The Pain of Family Feuds

I’ll let this story from my all things adoption group speak for itself.

I’m an adoptee that was adopted by my maternal grandparents at birth, my birth mom has always been in my life at different times and in different ways, our relationship now is very rocky, and I never saw much of my dad growing up.

When I was 6, my grandparents cut off all contact with my dad’s family. For years they told me that it wasn’t safe, or that they had no interest in seeing me, which wasn’t true – my grandparents actively threw out letters and cards from them.

I used to beg to see my family, when I was a young teen I started sneaking out to see my aunt, then my grandparents found out. I was grounded and stopped from leaving the house. I grew up remembering and loving these people who lived literally two miles away but missing out on a childhood with them.

I grew up with no racial mirrors and felt like I did something wrong to these people that I had fun memories with as a kid. One time I saw my aunt across a store and begged my grandma to say hi, but my grandma dragged me out of the store and said it wasn’t safe.

4 years ago, I reunified with my dad’s family locally and have an amazing relationship with them, and flew to California to see my uncle and meet my cousins for the first time, and eventually flew to New York. I was greeted with open arms, but it doesn’t make up for the 20 year gap of not having these people in my life. These are people I should’ve grown up with!

My aunt lives close to me and we talk, but I feel like a stranger in her house. I feel like I don’t belong here. My uncle is in town to visit with his kids, and I’ve been here all day, and decided to stay the night…for the first time at 28 years old, I’m spending the night with my aunt – something that most kids did growing up.

It’s 3 AM and I’m laying on her couch, unable to sleep because I don’t feel like I belong here, even though they treat me like we were never apart. I don’t know what the point of this post is…it’s just complicated, not many people understand my complex adoption trauma or seem to think that it’s somehow “less” because I was adopted by my grandparents, I should just shut up and be grateful for that.

I still feel like I’m in the fog. My grandparents have both died, and I have a hard time wrapping my thoughts and emotions around the trauma that two people I loved very much even so caused. I’m just trying to live with it.

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.

A Life in the Shadow

Actors – Rose Byrne as Rebecca Skloot and Oprah Winfrey as Deborah Lacks

On Friday night, my husband and I watched The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on dvd. It is one of those occasional unexpected finds that impacts me deeply. Oprah Winfrey plays Deborah Lacks in the movie based upon the book. Since my name is Deborah, I connected with this powerful, at times tragic, portrayal of Henrietta’s daughter. Since the title of my blog is Missing Mom and that is what drove Deborah, who lost her mom at such a young age and who she was always missing, needing the truth about her, felt somewhat like I how felt about my missing grandparents (both of my parents were adopted). So, I am happy to share Deborah’s story here. I highly recommend either the book or the movie.

The only surviving daughter and fourth child of David Day Lacks and Henrietta Lacks, Deborah “Dale” Lacks Pullum spent most of her early life wondering what happened to her beautiful mother and worrying about what it could mean for her own life and identity. Day was Henrietta’s first cousin, neither had living mothers and were being raised by grandparents who had them sleeping in the same bedroom. No wonder by the age of 14, Henrietta was pregnant. Day married her 6 years later when she was 20.

It is hard for Rebecca Skloot, an independent science writer, to gain Deborah’s trust given her early life of familial abuse, followed by the general disregard of the scientific community for Henrietta’s family. Deborah’s need to connect with her mother’s story is intensified by her difficult childhood and a non-existent relationship with her father, whose lack of attention has disastrous effects on her emotional life:

After Henrietta’s death, Ethel and Galen move in with Day to “help take care of the children.” But Ethel always had a hatred for Henrietta because Galen was attracted to her, and she transferred that with gusto to the children. She forces them to work the farm all day without food or drink and beats them if they disobey. In spite of Deborah’s protests, Galen sexually molests her as often as he can.

Despite the beatings by both of these guardians and the molesting by Galen, Deborah felt closer to Galen than she ever had felt with her father. When he wasn’t hitting or molesting her, Galen showered her with attention and gifts. He bought her pretty clothes, and took her for ice cream. In those moments, Deborah pretended he was her father, and she felt like a regular little girl.

Enter Lawrence’s (who was Henrietta’s oldest son) wife, Bobbette. She insists that they take in and raise the younger Lacks siblings to get them out of the clutches of the abusive Ethel and Galen. Bobbette makes it pretty darn clear that if that couple ever touches Henrietta’s kids again, she’s going to open up a can of ??? on them.

In Henrietta’s absence, Bobbette also acts as a mentor and inspiration to young Deborah. She tells her to stay in school because that’s what will get her success in life. She also encourages her to fight off the advances of her boy cousins because, she said, “That’s uncalled for.” She warns Deborah about the dangers of first cousins having children together.

Deborah reads articles about HeLa cells (named after an abbreviation of Henrietta Lacks name) with a dictionary in hand and learns to use the Internet to make sense of her mother’s immortal life. Her brothers don’t understand her need to pursue something that has been so hurtful to them. Deborah is quite clear in her mission: “All this stuff I’m learning,’ she said, ‘it make me realize that I did have a mother, and all the tragedy she went through. It hurts but I wanna know more, just like I wanna know about my sister (her sister Elsie had defects that eventually institutionalized her, where she later died young). It make me feel closer to them, but I do miss them. I wish they were here.”

The need to know and to be in control of her past is always stronger for Deborah than the need to forget her past and protect herself from future harm.

Her older brother, Lawrence, never stopped taking care of Deborah. He put $6,000 on his credit card to pay for her funeral. She died less than a year before the book, written by author Rebecca Skloot, about her mother was published.

“Henrietta had been chosen by the Lord to become an immortal being. The immortality of Henrietta’s cells had something to do with her telomeres and how HPV interacted with her DNA.”

An Embarrassment Of Riches

It has become a bit complicated.  And it is a mouth full to try and delineate family adding “adoptive” in front.

I have 8 grandparents.  4 – I never knew for over 60 years but at least I know WHO they were now and have aunts, uncles and cousins to become acquainted with.

4 of my grandparents were influential in my life – especially the grandmothers.  It would take a book to describe all of the ways that they mattered.  We were blessed to grow up in the same city with them and so had lots of opportunities for physical interactions.

I have aunts and cousins thanks to adoption with whom I have life experiences – including shared experiences with the adoptive grandparents.  For most of them, the relationship may have been at least partially a direct genetic link.

I love them all.  And I have to be grateful because if what happened to my parents had not happened, I would not be here today telling you my tales.