Broken Family Threads

It is said that it is Black History Month, though many of my friends chafe at that and say it is ALWAYS black history. I understand. Imani Perry’s book South To America has been getting some buzz and as I writer I notice those things.

Yesterday, I read an essay adapted from her book published in Time Magazine’s Feb 14 – Feb 21 2022 issue titled “The Way Home.” It is about her effort to reconnect with a grandmother in Maryland who she is able to know very little about. Was her name Easter Lowe or Esther Watkins ? Was she born in Maryland or Georgia, was she 101 years old or 91.

I realized as I read how much I could relate to her journey to Maryland which is described in the article. Her attempt to get some insight into unknowable people. I recognized my own “roots” journey, often fraught with disappointment and too little too slowly. I am fortunate to know what I know now. Though the African American experience of slavery is not mine, I know how it feels not to know anything about where one came from (both of my parents were adoptees). At one time, I used to tell people I was an albino African because no one could prove me wrong, not even myself. Now I finally do know better.

Slavery was not exactly in my family history but in a way it was. My paternal grandmother was put to work in the Rayon mills in Asheville NC at a young age. She was not allowed to keep her own earnings and was probably expected to do a lot of other chores in the home. Her mother died when she was only 3 mos old and she had to live with a decidedly evil step-mother (from a story I heard about her being tied to a tree in a thunderstorm). She was a run-away slave. When her family visited her grandfather and her aunt in La Jolla California, she refused to return to Asheville and her slave labor there.

Poverty and the Great Depression was likely the cause of both of my grandmothers being separated from their babies. There really was not any family support for them. My maternal grandmother also lost her mother at the age of 11. She also escaped harsh conditions with her widowed father who was a sharecropper. She ran away to Memphis where she met and married my mom’s birth father.

Though I am not black and my family wasn’t enslaved, I can relate to Imani Perry’s story because in very real ways it is my story too. I didn’t grow up with a strong white supremacist’s identity. I was in the minority in Hispanic El Paso Texas and anyway, we didn’t have a clue to our ethnicity. Even so, I do recognize now that being white has put me in a class of advantages and I’ve worked very hard at educating myself by reading every anti-racist type book that has come my way. I celebrate the contributions of Black, African Americans to the diversity and vibrancy of the country of my own birth.

Hard Times Don’t Come Around No More

Both of my parents were Great Depression babies – born 1935 and 1937. For that fact alone, it isn’t a wonder they both ended up adopted, though the reasons are much more complicated than that. But certainly, financial hardship in the lives of my two original grandmothers is the key factor.

So this is on my mind this morning after watching Angela’s Ashes on dvd last night and being reminded of the song – Hard Times Don’t Come Around No More written by Stephen Foster and published in 1854. Some of the lyrics – While we all sup sorrow with the poor, Many a days you have lingered around my cabin door, There are frail forms fainting at the door, Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say, There’s a pale weeping maiden who toils her life away, With a worn heart whose better days are o’er: Though her voice would be merry, ’tis sighing all the day, Oh! Hard times come again no more.

So what was it like in the 1930s ?, was a question on my mind this morning. The Great Depression was the worst economic downturn in modern history at the time it occurred. It profoundly affected the daily life of American families in ways large and small. The bleakest point was about 1933 or 34.

The life of a child in the 1930s was very different than a child’s life today. With the Great Depression, children and their families were greatly impacted—millions lived in poverty and had very little to eat, let alone money to spare for entertainment. Times were tough everywhere, and an additional mouth to feed was a burden. Certainly, I believe that both of my grandmothers encountered this mind set when they were seeking aid with their newborn babies.

Food was scarce for a lot of families and many children suffered from malnutrition. As we were watching children die in Angela’s Ashes my husband said, it is the lack of nutrition that makes it impossible for them to fight off diseases.

My maternal grandmother’s childhood family did live on a farm that was not ravaged by the Dust Bowl being west of Memphis in the rural countryside. They probably did grow a variety of crops and raised small amounts of livestock to survive. During the Depression, casseroles and meals like creamed chipped beef on toast, chili, macaroni and cheese, and creamed chicken on biscuits were popular. Jello was actually considered a cheap protein source (had to believe it would be viewed as that – one serving only has 1.6 grams of protein and the equivalent of 4-1/2 tsp of sugar !!) But Jello still found its way into many cookbooks during the Depression. Potlucks were often organized by churches to share food and provide a cheap form of social entertainment. The board games Scrabble and Monopoly were introduced during the 1930s. Both of which my own family has played recently.

Economic struggle caused mothers to leave the home for work and children to leave school for work as a breakdown in child labor law enforcement occurred. My paternal grandmother was put to work in the Rayon mills in Asheville NC to help support her family. A quarter of the US workforce was unemployed. Those that were lucky enough to have steady employment often saw their wages cut or their hours reduced to part-time. With record unemployment, children competed for jobs with their elders to help contribute to their family’s income, often forgoing further schooling. Many children were technically self-employed, collecting junk to sell or doing odd jobs for neighbors.

The stress of financial strain took a psychological toll—especially on men who were suddenly unable to provide for their families. The national suicide rate rose to an all-time high in 1933. Marriages became strained, though many couples could not afford to separate. Some men deserted their families out of embarrassment or frustration: This was sometimes called a “poor man’s divorce.” So, was this what my paternal grandfather chose when faced with yet another child on the way ? Is this why he failed to show up for my grandmother and mom when they returned to Memphis after her birth in Virginia (where she was sent away to avoid embarrassment for her father, even though she really was a married woman).

Disadvantaged families couldn’t afford much for their children, so most of their clothes were cast offs and children often went barefoot. Most middle-income boys wore t-shirts with overalls and girls wore blouses and plain dresses. Both would have one pair of shoes and an outfit for special occasions. The Depression-era motto was: “Use it up, wear it out, make do or do without.” I definitely saw these effects in the lives of my in-laws (both born in 1921) and on my dad’s adoptive parents.

Speaking For And Over

Straight up – I am NOT adopted but both of my parents were and each of my sisters gave up a child to adoption, who I have been blessed to reconnect with in their late teen/early adulthood. I have learned the most from belonging in an all things adoption group where the voices of adoptees are privileged over all others, though there are original parents and adoptive parents (including those hoping to adopt and foster parents) and the rare oddball like me who belongs but doesn’t fit any of the usual categories. Now that I have dealt with my place in the adoption triad as it is often called, I’ll go on into today’s blog topic.

An adoptee writes – There needs to be a name for the bigotry of attacking, marginalizing and discrediting the voices of adoptees, donor conceived folk and former foster youth. I’m exhausted by the relentless online barrage from people who think they can speak for or over us based on the nature of our birth and/or conception and call us angry, broken and other hateful tropes.

This may shock you that anyone would be so inconsiderate and thoughtless but I will assure you, people are often clueless, especially about adoption. In fact, I was clueless before I entered this group about 3 years ago. I grew up thinking adoption was the most natural things in the world. Of course I would, given my family background. As a child, I thought my parents were orphans. They died knowing very little beyond some vague name related to their origins and their original parents. After they died, through effort, persistence and a lot of lucky, within a year I knew who all 4 of my original grandparents were. My parents were adopted in the dark ages of the Great Depression, sealed adoption records, changed identities on their original birth certificates and in some cases even their actual birthdate was changed.

Now, on to some of the comments regarding my adoptee perspective above . . .

One commenter noted this truth – Many of the people who push adoption are anti-abortion but I call them “forced birthers”. Forced birthers want their baby mills to produce. To which another responded – Pregnancy and birth are expensive and a lot of women turn to abortion because they don’t want a child and its the most financially responsible choice for themselves. Another one noted – I had a bunch of particularly bigoted recipient parents call me prolife because I said donor conceived people had rights. But saying adoptees, donor conceived people and former foster youth have rights is not the same as saying embryos have rights and I’m absolutely pro choice. So frustrating how things are twisted.

Someone else offered this interesting exercise – It helps to do train of thought free association… anti-adoption-truth-sayer, hard truth silencer, kidnapper sympathizer, rainbows and unicorns narrative, adoptee-phobe, foster youth-phobe, trauma denier, child trafficking supporter, baby objectifier, baby snatcher, willful ignorance, privilege/entitlement, keeping one’s blinders on, cognitive dissonance, rose-colored glasses, saviorist, virtue signaling, oppressor, crush, gag, hush, censor, suppress, repress, hide, mask, bully, harass, gaslighting… Really I think gaslighting is what is going on…Definition – Using denial, misdirection, contradiction, and misinformation; gaslighting involves attempts to destabilize the victim and delegitimize the victim’s beliefs. As I continue to think about this… it’s basically “separation trauma gaslighting”…

One noted that she hates the term ‘recipient parent’ because she doesn’t like the idea of adoptees being viewed as gifts. She suggests an “individual who feels entitled to another person’s child”. 

And someone else acknowledged it is conception discrimination.

Yet another said – What is a term that can be used to describe genetic identity seekers? Or people who don’t like to be separated from their genetic family? I think we need a word that encapsulates who we are. Then we could add an anti-, -ism, or -phobia for the opposite side of that concept.

Another one pointed out – Home wrecker is such a strong emotive world, and everyone immediately knows what it means. Maybe Family wreckers or some other similar term?

One woman speaking for her own interests says, I like using words like advocate and mentor to describe myself at this point in my life. I advocate for family safety and preservation and transparency and accountability within the human services systems in our country. I have also been thinking of what to call this movement for adoptee dignity, and the advocates who are tirelessly speaking out about these issues. And your blogger likes this perspective because that is what I think of in regard to myself and what I do in this blog.

An adoptee who has encountered these behaviors says, When someone comments that I should be grateful, sometimes I will tell them to check their privilege. I also like obscurantist, which means deliberately preventing the facts or full details of something from becoming known.

Another noted that this would be a form of childism. The child is objectified, and there is a hierarchy of value placed on them by adults based on many factors including: the circumstances of their birth, how they came to be placed with their non-biological family, how well-treated and accepted they are by the family they were raised by, whether or not they aged out of the foster care system, etc. Childism may be too broad and not specific enough.

And maybe this is the bottom line – I think the most important thing we can do is change the conversation. I think we just need to keep going. Even when our comments get erased or we get thrown out of the conversation just keep commenting. If enough of us keep commenting on the posts with our view I think we can change the conversation.

And on the speaking out side of things, one wrote – I like using terms like fragility and privilege to get people’s attention and get them talking about why they have the views they have so I can knock them down a peg or two. I keep links handy, peer-reviewed studies/articles, etc. and drop them in when relevant.

Three Identical Strangers

In the 1960s, a research project into identical siblings, placing them separately for adoption into different classes (poor, middle and wealthy), was done for the purpose of determining the impact of financial resources on their outcomes.  Back in the 1930s to 1950, Georgia Tann had a similar thought – taking babies from poor families and placing them into wealthier homes would lead to better outcomes for the children.

My mom was one of those babies.  She was adopted in 1937.  Both of her parents were very poor and struggling to survive the Great Depression but they were exploited by threats from Georgia Tann that her close relationship with the Juvenile Court judge in Memphis would support any removal of children she suggested.  Sadly.

So, in the 1980s, when these young men were 19 years old and began attending college, they discovered that they had been separated after birth into different adoptive families.  Even the adoptive parents didn’t know there were other genetically identical siblings.  The triplets accidentally found each other when two of them enrolled at the same college and found the third when he saw the story on the news. After the three siblings reunited, they became media darlings for awhile and even met their original biological parents.

It is not entirely a happy story and a suicide trigger warning is justified.  The two surviving triplets carry the DNA, the history, the pain, and the heart of their deceased brother. As the three boys entered adulthood each of them dealt with mental illness and psychiatric care.

The carelessness of the adoption agency that gave the boys away turns out to be something far crueler and more deviously deliberate than possibly imaginable. It is a shockingly true story but not unlike other psychological research from that era. Ethics were just not on the radar yet. People were treated like lab rats.

One woman, now much older, who was involved with the research study is blasé about the whole thing saying it was exciting to mess with people’s lives and noting what’s done is done.

The children who were the study subjects involved will not have access to the findings until 2065, by which time they will likely not be still alive.  This is because our own government funded this study.

This program does show how strong genetics truly are.  Being separated at birth results in life long trauma. All adoption agencies exist to make money. The program suggests that some of the adoptive parents would have happily taken all three boys, if they had known the truth, at the time.

One of the scientists involved in the study interviewed for the program kept laughing, saying inappropriate things, none of what happened was funny.  He said there’s probably at least four people (probably many more) who have no idea they are twins or that they were part of a study.

Currently one of the brothers practices law, the other sells insurance and investments. One of the two is (or soon will be) divorced.  These kinds of mental health and relationship impacts are quite common among adoptees.

Which leaves me with two questions (I have not seen, only have read about this program) – Is science worth keeping secrets and being immoral to accomplish unbiased research ? And how much of who we are is Nature and how much Nurture ? (That second one I’ve been looking at for 20 years.)

St Anne’s in Maryland

Some charitable organizations endure. When I saw this article, I thought of Porter-Leath in Memphis but the outcome for my grandmother (losing her infant, for which she was only seeking temporary care until she could get on her feet) was not so good.

St. Anne’s Center for Children, Youth and Families in Hyattsville Maryland has existed for 160 years. They were originally an orphanage and a maternity hospital.  The organization founded during a crisis has reinvented itself time and again since.  The same could be said for Porter Leath as well.

The organization was created in 1860 to serve women and children during the Civil War and it continued to do so through the 1918 flu pandemic, both World Wars, the Great Depression and now, a new pandemic.

Over the years, it has changed its name and purpose. It went from “asylum” to an “orphanage” to a “center” that now houses mothers and children, sometimes for years, if that’s what they need to successfully escape homelessness.

In recent times, they have seen incredible successes like they had not seen before in terms of families leaving them and going into permanent housing. It’s nothing short of incredible how these families are doing that.

When a single mother with a young child comes to St. Anne’s, she and her daughter are given a furnished apartment complete with a bookshelf filled with children’s books. They share a kitchen, laundry room and playground with other families, but otherwise have their own space.

One such mother said –

“I used to say, ‘I don’t want her to remember any of this stuff,’ ” she says of her daughter. “Now, I want her to see where we were, and how we are in a much more amazing place. I want her to see, ‘My mommy did it, my mommy figured it out, she took care of what we had to take care of.’ ”

When they move into their new house, she says, she wants her daughter to know that from these hard times, her mom created something better for them.

Love Isn’t Always On Time

Since I believe reality is never wrong, I know that my parents conception, birth, adoption, marriage, parenting was all just as it was meant to be.  No one escapes this Life without wounds and some are more wounded than others but we were not promised a rose garden when we agreed to spend some time incarnated upon this planet.

So the romantic relationships and/or marriages that conceived my parents were not wrong.  I do believe my grandparents all loved one another.  The Great Depression and a lack of social safety nets certainly played it’s role in separating my grandparents and in separating their children from them.

In learning about my true, genetic roots, one of my joys has been to discover that every one of my grandparents eventually found a lasting love with someone else.  Every one of them remarried and stayed married until death.

So in a bizarre paradoxical way, I accept that all the sadness and grief were somehow necessary for me to be conceived.  It was also necessary for the souls of my grandparents to learn and grow into better people who could find love and stay married after their early failures.

Love.  It is what we are here to do.

Real

Me in 1997 with Mom and Dad

For most of my life, this is as far back as I was able to know about my origins and my parents knew next to nothing because they were both adopted in the 1930s.  I know that my own mom thought about her original mother.  I’m certain she wondered what the woman looked like – I know now.

I don’t know about my grandmother’s interests or personality.  I once talked to a nephew of hers who said she was kind and referred to her as Aunt Lou.  I suspect my grandmother did think about her daughter from time to time. I can’t believe she didn’t and she kept that name active that was on my mom’s birth certificate, even having it put on her gravestone. That tells my own heart a lot.

I believe my grandmother would have fantasized about my mom finding her, as much as my mom fantasized about finding my grandmother.  The state of Tennessee would have sought permission from my mom’s original parents when she was seeking them, had they still been alive. That is a tragic aspect to my own family’s story.

I wonder if my mom ever considered “searching” when she became pregnant with me. She never said anything about it until the scandal of Georgia Tann re-emerged into the national consciousness in the 1990s. That is what motivated my mom to try – stories on television and in magazines about successful adoptee reunions.

I wonder if, in the 5 decades that passed between her adoption and her actual effort, those feelings of wanting to know were stuffed deep down into some kind of guarded place of forbidden knowledge ?  Was she paralyzed to some extent by a fear of rejection, disruption and disloyalty to the adoptive parents ? I believe my dad was. He wouldn’t even consider “going there” and encouraged my mom not to open that “can of worms” hidden behind the sealed adoption records.

When my mom’s adoption file arrived, I knew it’s precious nature, wanted no risk to its contents. I read each page with hungry eyes.  My mom only knew from her attempt that her parent’s names were Mr & Mrs J C Moore. At least, she knew she wasn’t illegitimate !!  With the arrival of my mom’s adoption file – I had full names – Jay Clinton (actually an error, Church was his actual middle name) Moore and Lizzie Lou Stark (her maiden name and youthful nickname to her birth name Elizabeth).

In my mom’s file were black and white negatives – my grandmother holding my mom for the last time – and my grandmother’s handwriting.  I knew she had siblings and that her mother had died when she was young. I understood why, even though my mom was born in Virginia, she was adopted in Memphis, TN – my grandmother’s family lived there. Why Virginia ? I have theories. What I do know is the Stark family immigrated in from Scotland at Virginia.

It is hard to explain the impact of having so much information after 60+ years of living for my own self and the sorrow that my mom was denied such a comforting perspective on the events that caused her to become adopted.  From there, it has been a whirlwind for me. In less than a year from receiving that file – I knew who all 4 of my original grandparents were.  I was whole and it was an unmistakable feeling to know that I was – finally.

The pieces fell into place in an almost magical way. It was as though one door opening, unlocked all of the other doors. Not exactly but even so – the dominoes kept tumbling.

The first genetic relative I found was the daughter of my mom’s half-sibling, a sister who I barely missed seeing alive by only a couple of months – sadly. This cousin was able to give me so much information and share so many photos with me that I almost felt like I had experienced it all firsthand.

In reading between the lines of my mom’s adoption file as regards my grandmother, I am certain in my heart that losing my mom was heartbreaking and life changing. After all, it’s clear that she couldn’t face my mom’s father with the news. Finally, after 3 years of separation, he filed for a divorce and she did not contest it but re-married a short time later. A bit later, he re-married. At least they didn’t die alone – neither of them.

Every new piece of information I have received about my grandparents has contributed to my own self becoming more real and whole. That may sound strange if you have always known what I grew up not knowing. It has been life-changing for me.

Neither of my grandparents had any more children after my mom was lost to them. Her father already had 4 other living children (the fifth one had died before my mom was conceived). My grandmother only ever had one child – my mom.

Sometimes, I grieve on behalf of my parents and original grandparents.  The severity of the loss for each and every one of them, even if it was normal for the Great Depression and the morals of that time, is something I really can’t do anything about. Yet sometimes the tears still come in my eyes – like now as I write this.

Sometimes, I am equally aware, that these genetic relatives I have been discovering are total strangers to me. I do work at getting to know each one of them better – it is a slow process that simply can’t make up for 6 decades of life.

I am genuinely happy for what has happened unexpectedly to me in my life since the doors began to open wide. I feel a completeness that I didn’t totally realize was a missing part as the child of adoptees who knew nothing about their origins.

 

The Effects Of Relinquishment

In my mom’s attempt to receive her adoption file, which was denied her, she said to me – “As a mother, I would want to know what became of my child.”  She also believed she had been stolen and I believe she wanted to determine if that was true or if there was some other explanation (there was another explanation).  I now possess her file thanks to the baby stealing and selling scandal of Georgia Tann in Tennessee.

Before relinquishment, it is clear to me that my maternal grandmother wanted to keep my mom.  She worked very hard to make that happen but her timing and the situation around her were not kind.  It was deep into the Great Depression and Memphis had just experienced a superflood that began the month my mom was born in Virginia.  My grandmother arrived in Memphis with my mom in the midst of charity fatigue because thousands of refugees had poured into the city from Arkansas.

My mom’s father was in Arkansas shoring up levees and doing other flood related work for the WPA.  Therefore, when the Juvenile Court wrote him about my grandmother and her baby’s needs he didn’t respond.  I’ll never know why he left her with her father 4 months pregnant but I do have some kind theories that I prefer over any kind of brutal one.  He didn’t divorce her for 3 years but then how could she face him having lost their child ?

My grandmother never had any more children.  I believe she hoped throughout her lifetime that my mom would find her.  When my mom tried, she was told her mother was already dead and that devastated her.  My grandmother was clearly pressured and exploited by Georgia Tann with a no win choice.  She even tried to undo the damage but with a paying customer on the train coming from Arizona to pick my mom up, Miss Tann was not about to give her back.