partner reported him for physical violence.

When I was a child they left me crying alone until I fell asleep and it was so bad I did not go out, said the man who spends long hours in social networks, affecting his sleep.

They punished me as a child and I’m fine, said the man who, every time he makes a mistake, says to himself words of contempt, as a form of self-punishment.

As a child, they put a heavy hand on me and I suffer from a trauma called ‘education’, said the woman who still does not understand why all of her partners end up being aggressive.

When I became capricious as a child, my father locked me in a room alone to learn and today I appreciate it, said the woman who has suffered anxiety attacks and can not explain why she is so afraid of being locked in small spaces .

My parents told me they were going to leave me alone or give me to a stranger when I did my tantrums and I do not have traumas, said the woman who has prayed for love and has forgiven repeated infidelities so as not to feel abandoned.

My parents controlled me with just the look and see how well I came out, said the woman who can not maintain eye contact with figures of ‘authority’ without feeling intimidated.

As a child, I got even with the iron cable and today I am a good man, even professional, said the man who his neighbors have accused him of hitting objects while drunk and yelling at his wife.

My parents forced me to study a career that would make me money, and see how well off I am, said the man who dreams of Friday every day because he is desperate in his work doing something every day that is not what he always wanted.

When I was little they forced me to sit down until all the food was finished and they even force fed me, not like those permissive parents, affirmed the woman who does not understand why she could not have a healthy relationship with food and in her adolescence came to develop an eating disorder.

My mother taught me to respect her good chancletazos (Spanish meaning strike with a sandal) to the point, said the woman who smokes 5 cigarettes a day to control her anxiety.

I thank my mom and my dad for every blow and every punishment, because, if not, who knows what would happen to me, said the man who has never been able to have a healthy relationship, and whose son constantly lies to him because he has fear.

And so we go through life, listening to people claiming to be good people without trauma, but paradoxically, in a society full of violence and wounded people. It’s time to break generational trauma cycles.

~ David Bradbury, from A little Hippie, A little Hood

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

When a woman intentionally becomes pregnant and is happy and excited when she finds out that she is, if she is informed at all, she will do everything she can to be a nurturing gestating mother. That includes abstaining from alcoholic consumption.

But what about the unhappy woman who wasn’t trying to get pregnant ? Maybe she was in an abusive relationship, whether married or not. Maybe it was a one night stand with someone she has no desire to tie herself in marriage to. What if she has long medicated her sorrows by drinking too much alcohol ? What if she actually is a full-blown alcoholic ?

And it doesn’t stretch my imaginative capabilities to consider that such a woman as I have just described might give her baby up for adoption. A baby that she maybe never actually wanted anyway. And what happens within the adoptive family as that baby, subjected to too much alcoholic influence in utero, begins to mature. Sadly, this is NOT a rare situation nor are the behavioral aspects unknown in our modern society.

If you are an adoptee and wonder if your life may have been impacted, this woman’s article may be of some usefulness to you. She is an adult adoptee who wrote a doctor for help. “Do I Have Fetal Alcohol Effects?”