My Maternal Adoptive Grandmother

1989 among the Missouri Azaleas

I spent the afternoon yesterday reading through a thick stack of letters that I wrote to my grandmother. When my grandmother died, for whatever reason, when my mom found these, she thought to send them to me. I wondered why but now I understand. My grandmother adopted my mom from Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society’s Memphis branch. I find it amazing that she kept all of these letters from me but they are very detailed about my marriage in the early days, what living in Missouri was like for me and what we were doing to promote our home-based business than I would have imagined. I wonder that I had that much time to write so much to her but then, there is only one, maybe two, in any given month and not even one for every month.

I could have been given up for adoption as my mom conceived me when she was only a junior in high school and not wed. My dad had graduated from the same high school the year before and had only just started attending the University of New Mexico at Las Cruces. I tend to credit his parents (he was adopted also) for preserving me in the family but as everyone who would know is now deceased, it is only a guess on my part. That is the reason I was born in Las Cruces and not El Paso Texas where my sisters were born.

I had the good fortune to chose to be born on this grandmother’s wedding anniversary. In January back in 1994, I acknowledged a memory she shared with me in a letter from her (I haven’t kept most, if any of hers to me). It was a “special memory” of hers about the sunlight shining upon me while she held me in her arms and some beautiful thought she had at that moment. It seems to have been a sign from God meant just for her and since I too believe in signs of that sort, I understood. I am now married to the man that I am because I received a physical, unmistakable sign to give him a bit more attention than I might have otherwise. Of course, discernment is very important when it comes to trusting the signs one notices.

In fact, it is quite clear in re-reading these very old letters from the early 1990s, that I was closer to this grandmother in my spiritual understandings than anyone else in my family. My dad’s parents were very conservative, traditional Church of Christ adherents. My mom was very much Episcopal and my dad wasn’t at all a church goer until all of us girls had left the home and then, he said to me that he went to “keep my mom company.” After she died, when I was there helping him with life in general, I went with him because he continued to go to their little church alone or with my youngest sister who was assisting him so he could remain in his home.

These letters are full of the most amazing details of my early marriage and life here in Missouri. I could share these things with this grandmother because she grew up in Missouri in a house much like the one I live in and an environment that is very similar. In one letter, I write – “I truly love the woods, hills and streams of my home here in the Missouri Ozarks. Knowing that you grew up nearby gives me the feeling that I came back home.” (I had grown up in the desert of El Paso Texas, where my grandmother spent most of her own life and where she eventually passed away.) I also shared a lot with her about our efforts to promote and grow our fledgling business.

When I found this thick packet, I wondered why my mom sent it to me and didn’t simply throw it away. I don’t know if she bothered to read all of these letters or not – I can’t ask her since she died in Sept of 2015 – but I’m glad to have them today. Only a few of them can I even bear to throw away but the details of our early business are as precious as gold and I hope we can preserve them in protective sleeves in a binder. Maybe someday, our sons will enjoy reading about our adventures before we decided to become their parents.

Way Down South In The Land Of Cotton

It was probably a lullaby from the deep south circa 1840.

There’s a little black boy I know
Who picks the cotton from the fields
As clean and white as snow . . .

And momma sings a lullaby . . .

Don’t you fret nor cry.

Today’s topic was inspired by transracial adoption photos of a black girl in a cotton field with two large older white people. The little girl is actually depicted picking cotton in one picture. I noticed her skirt looks like an old patchwork quilt. Just because something is objectively pretty doesn’t mean you can ignore context.

My paternal adoptive grandparents lived surrounded by cotton fields and as children we loved to go out there and pick cotton. It was never a photography shoot. I grew up in El Paso Texas, on the Mexican border; and so, the slavery issues were never a dominant aspect of my life growing up (though one could argue the point that using Mexican labor was similar).

Y’all think this little girl looks happy? Her eyes are not smiling. She may be content, but many viewers doubted she is happy, especially those with adoption in their backgrounds and those most triggered, whether adopted or not, were people of color. Which is easily understood.

Some see a little girl doing what she must to survive. Adoptees have to develop special coping skills that biological/genetic kids living with their original parents can’t easily understand. Adoptees are very good at hiding their true feelings. It is noted that her smile looks forced, as though she is just doing what the photographer asks her to do.

And she may end up at odds with these people who are parenting her, when she hits her teenage or adult years because many adopted people struggle more later in life with the fact of having been adopted, than they did as children.

I really wish a black family would have adopted her.

The truth likely is that this little girl needed a loving home and was available for adoption by anyone qualified. One can question what qualifications were required.

Do these folks need to learn black history ?… yes absolutely!

The little girl appears to be healthy and thriving. The parents look proud to claim her and provide a good home and hopefully lots of love. It is known the foster care system often fails kids.

Whoever’s choice it was to do the photo shoot in a Cotton field – it was a poor choice. Giving the parents the benefit of the doubt, maybe they were just thinking of a beautiful spot for pictures of their beautiful daughter. I would prefer to assume innocence on the part of the parents and hope someone takes a minute to educate them about why the optics are horrible. The photographer should have known better. It may be a regional thing to take photos in cotton fields. Iowans do that in corn fields.

#BlackGirlsMatter

Mother/Child Separations

Black babies separated from slave mothers. Native American children separated from their families to indoctrinate them into white standards of living. White babies separated from their mothers in the 1930’s through the 1960’s because they were a profitable and valuable commodity in the adoption market (if you were a black unwed mother you could keep your baby as it was no longer a financially lucrative commodity after the Emancipation Proclamation). And most recently, Hispanic babies separated from their mothers at the southern border of the United States.

These may seem wildly different situations but actually they are the same. Society does not value natural families nor do we support keeping children in the families they were born into. We do this at great harm to the children and equally emotional and psychological harm for their mothers.

In regard to Africans enslaved in America, though they most definitely experienced an assault on their personhood, but never yielded. Because misogyny has been dominate until recently, it is no surprise that women’s voices, both in their own time and in later scholarship, remained largely silent. They reproduced, labored, and died in near anonymity. Slave women did not have ready access to birth control and experienced great pressure to bear children. After the abolition of the international slave trade in 1808, the South’s dependence upon natural reproduction increased. Slave women experienced pressure to bear children from a culture that gloried motherhood and from masters who personally benefited from slave offspring due to their financial value.

In 1879, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania was a government-backed institution that forcibly separated Native American children from their parents in order to kill the Indian in him, and save the man. For decades, this effort continued. Native American boarding schools were a method of forced assimilation. The end goal of these measures was to make Native people more like the white Anglo-Americans who had taken over their land. By removing them from their homes, the schools disrupted students’ relationships with their families and other members of their tribe. Once they returned home, children struggled to relate to their families after being taught that it was wrong to speak their language or practice their religion.

The Baby Scoop Era was a period in the history of the United States, starting after the end of World War II and ending in the early 1970s, My parents adoptions were just a little bit ahead of their time but Georgia Tann, through whom my mom was adopted was certainly already profiting when my mom turned up, 5 mos old with blond hair and blue eyes, Tann’s most desired commodity. This time period was characterized by an increased rate of pre-marital pregnancies over the preceding period, along with a higher rate of newborn adoption. It is estimated that up to 4 million parents in the United States had children placed for adoption, with 2 million during the 1960s alone. Annual numbers for non-relative adoptions increased from an estimated 33,800 in 1951 to a peak of 89,200 in 1970, then quickly declined to an estimated 47,700 in 1975. By 2003, only 14,000 infants were placed for adoption. The number of hopeful adoptive parents remains far beyond the number of babies available which set off the international adoption boom and the abuses and exploitations in that field.

Most recently has been the horrendous treatment of Hispanic families at our southern border.

Long before the Trump administration implemented its “zero tolerance” immigration enforcement policy in 2018, it was already separating children from their parents as part of a “pilot program” conducted in the El Paso, Texas, area (where I spent my childhood, I am familiar with border issues and politics). Under the El Paso program, begun in mid-2017, adults who crossed the border without permission – a misdemeanor for a first-time offender – were detained and criminally charged. No exceptions were made for parents arriving with young children. The children were taken from them, and parents were unable to track or reunite with their children because the government failed to create a system to facilitate reunification. By late 2017, the government was separating families along the length of the US-Mexico border, including families arriving through official ports of entry. It is suspected that many of these children were placed in foster homes and may have even been placed into adoption as it has proven almost impossible for some parents to relocate their children.

Sometimes, humanity makes my heart hurt.

Erasing History

I think if my mom was here, she’d say much the same.  When I found a cousin on my paternal grandmother’s side, she immediately noticed something that had escaped my attention – my grandmother’s name was not on his adoption papers – the Salvation Army owned him.  This is the enduring legacy of adoption and I am simply VERY fortunate I was able to track down who ALL 4 of my original grandparents were – not for lack of the powers that be trying to obscure it.

Today’s adoption story (is not my own but I can relate) –

“This is a strange life. Looking back over it now I feel that I was propelled into constructing a life that has been totally separated from who I am. This was deliberately done by the State and its agents once they had got their hands on me and my brother. They stole me from my mother’s arms and then proceeded to lie about who I was, about where I had come from about my ancestry. They deliberately falsified fundamental documents about my identity. The moment that I was born I was unborn. They removed my mother’s name and the name that she had given me from history and acted as if they had never existed when they did exist. They did so on the basis that this history was inconsequential and as such could be wiped like one wipes a blackboard clean.”

“I have had no choice but to struggle with the circumstances of my birth from the very beginning. I was thrust into a battle between life and death, truth and lies, reality and State manufactured fiction. I was born a pawn on the chessboard of the States so called battle for public morality. I was the symbol of the transgression, of the fact that sex outside marriage existed. But no one talks about this fact, no they still see adoption as that of being rescued from a mother and a family that chose not to care for you. It was no such thing. The State set in motion the theory of Closed Adoption through its adoption practices and through the whip of economic compulsion tens of thousands of mothers gave up their babies. There was no money to keep them and no public support or support from their families. All they received was righteous moralistic outrage as their pregnant daughters were sent away.”

I say I can relate because –

My paternal grandmother was unmarried and had an affair with a married man.  I would suspect she didn’t know he was married when she first started seeing him in the mid-1930s but I think she probably did know by the time she knew she was pregnant.  Self-sufficient woman that she was, I don’t think she ever told him that she was expecting his child.  None of his family knew he had any offspring until I turned up.  DNA proved to them I was actually related.  My grandmother did know who the father was.  She gave my dad his name as a middle name and put his photo next to one of her holding my dad at the Salvation Army home for women and children in El Paso Texas that employed her after she gave birth at one of their homes in San Diego California.  She applied for employment and they transferred her to El Paso Texas with my dad in tow and that is where he was adopted.

Continuing with this man’s emotional story –

“I feel tired today. I feel tired full stop. For my entire life I have been struggling to deal with the circumstances of my birth. From the very beginning my heart was wounded. When you are given away, rejected, abandoned, it is personal. It hurts. When you are forced to live in a society that acts as if the wound does not hurt, it is suicidal because there is no outlet for the pain. No acknowledgment, no sorrow, nothing but silence. Your life is built on this silence. Holding in the hurt, trying to act as if you belong when you have been permanently displaced, always blaming yourself for how you feel because the whole system has set you up for self-blame. From the very beginning no one listened to your cries for your mother. From the very beginning you were met with silence. From the very beginning your most vital needs were ignored and your heart was hurt. You were separated from your emotional needs and your heart was born under an avalanche.”

“From the very beginning it all felt like it was your fault, that you had done something wrong, as if you had had brought this situation upon yourself simply through existing. From your first breath you were struggling for your life without love. There was no beauty in your birth, instead they had turned your life into a fight for survival and no one took any responsibility. They just left you to it. And that set the pattern of your life, of the life that they had created for you, you were abandoned, rejected and left to it. No one checked on how you felt. No one asked if you were struggling. They just left you on this hard road all on your own having to work out how to survive on your own. A road populated with strangers. And you lonely and you knew what the world could do.”

“Even though nobody said anything your birth set the path that you would follow as you tried your best to come to terms with it by outrunning your hurt heart. You felt that, in the silence, that this pain, this sadness that you felt in the world always must have been a sign that something was wrong with you. And there was, but no one would tell you what it was. And so in the absence of an explanation you labelled this hurt, this feeling as meaning that there was something wrong with you and so you locked up your heart and who you were. It was clear that you had to become someone else, you had to not be the person that you had been born to be. And you were right. They did not want the person that you were born to be. They did not want your ancestry, your mother, your personality and who you were deep inside. No, they just wanted a blank slate, a void, a nothing who would be exactly what your adopted parents wanted you to be. They called this attachment. You attached by disassociating from yourself, from your thoughts, your feelings and your emotions. You were to become “as if born to” these adopted parents and their names would be writ large on your birth certificate.”

There is more, much much more.  I won’t go on but adoption hurts.  Loss of identity hurts.  No family history hurts.  It even hurts children like me who’s two parents were both adoptees.

 

My Little Miracle

Not my children, my own little miracle.  My mom and dad met at a high school party.  She went to the party with someone else and left with him.  They went to the same high school but he was two years ahead of her and graduated.  After high school, he left El Paso Texas to go to a university one hour away in Las Cruces New Mexico.  Somehow on some visit, they did what teenagers are want to do . . .

So it was that my teenage 16 yr old high school student mother became pregnant with me.  Doesn’t sound all that miraculous, does it ?  It isn’t.  Happens all the time.  What was miraculous is what happened next.

Both of my parents were adopted, so adoption was quite an acceptable practice in each of their adoptive homes.  How was it then, that my mom was not sent off to have and give me up for adoption ?  I’m certain her banker father and socialite mother would have preferred that.  I’m certain their dreams of her becoming a debutante were dashed.  It was quite the custom in the mid 1950s.

It was only recently as I learned their adoption stories that I came to see the miracle of my own life.  I believe it was my dad’s adoptive parents that encouraged him to do what his ethics and heart were probably inclined to do anyway – marry the girl, give up a college diploma and go to work.

They stayed married til my mom’s death did them part and my heartbroken dad only lasted 4 months without her.  A true love story and one I am grateful turned out the way it did.  Today is my 66th birthday.

The Grandparent Factor

A topic not always discussed in adoption issue considerations is the lack of support from potential grandparents when a woman finds herself pregnant.  They are often key to why an adoption is taking place.

Regardless of the age of the mother, the grandparents often play a huge role in a decision to surrender the child.  My own mother, an adoptee herself, encouraged my sister to surrender her daughter.

Where is the family that could have stepped in ? Who else is giving up this child ?  In reality, every one related to a child given up for adoption has lost an opportunity to have a relationship with that child.  I lost the opportunity to have relationships with all 4 of my original grandparents and many aunts and uncles.

“I don’t want this child – get rid of it !!”, could be what my maternal grandmother’s own father said to her as he sent my married grandmother far away to have my mom.  I doubt he intended for my grandmother to bring her back to Memphis Tennessee.

My paternal grandmother left the Door of Hope, a Salvation Army Home for Unwed Mothers in Ocean Beach California to go to her cousin’s home for support.  Obviously, that support was not forthcoming because my grandmother went back to the Salvation Army seeking employment, was accepted and transferred to El Paso Texas – which is how my dad ended up there and could be adopted.  Being in El Paso was crucial to his meeting my mom and to my conception and birth.

In my family’s case, both of my original grandmothers had lost her own mothers at young ages.  The lack of a nurturing, supportive older female probably played a huge role in their losing their first born children.  It appears that they didn’t have support from their fathers either.

Sunday Morning

I woke up this morning remembering going to church with my dad after my mom died.  Growing up, my dad never went to church with us.  He worked a lot, often double shifts at Standard Oil Refinery in El Paso Texas.  After us kids left home, he started going to keep my mom company.  Somehow it fed something in him that he continued to go after he lost her.

I don’t know what caused this photo to be taken or how it ended up in the possession of my dad’s original mother.  I am intrigued by what appear to be several bed frames in the background.  My dad was born in a Salvation Army Home for Unwed Mothers in San Diego California.  After he was born, his mother was hired as a helper by the Salvation Army and transferred to El Paso Texas.  It may be that my dad’s adoptive mother took him to visit her there.  It may be that the look on his face is a disturbed recognition of his own mother.  I’ll never know.

I know that by this point, he had been adopted for the first time.  He would be adopted a second time after my Granny kicked her first husband, an abusive alcoholic, out of her home and then married a WWII veteran.  So my dad was already 8 years old when he was adopted for the second time and had 2/3s of his name changed – again.

My dad looks healthy but not entirely happy here.  I continue to wonder what that expression on his face means.  It is serious and perhaps puzzled.

My dad simply accepted his adoption and never showed any interest in knowing about his original family.  He cautioned my adoptee mom when she was seeking a reunion for herself that she might be opening up a can of worms.  I think this epitomizes his perspective.  Maybe he was afraid of learning the truth.  I know he loved and cared for his adoptive parents.

It is a shame he didn’t know more about his origins, origins that I am fortunate to know now.  He was so much like his Danish fisherman father and they would have had a great time in a boat out on the ocean doing what came naturally to both of them.