The Tragic Story of Lizzie Lou and Frances Irene

My grandmother with her second husband

I’m realizing a day late that yesterday would have been my maternal grandmother’s birthday. Her father died on Christmas Day in 1953, one year before I was born to his first grandchild, who he never even knew. I can imagine Christmas was not the usual kind of holiday for my Stark family but then I don’t really know. My mom was adopted away from them when she was 7 months old.

Relinquishing a child has lifelong consequences for women and for adoptees. Between 13–20% of birth mothers do not go on to have other children. For those in an era of birth control, a few may consciously feel that to have another child would be to betray the first child which they lost to adoption. For many, and especially in my grandmother’s generation, there was either no known reason for infertility or something about their life circumstances precluded having more children.

After receiving the adoption file from the state of Tennessee that they had previously denied my mother, only breaking her heart and motivation to search by informing her that her birth mother had died several years before, it took me forever to make real contact with one of my grandmother’s remaining family members – this one is a niece. She would actually be my mom’s cousin, that same generation of descendants. She is the warmest person and gave to me the gift my heart was yearning for, some intimate, personal memories of my grandmother along with this picture of her with her second husband.

In some belated post-Christmas communication with her today, I felt compelled to correct the seeming misperception that my mom was the child of the couple in this blog. Here was my reply –

My grandmother never had another child. My mom was her only child (and this is not uncommon among women who lose their first child in such a tragic manner). Her father appeared to have abandoned them, at least to my grandmother’s perception of events, though a super flood on the Mississippi River in early 1937 must have been a factor. My cousin that shares him as a grandfather with me, believes he cared deeply about family. So why did he not come to Memphis to rescue the two of them ? There is no one alive now that can answer that question for me and so, there it sits forever unanswered. Of course, once Georgia Tann knew about the precarious situation my mom and grandmother were in, she swooped in to acquire yet another human being to sell. Awful but a definite truth of it all. I am happy that my grandmother found happiness with her second husband after the divorce between her and my maternal grandfather occurred (and it didn’t happen until 3 years after they first married and my mom was already permanently beyond the reach of her original family). 

She later corrected that “seeming” misperception, of course, she knew my mom was not this man’s child.

It is a tragic story. Why my grandfather left her after only 4 months of marriage, causing her to be sent away to Virginia to have my mom, there is no one left alive to tell me. Why my grandfather didn’t respond to the letter from the Juvenile Court at Memphis when my grandmother came back with her baby, there is no one left alive to tell me. My grandmother was so desperate to find a way to stop my mom’s adoption that she called Georgia Tann’s office 4 days after being pressured into signing the surrender papers, under a threat of having Tann’s good friend, Juvenile Court Judge Camille Kelley, declare my grandmother an unfit mother (which she absolutely was not !!). Then, she took a train to New Orleans to prove to Miss Tann that she did have friends there who would take the two of them in resolving at least the issue of stability, even if only temporarily. Everything she tried to do, including taking my mom to Porter Leath orphanage for temporary care – FAILED tragically.

I have all of my original grandparent’s birthdates on my yearly calendar now. I wasn’t able to know them in life but I don’t forget them in death. Maybe someday in the nonphysical realm to which my grandparents (and adoptee parents) have all gone, I will meet them once again and receive the answers my heart cannot acquire in life.

Barefoot & Pregnant in the Kitchen

Someone in my all things adoption group shared –

So I am in a tag group (about men) and someone posted a meme of some guy spouting off about how as women our goal should be to have and care for kids etc…

Well, I wrote that attitudes like that make infertile people feel as though kids are the be all and end all and can end up negatively impacting families.

And, of course I got comments saying let’s not judge infertile women and how there is nothing wrong if someone can’t/doesn’t want to raise a child because there is always someone else who would love to adopt them.

I’m sorry but I disagree.

Very rarely does it happen that a woman carries a child for 9 months, delivers that baby and then is like “naw, just kidding, I don’t want you.”

More often, mothers are separated from their babies due to poverty.

Now that I’ve become enlightened, I am always going to judge people who know they have a scared poor pregnant person up against the wall.

In contract law, if there is unequal bargaining power, the contract may be voided. So why are adoption contracts even allowed to stand? My desperate maternal grandmother never intended to give my mom up. Georgia Tann exploited her with threats that her good friend, the Juvenile Court Judge Camille Kelley, would declare my grandmother an unfit mother – which she in no way was. She tried to get my mom back 4 days after she was coerced into signing the Surrender Papers but no way were they going to let go of my mom – an adoptive mother was on her way from Nogales Arizona to Memphis Tennessee to pick her up.

There is a clear imbalance of power when a woman or couple are poor, or homeless, or addicted to some maladaptive substance. And to have any woman sign Surrender Papers right after giving birth is clearly criminal.

It leaves many of us honestly wondering why our society always paints adoptive parents as knights in shining armor. Most people in modern society think adoptive parents are saints.

The Broken Birth Mom

This sculpture speaks so strongly to my own heart.  I empathize with my grandmothers who gave up my parents to adoption.  In a sense, though less permanently, I am one myself.  Each of my sisters truly are.  There are no words for how this haunts a person.  No mother should have to live without her child, even though I do understand that sometimes the safety issues are so strong because that mother is so broken as a person, the child isn’t safe with her.  I get it.

Adoption isn’t just a one-time event and it’s over. It is never over, it can’t be and it isn’t.  It is something that follows an adoptee and their original parents throughout their lives.

I have obsessed in my guilt for not raising my daughter. Just like my maternal grandmother, I never intended to leave her daily life permanently. In my effort, just as it was in my grandmother’s effort, to work things out financially, circumstances changed and it was no longer the best outcome for her to take her back. Both my maternal grandmother and myself would have, if it had been possible or truly made sense to step back in.

There were no role models for absentee mothers in the early 1970s though one read a lot of stories about absentee fathers.  I realize I caused the situation for myself. My grandmother stepped into a serious trap without realizing it when she turned to Porter-Leath Orphanage in Memphis TN for temporary care of my mom.

The superintendent there betrayed my grandmother and my mom to a master baby thief.  Miss Georgia Tann was backed up by her good friend, the Juvenile Court Judge Camille Kelley, in her pressure campaign to exploit my grandmother and wrest my mom out of her possession so that she could sell her to my adoptive grandmother.

Being a birth mom who permanently surrenders her child is not a club you should want to join.  It is a grief that lasts a lifetime. The pain of that wound will change over time but it will never go away. It will always be there.  I have spent years trying to resolve my own.  I know the reasons and the causes but there is no recovering lost time and those precious memories of your child growing up.

If you are an expectant mother, especially a single and financially challenged young woman, seek out the help that will make it possible for you to keep your baby. You will be glad you did.  Here’s one place – https://savingoursistersadoption.org/

Honoring My Grandmother

In 1916, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Lou Stark was born to James Coleman and Mabel Irene Stark on this date in Eads Tennessee.  It is my understanding that her father was a difficult man and quite old when he began to have children.  Lizzie was the oldest and her nieces and nephews called her Aunt Lou.

It seems that her siblings and my grandmother each escaped their family home as soon as they could.  One can surmise that my grandmother chose the possible opportunities of the big city, Memphis, to her west.  There she would meet an older man who had become both widowed and had lost one of his children not long before.  Most likely he was attached to a big WPA project building a hospital in Memphis.

So they married but his children and the mother to whom he was devoted and who supported him by caring for one or more of his children caused his heart to remain in Arkansas.  For reasons I will never be able to explain, he left her in Memphis four months pregnant.  Whether it was considered an end or a temporary separation can never be known.

What I do know is that my grandmother was sent away to Virginia to give birth to my mom.  Most likely, she was an embarrassment pregnant with no husband in sight in a very conservatively Christian community.  I suspect she was supposed to leave my mom in Virginia but she could not.

I cannot believe she brought my mom back to Memphis with any intention of giving her up for adoption.  Juvenile Court records do show that she reached out for my mom’s father over in Arkansas but he did not respond.  In his defense, there began a Super Flood on the Mississippi River the month my mom was born.  Refugees poured into Memphis from Arkansas who bore some of the worst destruction.  My grandfather was out shoring up levees.

My grandmother found the going difficult in Memphis.  The people who had been supportive of her previously were suffering from charity fatigue.  In desperation, my grandmother sought temporary care for my mom in an amazing citadel of an orphanage with a storied history.  The superintendent there betrayed her to Georgia Tann who was a master at separating children from their natural parents.

After being given a no win choice (surrender your child or be declared unfit – a threat with teeth in it because the Juvenile Court Judge Camille Kelley was good friends with Tann), my grandmother tried to get my mom back 4 days later.  But Tann had a paying customer on her way from Arizona by train to pick my mom up and no way would the baby thief give my mom up.

Such a sad story.  She never had another child . . .

Only For The Extreme Cases

In some ways, Judge Ernestine S. Gray with her child-friendly courtroom, reminds me of Juvenile Court Judge Camille Kelley of Memphis in the Georgia Tann days but whereas, Judge Kelley became corrupted, I have an intuition that is not going to happen with Judge Gray. She gives each child who appears before her a bear and a book. She believes it makes what can be the worst day of their lives just a little easier.

This soft touch belies the power that Gray wields as one of just four Louisiana judges who control the entire child protection docket in their jurisdiction. And she has used that authority to upend the status quo and reduce Orleans Parish’s foster care numbers to levels unmatched anywhere in the country.

Between 2011 and 2017, the number of children in foster care here fell by 89 percent compared with an 8 percent increase nationally. New Orleans children who do enter the system don’t stay long. Seventy percent are discharged within a month; nationally, it’s only 5 percent.

Gray has effectively all but eliminated foster care except in extreme situations, quickly returning children flagged by social workers to their families or other relatives.

“We shouldn’t be taking kids away from their parents because they don’t have food or a refrigerator,” she said in explaining her philosophy. “I grew up in a poor family in South Carolina, and we didn’t have a lot. But what I had was people who cared about me.”

Removing a child is extremely traumatic, and the best outcome is to make sure kids go home to their families where they deserve to be as quickly as possible, or not enter the system at all.

Few who know anything about the foster care system would disagree that it is severely broken nationwide due to decades of mismanagement and inadequate funding. Instead of protecting children, it often traumatizes them further. They have poorer outcomes in education, employment, housing and early pregnancy, studies show. By 17, more than half will have been arrested, jailed or convicted.

The Family First Prevention Services Act is the biggest overhaul of foster care in a generation. The law redirects money from paying for state custody to providing services designed to keep families intact, such as mental health care, substance abuse treatment and parenting skills training.

Judge Gray stresses that “The greatest threat of harm, for most of the children who appear before her, is being unnecessarily removed from their families.”

“Foster care is put up as this thing that is going to save kids, but kids die in foster care, kids get sick in foster care,” she said. “So we ought to be trying to figure out how to use that as little as possible. People have a right to raise their children.”

Motherhood Impossible

The Porter Home – Leath Orphanage

My heart breaks for my young grandmother.  I’ve been delving back into the record of my mother’s adoption in the late 1930s that the state of Tennessee delivered to me in October of 2017.  I’m trying to remember how I felt as I first read through these pages now, as I attempt to craft the story of how I finally found out who all 4 of my original grandparents were, for a book I hope to someday publish.

While the adoption file brought a generous amount of detail into our story, it left me with a lot of questions I’ll never be able to answer.  What caused my grandfather leave my grandmother after they had actually married when she was 4 months pregnant ?  Why did she go from Memphis to McLean Virginia to give birth to my mother ?

It is clear she returned to Memphis with a very young infant of about 6 weeks in age and attempted to reach her husband, my mom’s father, via the Juvenile Court in Memphis that was under the direction of a somewhat controversial and yet highly respected Judge Camille Kelley.

It seemed no one much wanted to help my grandmother – not her baby’s father – nor her cousins who appear to have helped her initially but complained about spending $50 on the young mother and her baby’s needs.  Her own cousin told Georgia Tann that my grandmother lacked sufficient skills to financially support the two of them.

My grandmother turned to Porter-Leath, who started caring for children in 1850, for TEMPORARY CARE of her baby while she looked for employment and a means of making a life for the two of them.  It’s not clear when she left my mother in the orphanage, though within a month or two, the superintendent there alerted Georgia Tann to the cute blond white baby who she believed would soon be available for adoption.

Since Miss Tann had a paying customer that had been waiting for 6 months or longer for just such a baby, she went into high gear to pressure and exploit my grandmother’s circumstances and take the baby away from her.  An effort that she succeeded in as my mother was adopted at Memphis and transported by train far away to Nogales Arizona.  It appears my mom was inconsolable during that trip.

She had been placed in an orphanage for at least a couple of months.  Was briefly reunited with her mother to her obvious joy and then taken away by a complete stranger.  My adoptive grandmother noted in a followup letter to the agency that a doctor had my mom calmed down.  Phenobarbital, most likely.

Unidentified nurse holding
my mom at Porter-Leath