Motherless Child

I was listening to an African-American group called Sweet Honey in the Rock sing acapella the old spiritual Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child and read it dates back to the days of slavery when children were often sold off away from their parents and siblings.  My heart ached listening.

These lyrics caught my attention –

I’m a motherless child,
I can hear my mother calling me,
I can hear my mother’s voice calling me home.
Across the waters, come on home across the waters.

Of course, my thoughts immediately went to adoption and I guess not surprisingly to my own mother.  She yearned to find and connect with her mother.  She had a complicated relationship with the woman who adopted her.  Never felt like she quite measured up to the expectations.

She felt the loss keenly.  Especially when she learned the Georgia Tann story.  She never could reconcile the fact that she was born near Richmond Virginia but had been adopted in Memphis Tennessee as an infant.  She always believed that her adoption was somehow “inappropriate” as she politely worded it in a letter she wrote to the State of Tennessee trying to get her own adoption file.  She was denied on more than one technicality and although some years later a law was passed to allow her to receive that file, that information never reached her.

After her death, I did receive that file from Tennessee.  My mom’s belief that a nurse in cahoots with Georgia Tann had stolen her in Virginia and transported her to Tennessee wasn’t quite the true story.  But that kind of story did happen all too frequently with Tann’s baby stealing and selling scandal.

The real story is sad and my grandmother was definitely exploited in the midst of an impossible situation.  Her widowed father still raising some of his children as a poor sharecropper refused my grandmother support with her baby when she returned to Memphis.  She was a married woman.  Why she was estranged from her husband I’ll never know.  I have some theories.

He was WPA and the large hospital project that brought him to Memphis had ended.  He was widowed too and his mother had his children in her care in Arkansas.  His first wife had died 8 months pregnant on a cold and rainy December morning and her baby in the womb died with her.  The image shared with me by my cousin haunts me still.  A Phil Collins song The Roof Is Leaking makes me think of my grandfather. These lyrics caught my attention –

The roof is leaking and the wind is howling,
The kids are crying cause the sheets are so cold.
I woke this morning and my hands were frozen

My wife’s expecting but I hope she can wait
Cause there’s been signs it will be another bad one
But Spring will soon be here.

Too many sad maternal deaths.  My grandmother lost her own mother at the age of 11 with four other younger siblings, including the baby one, in the household at that time.

His employment ended, my grandmother was already 4 months pregnant and due in January.  My heart believes my grandfather feared for her and the baby’s well-being as he had no certain shelter to offer her come winter.  It may be that his own mother wasn’t happy he had married such a young woman, as young as his oldest sons.  She may not have been welcoming either.  Then came the Superflood on the Mississippi River in 1937 (at the same time my mom was born) and he was out shoring up the levees in Arkansas, when my grandmother arrived back in Memphis.

Whatever the real story is, that I can never know, my grandmother went to the Juvenile Court in Memphis trying to reach him.  No response.  Desperate, she took my mom to the storied Porter Leath Orphanage for temporary care.  The superintendent there alerted Georgia Tann to my mom’s presence.  My mom was the blond, blue eyed kind of baby girl that Tann most coveted for her clients.  And so began the pressure on my grandmother to separate her from my mom.

Four days after signing the surrender papers, my grandmother called Georgia Tann’s office trying to get my mother back.  “I have friends in New Orleans who will take us in,” she told them.  It was to no avail because Tann’s paying customer was already on her way by train from Nogales Arizona to pick up my mom.

My image today comes from a Facebook page titled Memoirs of a Motherless Child.  She relates a story about Brooklyn and it’s connection to her own mother there.  After her mother’s death, she writes –

I later blamed myself for never being able to meet her, know her, experience her because I didn’t go look for her, as if that would have done any good. She didn’t want to be found not because she didn’t love me (took me years to realize that but my inner child still can’t accept it wholeheartedly) but because she loved me so much she didn’t want to hurt or disappoint me. My inner child could very well be making that up too in order to spare me more hurt and trauma. What still hurts the most is I’ll never know what part of me was/is that part of you. So I’ll continue to travel this endless journey of uncertainty until our energies meet somehow.

I believe that is how my mom felt too because by the time she tried to find her mother, her mother was only somewhat recently deceased.  That devastated my mom.  Now that my own mom has also died, I believe she was reunited with the mother who never gave up hoping she would see her precious daughter again as well.  So much sadness when a mother and her child are separated.

 

Secrets

Reflecting on another blog I wrote several years ago, I see how it applies to this one. I believe also that those that have something to hide from other people will divert one’s attention away from that secret anyway. However there is a current of support for truth in Life that will “out” what should or needs to be known. That is why secrets can’t be “kept”. Secrets are the answer to the question and the answer will out itself because a secret usually does not exist for any good reason. For some people it is only in the seeking for answers to questions deep within them that they have the courage to go on living. It is as though the impossibility of finding an answer is itself a motivation that keeps them keeping on in vitally alive ways.

Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote – “Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”

My mom had questions about how she ended up adopted because she did know that the Tennessee Children’s Home Society was the agency and that her conveyance to her adoptive parents occurred in Memphis.  In fact, growing up we all believed she had been born in Memphis.  At some point, she learned she had been born in Richmond VA.  This puzzled her.  How could she have been born there but then adopted as an infant at Memphis ?  She had heard about the Georgia Tann scandal when it broke in 1950 and she was still a school girl.  She worried then that she might have been a victim and her adoptive mother, while admitting that her adoption had taken place through that agency, said my mom was not “one of those” babies.

Life moved on.  My mother gave birth three times, each time to girl babies.  But the questions never really went away for her.  Then in the 1990s, awareness of the Georgia Tann scandal hit the national consciousness 40 years later with features on 60 Minutes and on Oprah facilitating reunions between separated mothers and their children.  My mom learned about Denny Glad in the 60 Minutes broadcast and did speak with her, learned some minimal information and received some advice.  So, my mom requested her adoption file from the state of Tennessee.  Sadly, this was premature in the sense that her inquiry occurred before the state was forced to open it’s files for the victims of Georgia Tann.  They did offer to ask my mom’s original parents if they were okay with her receiving her file.

Sadly, they informed her that her mother had died several years before devastating my mom’s desire to let her mother that she was okay.  As a mother herself, my mom felt her mother would want to know.  She also had a mysterious health condition and no family medical history to assist in revealing whether this was genetic and even what the condition might actually be as a diagnosis was proving hard to come by.

The state had promised to make every effort to contact my mom’s parents.  They did not.  They only sent a minimal inquiry to the Arkansas Driver’s License Bureau to determine if my grandfather had a current Arkansas license.  They replied “no record”.  Of course they had no record.  He had been dead for 30 years.  They could have checked the Social Security Death Index but they never tried.  This really vexed my mom (not that she knew he was dead but he was much older than her mother – my mom did know that much) because they denied her the adoption file on the basis that they were not able to determine whether he was alive or dead.

It is really a shame – these secrets that adoption has forced on it’s victims.  Seeing her adoption file would have answered at least some of my mom’s questions.  The question I can’t answer (since I now do have her adoption file) is why her father left her mother when she was 4 months pregnant because they were legally wed.  I have to live with that question unanswered because there is no one alive who could answer it for me.