Seeking To Clarify The Story

Recently a friend alerted me to a writing contest, called the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize that is hosted by The Missouri Review (my home state), that will pay $5,000 to winners in the Fiction, Nonfiction and Poetry categories along with a few other perks. At first, I really wasn’t going to add the distraction as I’m in the process of editing my two manuscripts. One is yet another revision of my adoption roots story. However, yesterday, I did a 180 on this. I need to condense down my almost 90,000 word manuscript to 8,500 words. The deadline is Oct 1st and so this is just a temporary distraction that may yet pay dividends for my effort to tell the story.

I realized that at this point in my process (I am almost done with my first read through to correct from a first person present narrative to a third person omniscient perspective and won’t say I’ve caught all of the outliers !!) that tightening up the story to the basic facts might be a good process. Certainly, $5,000 would be welcome and winning this year’s contest would open the door to getting the revised manuscript published. So, yesterday I began the effort in earnest.

I’ve told this story so many times, in so many ways. When sharing it vocally one-on-one with other people, there seems to be some interest. Unlike back in the early 1990s, when my mom was seeking to connect with the woman who gave birth to her (and was devastated to learn that she had died some years earlier) or at least receive her full adoption file from the state of Tennessee, I am seeing today, whereas in my mom’s push few adoptees made the effort, today attempts to create reunions are now common for adoptees and donor conceived persons.

Beyond that, many people are not well versed in their family genealogy and much of my own successful effort was not only connecting with living relatives from each branch of my family (both of my parents were adopted) but learning the stories of my ancestors – some of which stretched back prior to the American Revolution. I found connections to the Civil War that thankfully are balanced in my own personal history by northern Yankees and Danish immigrants in my other family line.

So, I am accepting this pause and this effort for the purpose of getting to the heart of the story of my own journey to know from whom and from where my own origins began.

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.

Choosing One’s Ancestors

Because I didn’t have any genetic ancestors most of my lifetime, knowing who they were and where they came from filled a void in me that my two adoptee parents were never given the opportunity to receive.  They both died knowing next to nothing and within a year of my dad dying (four months after my mom died), I knew who all 4 of them were – including my dad’s unnamed father (his mother was unwed and he was given her surname at birth).

Because thoughts about race and identity are currently prominent in the United States and because of the horrendous injustice that has occurred here all too often (so that even in other countries, the protests have also grown in awareness of the issue), I was drawn to a conversation that took place between James Baldwin and Margaret Mead in 1970 as shared by Brain Pickings.

During the week I spent in Jean Houston’s home in Oregon, she spoke frequently about her dear friend and mentor, Margaret Mead.  She even has a larger than life portrait in her front door drawing room that she suggest’s Margaret insisted be painted and delivered to her after Mead’s death.  Houston writes about the influence of Mead frequently in her book A Mythic Life.

In this conversation between Baldwin and Mead, Margaret says – “I think we have to get rid of people being proud of their ancestors, because after all they didn’t do a thing about it. What right have I to be proud of my grandfather? I can be proud of my child if I didn’t ruin her, but nobody has any right to be proud of his ancestors.”

She goes on to add – “The one thing you really ought to be allowed to do is to choose your ancestors.  We have a term for this in anthropology: mythical ancestors… They are spiritual and mental ancestors, they’re not biological ancestors, but they are terribly important.”

Mead notes that there are very few black people in America who don’t have some white ancestors, with which Baldwin agrees, and they go on to explore why the “melting pot” metaphor is deeply problematic in honoring the actual architecture of identity.

Before I knew who my parents biological/genetic parents were, I made up my racial identity.  Since my mom was born in Virginia, I thought she ended up being given up for adoption because she was half-black.  I find it interesting now as I steep myself in issues of racial identity, that I believed my dad was half-Mexican because of his coloration and how well he related to the people in that country when he crossed the border at Juarez/El Paso.

Neither of these was actually the truth.  Turns out my mom does have a bit of Mali in her DNA and that on her mother’s Scottish side there were slave owners, a fact that I am not proud of.  Yet, until I knew better, I would say I was an Albino African (and said it quite proudly as I tried to recover a sense of identity that adoption had robbed me of).

My dad’s father was a Danish immigrant and quite dark complected.  I don’t know enough about the Danish people to know why that was their skin color or why their eyes were brown.  Maybe someday, I will explore that aspect of my own racial identity.

I found this story which Baldwin conveyed in that discussion quite illuminating –

“I remember once a few years ago, in the British Museum a black Jamaican was washing the floors or something and asked me where I was from, and I said I was born in New York. He said, “Yes, but where are you from?” I did not know what he meant. “Where did you come from before that?” he explained. I said, “My mother was born in Maryland.” “Where was your father born?” he asked. “My father was born in New Orleans.” He said, “Yes, but where are you from?” Then I began to get it; very dimly, because now I was lost. And he said, “Where are you from in Africa?” I said, “Well, I don’t know,” and he was furious with me. He said, and walked away, “You mean you did not care enough to find out?”

“Now, how in the world am I going to explain to him that there is virtually no way for me to have found out where I came from in Africa? So it is a kind of tug of war. The black American is looked down on by other dark people as being an object abjectly used. They envy him on the one hand, but on the other hand they also would like to look down on him as having struck a despicable bargain.”

So it is for adoptees who’s rights are second-class, some basic rights of knowing where they came from often denied them.  Over decades worth of time, they have been robbed of that sense of identity that so many people take for granted.  However, as a woman who’s skin is white, I am grateful that racial identity was not emphasized in my childhood home and that as a white person growing up on the Mexican border, I was definitely part of a minority race.  I will admit that I didn’t suffer the slings and arrows that the black race has in this country but I could not fully embrace any idea that I was somehow superior because of the color of my skin.  I consider that one of the few blessings of being ignorant for most of my life about my racial identity.

What Makes It Matter ?

My husband said to me yesterday that even though he did years of research and knows a lot about his lineage, his ancestors don’t really matter all that much to him.  I would hasten to add he only ever cared about the paternal line that carries the surname.  I find it interesting that I focus on my maternal line.  Maybe it is a gender difference.  I don’t really know.

However, this is how I answered him.  You always knew you could know if you wanted to.  Nothing was kept un-accessible to you.  With adoption, we know that we don’t know.  There is a void we can’t get beyond.  I think it is the knowledge that we should be able to know that hurts us.  I told him that most people have the right to know their origins but adoptees are treated like 2nd class citizens with rights removed from them.  I continue to believe this is very wrong.

A friend recently made a starting discovery that her assumed father was not her real father and yesterday she had an interesting discussion on her page.  She shared – “When I was two weeks old I came out of the body and saw the man I was told was my father – and I didn’t like him! I saw the back of his head and I asked, ‘who is this man?’ That was right after I asked, ‘how am I thinking with an adult consciousness at two weeks old?’ ….and for all my life I kept bringing up the fact that it is strange you have to ‘learn’ who your father is.”

The discussion entered a decidedly metaphysical perspective that I do not disagree with.  She went on to admit – “This long-term frustration sometimes eats at you. You HAVE to find the right place for all that has taken place. By working with the truth you put yourself at least back in line with truth. And even though you missed out on what YOU might have chosen, you feel back in line with it.”

A commentor on that thread said, “We sell babies (our most valuable and precious treasures) away to complete strangers! And people cheer for this and view it as a proper solution. Imagine the trauma of that infant (yes, with an “adult consciousness”) trying to work out the confusion of the lost mother? The lost voice and heartbeat and body rhythm and smell that he or she knew as THEIR OWN?  And of course we know our fathers as intimately too! What a missing to be deprived of that!”

This is the inconvenient truth – adoption is SELLING babies.

She added, “Our family bonds are strong, eternal and unbreakable. We are linked in a timeless and beautiful way. I desire a society that KNOWS this. Honors this. Teaches this. Pregnancy and birth is not to be feared or hated. At the moment we live in an opposite world that is deeply out of alignment. It breaks my heart.”

There was more in that discussion, such thoughts as –

I come back to bloodline. It goes further back than your “father” or your “mother,” there are ancestors probably checking on you. You belong to a line of people – so I believe.  There are things in the blood. You do have a different intelligence and inclinations according to what family you are born from.  It is plain to me that your heritage is what you are and a deep and significant part of who you are.  Knowing what is natural to you, what is making you you, what you can draw on, what is TRUE to your origins does matter.

Serious irreparable psychological damage could be done to a child / adult if they don’t know for certain who their biological father or mother is. What’s the first thing adopted kids do when they discover they’ve been adopted. They try to hunt down their biological parentage. It’s like a instinctual drive.  People seek out their biological parents to iron out and get the real story, make a picture that is TRUE, creating images where there is a blank. and I think there can be hopes to heal.

What most stands out to me is how little EVERYONE cares about the child itself. The child’s reality and truth. People seem to think they can draw whatever they want on the child and do what they wish and that child will simply accept it.  Babies and young children are NOT a blank slate.

It’s About Identity

My first awareness of the impacts of adoption on my parents was the Georgia Tann, Tennessee Children’s Home Society scandal.  There are a huge number of adoptees that have been impacted by what happened in Memphis.

So, the only “anger” I was aware of was related to criminal behavior in adoption practices.  I thought that was what the anger was about.

As I have revealed my origins, my original four grandparents (both of my parents were adopted), I have also become involved in more generalized adoptee groups.  I have begun to learn what the issues are and also about how those issues affect not only the adopted child, but the original parents as well as the people who adopt and raise these children.

It has finally coalesced for my own self to be about identity.  It was a lack of identity beyond my two parents that troubled me in my middle school years.  It is interesting that the issue of not knowing where one originated troubles adoptees almost universally, while many people who have no adoption impact in their own families seem to not even care about who their ancestors were.

I think it is because the adoptee KNOWS that they don’t know.  While any other person not affected by adoption “knows” that if they ever became interested, someone in their family line could clue them in.

There are some descendants who I am grateful have embraced me and my need to know.  Others seem dismissive or reluctant to welcome in “the stranger”.  I simply have to accept that I have been given some gifts of identity that some adoptees are still struggling to obtain.

Sealed adoption records which began as early as the late 1920s have done a lot of harm to an adoptee’s ability to know where they come from.  Unbelievably about half of these United States still refuse to open the records to adult adoptees.  This is simply wrong.  No other citizen of this country is denied knowledge of their origins.

It’s Better To Know

Searching for where an adoptee came from requires a special kind of courage.  It might be opening up a “can of worms” has my dad always believed.  There could be disappointment.  The relatives one finds are real people with real flaws and also a kind of beauty because they are a connection.  It is better to know who you are rather than live in a mystery.

For an adoptee, the connection to one’s ancestors has been broken. That matters.  When adoption is in one’s family history, those impacted only want answers and the truth. There isn’t a desire to disrupt anyone’s life. If relatives want to meet – wonderful – those I have met have been very helpful in filling in the understandable gaps in my ancestry.  Sharing the stories we weren’t there for can help us to heal.

Loss of the most sacred bond in life, that of a mother and child, is one of the most severe traumas and this loss will require long-term, if not lifelong, therapy.  If not therapy, then answers and a knowledge of something that is real and not falsified.

Finding one’s roots does not deny the love and value that one gives to the people who were there in life thanks to adoption.  The aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents in my own life are treasured and held precious even if there is no true genetic bond with these.

A life can be symbolized by a circle – birth, maturity, old age and death – completion, rebirth or heaven.  Coming to know my roots has also been a kind of completion, a bringing the arc of my life full circle.

Ancestors – I Didn’t Have Any

I once wrote an essay with that title.  That was before I discovered my ancestors.  I lived for over 60 years not knowing because both of my parents were adopted.

It may be that you don’t know who your ancestors were because you simply aren’t interested in it.  That’s fine.  You are NOT prevented from finding out about them if you want to.  An adoptee often is.  My parents were.

I envied the long line of ancestors that we had found when we studied my husband’s genealogy.

Turns out, I had an ancestor who’s home in New London Connecticut is on the National Register and is a museum.  His diary which is still in print, written between September 1711 and November 1758, is considered one of the best glimpses into Colonial life.  His name was Joshua Hempstead and my paternal grandmother descended from him.

On my maternal grandmother’s side were the Scotch ancestors that were honored with the surname Stark, which means strong, for having saved King James from a raging bull.  They came to the United States by way of Virginia early enough to fight in the Revolutionary War.

I didn’t know that my dad’s father was a new immigrant to this country from Denmark. That he loved the sea, fishing and boats, just like my dad did.  My dad died without ever knowing he came by that preference naturally.

I love history. My husband and I started our marriage sharing a love of history. I grew up not knowing these true tales of my ancestors.  Sadly, my parents died knowing nothing about them either. At least, I have that knowledge now and have shared it with my immediate family.

The old black and white, sometimes blurry, photos that have come my way are my people and knowing my true family tree is like a shiny new treasure.  Every glimpse into some new detail is an exciting thrill.  Even when I don’t know much more than a name, it is valuable to me simply because it really is mine.

Adoption does not negate nor does it create genetic relatedness.  Adoption does not make the family of origins cease to exist.  Adopted individuals ALL came from real, actual people, who came from real, actual ancestors, ad infinitum.  I didn’t have that continuum that so many people not touched by adoption do not realize even matters.

No human being deserves to have their family history annihilated simply because people outside that family cared for and raised them.